Category Archives: Ethnography

UT Austin Urban Ethnography Lab Featured in ASA Culture Section Newsletter

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1

By Nino Bariola, Katherine Sobering, and Javier Auyero

Ethan works at a luxury hotel in downtown Austin, Texas that caters to the 1%—elites and celebrities that visit for the South by Southwest music festival, the Formula One races, and other mega events. His job isn’t by any means unimportant for the reproduction of the social order of Austin’s “new urban economy.” Yet handling the instability, meager wages, stress and emotional labor demanded by his job takes a toll: “We [service workers] are the genuine junkies…” Ethan explains. “Waiting tables and working in hospitality is very, very stressful and demanding, you know? And so all that fuels the fire.” The comparative benefits of luxury hospitality work do little to address his social suffering. As Katherine Sobering, a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab, reveals, Ethan also struggles with addiction, which he explains as “a product of the [service] industry.”

Sobering is part of the group of graduate students who wrote Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City with professor Javier Auyero. The book portrays the life stories of people like Ethan who struggle with precarity as Austin consolidates into a “creative city,” a trendy hub for technology and finance. While sociologists have produced excellent accounts of “objective” inequalities in changing urban contexts, “We are on less certain terrain when it comes to understanding the many ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities,” argues Auyero. “These experiences matter because they oftentimes do the cultural work necessary to perpetuate the social order, but at other times they serve as the basis for challenging it.”

Invisible in Austin is the first project of the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Discussions and debates that started in one of Auyero’s graduate seminars transformed into a collective project, and eventually, a collaborative book. In one of the journal articles about the project, Caitlyn Collins (now an assistant professor at Washington University, St. Louis), UT graduate student Katherine Jensen, and Auyero explain, “the book sought to intervene in the local public sphere by shedding sociological light on the sources and forms of affliction and on the manifold ways in which inequalities are lived and experienced on a daily basis.” Exemplary of the potential of public sociology, the book today is widely utilized as a learning material in high schools and college classrooms to teach about the often hidden and sometimes forgotten social problems associated with the so-called “creative class” and growth of  “new urban economies.”

Housed in UT’s Sociology Department, the Urban Ethnography Lab has been a stronghold of ethnographic and qualitative research since its inception in 2012, organizing and sponsoring conferences and talks with leading scholars and providing graduate student fellows with guidance, resources, and space for individual and collective scholarly creation. Of note are regular workshops like the biweekly brown bags where students and faculty present their work. As Invisible in Austin shows, many fellows and faculty affiliates are invested in the study of cultural dynamics and particularly how social inequalities in terms of class, race, and gender are (re)produced, legitimized, or challenged via cultural work.

The Lab brings together a growing number of faculty who use ethnographic methods. Christine Williams recent work explores gender inequality and diversity culture in the oil and gas industry, and her previous and widely-cited book, Inside Toyland, inspects low-wage retail work to expose how the social inequalities of gender, race, and class inequalities are embedded within consumer culture. Sharmila Rudrappa’s book, Discounted Life, is a fascinating account of the cultural politics of exchange in transnational surrogacy. Gloria González-López’s book unveils the intricate cultures of gender inequality as well as the social organization of secrets and silence that enable incest and sexual violence in contemporary Mexican families. Harel Shapira—who leads one of the seminars on ethnographic methods—currently studies gun culture in the U.S. Sarah Brayne’s work examines the use of “big data” within the criminal justice system, and particularly how the adoption of predictive analytics is changing views and practices of surveillance in law enforcement organizations. Daniel Fridman’s research looks at the intersections of culture and the economy in his book, Freedom from Work, which explores the social world of financial self-help in Argentina and the U.S.

Graduate student fellows carry out qualitative and ethnographic research across the globe, from Brazil and Peru to India, Nepal, Sweden, and the U.S. They are developing innovative research questions, including: “What are human rights organizations doing to get social media taken more seriously in courts?” (Anna V. Banchik); “How do ‘bad jobs’ become legitimized as ‘cool’ and ‘crafty’ occupations in the Peruvian culinary field? (Nino Bariola); “How do people working in the gig economy conceive of work and choice?” (Kathy Hill); “How do micro-level interactions within a family unit influence whether these individuals choose to utilize formal care services for their elderly family members?” (Corey J. McZeal); “How do Chinese rural residents who stay in migrant-origin communities continue to support urban migration even if economic returns from migrant workers become increasingly small and unpredictable?” (Ruijie Peng); “How are stereotypes about cannabis dealers reconfigured during legalization?” (Katherine K. Rogers); “How has Japan’s political crisis after the nuclear disaster in 2011 set the stage for emerging anti-racism politics? (Vivian Shaw); “How do Tunisian women’s groups protect their existing (secular) rights during an Islamist-led transition to democracy?” (Maro Youssef).

The culture of intellectual collaboration and support continues today. Most recently, Auyero and a new group of graduate fellows are studying the political culture of the working class in Texas. Teams of graduate students conducted fieldwork in five Texas towns experiencing drastic economic, socio-political, and environmental transformations to examine how communities cope with and make political sense of inequalities. The group is now extending the model of Invisible in Austin to use the qualitative data they collected to write a book that will richly describe and theorize political culture in everyday life.

