Harry F. Wolcott’s ‘Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork’ (Book Review)

By on November 4, 2014

Note: This review of ‘Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath’ was originally produced for ED-502: Essentials of Qualitative Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Introduction

As a distinguished anthropologist and noted qualitative researcher, Harry F. Wolcott has published ethnographies on his anthropological fieldwork in British Columbia and Rhodesia, and is well recognized for his texts on qualitative methodology and the ethnographic writing process.  He is perhaps most notoriously known, however, for his role as an educational anthropologist and author of the highly controversial “Brad Trilogy.” In 1983, Wolcott wrote the ethnographic autobiography of “Brad,” a homeless 19-year-old high school dropout, in an effort to answer the question: “What is educational adequacy?” In Wolcott’s view, Brad’s story exemplified educational INadequacy; rather than relying on test scores or statistics from the Board of Education, Wolcott approached the question as an anthropologist: presenting the life history of a young man for whom the system had failed.

The story of Brad is complex, in part because Brad is complex, and also because of the unusual circumstances by which he became an informant. Brad came into Wolcott’s life by accident when he was found squatting on a secluded area of Wolcott’s forested property near Eugene, OR.

Brad’s impact on Wolcott’s personal and professional life turned out to be much more than a fleeting life history study on educational adequacy would at first reveal. It wasn’t until the Office of Education requested an article on educational adequacy that Wolcott considered the young man a research subject. Prior to the establishment of a formal researcher – informant relationship, Wolcott took him under his wing, allowing Brad to stay on his property in a makeshift cabin. Forty years his senior, Wolcott paid Brad for manual labor, took him on errands in town; for all intents and purposes, Wolcott adopted him as a son. More importantly, the two men provided mutual companionship and affection for one another that would later develop into a physical relationship.

Second and third installments to the Brad Trilogy revealed the complicated nature of Wolcott’s relationship with Brad. The system, Brad’s parents, and society had failed him; a schizophrenic break and series of additional circumstances eventually built toward a dramatic climax that found Brad in prison for the assault and the arson of Wolcott’s home. Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork is a retrospective account of this series of events, and the implications Brad’s story makes on qualitative research.

Topical Discussion

Though the text largely comes across as Wolcott’s memoir ­— a sensational, if not self-indulgent, account of the ramifications of his disclosures after-the-fact —a number of critical topics float to the surface on the doing and writing of qualitative research. Wolcott’s account flirts with topics such as educational adequacy, ethics, transparency, agency and methodology, discussed below. This critical analysis of Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath will take a similar tack by approaching the text through a topical discussion.

On Educational Adequacy

The original Sneaky Kid piece airs distinctions between school and learning, and theorizes reasons as to why American students might be “left behind.” Statistically, Brad’s life shouldn’t have turned out this way; he is white from a working class family. Despite favorable circumstances, life gave up on Brad, so he gave up on life. From Wolcott’s account, Brad desires a leisurely life in fulfillment of society’s expectation for him, that is, nothing. Despite a desire to learn, Brad has no interest in school or any institution “on the grid.” He works only when necessary, preferring to survive on food stamps and stealing. Employing a phenomenological perspective, Brad’s mental health status and unique perceptions of his life’s experiences result in maladaptive coping processes and subsequent deviant behaviors (Spencer, 2006). After being frequently passed between parents, moving in and out of public schools and reform school, and eventually dropping out, Brad recognizes the systems, institutions, and people who have failed him, and exhibits a sense of entitlement over and need for dispensation from these agencies. “His next institutional ‘opportunity,’ like his previous one, may be custodial,” writes Wolcott. “If it is, we all lose; Brad will not be the only one who will have to pay” (p. 31). Indeed, Wolcott bears the consequences above all others.

On Agency and Methodology: Intimacy in Fieldwork

To what degree do we as researchers involve ourselves with the lives of our informants? According to Wolcott, intimacy is vital to his research process. As the degree of intimacy increased between them, so did the depth of Brad’s interviews. This leads one to wonder if the physical aspects of the relationship were intentional, if not manipulative, yet Wolcott claims Brad “was someone who thrust himself into my life, and I was now desperately trying to understand him” (p. 189).

