The sociological context of urban ethnography

Yesterday at the 2014 American Sociological Association Annual meeting, Wisconsin Sociology Professor Alice Goffman ran the disciplinary gauntlet in the form of an author meets critics session focused on her new book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman has received a great deal of press for her work (e.g. here), and there has been, especially in the wake of the attention, expressions of hostility to On the Run. Critics have raised questions about the validity of the research, Goffman’s ethnographic focus on the most stereotypically “ghetto” of the residents of the neighborhood where she did her fieldwork, issues of research ethics, and the white and privileged position from which the book and its warrant seem to be emanating.  A large crowd turned out for the event, many attendees were looking for the opportunity to criticize the book and its author. The hostility was undeniable.

I would like to suggest that we dispense with the emphasis on Goffman – both laudatory and virulent – and look to the discipline to understand why On the Run is the book it is.

Ethnographers in sociology face some unique challenges when it comes to publishing. My experience is that ethnographic work does not easily lend itself to the standard article format and my sense is that ethnographic work is underrepresented in the journals relative to the number of people doing such work – especially if you separate empirical pieces using ethnographic data and theoretical and methodological treatises written by ethnographers. Ethnographers gravitate toward the book format. (NOTE: this is all unsubstantiated. I’ll see what I can do, but not today).

When I was shopping my manuscript to the presses, I was told quite directly by a very esteemed publisher of urban ethnography and community studies that my work was not sexy enough for his press. Where was the biographical construction of “characters” that would hook the reader? Where was the ethnographic detail that would take the readers on a vicarious journey into the world of those characters? In other words, to put it in a somewhat inflammatory manner, where was my account of the exotic others that inhabited my field site, and how was I going to make their presumed strangeness familiar to my readers? I tried to push back. According to C.Wright Mills, sociologists seek to make the familiar strange by exposing the way everyday social life is shaped by the operation of recurring social processes and interrelated social institutions. I hadn’t conducted an ethnography of Muslim, Somali, immigrants in Lewiston, Maine, or the white Mainers that reacted with hostility to immigrant newcomers. My ethnography observed local processes of community inclusion and exclusion that referenced extra-local forces as they unfolded in a pretty ordinary place filled primarily with honest and hard-working people who by and large wanted the same thing – comfort, security, self-determination, and the hope of a bright future for their children and grandchildren. Ultimately, I was fortunate to find an editor who appreciated my approach.

What Rios (2011) refers to as the “jungle book trope” is a huge problem in contemporary sociology. How many books must we read in which the punch line is that there is a moral order to life in the ghetto (Hannerz 1969, and on and on), that black children don’t want to fail (Harris 2011), that “dead beat dads” do care for their children (Edin and Nelson 2013), that Muslim immigrant mothers want to help their children develop identites that balance what they believe is the best of their religion and home culture with all that they appreciate about American life, and that their children, like many children, struggle with determining their own balance between tradition and the present, parental guidance and individuality, faith and secularism (McGown 1999)? The first lesson that should have taken long ago is that “other” people are people, too. Let’s move on. (Note: I do not attend to criticize the sociologists who are writing these books, merely to say that we should be beyond needing books that draw that conclusion. We need to push for a change in approach.)

The second lesson that requires learning is that quite frequently the “other” is not so much a real thing as a creation resulting from the pressure that sociologists face to depict as ideal types various distinct “characters” or exotic ways of life – be they Anderson’s (2000) composite “street” kids or a typical evening of bottle service at an elite night club (Mears 2014). I attended one session at the 2014 annual meeting in which an ethnographer shared research conducted in a very wealthy private school attended by exceedingly privileged children. In the Q&A a couple members of the audience pointed out that they had observed in other school settings the didactic practices that the ethnographer claimed were particular to this school for the elites. Was this really a case of some unique thing, “the elite school,” and, if so, what is it that made it distinct? The researcher replied that the elite school was a different kind of thing because, although other schools may focus on creative production, student self-determination, and using the first names of teachers, this school had a 24 (or was it 240?) -acre campus and took their school trips to China. The disgusted snorts in the room following this revelation cemented it – distinct, inexplicable, and (in this case) despicable “other” created. Whatever the elite school is, it was clear we should all agree that the school was nothing like ours and its parents and students were nothing like us. (Note: Again, I think the problem a collective one inherent in our approach to the sociological enterprise, ethnographic work in particular.)

