“On the Run” has an extra level of fieldwork immersion

As publishers get excited about Alice Goffman’s upcoming book, sociologists say the fieldwork she undertook was quite immersive:

Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip she calls 6th Street (all names and places in the book are disguised), fully immersing herself in local culture.

She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements. Her thesis, advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago (probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed, said Douglas Mitchell, its executive editor).

It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

Fieldwork is intended to get an in-depth view of real life through long periods of observation and interaction. This sounds like going the extra step to truly find out what is going on. I wonder if there isn’t another element involved: Goffman worked in areas that many, the public or academics, might consider dangerous for significant periods of time. In other words, even most sociologists, who tend to be interested in addressing social issues and using a variety of research methods, would not go as far as Goffman did. All of this makes me wonder how much we might have missed about the world because sociologists and others might not always be willing to go further.

Considering how dangerous the Internet might be for children

While the Internet has made available a wealth of information for the average person, it has always been dogged by some perceived downsides. One persistent argument is that the Internet is dangerous for children. A recent sociological study from Europe suggests that while adults might consider the Internet dangerous for children, children themselves don’t have the same perception (and here is a second article on the same study):

A sociological study on a large scale conducted in 25 countries among 25,140 European Internet users aged nine to sixteen, suggests that the dangers of the Internet for Young people are often overestimated. Funded by the European Commission and led by the London School of Economics the study also shows that parents often have an incorrect assessment of what their children see as a traumatic or unpleasant [experience]…

One of the main findings of the survey is that what would be objectionable content or a traumatic experience for adults is not necessarily for children. Thus, 14% of young Europeans say they have seen pornographic images or sexual activity on the Web, but only a third of them felt this was a painful experience.

The survey also reveals a surprising paradox: if parents tend to overestimate the trauma that objectionable content can generate, they also underestimate the kind of experience that their children may have had. Thus, 40% of parents whose children have seen images of sex think that this does not happen to them, and this figure rises to 56% for recipients of aggressive messages.

There seem to be several findings here and I’m not sure I would draw the same conclusion about the first one as the first story did (though I haven’t look at the complete study or the data):

1. Kids don’t think these are painful experiences online. Does this matter what the kids think? Just because they don’t think it is dangerous or harms doesn’t mean that it is good. Or the parents could still think that looking at pornography or experiencing aggressive behavior is a negative even if the kid shows few signs of being affected.

I think the headline here could be phrased differently to better reflect this finding: perhaps something like “Parents, children have different perceptions about Internet dangers.”

It will also be interesting to see how the children of today react to things on the Internet (or the broader media) when they themselves are adults.

[The second story adds to this: “According to an EU survey, European teenagers are barely aware of the privacy issues raised by such websites. The survey found that 50% of them do not hesitate to give out personal information on the Web, which can remain online forever and can be seen by anybody.”]

2. A decent number of parents are not aware of the experiences that their children have online. Not too surprising. It would be more helpful to know why this is the case: is there a significant percentage of parents who don’t care what their kids do online? Or are there are large percentage of kids deliberately hiding certain online activities?

[Indeed, the second story focuses more on the lack of parental knowledge. One possible explanation for the knowledge gap: “A UK-based body for protecting children online says that children find it hard to confide in their parents about their experiences online.”]