Methodology on The Corner

by zunguzungu

I’m working on a post about Sudhir Venkatesh, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the ways that social scientists stage their relationships with their human subjects. It’s something I’ve thinking about for a while because it’s related to the work I’m doing trying to connect people like Henry Morton Stanley to people like Jomo Kenyatta: all of these figures presented themselves as “seeing from the native’s point of view” in some sense, and it was important for each of them to highlight that innovation as the thing that made their visions and their work superior to that of their predecessors. There’s something very interesting that happens with this, I think, something that has to be considered very carefully: not only does social science change when it comes to be seen as a thing that happens not in the laboratory of the scholar’s mind but as something that has to be done out “in the field,” but it also changes the status of the natives themselves. If knowledge is not to be found in books and libraries but rather in the lived practice of natives, then the locus of science has, in an important way, moved out from the centers to the periphery. One can’t know about those out-there places without going to them; instead of an imperial eye seeing out, you’ve got an imperial eye blinded by its very location, while — at least in theory — the native becomes the one who knows the real dirt.

Or, at least, that’s the optimistic reading. It is also possible to note that each of these figures, albeit in different ways, resists this logic: Malinowski might see from the native’s point of view, for example, but the native himself never seems to quite get to, and an epistemological inequality is retained by re-locating it onto the social scientist who travels. And I got interested in Venkatesh after reading Tenured Radical‘s damning takedown of his book Gang Leader For A Day, a post I got to via CM, who shares with me, I think, an interest in how a scoundrel like Venkatesh maps onto The Wire, both how placing the two side by side in conceptual terms helps us understand them, and what happens when the two interact (as when Venkatesh watches The Wire with “real” gangsters). After all, The Wire is, itself, a form of practicing social science: as a realist text (if a journalistic and dramatic realism rather than a sociological one), it makes claims about what is really going on the world, claims it backs up by the expertise of its creators, Baltimore natives Ed Burns (a former homicide cop and teacher) and David Simon (journalist). So not only is it interesting to note the spectacle of Venkatesh interpreting how his “informants” relate to The Wire — since, implicitly, the claim is that his informants are even more realistical-er than the show itself — but it’s interesting to compare methodological orientations in a general sense.

For example, the way that Kima deals with Bubbles models a kind of conscious responsibility about the ways a social researcher might behave. In season one, when Bubbles considers getting clean, Kima both explicitly recognizes (to him) that a clean informant is no good to her and helps him get clean. In other words, the show recognizes — through Kima — that Bubbles is literally only useful as someone to be exploited, that since he can only help her as a drug addict, his usefulness is a function of his own self-destructive patterns and that paying him for them only accelerates them. Yet this exploitation becomes a stepping stone towards something else: while they come together because of a zero-sum contest in which each is trying to hustle the other, out of that relationship comes the kind of professional respect (almost familial, as all the professional relationships are in The Wire) that makes it possible for them to transcend that very partnership. One of the interesting things about the show’s long term arc, in fact, is that Bubbles completely recedes from Kima’s world as he gets clean; we never even see her read the newspaper story about him, which would have been their only point of contact by that point.

At the same time, McNulty seems to represent the show’s bad conscience of itself, both oblivious to and enabling of his human subjects’ problems. When he overpays Bubbles, and Kima reproaches him, his response is telling: “I respect the work,” he says, because treating Bubbles as a free agent, pretending that how and on what terms he will work (and how he will spend his earnings) are wholly Bubble’s choice has the effect of denying that any of it is McNulty’s responsibility. In Marxist terms, imagining a free labor market allows the employer to take advantage from built in coercion, and this is precisely what rendering Bubbles as a “worker” does for McNulty: allows him to forget that he is a slave to the drug, and to any source of income that allows him access to it.

Precisely because Kima saw Bubbles as something more than an employee or subject, she could see her relationship with him as implying at least some level of responsibility, some measure of investment in his life. But McNulty’s “What the fuck did I do?” catch-phrase illustrates, the evasion of responsibility defines his character throughout the show; returning the homeless guy to Baltimore at the end of the show is his redemptive moment because he gets to undo the most attenuated form of de-personalizing his actions so as to evade responsibility for him (inventing a serial killer). But the “I respect the work” line does something very similar, erasing such considerations from his worldview: instead of a person, Bubbles is merely a worker, to be paid or not based on the value created, and non-existent to McNulty otherwise (and McNulty non-existent to him otherwise). Not that a drug addict needs to be treated like a child, of course, but he can only treat his own intervention as a non-factor by treating Bubbles like an fully free adult, by carefully unthinking the ways that Bubble’s lack of freedom of choice makes it easy for McNulty to exploit him (and how that value created is thereby, in a certain very particular sense, coerced and unfree).

