Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork
reviewed by Audrey M. Dentith - 2003
Title: Sneaky Kid and its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork
Author(s): Harry Wolcott
Publisher: Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA
ISBN: 0759103127, Pages: 222, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com
Sneaky Kid and Its Aftermath chronicles anthropologist Harry Wolcott’s life history of “Brad,” a 19-year-old school dropout discovered by the author during the early 1980s as a squatter living on his wooded property in Oregon. For a period of two years while the young man lived on Wolcott’s property in a self-constructed cabin, subsisting on food stamps and occasional paid labor, a relationship developed between the two that led to this current work.
Brad’s story began as a case study Wolcott completed on the failures of education as part of a special funded endeavor of the School Finance Project. Wolcott hoped to foster increased understanding of the anthropological distinction between schooling and education and the results that stem from our limited insights into the inadequacies of education in relation to the accomplishments of schools.
The circumstantial story of ‘Brad,’ his failed education, his dropping out of school, his strained and distant relationship with his divorced parents, the futility he perceives in paid labor, and his subsequent desperate existence as a squatter opens up relevant questions and broader concerns about the life outcomes of many marginalized students.
Sometime after his work with Brad, Wolcott published an article on the experience and this topic for Anthropology and Education Quarterly in 1983. This article remains a well-referenced source among qualitative researchers and graduate students in the field.
The events and circumstances that followed this publication became a stronghold for lengthy discussion and debate on ethics and intimacy in qualitative research much later. Brad, the research subject of this saga, succumbed to a state of paranoid schizophrenic near the end of his 2-year living arrangement on Wolcott’s property and fled to Southern California. He remained there for more than 2 years under the care of his mother and within a state of delusion and fantasy before his revengeful return one evening to Wolcott’s home for the purpose of killing Wolcott, his partner, and destroying their home through fire.
Fortunately, Wolcott and his partner, Norman, managed to escape. In the midst of the events that followed and a much publicized trial, Wolcott reveals to the public that his relationship with his research “subject” had, indeed, evolved into a homosexual love affair that lasted for some months during the second year of Brad’s residency on Wolcott’s property.
These revelations in the aftermath of his published work about Brad effectively resulted in a public courtroom assault on Wolcott’s integrity, ethics and, importantly, his sexual orientation. Later, some of these same issues would raise concerns among colleagues, qualitative researchers and others who questioned Wolcott’s intimacy with the “researched” and his subsequent writing about his relationship with Brad and the ethics of a field. A trilogy of articles developed by Wolcott evolved over the years following this research that were marked in a storm of controversy.
Today, Wolcott is regarded as one of the forerunners in the field of educational anthropology, and this book affirms his courage and skills in a poignant memoir based on the life altering events and controversies that surrounded this episode. Such honest work continues to shake the ground of fieldwork and shed light on the still misunderstood methodologies of qualitative research.
He proves his adeptness as an anthropologist as he is able to capture adequately the specificities of a particular moment and place and, at the same time, indicate their relevance to a much broader social context, in this case, the dilemmas we face as qualitative researchers today. The story told within these pages makes a point that far exceeds its origins. The book’s story reminds us again and again of the inadequacies in schooling for many of our youth, the continued stigmatization and suspicions about homosexuality, and the complex dilemmas of ethics in educational research.
Part One tells the whole story (Wolcott’s version) of the Sneaky Kid and includes a reprint of the original article on the Sneaky Kid, helpful as a refresher or as an important backdrop to the events and work that follows. Chapters Two through Five detail the story of Brad, the themes pursued by Wolcott in this research, the description of the evolution of an intimate relationship that evolves from a father/son to a sexual one, and the details of Brad’s eventual surrender to mental illness and his abrupt departure from Harry’s property. Chapter Three tells of Brad’s vengeful return and the arson attack. The trial and the author’s recording and recall of the courtroom drama and its aftermath, including the process of coming “out” in a court of law and the author’s subsequent invitation to write about these events and their relationship to validity and ethics in qualitative research.
Part Two continues the conversation begun by the articles that eventually resulted in what Wolcott terms, “The Brad Trilogy.” He describes his rebound from the events of Brad’s criminal acts, and the subsequent criticisms of his work in a well written reflective section on the lessons to be learned from this work. Finally, an ethno drama is included, written by Johnny Saldana of Arizona State University, entitled, “Finding my place: The Brad Trilogy.” This story depicts the nature of the relationship between Brad and Harry and answers the author’s need to tell the story in another genre with more attention to the romantic nature of Brad’s Robinson Crusoe-like existence.
Saldana had contacted Wolcott shortly after reading the Brad Trilogy in the book, Transforming Qualitative Data, published in 1994. Saldana’s subsequent work in qualitative research and ethno drama led to a request for permission from Wolcott to adapt and direct an ethnographic performance text of the Brad Trilogy in 2001. This resulted in a début of the play at the Advances in Qualitative Methods Conference in 2001 in Edmonton, Canada. Finally, with the inclusion of this play as the final chapter of the book, the story of Brad finds its final home.
Of course, such work is never complete. This book and the Brad Trilogy that inspired it have helped to continue to “muddy the waters” of qualitative research (p. 162). Wolcott’s work, in all its complexity and controversy, is now offered to a new generation of qualitative researchers and fieldworkers. This intriguing, compelling work is a touching depiction of the struggles of a researcher amid the complexities of a new and advancing field of research.
In this book, Wolcott offers some advice in his reflections. He urges us to be more “revealing about ourselves” (p. 162) since others (those we research and those who read our research, for example) might be quite fascinated with us and interested in our curiosity in them and others. But, without our own personal revelations and disclosures, the information (i.e., knowledge) we report is always fallible and incomplete.
Regarding intimacy in field research, Wolcott urges us to recognize that such is always necessary if one is to gain meaningful insight into human interaction and to be able to understand the personal meanings people attribute to their own actions. He challenges us to strive to find balance between too much disclosure and not enough revelation in the telling of our intimate relationships so that we might better support our readers in a true commune of our discoveries.
On ethics, he laments the ways that this work has often been challenged on such grounds. Ethics is “an abstract phenomenon [that] seems a wholly desirable quality, a goal toward which… we all strive … something we don’t want others to find absent from our work… but is “not a claim I wish to make or a standard against which I wish to be judged” (p. 145).
Field research, Wolcott reminds us, using a quote from Miles and Huberman (1994) is “an act of betrayal, no mater how well intended and well integrated the researcher.” You make the private public and leave the locals to take the consequences (p. 265). On this point, I would argue that our conversation must be continued rather than abandoned.
Sneaky Kid is wonderfully written and intensively experienced. It is an excellent resource for discussion and reference on many contemporary research and social issues. I would encourage its use as an additional text in an advanced qualitative research course as well as a quality addition to one’s professional library.
Miles, M.B. & Huberman, M. A. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wolcott, H.F. (1994). Transforming qualitative data: Description, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.