when your research population organizes against you, NYC sex worker edition
We wondered about veracity of Venkatesh[‘s] “findings”—he said he had “followed” 270 sex worker subjects in NYC but none of our membership had ever been contacted by him nor knew of anyone who had been—so we carefully examined the investigations he said he had done with sex workers over a ten year period. We found that his “research history” simply did not add up. Claims in articles online, in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and on the Freakonomics blog regarding the dates, locations and numbers of people in his research were wildly inconsistent. His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.
We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011 we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.
Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. The quote above is from a post on the The Sex Worker’s Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC) blog. SWOP-NYC challenges claims made by Venkatesh about NYC sex workers in his published research, on the Freakonomics blog, and in Wired magazine. In a follow-up post, SWOP-NYC goes on to dismiss participant observation as “a bizarre form of research” that is “a holdover from a previous era”. Ouch.