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June 05, 2015


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Marty Lederman

Steve: Strikes me that, whether or not it was criminal, volunteering to *drive* the car was obviously unethical, and demonstrated horrible judgment. But your quotation from Venkatesh goes further: It suggests that it would be wrong for the sociologist simply to "driv[e] around with them while they talked about shooting somebody"--and, moreover, that if the sociologist becomes "aware of a plan to physically harm somebody," she is "obliged to tell the police."

What do you think of these two variations on the question:

i. Can or should the sociologist drive around with the subjects of her study --but not aid them -- while they talk about shooting someone?

ii. Should she -- must she? -- tell the police when she becomes "aware of a plan to physically harm somebody"?

Do the answers to these questions change if she were an attorney in addition to being an academic?


Those are great questions, Marty, and I don't have immediate answers. I am planning to spend some of the summer researching the ethics of ethnology, and perhaps write something for an academic journal.

I am guessing that someone told Venkatesh about the Tarasoff case, and they assumed that it applied to ethnographers as well as psychologists.

In any event, Venkatesh showed prudence, where Goffman obviously did not.

I would be very interested in the opinions of other Faculty Lounge readers.

Al Brophy

Steven, I've been following this exchange with great interest.

I'll leave aside the talk of conspiracy to commit murder because that's far outside of my area of expertise; I'd like to focus on one of your criticisms, which I think is central to the problems with ethnographic research -- how researchers can become so involved with their subjects and take on so much of the perspective of their subjects that they bend their interpretations. This is a problem for intellectual historians in two ways. First, as I've pointed out about historians of the old South, they often become so involved in their subjects that they elevate their ideas. We should not lose sight of the many ways that intellectuals in the old South largely spent their time justifying what to the rest of us is a hideous system. Second, and related, intellectual historians often pick out themes that resonate with them and thus the subjects look more like reflections of the ideas of the historians than they are true renditions of the subjects themselves. Both of these are really serious problems for intellectual historians. I suppose one analogy is to a social scientist who is coding data and then interpreting the results.


Steve: I agree with Marty that the Venkatesh formulation goes much further; since you endorse it as "quite sensible, and unlikely to cause any damage to immersion research," and exhibiting "prudence," you are at least tentatively defending it, unless you plan only to censure exactly what Goffman appeared to have done . . . namely, voluntary behavior with intent of promoting or facilitating the underlying crime.

At first blush, the Venkatesh standard (awareness of a plan to physically harm somebody triggers an obligation to call the police) seems highly likely to inhibit other immersion research, for better or for worse. If persons prone to considering criminal activity knew that that a researcher would blow the whistle whenever she or he perceived such a plan to be afoot, how many fewer would permit the researcher to be present? Do we expect researchers to disclose that standard as part of their ethical treatment of research subjects, or can one ethically conceal it? Would we expect research subjects to flush out ethical researchers by engaging in activities like the kind designed to trigger entrapment immunity for those dealing with undercover cops (e.g., if you want to hang with us, take the wheel), and would that affect what we deem to be voluntary participation? Maybe no such research should take place, but I doubt you can assert that this would not "cause any damage to immersion research," unless your notion of "damage" already takes into account whatever ethical standard you'd propose.

P.S. FYI, your update might be misread to imply that Katz's defense improperly failed to disclose his participation as an editor of the series, at least to any reader not following the link, which leads to passages seemingly from an email. These are not necessarily ordinary circumstances for disclosure, and perhaps not even circumstances in which he failed to disclose.

Steve L.

Thanks for your comments, Ed. It seems that the field of ethnography ethics is seriously under-theorized.

I did not mean to imply that Katz had withheld information -- just thought it was an interesting fact in the Times article.

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