International Debate

The Tightrope of Studying Subjects at Legality’s Fringe International Debate
Bradley Garrett's image "Forth Rail Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland." The same image appears on the cover of his book, Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City.

The Tightrope of Studying Subjects at Legality’s Fringe

June 3, 2014 954

Bradley Garrett's image "Forth Rail Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland." The same image appears on the cover of his book, Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City.

Bradley Garrett’s image “Forth Rail Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland.” The same image appears on the cover of his book, Explore Everything: Place Hacking the City.

Bradley Garrett

Bradley Garrett

Almost two years ago, one of my oldest friends, Bradley L. Garrett, boarded a plane at Heathrow airport. As it taxied on the runway, the British Transport Police arrived and dragged him off the plane. He was accused of conspiracy to commit criminal damage.

Garrett, a geographer at the University of Oxford, originally from the U.S., went on trial earlier this month for alleged crimes surrounding his research into urban exploration.

He has been handed a conditional discharge, which basically means he is off the hook as long as he doesn’t do it again. But his story should act as a warning to researchers and to anyone who benefits from researchers gathering information about human beings. In other words, everyone.

While Garrett clearly crossed certain legal boundaries, by embarking on what he called “recreational” trespass, he did so as an ethnographer conducting legitimate social scientific research for what he considered the public good.

The Conversation logo_AU

This article by Adam Fish originally appeared at The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science”

In the course of four years of ethnographic work, Garrett became very intimate with urban explorers and with this access was able to write a book of stunning detail about urban exploration in London and beyond. These explorers journey into buildings, construction sites and sewers, photographing the scenes as they go.

Whether urban explorers are aware of it or not, their photographs show us how much of the world has been privatized, permanently segregated from the public by locks, hired guards, barbed wire and surveillance cameras for exclusive use by financial elites. This insight is a direct result of Garrett hanging out with these Underground spelunkers and skyscraper climbers. But hanging out with them also landed him in court.

Ethnographers do some deep hanging out. They work, play, live, joke, eat and sometimes fall in love with their subjects. The method builds empathy, rapport, trust, and ideally a transformation of the researcher into a person who has internalized and can communicate a small understanding of the values, discourses, and practices of the people they observe.

Since Garrett was prosecuted, we should be concerned about the chilling effect his case may have on social scientific research.

Though this right appears to be eroding around the world, some journalists, such as those in the United States, are provided constitutional protection against incrimination through association. Their work, to hold the powerful to account for their actions, is considered a necessary part of democracy.

Social scientists are not so fortunate as to have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of research. The reasons for this omission are many. Scholars can be more reclusive than journalists by nature and can find it difficult to show a direct or quick link between their work and the public good. Whatever the reason, we have not done an effective job of communicating and defending the “public good” of our research and the legitimacy of our methods.

Ethnographers and sociologists have long lived with people deemed criminals. They spend time with gang members, prostitutes, drug users, gamblers, white collar hustlers, organ dealers, illegal loggers, people in ethnic revolt, militant ecologists, postcolonial resistance movements, the list goes on.

This happens because cultural upheaval so often tends to happen on the edge of legality. Revolutionary mobilization, hacktivism, immigrant protest, illegal file sharing, state-based mass surveillance, are all examples of important cultural shifts that we need to study but that may involve crossing criminal boundaries.

Deep hanging out in illegal and semi-legal situations could result in transformative social science which should be protected for the insights it provides into subcultural formation, identity construction, and how domination is exercised and resisted.

I was worried about my friend. A conviction would have threatened his right to stay in the UK. But the case also worried me on a professional level. My own research into hacker activism requires me to talk to people working the boundaries between cyberactivism and cybercrime. To build trust and better understand their worldview, I go to their real-world protests, hang out in their anonymous chatrooms and dark nets, repost and reblog their public revolutionary commentary, and remix their radical propaganda.

I empathize publicly and privately with their multidimensional fight against a corporatized internet. When you “go native” when do you cross the line?

The very fact that Garrett faced criminal charges means that courts and cops are willing to challenge the sanctity of universities, social science, and ethnography – at least in comparison to the legitimacy it grants to private property owners in the London fortress. A conviction would have had a chilling impact on any researchers willing to learn about the lifeworlds of those living on the edge of legality. Unfortunately, that is also the cutting-edge of social scientific research. The Conversation


Adam Fish, a lecturer in sociology and media studies at Lancaster University, is a cultural anthropologist investigating the interface of culture, political/economic power, and information infrastructures. His present projects focus on internet/television convergence, information activism, and alternative finance.

View all posts by Adam Fish

Related Articles

Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered
News
June 14, 2024

Pandemic Nemesis: Illich reconsidered

Read Now
Beyond Net-Zero Targets: When Do Companies Maximize Their Potential to Reduce Carbon Emissions?
Business and Management INK
June 4, 2024

Beyond Net-Zero Targets: When Do Companies Maximize Their Potential to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Read Now
Rob Ford on Immigration
Public Policy
June 3, 2024

Rob Ford on Immigration

Read Now
Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy
News
May 17, 2024

Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy

Read Now
Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

Economist Tavneet Suri discusses fieldwork she’s done in handing our cash directly to Kenyans in poor and rural parts of Kenya, and what the generally good news from that work may herald more broadly.

Read Now
The Long Arm of Criminality

The Long Arm of Criminality

David Canter considers the daily reminders of details of our actions that have been caused by criminality.

Read Now
There’s Something in the Air, Part 2 – But It’s Not a Miasma

There’s Something in the Air, Part 2 – But It’s Not a Miasma

Robert Dingwall looks at the once dominant role that miasmatic theory had in public health interventions and public policy.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matthew Hoffman

I’m very glad that you have written this commentary. While none of my own research has involved subjects engaged in illegal activity, every time I go through the IRB process I am moved to reflect on what it means for social sciences. The examples highlighted in your commentary represent the experience of researchers who are sympathetic to subjects whose activities are illegal. Another important branch of research involves subjects whose activities the researcher might be strongly opposed to, e.g. mafia activities or insider trading, which means that the intended application of the research is purposely contrary to the interests of… Read more »