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Ferguson, ethics, and the public intellectual

Randall F. Clemens

Originally published at

During the 1890s, newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other to sell more papers. They printed sensationalist stories accompanied with fear-inducing headlines and vivid, provocative pictures. Journalists eschewed facts for melodrama. At the height of yellow journalism, the two newspaper tycoons published stories that contributed to the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American War. 

Fast-forward 120 years. In Ferguson, Missouri, a 28-year-old white police officer shoots an 18-year-old black man. Residents protest. Droves of reporters travel to Ferguson. Over three months later, following months of unrest and anticipating even more, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency. One week afterwards, a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer with criminal charges. Violent and nonviolent protests escalate. Journalists chase and film rioters. They flood newspapers, television channels, and social media with panic-inducing stories and images. Cable channels cut from out-of-breath reporters in the field to argumentative talking heads in the studio.

The media has largely influenced the ways in which the public talks and thinks about Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. Rather than facilitating civil, fact-based exchanges, they encourage vehement, opinion-based disagreement. Their actions starkly differ from the ethics of journalism, which include pursuing truth, reporting accurately, and limiting harm. If there is such a thing as a 21st century public sphere—a place where we can intellectually discuss important social issues—the media is corrupting it.

What, then, is the role of academics? Consider some of the ethical concerns of researchers: beneficence, respect, and justice. While we typically discuss those ideals in terms of the conduct of research, we may also consider them in relation to when and how scholars participate in public forums. 

Stated more simply, while talking heads whip up racist antagonism and blame individuals, research is resolute. Young men of color disproportionately experience gun violence. A discriminatory police state surveils low-income neighborhoods. We have established clearer pathways from school to prison than school to college. And, due to a lack of opportunities, concentrated and generational poverty has spread among individuals of color.

While sitting in Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” We have few forums to thoughtfully and critically discuss the pursuit of social justice and the existence of injustice in the United States. Scholars have an ethical responsibility to assume an increased role in public discourse, to illuminate the pressing causes and consequences of injustice, and to help imagine opportunities for social justice in the 21st century.

The shape of neighborhood ethnography to come: Blurred spaces, elastic time, and shareable culture

Randall F. Clemens

I. Facebook is a street corner

Before entering the field, I proposed an outline of my dissertation, a neighborhood study in South Central Los Angeles. “You’re not going to write Street Corner Society,” one of my committee members predicts, “The world’s changed.” I nodded, recognizing some of the immense variations—shifting demographics, rising inequality, and globalizing economies—that had occurred after nearly seven decades. I didn’t fully appreciate my mentor’s council.

Fast-forward two years. I completed my dissertation (which was not like Street Corner Society or Tally’s Corner or In Search of Respect) and accepted a job as assistant professor at St. John’s University. 

I now stand at a street corner near a cluster of housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. I observe five young black men. Wearing basketball shorts and tank tops, they endure humid summer temperatures while discussing a potential pick-up basketball game. One teenager jokes about me on the team and asks about my game. As a white, middle-aged researcher, I am neither part of their group nor at risk of “going native.” However, I feel a sense of camaraderie with DeJuan, the jokester. The scene reminds me of classic neighborhood ethnographies in which the authors examine the extraordinary meanings hidden in quotidian moments. Was this how Liebow felt with Tally? 

During a lull, DeJuan looks at his phone. He makes a comment about Facebook. Two others check their phones. They discuss a mutual friend’s post. At once, I feel the teenagers are both here and somewhere else. I am all of the sudden a part of and apart from an important conversation. Later, I recall my committee member’s statement—“The world’s changed.” 

Common among all neighborhood ethnographies is a commitment to place, time, and culture. What happens when social media create new digital spaces and blur spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries? After over a century of placid existence, social media have irrevocably changed neighborhood ethnography. Facebook is the new street corner, and it exists simultaneous to the old street corner.

II. Neighborhood ethnography 1.0

Neighborhood ethnography occupies a unique (and, to me, hallowed) space among social science research in the United States. Interest in neighborhood scholarship has blossomed and decayed over the last century. The blooms often correlate to significant political and social events—like the Great Migration and the War on Poverty—and increased attention to race, class, and inequality. The methodology focuses in-depth on the complex, context-bound textures of social life among disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups. It includes a tradition of researchers toiling in low-income neighborhoods, befriending residents, documenting local life, and connecting micro and macro forces. 