It remains unclear whether Wolcott had “gone native” to such a degree that his personal life simply became intertwined with Brad’s, or whether it was a tactic to get what he needed from his report. Wolcott quotes Matthew Miles and Michael Huberman: “Fundamentally, field research is an act of betrayal, no matter how well intentioned or well integrated the researcher…you make the private public and leave the locals to take the consequences” (p. 145). In Wolcott’s case, he is both researcher and local.

On Ethics

Brad stole because he refused to beg. He stole, but was not a “criminal.” The act of stealing was not appealing to him, but a means to survival. He stole only what was necessary, rather than taking in excess to further improve his quality of life. Conversely, Wolcott refuses to admit, as Brad has, to his own social deviance or the ability to turn off morality and ethical standards of practice. In some respects, Brad seems less deluded than Wolcott. In that regard, what impact, if any, does this narrative have on the literature? What do Wolcott’s failings add to the body of knowledge? “Blow all the blue smoke you wish about research ethics,” he writes, “but please, leave my work out of the discussions… As far as I’m concerned, one can be ethical or one can conduct social research, but one cannot be both ethical and a researcher in such setting. I’ll opt for the label of researcher. I’m prepared to take my lumps” (p. 144-145).

Yet despite his disdain, Wolcott produces a text that facilitates discourse on research ethics. Harry Wolcott paid dearly for his transgressions, assuming he had any; subsequent judgment and public scrutiny he received from academics, the judiciary system, and society seemed wholly unnecessary. In addition to the previously discussed nature of his relationship with Brad, Wolcott’s position on withholding it from the original piece is that doing so would have muddied its theme: educational adequacy. As a self-proclaimed “crusader for candor” (p. 117), Wolcott’s reluctance to disclose the personal nature of his relationship with Brad in the original report brings into question whether his later admissions were conveniently timed.

The topic of Wolcott’s relationship is not the only fodder for ethical discourse. The original Sneaky Kid article was published in a government report; in an effort to increase its visibility, Wolcott reproduced the piece in 1988 in a journal for which he was editor: Complimentary Methods in Educational Research (p. 66-67). Despite a formal review process, risk of impartiality remains.

Conclusion

Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath reads like a trashy romance novel, but despite its literary accessibility creates the possibility for impassioned academic discourse.

Questions of intimacy in fieldwork needed to be addressed, as did issues of what needs to be disclosed, and when. If I had not anticipated all the avenues that needed exploring, I could at least rejoice in having presented a case that would introduce more candor into discussions about fieldwork and the reporting of fieldwork (p. 117).

Wolcott’s arrogance and ego shine throughout this text, as well as his inability to engage in any debate for which he may be viewed negatively. Wolcott notes a social desirability response effect throughout Brad’s interview process; it appears as though he exhibits the same tendency by shutting down any discussion by which he may be viewed negatively. In some respects, it’s hard to take him seriously, but Wolcott’s apparent need for patronage and martyrdom do not dilute the place he holds in the greater picture of qualitative research. On considering this text, and the whole of the Sneaky Kid suite, one could easily profess its importance to young researchers as they embark on their careers. If nothing else, it reminds us that research is messy and has consequences, the ramifications of which lie with the researcher alone.

 References

Spencer, M. B. (2006). Phenomenology and ecological systems theory: Development of diverse groups. In W. Damon & R. Lerner (Eds.), (6th Edition) Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 1 (829-893). New York: Wiley Publishers.

Wolcott, H. F. (2002). Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, IL, specializing in dance and cultural criticism. Lauren is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, editor of See Chicago Dance, and founder/editor of Art Intercepts, with bylines in Chicago Magazine, Milwaukee Magazine and Dance Media publications, among others. Holding degrees in dance and kinesiology, Lauren is also an adjunct instructor in the dance and exercise science programs at Loyola University Chicago.

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