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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

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