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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.

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