Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

closed borders and apartheid: a critique by chandran kukathas

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Chandran Kukathas is the chair of the government department at the LSE. On the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, he discusses why we should see border restrictions and apartheid in the same light. A few key clips:

Here’s where immigration controls in liberal democracies and apartheid in South Africa after 1948 share some similarities. In both cases the effectiveness of the policies depends in the end on controlling not just outsiders but also insiders – citizens and residents. It is widely assumed that immigration control is a matter of keeping people from entering a country, and the rhetoric of control encourages this impression. Cities, public facilities, and social services are routinely described as bursting at the seams or stretched to the limit, unable to cope with sudden influxes of large numbers of foreigners, or the growth of a population swelling steadily because of a positive rate of net migration.


This was the logic of Apartheid. Controlling who could enter from the bantustans required controlling the movement of black people within white society. The so-called ‘pass laws’ that first appeared in the nineteenth century to limit and control the movement of black labour, were extended to require both male and female Africans to carry ‘reference books’ detailing among other things, employment record, marital status, taxes paid, and official place of residence—and failure to carry the ‘dompas’ eventually became a criminal offence punishable by a prison sentence. By 1970 not only Blacks but also Whites, Coloureds and Asians were issued with (though not all were obliged to carry) similar documents under the Population Registration Amendment Act. Even when it is possible to identify some people readily, by skin colour or other other visible characteristics, it is not easy to control them without controlling others.

Indeed. A classic case of how a perverse policy corrupts all that is around it. Once you criminalize movement, you criminalize employers, landlords, and schools who might wish to interact with immigrants. But Kukathas holds back from a more fundamental comparison. Both apartheid and border controls are essentially forms of social control aimed at outsiders. In apartheid, the division is racial. For border controls, it is both national and racial, in that the harshest regulations are aimed at low status ethnic groups (e.g., Mexican laborers are more likely to be raided than college students whose visas are expired).

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

To Anonymize, or Not to Anonymize

with 3 comments

The Journalist and the Ethnographer textMy responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)

I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).

Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.

As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.

Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)

On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.

Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.

Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.

I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.

Written by Victor Tan Chen

September 24, 2015 at 4:35 pm

Posted in ethics, ethnography

against deportations? here’s the new no deprotation logo


In August and September, the Open Borders group sponsored a contest for a No Deportation logo. Here is the winner, submitted by Stefan from Austria. You have permission to re-post it. If you are against deportations, forced refugee camps, and migration restriction, please feel free to use it in your Facebook account, Twitter feed or other media.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 22, 2015 at 12:01 am

The Journalist and the Ethnographer

Okay, I’m just a month behind in starting my blogging for orgtheory—sorry, I’m a horrible procrastinator. Thanks so much to Katherine for the kind introduction and to the editors for the chance to blog! So about my new book: it’s called Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, and it’s an ethnographic study of long-term unemployment and economic inequality. I can bore you with details later, but first I thought I’d mention a topic that’s the subject of a high-profile symposium in New York going on right now: the relationship between ethnography and journalism.

The symposium, “Ethnography Meets Journalism—Evidence, Ethics & Trust,” has an all-star lineup of ethnographers and journalists who will talk about the different ways they gather data and tell stories, as well as the misunderstandings and pitfalls that bedevil both approaches. (The event is from 2 to 6 p.m. today in Manhattan, and more details are here; if you can’t attend, you can listen to the livestream, which will be posted online afterward.)

I am not involved with this event, but I thought I’d give my two cents since I have a background in both professions. I’m a sociologist now at Virginia Commonwealth University, but I used to be a newspaper reporter (at New York Newsday), and as labor of love I still edit a magazine called In The Fray, a publication devoted to personal stories on global issues. (We like publishing commentary by academics, by the way, and are looking for a new blogger.)

When I had aspirations to be the next Bob Woodward back in college, I remember stumbling upon The Journalist and the Murderer, a book by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm (who first published the work in 1989 as a two-part series in the New Yorker). The book begins with an incendiary paragraph:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

The Journalist and the Murderer is an account of the relationship between bestselling journalist Joe McGinniss and the subject of one of his true-crime books, Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald. During the course of McGinniss’s research for the book, MacDonald was tried and convicted of the murders of his wife and two children. The Journalist and the Murder excoriated McGinniss for allegedly “conning” his subject—first by befriending him, and then betraying that confidence. (More details about the book can be found here.)