The best works illuminate inequalities and contest stereotypes. W.E.B. Dubois, for instance, used an innovative mix of door-to-door interviews and census data to create an exhaustive analysis of neighborhood life for black residents in The Philadelphia Negro. Carol Stack, refuting prevalent stereotypes about the “culture of poverty,” examined sharing and reciprocity among low-income mothers in All Our Kin. And, Mitch Duneier, remixing the methodology to focus on Slim’s table, documented the stories of working-class men and presented a nuanced portrait of their lives within a larger context.

Neighborhood ethnography relies on three critical ingredients: place, time, and culture. Place is the simplest concept. For traditional place-based ethnographies, researchers go somewhere (i.e. churches, parks, schools, street corners) and spend time with someone (i.e. parishioners, parents, teachers, teenagers). 

Time is a little more complex (but not too much). Researchers sample across time to get a varied data sample and ensure validity and reliability. Identifying significant times and gaining access during them is the challenge. 

Culture is the most intricate, and engenders the greatest disagreement among scholars. There are two broad (and, for our purposes, crude) cultural perspectives. The first divides culture into two categories, mainstream and sub-mainstream. A dominant culture exists and then non-dominant, local groups introduce their own variations. Think of Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum, a study of ethnic enclaves in Chicago. The second perspective interprets culture as heterogeneous, consisting of dominant and non-dominant cultural fragments. Sure, a mainstream culture exists, but so do sub-cultures, and the boundaries are malleable and intertwined. Consider Ulf Hannerz’s Soulside, a study of low-income residents in Washington, D.C. 

III. Neighborhood ethnography 2.0

How do social media redefine place, time, and culture? First, they obfuscate classic definitions of place. Recall the teenagers in the above example. They interact on a street corner and across multiple social media platforms. A single place is no longer the defining characteristic. Methodologists must attend to multiple, blurred locations.

Next, social media magnify the elasticity of time. The teenagers’ interactions—using synchronous and asynchronous communication—disrupt conventional notions of time. They talk to each other in real time and also respond to posts that could be seconds, minutes, or hours old. Researchers must capture and account for varied forms of time.

Last, social media increase the availability and portability of culture. DeJuan and his friends scavenge the internet for resources. They take, edit, view, and upload cultural bits like text, pictures, gifs, and video. They share them with friends and general audiences. Other users then view, comment, and share. Social media allows individuals to access and share different cultures in ways that have not previously existed. Neighborhood scholars must incorporate social media into their research designs and cultural analyses.

IV. What’s next?

Technologies have always influenced the research process. Pencils allowed researchers to sketch settings and jot quotes. Tape recorders enabled new levels of accuracy and verisimilitude. Word processors transformed the editing process. Each of the above examples produced incremental revisions. Social media substantially alters the research landscape. Digital technologies reform place, time, and culture and empower individuals, creating new conditions among researchers and researched. They produce previously hidden opportunities (and challenges) and provoke neighborhood ethnographers to deepen their commitment to rigorous, creative methods.

To some, neighborhood ethnography and social media may be at odds. After all, the methodology emphasizes context and prolonged engagement whereas social media can be fragmentary and ephemeral. However, neighborhood ethnography is uniquely positioned to capitalize on technological trends. To make sense of social media requires time, context, and thoughtfulness. Key to examining the connections among local life, social media, and global social forces is the use of hybrid methods, including a mixture of robust, rigorous traditional tools with innovative new tools. While some may argue that social media diminish the importance of place and, as a result, neighborhood ethnography, I can think of no better methodology to untangle the wonderful, complex, and evolving social media knot.

Friends, lovers, and social media experimentation: The need for new ethical guidelines

Randall F. Clemens

I. Facebook doesn’t care about ethics, so why should you?

The internet nearly broke when researchers published a new study, “Experimental Evidence of Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Scientists, conducting a psychological experiment including approximately 700,000 Facebook users, manipulated news feeds to examine the effects of positive and negative posts. Researchers found that Facebook posts influence users’ moods; the general public and research community learned that Facebook does not care about ethics

To conduct research, scholars must obtain approval from Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The Facebook researchers neither obtained permission from an IRB nor received informed consent from participants. Instead, they used Facebook’s Data Use Policy to justify their methods. Data use policies and end-user agreements, if you don’t know, are those wordy and complicated messages that pop up when users join and dismiss within a few scrolls and a click. Anticipating backlash, the editorial board of the journal justified their decision by highlighting the import of the study and the fact that Facebook is a private company. The explanations raise more questions than they answer.

