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Disguised Observation in Sociology by Erikson


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									Society for the Study of Social Problems

A Comment on Disguised Observation in Sociology
Author(s): Kai T. Erikson
Source: Social Problems, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Spring, 1967), pp. 366-373
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social
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366                              SOCIAL PROBLEMS

cians, etc.; in short, all people as they    doing what one can do without prom-
carry out jobs for which they are in         ising to keep informationconfidential.
some sense publicly accountable.One          Since publicly accountableindividuals
of the functions of our discipline,          often recognize the fact of their ac-
along with those of political science,       countability and the useful purposes
history, ecqnomics, journalism, and          that might be served by sociologists
intellectual pursuits generally, is to       studying them, one can often gain a
further public accountability a soci-
                               in            good deal of cooperationwithout the
ety whose complexity makes it easier         promise of confidentiality.5
for people to avoid their responsi-             We are suggesting that sociologists
bilities.                                    in this respect have the same rights
   We would suggest that, in principle,      that journalistshave. Our understand-
anyone is publicly accountablefor the        ing of the social process may be such
actionswhich it is his duty to perform.      that we do not use this right in the
Most of the time, however, since soci-       same way as journalists, because we
ologists are not muckrakers, is not
                                it           are not interested in momentarysen-
                                             sations but in developing an under-
necessary or desirable to single out
individuals or even clearly identifiable     standing of the persisting tendencies
small groups. In such situations one         of social systems, large or small.
may reasonablyuse confidentialityas             5 Clearly the question of
                                                                          methodology is
an inducementto cooperation.In other         also involved here. It is easier to maintain
situations, however, this is clearly         the position we have outlined if the meth-
                                             ods used are primarily observational (as
unwarranted.If one wishes to study           was true of Sudnow's work) than it is with
the functioning of courts, or of a           interviewing methods where the interaction
mayor's office, or of General Motors,        of the interviewer and respondent may
or of unions, it is perhaps better to        more easily generate expectations of con-
                                             fidentiality which must be dealt with in
put up with the difficulties of only         some forthright fashion.

                      IN SOCIOLOGY*

                                 KAI T. ERIKSON
                                  Yale University

   At the beginning of their excellent          The purpose of this paper is to
paper on the subject, Howard S.              argue that the researchstrategy men-
Becker and Blanche Geer define par-          tioned in the last few words of that
ticipant observation as "that method         description represents a significant
in which the observer participatesin         ethical problem in the field of sociol-
the daily life of the people under           ogy. In point of sheer volume, of
study, either openly in the role of re-      course,the problem is relativelysmall,
searcheror covertlyin some disguised         for disguised participant observation
role. . . 1                                  is probablyone of the rarestresearch
   * Paper read at the annual meetings of    techniques in use among sociologists.
the Society for the Study of Social Prob-    But in point of general importance,
lems, Chicago, 1965.                         the problem is far more serious-
  1 Howard S. Becker and Blanche Geer,
                                             partly because the use of disguises
"Participant Observation and Interviewing:   seems to attract a disproportionate
A Comparison," Human Organization,
16 (1957), pp. 28-32.                        amount of interest both inside and
                        Disguised Observationin Sociology                       367

