Coastal elites among middle America = “Margaret Mead among Samoans”

The quasi-anthropological quest of liberals to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump continues:

Third Way’s researchers are far from the only Americans inspired to undertake anthropological journeys in the past year. Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s election shocked the prognosticators, ivory-tower types are still sifting through the wreckage. Group after group of befuddled elites has crisscrossed America to poke and prod and try to figure out what they missed—“Margaret Meads among the Samoans,” one prominent strategist remarked to me.

HuffPo embarked on a 23-city bus tour to get to know places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg undertook a series of carefully choreographed interactions with factory workers and people on tractors. The liberal pollster Stan Greenberg appeared at the National Press Club to discuss his findings from a series of focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters in Macomb County, Michigan. A new group of Democratic elected officials hosted a “Winning Back the Heartland” strategy conference in Des Moines this month. The title of yet another research project, a bipartisan study underwritten by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, encapsulates the sentiment: “Stranger in My Own Country.”…

The other groups of anthropologists roaming Middle America face the same quandary. Having gotten the country drastically wrong, they have set out on well-meaning missions to bring the country together by increasing mutual understanding. They share Third Way’s basic assumption that mutual understanding is something Americans can agree to find desirable. But as hard as they try to open their minds to new perspectives, are they ready to have that basic assumption challenged?

The researchers I rode with had dived into the heart of America with the best of intentions and the openest of minds. They believed that their only goal was to emerge with a better understanding of their country. And yet the conclusions they drew from what they heard corresponded only roughly to what I heard. Instead, they seemed to revert to their preconceptions, squeezing their findings into the same old mold. It seems possible, if not likely, that all the other delegations of earnest listeners are returning with similarly comforting, selective lessons. If the aim of such tours is to find new ways to bring the country together, or new political messages for a changed electorate, the chances of success seem remote as long as even the sharpest researchers are only capable of seeing what they want to see.

Theoretically, academic ethnographic fieldwork should be different than some of the approaches described here which primarily seem to be concerned with finding support or reassurance that liberal perspectives or approaches resonate to some degree throughout the United States. An academic approach could better disentangle personal political views from those of the group who is being studied, or at least clearly demarcate when the personal subjectivity of the researcher influences the interpretation of the group under study. Such academic studies already exist – such as sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in a Strange Land which she summarizes here – and surely more are to come. What will the academic consensus be within ten or twenty years and how will it sit beside more partisan interpretations of the 2016 elections?

In related matters, Pew reported yesterday that the number of Americans holding a combination of conservative and liberal viewpoints has decreased. Thus, the growing need for the two sides to embark on safaris to interact with and try to understand fellow citizens (who do not even necessarily live that far away if we look at Democrat-Republican splits between big cities and outer suburbs).

Good data is foundational to doing good sociological work

I’ve had conversations in recent months with a few colleagues outside the discipline about debates within sociology over the work of ethnographers like Alice Goffman, Matt Desmond, and Sudhir Venkatesh. It is enlightening to hear how outsiders see the disagreements and this has pushed me to consider more fully how I would explain the issues at hand. What follows is my one paragraph response to what is at stake:

In the end, what separates the work of sociologists from perceptive non-academics or journalists? (An aside: many of my favorite journalists often operate like pop sociologists as they try to explain and not just describe social phenomena.) To me, it comes down to data and methods. This is why I enjoy teaching both our Statistics course and our Social Research course: undergraduates rarely come into them excited but they are foundational to who sociologists are. What we want to do is have data that is (1) scientific – reliable and valid – and (2) generalizable – allowing us to see patterns across individuals and cases or settings. I don’t think it is a surprise that the three sociologists under fire above wrote ethnographies where it is perhaps more difficult to fit the method under a scientific rubric. (I do think it can be done but it doesn’t always appear that way to outsiders or even some sociologists.) Sociology is unique in both its methodological pluralism – we do everything from ethnography to historical analysis to statistical models to lab or natural experiments to mass surveys – and we aim to find causal explanations for phenomena rather than just describe what is happening. Ultimately, if you can’t trust a sociologist’s data, why bother considering their conclusions or why would you prioritize their explanations over that of an astute person on the street?

Caveats: I know no data is perfect and sociologists are not in the business of “proving” things but rather we look for patterns. There is also plenty of disagreement within sociology about these issues. In a perfect world, we would have researchers using different methods to examine the same phenomena and develop a more holistic approach. I also don’t mean to exclude the role of theory in my description above; data has to be interpreted. But, if you don’t have good data to start with, the theories are abstractions.

Quick Review: Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb

I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:

  1. I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
  2. The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
  3. The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
  4. The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
  5. One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).

In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.

Quick Review: Evicted

I recently read Matthew Desmond’s much discussed work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Here are my thoughts on the ethnographic work.

