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"You In or Out?: Reflecting on Positionality in Gang Research" (by Sou Lee and John Leverso): Review 3

Published onJul 16, 2023
"You In or Out?: Reflecting on Positionality in Gang Research" (by Sou Lee and John Leverso): Review 3

Vote: Publish pending minor changes

This paper discusses positionality in criminological research. It’s a topic that should have more attention than it does, and I think this is on its way to being a good contribution. The paper is well-written. Though I’ve made several comments, they are all easy to deal with. However, I think it needs a clearer argument and that the discussion and implications sections should be further developed and link back to that argument.


1.      Please substitute the authors’ names into the manuscript. It will read much better as Lee and Leverso or Sou and John instead of the first and second author.

2.      While you are gang scholars, I don’t think the lessons you provide are unique to gang scholars. They are more general to anyone who researches system-impacted people and hard-to-reach populations. I’d encourage you to adjust some of the language to clarify that point. You point out something important early on: reflexivity accounts don’t usually focus on hard-to-reach groups such as gangs. Still, you don’t develop this idea and why it matters or is different. I think you should throughout the paper. I think this could be the central argument that enhances this paper. To that point,

3. This paper needs a clearer argument to allow others to apply the lessons. I think criminologists can better be honest regarding their epistemological positions and the comparative advantages/disadvantages when undertaking research. In my view, criminologists don’t tackle epistemology much, and I think this paper can take a strong position in that regard, particularly vis-à-vis hard-to-reach populations.

The point that I got from this paper is something along the lines of “reflexivity must be undertaken to have an honest appraisal of a researcher’s insights and blind spots; this is true for all social research.” Not all researchers have or can have the same array of experiences and access. The advantages or limitations researchers face do not translate into questions of objectivity or whether they should do the research in the first place but do translate into clear epistemological questions that warrant visibility.

4.      I liked the discussion of the Hmong respondents’ encouragement. Respondents’ desire to contribute to betterment and respect for education is something that Bourgois (2003) talks about. The tie-in to the betterment of the community is important as it represents progress for the community. I think this an explicit sentence making a distinction should be in the manuscript.

5.      You would not have seen this paper when writing as it has only just been published, but Aqil, Petrich, and Gundur (2023) talk about using identity, positionality, and insider/outsider status in terms of negotiating access to hard-to-reach populations; Gundur (2019, 2022) has written on these dynamics as they relate to his study of gangs elsewhere as well. There is an overlap between the accounts these authors provide and those you both provide, which is worth engaging with. These authors talk about some of the themes you have developed, including the linguistic advantages they had, how they accessed certain spaces, how respondents perceived them, and how identity impacts research possibilities, access, and timeframes.

6.      I felt like the contrast between John’s experience in Chicago and Denver and doing qualitative/quantitative analysis was incomplete. John documents the challenges in the Denver analysis but does not point out how he overcame them. I think this would be useful and something to expand upon, in a more general sense, in the discussion. 

7.      I think the space between concepts is good, and I had not encountered it before. I think you should return to it in the discussion. I think some kind of diagram that illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of insider/outsider/inbetweener and another that demonstrates the impact on data collection and analysis would be helpful. I’d like these two issues spelled out explicitly in the discussion and linked to the value of studying hard-to-reach populations. Bucerius (2013) is worth citing, underscoring that qualitative researchers often look at many avenues to connect with respondents.

8.      I thought the lessons regarding the stories told and received were fascinating and needed to be brought together in the discussion. The observations about what Sou and John were supposed to know, or be able to read into, are important and illustrate the limits of selective incompetence or feigned ignorance. The outsider collaborator’s capacity to probe those spaces is an important observation and speaks to a need for the value of team interviews – is there something you could say more to that point? I also wonder if it is worth considering how people tell insiders and outsiders stories. John’s story of the Chicago gang member trying to “bullshit” him is interesting but I wonder how much of that was an impression management attempt given John’s history, and if the outsider had done that interview instead, what the data would have been. I do not know, but I think this possibility should be addressed. A recent paper in QC discussed storytelling in cross-cultural focus groups (Mellinger et al., 2023), which would be worth engaging with when considering these questions.

9.      As noted, I think the discussion and the call to others should be more transparent and honest about their epistemological positions, and methodological blind spots need to be more developed.

Smaller issues

1.      This sentence needs to be clarified: “In short, these advantages can lead to more authentic data and precise analysis.” I’m unclear if this is a summation of Haniff’s thoughts or the authors’ position.

2.      The paragraph on the disadvantages of outsider research (However, a few disadvantages …), I think the first and fourth points could also apply to insiders. I don’t think there is any guarantee that insiders avoid impressing their biases; nearly all presentations of others are curated. One could argue that having an entirely undistorted or complete picture is very hard. Certainly, projection is a problem, and I think those points are indisputable but still can be managed by well-informed outsiders.

3.      This sentence is hard to follow, as it is unclear as to whether you’re talking about the first author of this paper or the Carter and Thomson paper: “For example, in assessing how participants (correctional staff) perceived the first author (a former correctional officer turned academic), Carter and Thomson (2022) found that various identities and perceptions emerged.”

4.      This phrase “From the early to late 1900s” is confusing to my eye (could be the 20th century or could be 1900-1909), could you provide a date range instead?

5.      I think most parentheticals are important and should not be parenthetical.

6.      This sentence in the fieldnote excerpt is confusing and should be edited: “I asked Cheeleng about the math behind it…If, for example, the source wants at least $550 per pound of weed (and thus is asking to get $55,000 after everything is sold).” I found it difficult to follow who the sellers were (retailers, lower-down wholesalers?). Those terms could be clarified. There is a typo here 65,00 should be 65,000/

7.      I’d like to see more consideration regarding the impact of framing and interpretation of quantitative data. That penultimate paragraph needs to be fleshed out. The final paragraph is a good one.

Aqil, N., Petrich, K., & Gundur, R. (2023). Leveraging Identity to Overcome Temporal and Financial Limitations in Rapid Ethnography in Criminological Research. Journal of Criminology.

Bourgois, P. (2003). In Search of Respect: Selling crack in El Barrio (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Bucerius, S. M. (2013). Becoming a “Trusted Outsider” gender, ethnicity, and inequality in ethnographic research. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(6), 690-721.

Gundur, R. V. (2019). Using the Internet to Recruit Respondents for Offline Interviews in Criminological Studies. Urban Affairs Review, 55(6), 1731 –1756.

Gundur, R. V. (2022). Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade. Cornell University Press.

Mellinger, H., Lowrey-Kinberg, B., & Barak, M. P. (2023). Methodological and Practical Considerations for Cross-Cultural Focus Groups on Sensitive Topics within Criminal Justice and Criminology.

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