outside the field, and partly because         fessional meetings. But a good deal
it offers a natural starting point for        more is at stake here than the sensi-
dealing with other ethical issues in          tivities of any particularperson, and
the profession.                               my excuse for dealing with an issue
   In recentyears,a handful of studies        that seems to have so many subjective
have been reported in the literature          overtones is that the use of disguises
based on the work of observerswho             in social research affects the profes-
deliberatelymisrepresented   their iden-      sional climate in which all of us work
tity in order to enter an otherwise           and raisesa numberof methodological
inaccessible social situation. Some of        questions that should be discussed
these studies have alreadyprovoked a          more widely.
good deal of comment-among them,                 I am assuming here that "personal
for instance, the cases of the anthro-        morality" and "professional ethics"
pologist who posed as a mentalpatient         are not the same thing. Personalmoral-
by complaining of symptoms he did             ity has something to do with the way
not feel,2 the sociologists who joined        an individual conducts himself across
a gathering of religious mystics by           the range of his human contacts; it is
professing convictions they did not           not local to a particulargroup of per-
share,3the Air Force officerwho bor-          sons or to a particularset of occupa-
rowed a new name, a new birth date,           tional interests.Professionalethics, on
a new personal history, a new set of          the other hand, refer to the way a
mannerismsand even a new physical             group of associatesdefine their special
appearance order to impersonatean
            in                                responsibilityto one another and to
enlisted man,4and the group of gradu-         the rest of the social order in which
ate studentswho venturedinto a meet-          they work. In this sense, professional
ing of Alcoholics Anonymouswearing            ethics often deal with issues that are
the clothes of men from other social          practicalin their applicationand lim,
classes than their own and the facial         ited in their scope: they are the terms
expressionsof men suffering from an           of a covenant among people gathered
unfortunatedisability.5                       together into a given occupational
   In taking the position that this kind      group. For instance,it may or may not
of masqueradingis unethical, I am             be ethical for an espionage agent or
naturally going to say many things            a journalist to represent himself as
that are only mattersof personalopin-         someone he is not in the course of
ion; and thus the following remarks           gathering information,but it certainly
are apt to have a more editorialflavor        does not follow that the conduct of a
than is usual for papers read at pro-         sociologist should be judged in the
                                              same terms; for the sociologist has a
   2 William C. Caudill et al., "Social
Structure and Interaction Processes on a
                                              differentrelationshipto the rest of the
Psychiatric Ward," American Journal of        community,operatesunder a different
Orthopsychiatry, 22 (1952), pp. 314-334.      warrant,and has a differentset of pro-
   3 Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken,        fessional and scientific interests to
and Stanley Schacter, When Prophecy Fails.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota          protect. In this sense, the ethics gov-
Press, 1956.                                  erning a particular discipline are in
   4 Mortimer A. Sullivan, Stuart A. Queen,   many ways local to the transactions
and Ralph C. Patrick, Jr., "Participant Ob-   that discipline has with the larger
servation as Employed in the Study of a       world.
Military Training Program," American So-
ciological Review, 23 (1958), pp. 660-667.       The argumentto be presentedhere,
   5 John F. Lofland and Robert A. Le-
                                              then, is that the practice of using
jeune, "Initial Interaction of Newcomers in   masks in social researchcompromises
Alcoholics Anonymous: A Field Experi-
ment in Class Symbols and Socialization,"     both the people who wear them and
Social Problems, 8 (1960), pp. 102-111.       the people for whom they are worn,
 368                            SOCIAL PROBLEMS

  and in doing so, violates the terms         of course,is whetherwe have the right
  of a contract which the sociologist         to inflict pain at all when we are aware
  should be ready to honor in his deal-       of these risks and the subjects of the
  ings with others. There are many re-        study are not. The second, however,
  spects in which this is true, but I will    is perhaps more important from the
  be dealing here in particularwith the       narrowpoint of view of the profession
 relationship between the sociologist         itself: so long as we suspect that a
  and a) the subjects of his research,        method we use has at least some po-
  b) the colleagues with whom he              tential for harming others, we are in
 works, c) the students he agrees to          the extremely awkward position of
 teach, and d) the data he takes as his      having to weigh the scientific and so-
 subject matter.                             cial benefits of that procedureagainst
    The first of these points has to do      its possible cost in human discomfort,
 with the responsibilitiesa sociologist      and this is a difficult business under
 should accept towardother institutions      the best of circumstances. we hap-
 and other people in the social order.       pen to harm people who have agreed
 It may seem a little cranky to insist       to act as subjects,we can at least argue
 that disguised observation constitutes      that they knew something of the risks
 an ugly invasion of privacyand is, on       involved and were willing to con-
 that ground alone, objectionable.But        tribute to that vague program called
 it is a matter of cold calculation to       the "advance knowledge".But when
 point out that this particularresearch      we do so with people who have ex-
 strategycan injure people in ways we        pressed no readinessto participatein
 can neither anticipate in advance nor       our researches (indeed, people who
 compensate for afterward. For one           would presumably have refused if
 thing, the sheer act of entering a hu-      asked directly), we are in very much
 man transaction the basis of delib-
                  on                         the same ethicalposition as a physician
 erate fraud may be painful to the           who carries out medical experiments
people who are thereby misled; and           on human subjects without their con-
 even if that were not the case, there       sent. The only conceivable argument
 are countlessways in which a stranger       in favor of such experimentationis
 who pretends to be something else           that the knowledge derived from it is
 can disturbothers by failing to under-      worth the discomfort it may cause.
 stand the conditions of intimacy that       And the difficultieshere are that we
prevail in the group he has tried to         do not know how to measurethe value
 invade. Nor does it mattervery much         of the work we do or the methodswe
how sympathetic the observer is to-          employ in this way, and, moreover,
ward the persons whose lives he is           that we might be doing an extraordi-
 studying: the fact of the matter is         nary disserviceto the idea of detached
that he does not know which of his           scholarship if we tried. Sociologists
 actions are apt to hurt other people,       cannot protect their freedom of in-
and it is highly presumptuousof him          quiry if they owe the rest of the com-
to act as if he does-particularly when,      munity (not to mention themselves)
as is ordinarilythe case, he has elected     an accounting for the distress they
to wear a disguise exactly becausehe         may have inadvertently imposed on
is entering a social sphere so far from      people who have not volunteered to
his own experience.                          take that risk.
    So the sheer act of wearing dis-            The second problem with disguised
guises in someone else's world may           observationto be consideredhere has
cause discomfort, no matter what we          to do with the sociologist's responsi-
later write in our reports;and this pos-     bilities to his colleagues. It probably
sibility raises two questions. The first,    goes without saying that researchof
                       Disguised Observationin Sociology                        369

