Ethnography = reporting = paying attention, right?

A look at psychologist Sherry Turkle’s latest study and promotion of normal conversation includes an interesting description of ethnography:

Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”

Considering Turkle’s years of studying human interaction with machines and technology (including the fascinating book Alone Together), I suspect she would not describe ethnography this way. But, it is not hard to find similar descriptions of ethnography. Isn’t it just observation and paying attention? Not quite. Journalists tend to equate ethnography with good reporting but this is not the case. Here are some key differences:

1. Ethnography does not involve intentionally interviewing key informants in a story. It involves much more discussion, observation, and time.

2. Ethnography is sometimes known as participant observation. Ethnographers don’t just interview; they often participate with the people or groups they are studying so they can get an insider view (key: while still retaining their outside, analytical perspective).

3. There is a rigorous process to ethnography that typically involves months of participant observation, copious note taking (both on the spot as well at the end of each day – I’ve seen recommendations for 2-3 hours of note-taking for each 1 hour in the field), returning from the field and coding and analyzing the notes, writing a study that interacts with and adds to existing theories.

4. This is not just “low-grade spying.” Ethnography is often an intense, draining experience that involves a lot of human interaction.

In other words, ethnography is not just about showing up and eavesdropping. Some people may be pretty good at this but this does not automatically make a good study. This, in my mind, is often the difference between academic and journalistic approaches to topics and social issues: the methodology employed by journalists tends to be scattered and there is little discussion of the trade-offs involved in their methodological choices.

Sociology professor who taught class on Lady Gaga becomes “Gaga sensei” and celebrity himself

Read about the fame a sociology professor who taught a class titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” has himself found:

Deflem’s entry into the world of celebrity began quietly enough. He had an idea for a course looking at Lady Gaga’s rise to fame – and examining it from a sociological point of view – in the summer of 2010 and got the go-ahead to design it. In October, 2010, the course was announced to the university newspaper. From there – to the astonishment of many – the course suddenly became news across the globe.

In the weeks that followed, Deflem was swamped by interview requests and media appearances to discuss the course. They came from the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Elle and USA Today. Media from countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Oman and even Zambia ran pieces about it. He fended off accusations that he had cynically designed the course and its title just to get such attention. “There is no way I could have planned this. I am not that smart,” he said.

But that was just the beginning. Soon he got an avalanche of criticism from figures like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter as well as Christian fundamentalists. His course even became an answer on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Lady Gaga herself noticed the course and talked about it on radio interviews and a chat with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper on the flagship news programme 60 Minutes. Saturday Night Live did a skit about Lady Gaga featuring a fan of the star who was dressed to look like Deflem…

He was also amazed at the lack of agency he had over his own fate and image as it spiralled out of control in the hands of hundreds of journalists. “You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control,” he said.

Does this then count as participant observation?

The course did indeed get a lot of attention, see an earlier post here, but it sounds like it has been worthwhile in the end: it allowed a sociology professor to take a current topic and use it to teach sociology as well as learn on the inside about the nature of celebrity.

I still think it would be interesting to hear sociologists discuss their opinions about courses like this or Michael Eric Dyson’s courses on hip-hop. The names and subject matter of the course can stir up controversy but it helps draw attention to a discipline that doesn’t generally receive much. Plus, what is the difference between giving a course a provocative name and then using it to teach sociology well versus the current events and examples lots of sociology professors use in the classroom?

Participant observation or “sociological stalking”?

A psychotherapist tells a story about observing, interacting with, and being blessed by  a woman in Mexico and calls what she does “sociological stalking.”

A couple of thoughts:

1. Stalking clearly has negative connotations so why use this term? If you talk to people about using Facebook, “stalking” is crossing the line from simple observer, which you are supposed to do on Facebook by reading the news feed and interacting with information others post, to an aggressive observer who looks at too much. And since this story has a happy ending, can’t we replace the term “stalking”?

2. In sociological terms, this is more like participant observation than nefarious stalking. On one hand, you want to observe to understand better why people do what they do. On the other hand, you end up interacting with those they observe, sharing in what they do with the hopes that the participation helps provide new insights. Put together, you get both the insider and outsider perspective.

3. Here is the summary made about the benefits of observing:

Sometimes, when in doubt, just observe. It is a fine remedy for assumptions, bias, judgments, and the angst that can accompany living. It is also a fine remedy for spiritual bank accounts.

In other words, observation can help take the focus off yourself, see the world in new ways, and involve you in the lives of others. I wonder if taking the time needed to truly observe and also the skills required to figure out what is really going on are lost arts.

Considering the ethics of adopting children to study them

An ethicist look at three scenarios to help sort out the difference between studying one’s biological vs. adopted children:

Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life…

I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children…

After running through three scenarios, here is the conclusion:

Therefore, if it is morally permissible for parents to independently decide how to raise their children in regards to gender, it should be morally permissible for a team of scientists to conduct a rigorous experiment with their own adopted children on the impact of rearing on gender and sexual preferences.

