Gang Leader for a Day

How I Became a Hustler
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 30 2008 4:57 PM

Gang Leader for a Day


Dear Alex,

Many thanks for the thoughtful summary. You really hit at one of the critical questions that motivated my desire to write Gang Leader for a Day. What can I possibly give back to some of the poorest people who opened up their homes and their lives to me? I think the kernel of the answer lies in your own comments: I'm not sure that there is an easy answer, but the point may be to simply embrace and struggle with the challenge as long as possible. More specifically, I think we all need to find a way to bring this struggle into our writing, research, and reportage.

I don't mean to say practical things can't be done. I've certainly tried: I've hired public-housing tenants and trained them in word processing, data entry, and field interviewing—many have gone on to full-time jobs. I've directed philanthropic investment to the projects and organized social-service programs. And I've known many reporters who have done the same—and a whole lot more. But the fact of the matter remains that I have been blessed with a career, while most of the disadvantaged families I studied have stayed poor.

Let me come at this question from a different tack. First, it should be noted that academics have different standards than journalists. I have two criteria that I must follow. On the one hand, my universities sponsor my research, and they are adamant that I limit the risk to "human subjects." This usually means changing names, obtaining signed approval, and ensuring that subjects can pull out of my research projects (at any time, for any reason). The second set of guidelines stems from my role as an "ethnographer," a fancy way of saying I conduct research through some combination of "participation-observation" and interviewing. My subjects aren't necessarily "sources" in the journalistic sense of the term. I am allowed to make relationships—indeed, ethnographers believe that participating in the world being studied is an excellent way of understanding that world. Now, we have to be careful: I can't kill someone to write about homicides, but I can work in a factory to produce a scientific study of factory workers. (One thinks of Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent book, Nickel and Dimed.)

Even if we are not participating actively, we ethnographers don't believe in the "fly on the wall" posture, where researchers have no impact on their subjects. As a consequence, ethnographers tend to be deeply reflective about their relationships. I wrote Gang Leader in the first person so that people could understand the conditions in which I was working. Too often, I felt, academics and journalists write about the poor and never tell you about their role.

I learned the limits of my role as a detached social scientist right away when the tenant leader, Ms. Bailey, scolded me for being naive enough to think I could hang around without helping, hurting, or otherwise affecting people along the way. She once told me, "If you don't understand this, you will end up getting a Ph.D. in stupidity." This was the nice response. Others simply told me, "We'll kick your ass if we don't like what you did." That was the beginning of a long road, in which people ended up thinking of me as a "hustler," just like them.

The important point is that, by construing me as a hustler, they made sense of me according to the rules of their world, not mine. This is why self-reflection matters: We learn that their mode of understanding my role was not just silly or bitter, but it reveals something about who they were. It revealed an important aspect of their world.

In most poor communities, people pay a price for participating with researchers and journalists. Some folks can be shunned (or suffer physical harm) for being viewed as a source, interviewee, or snitch; conversely, however, others may experience status increases because they were important enough to be interviewed. I've seen plenty of cases in which journalists affected a community simply by asking questions, taking photos, etc. The problem is that they don't stick around to document the consequences of their presences. Since I was in the area for nearly a decade, I heard a lot of feedback—not always positive. But, I wanted to acknowledge my role—as naive as it was!

Bringing this back to your question, maybe we should be more open about our work (as academics and journalists). In addition to being philanthropic, paying our subjects, etc., I think we would do them justice by reflecting on our own role. Again, part of the problem may be that most journalists and researchers don't have the luxury to stay around long enough to reflect on the impact they have had. But (as I think you would agree) it would be naive to give the impression that we have no impact. The question remains: How do we make this a part of our reporting and writing, without detracting from the story at hand?

I don't mean that we should all write confessions into our stories—I've never found this to be altogether satisfying anyway. But we could all do a better job of noting our failures, foibles, and missteps along the way—especially when we study the poor, whose lives are often told through a litany of personal inadequacies.




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