this sort is liable to damagethe repu-      afford to jeopardize, and we have
tation of sociology in the larger society   every right to be afraid that such
and close off promising areas of re-        people may dose their doors to socio-
search for future investigators. This       logical researchif they learn to become
is true in the limited sense that a         too suspicious of our methods and
particular agency-say, for example,         intentions.
Alcoholics Anonymous-may decide                The third objection to be raised
that its integrity and perhaps even its     here, if only as a note in passing, con-
effectiveness was violated by the ap-       cerns the responsibilities the profes-
pearanceof sociologists pretending to       sion should accept toward its students.
be someone else and deny access to          The division of labor in contemporary
other students who propose to use an        sociology is such that a considerable
altogether different approach.And it        proportionof the data we use in our
is also true in the wider sense that any    work is gathered by graduatestudents
researchtactic which attractsunfavor-       or other apprentices,and this propor-
able notice may help diminish the           tion is even higher for researchpro-
general climate of trust toward soci-       cedures that require the amount of
ology in the community as a whole.          energy and time necessaryfor partici-
So long as this remainsa serious pos-
                                            pant observation. Of the dozen or
sibility, the practice of disguised ob-     more observerswho took part in the
servation becomes a problem for             studies I have cited, for example, all
everyone in the profession; and to          but one was a graduatestudent. Now
this extent, it is wholly within the        a number of sociologists who have
bounds of professional etiquette for
one sociologist to challenge the work       engaged in disguised observationhave
of another on this score.                   reported that it is apt to pose serious
                                            moral problems and a good deal of
   This objection has been raised sev-      personal discomfort, and I think one
eral times before, and the answermost       might well argue that this is a heavy
often given to it is that the people        burdento place on any person who is,
who are studied in this fashion-alco-       by our own explicit standards,not yet
holics or spiritualists or mental pa-       ready for professional life. I am not
tients, for example-are not likely to       suggesting here that students are too
read what we say about them anyway.         immature to make a seasoned choice
Now this argumenthas the advantage          in the matter. I am suggesting that
of being correct a good deal of the
                                            they should not be asked to make what
time, but this fact does not prevent it     one defenderof the method has called
from being altogether irrelevant. To        "real and excruciating moral deci-
begin with, the experienceof the past       sions" while they are still students
few years should surelyhave informed        and presumably protected from the
us that the press is more than ready        Xarious dilemmas and contentions
to translate our technical reports into     which occupy us in meetings like this
news copy, and this means that we
                                            -particularly since they are so likely
can no longer provideshelter for other      to be academically,economically,and
people behind the walls of our own          even psychologically dependent upon
anonymity.But even if that were not         those elders who ask them to choose.6
the case, it is a little absurdfor us to       The fourth objection I would like
claim that we derive some measureof         to raise here about the use of under-
protectionfrom the narrownessof our
audience when we devote so much                6 To keep the record straight, I might
time trying to broaden it. The fact is      add that I first becameinterestedin these
that we are increasinglyreaching au-        matterswhen I was a graduatestudentand
diences whose confidence we cannot          applied for one of the observerposts men-
                                            tioned here.
370                           SOCIAL PROBLEMS