The unethical behaviors that Malcolm describes in her book are extreme, but they speak to an aspect of journalism that many people find troubling: the way that it uses and manipulates its subjects and then casts them aside, all in pursuit of a sensationalistic headline. This sort of behavior may account in part for why journalists rank abysmally low in Gallup polling on honesty and ethics across various professions. It’s part of the reason I decided to go to grad school myself: I love journalism and believe it plays a vital role in our democracy, but I got tired of the ambulance chasing and other less-than-savory things you sometimes have to do.

Institutional review boards and the profession’s code of ethics help sociologists avoid these sorts of problems by setting up protections for the people we interview and observe. This often includes the promise of confidentiality, which can shield our respondents from the public humiliation or retribution at times endured by the subjects of news articles after publication.

Before we pat ourselves on the back, however, sociologists do still run into problems at times in terms of how we present our research to respondents and how they ultimately respond to our work. As someone who teaches research methods, I particularly like Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie and Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods as examples of how sociologists have dealt with this difficult ethical terrain—particularly the appendix to Lareau’s book where she describes candidly and thoughtfully the hostile reactions some of her respondents had to their portrayal in her book, in spite of the fact that she hid their identities.

Like journalists, can we also be confidence men and women—gaining trust and betraying it? Furthermore, do we have to do that—in order to gain access to begin with, and in order to be truthful to the reality we describe? That’s the age-old question in research ethics, of course.

Interestingly, journalists would say we are guilty of the exact opposite professional sin: being “overprotective” of our respondents. The fact that their identities—and sometimes those of the cities, companies, etc., we research, too—are hidden leads to a number of complications. First, it’s hard to prove to people—particularly skeptical journalists—that what we’ve written is true. What’s to stop us from fabricating our data whole cloth? One obvious safeguard would be the peer review process—and yet it’s not hard to imagine how a determined fabulist could get around even that hurdle.

Fact-checking helps journalists to avoid this problem. I’ve worked as a fact-checker before: what typically happens is the reporter gives you the contact info for their sources, and you call them up and verify each quote and fact. It’s harder to make up stuff when someone is looking over your shoulder in this way. (That said, disgraced journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass remind us that journalism has failed to catch many acts of dishonesty—and with today’s news budgets so strapped, publications no longer have as many resources to verify the information in each article.)

Even when there’s no outright fabrication involved, however, we as sociologists can alienate readers with our methods. We care about protecting our subjects to the point that in our published work we change (hopefully inconsequential) details, create composite characters, and otherwise alter the reality that we actually observed. For some readers, this is a no-no. Consider, for instance, the outcry over the revelation that James Frey changed or fabricated details in his memoir A Million Little Pieces (and this was a memoir—a genre of literature that has long had a tradition of embellishing the past).

As someone who has experience interacting with journalists, I know they look with great skepticism at “anonymous” sources. As they see it, stories based on information collected in this way are by their very nature untrustworthy. Journalistic norms (and sometimes a publication’s own policies) emphasize that there has to be a powerfully compelling reason to grant someone anonymity in an article. Sociologists would say interviewees are more willing to be candid about their personal lives and personally held beliefs if they have the protection of a pseudonym, but journalists would stress the fact that hiding their identities can also encourage them to lie: no one can come after them for making up a damaging story about someone else, for instance.

To the extent that sociology wants to be part of public debates on important issues, skepticism about our data is another reason for lay readers to dismiss our work. Partly, this is because readers just don’t understand the reasons that we believe practices like confidentiality are so important—they’re used to how journalists do their job. But I can imagine they’d have problems even if they understood our reasoning. Why should they trust us? Especially on controversial topics, how do they know we’re not lying, or at least fudging the facts?

It’s not just the question of honesty; it’s also a question of style. Using pseudonyms comes across as a bit hokey—especially for place names, which I imagine sound like the egghead equivalent of “Gotham” or “Metropolis” to non-sociologists.

I’m not sure how to deal with these problems, and I’d be curious what people think. I do think it’d be helpful if sociologists read more journalism (and journalists more sociology) and learn from some of the best practices of the other approach. For sociologists, reading classic works of journalism—from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Friday Night Lights—can be incredibly illuminating. It can allow us to draw from the literary beauty, perceptiveness, and heft of these writers in ways that serve our ideas. It can inspire us to write without jargon, make our theories more intelligible to lay readers, and not be afraid to reveal to readers the emotional power of our narratives. Those are the best ways, I think, that we can ensure sociology gets read by the people who could best benefit from its messages.