As sociologists, we are charged with the explication of social processes, institutional contexts and structures, cultural systems – some of us may consider these things as they become interiorized as goals, intentions, habitus, values, etc, while others may choose to focus on social life as it exists exterior to individuals. How does one establish the end-boundary of a process or a context? With all due respect to Weber, must we continue to parse the richness of social life into types? In the biological sciences pure taxonomy fell out of favor because it was imprecise as a science and had yielded about as much insight into the natural world as it could (Dobbs 2005). Let us hope that we recognize the limited efficacy of this approach when it comes to understanding the operation of the social world.

Alice Goffman is not the problem. The discipline is.

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Sometimes I love it in New York. I feel capable and competent and energized. I feel like my kids are having amazing experiences. I feel like this is exactly the right place for me.

Sometimes I am tired and overwhelmed. I feel that everything and everyone is so superficial and insignificant. I feel uncultured, uncouth, poorly dressed, and in possession of a naïveté that can never be remedied. I feel lonely, too, because, although I have met many wonderful people, I can’t really say that I know anyone here, or that anyone knows me.

At such times I am ready to head home to Montpelier where I will take a long walk in the woods while my ears acclimate to the silence (for those of you who don’t know – the first day or so back there is this strange sound – the sound of silence, which literally rings in your ears), have some meaningful conversations with my neighbors, then go home to put on my most comfortable and least fashionable clothes and make a loaf of bread and a big pot of lentil soup, from scratch.

That’s how I am feeling today. I think a lot of it is just that I took on a bit too much last week and this week, and I am tired. But I think, also, there is something else – all the things you cannot talk about, and the useless words you are supposed to use to fill the empty space.

Things you can talk about:

  1. The weather.
  2. Liking people’s hair, clothes, accessories, and general appearance.
  3. School, problems with school administration at the District level, and what middle and high schools everyone is planning to send their kids to.
  4. Where you are going over vacation.

Things you cannot talk about:

  1. Politics
  2. Business (money or class inequality)
  3. Race
  4. Religion
  5. Anything particularly personal or meaningful (a couple of times when I first arrived here I asked questions that were too personal and got the standard response: “I’d rather not say.”).

As I am so busy, I am often fine with the way we are tongue-tied here. All the same, on a good day the superficiality of everyday small talk is torture for my introverted self. In place of chit-cat, I generally prefer to sit quietly with other people, sipping some tea or some wine, sharing thoughts intermittently and seeing if a conversation arises. Given my social awkwardness (awkward for everyone else, that is, as I said, I am fine with those silences) and considering that very, very few NYC conversations move beyond the world of small talk, it is almost a wonder that I engage in any dialogue at all.


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Save the Battery Park Turkey

A new creature has taken up residence in Battery Park. A couple of times over the past few weeks I have observed a lone turkey (a hen, I think) in Battery Park. Battie often hangs around in the closed playground adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry or on the lawn just West of the playground and carousel construction areas.


As you can see in the picture, the bird has clearly learned to stay undercover to avoid the thousands of tourists, commuting New Yorkers, and dozens of dogs that are off-leash in the area each morning and evening. Battie is hidden under a table in a part of the park that, due to construction, is closed and fenced.

I feel so sorry for this poor bird that is so clearly out of place – a sad and lonely animal that generally flies very little, and usually lives in a flock. How did it come to Battery Park? Is there a wildlife service that can trap it and relocate it to a larger natural area with other turkeys?

Update: Apparently Battie is actually named Zelda, and she is a long time resident of the area and Manhattan’s only turkey:

So, it appears my pleas to have her moved will fall on deaf ears. Instead, perhaps we could bring her a mate?

