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.

Sincerely,

Sudhir Venkatesh


EMBAZ

It is very hard to square "I've never lied, made up characters, or otherwise misrepresented facts" with the contradictions between the account in Freakonomics with the account in Gang Leader for a Day. See here: http://scatter.wordpress.com/2008/02/01/the-strange-case-of-dr-booty-and-mr-t-bone/. Didn't Dubner and Levitt notice the discrepancies here? What did they do about it?

Relatedly, what could inspire less confidence than an ethnographer who says the follwing things about his research:

a. He "struggles" to get things right because he relies on his "memory [to] adequately [record] the events"
b. That there is "healthy and vigorous debate about how our work should be conducted"
c. That "in practice," he works "in teams, where many people can discuss what we saw"
d. That, e.g., he "earn[ed] the trust" of 290 prostitutes (see here: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/01/ff_sextrade/) HINT: Maybe this is where all that dough went!

First off, there is no debate among ethnographers about whether relying on memory is a good approach to making sure you are accurate in recounting the lives of powerless, voiceless people. This is obviously a problematic approach, which no one finds credibile (Why were Levitt and Dubner so gullible?). Accordingly, Venkatesh concedes that we should not regard as credible any "data" collected in this way s when he then pivots to the argument that his research is credible because he works in teams. But does he? Pray tell, who are these of "faculty" and "students" who worked with him on these projects, in which he tells salacious stories about the powerless and voiceless? Note that the Wired piece is all written in the first person. It certainly would be more credible (though how big a team would be required to gain the trust of 290 prostitutes?!) if other students or faculty stepped forward to vouch for this. But they haven't, and they won't. Because in fact, Venkatesh deliberately works in such a way that his "data" cannot be double-checked by anyone.

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Louis Freeh

More (and earlier) from Richard Bradley on Venkatesh:

http://www.richardbradley.net/shotsinthedark/2012/12/01/the-ongoing-perils-of-celebrity-scholars/

from NYT story:
….All told, the auditors listed $19,405 in “inappropriate transactions” — like $1,514 in town car charges — and $221,960 in expenses with “insufficient documentation” — like payments to unnamed research subjects.

Richard Bradley's response:
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Professor Venkatesh declined to explain for this article how Columbia resolved these allegations….

Ventkatesh did say that he repaid some $13, 000 in disputed bills.

One doesn’t want to judge without knowing all the facts, but…this doesn’t look good. Payments to unnamed research subjects? Payments to the subject of a documentary? (That can’t conform to any serious academic guidelines.) $9000 that “somehow failed to make it into that colleague’s bank account”?

Columbia won’t go into details, which can’t make its donors very happy, though a spokesperson does confirm that “Professor Venkatesh is a faculty member,” which I guess answers the question of whether he’s been fired.

It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Venkatesh. But I think Columbia’s going to have to say and do more than that, or its reputation is going to take a real hit. It appears that the university may have a fabulist and an embezzler on its faculty. If so, that would merit more than just a slap on the wrist.

Wouldn’t it?
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It also raises the question of what someone with such questionable ethics - both personal and research-related - is doing affiliated with Freakonomics

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Kalidan

Your work on the Chicago gangs/projects/dealers was exemplary. I am sorry you are called to defend your work.

It is clear to me that the deepest passion among a growing segment of people is plain heckling.

Keep up the good work mate, there is nothing you can do now. The more you defend, the more the hecklers will try to ride your story to their 15 nanoseconds of fame.

jp

I stayed up all night reading "Gang Leader For a Day". Venkatesh tells a great story. It didn't take too many pages before I realized, however, that the book was loosely based on facts, at best. It reminded me of a Hollywood movie "based on real events". If you doubt me, please look for footnotes in the book. You won't find any, which is suspicious given many of his characters, er study subjects, are very familiar (see, for example, Diary of Midwestern Getto Gurl by Ambrose-Van Lee). I could go on for a while, but let me try to boil it down real simple: Venkatesh is a hussler. Even the characters in his book tell him as much (which, as an aside, is interesting from a psychological perspective if said characters are fictional creations of his unconscious mind).

If I were the editor of a newspaper, I'd hire Venkatesh in a second (though I'd be extra careful to fact check his copy). If I were a university president, though, I'd show him the door if I could. And not just because of the ~$200K that went unaccounted for during his study of street prostitutes. I've got a gut feeling, like some of the more admirable characters in his book, that he can't be trusted, isn't bound by ethics (whether they be the ethics of academics or street thugs), is full of himself and won't hesitate to walk over anyone (or any institution) if it's helpful to further his own ambitions.

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Floria Hakimi

Based on What I read here, I cannot see the value of attending your talk about real estate in the upcoming Artizan Group event in Northern California. Why and how have you become aware of the real estate industry as a whole and leadership in our field specifically?
Floria Hakimi