The “code of the street” on the real streets

The Boston Globe explores how Elijah Anderson’s concept of the “code of the streetplays out on the streets today:

Both men spoke of the street code as though they thought it would be obvious to everyone in the courtroom what it meant. And to a certain extent, they were right to: Even people with no direct experience with street life?—?whose exposure to the criminal underworld comes mainly from gangster rap and television shows like “The Wire”?—?have a sense that it is governed by its own set of rules and ethics. For law-abiding citizens dazzled by Hollywood stories of loyalty or by tough lyrics about street justice, these rule seem to be part of a parallel moral universe built around its own set of coherent beliefs regarding honor, fairness, and integrity. And in neighborhoods where crime is rampant and gang activity widespread, belief in such rules can be a hugely powerful force in people’s lives.

But behind the seductively monolithic notion of a “code of the streets,” say people who have looked at street justice from up close, lies far less certain terrain. According to former gang members, social workers in frequent contact with inner-city youths, and criminologists, it is all but impossible to pin down a single “code,” or one vision of right and wrong, that everyone on the streets respects and adheres to. And insofar as there ever was such a code, they say, it has largely crumpled since the late 1980s, as gangs have grown smaller, younger, and more poorly organized, and increasingly harsh sentencing laws have made it more difficult for people to withstand the pressure to snitch on their associates to avoid prison time. The street rules that exist, experts say, vary from gang to gang and city to city, and most importantly, they are often ignored.

What remains is less a code of ethics than a set of procedures that dictate how to protect oneself from threats and maintain a reputation in hostile territory. Far from being the proud moral system that some of us imagine it to be, the code today seems to exist as a sort of hollowed-out ideal whose role in the street is not to govern behavior, but?—?as we saw in the Mattapan trial?—?to explain it away.

An interesting read. I am intrigued by the concept that there might have once a “golden age” for the code. Is this just another case of generational differences?

But if you are going to write an article like this, why not interview Elijah Anderson? Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what Anderson thinks or knows about the code since he has wrote an urban ethnography that has become a classic work.

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?