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by Peter Moskos

September 21, 2007

The problems of ethnography peer review

Way back when, I submitted an article to a prominent ethnography journal. Time passed. Nothing happened. I submitted the article elsewhere. It was reviewed, accepted and published this past summer. Yesterday I received a reply from the journal. Rejection.

I have never been in the somewhat awkward a position to receive a rejection for a published article. (There were good reasons why the process was so delayed in this journal, related to an editor’s personal health).

But the rejections were striking. Three out of three people rejected the article. This article has been published in the peer-reviewed Law Enforcement Executive Forum. And it forms the basis for a chapter in my book. It's good enough ethnography for Princeton University Press but not, apparently, for this Journal. I couldn’t get over one of the rejections. It stated:

This is not appropriate submission for [the Journal]. I can’t see how in any shape or form that this is ethnography or has anything to do with ethnography.

This bothers me. My research is ethnographic. So I couldn’t help but write the editor, who did write back an understanding email. It’s not the editor's fault. The problem is the process of peer review, perhaps especially in what seems to be the self-limiting field of ethnography.

My book, Cop in the Hood, is coming out in May (Princeton University Press). It is, dare I say, an ethnography. Here's what I wrote:

I appreciate the comments and agree with many of the critical points. Perhaps the article isn't best for [the Journal]. The article is weak on theory. It is geared toward police policy and practice.

I have a few thoughts on my mind from reading the comments. I feel and hope that you and the journal may gain from my thoughts. Take them for what you will. Take them constructively and not as the ranting of a slighted academic. Again, the piece is published, so at some level it doesn't matter to me. But I care about ethnography.

All three reviewers harp on the fact that this isn’t your typical ethnography. That doesn’t strike me as bad. I know this piece is more policy-oriented, but I hope my research expands the field of ethnography slightly in that direction. It bothers me that a policy or real-world focus would be part of the grounds for rejection or exclusion from the field of ethnography. It bothers me when I see the peer-review process in this field so narrow-minded that it is unwilling to consider a piece that doesn't "fit the mold." Likewise it bothers me that ethnographers wouldn’t consider a piece that some numbers in it.

I know this article isn't the "typical" ethnographic piece. I am well aware of ethnographic theory and consider myself an ethnographer (what else could I consider myself given my research and writing based on two years of P.O. research?).

In my mind, and maybe I'm wrong, research that follows ethnographic methods *is* ethnography. The style of writing and the format of the paper should be issues to judge, but not litmus tests. Again, I understand there are legitimate reasons to reject this piece for the [Journal]. But for cryin’ out loud, ethnographers, have a more open mind about what counts as ethnography!

The comments from reviewer 2601 I think are the best (not the most positive, just the most useful comments). The comments from reviewer 2622 are also constructive. The comments from 2602 are, as you I'm sure know, useless. Please don't have this person review another piece for the journal. What an asshole. People like that who serve as gatekeepers really limit the field.

Why can’t ethnography combine qualitative and quantitative methods? Why can’t ethnography be more focused on policy than theory? Perhaps these issues would make a better article for [the Journal] than an analysis of 911 calls for police service. But for both for academic and political reasons, I would hope that ethnographers would be a little more open minded. Of all fields to be judgmental and closed minded... how ironic.


Professor Peter Moskos
Dept. of Law and Police Science
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 10th Ave, Room 422
New York, NY 10019

September 1, 2007

Dog fight

So Michael Vic apologized for dog fighting. I don’t believe him. He likes dog fighting. He's not the only one. There's lots of dog fighting in the Eastern District. That's just the way it is.

Many cops I worked with were very upset at animal mistreatment. One time I answered a call for a pit bull on somebody’s stoop. The dog wasn’t causing any trouble but was quite large and in no mood to leave. He just sat there and took in the scene. One family couldn't leave their home. From behind the screen door, they had no idea where the dog came from and why it was on their stoop. We stayed very near our car for our protection.

The dog had clear scars on his face from fighting. My partner said, “It’s sad that I feel more for the dog than the people here. . . What did the dog do to deserve this?… I mean, I can rationalize and say that the people choose to live this way. But the dog?”

I don’t feel more for dogs than people. Seeing a lot of human suffering makes me less concerned about animals. In poor neighborhoods and countries, when faced with mistreated people, it bothers me less to see mistreated animals. That's just the way it is. It would be great if no human or animal had to suffer but in the meantime it’s all about priorities. People matter more.

It shouldn't be a zero-sum world. It's not that one tortured dog means one person living better. You should care about all living things. But a lot of things bother me when people are "shocked" about dog fighting. Why aren't more people shocked about the misery people suffer? I wish that people would take some of the sympathy they have for a suffering dog and transfer it to a suffering person. If you already care about suffering people, than by all means worry about dogs, too.

And why are people so shocked that there is a dog fighting culture? All they would have to do is ask anybody with any connection to the ghetto. But the people who are *shocked* have no connection with the ghetto. And that’s why it bothers me that they pass judgment so quickly and so passionately. They have no clue.

I don’t like dogfighting. But what if I did? I’ve had an urge to breed fighting game cocks (I will resist) ever since I read Alex Haley’s beautiful description of Chicken George in Roots. I mean, that man loved his chickens. And he fought them. That's why he loved them. It was beautiful. At least in the book.

I’ve been in countries (and states) where chicken fighting is legal. I haven't seen a cock fight yet. But who am I to judge? I feel like it’s none of my business. Cock fighting, dog fighting, is there a big difference? Yeah they’re both bad. To you and me.

As a cop, I wish there were fewer laws, not more. It’s not right to want to outlaw something just because you don’t like it. A lot of people don't like that I eat meat. I don't want them outlawing animal slaughter. The whole point of live and let live is to let people do what they want, even when you don’t like it. Just like free speech only matters when somebody says something offensive.

Some people want to fight dogs. And some dogs want to fight. That’s what they’re raised for. Is it worse than dog racing? Is it worse that factory farming and slaughter? Is it worse than eating meat? The answer to all those is probably yes, but what if I’m wrong? How can I feel smug saying dogfighting is horrible while waving a hamburger for emphasis?

I’m always skeptical of judgmental middle-class America outlawing the recreational choices of poor America. There’s a long history of that. Nine times out of ten, when poor people start getting into something, we make it illegal. Everything from drinking to drugs to gambling to prostitution to kids playing stickball in the street. We love telling poor people what they can’t do. And then we lock them up for doing it.

I saw a lot of messed up dogs in Baltimore (pronounced "dugs," by the way). And small packs of wild dogs roam the streets at night. The packs actually looked pretty happy and healthy, but it can't be good for property values.

Here’s a dead dog left in a box on a stoop. Poor dug.


Some of the blight of the Eastern

RIP graffiti:

You can’t outrun a mural.

Pig on pig.


After a cutting.

After being cut.

It could have been me… but it wasn’t! (I blurred their faces)