Ethnography: a view from the inside

Reporter Matthew Reisz considers the legitimate concerns – and the sheer sexism – that often greet research among stigmatised groups

August 28, 2018
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Spoiling for a fight? Academics researching gang culture sometimes emerge with bruises

Ethnographers claim that deep, immersive research can give us insights into communities – particularly marginalised communities – that are hard to obtain by other means. This claim, unsurprisingly, has always been contentious. In a recent feature, I explore one strand of the debate.

Central to the argument is Alice Goffman’s 2014 book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, based on the six years’ research she carried out in a deprived area of Philadelphia. This was widely acclaimed and formed the basis for a TED talk that’s been viewed 1.7 million times. But it’s also been widely criticised.

One prominent critic, law professor Steven Lubet, has recently developed his reservations into a wider-ranging book called Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters. Although he is enthusiastic about the role of ethnography in “giving voices to the marginalised”, he also argues that many ethnographers become over-identified with their “subjects” and end up, in effect, acting as advocates for them, rather than checking the accuracy of their claims.

When approached by Times Higher Education, several took the opportunity to respond to the points Lubet had made.

The question of accuracy is obviously crucial (can we trust what ethnographers have to tell us, for example, about casual police racism and brutality?). But here I want to focus on other things. Some ethnographers have been dismissed as too left-wing by conservative commentators. At the other end of the political spectrum, radicals sometimes raise questions about “positionality”.

Here, too, Goffman has come in for a good deal of stick. She is white, middle-class and indeed “sociological royalty” (her father, Erving, was a leading figure in the discipline, although he died when she was baby), so some have in effect questioned her right to research and interpret the lives of the inhabitants of a poor black neighbourhood.

More unusually among ethnographers, Goffman has faced some vicious sexism. Even when she was an undergraduate, a 2016 article in The New York Times reports, “professors in her department asked her advisers if she was sleeping with her informers, and that insinuation makes regular appear­ances in anonymous posts about her on sociology message boards. The conversation between the classes had grown so obviously intimate that a lot of people could understand it only in terms of lust and fetish.”

But sexism towards female ethnographers in particular seems pretty common. Other examples come from a 2016 article by Robert M. Worsley and colleagues published in Criminal Justice Studies, which is based on interviews with eight leading ethnographers, of whom only one – Carol Rambo, associate professor of sociology at the University of Memphis in Tennessee – is a woman.

Unfortunately, the authors report, it was she who “appeared to experience the highest level of stigma” within the academic workplace, because of her immersive research as an exotic dancer. Something similar happened to Christine Mattley, a researcher who was “ostracized by her male and female colleagues alike…during her nine-month field study as a phone sex operator”.

Meanwhile, male ethnographers who join gangs, get beaten up or even get into fights seem to attract few concerns about their morality or their motivation. Self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh published a book called Gang Leader for a Day a decade ago, for example, and told THE about his close identification with a gang leader called J. T.: “We were close in age and similarly ambitious. I was trying to make a name for myself in the academic world, and he was doing the same on the streets. We had a certain bond, we understood each other’s motivations.” He even once went to his supervisor to ask: “If I find out that the gang plans to carry out a murder, should I tell someone?”

It is depressing to observe such double standards, where a female researcher shedding light on a murky world by briefly working as a phone worker is harshly judged by colleagues while a male researcher who becomes so close to a gang that he could potentially conceal a murder plan seems to attract little comment.

Matthew Reisz is a reporter for Times Higher Education.

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