Fieldwork in Criminology

IV. Street (Fieldwork) Ethnography

American sociology has always had an interest in the marginalized, a “sociology of the underdog” (Becker, 1967) and of the so-called “underworld.” In particular, urban ethnography—or, as it is commonly called, fieldwork— originated in the United States on the basis of a natural curiosity about certain aspects of urban social life and its participants. Urban ethnography’s interest in the “other” during the early part of the 20th century focused on marginalized groups, such as the homeless person, the drug user/addict, the prostitute, the juvenile delinquent and his gang, the immigrant and his family, the pick-pocket and his “fence,” the dancehall girl, and so on, with an expressed objective of developing a theoretical–cultural framework based on an inductive approach to social research while maintaining the often delicate balance between an emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective, a balance that over the years has been more a matter of the degree to which it reflects academic politics and culture rather than empirical reality.

For street ethnographers, fieldwork is about working within, giving prominence (a voice) to people who are often characterized and devalued by outsiders as nothing more than street people. The street becomes the ethnographer’s sociological environment; it is a place that holds specific yet dynamic cultural systems, meaning, and practices. The street ethnographer’s working attitude in the field is that of an intimate stranger, a personal confidant to the many people he or she befriends in the field (the street), yet always an outsider because of the research objectives and specific aims that guide him or her. Whereas many people view social life conveniently through partitions such as the legitimate and illegitimate (“under”) world, the legal and illegal (“underground”) economy, and the criminal offender from the law-abiding citizens, street ethnographers recognize a social world that defies linearity in terms of how such worlds are created, practiced, and sustained. For the street ethnographer, social life is more a constellation of behavioral norms and expectations, a social system of differing styles, methods, and modes of communication, all of which reveal a high degree of convergence between seemingly opposing social worlds and its members.

As such, the qualitative task, for most street ethnographers, becomes implementing the most appropriate research practices, such as a research design and method that encourage naturalistic engagement (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), albeit systematically, throughout diverse, “hidden” social worlds, for example, sex workers, drug dealers and users, armed robbers, homeless families, street children, migrant workers, hotel chambermaids, doormen, political dissidents, bouncers, taxicab drivers, and female gang members, to name a few. Therefore, for street ethnographers the research enterprise is best practiced in situ, as it unfolds in and throughout urban social settings.

In addition to an intellectual commitment to building a theoretically and culturally driven understanding of street cultures and a profound, sometimes personal, commitment to providing a voice to the individuals often socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised therein, street ethnographers purposively embrace the complexity inherent in studying people in their natural social settings.

Fieldwork has typically been conducted in an open or nonexperimental environment; the empirical milieu of a street ethnographer has traditionally been any setting, physical or social, where people socialize. However, in the study of deviancy and criminal behavior fieldwork has always focused on the kinds of communities, environments, and people connected with illegal and deviant activities and their concomitant lifestyles. Although the history of deviant/ criminological fieldwork has been diverse in terms of settings and research participants/informants (e.g., street corners, brothels, housing projects, methadone clinics, criminal justice training academies, adult video stores, halfway houses, drug smugglers, psychiatric hospitals, and jails/prisons) an enduring methodological link in the field has been the systematic use of observation and interviewing.