1Now that social science researchers are expected to demonstrate clear epistemological thinking, they may be tempted to try to achieve a kind of perfect axiological neutrality through rigorous application of methods and techniques. And in such a context, any methodological difficulties encountered in the various research stages may be experienced as stumbling blocks and lead to feelings of discomfort and illegitimacy. The result is that everyone – students and experienced researchers alike – tend to “smooth over” such difficulties. To counter that tendency, to lay bare the difficulties researchers may encounter and show how they can be analysed and used to fuel thinking on research subjects, Christine Guionnet formed a group of researchers from the Centre for research on policy action in Europe (CRAPE) and the Nantes Centre for sociology. This work delivers their thinking. In emphasizing the heuristic value of the difficulties, the work is both a pedagogical argument for gaining proper perspective on the obstacles researchers encounter in their fieldwork and indeed rehabilitating them, and an invitation to researchers to integrate analysis of the meaning of such difficulties more systematically into their scientific work. In this respect, it is for both experienced researchers and beginners.
2Most of the book’s seven chapters discuss fieldwork experiences and difficulties. In the first contribution, Béatrice Damian-Gaillard and Mathieu Trachman present the difficulties they had to cope with during two surveys on pornography use in France. Problems envisaged at the outset – here, entering a field perceived as fairly opaque and inaccessible and the need to justify studying a illegitimate subject in an academic context – may prove quite different from the ones encountered in the field. For the female researcher, the main problem turned out to be sexualisation of the survey relationship, whereas the male researcher was compelled to objectify the effects of his male socialization, specifically in connection with female sexuality. The dialogue between the two researchers shows how their personal characteristics – particularly sex and age – influenced their relationship to respondents and clarifies the identities respondents ascribed to them in the field as subjects and objects of desire.
3Chapter 2, by Sami Zegnani, examines how working in a field presumably close to the researcher affects that researcher while discussing the assumptions that such proximity elicit not only in respondents but also other researchers. The sociologist in question, originally from a “sensitive” or rough neighbourhood, was studying three groups with roots in neighbourhoods of the same type (street youth, Salafi Muslims, and rap musicians). He shows that the distantiation requirement that followed from his presumed “insider” status proved largely irrelevant. Without denying the advantages he enjoyed due to his origins and local embeddedness and ties, he details all the strategies he had to develop for adapting to the field and respondents, especially when it came to winning respondents’ trust while maintaining distance and circulating within relatively closed groups. He seeks to “demystify” the widespread idea that “‘native’ ethnographers fit naturally into the field” (p. 69) and to move beyond the “insider/ outsider” binary opposition so as to analyse more effectively what our relationship to the field may tell us about the phenomena under study.
4The issue of variation in interviewer-respondent interaction by personal characteristics of all parties is likewise the subject of Sylvie Ollitrault’s contribution. A political scientist, she reviews her twenty years of research on French environmentalist movements, offering a diachronic perspective on how research difficulties changed over the course of her career. She shows that in a milieu characterized by a strong appetite for social science discourse, interactions with respondents could soon become a game of rivalry around academic knowledge, a game tinged with symbolic violence, especially when one’s respondents were older men with considerable cultural capital. While socialization through contact with the field and experience acquisition enabled her gradually to turn this type of situation around, this experienced researcher now has to cope with other difficulties, such as accessing fields whose populations are wary of the academic world – e.g., organized neighbourhood protests against cell phone signal boosters.
5In his chapter, Benjamin Ferron investigates how much importance researchers should attribute to non-specialist field actors’ understanding when it comes to formulating their survey problematic. Drawing on his own comparative research on pro-Palestinian anti-globalist movements and the Zapatistas in Mexico, he shows how shaping a research problem in the social sciences may require distancing oneself from the highly politicized, strategic view that militant actors have of the research topic (in this case by integrating particular conflicts into a more general denunciation of neoliberalism). For the author, this difficulty proved useful and productive in that this problem became the very subject of his research. He therefore shows how a methodological difficulty can help shape a line of questioning that is central to the research, through the dual labour of distancing oneself from the problem as imposed by the field and describing and exposing actor strategies.
6Bleuwenn Lechaux discusses difficulties specific to interviewing individuals who know how to speak well and how to present themselves to advantage: theatre professionals in France and the United States. She was particularly interested in their political commitments. She first shows how some artists’ claim to singularity can prove an obstacle to sociological objectification in a context where self-esteem is a key value. There is also the question of how to anonymize respondent remarks when interviewees are public figures and therefore readily identifiable. However, working in a field where people “speak well” also has its advantages, among them the certainty of collecting plentiful, vibrant material. Last, the author discusses some respondents’ reluctance to speak of their political commitments when their positions are not generally valued in their professional field. She shows how such reluctance is itself a source of information and should be understood to reveal how a respondent positions himself or herself within the given socio-professional space.
7The last two chapters shift the focus from fieldwork experience to the implications for scientific production of the institutional and financial logic currently structuring research. Patricia Loncle’s chapter on her experience in a project funded by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, and Claire Visier’s on setting up research projects both discuss the difficulties involved in funding research on a contract basis. This operating mode may result in considerable discrepancies between particular project aims and scientific imperatives; also between individual and collective dynamics. For example, having wide-ranging international, interdisciplinary research teams is helpful in obtaining funding but may prove an obstacle to effective project running and the production of high-quality scientific results. As Loncle shows, funding criteria may lead to dissatisfactory methodological choices, particularly in comparative studies, the sort that such programmes are designed to promote. Funding on a project basis has become the norm in France as in the rest of Europe; researchers need to be aware of the difficulties this can create and to develop strategies to reconcile it with research aims.