cover observationis probablythe most       scious mind of the participant.It may
important-and yet the most remote          be possible for someone to mimic the
from what is usually meant by the          conventional gestures of fear, but it
term "ethics."It seems to me that any      is impossible for him to reproduce
attempt to use masqueradesin social        the small postural and chemical
researchbetrays an extraordinary    dis-   changes which go with it. It may be
respect for the complexitiesof human       possible for a middle-cass speaker to
interaction, and for this reason can       imitate the broader accents of lower-
only lead to bad science. Perhaps the      class speech, but his vocal equipment
most important responsibilityof any        is simply not conditioned to do so
sociologist is to appreciatehow little     without arousing at least a subliminal
he really knows abouthis intricateand      suspicion. It may be possible for a
elusive subjectmatter.We have at best      trained person to rearrangethe slant
a poor understandingof the human           of his body and re-set his facial mus-
mind, of the communicationsignals          cles to approximate the bearing of
that link one mind to another, or the      someone else, but his performance
social structures that emerge from         will never be anything more than a
those linkages-and it is the most ar-      rough imposture.Now we know that
rant kind of over-simplification us        these various physiological, linguistic,
to think that we can assess the effect     and kinetic cues play an important part
which a clever costumeor a few stud-       in the context of human interaction,
ied gestureshave on the social setting.    but we have no idea how to simulate
The pose might "work" in the sense         them-and what is probablymore to
that the observeris admitted into the      the point, we never will. For one
situation; but once this passage has       thing, we cannot expect to learn in a
been accomplished,   how is he to judge    matterof hours what others have been
his own influence on the lives of the      practicing throughout a lifetime. For
people he is studying? This is a seri-     another, to imitate always means to
ous problem in every departmentof          parody, to caricature, to exaggerate
science, of course, and a good deal of     certain details of behavior at the ex-
time has been devoted to its solution.     pense of others, and to that extent any
But the only way to cope with the          person who selects a disguise will nat-
problem in even a preliminaryway is        urally emphasize those details which
to have as clear a picture as possible     he assumesare most importantto the
of the social properties that the ob-                he               In
                                           character is portraying. doing so,
server is introducing into the situa-      of course,he is really only portraying
tion, and this is altogether impossible    a piece of himself. It is interestingto
if we ourselves are not sure who he        speculate, for example, why the Air
is. We can impersonateother modes          Force lieutenant mentioned earlier
of behavior with varying degrees of        thought he needed to present himself
insight and skill, but we cannot repro-    as a near-delinquent youth with a visi-
duce them; and since this is the case,     ble layer of personal problems in or-
it seems a little irresponsible for a      der to pose as an enlisted man.
sociologistto assumethat he can enter      Whatever the reasoning behind this
social life in any masquerade that         particularcharade, it would certainly
suits his purpose without seriously        be reasonablefor someone to suspect
disruptingthe scene he hopes to study.     that it tells us more about the investi-
   When people interact, they relate       gators' impression of enlisted men
to one anotherat many differentlevels      than it does about the men themselves
 at once, and only a fraction of the       -and sincewe have no way of learning
messages communicated during that          whether this is true or not, we have
interchangeare registeredin the con-       lost ratherthan gained an edge of con-
                        Disguised Observationin Sociology                           371

