5 Minutes With a Sociologist, Jailed for Refusing to Divulge Subjects, About the Controversy at Boston College

5 Minutes With a Sociologist, Jailed for Refusing to Divulge Subjects, About the Controversy at Boston College
Rik Scarce interviewed by Peter Monaghan
The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 19, 2012

‘Our Storehouse of Knowledge About Social Movements … Is Going to Be Left Bare’

In 1993, Rik Scarce, while a doctoral student at Washington State University, spent five months in jail on a federal contempt-of-court charge rather than reveal details of his research interviews with “earth liberation” activists. The judge in the case released Mr. Scarce, now an associate professor of sociology at Skidmore College, upon determining that no length of imprisonment would prise information from him.

The Chronicle asked Mr. Scarce for his views of the controversy over a court order, stayed as of press time, that would require Boston College to release oral-history records relating to decades-old sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. Boston College did hand over some of the documents, which the Police Service of Northern Island had requested, in part to advance an investigation of a 1972 murder.

Last month a federal judge dismissed two researchers’ legal challenge to any release, saying they lacked legal standing even though Boston College had required them to draw up confidentiality contracts with their informants. Here is an edited version of Mr. Scarce’s comments on those events.

Q. What is the principled stance here?

A. The researchers’ stance. You give your research participants assurances of confidentiality, and you stand by those statements. What you don’t do is to do what Boston College appears to be doing, which is to cave in, in an instant. The tragedy is, that is exactly what many institutions do.

Q. Why don’t institutions admit that they cannot guarantee confidentiality?

A. I think they are all about avoiding lawsuits rather than protecting confidentiality, and unfortunately every now and then naïve, or overconfident, or simply very bold researchers move on with a research project, not understanding that the interests of their research participants are not necessarily in line with those of their institution.

Q. What’s the harm there?

A. I’m profoundly concerned about what will happen to the research enterprise—­further work on the IRA., for instance. If that research cannot take place, then our storehouse of knowledge about social movements, and violent ones at that­—the very ones we most want to know about—is going to be left bare. Who will participate? That is exactly the same issue I encountered: If I cooperated, who would ever answer a journalist’s questions or a researcher’s questions about the radical environmental movement? Without that kind of information, we are all left in the dark.

Q. Who is that “we”?

A. Everyone from the citizen who is simply curious or concerned, all the way to law enforcement and policy makers who may want to shut down or eliminate a given social movement or a given form of activism. Our research can inform all of these endeavors and as such needs to be treated as the precious thing that it is rather than—as happens every few years—turned into a tool for law enforcement.

Q. But in the office of a psychologist, for example, those confessions can be reportable.

A. I think that given the appropriate circumstances—a known researcher-participant relationship with explicit assurance of confidentiality—that, in light of the First Amendment, separates the research and journalistic fact-finding endeavor from all others.

Q. What happened to your research when you were imprisoned?

A. I changed my Ph.D. topic from my work on the radical environmental movement, which would have followed on from my book, Eco-Warriors, which I published immediately before I began my Ph.D. research, to the sociology of salmon biology.

Q. Because people in the radical environmental movement knew it was no longer safe to talk?

A. That point was exactly on my mind as I was heading to jail. I wasn’t interested in essentially dragging the FBI around with me as I went around and tried to conduct my work.