I fixate on this moment as an example of responsible social science practice, though, because I think it has its origin in the kind of research that David Simon and Ed Burns did as journalists, long before they became TV writers. They understood, in a way that I found quite fresh, that the researcher cannot not be in their subject’s world. Their book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood might be more journalism than social science, but it displays such a strikingly different sense of ethical responsibility than Venkatesh’s that it stands as a nice contrast to his work.: while he takes refuge in popular writing to escape the ethical imperative to not be an asshole, these journalists developed the necessary rigor precisely because of it. As they write:

“A year is a long time to watch people struggle and suffer, and many people were doing a lot of both on Fayette Street in 1993. We were reporters, yet we did not avoid the chance to encourage those who wanted to change, to give some measure of emotional support to people when they talked about getting straight or looking into detox and recovery.

“In the beginning this caused us some concern. The usual policy of strict nonintervention argues that if someone asks for a lift to the methadone clinic, the reporter says no. The notion is that if the man is meant to get in a meth program, he’ll do it whether or not a reporter and his automobile happen to be on hand. Similarly, if that man is dollars light for a morning blast, then he should stay light whether or not the reporter has cash in his pocket.

“That impartial stance sounds well and good until the day the reporter is confronted with another human being so sick and tired that he breaks down and cries openly for someone to drive him to a clinic. Or the day that same reporter takes a run-and-gun dope fiend out of the corner mix for a two-hour interview, only to see him become ill from withdrawal. If the fiend was on his game, he’d have blast money by now; instead, he spent his morning talking about his life to a writer. And Lord, the man needs to hold five dollars in a hurry.

As a rule, we did not intervene in the swirl of events. But there were a few instances when we ignored the rule. We came to this project as reporters, but over time we found ourselves caring more about our subjects than we ever expected. If that helped or hurt someone more than he or she would have been helped or hurt, then it could be argued that our source material is tainted. Yet the limited support we provided had decidedly little effect. DeAndre, Fran, Gary — all began the year in the corner mix, all of them ended there. And Blue — who escaped from his own shooting gallery — did so quietly and with little encouragement from anyone. Perhaps all our journalistic concerns about nonintervention are predicated on a touch of vanity. The corner culture and addiction are powerful forces — equal to or greater than all the legal barriers and social programming arrayed against them. On Fayette Street, the odds do not change because someone pops up with a notepad and the occasional kindness.

“Our best guide in these matters proved to be none other than Elliot Liebow, who, in 1962 and 1963, conducted his classic study of Washington, D.C. street-corner men in similar fashion. In his notes on methodology for Tally’s Corner, Liebow wrote: “The people I was observing knew I was observing them. Some exploited me, not as an outsider, but rather as one who, as a rule, had more resources than they did. When one of them came up with resources — money or a car, for example — he too was exploited in the same way. I usually tried to limit money or other favors to what I thought each would have gotten from another friend had he the same resources as I. I tried to meet requests as best as I could without becoming conspicuous.”

Most researchers would like to forget that they are, as Liebow notes, simply one of many social agents who are equipped with more resources than their subjects. Certainly McNulty does. But Simon and Burns cite Liebow because they recognize, like him, that their subjects live in the same world as they and all of us do. A researcher with a car and a bank account is not an alien being that beams in and violates the cultural purity of the corner culture, and Prime Directives dictating non-interference are not about protecting the subjects as much as they are about protecting the researchers from having to admit already always being implicated in what is already going on. And as Simon and Burns recognize, their power to abstract themselves out of the scene — even if they wanted — is sharply limited. But pretending that your subjects are free to choose is a way of denying that you are exploiting their un-freedom, that you are in fact benefiting from precisely the thing you like to imagine doesn’t exist: asymmetrical social and economic hierarchy. And pretending that a researcher isn’t exploiting his subjects — that he isn’t deriving a kind of value from them which they will not share — is not all that different from any of the other myriad ways “the corner” is economically integrated into the larger economy of our shared world. Poverty can pay well for the people who aren’t poor. Only a real asshole would pretend otherwise while taking advantage of it. And I’m not talking about the ordinary gaping orifice that all of us possess. I mean an all-encompassing, all-consuming, out-of-proportion-to-every-other-facet-of-his-humanity chasm — if I may quote Shakespeare — “from whose bourn no traveler has ever returned.”