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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Unbroken in the Era of Mass Incarceration

There once was a boy with no respect for limits. He is rumoured to have had his first encounter with the police at just age 2 – when he climbed naked through his bedroom window and ran down the street, an officer in hot pursuit. His mother had no control over him. He seemed to get himself into every scrape imaginable, and into some unimaginable scrapes, too.

That boy was trouble. He was smoking by age 5 and drinking by age 8. He was known for thievery and vandalism. Beyond the thrill of delinquency, he turned a profit by dealing in stolen loot. As he grew older, he became increasingly belligerent. He was the ringleader for a gang of tough troublemakers. He was physically aggressive toward women, his teachers, and even the police. Terrorized by the boy’s misdeeds, the neighbors did not know what to do. Some threatened to shoot him. Others called the police, who spent many hours with the boy and his parents, stressing the gravity of the situation. The boy merely adjusted his tactics to avoid getting caught red-handed.

And so goes the account of the first decade and a half in the life of Louis Zamperini, who, instead of spending his remaining days in the custody of the United States Department of Corrections or saddled with a criminal record, got into sports in high school, went to college for track, became a national hero as an Olympic athlete, and then later was a celebrity bombardier in the Air Force. Zamperini was captured by the Japanese and spent more than 2 years as a Japanese POW. In 2010, Laura Hillenbrand published, Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini. In 2014, the account of this extraordinary life became a motion picture.

I read Unbroken at the behest of my father, whose enthusiasm for all things WWII and religious redemption made Hillenbrand’s book particularly appealing. I read it dutifully, but did not find in it an inspiring and uplifting account of the resilience of the human spirit. Instead, I never recovered from the tremendous sadness I felt after the first chapter. In that chapter, “The Boy Insurgency”,  we learn all the terrible things that young Zamperini did – his “childhood of artful dodging” and the “dangerous young man” he was becoming before his older brother managed to get the school to allow him to play sports despite his failing grades and troublesome behaviour. I couldn’t get past the fact that this delinquent, who went on to have such a noteworthy life, never ended up behind bars and instead was given chance after chance by law enforcement who quipped, after Louis began his career as a runner, that he had learned his craft by running from them.

I don’t begrudge Zamperini the opportunity to redeem himself. On the contrary, I wish his story was less exceptional. How many celebrity athletes that would be war heroes that would be religious supporters of young people do we lose in the era of mass incarceration? How many physicists, doctors, inventors, painters, and poets never have the opportunity to rise to their full potential because their days of “artful dodging” are never overlooked and their status as “dangerous young men” lands them in adult corrections instead of in a cherished spot on the high school (and then college) track team?

In my reading, Unbroken is a testament to all that is lost when young (most typically black and latino) men, are profiled and harassed by broken windows policing. The book shows in bright contrast all that we sacrifice when incorrigible boys and young men are locked away during the years when they should be discovering their potential. Unbroken forces us to wonder what our young men might accomplish if, as they matured, they were not marked by the stigma of a criminal record. In reading Hillenbrand’s accounts of the horrors of the Japanese POW camps, I cannot help but reflect on the gross injustice of our own penal system.

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Ethnography Special Issue

I am so pleased with the special issue of Ethnography that I co-edited together with Mats Trondman. Although it won’t be published together for a while, the articles are appearing in Sage’s OnlineFirst. Each article is great and the entire issue is so timely given ethnography’s current position as the scapegoat for sloppy work. Anyway, I digress. I’ll be posting each article as they become available. Here are the first four:

Meanings, motives and action

Voyer, Andrea
Ethnography, Jun 2015; vol. 0: 1466138115592414

Reed’s Interpretation and Social Knowledge is a valuable resource for ethnographers whose work is characterized by explicit engagement with the sense-making environments that produce social reality. In this essay, I highlight interpretivism’s strengths as a theory of method’, and then discuss its limitations. Namely, I take issue with the central roles that the social actor and motivated action play in Interpretation and Social Knowledge. I draw on my ethnographic work to demonstrate an approach to explanation that, although interpretivist, does not adhere to Reed’s assertion that uncovering subjective motivations is always necessary in interpretive work. When the ongoing everyday-ness of social life is the focus of research, action may be better understood not as doing but instead as being in context. Therefore, Ethnography’s working epistemics must allow for the decentering of the subjective and, by extension, the individual, motivated subject.