I imagine an IRB would have a very difficult time approving a formal proposal for this.

Several other methodological issues come to mind:

1. There could be issues of objectivity: how do we know parents of either biological or adoptive children could “objectively” observe their own kids? This may be a bigger problem in some disciplines than others: ethnographies, for example, utilize participant observation which parents would certainly be a part of. But even then, there are concerns about the researcher becoming too immersed in the setting of the study and losing an outsider’s point of view. Scenario #3 simply suggests that sociologist parents would make “unbiased observations.”

2. How could an experimenter be sure that results from adopted (or even biological) children are the result of the treatment rather than prior experiences and behaviors? Experiments try to isolate the effects of treatments but adopted children could have numerous confounding factors from their pre-adoption days.

Ethics and social science: grad student gets 6 months sentence for studying animal rights’ groups

This is an update of a story I have been tracking for a while: a sociology graduate student who had studied animal rights’ groups was  sentenced to six months in jail. Here is a brief summary of where the case now stands:

Scott DeMuth, a sociology graduate student at the University of Minnesota, was sentenced yesterday to 6 months in federal prison for his role in a 2006 raid on a Minnesota ferret farm. A judge in Davenport, Iowa, ordered that DeMuth be taken into custody immediately.

In 2009, DeMuth was charged with felony conspiracy in connection with a separate incident, a 2004 lab break-in at the University of Iowa that caused more than $400,000 in damage. DeMuth argued that anything he might know about the Iowa incident had been collected as part of his research on radical activist groups and was therefore protected by confidentiality agreements with his research subjects. A petition started by DeMuth’s graduate advisor, David Pellow, argued that the charges violated DeMuth’s academic freedom.

Last year, prosecutors offered to drop all charges related to the Iowa break-in if DeMuth would plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge related to the ferret farm incident. DeMuth took the deal. No one has been convicted in the Iowa break-in.

This has been an interesting case to introduce to students when teaching ethics amongst sociology and anthropology majors in a research class. Just how far should participant observation go? Couple this with another story, like Venkatesh knowing about possible crimes in Gang Leader for a Day, and a good conversation typically ensues.

However, this case does bring up some larger questions about how protected researchers and their subjects should be when carrying out their research. Should researchers have shield laws? How exactly do courts define “academic freedom” in cases like this?

How to get into clubs (the key: status)

Status is a topic that fascinate sociologists – who is labeled high status, why do they develop this, and how do they use it? A new study in Qualitative Sociology looks at what people are more likely to get into clubs:

Bring a woman — preferably many — if you want to get past the velvet rope.

That’s the advice of professor Lauren Rivera, who spent six months as a coat-check girl and in other low-level positions at an uber-exclusive club in Manhattan. The jobs were a cover for her academic work, on the bouncers of the club and the decisions they make. That account was just published in the journal Qualitative Sociology. It’s pretty much a how-to for making it beyond the velvet rope.

“I study status,” Rivera, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, tells AOL News, “and I had a question. And the question I had was, How do people evaluate the worth of others in these unconstrained situations?'”…

Rivera began by flitting around the club, trying to steal looks at the bouncers in action. But a few shifts into her stay, she set up as a coat-check girl, which gave her an almost unencumbered look at the bouncers and who they were admitting. Later, she interviewed them all, delving deeper for the why of their judgments. “The interviews were actually more fruitful than the process itself,” Rivera tells AOL News.

Here’s what she found. Bouncers, first and foremost, let in the people they’ve let in before. “Generally, the most important thing is to be recognized,” she says, i.e. a star. If you’re not a star, it’s important to be a regular — maybe a friend of the star who goes to the club often, even when the star is, say, filming a movie in Antigua.

That still leaves the rest of us. How do we get in?

“Bring women,” Rivera says. “Women get in because the more women there are, the more men will spend money on them.” So if you’re a man, it matters less what you wear than who’s on your arm — or, preferably, arms. And if you’re a woman, never come alone. Always come during a massive girls night out.

After that, pinning down who’s admitted gets tricky and idiosyncratic.

Very interesting work. The bouncers had to develop methods for letting people in or keeping them out. The bouncers may appear to have an “instinct” about this but in reality, they develop and follow rules that they believe lead to a more successful club. While the above factors would increase the likelihood of getting into the club (being a regular, bringing women, being famous), there were also factors that would decrease your status in the eyes of bouncers: being an American black or Hispanic man.

Also, this research method of participant observation allowed Rivera to dig deep into the workings of the club. Without the initial observations from the inside of the club as an employee plus the interviews at the end where she could then ask the bouncers about their decision-making, the study would not have been so complete.