I have just finished reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in: ethnography, social policy, urban economics, journalism, or the use of evidence in social science. In addition to making a compelling case for meaningful changes in United States housing policy, Desmond sets a new standard for verification in ethnography. Where others have been content to take their informants at their word, Desmond has engaged in extensive fact checking, including court and police records, statistics, medical records, and third party interviews, all of which are documented in his notes. In addition, he retained a professional fact checker – whom he thanks by name – to compare the manuscript to his field notes. This level of attention to the record will be familiar to lawyers, but I have not seen it before in any ethnography.
Perhaps inevitably, Evicted has drawn comparisons to Alice Goffman’s On the Run. As some readers may recall, Goffman has steadfastly resisted source checking, telling the New York Times Magazine that
The point of the book is for people who are written off and delegitimated to describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face, and this is a reality that goes absolutely against the narratives of officials or middle-class people. So finding ‘legitimate’ people to validate the claims — it feels wrong to me on just about every level.’
Desmond’s book is almost exactly the opposite, explaining precisely how and where he got his facts, and “combing public records” (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) rather than rely on unverified accounts.
Most observers and reviewers have applauded Desmond’s admirable commitment to accuracy. Frankly, he makes many other ethnographies look imprecise or careless (at best) by comparison. Surprisingly, the, shall we say, looser approach still has its defenders, as is evidenced in this remarkable interview of Desmond by New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal:
Your book is going to draw comparisons to Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, since both books involve a white ethnographer “embedding” with poor black people, though in your book about half of your subjects were white. I’m curious if, when you saw that book’s reception and some of the controversies that popped up around it, that had any effect on you and your work on Evicted.
I think one of the things we’ve learned from the reception of that book is how deeply people care about our methods, you know, and our claims, and how we know what we know. The truth is absolutely paramount, it’s so paramount, and we have to be dogged about it and transparent and accountable to those claims. And I think that’s something that’s come out from the conversation around that book.
I was doing fieldwork long before that book was published, so it didn’t affect the work in and of itself. I think that one thing is that I had always thought about hiring a fact-checker for this book, and I did in the end. I think I probably would have done that regardless, but I think that the reception of that book influenced that decision, too.
You and Goffman have pretty different views of the fact-checking process. I interviewed her, and she said that if one of her subjects said, “I went to court facing this charge,” that would go in the book, and she thought her subjects’ understanding of their situation mattered a great deal, regardless — to a certain extent, at least — of whether it matched up with the legal reality. So some of the differences between how your book and hers approached fact-checking are a bit philosophical. But it is a resource thing, too, right? It took you a lot of money, and money in the form of time, to fact-check everything in Evicted.
It takes a lot of time. It takes an enormous amount of time.
So it’s not crazy to say that, materially, fact-checking was quote-unquote “easier” for you, as someone further along in his career and who had access to more resources, right?
I think there are ways that graduate students can fact-check their work. I think there are ways that we can do this that don’t require massive amounts of resources. So let’s say you and I were in grad school together and I was doing an ethnography — I could give you my fieldnotes and you could do the same for me, and we could fact-check [each other’s] claims, and we could write that in our publication so that we hold each other accountable for that. That could be rather costless.It does take time — it does take time. But again, like, I think we have to be obsessive about the truth and go to whatever lengths we can to get it.
So you don’t think there are ethical problems with sharing fieldnotes with another scholar just so they can help you fact-check, right? Because part of the debate here has been about the boundaries of ethical concerns and where they lie.
So in my experience, what I did is the fact-checker signed a nondisclosure agreement, because she was going to be interacting with some sensitive material and people’s real names and that kind of stuff, and then I handed everything over to her. I don’t think that’s an ethical issue. For the New Yorker excerpt, the New Yorker fact-checker interviewed Arleen and Sherrena [a landlord and entrepreneur] and other people that were in that excerpt. I called everyone and just said, “Hey, would you guys be okay with talking to a fact-checker? And they said sure. The fact-checker I hired for my book ended up conducting over 30 independent interviews with folks who were in the book and other sources to corroborate stuff. So, I dunno — I feel like those are pretty established practices in journalism.
Despite Singal’s repeated importuning, Desmond politely declines to defend Goffman’s methods.