Analytical Boundaries as Ethical Boundaries?

By Mario Trifuoggi

Qualitative researchers are often confronted by rather elusive ethical issues, for they usually study human subjects in natural settings where limited control can be exerted over the research process. Moreover, they are more likely to expose vulnerable or deviant groups and people who are potential targets for public contempt. Thereby, when it comes to urban studies, the politics of representation stand out as a particularly sensitive problem to the reflexive researcher who is ethically committed not to exploit or reproduce territorial stigma and other forms of place-based stereotypes that might harm his or her informants. As an urban ethnographer researching informality in central Naples, I face these dilemmas on a daily basis. I was thus delighted to discuss the subject matter with other eighteen young scholars participating in a one-day seminar organised by The Sociological Review Foundation. This Early Career Researchers event preceded The Sociological Review Annual Lecture 2017, which was hosted at the Manchester Museum on April 28.

The seminar started with a morning session convened by Michaela Benson, Editor of The Sociological Review, and Tom Dark, Senior Commissioning Editor of Manchester University Press, who advised the participants about the strategies and practicalities of academic publishing. They provided some useful insights into the process that leads from PhD chapters and theses to articles and books. For ethnographers, coping with different publishing formats primarily involves breaching the gap between the holistic approach of the fieldwork and the analytical scope of specific editorial products. Books, of course, are best suited to accommodate deep community studies, and yet raise a few ethical concerns peculiar to representation of the object of study, for the allure of certain topics can easily lead to exploitative sensationalism, especially when writing for a wider audience. This relates to the second part of the seminar, which was centred on the politics of representation in sensitive research contexts.

The afternoon session was convened by Rivke Jaffe, Professor of Cities, Politics and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. As an urban scholar with an interest in organised crime and informality, she has produced outstanding research on the insurgence and legitimation of the ‘don’ system in Kingston, Jamaica, whereby territorial control is often apanage of criminal leaders called ‘dons’. The testimony of her struggle to decentre the narrative of ‘donmanship’ from the exoticness of street violence, focussing instead on institutional functions such as the provision of social welfare and public order, served as a valuable touchstone for the seminar participants to assess their positions of researchers in relation to the process of knowledge production. For my part, having conceptualised the role of Naples’ criminal leaders in very similar terms, I share the same concern for representing subjects of this kind as governance actors entangled in the (informal) political economy of the city, rather than having recourse to culturalist frameworks of honour and shame often employed to account for the mafia phenomenon in southern Italy. By doing so, I basically subsume the issue of the politics of representation into the issue of choosing the most appropriate analytical framework, for the latter is (also) a rhetorical device crucial to the social construction of the object of study.

However, taking analytical boundaries as ethical boundaries might not be sufficient to tackle the politics of representation altogether, especially in cross-disciplinary fields like urban studies that bring multiple levels of analysis into play at once. What about, for instance, controversial events accountable for the social reproduction of the actors who concretely uphold Kingston’s and Naples’ informal systems of urban governance? Should street violence – or any other allegedly exotic form of social and cultural expression – be overlooked, if analytically relevant to the scope of one’s research? Drawing on practice theory, I personally contend that the illustration of certain behaviours, particularly those enacted by young people, is critical to understanding the reproduction of informality in central Naples (or elsewhere). Nonetheless, I am aware that graphic descriptions are difficult to handle analytically, and might involuntary reinforce the stigma suffered by the informants. These ethical tensions have been also acknowledged by Rivke in the course of her research on the ‘don’ system, and partly informed the lecture that she gave in front of a broader audience at the end of the seminar.

Rivke’s Annual Lecture on Cities and the Political Imagination explored the imaginative potential of cultural studies in relation to everyday urban politics. Setting out from her current research on the coproduction of the ‘don’ system and popular culture of illegality, she argued in favour of working at the boundaries between different disciplines, reclaiming the value of cultural analysis for social scientists. Interestingly, a similar case had been made just in Manchester two weeks before by Ben Carrington during his opening speech for the BSA Annual Conference. While appreciating this seemingly more and more popular stance about interdisciplinary, I also regard it (given all of the above) as more problematic vis-à-vis the ethics of qualitative research. Hence, my modest piece of advice would be to keep taking disciplinary boundaries very seriously before cutting across them, for the quest for analytical rigour in cross-disciplinary research, which is directly implicated in that one for high (and reflexive) ethical standards in social sciences, requires a solid conceptualisation of one’s object of study before anything else.

Mario Trifuoggi is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. He earned an MSc in Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK; he had started his Doctoral Training at the University of Trento, Italy, before moving to his current position. His PhD project consists in an urban ethnography focussed on the informal organisation of public space in the historic centre of Naples. Besides urban sociology, his area of interest includes social theory and the philosophy of social science. Mario can be contacted at:

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