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The Murder of Ethnography


An educational resource at the heart of criminological teaching, debate, and research


The Murder of Ethnography

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                The Steve Hall column    Beneath the Surface

For decades the ethnographic method has been one of the sharpest tools in the criminologist's box. What better way to find out exactly what criminals do, why (they think) they do it and what the local cultural and material contexts in which they operate look like and feel like? Statistics present only the broadest and indeed most unreliable picture; victim surveys do what they say on the tin – survey only the victim's perspective; and hanging around Crown Courts asking criminals to fill in questionnaires is one the most fruitless activities I can think of.

Since the early days of the Chicago School of Sociology, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the ethnographic method, taken from anthropology into sociology and criminology, has provided us with what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called the 'thick description' without which we can't even begin to analyse cultural meanings and motivations. Here we see the nuances of desire, meaning and human relations in operation in their everyday contexts. We also need to understand how these nuances are embedded in broader structural and ideological contexts, but that's another issue; without this rich data, we have little – we might even say nothing – to go on. So why is it that this vital method is getting more difficult to use within criminological research?

Part of the answer lies in the rise to power of Institutional Review Boards in US universities and Ethics Committees in Europe.

Of course, it’s difficult to criticise the case put forward for the regulation of social scientific research ethics. Totalitarian regimes allowed medical researchers to abuse individuals in experimental settings, and some of the psychological research done in post-war US universities was questionable to say the least. The famous Milgram experiment, for instance, would never get past today’s bureaucrats, and the degree of deception and insensitivity at its core suggests that it would be difficult to argue that it should.

However, although care must be taken not to place researchers or subjects in danger, not to breach confidentiality and so on, ethnographic research is on the whole far less ethically problematic than experimental research in biology, medicine, psychology or health studies. As far as I am aware, no serious injury, litigation or even minor breach of human rights has arisen from ethnographic research in criminology. Yet, relentlessly targeted by the bureaucrats who use ethical templates taken from these more problematic disciplines, ethnography is dying out. My own research team has been forced to operate independently to produce the data for our publications, which include the books Violent Night and Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture, and I know of US colleagues who, after having their proposals rejected by Institutional Review Boards, have been forced to take unpaid leave to gather the data they need.

Why this is so is a question that needs to be asked. But by whom? It’s easy to understand why conservative and neo-liberal bureaucrats want to prevent the generation of detailed knowledge about the broken communities that are to a large extent the results of their own long-term political and ideological handiwork. However, in a recent speech at a BSC lifetime awards ceremony, the quintessentially left-liberal British sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen also announced his dislike of those with a keen eye for reality and the Real (please forgive my little indulgence but I always use the Lacanian distinction between mundane experiential reality and the hidden forces of the obscene Real that lie behind it):

"I warned them - as I warn you - to beware of the people whom Saul Bellow calls reality instructors: You know those people who are always grabbing you to tell you 'What Things Are Really Like': the cops, doctors, judges and journalists who instruct you on how things work 'out there'. The criminological version of 'out there' is sitting in the back of a police van."

He then told us that, instead of nosing about in reality and the Real, we should research what is important; repressive states, genocide, torture and other things whose downright malevolent nature is impossible to disagree with. Essentially, we are getting, from a different angle, the same caution and trepidation that dominate the ethics committees and review boards, and the whole thing begins to look like a systematic attempt to go way beyond the standard issues of safety, confidentiality and so on to the control of the production of knowledge. Is it the case, then, that both the conservative right and liberal left are for some reason worried about a few criminological ethnographers exploring some locales and trying to tell it like it is? About what are they worried, precisely, and what do these two otherwise oppositional forces have in common that would make them agree with the bureaucrats?

Inquiring minds want to know. I have a few ideas myself, based mainly on Alain Badiou’s conception of an all-consuming fear of collective politics as the underlying Real that influences all brands of liberalism and conservatism, but first I would like to know what others think. Is criminological ethnography dying? If so, who’s trying to murder it and why? Should we care? Comments, please!

