three lessons to young researchers from gang leader for a day

(Book available here.)

1. If you are going to test a survey in an obviously dangerous public housing project, do not have your first question be arguably the worst survey question I have ever seen. (here)

2. If you hear a person planning a drive-by shooting of another person, you are under a legal–as well as, some of us might add, ethical and moral–obligation to do something about it. (This lesson, according to the author, was not learned until four years had been spent doing fieldwork.) (here)

3. If you are told information by interviewees, you should not divulge that information to criminals you know already are extorting money from some of the interviewees. (here)

48 Comments

  1. colonel density
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    But why not, Jeremy, when such work can get you a solid job, lots of media appearances plus a book that sells? Are you trying to derail our careers?

  2. Posted January 31, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, I can’t click through to your excerpts. I guess the lessons will have to go unlearned by me.

  3. Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I suspect this book will be talked about a lot in methods classes in the coming years.

  4. crimsonglow
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Oh, my gosh. Reading that actual third excerpt after your blurb was STUNNING. They “perked up,” indeed. This isn’t used in the book as an example of a lesson learned about not being insanely naive?

  5. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    jamy: You can’t open the excerpts? Really? They should just be regular pdf files. Is anyone else having this problem?

    crimsonglow: Yes, the consequence of #3 is that the people he interviewed were shaken down for more money and he learned a lesson about fieldwork naivete. People may differ in their opinion on how readily this could have been anticipated beforehand and how sociological researchers generally should view the confidentiality of what research participants tell them.

    IRB oversight of the project, if there was any, is nowhere mentioned in the book. I have no idea if Chicago simply did not have the concept of IRB for ethnographic dissertation research in the early 1990s.

  6. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m struck by the “some of us might add, ethical and moral” statement and concerned that it isn’t “all of us might add.” Is there really any disagreement about this?

    During some interviews long ago, I had a very young child express a desire to kill himself — my first thought wasn’t “Gee, this will be a great excerpt for the article!” I was pretty young/naive/new to interviewing/fieldwork too but good god.

  7. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    newsocprof: I agree. I said “some” instead of “all” because of how the linked passage itself frames the cause for concern.

  8. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, now I see, reading it again. I’ve noticed this before in other criminological research — we try so hard not to further judge/demonize/stigmatize our objects of interest that we sometimes forget that at a basic level crime is harmful, people do get hurt, violence is bad, and some people do in fact belong in prison. One reflection of this is what you point out, that we spend a lot of time worrying about our legal responsibilities and relatively little time thinking about the moral ones.

  9. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    So, is all the prize-winning work now “fruit of the poisonous tree”?

    My own answer to that question is not “no,” and is moving rapidly toward “yes” from “maybe.”

    I would now hesitate to assign any of his works to a class, with the exception of this book, but only as a cautionary tale (as suggested by Brayden).

    Does naivete seem like the most plausible explanation? The beating he participated in makes me wonder… .

    Has he done an “author meets critics” on this one yet?

  10. Posted January 31, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Problem fixed–I had to use an IE browser rather than Firefox, don’t ask me why.

    I’ve read, I’ve learned, I’m shocked. Makes good reading, though, I bet!

  11. kibitzer2
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Mitch Duneier once told me that he didn’t go through an IRB at Chicago for his fieldwork resulting in Slim’s Table. Do two cases constitute a pattern? The more problematic feature of these examples — and I haven’t talked to Venkatesh or Duneier about this — is that the faculty at Chicago seemingly turned young doctoral students loose in the field, and told them to come back when they were done. It’s difficult to know how much we should hold these doctoral students accountable for what seems to be a failure of oversight on the part of their departmental faculty mentors.

  12. jay141
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    “It’s difficult to know how much we should hold these doctoral students accountable for what seems to be a failure of oversight on the part of their departmental faculty mentors.”

    Yes, but sociology doctoral students are well into adulthood and presumably know about the need for IRB-approval of any research involving human subjects (unless their methods classes are woefully incomplete and/or otu of date). It is strange that Chicago apparently doesn’t require this of their graduate students…

  13. Posted January 31, 2008 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    kibitzer: I think that’s a reasonable point. Part of what puzzles me here is that episode #2 apparently occurred in 1993-4 (after four years in the field), which happens to be when I started grad school.

