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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7 Responses to The sociological context of urban ethnography

  1. Hmmm, I hear you. And I am inclined to mostly agree, but I would temper your critique of the sociological use of ethnography as I think you paint it a bit too one-dimensionally. It would be interesting to examine, for example, who variants of ethnographic inquiry there are (critical, descriptive, institutional, extended case, etc) and where they land in terms of articles and publishing houses and then see if there is a core and periphery of styles that adhere to the necessary evil other that you point out (which I agree, many want to inscribe in their work, which is perhaps part of the slight resistance to my work given that I don’t create easy others to dislike, but rather turn the critical lens onto the supposed “good guys”). Regardless, interesting thoughts, Andrea!

  2. Reblogged this on JAPANsociology and commented:
    An interesting look at the common practice of packaging the depiction of the ‘other’ in getting ethnographic work published. As I figure out how to generate interest for ethnographic work on relations between Japanese and Peruvians in Japan–a setting that might sound exotic to some of my colleagues at ASA but to me and my informants is familiar and everyday–I feel pulled between the pressures to publish and the pressures to fairly represent the site, the data, the people, etc.

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