November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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Public Sociology

Sociology translates to public action

This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Johanna Olexy (, (202) 383-9005 x312) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

[Not] Moving Along: The Policing and Regulating of Public Space

by Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, American University 

Before the term "Public Sociology" was established, the scope of applied work that is foundational to participatory action research, or, more recently, community-based research, offered a great opportunity to showcase the importance of sociology to those who were not formally educated as sociologists. My recent experience working on one such project illustrates an alternative way of engaging the publics, and I am hopeful that it demonstrates a detachment of the use of methods and theory in academic spaces. Public sociology also signals to academics that we need to challenge the notion that our privileged formal education is the best environment for knowledge making.

"Public sociology also signals
to academics that we need
to challenge the notion
that our priviledged formal
education is the best environment
for knowledge making.

Shortly after starting my job at American University, I collaborated with and developed a research plan with the non-profit organization Different Avenues ( The organization works with a diverse constituency, many of whom are homeless, immigrants, people of color, and/or transgender/transsexual people. Often, their members engage in the street economy as a means of survival. This has included sex work, which has led to adverse encounters with the Washington, DC, police as well as arrest. From the project’s inception, Different Avenues Director Darby Hickey, myself, and members of a newly formed coalition discussed various ways of collaborating. I sought to apply my sociological training in the use of methods for community-based research with the coalition of DC agencies on a research project that could be conceptualized and implemented from the standpoint of the communities they serve. The research goal was to document the treatment by the city police of those profiled as prostitutes.

A Community-Based Research Initiative

The discussion resulted in a community-based research proposal for which we received full funding from the Sociological Initiatives Foundation, an organization that focuses on social policy objectives and supports research to further social change. With the grant, leaders of various non-profits (most notably Hickey, the Director of Different Avenues while the research was implemented) developed a training agenda. Our course of action was setting up research questions, locating and training potential survey administrators and field team members, deciding on appropriate methods, refining a survey with questions drafted by the organization members, creating a timeframe, and assigning responsibilities for the data collection, clean-up, and analysis, and, lastly, generating a summary report.

Unlike most academic research, time was not on our side—we received funding in early 2007 for a one-year project. However, the pressures were not funding driven, they were related to the passage of a DC law in 2006 that allowed the police to arrest anyone they considered a person "profiled as a prostitute" in newly declared "prostitution-free zones". After the passage of this law, an increase in arrests, physical and verbal abuse, as well as sexual harassment of people the police profiled as prostitutes occurred. These issues demanded an immediate response; the research was a step in that direction.

The first step was data collection, which involved more than 130 surveys developed by the team of community members and included a small number of qualitative interviews. The report was supplemented with research on the history of DC prostitution laws. An introduction provided social aspects that create the need for a street economy—like sex work—and explored topics such as gentrification, violence, and health and HIV risk, which helped frame the presentation of results. This research systematically documented that the District’s police accost individuals on the street, and if they discover that the individuals possess condoms, the police accuse them of prostitution, often resulting in arrests or harassment and confiscation of the condoms. (This interpretation and implementation of the law has immediate public health implications for those engaged in prostitution, which compromises their safety and can lead to HIV exposure.)

Training was a critical component of the project. Because our idea was to develop a project that was conducted and "owned" by the communities with whom Different Avenues works, the training concept outlined on the proposal—with me as the professor partnering to impart knowledge about methods—was problematic. What we did instead of a traditional academic training was to list all the sociological topics that Hickey and I felt were essential to understand the "why" of the research. Thus, every participant trained the rest of us on immigration, gender identity, transsexual/transgender experiences, gentrification, racism, homophobia, and alternated these conversations with segments, for example, on writing field notes, interviewing techniques, survey analysis, and video ethnography.

Community Writes the Report

After the training, data collection took place in various settings that were under constant police surveillance. Most sex work targeted by the DC police is street sex work, rather than sex work in other venues, because the politically privileged and wealthier sex clients are more difficult to target, although some erotic dance clubs have been targeted as well. The people surveyed were predominantly people of color, immigrants, of all sexual orientations, and of transgendered and non-transgendered experience, thus making the report valuable as a tool for teaching and research in a variety of settings. I supported the data collection process, advising the community research team members on challenges to their data collection; I also offered my assistance in requesting information from the local police (based on the Freedom of Information Act) on issues such as the number of prostitution-related arrests or other relevant information. After data collection, I helped further the analysis on certain portions of the data, drawing on general themes. The result of this community-based research was a report, Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, DC, written by mostly non-academic participants from the coalition Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC. My role was to edit or comment on the report; my writing was minimal. I was consulted regularly, and I provided feedback as often as the requirements of teaching and research would allow.

The project was successful by showing its members that they can collaborate and pursue research on an issue of their interest, and it showcased the role of community-based research on the topic of policing and regulation of spaces deemed public. Lastly, it gave visibility to sociology as a welcoming field for social justice-related research. The project encourages organizations like Different Avenues to produce responsible and thorough reports on issues that matter to their constituents, and to use that research to pursue funding opportunities to sustain their work. The coalition is currently researching the types of abuses arrested people face when they are processed, advancing our understanding of how those profiled as prostitutes are treated. While DC police are still asking individuals in public settings to "move along," making those profiled feel as though they are lesser citizens (in the stratified DC of politics*), this type of public sociology can begin a dialogue to question the systems in place. logo

* Regarding the difference between the Washington of politics and the DC of poor communities, see, for instance, Modan, Gabriella Gahlia. 2007. "Mt. Pleasant History and Social Geography" Pp. 34-87, in Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.


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