    My Ph.D. institution was already well into the new stronger rendition of IRBs by that point, and there was a project not long after I arrived where a student was told he could not use ethnographic data collected for his dissertation because he tried to obtain retrospective IRB approval instead of approval beforehand. It’s just odd to see someone talking about a case from roughly the same time in which there seems to be no IRB presence and instead the only stricture anyone seems to care about is the law. (And with more vulnerable participants, to boot!) I’m not sure if Chicago sociology just had/has a FAR more blithe attitude toward human subjects protections than what I’m used to.

    (Slim’s Table was published in 1992 and the fieldwork was presumably done late-but-not-too-late 1980′s given that the fieldwork preceded Duneier’s attending law school.)

  14. peelpel
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I think that to the extent the field cares about ethnography as a research approach, we should be advocating less, not more oversight from IRBs. (Which themselves reflect changes more in the university’s concern for culpability from the state rather than the heightened desire to police morals.) Didn’t Becker once argue that any research will always ultimately be guided by his/her own conscience? And in any case, name a time that a person has truly been hurt by a social scientist’s study…
    FWIW, I know several people at Chicago who claim that the IRB there is very strict. Impossible to compare this unless you’ve submitted the same protocol to 2 places (and even then IRB composition varies across years), and the IRB may always be a subject of grad student complaints, but I hear it’s no cakewalk to get something through.

  15. Posted January 31, 2008 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree that IRBs are perhaps a red herring or mostly for legal cover but ummmm… it sounds as if some of the low-level hustlers in the Venkatesh study were ‘hurt’ as a direct result of the study (link #3 above). So, I can name one.

    I think we underestimate the harm that results when we are aware of something problematic and choose to do nothing. Would the problem/harm have occurred if we weren’t present? Probably yes, but don’t we have an obligation to prevent it when we become aware of it? That’s Becker’s point — IRB approval doesn’t absolve us from behaving with conscience and responsibility in the field.

  16. Posted January 31, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    jeremy: I was also struck that the legal concerns were of the “you need to see a lawyer” variety, not “you need to talk to the university lawyer.” Related to kibitzer’s point, this indicates a disconnect between graduate student research and the university; not only was an IRB not involved, but even legal responsibility was viewed as Venkatesh’s problem, not UC’s.

    Yet, as noted by jay141, there are several aspects to the research that should have troubled Venkatesh as an intelligent adult, unless he was modeling his behavior on practices he observed (in his top program) that were wildly at odds with the teachings in his methods courses.

    peelpel: If less oversight is desired, the flap over this book will not help that cause. Situation 3 sounds like harm to me. The fact that it’s Venkatesh makes it more damaging.

  17. peelpel
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s strange to be in the position of defending non-intervention on what may be thought of as an immoral practice. (I feel like a neo-con ex-soldier who faults others for preaching ethics… “you don’t know what it’s like *out there*”)
    Yet would SV’s contribution to urban sociology be derailed if he blew the whistle? Probably, and likely due to the academic *and* physical damage that resulted.
    I’m sure that this is a question debated in all ethnographic classes (and one I think has no answer).

    Ktel: No doubt this will increase oversight, unfortunately.

    I wonder if it’s better for people who value ethnographic research to not take positions on the thorny issues of research ethicality/morality. Any deviants – w/r/t norms, obviously – within the field can be used as artillery for non-field haters seeking regulation. Which I think is the worst possible outcome…

  18. Posted January 31, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I don’t do ethnographic research. I highly value it but I have no sense of what it’s like *out there* and don’t want to beat up on Peelpel but…

    When you pit “SV’s contribution to urban sociology” against the potential physical harm of a subject, it really falls short for me. I’m all for the accumulation of knowledge, but good lord, this is reaching. Maybe I’m reaching here as well but I suspect that the “extortion” of subjects wasn’t entirely verbal or gentle. Who knows but it’s a helluva risk to take.