As evidenced by a dizzying array of advertisements running along the side of your feed, Facebook is a money-making enterprise. Their motivations differ from research universities. Timothy Ryan thoughtfully notes that businesses frequently conduct market research and commercial experiments. It is not until individuals translate private findings into public scholarship that issues arise. And, that is the major issue: Why is any group, regardless of industry, allowed to conduct unregulated experiments that may harm human subjects? 

II. Move over Facebook, OKCupid loves unethical experiments too

OKCupid, a popular matchmaking website, didn’t take long to provide a more egregious example of unethical practices. Less than a month after the Facebook controversy, they released findings from three studies. The most deceptive experiment included the company manipulating compatibility scores—in some cases, changing them from 30 to 90 percent—to monitor effects on interactions between matches. They emailed unknowing users the correct scores after the experiment. Like Facebook, OKCupid cited their user agreement as justification.

Unlike Facebook’s experiment, OKCupid’s studies present dubious scientific value and perverse underlying assumptions. Facebook published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. While the experiment undoubtedly helps the social media company, it also contributes to a body of scientific knowledge. The researchers did not obtain informed consent; however, they could plausibly argue that study benefits outweighed participants’ risks. There was a hint of beneficence. Capitalizing on the recent debate about the other experiment, OKCupid posted findings on OKTrends, their own quirky and entertaining marketing blog and used the attention to advertise an upcoming book. 

Christian Rudder, OKCupid’s president and co-founder, published an unapologetic blog about the experiments. He justified the research, stating “We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” Rudder does not address ethics or informed consent. He invokes a coder’s ethos where curiosity, experimentation, and trial and error are key ingredients. He ignores a key fact: Data are people too, and tinkering with code could cause harm. He even belittles internet users, implying they are foolish to expect trustworthiness and transparency from companies. 

Let’s think about Rudder’s point and extend it to a more accessible example. We all know that companies conduct market research. When I shop at a popular big box store, I understand that they gather data based on my shopping habits. They track my movements in the store and the impact of a new Transformers endcap on my purchasing habits. I also assume that what I see is what I get, that the store is not willfully deceiving me, and that any data they collect will be anonymous, unless I provide informed consent. When I take my Cheez-Its to the checkout counter, I expect to pay the advertised price for a box of delicious cheesy crackers. According to Rudder’s reasoning, the store has the right to change the contents of the box and the consumer is naive for expecting otherwise. 

Now, let’s think about social media correlates. Most of us know that websites monitor our browsing habits. During my wife’s pregnancy, we spent nine months searching for baby gear. I’m not surprised when I see Babies R Us ads splattered across my Facebook page; I get that. There are trade-offs on social media. If I sign up for a dating website like (which, incidentally, is how I met my wife), I expect that the premise and underlying framework are trustworthy. I take a quiz. Someone else takes a quiz. Then, the website uses a well-tested algorithm to match us. Based on the OKCupid scenario, I’m foolish. At any moment, I could find out that my wife doesn’t share the same political views as me; she doesn’t like watching football; and, she doesn’t care about my level of education. 

Rudder’s comments are shockingly tone deaf given the current milieu regarding social media ethics and best practices. His lack of remorse or awareness—coupled with his book promotion—add a level of creepiness. OKCupid’s experiments seem an equal measure of loose ethics and slimy publicity. Unfortunately for Rudder, even though he dismisses critics, the FTC may be getting involved with OKCupid too.

III. Analog Ethics in a Digital World

The 20th century provides numerous examples of misguided research that placed individuals at risk, from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to Stanford Prison Experiment. In the United States, the National Research Act of 1974, which created the first national committee to establish ethics policy, was an important step towards protecting human subjects and limiting the potential for malfeasance. But, there’s more work to be done.

As we enter the 21st century, emerging technologies and digital spaces provide new opportunities for abuses of power. I have read a few commentators argue that people have a choice. Stay off social media or get informed, they say. That’s a naïve and unrealistic perspective. Facebook and YouTube both amass over a billion users per month. Social media has become a significant part of our lives. Others argue that all social media companies experiment. Social scientists don’t understand and they shouldn’t stifle a new golden age for knowledge creation. The arguments echo previous examples when a few power drunk individuals made unsound decisions that influenced many.

As social media companies accumulate more power and influence, we should demand increased ethical responsibility and accountability. They cannot reasonably expect users to waive all personal rights through some end-user agreement sleight of hand.

The Facebook and OKCupid studies are important not just because of what occurred but also because of what they portend. Before we have truly lamentable examples of user and data abuse, policymakers need to commission a new set of ethical principles that meet the needs of the 21st century.