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by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2008

Outing the insiders

There’s a very interesting exchange on Slate.com between Sudhir Venkatesh and Alex Kotlowitz. These are two authors I respect deeply (and not just because Prof. Venkatesh was kind enough to offer to write a blurb for Cop in the Hood).

Their letters discuss the role of researchers vis-à-vis their research subjects. You should read all four.

I just finished reading Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day. It’s a great book (and not just because Prof. Venkatesh was kind enough to write a blurb for Cop in the Hood)! I stayed up till 6am to finish it. Sudhir, as you may or may not know, got his hands on the books of a gang in Chicago. Like the actually financial books. With payments, employees, salaries. What a coup! He’s done great research in the old Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. This book is the story of his research.

I’ve read two of Alex Kotlowitz’s books: There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. They’re both great (and Mr. Kotlowitz didn’t write a blurb for my book). The former is about growing up Chicago projects and the latter about race and economic relations in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. He writes about cities and race honestly, fairly, and with great style.

In Gang Leader for a Day, Venkatesh arguably does some harm to his research subjects. This is a big no-no in the world of academic research. Venkatesh has gotten some flack for kicking a man who was in the process of getting a beat down. That doesn’t bother me, because in addition to arguably “deserving” the beat down, the man was attacking a friend of Venkatesh. More worrisome, at least to me, is Venkatesh taking part in business extortion and unintentionally “outing” the semi-legal hustles people use to get by in the projects.

Venkatesh could never have done his research if he had to go through a Human Subject Review Board (or I.R.B., Institutional Review Board). As a grad student, he somehow skirted this requirement. But I think the world would be a worse place without Venkatesh’s research. It’s good work and shame on the institution of I.R.B.s that wouldn’t allow it!

I’ve never been a fan of the I.R.B. Few professor are. I don’t think that overt non-experimental academic researchers should need approval to observe and interact with most human subjects. We’re not giving out experimental drugs. We’re not running experiments. We’re watching and talking and living. I don’t even like the term “human subjects.” It’s dehumanizing. They're people, damnit! It’s condescending to think that adults aren’t smart enough to make their own decisions about what to say to whom. And if they’re not, well, such is life.

Nor am I convinced that research subjects who harm others deserve institutional protection. I believe academics should act under a code similar to journalists. But federal law disagrees with me. And the press has explicit constitutional protection that professors don’t.

Kotlowitz, a journalist, doesn’t have to worry about I.R.B.s. But as human beings, both Venkatesh and Kotlowitz are naturally concerned about harms that may come from their presence. They both wonder about the obligation they have to their (poor) research subjects. Especially since they, the authors, are likely to benefit both financially and professionally.

Most research is done on the powerless and abused. In my study of police, I wasn’t dealing with what is traditionally considered an “at risk” group. If anything, police are considered by others to be powerful abusers! I wasn’t particularly concerned about my research “changing” my subjects. I want my research to change things for the better. I want a better police department and better policing.

But I had my concerns. What if I saw a Rodney King? What if I was asked to conspire in crimes? Should I stop my “research” and quit my job? Should I turn in other cops? Luckily, and hard as it is to for police-haters to imagine, I didn’t see any criminal or horrible police behavior (though I do think that somebody needs to keep better tabs on correctional officers—jail guards in particular).

Perhaps I’m underestimating the value of my Ivy League education, but I feel that any of my police colleagues could write a book as good as mine. Unfortunately they can’t write as well (and I give my public high-school English teachers more credit for that than Harvard or Princeton).

Researchers who “do” rather than just “watch” are always accused of not being “objective.” I’m not a big fan of objectivity. For starters, unless you’re a psychopath, I don’t think objectivity is possible. And even if it were, I’m not convinced it’s good. Too often objectivity is just a euphemism for ignorance. Objective outside research—that is to say, most research—runs the risk of being too ass-kissing and desperate, simply in an attempt to gain the access that naturally comes from an insider. Ethnography can’t and shouldn’t strive for the same level of scientific validity as found in the hard sciences. Ethnography isn’t chemistry.

What’s strange to me is the dearth of good social-science research on the police. I do think that it’s tougher to write about police officers than it is to write about gang members. You can write about who a gang member is, because there’s something more exotic there (at least to outsiders). The lives of people who go to work usually isn’t that interesting (so kudos to Ehrenreich for making it so). Workers provide for their families. I don’t think I have the writing skills to make a police officer interesting. But I do have the analytical skills to notice what police officers do. Luckily, what police do is often very interesting.

People also say police are closed to outsiders and hostile to researchers. That may be true, but only if you’re an outsider. Compared to Venkatesh befriending gang members, my becoming a police officer was a synch! And it’s very easy to become a police insider. They hire. And they even pay you.

You might say that my job as police officer was, to use Venkatesh’s language, a “hustle.” I used the police department to advance my academic career. I didn’t hide this fact. The Baltimore City Police Department knew this (and to their credit still hired me). Other police told me, “If you can use this job as a stepping stone to something better, more power to you.” I actually heard those exact words more than once. I had the luxury of being an insider.

If you’re studying the poor, or the working class, or prison guards, or restaurant workers, or taxi drivers, or drug dealers, you can simply become one or make friends with those who are. Maybe all groups aren’t open to outsiders, but most are. It’s human nature. The fact that most academics don’t even talk to the people they claim to study is either horrible class snobbery or a simple lack of cojones.


Zachary M. Schrag said...

It's quite possible that an inept IRB would have blocked Venkatesh's research. But Venkatesh, by his own admission, "f[oul]ed up" by passing on information that people meant to tell him in confidence. So it is also possible that an adept IRB would have permitted the research while mitigating the harm. Not likely, perhaps, but possible.

Rather than deal in such speculations, I hope you will elaborate on your own experiences with IRBs that led you to distrust them.

PCM said...

I responded in a post. But I also have a question: Is there any IRB vested interest group? Who advocates for greater IRB review? I would hate to think that like the prison-industrial complex the IRB will continue to get more and more dominant.