On Goffman and seeking justice in America

That day we were all at the ASA crammed into Alice Goffman’s author meets critics session, a battle was raging in Ferguson. The battle, erupting after Michael’s Brown’s death at the hands of the law enforcement of Ferguson, arose because the Ferguson Police Department was capricious, heavy-handed, and bigoted in their treatment of black residents. Further insuring the systematic discrimination against African Americans, the municipal courts worked in tandem with police by reserving harsher treatment for blacks with citations for minor offenses. Long after Goffman’s Author Meets Critics had concluded and just before dissemination of an anonymous critique opened the door to an over-long, high profile, multi-disciplinary controversy about Goffman’s research, a U.S. Department of Justice Investigation into the situation in Ferguson “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” The US DOJ concluded that the rights of Ferguson’s black residents were violated on account of discriminatory intent and the intentional use of the law enforcement and the courts to increase city revenue through the imposition and collection of fines and fees. [insert your favorite Sheriff of Nottingham image here]

The DOJ findings provide chilling evidence corroborating the work of a growing number of scholars who have examined overpolicing and its alternatives; the school to prison pipeline in which institutional linkages such as having parole officers offering anger management as one the few extra curricular activities available to students has cemented the path from failing schools to penal institutions; the rise of the “new Jim Crow” – an exploitative social system that targets African Americans, denies their constitutional rights, and keeps them economically subservient; and an inside look at the violence and destruction characterizing the “criminal life course” adopted by a minority of the people coming up in communities that are groaning under the weight of a racist society. These stellar academic treatments of contemporary American racism and its impacts are crucial reading for anyone who really cares about the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration, the racist impact of broken windows policing, the continued gap between national ideals of equality and a brutally unequal reality, the 1138 people killed by police in 2015, or the 21 million black boys in the juvenile justice system in 2014.

But, such heady subjects and so many pages of reading! Perhaps it would be easier if we keep talking about Alice Goffman as she continues to upstage her research subjects – the people, to quote her words from this most recent press coverage “who are written off and delegitimated” and denied the opportunity to “describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face.”

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New Article: Multiculturalism as the Normative Context of Immigrant Reception

Pleased to announce the publication of my article,

Multiculturalism as the Normative Context of Immigrant Reception: Somali Immigrant Inclusion in Lewiston, Maine

available here


Drawing on data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork, I examine the process of normative incorporation as it occurs through the establishment of group recognition and representation among a new immigrant group settling in a new immigrant destination. I argue that Somali immigrant incorporation in the small, white American, new destination city of Lewiston, Maine was characterised by (1) the recognition of and partnership with Somali organisations and individuals who might represent the Somali community; (2) tensions between the assumed homogeneity of the Somali community and the reality of limited group cohesiveness; and (3) declining concerns about the authentic leadership position of representative organisations and increasing interest in working with an organisation that embodied the ideals of multiculturalism. I show that these organisational struggles shaped the development of a public, secular Somaliness that fit the parameters of the mainstream and undercut attention to practical challenges of Somali immigrant incorporation. My observations provide insight into the multicultural context of immigrant reception in other locations and among other immigrant groups.

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Voice from the past

I just received a letter from my 9th grade self.

It was an assignment in letter writing for my Freshman English class. Our letters were supposed to be mailed to us in the summer after high school graduation, but they were misplaced and only recovered recently. Turns out to be a welcome case of serendipity.

I was a bit nervous about opening my letter – concerned that it was going to be overwrought and overflowing with adolescent angst. I was also a little concerned that I wouldn’t recognize myself in my past self at all – that either I have gone too far afield or my young self was too grounded in a forgotten life.  Instead, the letter was cheerful, friendly, and optimistic. Reading the letter left me feeling satisfied and happy. Beyond that, I discovered that I like that 14-year-old girl from Peaks Island! And importantly, or at least it feels important now that I see it, the person I have become seems to be someone that perky island girl might like, too.


I really do not believe it! You have graduated! Are you still alive? What are your plans? I’m so excited! Sure, you’re leaving good ‘ol PHS but its changed because of the renovation anyway.

Where are you going, Harvard, Yale, Stanford? Or maybe not such an expensive college? What are you majoring in? Math, Literature, Journalism, what? (…) Is anyone else going to your college?

Did you get any awards or scholarships? It’s OK if you didn’t, though. Did you go to the prom, jr. prom? With who? (…) Were you on Varsity Math Team this year?

I am excited just thinking about graduating! Are you still on the island, in Portland, or what? If you’re still in the boonies, how come you didn’t get emancipated?

Plans for the future – college, acting, traveling, maybe writing a few books. I want to do everything!

There are so many things I would like to ask you. Just think back to June of your freshman year of high school. You’re sitting in your room. It’s all red and white. The Radio is on 93MGX, but you can hear the TV downstairs. It’s been really hot all day and it just started to rain, a thunderstorm. You can smell Mom’s supper (smells like spaghetti and meatballs). All your stuffed animals are staring at you, and your movie posters decorate the walls. It will never be like this again, but it’s getting better.

Help the earth!

Love and good luck!

Andrea Voyer

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Team Ethnography. Getting Started.

I’m happy to report that the Etiquette of Inequality is basically up and running. I’ve had a steep learning curve when it comes to project administration and the hiring, training, and supervision of research staff. I can’t say that I love that aspect of things especially since, teaching and family demands being what they are, time spent getting trained on the new system for submitting reimbursement requests, approving time sheets, lobbying for institutional support, etc, is all time that I could have spent doing sociology.

