From the Preface:
I fell in love with pit bulls because of my rescue pup, Idgie. She started this whole business. She grew into a pit bull and filled my whole heart. My family always had dogs growing up, but never a pit bull, and I had a lot to learn about this breed.
I was surprised when I read about the history of the pit bull as a fighting dog. I had been an ardent PETA activist in college, and a vegetarian most of my adult life. Over time, the more I read about pit bulls and dogfighting, the more disturbed I became. I realized that all the media attention around pit bulls masked a complex set of social problems, with scary implications for them and anyone who loved them.
My girl somehow set me on a path that led from pit bull rescue to graduate school, and then from dogfighting circles to shelter politics. Idgie died in 2013 at the age of 13, and with her passing I feel like an important chapter of my life has ended. Well, almost. I can't speak for the many dogs I met, but I can bear witness.
In 2002, after almost a decade of practicing law, I went back to graduate school in Gender Studies, at first part time. I ended up researching how the prejudice against pit bulls was related to gender, race, class, and culture. My Master’s thesis was called “Let the Dogs Do the Talkin’: Dogfighting and Marginalized Masculinities.” I looked at representations of pit bulls in hip hop media and Southern literature, and argued that racism between certain groups of men was being played out symbolically, and all-too-literally, through these dogs. At that point, I was hooked on academic study, and so I shifted careers and worked toward becoming a professor.
I went on to Emory University's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts to continue my research. My professors at Emory were not satisfied with me writing about pit bulls in books and the media. They said that to write about dogfighting, I needed to learn from the people who knew what they were talking about: dogfighters. I was incredulous. I worried I'd hit a dead end, or even end up dead in the trunk of a car. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t argue with their logic. After a lot of teeth-gnashing, I decided to try. I studied with an anthropologist adviser to learn how to do ethnographic research, which is “participant-observation” of a culture. It means hanging out with a group of people and trying to understand their norms and views.
In old-school anthropology, this usually meant going to an “exotic” locale, making a lot of so-called objective observations about another culture, and translating them back for an academic audience. But anthropologists have tried hard to throw off all those old colonial underpinnings. Now we also do anthropology close to home since there are many different cultures right under our noses, even though most of us live in a bubble, as I certainly did, in the ivory tower. We also try to pay attention to how our own presence influences and even co-creates the research.
Doing this kind of research came with a lot of red tape. There is an Institutional Review Board that has to pre-approve all research with human subjects, mainly so that people are not exploited. That meant I had to keep the names of my research participants completely confidential. Still I wondered, who would be honest with me about their illegal activities?