I just finished read Sudhir Venkatesh’s excellent Gang Leader for A Day, the story of his experience as a graduate researcher in the Robert Taylor projects in Chicago. You’ve probably heard of Venkatesh before, even if you don’t know you have. He was in Freakonomics and has been on This American Life a few times. The book his dissertation became, Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor is an eye-opening study of what really happens on the ground in America’s cities. Gang Leader is the story of his methodology and what becomes apparent is why we don’t see more research like Venkatesh’s and how tragic that is.
To really study how the urban poor get by, Venkatesh went into the projects and befriended gang leaders and criminals. At a certain point, the young Venkatesh realizes (prompted by his advisers) that he may have been committing a number of crimes by simply being where he was talking with the people he was. Even more worrisome was the idea that if he was called before a court to testify against his research subjects, there would be nothing to protect him. He would have to testify or face contempt of court and prison. This is damaging to qualitative ethnographic research in a couple of ways.
There is simply no way subjects can feel comfortable talking to a researcher about what happens in their lives if they know it could be used against them in a court of law. The main thesis of Off the Books is that virtually everyone who lives in the projects is in the eyes of the law a criminal. When you live in a place where you’re more afraid of the police than the local gang, the legality of selling candy out of your apartment to feed your children isn’t the first thing on your mind. But this also makes someone understandably cagey when someone not from their neighborhood comes around asking a lot of questions. The result is a lot of quantitative data about poverty, but very little qualitative information about how people really live.
What I would like to see is an academic shield law. 36 states already have shield laws that protect journalists who refuse to reveal their sources. We as a society recognize that an independent and effective media is more important than making sure that every law is enforced every time. Similarly, finding out what’s really happening in high-crime areas is more important than turning academics into police detectives.