In the Urban Ethnography Lab, the craft of sociology is undertaken collectively and horizontally through the sharing ideas, field notes, proposals, and papers. It is a place where students and faculty come together to provide, as Loïc Wacquant accurately captures, the “mutual support and crisscrossing control at multiple stages [to] help each [other] to fashion a better research object than would have been possible on one’s own…” As messy as ethnographic research may appear from the outside, at UT Austin, cohorts of sociologists now have a space to learn what it takes to produce rigorous ethnographic research in both theory and practice.

Gloria González-López in Ms. Magazine

Gloria González-López, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has published a piece in which she asks what the #MeToo movement can do for survivors of sexual violence in intimate spaces, such as the family. In the piece, she draws on research from her recent book Family Secrets:  Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico (2015, NYU Press) to articulate a vision for dismantling gender inequality and sexual violence within the family. 

She writes:

What does it mean that uncles are the most frequent perpetrators of sexual abuse? Hollywood moguls aren’t the only ones who feel entitled to girls’ and women’s bodies—men in familial settings sadly often do as well.

One of the most important feminist revolutions has to take place at home. How could the #MeToo movement prompt a reckoning in our most secretive, intimate sector?

Sexual violence against girls and women in the context of family life is deeply rooted in gender inequality. The women who shared their lives with me were socially trained to serve the men in their families—in the most extreme case, an eight-year-old girl was cleaning, sweeping and mopping the room of an uncle in his forties. In these family patterns of gendered servitude, men who are expected to be served by the girls and women in the family may feel entitled to be sexually served by them as well.

Read more at Ms. Magazine.

On the Market: Corey McZeal

We’re continuing our “On the Market” series featuring UT Austin graduate students who are on the job market! Up next is Corey McZeal, a 6th year doctoral candidate and Urban Ethnography Lab Graduate Fellow:

Tell us about your research. What are you working on?

My dissertation is a study of people who provide unpaid care for their family members. Most of them are caregivers of elderly people, and the majority of the care recipients have dementia or some other cognitive impairment. Half of my research involved volunteering at an adult day center (ADC) for 18 months. This facility serves the same basic function as a day care for children does, but it’s for adults with early memory loss. Whichever family members the care recipient lives with brings them to the ADC in the morning and picks them up in the evening, allowing that person to work or take a break from the care process. The other half of my research involves in-depth interviews with 20 caregivers. About half of these individuals utilize the ADC I volunteered with.

How did you prepare for the process of going on the market (preparing materials, selecting the right job openings, sending out applications, etc.)?

There was a writing group over the summer for all of us who were going on the market, and that really helped me get my materials finished early. After that, I already had a strong framework of the materials that I would need for every job. As far as selecting the right job openings, I mostly filtered everything by research area. I considered any job posting I found with a family or health-related focus.

How are you balancing all of your responsibilities this semester?

I’ve gotten much more organized since I started using a calendar. Setting deadlines for myself is imperative, because once you get to this stage of grad school everything is up to you. Sure, your committee will guide you, but you have more freedom than at any other time in grad school. On one hand it’s a great thing because you’re only spending time on things you (hopefully) enjoy and you can organize your time any way you see fit, but if you lose focus or motivation, there isn’t as much structure to keep you on track. It’s not like early on when you have classes and a syllabus that outlines your semester, so you have to do all of that yourself and then stick to it.

What is the highlight experience of your research during your time at UT?

Interacting with the members of the ADC was great. I learned so much about everyone there over the course of 18 months. The staff was great and helped me in any way that they could, but building rapport with the members was especially rewarding. Since they’re all in various states of cognitive decline, it took a long time for them to consistently remember who I was. But over time I got to know them and they got to know me. Learning about their pasts was amazing, because many of them had lived truly exciting and unique lives.

What is the highlight experience of your teaching during your time at UT?

Teaching has been my favorite experience at UT. I’ve been lucky to have three classes of my own, and each one has been great. The best experience so far came this semester on the very first day of class. Since I have 135 students and it’s very difficult to get to know them individually, I give each one an index card and ask them to answer a few questions about themselves. One question I ask is “Why are you taking this course?” A large number of students mentioned that they had heard great things about the class from friends and reviews. A lot of students have spoken to me about this throughout the semester and have said that they had high expectations based on what they had heard about the course and me. I know I’m doing a few things right if students are actually excited to come to class and care enough to tell others how much they liked it.

How are you practicing self-care?

Do something non-academic every day, as long as it’s constructive, relaxing, and not addictive. Watch a movie, read, exercise, or anything like that. Make sure you have friends who aren’t sociologists or PhD students, because those people keep you sane, and take breaks when you need to. Your body will tell you when it’s being worked too hard.

What is your biggest piece(s) of advice for those going on the academic job market next year or in the next few years?

Start early. The sooner you get a rough draft of your cover letter, teaching statement, research statement, etc., the better. If you do a lot of work up front, it reduces the time you’ll have to spend rushing to get things submitted at the application deadline. If you can have a good draft of your materials by mid-summer, you’re in great shape to apply to as many school as you need to since the deadlines usually begin in late August. After that, it’s just a matter of tweaking each document to fit the school you’re applying to.