Update 10/14/14:

Zelda, the Battery Park Turkey, was struck and killed by a car a couple of weeks ago.  (


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Fast = Good

Reestablishing the infrastrucure of everyday life is one of the most annoying things about moving. In my experience, it takes about a year in a place before you have settled in with friendships (if any), weekly routine, apartment layout, grocery options, fitness activities, dog-walking routes, childcare providers, extracurricular activities, and go-to restaurants. There are always some things that you lament losing, but you learn to appreciate the new things you’ve never had anywhere else. You also form interesting cross-cultural insights. Over the years I have shared many such insights on this blog. Here’s an NYC insight for you.

Fast = Good

Today I had to go to the dentist. It’s my 3rd visit to that dentist and the thing that takes me by surprise each time is how quickly I am in and out of the chair. It all happens so fast that the dentist is out in the hallway and the assistants are cleaning up, and I have to say, “So are we done for today?” because it just doesn’t seem plausible.

And then, the thing is, that, given how quickly it all went, I find that I am making a baseline assumption that they must not have done a careful and thorough job. All of my other dentists in all of the other places I have been seemed to take so much time, chatting, going over my x-rays in detail, taking great care to make sure that my gums are in tip-top shape, sanding down my new fillings so that they fit my bite perfectly. Today, I had a cavity excavated and filled so quickly that I thought he might just be finishing the drilling part. What shoddy work, I thought to myself, maybe I will just pay out of pocket to keep seeing my dentist back in Vermont.

Later in the day I got online to locate an endodontist that takes my insurance. As I was reading reviews and recommendations, I noted that one of the most sought after endodontists was praised again and again for the speed at which she worked. That led me to go back and look at the comments on my dentist and I found the same thing – people praising the fact that they were in and out of the chair so quickly that they didn’t even have to skip their early evening yoga, etc. And then I thought about how I consciously plan my routes around Manhattan so as to limit the amount of time I will be trapped slow-walking behind tourists, and how when the kids and I are walking and slow people are in front of us I say “frogger” and the three of us disband so we can individually weave around the slowpokes, and how it is almost physically painful when I first get back to Montpelier and I go to buy groceries and the cashier takes soooo long that I resort to deep breathing to maintain a pleasant demeanor.

Fast = Good. Does this mean my dentist is a keeper? Not necessarily. But it does mean that I need to think twice before I associate speed with shoddy work.

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This New York Life

Many years ago I took a trip to Paris to visit my brother. When I was visiting the Louvre, I came across a school field-trip – about twenty 5- or 6-year-olds. There were doing a scavenger hunt, looking for objects in the paintings in one of the galleries in the museum of impressionism. I remember smiling as a couple of kids matched the image on their sheet with Pommes et oranges. A masterpiece. A game. How amazing it is, I thought to myself, that the mundane backdrop of these children’s lives is this painting, this museum, and this city with all of the richness it offers.

This morning I was a parent chaperone for Mei-mei’s first grade trip to the MoMA. The children observed only 3 paintings while at the museum. We started with Christina’s World:


The children interpreted the painting with the guide, and then did a worksheet in which they attributed words to Christina.

Then it was The Sleeping Gypsy.


The kids interpreted that painting as well, and noted the move away from the realism of Wyeth.

Then The Hunter (Catalan Landscape). An entirely abstract piece.


The kids were absolutely focused on the paintings they were studying. As they sat in a circle on the floor in front of The Sleeping Gypsy, they engaged their guide in a lengthy discussion of the piece. Just a few feet behind them and to the left, situated alone on a small wall in the center of the gallery, hung The Starry Night.


As the children walked away from The Sleeping Gypsy, I caught Mei-mei’s attention. It seemed a waste to not even see it. I nodded my head toward the painting. She knows The Starry Night quite well from her art curriculum back in Montpelier. She smiled and gave me a thumbs up as, through the crowds, she glanced at the masterpiece.

How amazing it is, I thought to myself, that the mundane backdrop of my children’s lives is this painting, this museum, and this city with all of the richness it offers.

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Why read Great Books?