    Perhaps we might concentrate on the more numerous examples of the gray area here because it appears to me that the Venkatesh examples cited above are so extreme that we are missing the larger picture.

  19. Posted January 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Actually this sounds like a question for an anthropologist. They have to go out into different areas and meet people of different cultures and not judge them or interfere with them.

    Right now they’re having a big debate about the US government starting an anthropology group to “help” in Iraq.

  20. jay141
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    “Yet would SV’s contribution to urban sociology be derailed if he blew the whistle?”

    Uh. Are we seriously debating this? Are “contributions to urban sociology” really worth weighing against the protection of human subjects from obvious potential harm?

  21. olderwoman
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    When last I took IRB training (I’ll have to renew this year) it was all focused on whether your research was SCIENTIFIC or not. Because the big focus of IRB rules is to distinguish the practice of medicine, in which doctors make decisions that could well kill people but are not covered by IRBs, from medical research. Exposing people to risk for the purpose of scientific inquiry is sharply distinguished from exposing them to risk in the hope of curing them. Historians don’t have to get IRB approval, and journalists don’t. (Or, at least, they did not when last I was arguing with people about this.) Mitch used to say: “Everybody says my work is not scientific, I’m just going to tell them I don’t do science so I’m not required to get IRB approval.” Not saying he did not get IRB approval for Sidewalk (I actually don’t know whether he did), just saying he ranted a lot about it.

    There are older cases out there that we used to use to bring up exactly these issues. It’s a pretty longstanding issue that ethnographers become aware of crimes, including hearing of planned murders. StreetCorner society has a section about people committing crimes, although I think it was mostly election fraud, as I recall. It’s not like nobody has ever mentioned this issue in an undergraduate methods class.

    Hmmm.

  22. foodgirl
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Journalists most definitely do not have to get similar requests. I have a journalist-friend who is writing about the same issues as me, and he gets (what I consider) a free pass on things we frequently have to worry about. That said, I am not jeopardizing peoples’ lives with my research, and most people are completely willing to comply (and, with quite a bit of persuading, I got IRB to accept my requests for non-anonymity in my dissertation [as long as subjects agree]). I guess I just hate that my/our work is based on a medical model; I often tell interviewees (who have invited me to their home or place of business) that I have to get their compliance that i did not inject him/her with something.

  23. kibitzer2
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    OW: Duneier did get IRB approval from UCSB (one of his many homes) for Sidewalk, and he wrote about what he saw as the peculiarities of that in the book. There’s an old Lingua Franca article about IRB issues that quotes him as saying that his advisor at Chicago, Edward Shils, “never even mentioned human-subject rules to me.” The article also quotes Ann Swidler, Howie Becker, and a few other prominent sociologists. It’s archived at http://mailer.fsu.edu/~njumonvi/irb-article.htm

  24. jay141
    Posted January 31, 2008 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the issue is whether the work qualifies for some definition of “scientific” or not. If your university receives federal funds, any research by someone at the university that involves human subjects is, technically, supposed to be reviewed. Title 45 Code of Federal Regulations Part 46.102(f) defines a “human subject” as a living individual about whom an investigator obtains data through intervention or interaction with the individual (e.g., interviews, surveys, clinical testing, or any other physical intervention or personal interaction), or,
    identifiable private information.

  25. Posted February 1, 2008 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    At Northwestern, I think whether one is trying to contribute to “generalized knowledge” is a rule for whether human subjects committee oversight applies. So my understanding is that the students in the graduate field methods course, for instance, do not actually need to get IRB approval–although I think they do file as part of a class exercise–because they are just doing the work for a class assignment. This has never made any sense to me from any kind of ethical or even just legal standpoint, and has contributed to the cynicism that I usually exhibit toward IRBs when things like drive-by shootings and ratting out informants so they can be shaken down by gang leaders are not involved.

  26. Posted February 1, 2008 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Just so we’re clear, if an enterprising graduate student were to hear a gang leader describe a plot to kill a specific person, and that person was subsequently killed, the issue would not be whether the student is an “unethical ethnographer,” but whether they are an “accessory to murder.” My understanding is that even attorney-client privilege does not apply to the case of a client talking about a plan to commit a future crime, although a more legally inclined reader may wish to confirm or correct that.