All the same, it is so wonderful to be back out in the field. How different this project is from my solo ethnographic research in Lewiston! Over the next couple of years I plan to use this blog to begin recording and working through the experience of doing team ethnographic work as a novice PI who is not working at a research-oriented institution. Today I want to reflect on team research and getting out into the field.

I spent much of the summer writing job descriptions for, interviewing candidates for, and hiring the project’s 5 research positions (3 undergrads, 1 grad student, 1 postdoc). I also cleared as many administrative hurdles as possible – Pace IRB, NYC Dept of Ed IRB, making initial plans with gatekeepers of the sites. When doing field studies, the unexpected should be expected. Indeed, this summer contingencies arose in 2 out of 3 field sites. Entry into those sites was pushed back a bit.

Then there is the complexity of life. Although I’ve done independent field research, worked within large team projects, and supervised others, I’ve never been in the position of having a team of people who are there to implement my own research idea. Things are also more complicated than they were when I was out in the field in Lewiston. I have a family. I am conducting field research while also teaching 2-3 classes per term, sitting on committees, supervising student internships, etc. To say that I have been overwhelmed is an understatement, and sitting down with the team for that first meeting, I realized that I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. It seemed impossible for me not to fail.

But then this amazing thing happened: my postdoc and grad student were all set to go, and my undergrads (all soc majors who had done great field observations in previous classes with me) were excited and eager to begin as well. So, despite my reservations, trepidations, and downright panic that we weren’t ready – things that, had I been working alone, would have had me feeling awkward as I skulked around my field site for a couple of more weeks before daring to speak to anyone – I said, “OK, let’s get started.” And so we did. It’s early, of course, still plenty of time to crash and burn, but it doesn’t feel like that is going to happen.

There are also still lots of things to get sorted out. But I’ve had to decide that it is OK for me to figure things out as I go. For example, at this point I am not exercising any control over the form and content of the fieldnotes save that they are written immediately, and that they include detailed description first and foremost with analysis and reflection as well. Is this the best approach? I’m not sure. As each site has 2 researchers (plus me), it has been interesting to see the variation in our fieldnotes regarding the same events – not just analysis, but description, too. Ultimately, especially since I cannot always be in the field, I will have to push for details on the things that are most germane to the study, but, really, the data is much richer on account of the fact that multiple ethnographers are producing it. I worry about what will be lost if I send folks out into the field with a series of questions to answer or facts to report.

We’ll see, I guess.

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Good Press for Strangers and Neighbors

Strangers and Neighbors will be turning 2 this winter, and the reviews are beginning to appear. In her review of the book for Contemporary Sociology (September 2015), Anita M. Waters concluded:

Strangers and Neighbors is an obvious candidate for inclusion in graduate and undergraduate courses in race and ethnicity, grappling as it does with sociologies of identity performance and ethnic conflict. It is also a valuable monograph for research methods courses in that it illustrates the reflexivity and flexibility necessary for qualitative field research… Voyer writes frankly and engagingly about her sometimes uncomfortable encounters in the field and demonstrates the way that unexpected findings lead to new avenues of research.

In other words, if you haven’t already read the book, there is no time like the present!


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Summertime, professorial edition

In my estimation, the summer break from teaching is one of the joys of the academic life. I love teaching, but it isn’t easy for me to stay on top of my writing, reading, and research during term-time when I have to also teach 3 classes and be available to the students.

Even though it is work, I’ve managed it. My first year at Pace, I was in a faculty writing seminar that was quite helpful in helping me figure out how to stay productive. In fact, the last two years have been my most productive. This summer is no exception. I am just finishing a contribution that is due Wednesday. For August deadlines, I have one another article promised out, a grant proposal that needs to be written and submitted, an article to review, an essay to write, an IRB application to complete, a pile of literature to read and summarize, and administrative work to do in advance of a large research project set to begin in September.

And this is the way I like it: the joyful demands of the academic life. I’ve been working hard to stay active in research and there are a few techniques that help me to do so:

1. If not now, when? It is too easy not to write because conditions are not perfect. Just get on with it.

2. It’s already written. Keep sending it out. I was at dinner with a sociologist friend who has a good job in a good department and is well respected in the discipline. I was telling him about an article that had been rejected a couple of times and that I was thinking I would just give up on it. He looked at me like I was crazy, “Why would you do that?” he asked. “You’ve already written it. Just keep sending it until someone takes it.” He then proceeded to share all of his rejection stories and some other particularly colorful stories about “famous” sociologists sending the same article to the same journal multiple times.

3. Be committed. I am deadline oriented and I assume I’m not alone. So, to keep myself working and to insure that my scholarly work doesn’t always take a back seat to more immediate teaching, administrative, and service demands, I try to get deadlines attached to my research and writing. Deadlines really are easy to come by: submitting articles to a call for a special issue of a journal instead of just submitting to the journal; grant application deadlines which, if met and successful, will result in funding and reporting deadlines; requesting a deadline on an R&R or invited submission; and, of course, participating in a hardcore, no excuses writing group or partnership.

4. Juggle. In the later years of graduate school, my work life was consumed by the dissertation. In my first years out of graduate school, my work life was consumed by the book based on the dissertation research. In the last few years, however, I’ve developed multiple projects that are in different stages – from articles that are already submitted to fledgling ideas that are being turned into grant proposals. I also have different roles. Sometimes I am working alone. Sometimes I am supervising research staff.  Sometimes I am a co-author or co-PI, or an editor. The opportunity to be engaged in multiple lines of inquiry, to vary my tasks, and to partner with different collaborators energizes me and keeps it interesting.

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Between Theory and Social Reality

While we are waiting for the print version of the Special Issue, I have created a page that pulls together and puts in order links to all of the contributions. Enjoy!


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