UT-Austin’s Urban Ethnography Lab attends Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community Symposium

by Paula Benavides

On March 9-10, Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community (CCC) program hosted their 2017 symposium entitled, “Sites of Resistance: From Local to Global.” For their keynote speaker, the conference organizers invited UT-Austin Sociology’s own Professor Harel Shapira, and extended the invitation to a group of graduate student members of the Urban Ethnography Lab to participate in the concluding remarks.

UT-Austin professor, Harel Shapira, presenting his research on NRA training courses and gun culture in the U.S.

In his presentation, “The Culture of Justifiable Violence in America”, Professor Shapira dove into a brief yet riveting account of some of his fieldwork in National Rifle Association (NRA) firearm training classes. Through his ethnographic analysis, he revealed the ins and outs of the mentality of such classes, how individuals get habitualized into shooting guns, and the subtle “double-coding” that enabled participants to see firearms not as weapons but instead as tools. During the Q&A section, the audience raised critical questions regarding the moral and ethical repercussions of shooting guns, to which Shapira shared a set of fascinating observations regarding the gun culture in America.

Moderated by Professor Shapira, the concluding panel, “Ethnographies and Time”, included three UT-Austin’s sociology graduate students – Riad Azar, Alejandro Márquez, and Alejandro Ponce de Leon – who discussed the relationship between time and space. Each panelist focused on his respective field site, inviting the audience to think how “time” is an intervening variable within ethnography. In this panel, the audience was left to question how does time play a role in the way we analyze data, how do we know when we have reached data saturation, what does data do to our ways of thinking, and how does time affect our research subjects?

Doctoral students, Alejandro Ponce de Léon (L), Riad Azar, and Alejandro Marquez, and Dr. Harel Shapira (R) discussing the impact of time and space on ethnographic work.

In his presentation, “What does it mean to go into the field?” third-year doctoral student Alejandro Márquez discussed the idea of urgency in regards to undocumented migrant populations and the perils they face on their journeys to the United States. Alejandro had volunteered at a migrant shelter in the past year; during his fieldwork, the director of the shelter did not see academic research as a viable way of conveying the urgency and the imperative need for assistance from the community. From the director’s perspective, academics study migrant groups and the shelter but rarely do anything to truly help them through their plights, and therefore their participation is fruitless and ineffective. Alejandro unpacked the potential to translate the urgency of the situation into academic work by questioning how much solidarity can be shown to these groups through the academic research. Without this translation of the urgent need for help, can academics show any kind of real solidarity? Can this conundrum help academics arrive at a better definition of solidarity?

Second-year doctoral student Alejandro Ponce de León concluded the panel with his presentation, “Revisiting spaces: Affective Geographies amidst a Civil War.” Alejandro discussed revisitation and its implications for social theory, using the field notes and transcripts from a research project on Internally Displaced Populations (IDPs) in Colombia’s civil war that he conducted in 2011 – 2012 as his evidence. Through a set of interviews with shantytown dwellers in Medellín, Alejandro dove into a space that only existed in memories. The no-longer existent space is quite difficult to understand or analyze if the ethnographer has to rely on the recall of such a space in time; in response to this, he asked the audience to consider how accounts are perceived differently when re-addressed by the ethnographer after mulling over the data later in time. He also argued that sociologists need to “slow down” their theories in order to offer other kinds of accounts that more closely resemble the web of meaning of everyday life, rather than the solid edifices where our vocation is rooted.

Each of the panelists provided unique and relevant examples that introduced the intricate relationship between time and space in regards to ethnography. By discussing their various methods and obstacles they invited the audience to contemplate how ethnographers address these kinds of questions and how that can affect or be implemented into the research.


Paula Benavides is a third year Anthropology and Latin American Studies undergraduate student. She is in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate Internship program, which allows her to participate in the conferences and classes of her graduate mentor, Alejandro Ponce de León. Her research interests include race, gender, and sociopolitical conflict and resolution.

Ann Swidler on the Romance of AIDS Altruism

By Megan Tobias Neely & Maro Youssef

How is culture embedded within institutions? This central question drives the research of Ann Swidler, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. The interplay between culture and institutions has taken her from investigating how middle-class Americans talk about love to studying the international AIDS effort in sub-Saharan Africa.

In November, Power, History, and Society brought Swidler to present her current research in a talk titled “A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa.” Through this timely study, Swidler sought to understand how two institutional orders—that of the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and of the local village—meet on the ground. She asked: How do NGOs focus their efforts? And how are these efforts implemented in a local cultural and institutional context?

To answer these questions, Swidler, her colleague Susan Cotts Watkins, and a team of 60 post-doctorates, graduate students, and undergraduate students undertook a massive data collection project. From 2004-2016, the team conducted a “Motel Ethnography,” surveying 4,000 Malawian villages, interviewing 2,000 villagers and 200 donors and brokers, and recording 1,200 ethnographic journal entries.

The researchers found that the primary efforts of NGOs focused on trainings. Topics covered everything from “Training for Home-Based Care” to “Youth Peer Education Training” to “Business Management.” These training programs were desirable to NGOs and villagers alike, because they were perceived as sustainable, cost-effective, and empowering. Attendance included a meal and a small amount of compensation. The programs also provided opportunities to employ villagers.

However, the efficacy of trainings came into question in the case of one woman who, despite completing stigma awareness training and attending support groups, failed to acquire practical information on the antiretroviral drugs available to her. Not all training programs, according to Swidler, were equally effective in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS.