  1. The book is certainly readable as he tells the stories of a number of tenants and landlords in the Milwaukee area. The plight of the tenants is striking and the landlords are also an interesting group (particularly Sherrena who wanted to tell her story). Of course, such readability may not impress some sociologists who prefer more scientific prose (and who complain about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman) but this should reach a broader public. The narratives have some summary data and causal explanations sprinkled in but the emphasis is on the stories.
  2. One of the more impressive features of this work is the quantitative data that it also draws on. This information is buried in the footnotes but Desmond also developed several quantitative datasets that helped (1) suggest his stories are not unusual and (2) provide the broader patterns for an issue that is not studied much in sociology.
  3. The biggest takeaway for me: the number of evictions that take place on a regular basis.
  4. The subject area – evictions – certainly needs more attention. I’ve read my share of work on affordable housing in the last decade but rarely did I see this issue mentioned. As Desmond notes, big cities have a sizable population of people who consistently have to move around due to evictions. Even if there were more housing units – and big cities are often tens of thousands of units short of affordable units – evictions make it difficult to establish roots and settle kids into schools. The final chapter – where Desmond discusses the broader issue and possible solutions – leads off nicely with this idea of a good physical home as the centerpiece of a thriving society.
  5. That said, how common is this issue in suburban areas? As poverty moves to the suburbs as do increasing numbers of minorities, I would expect that evictions are not limited just to larger cities.
  6. One area that gets less attention in this ethnography that may also prove worthwhile to explore further is the legal apparatus. Desmond follows one of the eviction squads and provides some insights into the court process but it would be interesting to hear more from judges (who from the book seem to work against the tenants – though they may just be following the law) as well as local officials (how do public officials respond to these situations).
  7. A second area is thinking about the intersections of race and class. Desmond hints at the influence of race: comparing the experiences of blacks on the North Side of Milwaukee versus whites on the South Side, comments from black and white tenants about the possibilities for living in the other’s neighborhoods, briefly discussing the race of landlords. However, there is a lot more here to unpack, especially given Desmond’s other work on race. Take the two main landlords in the book: one is white, the other black. The first has a more stand-offish approach (working through intermediaries) while the second is more directly involved with tenants. Both are in it for the money and seem to be doing well. How much does their race matter?

An enjoyable read and a work I could imagine using with undergraduates who often have little to no experience with housing issues. I look forward to looking at Desmond’s journal articles that also build on this ethnographic and quantitative data.

Researchers fact-checking their own ethnographic data

Toward the end of a long profile of sociologist Matthew Desmond is an interesting section regarding ethnographic methods:

Desmond has done an especially good job spelling out precisely how he went about his research and verified his findings, says Klinenberg. At the start of Evicted, an author’s note states that most of the events in the book took place between May 2008 and December 2009. Except where it says otherwise in the notes, Desmond writes, all events that happened between those dates were observed firsthand. Every quotation was “captured by a digital recorder or copied from official documents,” he adds. He also hired a fact-checker who corroborated the book by combing public records, conducting some 30 interviews, and asking him to produce field notes that verified a randomly selected 10 percent of its pages.

Desmond has been equally fastidious about taking himself out of the text. Unlike many ethnographic studies, including Goffman’s, his avoids the first person. He wants readers to react directly to the people in Evicted. “Ethnography often provokes very strong feelings,” he says. “So I wanted the book to do that. But not about me.”

Ethnographers should be more skeptical about their data, Desmond believes. In his fieldwork, for example, he saw women getting evicted at higher rates than men. But when he crunched the data, analyzing hundreds of thousands of court records, it turned out that was only the case in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Women in white neighborhoods were not evicted at higher rates than men. The field had told him a half-truth.

Still, beyond acknowledging that the reception of Goffman’s book shaped his fact-checking, he will say nothing about the controversy. Even an old journalism trick — letting a silence linger, in the hope that an interviewee will fill it — fails to wring a quote from him. “This is such a good technique,” he says after a few seconds, “where you just kind of let the person talk.” Then he sips his Diet Coke, waiting for the next question.

This gets at some basic questions about what ethnography is. Should it be participant observation with a reflexive and involved researcher? Letting the research subjects speak for themselves with minimal interpretation? Should it involve fact-checking and verifying data? Each of these could have their merit and sociologists pursue different approaches. Contrasting the last two, for example, how people describe their own circumstances and understanding could be very important even if what is reported is not necessarily true. On the other hand, more and more ethnographies involve reflexive commentary from the researcher on how their presence and personal characteristics influenced the data collection and inteprretation.

It sounds to me like Desmond is doing some mixed methods work: starting with ethnographic data that he directly observes but then using secondary analysis (in the example above, using official records) to better understand both the micro level that he observed as well as the broader patterns. This means more work for each study but also more comprehensive data.

“So what are the rules of ethnography, and who enforces them?”

