Cognitive dissonance made me do it. If you want social justice, why do you let your research be locked up for profit?
I’m reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by urban ethnographer and extraordinarily fine writer Matthew Desmond. It’s a model of narrative non-fiction and ethical story-telling about people whose lives belong to them but whose stories reveal a lot about exploitation, poverty, and the complexity of untangling the multiple strands that go into a social problem. It’s hard to get Evicted that balance right – communicate stories without manipulating either the reader or the subjects. Desmond shows how to tell such stories respectfully and with empathy, somehow magically bringing us inside the circle of lives that are not ours, inviting us to do the work of understanding rather than telling us what to think. I’m not even halfway through yet, but it’s brilliant, and I love the way he weaves something of a journalistic sensibility (for example, pointing out that when he didn’t personally witness something, he confirmed it with multiple sources) with scholarship (e.g. “this experience I’ve just described is consistent with the findings of these studies”). My daughter, who recommended it to me, says she’ll have to read it twice. She knows the footnotes are valuable, but the narrative is so compelling she doesn’t want to break away and look at them this time around.
This book review manages in just a few paragraphs of entrancing prose to artfully make a powerful point about the ethics of conducting research about the poorest in our communities and then publishing in a place and manner accessible to only a lucky few.
Even worse, we think our hazing rituals around publication and validation are more important than the subjects of our research, who couldn’t afford to read it even if we chose to write in a manner that didn’t require an expensive decoder ring with a university seal on it. We say “it’s for tenure” or “that’s the best journal” and think that’s reason enough to make it impossible for people without money or connections to read it.