ethics of an ethnographer's intervention

Steven VanderStaay (vandesl@OKRA.MILLSAPS.EDU)
Sat, 12 Mar 1994 10:30:54 CST

teenage crack-dealer and his family; I am convinced that were I to intervene at
this moment I might save the lives of he and his mother and I do not know what
to do about it.
In a nutshell, the situation is like this: the kid has been running
rocks for several years and now, in a dispute over a girlfriend, is in a small
war with a rival gang. His running and rolling makes chaos out of his mother's
life, as people come to their apartment all night long either looking for him,
with him, or running after him. She's a beautician, now sunk in despair and
alcoholism, who has literally begged for my help.
My study, which began as a study of how the school, the juvenile
correction system, and his family/neighborhood understand and act upon the boy
and others like him has put me in an interesting position, as I have become the
confidant of the boy as well as those around him (his parole officer, his
mother, et. I am the only one who knows the full story.
Watching, I can see what will happen: the boy will keep rolling until
he gets caught (he always gets caught) and, as he will soon be 18, he'll be
sent to Parchman, one of the most notorious prisons in the country. Of course,
he could be killed before that time, or he may kill someone else. The longer
this takes the worse off his mother will be.
My intervention? It's simple: I let the parole officer in on what's
happening and he sends the boy to the reform school (also part of my study)
which is a great place. The kid has told me that he needs a break from the
neighborhood, that he wants his GEDetc. and at a certain level he does w want
these things. Because he'll be gone the mother will be free to enter a
treatment center and, then, a halfway program I've worked with. Four months of
treatment will allow her to save up her AFDC and to leave with a job and an
apartment in a better neighborhood.
The boy can go to the reform school now--come June it will be Parchman.
This is my heart speaking, the heart that has come to know and love
these people and to share their lives.
My brain tells me not to do this: that I must be the good ethnographer
and, perhaps more importantly, that such interventions by "outsiders" never
unfold as planned and often create more difficulties than they solve.
Yet this boy is a minor. Other studies of teenage drug-runners keep
their distance, but he is a boy and I have actually been warned by a court
officer that, if I am aware of any behavior of his that will harm him and I
don't work to intervene I will be contributing to his delinquency.


Steve VanderStaay