Steve Hall, Professor of Criminology, Teesside University.



Badiou, A. [2002] Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil. London: Verso.

Cohen, S. [2009] “Carry on Panicking”. Address to British Society of Criminology conference, Cardiff. In: BSC Newsletter, no. 64.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. [2008] Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture. Cullompton: Willan.

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. [2006] Violent Night: Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture. Oxford: Berg.


# Trevor James 2010-12-30 12:19
There is a certain naivety about ethnography (if operating from the left) about what it is going to achieve. Faithfully representing the experience of slavery to the slave trader takes nothing away from the profits to be made from that industry. Ethnographers of the left have to be honest about what they are doing. They are painting a picture that, in the end, is unlikely to be surprising to them. They may think they are empowering the people they study by giving them a voice, but who is listening? How will their data be used and for what purposes? Did those who began speaking for Mother Earth expect the green agenda to metastasise so rapidly into the cynically commercial infrastructure that we now see spreading throughout capitalist society or to be hijacked by control systems that reduce still further any real opportunities for collectivism?
+1 # Steve Hall 2011-01-01 20:16
I take your point, trevorotti, but isn't that sort of naivety shared across all social scientific schools of thought? Do global capitalism's genuinely powerful politico-econom ic actors take notice of anything that any of us say? I would have thought that our 'audience' is to be found amongst everyday people who are curious about the reality of life beyond the media spectacle, about the nuanced ways in which subjects deal with neoliberal ideology as it structures and energises the world around them. Amongst the important lessons we can learn from ethnography is exactly what is 'resistance' and what is not. Do criminals 'resist'? Doesn't the act of representing the word as faithfully as possible, and refusing to bow to the Kantian dogma that interior/exteri or noumenal reality is inaccessible to us, furnish us with an intellectual weapon to brandish against the liberal-left's political naivety, the primary reason for its recurrent failure in the latter half of the twentieth century?
# Trevor James 2011-01-31 21:56
penetration of the ideologically constructed reality of crime and deviance is not in issue, whether you write Das Kapital or capture the meaningful world of the 'offender'. However, i fear the preoccupation with Kantian free will and moral autonomy will not be the underdoing of capitalism. incidentally, Kant's presumption of free will was the precondition of a moral world, rather than a statement of ontological fact (as i read it)
# Steve Hall 2011-04-03 12:37
Reality is not 'ideologically constructed', our perceptions of it are. You seem to be working with a constructivist model that denies symbolic efficiency and is, in the intellectual if not the institutional sense, dead and buried; try Zizek on this. The eruption of capitalism's reality - and the obscene disavowed Real behind it - in 2008 at least created a political frisson in the population, which the liberal-left have been unable to do in the past 30 years, with their talk of the 'social construction' of this, that and the other. You're right that Kantianism is politically useless, but, other than setting up a straw man, I have no idea why you're saying that to me; I made no such claim on its behalf. I was not supporting Kant's moral constructivism, but criticising his demarcation between phenomena and noumena, well-known to those who study the philosophy of social science. What is it about the representation of reality and the claim to symbolic efficiency that really worries you?
+1 # Jade D'Anthro 2011-04-04 08:40
Much of my own work could easily be categorised as ethnography 'operating from the left'. I have never understood my work as an opportunity to give marginalised groups 'a voice'. The point is to faithfully represent the reality I find, and in so doing attempt to make a contribution to the intellectual understanding of everyday life. On a secondary level, I can also detect a slight desire to influence attitudes towards that reality. In particular I want my students to care about inequality and respond to it as a moral issue. But you are correct - many leftist ethnographers do approach their studies in this way, as if simply letting marginalised groups speak represented a subversive political gesture.
If you want to know why people commit crime, don't ask a criminal. They don't know. That is not to suggest that their accounts can't be illuminating, instructive and useful as part of a broader analysis, but they are not carriers of 'the truth'.
# trevorotti 2011-04-16 09:42
No homage to constructivist model in 'penetration'. Not saying that reality is only an ideological construct, yet I do not share your apparent hostility to constructionist thinking about crime and deviance which you doubtless see as relegating critical criminology to the realms of Never Land from which it was rescued by Left Realism. The debt owed is enormous not just in understanding the symbolic efficiency of powerful discourses that construct the perception of reality with which you are so concerned, but also in directly challenging occlusive, positivist aetiologies of deviance that have hitherto been so successful in building up the power base of the capitalist state. By comparison, the political mileage to be had from ethnographic research often seems to me little more than stamp collecting for a rarefied album subscribed to by a highly esoteric mailing list.
# Steve Hall 2011-05-01 16:40
No debt is owed because nothing of value was produced. The constructivist liberal-left has been an intellectual and political failure. Left idealist criminologists use positivism whenever it suits them. Foucault's discursivity was itself a form of positivism - he admitted that himself - that relocated the Real from the disavowed kernel of ideology to the 'dark side' of external symbolic objects, thus collapsing both subjectivity and ontology into epistemology. Social constructionism , symbolic interactionism and post-structural ism are now behind what Lakatos called 'degenerate research programmes', producing no feasible explanations of their objects, largely because, as you say yourself, their sole concern is the negative 'challenge' of orthodox explanations. Orthodox ethnography, largely based on SI, is of little use; we need an ethnography of the Real, of the social silences replete with desire and action, not the social noise, to know what we're up against in 2011 rather than 1971.
# trevorotti 2011-05-03 11:29
Constructivism never engaged with the Real, so you offer us yet another long metaphysical footnote to Marx, in this case, a justification for a critical ethnography from the left. Hence a choice between ideological critique, on the one hand, and empirical studies seeking radical displacement, on the other. However, the history of effective political action has never been tied to the latter even if formidable academic reputations have. Moreover, the hijacking of constructivism by the liberal-left closes off the road only for those too afraid or unwilling to recognise that it leads not to the discovery of the Real but to the chance to construct new social relationships - a different Real. I see nothing in what you say that could realistically contribute to an alternative future. You aim to tell us about an authentic present with no vision beyond it.
# Colin Sumner 2011-05-03 11:43
Hi guys, interfering Ed. here. Ecoucha mes amis, as they say in the Pyrenees, this debate is really valuable but it might be more helpful if both of you could now summarize your positions, their core differences and implications, in language many, such as students and the intelligent public, can understand?

