Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

De-Exoticizing Ghetto Poverty: On the Ethics of Representation in Urban Ethnography

Published by City & Community

INTRO: To write an ethnography about poor urban people is to risk courting controversy. While all ethnographers face questions about how well they knew their site or how much their stories can be trusted, the tone and content of those questions typically remain within the bounds of collegial discourse. Ethnographers of poor minorities have incited distinct passion and at times acrimony, inspiring accusations of stereotyping, misrepresentation, sensationalism, and even cashing in on the problems of the poor (Fischer 2014; see Boelen 1992; Reed 1994; Wacquant 2002; Jones 2010; Betts 2014; Rios 2015).

One thoughtful critique is the idea that outsider ethnographies have painted one dimensional portrayals of poor black and Latino communities. This critique has been mounted by minority, not white ethnographers, scholars who, rather than launching invectives or proposing a ban on middle-class whites from studying people of color, have instead shown great seriousness in their commentary and work (Jones 2010; Rios 2011; Hoang 2015). If we believe that studies of the urban poor are important, and that both insiders and outsiders will inevitably undertake them, then we must take stock of what these scholars see that their white colleagues do not—take seriously that writing about such communities represents ethical decisions that “ghetto ethnography” has too often handled poorly.

 

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