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September 24, 2018


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A pretty good percentage of criminals (perhaps especially whit-collar criminals, but not only those) who are caught are caught because of records they keep of their crimes - sometimes informal records, like emails, videos, and phone calls, but sometimes more formal ones. (think of the famous scene from The Wire, about "taking notes on a criminal conspiracy". Sometimes, people really do keep notes on their criminal conspiracy!) Why mention this? Well, if people who _know_ they are criminals and who accept it often enough keep documentary evidence of it, why think that people like government officials and bureaucrats, who _do not_ see themselves as involved in criminal activity (even when they are) might not also keep accurate records of it? Of course we shouldn't believe these things naively, but just dismissing them all also seems naive.

Shawn Boyne

I'm not sure whether or not there is an accepted practice in the field requiring that the information gleaned from interview subjects be verified. However, in my study of the decision-making practices of German prosecutors, THE GERMAN PROSECUTION SERVICE: GUARDIANS OF THE LAW?, I did not take the word of my subjects at face value. When I began conducting my initial interviews in 2005, some prosecutors claimed that there was no plea bargaining in Germany because there were no provisions in the code or case law at the time allowing the practice. There was nothing published in English at the time that confirmed that plea bargaining was taking place. However, I interviewed dozens of defense attorneys and watched many proceedings and not only heard about the practice, but I saw it in action. When prosecutors told me about their key decisions in certain cases, I asked to see their private office files where all their decisions were inscribed. It dismays me to read that some so-called prominent ethnographers do not believe that it is important to verify the accuracy of information obtained through interviews. Perhaps my background practicing law influenced how I conducted my research in the field, but I never considered one person's oral account to be the "truth."

Steve L.

As far as I can tell, there is no accepted practice of verifying information -- some ethnographers do it; others disdain it. I don't have any problem with using unverified second-hand accounts in ethnography, so long as they are identified that way. Too often, such accounts are presented as fact, rather than as stories, rumors, or opinions.


You may wish to extend the analysis to economists. Economists are notorious for deeming empirical evidence irrelevant, and, accordingly, often deviate into bizarre theories that have no basis in fact.

However, applying the standards of investigations to determine facts in a legal proceeding to the work of every other field may be overstating your point.

If you are looking for an analogy in the law, this may be similar to our "truth of the matter asserted" exception to the hearsay rule. When "ethnographers ... accept the accounts of their informants without regard to fact-checking against official records and documents" it may be more because they are interested in the fact that the informants so stated, not the truth of the facts asserted.

Perhaps, here, we have a key to the debate in the Kav matter. For many, it is less important that a story can be proved, and more important that the accuser be "treated with respect, allowed to be heard, and believed" without regard to such proof.

Brett Kavanaugh Macho Macho Man Association of America

Here is the problem with Ethnographies: They are "forced." A researcher, typically a highly educated, professional individual, inserts themselves into a lower SES or blue collar subculture. ie criminal population, small rural community. It does not work because it is not organic. I can write tremendous stories about the courthouse I haunt where everybody knows me. But if I inserted myself into a court house 10 counties over, who would talk to me? Could I get juicy tidbits and nuggets of information? Nope.

Monica Eppinger

I'm glad to see that Shawn Boyne raised an example from her book, The German Prosecution Service: Guardians of the Law. Her work is exemplary not only in its commitment to verification, but also in its demonstration of some kinds of insights that qualitative fieldwork, richly informed by a comparative background, can provide. I highly recommend taking a look.

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