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by Peter Moskos

August 13, 2010

"Ethnographic Chutzpah"

Horn tooting time.

Just two-and-a-half years after the publication of Cop in the Hood, (the academic world can move at a glacial pace) the American Journal of Sociology reviewed Cop in the Hood. Well worth the wait, I'd say, as the review by Profesor Andrew Papachristos is very favorable: "Ethographic chutzpah.... Perhaps the best sociological account on what it means to police a modern ghetto.... Tells a great story." Of course it's deeper than that:
While Cop in the Hood contributes to several debates within urban sociology and criminology, the book’s greatest contribution is the demystification of police and police culture. Moskos describes his fellow officers not as power-hungry, thrill-seeking bullies, but as a well-meaning yet frustrated lot who marshal their own foibles and strengths to cope with unique job conditions and ambiguous political and legal decrees.
Like any author, I'm always very pleased to have my book praised for what it is rather knocked down for what it isn't. But I really appreciate how very well Papachristos (I'm assuming he felt no undue pressure from the Greek mafia, but I do owe him a souvlaki) captured and appreciated exactly what I was trying to do. It's an extremely well written and concise review.

In fact, I think he makes some of my points better than I do.
Full access to police sources leaves readers with a simple yet important finding: just like those neighborhood residents whom they “serve and protect,” police devise complex ways to administer formal and informal social control as they negotiate social mandates, individual morality, professional obligations, and personal networks. To be sure, Cop in the Hood is no apologia for police, nor does it dismiss the harsh consequences of the war on drugs. Instead, it offers a candid investigation of the day-to-day arenas in which legal policies are enacted as well as the power afforded to those charged with enforcing the law. The end result is perhaps the best sociological account on what it means to police a modern ghetto.
The interesting point here is that while academics might wish to employ our chic cultural rhetoric to make sense of police behavior, cops have a rather clear notion of culture and crime that they use to explain both crime and their individual and professional responses to it. The task for the academic reader, then, is to figure out ways to rectify our own valued nomenclature with the empirical reality described by Moskos.
If you couldn't follow that (yes, Gotti, I'm thinking of you), don't worry. But you can read the whole review here.


tim said...

Very cool. And yes, as far as academic publishing goes, this review seems to have been pushed through pretty quickly.

While I understand the "encounters beg for moreo rigorous sociological analysis" (I myself had that reaction a few times) I don't know that "sociologists who prefer more formal academic prose might find this style distracting."

I'm not a sociologist, but I'm an academic and I CAN speak for my cohorts in supporting a less formal approach to narrative. Certainly, that's an orientation resulting from my (and their) enculturalization at USF where we promote accessibility. Style and depth of inquiry are not intrinsically linked, only for those who have lived long enough in a world of academic literature where they WERE.

I've long held we can write for multiple audiences with the same prose, just that it's more difficult; indeed, I think it's more difficult to write a narrative in the style of your book than it is, say, a dissertation (given that, as I understand it, Cop In The Hood is a distillation of YOUR dissertation you might be able to comment on this) ...

In an age of anti-intellectualism I think our only hope for returning our craft to its once-esteemed status is to write in ways that don't require doctoral-level higher education to interpret.

Either way, congrats on a fine review in such a prominent publication.

PCM said...


I found that line about "sociologists who prefer more formal prose..." to be praising with faint damn (if I can coin such a phrase). I certainly read it as a compliment, whether or not it was intended. But I suspect it was.

What I found even more interesting was the line, "The task for the academic reader, then, is to figure out ways to rectify our own valued nomenclature with the empirical reality described by Moskos." That's deep and actually kind of hardcore. Not only didn't he criticize me for not using more formal academic prose, he's saying that my findings don't fit standard academic nomenclature. And the problem isn't me... it's academia. It's also implying that cops understand all this shit far better that most professors do (which of course is largely true not just for cops but also for anybody who has first-hand experience). And it says that we in academia need to get our head out its ass (those are my words, not his) and make our language and concepts better reflect reality rather than try to squeeze our observations into our preconceived language and values.

About my dissertation... I had a very sympathetic adviser (Orlando Patterson) who had a low tolerance to B.S. and appreciates good writing far more than stolid academic prose. But still, the timeline is I quit the PD in 2001, finished my dissertation in 2004, and my book at the end of 2007. It took three years to write my book after my dissertation was done (or course I was also learning how to be teacher at the same time. Cop in the Hood has the same theme as my dissertation, but very few of the same words. And yet my dissertation, at least by sociology PhD standards, is pretty readable (even not that more than 10 people actually have).

Gotti Rules said...

All those big words and long paragraphs, I could have summed this up in a short phrase, "This book is good." (and you are supposed to be the smart one, duh)