It is not surprising that sociologists like to talk books. In the last few months various sociologists have offered their accountings of the most important, inspiring and/or foundational books in the field (or over the past year, decade, etc). You’ll find a couple of these conversations: here and here. As a happy receipient of the unrivaled Great Books education offered in the College at the University of Chicago, I am a fan of canons and foundational texts. How we determine which books are the Great Books of a discipline is a subject of ongoing, often contentious, debate. The value of Great Books is likewise up for debate.

A couple of winters ago I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend workshop on the subject of designing a liberal arts curriculum for the Asian context. My working group included a biologist, an economist, a geographer, and a psychologist. I was the only person in this group that believed it was important to read classic texts. Flabbergasted, it took me some time to figure out why I valued Great Books so much. Was it just nostalgia associated with my own academic upbringing? After a time, I determined that, beyond the value I place on my own past experience, there are three reasons I value foundational texts and spend the first weeks of the semester in most of my courses guiding (or dragging, as the case may be) students through classic books and articles.

1. Great Books either introduce or embody the moral and political preoccupations, empirical questions and objects, and vocabularies and manners-of-speech that have become naturalized within the discipline. Reading those texts demystifies sociological doxa and helps insure that we remember the underlying empirical and philosophical worlds in which social science was built.

2. Reading Great Books renders the thinkers that came before us accessible and fallible. I think it is a human tendency to deify, perhaps gradually, the people who shaped human society. Sociologists are just as susceptible to this cult of individual exceptionality. We tend to construct a pantheon of thinkers whose ideas we’ve parsed, abstracted, adapted, and adopted as sanctifying identities and noms-de-guerre in intradisciplinary squabbles. However, when you actually have students read the works of these foundational thinkers and encourage them to find the flaws and inconsistencies (too often students are not being taught to critically engage with theorists and, instead, the focus in seminars is in acquiring proficiency in talking about that theorist in a way that makes one’s knowledge and theoretical standing clear to other sociologists), not only will they see the gaps between, for example, Weber and the Weberians, they will also see the internal inconsistencies and theoretical lacunae in the work of Weber himself. It is much easier to pursue a career as a sociologist when it is plain that one needn’t be a demi-god to do so.

3. Great Books expose the imperfect knowledge of the time in which they were produced, creating in students an awareness of the unknowability and likely inaccuracies of some of their own moral myopias, methods of analysis, and fundamental truths.  For example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic claim that we are always behind the times when it comes to bigotry and discrimination. They write, “…we simply do not see many forms of discrimination, bias, and prejudice as wrong at the time. The racism of other times and other places does stand out, does strike us as glaringly and appallingly wrong. But we acquiesce in today’s version with little realization that it is wrong, that a later generation will ask “How could they?” about us” (Delgado and Stefancic 2001:33). An important modicum of humility is gained as students realize they will never fully overcome the blindness of their time.

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New York Schools, our journey from PS 397 to PS 150

How better to catch you up on life than beginning with the one thing that everyone with even a little experience of New York told us would be an all-consuming issue for our family: schooling for the kids.

The New York City Public School System is not all that chaotic. It’s just that New Yorkers looking to figure out where to send their kids to school suffer from a common big apple problem – too many choices, and limited options.

Inside Schools should be your first stop when navigating a move to the city with kids. We (well, mostly Jason) looked over the various public elementary schools (neighborhood, district-wide, city-wide, and charter). We knew where we were working and used the school information (test scores, admittance information, etc) to narrow down potential neighborhoods. Here, in a nutshell, is how it works.

Anywhere you live, you will have a “zoned” school – a school that kids at your address are assigned to attend. In theory, you could just go to the DOE website and find out where you needed to live in order to have your child in the zoned public school. In practice, however, the most sought-after public schools are not able to accommodate everyone who lives in the zone. Overflow students are assigned to another nearby school. If you are just moving to the city, this is particularly problematic because you cannot register your child for school without proof-of-residence in the zone. So, it is possible that you might pay a premium to live within the zone of a popular school and then end up schlepping your kid to some other school not too far away but surrounded by apartments that are slightly more reasonably priced (relatively speaking, that is, I am talking about Manhattan, after all).