Ethnography, theory, and sociology as a human science: An interlocution

Reed, Isaac Ariail
Ethnography, Jun 2015; vol. 0: 1466138115592417

Ethnography has compelled sociology to recognize and articulate the implications of the fact that it is a human science. This response to readers of Interpretation and Social Knowledge is presented as an exercise in working epistemics’: a reflection on knowledge production that connects the philosophy of social science to extant problems in specific subfields and methodological approaches in sociology, themselves connected to the work of making empirically driven truth claims in sociology. In so doing, it addresses the investigator’s reflexivity about his or her knowledge production, causality and contrastive explanation, social power and the theory of fields, and finally the relationship between hermeneutic sociology and the sociological lexicon bequeathed by a theory of action’.

Language and social knowledge

Savcı, Evren
Ethnography, Jun 2015; vol. 0: 1466138115592416

In this piece, I argue that a heightened attention to language in Reed’s (2011) interpretive epistemic mode will help further theorizing of the relationship between meaning and the social, and hence strengthen the case for interpretation. Reed’s (2011) framework of landscapes of meaning’ would benefit from weaving in the significance of language to meaning-making: both because it would make room for variations in landscapes across (linguistic) space, but also because it would incorporate an understanding of language, and therefore interpretation, as a practical and historically changing activity. Finally, I suggest that paying attention to the uneven travel of language issues a productive challenge to the analytical distinction Reed maintains between the normative and the interpretive epistemic modes, given that not every epistemic mode is seen as equally legitimate in relation to dominant forms of making sense of the world, and given that subjects do not have equal access to interpretive landscapes.

Learning to see otherwise

Decoteau, Claire Laurier
Ethnography, Jun 2015; vol. 0: 1466138115592413

This article reports on data from two research projects with people whose own illness narratives and etiologies challenge the western biomedical ontology of the body. This paper argues that Reed’s landscapes of meaning’ allow researchers to make sense of the invisible, causal mechanisms operating in these particular epistemic communities. If ontology is an issue of perspective, then part of the ethnographer’s task is to learn to see otherwise’ by situating themselves in people’s systems of signification and thereby grasping and analyzing the causal forces at work. And yet exploring data from these cases also allows for intervention into Reed’s account of causality which lends causal primacy to symbolic systems over structural and agential ones.

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Discomfort in Desperate Times

I have been amazed by how quickly and graciously forgiveness has come in the wake of Charleston. Too quickly, I have been thinking, and this essay has helped me to realize why.

It’s not OK. Forgiveness is not deserved. That forgiveness is expected or demanded is just plain wrong.

Don’t you grow weary of this tired social performance? With full awareness that nothing will change, the right and the left start rattling their swords and casting blame. Carefully scripted (even if heartfelt) expressions of grief on the part of social leaders and routine (even if authentic) memorials, demonstrations, and vigils may look nice and feel nice, but they aren’t going to keep guns out the hands of people who would use them to act on the racist views they acquire from the false, glamorized histories they are taught. Kumbaya moments do not weaken the legal, economic, and cultural scaffolding that maintains our race-based social inequality. Visible expressions of grief do nothing to undo individually held racial bias nor provide the future victims of prejudgment social protection from the very real impacts the expression of bias has on everything from employment to self esteem.

My students sometimes complain that my classes can leave them depressed. The reproduction of class status and inequality, educational inequality, overpolicing, documented discrimination and bias in contemporary society, the long history of immigrant exploitation, and the construction of idea of white America. “Do you want me to treat you like small children and end each meeting with a silver lining?” I ask. “Should we make up some fairytale that leaves you confident that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated?”

And then I give a version of my “facing difficult truths” speech.

The point is to be uncomfortable. Beyond uncomfortable. Hurt. Horrified. Disillusioned. Angry. Desperate. Awakened. We face tragedy in my class, because I hope that doing so will help you to engage painful truths about this society. Too look long and hard at our failings and gauge the distance between lived reality and lofty ideals. To learn as much as possible about what we have done wrong and what we still do wrong. I want you to see through the shallow tropes that people employ when they are trying to get you to accept the current state of affairs. And, I hope, that then we will be able to work together to see the way out. What imagined future should motivate us? Given the wealth of knowledge we have about how things work, what can we be doing today to achieve our desired future? Then, what we will do tomorrow? The day after that?

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