Sociologist on how studying an extremist group led to a loss of objectivity

A retired sociologist who studied the Aryan Nation discusses how his research led to a loss of objectivity and a change of research topics:

Aho began his research in the mid-1980s with a focus on the most notorious group in Idaho, the Aryan Nation Church near Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake. Annual conferences were held there with people from all around the world to fight what they called the “race war.” The group, originally formed in California, was forced to relocate to Idaho due to pressure from authorities. Aho was able to interview members of the group face to face, conduct phone interviews and correspond with prison inmates who were part of the organization.

“These individuals were genuinely good, congenial folks,” said Aho. “They were very independent, married, church-going people with deep beliefs. It was only when they gathered in groups and reaffirmed each other’s prejudices that things became dangerous…

In his research, Aho tried to place himself in his subjects’ shoes. He expressed how it is important to see yourself in the other person to find mutual ground and truths that can only be obtained by using this research methodology. However, after nearly a decade of research, he felt that he was losing objectivity and only adding to the problem.

“I spent years trying to understand the people who are attracted to violence, but I began to feel like my fascination with violence made me partly responsible for it,” Aho said. “I think I lost my sociological objectivity, and thought it was time to end my efforts of trying to understanding it, and move on to other scholarly activities.”

Some candor about researching a difficult topic. Given statements by some recently that we should not “commit sociology” and refrain from looking for explanations for violence, we could just ignore such groups. But, looking for explanations is not the same as excusing or condoning behavior and may help limit violence in the future. At the same time, spending lots of time with people, whether they are good or bad, can lead to relationships and a humanizing the research subject. This may provide better data for a while as well as dignity for the research subject but can lead to the “going native” issue that anthropologists sometimes discuss. A sociologist wants to be able to remain an observer and analyst, even as they try to put themselves in the shoes of others.

It would be interesting to hear the opinions of sociologists regarding studying clearly unpopular groups like white supremacists/terrorists. Sociologists are often interested in studying disadvantaged or voiceless groups but what about groups with which they profoundly disagree?