Sudhir Venkatesh Responds to the Freakonomics Community
Dear Freakonomics readers,
A profile of me and my work appeared in the N.Y. Times yesterday. There were two story angles: how I conduct my research and allegations of questionable financial dealings in which I was involved. I wrote a formal statement to the Columbia University student paper and online blog, but you are also my community, so let me address you directly.
Three years ago, at my request, I began working with Columbia University on an internal initiative to develop greater clarity and transparency of an institute that they had asked me to direct. Together, we systematically reviewed grants management and research procedures as we sought to establish new, higher standards of reporting and accountability. Part of that review included the grants managed by my position. An audit was conducted, it was completed, and ethically I felt it was my responsibility to pay back $13,000 in previously reimbursed expenses for which my own recordkeeping did not meet these new standards. That matter is closed, and has been for over two years.
I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began. Next semester, I will be returning to Columbia University to resume my duties full-time. It is troubling to me that old documents are being leaked now. My life and my work has been about transparency and I have absolutely nothing to hide.
The other storyline speaks to the core of academic knowledge. When you live with people, or spend years with them, as the means of obtaining your data, what are the evidentiary standards that you should follow? “Ethnographic” work is fuzzy. I’ve never lied, made up characters, or otherwise misrepresented facts. The struggle arises in ensuring that your memory adequately recorded the events, and then validating them before you go to print. Neither are very straightforward or easy to accomplish, particularly when you study crime and marginal social groups. The University prohibits me from using real names, so third-party validation is difficult to achieve. So, in practice, I work in teams, where many people can discuss what we all saw. I’ve collaborated with students and faculty in all of my research — with gangs, sex workers, public housing residents, etc.
In general, I think there is a healthy and vigorous debate among ethnographers about how our work should be conducted. This includes how we should write for the public, and I think we could all do a better job of making our work more accessible and enjoyable to read.
I look forward to doing just that in these pages for many years to come.