trol over the situation we are hoping         psychologist, the observer was recom-
to understand.What the investigators          mended for re-classificationon the
had introducedinto the situation was          groundsthat he appearedquite anxious
a creatureof their own invention, and         over the death of his father. Now
it would be hardly surprising if the          these events may indeed suggest that
results of their inquiry corresponded         the pose was successful, for the ob-
to some image they had in advanceof           server was trying to look somewhat
the enlisted man's condition. (It is          delinquentand did have a story mem-
perhapsworth noting here that imper-          orized about the death of his father
sonation always seems easier for peo-         in an auto accident. But who would
ple looking down rather than up the           care to argue that the diagnosis of the
status ladder. We find it reasonableto        sergeant and the psychologist were
assume that officers "know how" to            inaccurate? Surely something was
portray enlisted men or that sociolo-         wrong, and if they perceived an edge
gists have the technical capacity to          of uneasinesswhich remindedthem of
pose as drunks or religious mystics,          anxiety or detected a note of furtive-
but it is not at all clear that the re-       ness which looked to them like delin-
verse would be equally true.)                 quency, they may only have been
   This, then, is the problem. If we          responding to the presence of a real
provide observers with special masks          conflict between the observer and his
and coach them in the "ways" of the           mask. We may leave it to the psycho-
private world they are hoping to en-          analysts to ask whether vague anxie-
ter, how can we learn what is happen-         ties about "killing" one's father are
ing to the people who meet them in            an unlikely impressionfor someone to
this disguise? What information is            leave behind when he is parading
registered in the unconscious minds           aroundwith a new name, a new back-
of the other people who live in that          ground, a new history, and, of course,
world? How does the social structure          a new set of parents. The authors of
accommodate this peculiarinvasion?
               to                             the article tell us that the observer
   It is clear, I think, that something       "did have something of a problem to
happens-something over which we               transformhimself from a 27-year-old,
have no control. Let me relate two            college trained, commissioned officer
incidentsdrawn from the studies men-          into a 19-year-old, near-delinquent
tioned earlier.The first has to do with       high school graduate,"and this is cer-
the Air Force officerwho posed as an          tainly easy to believe.8 What is more
enlisted man. In their report of the          difficultto believe is that such a trans-
study, the investigators used several         formationis possible at all-and if it is
pages of a short paper to describethe         not, we can have very little confidence
elaborate masqueradethey had fash-            in the information gathered by the
ioned for the observerand the coach-          observer. Since we do not know to
ing he had received in the ways of            what kind of creaturethe enlisted men
the adolescent sub-culture. "So suc-          were responding, we do not know
cessful was the tutoring," reads the          what sense to make of what they said
brief report, "that when the time for         and did.
'enlistment' arrived, the recruiting             The second example comes from
sergeant . . . suggested that the ob-         the study of the apocalypticreligious
servernot be acceptedby the Air Force         group. At one point in the study, two
because by all appearanceshe was a            observersarrivedat one of the group's
juvenile delinquent."7And later, dur-         meeting places under instructions to
ing an interview with a service                 8 StuartA. Queen, "Comment,"Ameri-
  7 Sullivan, Queen, and Patrick, op. cit.,   can Sociological Review, 24 (1959),   pp.
p. 663.                                       399-400.
372                             SOCIAL PROBLEMS