Jason and I decided that we didn’t want to deal with the uncertainties of such things. Since our close-to-work neighborhood choices basically included Seaport/Financial District (relatively lower rents and no concerns about zoned school running out of space) and TriBeCa (higher rents and schools that are unable to accommodate all zoned kids with the overflow kids are sent to the school in FiDi where we would be placed if we went for a less expensive apartment), we decided to focus our apartment hunt on FiDi. Of course, we read what we could find about PS 397 – the relatively new school that is zoned for that area as well as taking TriBeCa overflow. We toured the school, which is actually a gorgeous facility in the bottom 5 floors of New York by Gehry (a.k.a the wave building). On the eve of the start of school, as we were moved into our apartment and prepared to start our new jobs, we felt like we had beaten the system by managing to get ourselves set up without all the drama around school choice. So we thought.

PS 397 offers gorgeous facilities, friendly and largely well-off downtown parents, a rosy-cheeked corps of young teachers in their first years out of training, a perky, smiling principal ushering students into the building in the morning and admitting parents in to collect them in the afternoon. Blinded by the bright and shiny exterior, it took a little while for us to realize that we had some issues with this school.

The first problem was the chaos of drop off and pick up. It turns out the school has a serious design flaw – the lack of a large public space on the ground floor of the school. Because of the lack of space, school pick-up was a melee in the cafeteria with nannies and parents basically throwing elbows to get to kids. Stressful and unpleasant.

When I asked about moving pick-up outside, I learned of a 2nd big problem: the courtyard the school doors opened on to was a private/public space shared with the hospital next door. During this academic year half of that space will become the driveway and entry to an underground parking facility which will be under the school. So, kids will literally be coming in and out of the school right at a place were cars are coming in and out of parking.

Meanwhile, some issues began to arise with the kids. It started with small things – strange homework assignments, kids forced to read books way below their levels, kids coming home and saying that they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom and that there were cameras everywhere in the school and they were watching you so you had to be absolutely sure not to run or talk in the hallway. These might have been small things – misunderstandings, etc, but we had no way to find out because at PS 397 most parents are effectively barred from the school.

Very quickly we got the feeling that we were not welcomed – since everyone seemed so nice, at first I chalked it up to our newcomer status. By the second week, however, I realized that the problem was much larger than me feeling new and out of sorts. Here are just a few examples of the closed nature of the school vis-a-vis parents:

1. Parents were given no contact information (neither email nor phone) for the teachers or school leadership. We asked for said information and were denied. Instead, we were told that we could communicate with teachers by sending a note in with child and the teachers would send a note in return. Parents were also instructed that we should not chat with teachers during afternoon pick-up. Instead we should get our kids and leave. Parents were also not allowed to enter the building in the morning. I did send a note in with Jie-jie one time. The teacher sent a brief note of acknowledgement. Then, a couple of days later, Jie-jie came home and told me that her teacher had disagreed with my note and went on the divulge the conversation my 8 year old daughter had with the teacher regarding communication that I had not intended to make my child privy to.

2. We thought we felt basically locked out of our children’s school because we were new. However, as we moved into the 2nd and 3rd weeks of school and started chatting with other parents, we were dismayed to discover that the majority of parents we spoke with were unhappy with the school in general and the principal in particular. The failure of having open, 2-way lines of communication with the parents was the main gripe.

3. We had no way of knowing what was going on in the classrooms. We left after the 4th week of school, still having never seen the kids’ classrooms.

3. We attended the first PTA meeting and thought it was odd. The primary emphasis was on raising money and banking that money. The PTA didn’t seem to have any plan for the funds (unlike our new school, where the PTA purchased a new math curriculum). When parents raised tough questions, the principal brushed them aside by saying, “Trust me, I had good reasons for making the decision I did,” but never shared the reasons. When parents asked what would be done about the merely average test scores of the school, the principal said that average was just fine.

