“On the Run” has an extra level of fieldwork immersion

As publishers get excited about Alice Goffman’s upcoming book, sociologists say the fieldwork she undertook was quite immersive:

Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip she calls 6th Street (all names and places in the book are disguised), fully immersing herself in local culture.

She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements. Her thesis, advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago (probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed, said Douglas Mitchell, its executive editor).

It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

Fieldwork is intended to get an in-depth view of real life through long periods of observation and interaction. This sounds like going the extra step to truly find out what is going on. I wonder if there isn’t another element involved: Goffman worked in areas that many, the public or academics, might consider dangerous for significant periods of time. In other words, even most sociologists, who tend to be interested in addressing social issues and using a variety of research methods, would not go as far as Goffman did. All of this makes me wonder how much we might have missed about the world because sociologists and others might not always be willing to go further.

Just how do Americans do on an “ignorance test” about world development?

Hans Rosling, a guru of development data and TED star, has for decades asked people around the world what they know about international development. The results are not good:

In the 1990s, a professor at a medical university in Stockholm decided to test his students’ knowledge about the progress of global development. He was staggered to discover the class, some of the brightest people in Sweden, scored fewer than two out of five on average…

That academic was Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institutet and a medical doctor who had carried out decades of research in Africa, discovering the complexities of the continent (and a new disease) along the way…

Rosling has been on a mission to inform since the realization that his students — and his fellow professors — were somewhat woefully informed about the state of the world. Today CNN publishes Rosling’s latest survey of the United States which shows Americans, like most of the world, are far behind the reality in their understanding of world development but ahead of some — for example, Swedes…

In 2005, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation, which aims to “promote a fact-based world view.” The following year, Rosling spoke at a conference run by TED — the non profit organization “devoted to ideas worth spreading.”…

Rosling realized the concept of “developed” and “developing” countries was hindering understanding of the emerging world, giving an impression of remaining homogeneity of a so-called “developing world”.

Nothing that an introduction to sociology course couldn’t help.

While Rosling wants to focus on facts (and there are some improving figures in the global fight against some major problems), I wonder if it isn’t also about getting people in the developed world to pay attention to the bigger picture. To be honest, many Americans, residents of Sweden, and people in other first-world countries don’t always have to know or consider what is going on in the rest of the world. For example, American media discussion of foreign countries is often pretty woeful and often presents a very American perspective. It is a luxury of being in a wealthier nation as your life is in decent shape (in global comparison).

Should you worry about your pacemaker, baby monitor, or garage door opener being hacked?

I ran across a story about five common objects that can be hacked: a pacemaker, baby monitor, automobile, garage door opener, and brain.

Here is my problem with this story: it doesn’t give you any indication about how serious these problems are. Perhaps this is simply meant to be informational: certain common devices can be hacked. But the tone of the article goes beyond this and suggests that mischief can take place and people should replace older items that are easier to be hacked. Here is the question that really should be asked: how likely is it that any of these items will be hacked? Should people with pacemakers really be worried? What is the relative risk of paying less for an unencrypted baby monitor?

Without this information, this article fits a similar narrative of crime stories where readers assume or develop the idea that these are common occurrences when they really are not.

Discussing acceptable risk and gun deaths

One of the larger issues brought to light by the Arizona shootings is whether Americans want to risk the possibility of such an event occurring in the future. One commentator considers the trade-offs that might exist in limiting the risk of gun violence:

RealClearPolitics analyzed the most recent United Nation’s data to better understand American violence. The assault rate in Scotland, England, Australia and Germany is more than twice the US-assault rate, at times far more. Yet the US-murder rate is at least four times the rate of these developed nations. America’s murder rate ranks 53 among 153 nations. No other developed nation ranks within the top half. The comparison between assault and murder rates is rough; an assault is not always reported or discovered. Both rates are, however, based on criminal justice sources from 2003 to 2008. And the comparison, for all its imperfections, captures an important fact: Americans are not exceptional for their violence but exceptional for their extreme violence–murder.

American violence has known far worse days. In 2008, the national homicide rate reached its lowest level since 1965. But there are still about 12,000 gun related murders annually. Guns are involved in two-thirds of American homicides. The US firearm-murder rate ranks among third-world countries. It’s about ten times the rate of Western European nations like Germany…

There is an unspoken willingness to tolerate our share of murders. American hyper-capitalism makes a similar tradeoff. We subscribe to social Darwinism to a degree unseen in Western Europe. It’s one reason our economy is the fittest. But it also explains why the wealthiest nation in the world has a weaker social safety net than other developed countries. The conservative equation of freedom: lower taxes and fewer regulations on guns, equals more freedom. Liberals adhere to their own zealous formulation of American freedom. The left has won more civil rights for the mentally ill, but those rights will sometimes risk the public’s welfare.

This is an interesting take on the situation. Whose rights should be protected? Are we willing to risk similar events occurring?

Considering the relative risks might also be helpful. Gun deaths, particularly like those lives taken in Arizona, seem particularly tragic and sudden. In comparison, over 33,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2009. Which is the bigger priority: limiting gun deaths or motor vehicle accidents. These sorts of questions are quite difficult to answer and often don’t seem to be part of national conversations.

[Another note: can we really say that “our economy is the fittest”? One index recently named Hong Kong the world’s “freest economy.”]

[A final question: is it strange that this particular violence occurrence is getting so much attention when there are 12,000 gun deaths a year in the United States? I’m reminded of the talk in Chicago in recent years about whether the deaths in poorer neighborhoods were receiving the attention they should from police and politicians.]