mitch duneier responds

I had an off-blog conversation with Mitch Duneier about some of the IRB issues brought up in reference to Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, Gang Leader for a Day (see the comments to Jeremy’s post). I asked him if I could post his reply on our blog, and he graciously accepted! Part of what motivated me was that at Wisconsin I often heard that Mitch did not believe in IRBs for ethnographers because the method was not generalizable science. Mitch lays this urban legend to rest. Below is Mitch’s response:

Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Speaking as an old fashioned “pre-rogue” ethnographer, I thought the discussion was interesting. Of course, I would have never meant to say — as someone claims — that ethnographers don’t need to go through IRBs “because ethnography is not scientific.” As you know, I have spent much of my career arguing that ethnography should strive to live up to the highest ideals of social science (and opposing the retrograde divisions between qualitative and quantitative work.) A more accurate quote — which I think was taken up by implication in the remarks that followed on the blog — is that IRBs are granted the right to regulate “research,” which is defined in the federal guidelines as work that is systematic and generalizable. For this reason, oral history and journalism have traditionally been beyond the sphere of regulated scholarly activity in universities that receive federal funding. It seems to me that, depending on the particular goal of an ethnographer on a particular project, some kinds of ethnographic projects are not trying to be generalizable. I used to say that this is indeed what many say about ethnography (its strength is depth; its weakness is generalizability); but this certainly does not mean it is not striving to achieve the highest ideals of social science which would include a range of aspirations–achieving data quality, revising theory, giving due recognition to rival explanations, being clear about procedures, specifying uncertainties. I would also add that the very best ethnographic projects — like the very best works of science — certainly do resolve issues of generalizability, but no sceintific project lives up to every one of the above scientific ideals equally well. To suggest that a particular project is not meant to be generalizable is not to argue that ethnography isn’t scientific. There is obviously a lot more to say on this question…

When I was researching SLIM’s TABLE, it was the mid to late 80s– as someone correctly pointed out. The IRB scene was very different and we certainly had no sense that it applied to us. This does not mean that I didn’t take issues of ethics very seriously. I did. By the time I wrote SIDEWALK, I ended up getting IRB approval at all the universities where I taught including Wisconsin and UCSB. As someone pointed out, this is discussed in detail in my appendix on method, particularly the experience I had reading the forms to subjects and what “informed consent” amounted to in the context of real reseach. What I find missing in the discussion on the blog (and perhaps I just missed it because there is a lot there) is that the IRB should only be a STARTING POINT in our thinking about ethics. These days, far too many people think that when they have satisfied their IRB, they have resolved ethical issues and can just move on.

By the way, Jack Katz (one of the great ethnographers of our time, who has himself studied murderers and other criminals, and a true “rogue” if there ever was one) has put a lot of time into thinking about all these issues. His work on the subject, as well as many issues of ethnographic method, is available on his website

5 thoughts on “mitch duneier responds”

  1. Since I invoked Mitch’s name, I should clarify that it was clear to me in context that Mitch’s complaints were about how the IRBs were operating at that time, and I interpreted the remarks I attributed to him as a critique of IRBs as they were functioning, not as a critique of the idea of being ethical in research. I interpreted the “not science” remark as an expression of frustration with the IRB system, not as a deep commentary on ethnography, nor as a refusal to engage ethical issues. The social science IRB on my campus was inconsistent and out of control then. As previously noted, history and journalism were not subject to IRB review at that time, while now they are. This seemed unfair, because the IRB was generating wildly unstable, erratic, nit-picking and at times even outrageous demands that drove researchers crazy on some trivial points while ignoring other real ethical issues. Research that involved no actual contact with people and could not possibly impact their lives was being subject to the same intense and invasive scrutiny as something that might actually hurt people. IRB members would sometimes dream up complicated and far-fetched scenarios through which it was conceivable that someone might become upset at seemingly-innocuous questions or indirectly be embarrassed years later by research that seemed harmless at the time, and then insist upon procedures to guard against these imaginary threats. I remember one PI who was furious because the IRB was refusing to authorize paying $10 or $20 to homeless people for interviews because they were poor and would value the money, thus making the payment “coercive.” So Mitch was surrounded by non-ethnographers who were really mad at the IRB, and I interpreted his remarks in that context.

    Which is not to deny Mitch’s (and others’) point that any research, not just ethnography, can turn out to raise ethical issues later in the process that need to be addressed, even if the IRB has signed off.


  2. I have to say that I find remarkable almost the entire line of moral reasoning that leads to the conclusion that paying socially isolated people to do a task that contains no obvious significant risk can be regarded as coercive. I’m in a rush and cannot type more, but the hedges “socially isolated” and “contains to obvious significant risk” would point to occasions when I can see more harm.

    As a non sequitur, Duneier also deserves acclaim for various of his efforts to call attention to the issue of verifiability in ethnographic research, in opposition to the epistemological tacit collusion (“you don’t ask me uncomfortable questions, and I won’t ask you…”) that is common in it and certain other quarters of social science.


  3. I have to say that I find remarkable almost the entire line of moral reasoning that leads to the conclusion that paying socially isolated people to do a task that contains no obvious significant risk can be regarded as coercive.

    Seriously. That is ridiculous.

    When they pay extremely poor families to involve their kids in experimental medical research, on the other hand…


  4. For my own work one of the most important things I took away from Duneier’s work was the importance of checking your sources. This is essentially a journalistic insight, which because it is from journalism, sociologists ignore (I suspect, at least, that this is why; I will assert that sociologists tend to do so). Or they do so because it is simply incredibly difficult.

    It was a particularly difficult challenge for me, doing a community ethnography (of a small group of folks). This is because information may seem verified when you’ve asked 5 people about it, until you realize that all five have the same faulty source. Also, as soon as I started to verify information, my subjects would talk to one another about the question I was asking. Something like:

    Shamus to subject A: “Is X true?”
    Subject A: “I don’t know, I think so.”
    Subject A to subject B: “Did you hear about X?”
    Shamus to subject B: “Is X true?”
    Subject B: “Yes. I heard that it was.”

    This polluting effects were nightmarish. Especially since my subjects assumed that when *I* had information, it was more reliable (as I was a researcher). The point is (related to Jeremy’s note about verifiability in ethnographic research) that this was something that Duneier did incredibly well. I learned from it. I had to cut out a lot of material from my own work that I could not systematically verify, or present it in a way that highlighted that the information was unreliable. At times I curse Mitch for making my life so much harder! But the work is certainly better because of it.


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