Crossing the Line : While Serving as a Lompoc Guard, an Anthropologist Receives a Lesson in a Peculiar Peril of His Profession

January 26, 1989|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Science Writer

Mark Fleisher's epiphany came during an episode of "Hill Street Blues."

A balding, bespectacled anthropologist at Washington State University, Fleisher was in his eighth month of field work at the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, serving as a corrections officer or "hack" to study morale among other "hacks." That day, he had spent nine hours investigating the stabbing murder of an inmate named Juan.

And when he watched a violent street killing on the television cop show, he suddenly realized he was growing bored. "Slowly it dawned on me that something in me had changed," he said. "When I began my work at Lompoc, I was anxious about getting involved in serious violence. Now I was afraid that Juan's death would be my only killing. What a shame that would be."

Fleisher, 41, had crossed a line that many anthropologists have approached but that few admit having crossed: He had "gone native," adopting the attitudes of the people he was studying, to the point that his professional objectivity was lost.

A Thorny Problem

The possibility of going native has bedeviled anthropologists since the 1920s, when workers in the field first began partaking of their subjects' culture. It is a particularly thorny problem for anthropology.

"The method that is characteristic of anthropology, and no other science, is participant observation," said Roy Rappoport of the University of Michigan, president of the American Anthropological Assn.

"You not only observe, but to the extent that it is appropriate, you also participate in local activities," Rappoport said. "You try to learn how to do it as much as you can yourself. . . . What is involved here always, to some extent, is going native. You are attempting to get an inside view of the culture as well as an objective outside view.

"That is not to say that this insider's view is more or less valid than the outsider's objective view. Both have validity, but they are different. The important thing is that you don't get them confused."

"Mark was doing what any anthropologist would consider difficult field work," said anthropologist H. Russell Bernard of the University of Florida, who was Fleisher's mentor during graduate school. "When you do field work in your own culture, even if the people are radically different from anything you grew up with, they speak the same language, watch the same television shows, and so forth. It's difficult because you can become wrapped up in the local culture, very much involved in people's problems. You can lose your objectivity."

Fleisher's flash of insight marked the start of a long, difficult process that included three solid days of discussions with his mentor and months of introspection. He ultimately recovered his professional demeanor and completed his study. But along the way, he gained some unusual insights into hacks and the men they watch over, and a fresh perspective on what has often been called one of the most violent institutions in the federal penal system. From that, and from the whole experience of "going native," has come his book, "Warehousing Violence," due out in February from Sage Publications.

Fleisher began the prison project from a very personal approach. He had previously done his doctoral dissertation among the Salish Indians of the Northwest, "but my passion has always been prison studies. I spent many years studying women who married violent men, convicts"--studies he is continuing now that his work at Lompoc is finished.

In 1985, he was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to study morale problems among correctional officers at Lompoc. He carried out the regular duties of supervising meals, supervising inmate groups and investigating violent acts while at the same time he studied the staff.

"I was learning the job and, by being a regular staff member, I had access to channels of information that outsiders never have," he said. "For example, in the dining hall, you are standing there watching individuals being fed, making sure people aren't taking too many hamburgers or packages of sugar, and you hear correctional staff talk to prisoners and resolve problems."

At first, only a few staff knew Fleisher's true purpose. "It was part of my job, my skill as an anthropologist, to develop rapport. And the way to develop rapport was by being there when the men were proving their mettle," such as during violent incidents.

Did a Good Job

"After I developed rapport, then I told them why I was there," he said. In general, he said, other hacks seemed to accept him because he was doing a good job and he kept his head in emergencies.

"You're in an intimate relationship with these people where, indeed, what they say about violence and danger is true: You've got to trust the people you are around. And you begin to trust them, you begin to like them, to rely on them, and you begin to identify," he said.

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