Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science

Almost two years ago, one of my oldest friends, Bradley L Garrett, boarded a plane at Heathrow airport. As it taxied on the runway, the British Transport Police arrived and dragged him off the plane. He was accused of conspiracy to commit criminal damage.

Garrett, a geographer at the University of Oxford, originally from the US, went on trial earlier this month for alleged crimes surrounding his research into urban exploration.

He has been handed a conditional discharge, which basically means he is off the hook as long as he doesn’t do it again. But his story should act as a warning to researchers and to anyone who benefits from researchers gathering information about human beings. In other words, everyone.

Continue reading here.


Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

2 thoughts on “Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science

  1. There are reasons to feel your blood run cold in terms of the political quashing of social science (hello Lamar Smith). However, someone actually trespassing, and in Britain (which, surprise, still has no Constitution!) is not really a sign of a crackdown to me.

  2. Adam:

    These are important issues, but I think it may be helpful to clarify a couple of matters that get conflated or confused in your report. As I understand your account, Garrett did in fact break a law. The possibility that he did so in a good cause does not exempt him from the legal consequences of breaking a law. The usual ethical principle that we apply is that researchers (and journalists) are willing to accept the risks in pursuit of knowledge, whether that is a law suit, criminal prosecution, or in some extreme cases death. If Garrett is unwilling to make this commitment, he should give careful thought to whether he should be pursuing that kind of research.

    Journalism is not really any different, but you seem to suggest that journalists have a kind of immunity in their work. For example, you write “journalists, such as those in the United States, are provided constitutional protection against incrimination through association.” Really? Journalists in the U.S. are subject to every law that non-journalists are subject to, and enjoy no additional immunities. Moreover, the comment I quote refers to “incrimination through association,” which is deeply ambiguous. Most of us are free from guilt by simple association, not just journalists, but the case you mention is not simple association but actual violation of a law.

    Please don’t mistake my intentions: I support your general point about the need for social scientists to conduct research into realms that may cross legal lines. Garrett is fortunate that he wasn’t subject to harsher penalties, and I see this as good news and an encouragement to all of us, rather than a warning.

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