Thanks. Right, box.....

# Steve H 2011-07-07 15:13
"However, the history of effective political action ..."

What effective political action? We've had a failed post-war settlement followed by 32 years of neoliberalism, ffs!

Time to delve into the World again, and construct an alternative ideology that can counteract its Real.
# trevor lloyd james 2011-08-11 09:32
However brutal, however ugly, the history of effective political action includes the willingness of the marginalised and dispossessed to express their frustration through riot and 'looting', producing, however fragile, the green shoots of a destabilising ideological implosion that I argue has more to offer than all the delving of empirical ethnography. Whilst ethnographers dig, others are stretching the rubber cage of liberal democratic capitalism by putting their bodies on the line. Our goal is the same, but we do not agree on how to score.........
# Steve H 2011-08-21 18:36
I think recent events have disproven your thesis, Trevor. Best to read Slavoj Zizek's latest on the riots in LRB ... it confirms what Simon Winlow and I argued in Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture, a product of ethnographic 'digging'. The looting had nothing to do with ideological opposition. It was aggravated shopping. We will get no 'green shoots' until we construct an alternative ideology that can disrupt consumer subjectivity. The libertarian counter-culture fed into it. We need, as Zizek argues, to 'begin from the beginning'. Post-war leftist thought has hit a brick wall because it simply listed objective conditions without thinking about ideology and subjevctivity. The current left don't even know where the goal is or which team they're playing for. Time for total revision.
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