    (In Gang Leader for a Day, there is nothing saying that the gang leader actually killed anyone then or at any other time, nor do I believe it specifically said the drive-by shooting(s) alluded to were intended to kill, so maybe sometimes such things are just meant to scare or whatever.)

  27. olderwoman
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    jay141: The issue is not whether someone is human, but whether they are a “subject” or “research” as defined in the regulations. Here are the applicable definitions from my university’s IRB page:

    The definition of a “human subject” from the federal rules for human subject research, 45 CFR 46.102(f), is “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether faculty or student) conducting research obtains 1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or 2) identifiable private information.” Private information includes information about behavior that occurs in a context in which the participant can reasonably expect that no recording is taking place and information the participant has provided for a specific purpose and can reasonably expect will not be made public (for example, a medical record).

    Research is defined in the federal rules as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” 45 CFR 46.102(d). We construe this to include formal investigations, from which the results will be publicly disseminated, and pilot and exploratory research. The definition also includes research undertaken by students for the purposes of independent study, theses, or dissertations. Generally the definition does not extend to: 1) classroom activities which are designed to educate students about research methodologies or simulate research activities, or 2) activities conducted to improve the quality of teaching. (See, Student Research Policy)

    Both Jay & Jeremy: Campuses differ in just how broadly they interpret the second paragraph over in the social science & humanities end of the campus. I decided to check my facts before finishing this post. I already knew that all ethnographers have to get IRB approval on my campus, and that our students routinely get IRB approval for their ethnographic and interview projects. The journalism department has a link to the IRB in its “resources for research” page, so I assume they get IRB review. For the History department, I discovered a note in the minutes of a 2001 meeting of the graduate program (leave it to historians to have their old meeting minutes on the web!) that they needed to “investigate” the relevance of human subjects rules for oral history, and I see that a 2006 oral history syllabus includes the need to get human subjects training. So I conclude that on my campus there was a time when oral history did not have to get IRB approval and now it does.

  28. Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I sat through a seminar on human subjects at Harvard in which whether a “generalizable knowledge” criterion made oral history exempt was specifically discussed at length as a matter that has been controversial at different universities.

  29. olderwoman
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    jeremy: re accessory to murder, yes! Or, for that matter, accessory after the fact (or before the fact) to drug dealing or theft or whatever. I at least have been telling students this in methods lectures since before many of today’s grad students were born. (But I don’t teach grad ethnography classes.) Hopefully there is no one who thinks they ought to just let a murder go down to protect their dissertation, but a lot of people don’t think they ought to report other crimes to the police, although they are legally obliged to. What the law is, what is moral, what your ethical and legal responsibility is to your “human subject”, and what your ethical responsibility is to the people s/he might hurt or steal from are things that (as your initial post implied) grown up human beings ought to be able to think about before they should be turned loose in the world.

    And I should abandon this very interesting discussion and go to bed.

  30. kibitzer2
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    I think it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on the IRB in discussions of research ethics. Although filing an IRB application may be a minimal institutional standard, it is no substitute for the ongoing challenges involved in acting ethically while in the field. IRB rules and ethical codes (such as ASA’s code of ethics) are reifications of a set of principles that cannot anticipate the complexity of situations and decisions that researchers must address, often unexpectedly, while doing fieldwork. For this reason, I may be more forgiving than some other commenters about the decisions that field researchers such as Venkatesh make in the “heat of the moment.” But I would hope that field researchers would be acting with a clear understanding of key ethical principles such as voluntary informed consent, privacy, and respect for human rights. I would also hope that they would recognize after the fact instances in which their actions had not adequately lived up to these principles.

  31. Posted February 1, 2008 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    Venkatesh gave a talk earlier this year at Northwestern, and I found it so interesting and well-articulated that I ordered his previous book from Amazon before the talk was even over (although I’ve not yet read it). I started GLFAD with much enthusiasm. As certain e-mail correspondents are well-aware, I was much conflicted about posting about the book at all, but I just found the parts in question (as well as a few others) very dismaying, especially considering that this is will likely be the most widely-read statement of sociological ethnography of this decade.

