Based on ethnographic research conducted with criminal underworld figures in urban China in the early 2000s, this article examines the particular set of ethical, emotional, and epistemological issues that arise when studying “illegal” actors. These actors’ positions as simultaneously marginal and powerful confound readymade ethical guidelines based on studying either “up” or “down.” Although studying “illegal” actors presents a complex power dynamic and renders anthropologists particularly vulnerable to “ethnographic seduction,” their practices and perspectives often reveal the complex interconnections and mutually constitutive relationships between “legal” and “criminal” as well as “licit” and “illicit” domains. Studying illegal or illicit worlds thus requires that we suspend the conceptual and moral binaries through which both state actors and social scientists typically perceive them.
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