This and other shortcomings in the NGOs efforts, Swidler found, arose when the priorities of foreign volunteers were disconnected from local needs. Many volunteers had an idealized fantasy of helping the Other, which Swidler called the “romance of AIDS altruism.” As volunteers encountered difficulties, they became disillusioned and often gave up, citing “misunderstandings” with local intermediaries who were necessary in implementing the NGO programs. Swidler identified how these “misunderstandings” had to do with clashes between the volunteers’ expectations and reality. It had disastrous consequences: When an NGO terminates its programs, the flow of aid throughout the supply chain ceases.

Among the more long-lasting programs, Swidler found that the extent to which NGO efforts were subverted or indigenized depended on the NGO’s relationships with local intermediaries. According to Swidler, when the cultural expectations of an institution are transposed to a new setting, the practices and expectations of the local network “colonize” the imported institutional logics. It is a dialectical rather than one-sided process.

As the result of this dynamic, Swidler found that certain training programs were perceived as more effective by both the NGOs and the villagers. For example, trainings designed to eliminate stigma were well-received because they aligned with local cultural beliefs in a shared obligation to care for the sick and suffering. The programs most effective in changing sexual practice, according to Swidler and her team, framed contraceptives and self-protection as a radical act.

Swidler’s research on the efforts of NGOs in the fight against AIDS in Malawi sheds much-needed light on why transnational health programs do or do not work. In this case, the most effective NGOs worked with local intermediaries to understand the cultural and institutional context of the people they served. The Malawi case demonstrates how culture and institutions must be understood as deeply intertwined in order to make meaningful health interventions.

Ann Swidler also held a workshop with graduate students at different stages of their studies. Swidler is widely known for her work on modern love, culture, and the “cultural tool kit” people use to adapt to rapid cultural changes. Her book, Talk of Love is read in many graduate level contemporary theory seminars in sociology. She advised students to strive to become known for one topic, issue, or theory and to avoid changing fields by working on the same idea throughout their graduate studies.

One of Swidler’s biggest pieces of advice to those in the early stages of their research was to use comparisons of at least two cases when starting out. Comparisons do not have to become integrated into the final dissertation but are useful since they force you to figure out why you are comparing A and B. She explained that the dimension one uses for their comparison will force them to figure out the analytical focus of their research.

On methods, theory, and data, Swidler encouraged flexibility. She recommended students go back and forth between big theory and empirical evidence in order to frame their research. She argued that one must take a look at their data and decide what to do with the information they gathered on the ground. On interviewing, Swidler urged students to engage people during interviews. She warned against sticking to a script of interview questions. “Ask about their biography! Push or question statements that are interesting to you,” she said. She said interviewing was the most appropriate method to really understand a subject’s identity and illicit real views.

Finally, on writing, she urged students to “find their muse.” The muse can be another sociologist whose writing style or research interests the students. “Be that type of Sociologist,” she added. The type whose writing becomes an extension of themselves. She said this could be accomplished by looking for the type and mode of workflow that works for each person individually. Ultimately, she said that one must confront their fears and join writing groups.

Listen to the audio of Professor Swidler’s talk on UT Box.


Megan Tobias Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab, and the editorial committee chairperson for the Working Paper Series at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. Her research interests are in gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace, financial sector, and political systems, as well as how these issues relate to the recent growth in widening economic inequality.

Maro Youssef is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include gender,  political sociology, culture, social movements, organizations, and North Africa and the Middle East.

Brandon Robinson on LGBTQ Homeless Youth

SOURCE: Lezbelib.com
SOURCE: Lezbelib.com

Sixth-year doctoral student Brandon Robinson discusses the complexities around LGBTQ youth homelessness, emphasizing that the circumstances that lead to youth homelessness are “beyond” family rejection:

Most discussion surrounding these disproportionate numbers focuses on family rejection, that lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth are often kicked out or run away from home because of family conflict about their sexuality. Indeed, 73 percent of gay and lesbian and 26 percent of bisexual homeless youth report that they are homeless because of parental disapproval of their sexual orientation. Service providers indicate that 68 percent of the LGBTQ homeless youth they work with experience family rejection. These statistics paint a picture of homophobic and transphobic parents – many of them religious – casting their child out onto the streets. However, as a recent Huffington Postpiece captures, the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth are complex. LGBTQ homeless youth are also disproportionately racial/ethnic minorities, and they often come from family backgrounds of instability and poverty. Perhaps then there are other factors compounding these experiences of homophobia and transphobia?

Read more at The Huffington Post!

Exploring Liberation Theology through the lens of Social Sciences

by Paul Kasun

At St. Thomas Aquinas Institute with Eduardo Orellano, from Chile (wearing a t-shirt in support of Liberation Theology)

Several weeks ago, I attended a conference of the founders of the Commission for the Study of the History of the Church in Latin America (CEHILA) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. This year, CEHILA brought together academic scholars to “decolonize” the ideology, practice, and worship of Christianity that has characterized Christian churches in Latin America for centuries, as well as to address the present situation of Christian churches in Latin America and to determine how CEHILA could respond to the present poverty crisis. José A. G. Moreira invited me to the conference because of my interest in Liberation Theology from a sociological perspective. My dissertation focuses on the Mayan K’iche’ of the Western Highlands of Guatemala, so I gave a presentation on the migration of Guatemalans to the United States as a case study to understand the demographics of migration and the influence of migrants on the attitudes of relatives in their home country. Though the conference featured a variety of presentations, I will focus here on just a few.