tell quite ordinary stories about their trol over the effects introducedby the
experience in spiritualismin order to observer.A companyof recruitswith
create as little commotion as possible. a disguised officerin its midst is sim-
A few days afterwards,however, the ply a different kind of organization
leader of the group was overheard than one without the same ingredient;
explaining that the two observershad a group of spiritualists which num-
appearedupset, excited, confused, and bers as many as eight observersamong
unsure of their errand at the time of its twenty or so membershas a wholly
their original visit, all of which helped different character than one which
confirm her suspicion that they had does not-and so long as we remain
somehow been "sent" from another unable to accountfor such differences,
planet. In one sense, of course, this we cannot know the meaning of the
incident offered the observers an in- information we collect.
triguing view of the belief structure
of the cult, but in another sense, the        In one of the most sensible pieces
leader's assessment of the situation written on the subject, Julius Roth
was very shrewd: after all, the ob- has remindedus that all social research
servers had been sent from another is disguised in one respect or another
world, if not anotherplanet, and she and that the range of ethical questions
may have been quite right to sense which bear on the issue must be vi-
that they were a bit confused and un- sualized as falling on a continuum.10
sure of their errandduring their early Thus, it is all very well for someone
moments in the new job. "In both to argue that deliberate disguises are
cases," the report informs us, the vis- improper for sociologists, but it is
its of the observers "were given as quite anothermatterfor him to specify
illustrations that 'strange things are what varieties of researchactivity fall
happening.'"9 Indeed, strange things within the range of that principle.
were happening; yet we have no idea Every ethical statement seems to lose
how strange they really were. It is al- its crisp authority the moment it is
most impossible to evaluate the reac- carried over into marginal situations
tion of the group to the appearance where the conditions governing re-
of the pair of observers because we search are not so cearly stipulated.
do not know whether they were seen For instance, some of the richest ma-
as ordinary converts or as extraordi- terial in the social sciences has been
narybeings. And it makesa difference, gatheredby sociologistswho were true
for in the first instance the investi- participantsin the group under study
gators would be observing a response but who did not announce to other
which fell within the normal range members that they were employing
of the group's experience, while in this opportunity to collect research
the second instancethey would be ob- data. Sociologistslive careersin which
serving a responsewhich would never they occasionallybecome patients, oc-
have taken place had the life of the casionally take jobs as steel workers
group been allowed to run its own or taxi drivers, and frequently find
course.                                     themselves in social settings where
    My point in raisingthese two exam- their trained eye begins to look for
 ples, it should be clear, is not to insist data even though their presencein the
 on the accuracyof these or any other situation was not engineered for that
 interpretations,but to point out that purpose. It would be absurd,then, to
 a wide variety of such interpretations insist as a point of ethics that sociolo-
 is possible so long as one has no con-       10 Julius A. Roth, "Comments on 'Se-
   9 Festinger, Riecken, and Schacter, op.   cert Observation,'" Social Problems, 9
cit., p. 241-242.                            (1962), pp. 283-284.
               The Observer,the Experimenterand the Group                       373

gists should always introduce them-         importantquestions about invasion of
selves as investigatorseverywherethey       privacy as an ethical issue.
go and should inform every person             In the meantime,the time has prob-
who figures in their thinking exactly       ably come for us to assume a general
what their researchis all about.
                                            posture on the question of disguised
   But I do think we can find a place
to begin. If disguised observationsits      participantobservationeven if we are
                                            not yet ready to state a specific ethic,
somewhereon a continuumand is not           and a logical first step in this direction
easily defined, this only suggests that     would be to assess how most members
we will have to seek further for a          of the profession feel about the mat-
relevant ethic and recognize that any       ter. I am not suggesting that we poll
line we draw on that continuumwill          one anotheron the merits of adopting
be a little artificial. What I propose,     a formal code, but that we take some
then, at least as a beginning, is the       kind of unofficial reading to learn
following: first, that it is unethicalfor   what we can about the prevailing cli-
a sociologist to deliberatelymisrepre-      mate of opinion in the field. If we dis-
sent his identity for the purpose of        cover that a substantial number of
entering a private domain to which          sociologists are uncomfortable about
he is not otherwise eligible; and sec-      the practice, then those who continue
ond, that it is unethical for a sociolo-    to employ it will at least know where
gist to deliberately misrepresentthe
characterof the researchin which he         they stand in respectto the "collective
is engaged. Now these negative sanc-        conscience"of their discipline. And if
tions leave us a good deal of leeway        we discover that only a scatteringof
-more, perhaps, than we will even-          sociologists are concerned about the
tually want. But they have the effect       matter,we will at least have the satis-
of establishing a stable point of ref-      faction of knowing that the profession
erence in an otherwise hazy territory,      -as a profession-has accepted the
and from such an anchored position          responsibility of knowing its own
as this we can move out into more           mind.

                      AND THE GROUP*

                            THEODORE M. MILLS
                               Yale University

  Imagine,if you will, the plight of the    move next? We wonder if he will ever
centipede who suddenly stops to ask:        move again. He suffersfrom the centi-
How do I do this? What system do I          pede complex.l
employ?How am I relatedto my legs?            Stephen Potter applies the concept,
Which one, or is it several? should I       you will recall, in his advice to the
   * Written for the symposiumon Ethical    golfing gamesman: when your oppo-
and Methodological   Problemsin Social Psy- nent is on the green and aboutto putt,
chological Experimentsunder the auspices    ask him what muscles he brings into
of the Society for the PsychologicalStudy   play, and from what part of the body
of Social Issues at the AmericanPsycholog-
ical Association convention, Chicago, Illi-   1 Brought to my attentionby Robert F.
nois. September1965.                        Bales.

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