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With the reflexive turn in the social sciences, emotional engagement is an inevitable and crucial part of data-gathering and analysis. However, there is a glaring gap in methodological discussions to this end. Presenting ethnographic research into end of life with people living at home in England with heart failure, we argue for a methodological blend of engagement and detachment that shifts throughout the research process, and that sensory experience is a core part of engagement. We offer ethnographic examples which present and explore some alternatives to emotional engagement and objective detachment: (1) moving with participants to facilitate engagement during fieldwork through shared sensory experience; (2) detachment as a different way of relating when exiting the field and drawing participant relationships to a close; and (3) ethnographic closeness as the interplay of engagement and detachment in participant debriefing and data analysis. Based on well-established anthropological concepts, and taking both engagement and detachment as embodied and relational, we develop a notion of ethnographic closeness in which detachment is a necessary part. Our detailed methodological discussion thus offers theoretically grounded possibilities and alternatives for approaching and managing the core tension of ‘how close is too close?’ in ethnographic practice. Further contributions supporting researchers in navigating ethnographic research are needed.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Publication Date





820 - 839