Brochure for CEHILA, featuring the art of ___
The interior of a brochure for the conference, featuring the art of Adélie Oliveira de Carvalho

I begin with a painting by Adélia Oliveira de Carvalho, a Brazilian artist, whose work is featured on the CEHILA brochure, poetically expressing the overarching themes of the conference. The indigenous woman in the middle symbolizes the strength of humanity in Latin America, which has withstood centuries of struggles against unjust social structures, organized violence, and institutionalized racism. Around the main figure, Adélia paints various aspects of the Latin American reality, including agriculture, industrialization, war, and assassinations.

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At lunch with artist Adélia Oliveira de Carvalho.

One of CEHILA’s founders and most prolific writers is Enrique Dussel, who is currently editing a volume of his collected works. Of the many challenges facing Christianity in Latin America, Dussel focused on the need to re-examine the work of Karl Marx, specifically his main work, Capital. He openly questioned why liberation theologians have not quoted from Marx’s main book for more than twenty-five years. Rather than seeing the end of liberation theology, Dussel sees the downturn in the fortunes of liberation theology as a temporary win for the social forces of neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, and neo-liberalism. Inequality and various forms of stratification continue to be extreme in Latin America and Dussel sees the need to strengthen liberation theology by sociological analysis. Moreover, he stated that the future of Christianity is tied to its ability to synthesize with the advances in sociology, specifically in its ability to advance the ethical, philosophical, and economic work of Marx.

Johannes Meier, Paulo Suess, and José O. Beozzo described alternative explanations of the meaning of Christianity, which contrasted with colonial and neo-liberal explanations of Christianity’ meaning. They focused on the point of view of the oppressed, which has been obscured. They asked how have Protestant and Catholic institutions been a part of the oppressive structures of society, and how can that change today? As Pablo Moreno (First Baptist University in Cali, Colombia) argues, Evangelical theology has not synthesized its belief system with social policies that benefit the poor.

Panel with (left to right): a) historian Lauri Wirth, Methodist University of São Paulo b) Pablo Richard, Chilean Bible scholar who studied Sociology of Religion in Belgium, and c) Ana María Bidegain, Florida International University

Arguably the most significant moment for Christian churches in Latin America has been during the changes made by the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council II, 1962-1965, and Medellín Scholars Ana María Bidegain, Silvia Scatena, and Mauro Passos discussed how those committed to the poor can use the documents of the Council to advocate for improving the social conditions of the poor. Bidegain focuses on the continued challenges of decolonization, racism, and gender within societies and Christian denominations, while María Luiza Marcílio and Pablo Richard developed themes of de-colonialization in Central America, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America.

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In Ouro Preto, a mining town. In the background is the National Museum.

Overall, the CEHILA conference expanded my understanding of the work of Latin American scholars. My own sociological research complemented the work of Latin American liberation theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers and their work complemented mine. A take-away from this conference is that a common commitment to see the world through the eyes of the poor, across different disciplines, may be the best chance to build a unified coalition to build a civil society based on humanism.

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In the Ouro Preto city center with Pablo Richard.

Paul Kasun is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His doctoral research compares the effects of migration in two sending communities in the western highlands of Guatemala. As a Missionary Benedictine priest, he has worked as an immigration advocate helping people primarily from Mexico and Central America.

 

Toward a Feminist Sociology of Incest in Mexico  

By Brandon Andrew Robinson

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 On November 16, 2015, Dr. Gloria González-López participated in an author-meets-critics panel discussion about her new book Family Secrets: Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico. The event was hosted by the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and Erin Burrows, the Prevention and Outreach Specialist for Voices Against Violence, moderated the panel. It was a lively and necessary discussion where three panelists – Dr. Angela Valenzuela and UT Sociology doctoral students, Erika Grajeda, and Juan Portillo – offered their “compassionate critiques” of Dr. González-López’s work.

The discussion began with Dr. González-López describing why she studied incest in Mexico. She wanted to do something to help her community in Ciudad Juárez, and so she asked people in the community what type of research was urgently needed. A great deal of research had been done on the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, but nothing had really been studied about incest within Mexican families. Heeding this advice and wanting to engage with a community that she cares about, Dr. González-López decided to conduct 60 interviews with women and men who live in four Mexican cities (Ciudad Juárez, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey) and who had experienced incest. She also interviewed 35 professionals who work on this issue. After gathering these stories, Dr. González-López found it ethically and politically important to tell these stories as they were told to her and to not sanitize the stories. For this reason, she writes Family Secrets through the method of storytelling, where she presents the stories together in each chapter before offering any structural analysis. This method captures the complexities and gray areas of people’s lives, revealing how theories and concepts can never fully encompass the nuances of people’s lived experiences.