    I certainly understand the issue of decisions made in the heat of the moment and appreciate reflectiveness about it afterwards. I mean, the only reason one can criticize any of this is because Venkatesh provides an open description of it, which is to be commended. (Granted, he provides the open description in the context of a book that’s going to make him a lot of money, but still.)

    Even with all this, though, the durations of naivete he provides in his account simply astound me. I mean, I get that many legal/ethical/moral ramifications of fieldwork will not be immediately apparent, but a person spends four years (FOUR YEARS!) in the field without apprehending that there are legal/ethical/moral implications to having research participants tell you about crimes (SHOOTINGS!) that they are committing or planning to commit–an issue that the reader appreciates immediately and that olderwoman teaches in her undergraduate methods course. Likewise, I certainly understand somebody letting something told to them in confidence slip in conversation, but a person spends three hours (THREE HOURS!) recounting the off-the-books income for dozens (DOZENS!) of interviewees to a gang leader and a corrupt official that he already knows regularly and ruthlessly shake down various people in this housing project for money. My jaw drops, I scratch my head, I pace around my apartment all agitated.

    I’m not myself an ethnographer, but I know plenty, and within the context of how I’m used to hear them talk about their work, these stories just astonish me. Then, on top of it, this is going to be the most publicly visible statement out there of how sociology ethnography works. It’s very disconcerting to me.

  32. jay141
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    “The issue is not whether someone is human”

    I know. Sorry if what I wrote was not clear on that point (which is a pretty obvious and basic one).

  33. laurabethnielsen
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I have not read the book. That said, with a PhD from Berkeley’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, we hae been thinking hard about research that may lead one into knowledge about criminal activity for many, many years and Berkeley’s IRB, while stringent, watched us very carefully.

    Perhaps because so many of us also are lawyers, we tended to take this pretty seriously – what would I do if my notes were subpeonaed in a trial – as happened to a JSPer, Richard Leo. You can’t run around studying crime without thinking this stuff through very carefully.

    Richard was studying police interrogation and his “subjects” were the police, but the work is quite convincing in showing pretty arguable interrogation techniques post-Miranda. So when a defendant wants his notes for the hearing to try to suppress his confession, they wanted Richard’s notes. Who is his subject? The police, the defendant? This is hard stuff and not to be taken lightly — this guy’s life was on the line too, but perhaps so were the jobs of those police officers. Oh, and when he was subpeonaed as a grad student and wanted legal representation Berkeley basically said, “sorry!”

    Another friend there studied how single mothers on AFDC (now TANF) survived by making extra money (none of which was reported). Little underground economies of child care and stuff like that.

    I just had a moment (way into research) where I recgnized a harm that was a possibility for my subjects and took teps to fix it in my research, but IRB never noticed it (they were fixated on something else stupid).

    We have to think seriously about it because the IRBs can’t do it all or predict it all. In these kinds of research, you can’t go in the field until you have thought it through, but stuff still pops up.

  34. laurabethnielsen
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Jay – Catharine MacKinnon’s excellent new book asks a similar question: Are Women Human?

    Just for the record, she didn’t like the title, but her publisher made her.

  35. jay141
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Okay. But, just for the record, I wasn’t asking if anyone or any category of persons, was “human” or not.

  36. olderwoman
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Hey Jay, honest, I never for a second thought you were doubting whether anyone was human. I took that for granted and was making the point that what was at stake was whether something was research. Sorry if my way of phrasing my reply appeared to treat you like an idiot. The thought was so far from my mind that it did not even occur to me that it could be read that way.

  37. Posted February 1, 2008 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Sure, we may all recognize that human subjects protections only apply to humans, but this just begs the question: who protects the pigeons?

