One of the first things we learn as sociology undergraduates are the basics of research ethics. Before we know what the word ‘methodology’ means, we know the importance of informed consent, confidentiality, and accurate representation of findings. Perhaps somewhere in the process of obtaining his doctorate in the field, Sudhir Venkatesh forgot what he learned in his introductory classes. His self-aggrandizing work puts the interests of his subjects and even his institution after his own. His work on a Chicago gang is now used to teach students the problems and perils with overt participant research. Yet the self-described ‘rogue sociologist’ continues to blunder on, this time exploiting the stories of New York City sex workers in his new book, Floating City.
This book is a pop –sociology curiosity built on the shaky foundations of Venkatesh’s bizarre form of participatory research. It’s a brand of ethnography that is a holdover from a previous era. Participant observation fieldwork has long been undertaken within racist and classist frameworks that paradoxically construct the observed as the ‘other’ while asserting her experience can be approximated by an academic professional. These problematic aspects are sometimes acknowledged within the academe, especially as it evolves along with other social institutions towards greater egalitarianism. However, these concerns are subordinated to what professionals claim is the fundamental necessity of fieldwork with populations too secluded, segmented, or geographically distant to be studied any other way. (For more on the issues with participant observation, take a look at Paul Atkinson and Martyn Hammersley’s “Ethnography and Participant Observation” and Barbara Tedlock’s “From Participant Observation to the Observation of Participation: The Emergence of Narrative Ethnography”. Editor Faye V. Harrison’s introduction to Resisting Racism and Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Human Rights, entitled “Global Perspectives on Human Rights and Interlocking Inequalities of Race, Gender, and Related Dimensions of Power” and Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology are two good places to start for those interested in examining the ways that social science research often reinforces structural inequality.) Since the dawn of the Internet era, however, this justification has begun to feel as outdated as the racism and classism that still haunts the social sciences. Now that around 98% of Americans have Internet access, now that social media and self-publishing platforms are available to all, the idea that sex workers of any sort need to be studied by embedded ethnographers who can write of the workers’ experiences for them is ignorant and condescending at best. The very existence of organizations like the Young Women’s Empowerment Project signals a new era of participatory action research and shows that good researchers within and outside of academia have taken advantage of the technological shift in ways that have resulted in more meaningful qualitative analysis.
Such ethically and methodologically sound social science research is important for the furtherance of academic knowledge. But social science, and ethnography in particular, is even more crucial as an agent of broader cultural change, helping to increase public understanding and sympathy for marginalized and oppressed communities and influencing policies and laws that impact the subjects of study. The social science researcher has a serious obligation not just to the academy, but to society as a whole and oppressed communities in particular. Researchers like Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein of Barnard College, Dr. Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University, Dr. Maggie O’Neill of Durham University, and Dr. Prabha Kotiswaran of King’s College London (to name just a few) are doing the kind of work on the sex industry and criminalized communities that deserves the attention of a media that is instead distracted with pop-sociological trash like Floating City. Their claims source-able, results replicable, and subjects of study treated with respect. Instead of giving Venkatesh the time of day, check out some of their ethnographic (and other) work instead:
Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Sex Work for the Middle Classes.” Sexualities 10, no. 4 (2007): 473- 488.
Kotiswaran, Prabha. “Born Unto Brothels—Toward a Legal Ethnography of Sex Work in an Indian Red-Light Area.” Law and Social Inquiry 33, no. 3 (2008): 579- 629.
O’Neill, Maggie. “Cultural Criminology and Sex Work: Resisting Regulation through Radical Democracy and Participatory Action Research (PAR).” Journal of Law and Society 37, no. 1 (2010): 210- 232
Weitzer, Ronald. “Negotiating Unwelcome Police Encounters: The Intergenerational Transmission of Conduct Norms.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40, no. 4 (2011): 425- 456.
Other academics who have done excellent work on sex workers include Laura Agustín, Denise Brennan, Siobhan Brooks, Mindy Chateauvert, Kevicha Echols, Kari Lerum, Chi Mbako, Mireille Miller-Young, Penelope Saunders, Svati Shah, and Stephanie Wahab.
Thanks to everyone at SexWorkResearch.Wordpress.com for compiling an excellent collection of research on the sex industry.
- by Lori Adorable, SWOP-NYC Member