After Dr. González-López gave this brief overview, Dr. Valenzuela was the first to offer her comments on the monograph. She commended Dr. González-López for her emotionally engaged research and for her provocative concepts. She also expressed her fear of what this book might look like in the hands of someone like Donald Trump, who may use this book to pathologize Mexican people. However, Dr. Valenzuela believes that not telling these stories is a greater cost, and that Dr. González-López does an amazing job of analyzing the stories, giving the reader a way to contextualize and understand incest in Mexican society. Dr. Valenzuela also read what she thought was one of Dr. González-López’s provocative ideas: “Thus, the undercurrent or continuum that flows through a woman’s unique subjective experience and all women’s commonly shared experiences of sexual violence seems to suggest that consensual heterosexual sex and rape may have more in common than what one may want to accept” (pg. 110-111). Given this finding, Dr. Valenzuela raised the question of what is a healthy sexuality? And what are the solutions to ending incest?

Following Dr. Valenzuela, Erika Grajeda offered her thoughts on Dr. González-López’s book. Erika found the book to be brave, especially in Dr. González-López’s challenge to take on the family as an institution that reproduces incest and patriarchy. Erika also appreciated Dr. González-López’s analysis of internalized sexism, where women in the family may also be complicit in these incestuous arrangements and reproduce patriarchy as well. Erika raised some poignant questions that really made the preceding discussion engaging. She asked Dr. González-López: How is her conceptualization of consent and rape different than radical feminists? How do sexual scripts shape how women and men describe their sexual experiences, especially when discussing consent and coercion? And what is the difference between incest and abuse and what is the role of the state in perpetuating and/or solving these issues?

After Erika’s insightful comments and questions, Juan Portillo gave his reflections and comments on Family Secrets. Juan saw Dr. González-López’s two biggest contributions as her ethical methodology and her feminist standpoint, which combined gave a nuanced explanation of sexual violence. As life is more complicated than our concepts and theories, Juan pondered how do we make sense of sexual violence when the same logics that we use to try to end it are potentially the same logics that reproduce it. Given that we live in a society structured by inequality, Juan asked Dr. González-López if sex is ever completely consensual. He also wanted to know more about Dr. González-López’s choice of language – in her not wanting to use “survivor” or “perpetrator” and her writing about a gender non-conforming participant.

After these three wonderfully engaging compassionate critiques, Dr. González-López gave her brilliant responses to each of the three panelists. In response to Dr. Valenzuela, Dr. González-López pondered, what do we mean by healthy? Who defines healthy? Who is privileged enough to even have sex or be sexually healthy? As for solutions, Dr. González-López discussed that laws around sexual harassment in Mexico may expand to include relatives. She also talked about a research participant, whose mother believed her when she disclosed being raped by her father. This mother believing her daughter was a form of family justice and feminist practice that protected this woman from experiencing emotional damage. Other interesting topics that were discussed during Dr. González-López’s responses were that women are sophisticated, so seeing them as just victims does not capture their full lived realities. Also, life is messy and complicated and our abstract concepts will never fully get at the gray areas of our lives.

All in all, the panel discussion was thoughtful, provocative, and an important discussion. Family Secrets is a painful but necessary intervention into the field of sociology, sexualities, and sexual violence. In not sanitizing people’s stories, Dr. González-López pushes all of us to face the complex realities of people’s lives. Only in facing these messy nuances can we truly begin to find solutions to solving this social problem. It is with Dr. González-López’s compassion and ethical wisdom that makes Family Secrets a timely and important book that will re-shape the field of sociology for the better.

Brandon Andrew Robinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. His dissertation is a qualitative exploration of the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth in Texas.

ON THE MARKET: Pamela Neumann

Our “On The Market” series is back, featuring 5th-year doctoral candidate and Urban Ethnography Lab fellow, Pamela Neumann:

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Tell me about your research. What have you been working on?

Really broadly, I consider my research to be at the intersection of gender and political sociology. Empirically, my work looks at the dynamics of the state and social movements in Latin America, and theoretically it’s about issues related to gender and power. I started out doing research on women’s participation in development programs in Nicaragua and how that was affecting their lives. I was fortunate to publish that research a few years later.

Then, I worked on a project (as part of an NSF grant that Javier Auyero spearheaded) comparing perceptions of environmental risk in three different countries in Latin America. My piece of that was in Peru, in a small town called La Oroya. I was looking at why more people weren’t mobilizing against this 90-year old lead smelter that had caused so much contamination in the community. Many people work for the company, so that was one reason people weren’t mobilizing; but I was trying to figure out what some alternative explanations might be as well.

For my dissertation, I’m writing about violence against women, feminist activism, and state practice in Nicaragua. What happens when women try to place a legal claim against an abusive partner or someone else? What obstacles do they they face in the midst of that? I also look at local feminist mobilization around the issue of violence against women, and the dynamics of these interactions between women’s organizations and the state.

Where do you see your research going?

In the future, what I’m hoping to do is some more comparative work in Latin America, both related to violence against women and collective action. I’m particularly interested in places where extractive industry is increasing – in Peru, for example, where there are a lot of new open pit copper mines – and trying to explain when and how people mobilize in those settings against those kinds of projects and also, the gender dynamics in those communities.

Sounds like really complex and interesting work. So, how have you been preparing for this process of going on the market?