  38. Posted February 1, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I am an ethnographer, though I have nothing to say about Venkatesh’s book, as I haven’t read it. And if you’ll note my institutional affiliation, you’ll see that I am untenured at his institution, in his department. And we lowly untenured people are scared. That is not an indictment of Sudhir, and more an acknowledgment of the general form of our relationship (and my relationship with tenured people generally).

    But I am interested in the IRB process. One of the problematic features of IRB approval and “consent” is that it is often treated as if it is a thing you get at the beginning of a research process and then “have”. And as any ethnographer can tell you, if you’re decent at your job your subjects will soon start treating you like you’re not there to study them and instead simply “there” (like everyone else). So in my own ethnographic work (I did a study of a super elite boarding school) I soon found that my subjects were telling me things they would not normally tell someone who is writing down most of what they are saying and planning on putting it in a book. The opportunist in me got excited about what I was hearing, realizing that some of it was great stuff. However, the responsible human in me realized that I could not use this great stuff without getting consent again.

    Consent, then, was not a thing I got, it turned into a process. When I entered the school I studied I was completely honest about my project. And I told everyone what I was doing. But soon I realized that I would have to remind them again and again. I think one of the most telling moments of Duneier’s relationship with research ethics is in the methods section of the appendix, when he sits, reading his book to his subjects, ensuring that they again consent to the words he has attributed to them. As I recall, one subject is drunk and Duneier decides to return later so the subject is more equipped to evaluate Mitch’s account of him.

    I found myself following Duneier’s lead: emailing relevant sections of my fieldnotes to subjects after an interaction and reminding them continually (in conversation) that I was a researcher. I think that one of the problematic features of the IRB is that it often does not acknowledge the ways in which research is a process, not an event. And the temporality of the process means that relationships change. It’s not that you’re doing a different research project, but your relationships with your subjects is transformed.

    And so when I teach methods now, I emphasize the ways in which consent is not something you get from your subjects and approval is not something you get from your institution. Instead, it’s a kind of relationship that you’re in when them. I should write a methods paper, “Consent is a process, not an event”

  39. Posted February 1, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Shamus: Good point. The consent as a process issue isn’t unique to ethnographic research. With the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, for instance, we recorded all of the telephone surveys. We asked for consent to record at the beginning of the survey, and then asked again for consent to keep the recording at the end. (As it turns out, people are so used to “this call may be recorded for quality control purposes” that very few respondents care.)

  40. Posted February 1, 2008 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Re: IRBs. I established one at my workplace (federal agency) but it was darn hard. I was told by someone in a different office that we couldn’t have an IRB because it required a biologist. I assured him that wasn’t the case, that IRBs can be specialized and ours was for social science research, therefore no biologists needed! He killed my first attempt, though. After he left, I got it approved.

  41. jay141
    Posted February 1, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    “One of the problematic features of IRB approval and “consent” is that it is often treated as if it is a thing you get at the beginning of a research process and then “have”. And as any ethnographer can tell you, if you’re decent at your job your subjects will soon start treating you like you’re not there to study them and instead simply “there” (like everyone else).”

    Re the process not event issue, one could acknowledge that fact in the consent form at the outset of an ethnographic project. That way subjects have, in effect, consented to the fact that relationships may change, etc. Wouldn’t necessary preclude the need to keep getting ‘consent’ if you felt the need, but it might lessen the extent to which one is preoccupied with wondering whether subjects know the shift in relationships/social reality is happening/possible.

    OW: no worries.

  42. Posted February 1, 2008 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    A couple people in offblog conversations about ethnographic memoirs and ethnography ethics have brought up again the case of Erich Goode, including one person requesting that I link back to my post on his paper as a matter of blog nostalgia. Here, deep within the comments, is the requested link. If you have an interest in ethnography and luridness and have never read the linked paper, you should.

  43. Posted February 3, 2008 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    @37: Actually a lot of Colin’s work is about the ways that animals become objects and practices of identity for Turkish immigrants in Germany – and a lot of his work is frankly quite careful about the injustices and hidden nature of being a Turkish immigrant in Germany.

    Generally, I can’t tell how much of this whole conversation is actually about IRB and how much of it is a pretext to rough up and holier-than-thou SV. At this point, I’d say about 35%/65%.

