This summer, I have been reading one of the most impressive ethnographies that I have seen for a long time: Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk and Intimacy by Staci Newmahr. (I should declare an interest: I first came across Staci’s work in a couple of journal articles and on the strength of these, and other recommendations, I asked her to become an associate editor for the re-launch of the journal Symbolic Interaction.) This book has important things to say about the enactment of gender and identity and about the deficiencies in sociological thinking that analyses sexuality and violence from prior psychopathological categories rather than from the meaning of the experience to those taking part. Although the word ‘sadomaoschism’ appears in the title, Staci’s work leads her to a profound skepticism about the clinical notions of sadism and masochism and she discards these in favour of the participants’ argot of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, referring to those giving and receiving pain/pleasure. Above all, the book revives the great legacy of the interactionist sociology of deviance in its exploration of moral community in an apparently unlikely place, where a group of outsiders develop their own processes of socialization and social control that set boundaries around their mutual experience and promote an ethic of care and compassion within it. Ethnographers have been rediscovering this anew for the best part of a century – and been ignored for just as long because their understanding of the ordered world of those defined as deviant recurrently collides with political and professional interests in demonization and social pathology.
My own ethnographic experience is largely confined to safe public bureaucracies, courts and professional offices – although it has occasionally taken me out with street level workers in social work and health visiting where a measure of personal risk can arise: I recall walking into a house with a health visitor during my PhD research and encountering a very drunk and aggressive man whose partner’s face showed very recent damage. Other ethnographers, however, have hung out with gangs on street corners, mixed with drug traffickers and their customers, drifted with the homeless or paced the streets with hookers. Most of the tough stories do not get reported – the graduate students who shoot heroin or drink meths to gain acceptance from the people they are studying. Staci’s account, however, is unflinching in every sense of the word:
…he lifted his arm to the side as though he were going to slap me. Trey’s slaps were always rigid and forceful. I braced myself for it. Instead, he bent his arm across his chest and swung out away from his body. The back of his hand smashed against my face. I cried out, as much from surprise as pain. He hit me again, hard enough to knock my head aside into the bed. This time, I cried out purely in pain. His knuckles bore into skin and bone…
This is a classic of participant observation – but one where the observation involves a full-on experience of being beaten and slapped, flogged, whipped, tied to a variety of rings and frames, scraped with blades, prodded with fids, and partially asphyxiated.
I asked Staci how she had got this past her IRB. Basically, she said, they were not really interested in the potential risks to her, only to her research participants and then mainly in biomedical terms. There were no difficulties beyond the routine problems that ethnographers have up front in explaining that they do not quite know what their sample is and how many people they are going to interview. In the book, she makes it clear that she avoided ‘topping’ partly because of her own ethical discomfort with the role and partly because she was not sure that the IRB would approve of her whipping informants if they ever found out about it. This set me to wondering whether a replication would ever get past a UREC in the UK. Staci’s precautions were sensible – they are not very explicit in the book but she clearly had protective insiders as sponsors, did most of her work in semi-public settings and had phone or text reporting arrangements if she was in someone’s home. However, the whole project challenges the health and safety dimension of the ESRC FRE requirements, which arguably has nothing to do with research ethics anyway, to say nothing of the growing role of URECs in institutional reputation management. Some of this may reflect different legal environments – UK courts have held British universities liable for injury to their students over a much wider range of contexts than have their US equivalents. However, in my experience, US colleagues often show a robustness about fieldwork and risk that seems to have disappeared in the UK. If we only ever do ‘safe’ research, though, what do we fail to discover?
Like all the best ethnographies of deviance, Staci’s work tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the participants. What is the social cost of the systematic ignorance that over-regulation can produce? How much risk are fieldworkers entitled to take on in generating that knowledge? Who gets to decided what risk is acceptable, and on what grounds?