One of the first steps was to write a ​lot o​f drafts of things like research statements and teaching statements, trying to figure out how to articulate what my project is about beyond the case itself and what kinds of contributions I’m making to the subfields I’m in conversation with. I worked to figure out what those arguments are and then to synthesize them into a few key paragraphs. One thing I spent a lot of time thinking about was: what is the role of feminist activism on the issue of violence against women? Is it effective? In what ways? Is it not effective? And how does that compare or contrast with what women’s actual experiences are, because I feel like sometimes there’s a disconnect between feminist activism and the lived experiences of women. Activists have a particular point of view, priorities and strategies for what they think needs to happen, but for example, in my research I found that a lot of women didn’t necessarily want their partners to be incarcerated. You know, what does that say about feminist activism that’s all about getting laws changed or getting higher legal penalties for these crimes. I’m definitely not saying these crimes shouldn’t be penalized, but why is it that these are the main strategies being used? So, it’s a larger question about how activists try to promote social justice. Are legal strategies always the best?

So, I had to step back from the particularities of women’s situations in Nicaragua to ask a bigger question about the theoretical implications of what I’m doing. That’s one thing. The other big, theoretical issue I thought about as I was preparing my materials is about the state and how the state operates. A lot of how we talk about the state is high-level and kind of monolithic; I was thinking, what is my contribution to that debate, looking at low-level actors like police and prosecutors and the power and influence that they wield in these situations?

So, you spent a lot of time thinking about how to present yourself and your work. Situating where you’re engaging with these broad, sociological questions. When did you start working on materials?

I started writing drafts of my statements this summer, around June when I kind of knew – I had been advised – that I should start preparing. I was assisted by the fact that there were some July deadlines. This is something to be aware of if you’re going to go on the market, there could be deadlines as early as the middle of the summer. It’s good to start watching the ASA job bank, because some of the very early deadlines – July, late August, September 1 – were some of the main places that I wanted to apply. So, being ready by the beginning of the summer to send things out. Also, ASA falls at the end of August and well before that, there’s the ASA Employment Services that opens up– and those jobs start posting months before – so the sooner that you’re ready to send initial contact emails to those places with your updated CV, a brief description of your dissertation (a dissertation abstract) the better off you’re going to be.

How was it being on the market at ASA?

The key to being successful at the ASA-phase is to have already been thinking about this process well in advance and to have made contact with schools well before the Employment Services time period. The way it’s set up, you get 15 minutes with schools. Those schools look at your materials that you’ve already posted when you signed up for the service and they decided whether or not they’re going to contact you. The sooner you’re in the system, the sooner you can be on their radar, and the more likely it is that some of those schools are going to want to meet with you. I hadn’t received any advice early on one way or another about whether I should do that, so I didn’t sign up, unfortunately, until right when ASA started. Something else to be aware of is that you can’t see who the schools are who are signed up until you pay for the service. Many of these schools only send one or two people to ASA to do these interviews and there are potentially thousands of people submitting their materials. So, the sooner you’re on their radar, the sooner you can potentially get a slot.

You’re teaching a class this fall in addition to the doing all these applications and writing. How are you balancing all of your responsibilities?

That is a great question. I think teaching my own class this semester has been a challenge in that it requires a different kind of time management. As a TA, you’re not responsible for the lectures. I didn’t really have an idea of how long it would take to prepare a lecture until I actually had to do it. I learned early on that if I let myself, I could spend 8 hours preparing one lecture. After about two weeks of that, I realized that is not sustainable. So, I started to think: how I can make this process a little more efficient? At first, I spent a lot of time doing extra research but I realized I should focus on helping them learn what I actually assigned them to read. That’s what I can do right now. And I work on making the class interactive.

In terms of balancing, I dedicate Monday morning to prepping for my class and the afternoon, after I teach, to job applications. The days that I teach, that’s the pattern. Prep for class, teach, and job applications. At least two thirds of the day on Tuesday and Thursday, I try to devote to my dissertation, and at least one day of the weekend. So, it’s not ideal, but I guess it would help if I had a Tuesday-Thursday class. But, I’m very happy to be teaching; it’s been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot and it’s helped me write my teaching statement. This is the thing about preparing materials; it’s helpful to give concrete examples and the only way to get those examples is to have taught. I realize, now that I have been teaching for the last month, now I have really good stories that I can share not only in my materials, but in the event that I have the opportunity to interview somewhere. I definitely recommend if you have the opportunity to AI before going on the job market, to do it because it’s really helpful.

That’s great advice! What would be your biggest piece(s) of advice for those going on the market next year or the next few years?

I think I’ve said some of it already. It could be categorized into a few things, like writing your statements – research and teaching statements are only one to two pages long and it’s surprisingly difficult to write one to two really concise pages that are tightly woven and flow coherently. One piece of advice is don’t assume you’re going to be able to do that in your first draft. Even those of us who are good writers, who are practiced writers, it’s a different kind of thing to write. Give yourself a lot of time to do that. Don’t rush it.

Also, try to have some idea of what it is that you want, in terms of what you want to do when you’re done. Are you interested in primarily focusing on research? Are you interested in smaller, liberal arts colleges? Use what you know about yourself to inform how expansive or tailored your search is. I know some people think of their first year on the market as a “soft” search, where they’re really particular about where they apply and put “feelers” out. Other people say you should just apply widely and see what happens. I think it’s good practice and helpful to do a little bit of investigation about each school before you decide. Go to their website, look at who the faculty are, see what their research interests are and don’t think too much about “oh, it’s really cold there.” [laughs] You never know.