A journalist looking into the Goffman affair discusses the ethics of ethnography:

To find out, I called several sociologists and anthropologists who had either done ethnographic research of their own or had thought about the methodology from an outside perspective. Ethnography, they explained, is a way of doing research on groups of people that typically involves an extended immersion in their world. If you’re an ethnographer, they said, standard operating procedure requires you to take whatever steps you need to in order to conceal the identities of everyone in your sample population. Unless you formally agree to fulfill this obligation, I was told, your research proposal will likely be blocked by the institutional review board at your university…

The frustration is not merely a matter of academics resenting oversight out of principle. Many researchers think the uncompromising demand for total privacy has a detrimental effect on the quality of scholarship that comes out of the social sciences—in part because anonymization makes it impossible to fact-check the work…

According to Goffman, her book is no less true than Leovy’s or LeBlanc’s. That’s because, as she sees it, what sociologists set out to capture in their research isn’t truths about specific individuals but general truths that tell us how the world works. In her view, On the Run is a true account because the general picture it paints of what it’s like to live in a poor, overpoliced community in America is accurate.

“Sociology is trying to document and make sense of the major changes afoot in society—that’s long been the goal,” Goffman told me. Her job, she said, as a sociologist who is interested in the conditions of life in poor black urban America, is to identify “things that recur”—to observe systemic realities that are replicated in similar neighborhoods all over the country. “If something only happens once, [sociologists are] less interested in it than if it repeats,” she wrote to me in an email. “Or we’re interested in that one time thing because of what it reveals about what usually happens.” This philosophy goes back to the so-called Chicago school of sociology, Goffman added, which represented an attempt by observers of human behavior to make their work into a science “by finding general patterns in social life, principles that hold across many cases or across time.”…

Goffman herself is the first to admit that she wasn’t treating her “study subjects” as a mere sample population—she was getting to know them as human beings and rendering the conditions of their lives from up close. Her book makes for great reading precisely because it is concerned with specifics—it is vivid, tense, and evocative. At times, it reads less like an academic study of an urban environment and more like a memoir, a personal account of six years living under extraordinary circumstances. Memoirists often take certain liberties in reconstructing their lives, relying on memory more than field notes and privileging compelling narrative over strict adherence to the facts. Indeed, in a memoir I’m publishing next month, there are several moments I chose to present out of order in order to achieve a less convoluted timeline, a fact I flag for the reader in a disclaimer at the front of the book.

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement within the discipline of sociology as well as across disciplines about how ethnography could and should work. It is a research method that requires so much time and personal effort that it can be easy to tie to a particular researcher and their laudable steps or mistakes. This might miss the forest for the trees; I’ve thought for a while that we need more discussion across ethnographies rather than seeing them as either the singular work on the subject. In other words, does Goffman’s data line up with what others have found in studying race, poor neighborhoods, and the criminal justice system? And if there are not comparisons to make with Goffman’s work, why aren’t more researchers wrestling with the same topic?

Additionally, this particular discussion highlights longstanding tensions in sociology: qualitative vs. quantitative data (with one often assumed to be more “fact”); “facts” versus “interpretation”; writing academic texts versus books for more general audiences; emphasizing individual stories (which often appeals to the public) versus the big picture; dealing with outside regulations such as IRBs that may or may not be accustomed to dealing with ethnographic methods in sociology; and how to best do research to help disadvantaged communities. Some might see these tensions as more evidence that sociology (and other social sciences) simply can’t tell us much of anything. I would suggest the opposite: the realities of the social world are so complex that these tensions are necessary in gathering and interpreting comprehensive data.

Sociologists walking every block not just in New York City

A sociologist who walked every block of New York City drew attention but can you also learn from walking every block of Tyler, Texas? One sociologist explains:

Because of his interest in the community, Moody said, he has walked every street in Tyler twice. “It took 12 years to do it the first time; 11 years the second time,” Moody said…

“It (walking) is part of my research interests in society,” Moody, who taught sociology and other subjects at different times in six area colleges, said…

“I’m sure there are people who have lived here all their life and never been in parts of this town. If we understand and love one another, we will have a better community and I believe we will have more unity. We should never turn down an opportunity to learn from someone, whether it’s a homeless person, a wino or a wealthy billionaire,” Moody said…

n his walks around town, Moody said he has attended services or toured every church, synagogue and mosque, although he is a Southern Baptist.

Moody added that he has toured every hospital in Tyler, day care centers, nonprofit agencies, television and radio stations, the newspaper office and nursing homes as well as East Texas juvenile correctional facilities, state mental hospitals and prisons.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Tyler may not be New York City but it is still a sizable city of around 100,000 people. Sociology has a long history of community studies and the experiences of people in places like Tyler may hold a lot of interesting research potential. Yet, I’m not sure the field is really interested in the sorts of Middletown studies that once were more common.

2. People who really want to know their communities could use this method. This may be a sort of fad but not for those really invested in their community. I’m thinking of local politicians who claim this but this is typically based on their social connections. While these certainly matter, it is another thing to physically walk everything.