Ethnographic Refusal as Research Method: Example from a Study of a Family Court Child Custody Mediation Program
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Qualitative Social Work
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Mediation is a dispute resolution process in which a third party neutral facilitates discussion towards amicable agreement. Parents in Wisconsin filing disputed claims in family court over child custody or physical residence must attend mediation before going back to court. I began research on the Milwaukee Family Court Child Custody Mediation program three years ago with anticipation of data collection challenges due to sensitivity of the topic and need for multiple research permissions. Multiple and ongoing permission is necessary given an ethnographic extended case study research design. This approach was chosen to analyze the meanings of mediation within larger social contexts of court process and private family lives. While refusal from potential research subjects was understandable, I did not anticipate my difficulty staying with the research both in data collection and initial analysis. This essay explains my dilemma as an example of what anthropologist Sherry Ortner calls “ethnographic refusal,” which is also an occupational hazard of using direct engagement to understand lived experience. First, I explain how refusal can become part of ethnographic fieldwork and then use my study as an example. I focus on describing how emotional intensity within the research sites brought refusal that was eventually addressed as a productive rather than obstructive part of the research process. While it is important to avoid risk in going too far in trying to fully engage with others, there is also risk in not going far enough to engage with the full humanity of people struggling in difficult contexts.