There are so many things you don’t have control over. In a way, it’s like what they say about publishing, you know you can’t take it personally. For example, now that I’ve been on the market for several months, I’ve already heard from a few places that I’m not on their list anymore. It’s important to remember that it isn’t necessarily because of my record, it could just be I’m not the kind of scholar they need right now. It’s the cliché thing – you’re not a good fit – but that could also be true. You have to try to not invest too much of your identity in the process.

One of the things I forgot to mention is one of the major parts of this whole process, the recommendation letters. If you’re going to apply to 30-60 schools, you’re probably going to want to use some sort of dossier service like Interfolio or Vitae. Investigate those and then, well before your deadlines, you want to make sure that you have identified three people who have already agreed to write for you, who know in advance where you’re applying, if you’re going to be periodically sending request emails. It’s important that they know to expect those emails; sometimes they go to junk mail. I didn’t have a clear idea of what professors would prefer in terms of the organization of the process until I was in it, so it’s good to find out how they want to handle that.

Also, definitely ask for examples of research and teaching statements and cover letters from people that you know or other people in the department. You can save yourself so much time, to at least see somebody’s final product. Not that your first draft has to be the same as whatever that person’s final draft was, but it’s helpful to see the organization, structure and the kinds of ways that people are framing their research to help you structure your own. That was really helpful to me.

How are you keeping all of this organized?

I’ve got a spreadsheet with all the school names and it had school name, deadline, the name of the position – because sometimes, it’s not just a sociology position, sometimes, it’s a joint – and then what they require from you, because not every school is the same. Some schools only want your cover letter and your CV, some want the CV and teaching statement, or just your research statement. Some want the letters of recommendation immediately. Some will contact your references later. So, have all that there. Once I’ve submitted I color-code it blue. I’ve been using Interfolio for the references, so I have a record of when the letters have been sent and to whom they’ve been sent. I save each individual cover letter for each school as a separate document and I have a couple different versions of my research statement and my teaching statement. I created a document that I thought would serve for the majority of schools and then I modify it for each application. I don’t have a separate folder for each school, but I know which versions of statements I send to each, the gender-specific versus just my standard statement.

Also, I didn’t think about this in the beginning, but don’t wait until the last minute to submit things. Anything can happen, you don’t know if the system is suddenly going to crash on you. So, you don’t’ want to be submitting your job applications at like 11:59pm the day before they’re due. Further, some schools start reviewing as the applications come in. So, if you can get your stuff in earlier, then it’s possible your application is going to get more attention. Also, if you’re submitting letters, you can’t submit at the last minute because your recommenders also need time to meet that deadline. So, you should really try to submit your applications a week before the deadline to give your recommenders time to upload the letters. Even if you’re using generic letters, Interfolio takes like a day.

When do you know that you’re ready to submit?

I sent multiple drafts to two professors to get feedback. With their feedback on the standard cover letter, the research statement and the teaching statement, basically I just tweak those documents on my own and don’t send the faculty any of those tweaked versions. They’ve approved the generic version, so whatever small things I might change for an individual school that isn’t something to bother the faculty with. In terms of knowing, I think it’s when the faculty that you’re working with say, “yeah, this is good.” I don’t think there’s really any other way to know. You start to realize what may be working as the process goes on. So, maybe in a few months I’ll know more, have more insight about that, to know what caught their attention. One thing I know is important is to have a clear puzzle in the letter. What is it you’re trying to explain? That’s not just a publication rule, that’s why should I care about your research, you know?

How are you practicing self-care?

I believe in self-care and so do my advisors. One way I like to practice self-care is through exercise. I like to go running, I go to the gym. Getting out all that physical energy, the stress that builds up. Also, I haven’t done this a lot but getting a massage periodically is also helpful. And of course, the occasional glass of wine. That hasn’t ever hurt anyone. Also, solidarity. Whoever is on the market with you, it’s helpful to talk to each other and share information. Yes, academia is a competitive place but we’re also each other’s future colleagues and our mutual success is important. I’m rooting for everyone in our department to get a job.

We’ve worked really hard for a long time and so it feels like it’s really high stakes. But at the end of the day, I’m still a person, and I have a life and that matters to me.

UT Alumna Esther Sullivan featured at The Atlantic

 

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Harbour Point Estates, Chicago

Recent UT-Austin Sociology alumna Esther Sullivan and her research are featured in “The Other Affordable Housing Crisis” at The Atlantic, discussing the “affordable housing crisis” that impacts those who live in mobile home parks:

Trailer parks are the largest segment of non-subsidized affordable housing in the United States, but they are on the radar of few policymakers, says Esther Sullivan, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Denver. Their number grew tremendously during the 1980s as direct federal funding for public housing was slashed, effectively privatizing much of the country’s low-income housing. There are an estimated 8,462,461 mobile homes nationwide, according to recently released U.S. Census data.

The vast majority of mobile home parks are located not in far-flung rural areas but in more populous metros, says Sullivan, who spent two years living in and being evicted from closing mobile home parks as part of her research. They predominate in Sun Belt states like Texas, Florida, and California, but you can also find them near New York City, or Cleveland, or Seattle.

Trailer park residents typically own their homes but not the ground beneath them, meaning most of the benefits of homeownership can be destroyed at someone else’s whim. It’s precisely this divided ownership model that helps make mobile home living affordable, but it also leaves residents vulnerable to eviction.

Read more on this issue and Esther’s work in Harris County here!