  44. Posted February 3, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Peter: I cannot believe that there is the idea that @37 was seriously raising any kind of question about Jerolmack’s research and ethics thereof. People were emphasizing the “human” character of “human” subjects just after we had a long thread about animals-and-society research in sociology, so I was just making note of the irony.

    I think my own comments here have been pretty directly questioning GLFAD. If you want to apply adjectives like “roughing up” and “holier than thou” to it, so be it. The fact of the matter is Venkatesh provides an account in which he spends FOUR YEARS in the field before realizing that there are legal/ethical/moral implications to hearing an informant plan violent crime. Venkatesh also by his own description spends THREE HOURS giving information provided to him in his capacity as researcher by DOZENS of subjects to criminals that he has every reason to know–again by his own account– already could and would make extortive use of the knowledge. Again, if being bothered by that and being willing to say it out loud is being “holier than thou,” then, well, guilty as charged.

  45. Posted February 3, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    No, I know the comments re Colin were about the birds – I just feel like the discussion inadvertently trivializes his work in a way that, if he were discussing police or something, wouldn’t have that same air of ‘wtf’-edness. I am sorry to have given another impression about that.

    Per Venkatesh, I’m not really the person to defend him (he can certainly defend himself if he has inclination), and I’ve seen crazy stuff during fieldwork that make for interesting cocktail discussion but that I would never put in a memoir, for lots of reasons – mainly because it would serve less to inform about my site and more to make me feel more authentic/important. So yes, SV puts himself in this with both his actions during his research and his writing about it.

    But you don’t think there’s an element of ‘discussion of IRB as a vehicle’ in the comments and tone here? I’m wrong for being too insulting by calling it ‘roughing up’ and ‘holier than thou’, but still it’s not nothing.

    It reminds me of a comment I read on the web about the band Vampire Weekend – ‘what’s amazing is how the fame and backlash hit at the exact same moment.’

  46. Posted February 3, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Peter: I’ve never actually heard of Vampire Weekend, so I missed both the fame and the backlash.

    Regarding Jerolmack, my intention was not to trivialize his work but I think yours is a reasonable concern.

    In the Venkatesh case, teh feme and teh backlash most certainly are not coincidental. As I said @31, I bought _Off the Books_ but haven’t started it. _GLFAD_, I read shortly after purchase. That says something both about myself and about trade books, although I most certainly will not be the only person for whom GLFAD is the only book by Venkatesh they read. Given the press it’s received, it will be the only book of sociological ethnography many people read. So, from my view, if something about somebody’s work is going to draw a backlash, it’s not surprising that it would come as many people are encountering it for the first time.

    Additionally, as I said in @31, part of what bothers me about GLFAD is exactly that it will likely be the most read work of sociological ethnography this decade and so its ethical takeaway message has much larger ramifications than the average book by a sociologist.

  47. fishpatty
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I wanted to weigh in here to this discussion of IRBs and ethnographic research…

    During my research on canvassers, which went into my book Activism, Inc., I had to go through many rounds with the Columbia IRB to gain approval to do everything (including analyze secondary data from the National Household Education Surveys). Although the process was, at times, mind-numbing (and involved my having to request that I be permitted to remove a statement from my consent form that said I would not collect any bodily fulids), having gone through the process ended up protecting me and my subjects from the organization I studied.

    While I was collecting data and then later when the book was coming out, the organization I studied attempted to get my data. Because of my being religious in following our IRB’s regulations, the university was involved in defending my research and data against legal threats before the book came out. In the end, I don’t know what would have happened without the IRB, but I was very happy to have the approved protocols to stand behind.

    I find it strange being a defender of IRBs and their practices, but I just wanted to point out the flip side of this discussion.

  48. Posted February 4, 2008 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    fishpatty: Great point. This has an analogue in survey research in the case of respondents in linked surveys trying to get data on one another. In one situation, one member of a couple that had divorced after doing a major national survey tried to subpoena the survey responses about finances that the other had provided. Again, having followed all the rules made this case easier than it otherwise would have been.


5 Trackbacks

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