Dear Dr. Phoebe,
I’ve just had an epiphany after a month of wracking my brains for a research project that uses the cool ethnographic methods I’ve learned from MY426. The idea came after my new girlfriend forced me to watch a night of Johnny Depp movies, starting with something about a drunken possibly gay pirate that looks a bit like Michael Jackson. But that was followed by a Donnie Brasco, the film that gave me my research idea using participant observation methods. In the film – based on a true story – Depp plays an FBI undercover agent who infiltrates the Bonanno crime Family in New York. He finds the gate-keepers, he records lots of information, he becomes one of the most trusted hit-men of the family and, eventually, he helps the FBI to arrest all the Mafia big bosses. The movie is great because it shows how Donnie is very close to ‘turn native’ at some point (like to become a true gangster); it also shows that gaining access, building trust, and taking notes undercover is not easy of course, but still feasible.
So my idea is to go undercover, like Donnie Brasco, to investigate how hierarchical relationships work out within the Sicilian Mafia. For fieldwork, I’d go to Palermo and take up work in a restaurant frequented by the Mafia. There I will become familiar with the crime bosses, and also secretly record all that they say using microphones hidden under my shirt. Building upon that, I will try to infiltrate higher strata of the Mafia and will study their inner power relationships. Like Brasco, I’ll deeply penetrate their organization, even if this means having participate and not simply observe their activities. But my girlfriend is worried sick, saying I might have to commit crimes or sleep with some mafioso’s daughter to gain their trust. I haven’t told my supervisor about any of this, since he’d probably just worry. I think I’ll be fine, since two summers ago I went on a backpacking tour through Sicilily and just loved it. The data I get will be original and incredible, and the project really seems exciting too. Is this a sound and valid ethnographic research design?
Nick Picklewaite-Busby, SW19
Just as being a real archaeologist is almost nothing like Indiana Jones, the real daily grind of ethnographic fieldwork bears little resemblance to Donnie Brasco’s Mafia infiltration. When Clifford and Marcus criticised the discipline for producing ethnographic fictions, they didn’t mean we should go forth and imitate Hollywood movies or the FBI.
First, face some serious practical problems. Do you speak fluent Sicilian? If not, how would you pass yourself off as a local or communicate with people and understand the nuances of their responses? Building trust with gatekeepers and participants takes time. How would you do that in a few months of MSc research?
Your lecturers and supervisor have a number of criteria for a good dissertation project, but ‘exciting’ doesn’t topic the list. Yes, it would be exciting, but so might electrocuting yourself in the bathtub with a hairdryer. What would be the value of the research? What would it add to the current state of knowledge in the field?
Even if your family name were Corleone, however, your project would be shot down on ethical grounds. Covert research is seldom considered ethical, and then only in rare cases where the data couldn’t be gathered in any other way and the participants are debriefed after the fact. And unless you want to sleep with the fishes or travel in disguise for the rest of your life like the real ‘Donnie Brasco’, debriefing the Mafia after the fact is not a great plan. Remember, the real Donnie Brasco was a highly trained FBI agent. As an MSc student, there’s an enormous likelihood that you would blow your cover and end up in serious trouble. Research ethics are there to protect the researcher as well as the participants, and no research ethics committee or responsible supervisor would permit you to expose yourself to such risk. Furthermore, any crimes or infidelities you commit in the field to show your loyalty and trustworthiness would have no legal or ethical coverage – you can find the LSE’s full ethics policy here. In your postgraduate studies, the only “cap” you bust should be the one that goes with your graduation gown, and the only banging should be your head against the table to figure out a better, safer project – one where the only thing penetrating will be your insight.