We started talking about pulling the kids but I insisted we should stick with it. So, Jason and I decided to get involved and see if we could shake things up a bit. He made it known that he would be interested in being class parent and volunteered to strategize around blocking the aforementioned parking garage. I spoke with the head of the PTA about making fresh fruit available as a snack and about serving on the School Leadership Team. No one ever got back to Jason about the parking garage and when he volunteered for class parent, he was laughed at (we assume, because he is man, but who knows). I went to the first SLT meeting. Non-team members were treated awfully. After they asked us to help set up the tables, the head of the PTA indicated with a wave of her hand that visiting parents “just sit at the other tables” and then went on to tell us (me and the other 4 visiting parents) that we had not asked in advance to be on the agenda so we would not have a chance to speak. I stayed for a bit – long enough not to be included in introductions, to hear that no seats on the team would be available for 2 years, and to witness a discussion about whether they wanted to give parents an email address for the team (someone callously stated that they would never be willing to make their email available to the entire parent body of the school).

Our last week at the school was a disaster. On Monday when I picked up the children, Jie-jie desperately needed to go to the bathroom. She felt she had to go at the end of class but the teacher made her come downstairs instead. The cafeteria tables were shoved against the only downstairs student bathroom. I took Jie-jie to the base of the stairs so she could go to the bathroom. The assistant principal was standing at the bottom of the stairs and refused to let us (or even just Jie-jie) back upstairs to go to the bathroom. We ended up running to a nearby deli with Jie-jie crying in pain in desperation. The next day Jie-jie went to the bathroom 8 times during the school day and took herself to the nurse twice. She later reported to me that she was just so nervous about needing to go to the bathroom. As we walked toward school Wednesday morning Jie-jie was subdued and started walking closer to me and holding my hand. After I dropped them off I went to work and started calling other schools.

PS 150 is a small, 186-student, district wide school. This means the school is open to people from all over lower Manhattan. Students are admitted by lottery (with preference for people whose siblings are already enrolled). The school is 20 years old, in a well-used, packed to the gills, old building in a public, straight out of Soviet-Russia, apartment complex. The school has no gym, no cafeteria, no playground, its science lab is its computer lab, is its library.

When we went to visit the school on the Thursday of the last week at PS 397, we were struck by how friendly and open the principal and school staff were. They gave us a tour of the school, let us poke our heads into the classrooms, and stopped to chat with us. When we spoke with parents, they all seemed so happy with the school and content with their children’s progress.

The kids started at PS 150 on a Monday (the Monday after the last week at PS 397). By Wednesday, it was as if we had been there all along. We managed to get in because we were lucky. The school almost never has space but last spring the DOE considered closing the school and merging it into another school in Chelsea. Some parents decided to pull their children. It just so happened that when I called, they had space in grades 3 and 1.

PS 150 is in the heart of TriBeCa, about a mile (20 minute walk with kids) from our place while PS 397 was a mere 5 minutes from our apartment. The school has provided the kids with metro cards so we can take the subway on rainy and cold days, but so far we have enjoyed the walk out of FiDi, through City Hall Park, and across TriBeCa. We are very happy with the teachers, school administrators, and enjoy the economic and cultural diversity of the families served by the school (something lacking at PS 397). PS 150 consistently ranks highly on measures of educational effectiveness despite the fact that it draws a much more diverse student body. In addition to strong academics, the kids are out in the city constantly. Jie-jie’s class is studying bridges so they have been taking field trips to various bridges in the city. They have also been to the theatre and the NY Public Library. Mei-mei’s class is studying playground so they have been all over lower Manhattan sampling the playgrounds. They have also been to the Children’s Museum of Art and the theatre.

On the downside, because the school draws from a larger area, the children’s classmates live all over – mostly Midtown and points south with the occasional Brooklyn and Queens household. Mei-mei actually has 2 classmates in our building, but Jie-jie’s friends are further flung. We still bump into the kids and parents from 397 and have been fortunate to have formed some fast friends in the short time we were there.

Lessons learned? Nothing really earth-shattering.

  1. Trust your gut.
  2. If you are willing to move your child a few weeks into the school year, you may have access to schools that you wouldn’t otherwise.
  3. School facilities are only as great as the people administering them. Looking back on things at PS 397, I remember how the parent coordinator gave us a tour even though she said that the principal said she wasn’t supposed to, and how we never once saw or met the principal in all our visits to the school, etc. Next time around I would see those as potential signs of trouble.
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