When a sociological survey about Hong Kong angers Chinese authorities

Politics can interfere with research studies and findings. For an example, here is a case of a sociological survey done in Hong Kong that has gotten the attention of Chinese authorities:

In December, a Hong Kong sociologist by the name of Robert Chung found himself at the center of a political storm. A study commissioned by Chung, director of opinion research at a leading university in the territory, discovered that the number of people who identify themselves primarily as citizens of Hong Kong was higher than it’s been for the past 10 years. The survey showed that the number of those who viewed themselves as Chinese had fallen to 16.6 percent. That’s a 12-year low and less than half of what it was three years ago.

Since then the territory’s communist press has launched a vicious attack on the pollster. “Political fraudster” and “a slave of dirty political money” are just two of the Cultural Revolution style epithets trotted out against Professor Chung. Hao Tiechuan, a Beijing official stationed in Hong Kong, called in local reporters to denounce Professor Chung’s work as “unscientific” and “illogical.”

Beijing, always wary of Hong Kong’s loyalty because of its colonial heritage, ratchets up the rhetoric even higher during “election” season. In March, 1200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists will choose the next chief executive, and in September, Hong Kong citizens will go to the polls to choose 35 of 70 seats in the partially-democratic legislature. Last fall, pro-Beijing candidates won local district-level polls overwhelmingly, although an investigation has been opened into possible vote-rigging. Beijing’s attacks on Professor Chung– as well as on a so-called “Gang of Four” of prominent democracy advocates — may be calculated to keep the minions who choose the chief executive in line and dampen turnout by the solid majority of Hong Kong voters who favor progress toward full democracy.

Does this make complaints about academic freedom in the United States seem rather tame?

The attacks by the communist press are intriguing. First, “political fraudster” implies that the work is unscientific. Second, the charge of being  “a slave of dirty political money” suggests that the work is politically motivated and skewed. In both critiques, the attack is against the scientific credibility of the sociologist. The argument is that Chung has done poor research and the results shouldn’t be trusted. Furthermore, it suggests that Chung himself is not capable of good conducting good research.

These are serious charges for a sociologist. It is one thing to disagree with findings or about their interpretation or suggest that they should have used another method. It is another thing to claim that the researcher intentionally found certain results or can’t do good research. Yes, methodological errors are made occasionally (and sometimes fraudulently) but this cuts to the heart of sociology and the claim that we are searching for replicable and valid results. I hope Chang is able to show his proper use of sociological methods and is supported by others.

Ethics and social science: grad student gets 6 months sentence for studying animal rights’ groups

This is an update of a story I have been tracking for a while: a sociology graduate student who had studied animal rights’ groups was  sentenced to six months in jail. Here is a brief summary of where the case now stands:

Scott DeMuth, a sociology graduate student at the University of Minnesota, was sentenced yesterday to 6 months in federal prison for his role in a 2006 raid on a Minnesota ferret farm. A judge in Davenport, Iowa, ordered that DeMuth be taken into custody immediately.

In 2009, DeMuth was charged with felony conspiracy in connection with a separate incident, a 2004 lab break-in at the University of Iowa that caused more than $400,000 in damage. DeMuth argued that anything he might know about the Iowa incident had been collected as part of his research on radical activist groups and was therefore protected by confidentiality agreements with his research subjects. A petition started by DeMuth’s graduate advisor, David Pellow, argued that the charges violated DeMuth’s academic freedom.

Last year, prosecutors offered to drop all charges related to the Iowa break-in if DeMuth would plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge related to the ferret farm incident. DeMuth took the deal. No one has been convicted in the Iowa break-in.

This has been an interesting case to introduce to students when teaching ethics amongst sociology and anthropology majors in a research class. Just how far should participant observation go? Couple this with another story, like Venkatesh knowing about possible crimes in Gang Leader for a Day, and a good conversation typically ensues.

However, this case does bring up some larger questions about how protected researchers and their subjects should be when carrying out their research. Should researchers have shield laws? How exactly do courts define “academic freedom” in cases like this?