Written by Victor Tan Chen

September 21, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Posted in ethics, ethnography, policy

the path to open borders

I was speaking about open borders to a European television show* and they asked bluntly, “Open Borders is a far off goal. Is it even reasonable to think about such a policy?” I responded that yes, we can think about broad policy change. I then mentioned how people never thought the Berlin Wall would be gone, but it happened. Still, one can ask: what path can be taken to implement such a radical change in policy?

In the US context, I think there is a reasonable, if extremely challenging, path to open borders. The intuition is that there are smaller steps that are possible and lead in the right direction. Closed borders are not one policy, they are a bundle of policies that each need to be attacked separately:

  1. No Deportations:Simple to explain and would have an immediate impact. Let people live without fear. The only people who are to be removed are those subject to criminal investigations and we should use the system of extradition to deal with crime.
  2. Visa simplification: I have learned that haggling over the visa system is a waste of time. You can spend enormous effort battling a complex administrative system and get nothing for your effort. Instead, propose a massive simplification. Simplification is simple to understand and would create a mass of people who can obey the law overnight. For example, we might have three categories: a student visa that would be automatically renewed as long as the student was enrolled in an institution of higher education; a visa for short term workers that could be renewed as long as the person shows employment; and a long term visa for people who wish to permanently reside in the US.
  3. The bridge to citizenship: The US is not based hereditary status or an aristocracy. Anyone in the world can be an American. The law should reflect that. Once we stop deporting people, and we stop making laws that are nearly impossible to obey, we should make it easy to become a citizen after a few years.
  4. Open borders: Abolish all quotas, let anyone come. If they live crime free and pay their taxes for a few years, let them stay as long as they want.

A dream? Sure, but we dreamed the end of slavery, the end of serfdom, the end of apartheid, the end of fascism, and the end of the Berlin Wall … and they happened.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

* If they use the material, I’ll post it.

Written by fabiorojas

September 16, 2015 at 12:01 am

closed borders and jim crow: branches from the same root

At Aeon Ideas (under reconstruction for a few weeks), I wrote an essay about the morality of migration restrictions. I ended my essay with the following passage:

If anti-immigration laws are unjust, is there a moral duty to obey anti-migration laws? The migrant has no more duty to obey modern anti-migration laws as the African-American had a duty to obey Jim Crow laws. They are simply cruel and humiliating regulations. They should be ended immediately.

A lot of folks thought that this was a misleading comparison. I disagree. No two social regimes are identical, but it is helpful to point out that current policies can be just as destructive and violent as policies from a previous era.

People have also argued that blocking someone from migrating to a new country is like making them wait for a building permit, so it is not like Jim Crow. This is categorically false. When you prevent someone from moving to a new nation, you prevent them taking a job, which costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars; you prevent them from being with family; and you prevent them from living a better life. In cases of people fleeing natural disaster or war, you are accelerating their likely death. Ultimately, any policy that makes a completely safe activity – moving to a new place-  into a an activity that might result in death is morally unsound. Jim Crow and border controls are not identical but they are vicious policies aimed at specific populations and the policies wreck lives.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 7, 2015 at 12:24 am

win $300 for the no deportation logo contest

From the Open Borders website: Deportation of non-violent people is cruel and inhumane. To raise awareness of this immoral policy, we at Open Borders: The Case want a logo or symbol that conveys the message “No More Deportations.” The sponsors of the contest are offering $300 to the person who produces the logo that we think bests communicates this message. Payment will be made via PayPal.

Criteria: We imagine that this will be used on posters, stickers, iron-on patches, or flyers. It should be recognizable in a small version like a sticker or a large version like a banner. The winning entry should clearly be about deportation specifically and not a broader issue, like immigration.

Submission: Anyone in the world may submit an entry as long as it is in good taste and consistent with the message. The contest will run during July and August 2015. Interested persons should join the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook to post an entry, or send it by email to The sponsors reserve the right to delete submissions made in poor taste. Note: the original Open Borders post has a lower prize amount, but donors have increased it.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 19, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Posted in ethics, fabio, open borders


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