Back in February we were visited by Molly Andrews of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London. Her presentation was on the problems of interviewing activists about their politics - a topic of interest to me because my PhD thesis is based on interviews with fellow socialists, most of whom are also members of the Socialist Party. What is a researcher supposed to do when they're investigating contentious political issues and get asked by research participants for their opinion? Should one pretend no opinion and claim the high ground of objectivity? Say what you think they would want to hear? Be honest?
There's long been an counter-current in sociology that favours the latter option. The celebrated American sociologist, Howard S. Becker diagnosed the problem 40 years ago. He argued fence sitting in sociology is impossible because it is an irreducibly political discipline. To demonstrate the functionalism that dominated American sociology in the middle years of the last century conceptualised society as a vast, cohesive organism. Each element of society existed because it functionally contributed to the existence of the whole. This mean phenomena such as social conflict like strikes, racism, crime and deviance, etc. were symptomatic of dysfunctions and social breakdowns, which could be corrected by social engineering. Though it coveted value neutrality it's not difficult to spot how easily one can draw conservative conclusions from functionalist positions.
This perspective has long since fallen out of sociological flavour. Sociologists not beholden to postmodern nihilism most would agree describing society as an interconnected system rent by internally generated antagonisms and conflicts is not only the wellspring of the most sophisticated and accurate models of society, but it is also an inescapably political act. Talking about conflicts and the groups and classes who profit from them is do not tally with ruling interests, even more so if the argument and data are rigorous and stringently validated. In a society so constructed, the logic of choosing neutrality in the struggle between slave and slave owner becomes operative. Not taking a position is still taking a position, and it is one that benefits the status quo. Sociologists cannot avoid taking a side, and in sociological research contexts one should be open.
For Andrews, in politically sensitive research settings those being studied often suspect a researcher has an agenda beyond the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. To affect neutrality is to compound suspicions, which can lead to respondent reticence and non-cooperation. It's better a sociologist is up front, and so shouldn't be afraid of answering questions about the work's intended audience, why this particular group is worthwhile researching, what use is going to be made of the data and why these people should give you their time. To illustrate, Andrews recalled her work with elderly CPGB activists in the late 80s, and some of the problems she encountered. She initially wrote letters and phoned up activists to see if they were interested in being interviewed. Unfortunately, when she turned up on the doorstep of one prospective interviewee he took exception to her American accent and vowed not to have anything to do with the research. Another woman asked if she was from the CIA. The point is unless one is explicit about research aims (in Andrews case she set out to discover how political commitment is managed as one ages) these sorts of complications are bound to arise.
There are problems with being explicit. For example a fellow PhD student at Keele is writing a thesis on political extremism and how it deals with the banality of everyday politics. For this his chosen subjects have been the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Surprisingly considering he’s a man of the left he had no problem accessing BNP activists, following them during their political activities and getting volunteers to take part in interviews. Hizb on the other hand did not want to know. Perhaps if he had lied about his research he might have gained access to the latter, but maybe at the cost of the BNP’s cooperation.
My PhD experience was fairly similar. The SP comrades I spoke with either knew me beforehand, had seen me about at party activities and events or, because I was a fellow member, were able to check my ‘bona fides’. During the interviews I asked if they would have still taken part had I not been in the SP or a member of a rival organisation. About half said no. This probably sheds light on why most SWP comrades I approached either declined or ignored my interview requests. Because I was upfront about my “side”, and despite assurances it wasn’t going to be employed for “sectarian” purposes, I’m reasonably sure for a lot of people their interest evaporated when they read ‘member of the Socialist Party’. Hence the comparative element of my thesis has had to be dispensed with. But lying about my affiliation was not an option. Not only would it have been unethical, if the comrades had found out I'd been fibbing, which is likely thanks to the number of SP actions I’ve taken part in since, it would have done my reputation no good and contribute to further distrust between our respective organisations. Deciding to be upfront was the right choice from a moral and political standpoint.
However, it should be stressed being up front about one's positions was particularly suited to the work above. There are other politically sensitive contexts where covert participant observation might be necessary - for example from my point of view I have absolutely no problem with sociologists who might go undercover to study fascists, religious extremists, bad employers and criminal gangs. They do not have to justify their covert research to their subjects, but to satisfy the academic and political audiences of this work the need to be explicit about their position remains.
This kind of reflexivity is good practice for the rest of sociology too. Why study this? Who is the knowledge for? What stake do you have in it?
The royal road to scientific sociology is littered with the rusting wrecks of failed projects. If this aspiration is a viable one - and I believe it is - its starts from acknowledging whose side we are on and what interests are served by putting our work out there. Sociological fence sitting is neither plausible or desirable.