April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

The Unexpected Danger of Conducting Sociological Research

This is in response to the Executive Officer’s February 2011 article about the threat to Frances Fox Piven. As you known, this is not the first or only incident against sociologists, and there surely will be more of them in the future—verbal or physical.

Sociology threatens the cherished myths—and sometimes the persons—of extremists of both the right and the left, the right probably more than the left.

asa forum

Let me add a bit from my personal knowledge. Around 1980, when the military government in Brazil was beginning to ease itself out of power, I was asked to describe my research on the socioeconomic development (SED) levels in Brazil’s 360 small political units to a "journalist." The more I said, the more perturbed she was. Finally, she said, "This is subversion!" It was then that I realized that she was an agent of Brazil’s Central Intelligence Serivce. I thought my goose was cooked. There were rumors of people being taken out over the Atlantic Ocean by helicopter and dropped into the sea. Fortunately, I was saved by my Brazilian friends.

Many years earlier, in 1968 I took a group of American students to Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil. They carried out formal interviews of rural Brazilians in the backcountry, under my supervision, of course. They were to take the data back to Madison and use them for their master’s theses. We put all the interviews into a box and took them to the local airport. But the agent there refused to let them go, saying that they contained secret material. I went to the local university and told my former doctoral student, a Brazilian professor there, about the incident. He called his uncle, who was a colonel in the army, and the uncle got the box of data released and sent to Madison.

Later that year another of my Brazilian doctoral students, the late Helcio Saraiva, had collected an extraordinary data set from a remote rural area of the State of Minas Gerais. The data were some of the finest I have ever seen—all the variables chosen from stratification theory, properly measured and carefully tested for reliability and validity. Together, we prepared the interview schedules for shipment to Madison. But…As before, an agent refused to let them out of the country. I called another of our former students with connections in the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo. He got the Consulate to put the data in the inter-country "bag" and it was sent to Madison. My son, Bill, and I recently used Helcio’s data in an article we published.

The point, of course, is that sociologists can face serious threats sometimes and unexpected obstacles other times.

Do you think it might be well for the Association to compile records of such incidents? Or maybe even to encourage doctoral training programs to teach about the real, if rare, dangers sociologists may face regarding their research? In my opinion, it is our responsibility to call attention to inhuman actions we observe: Sociologists are trained to see behaviors others might miss. Of course, some will shy away from sociology programs that include such teaching. So be it.

Archibald O. Haller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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