Category Archives: Ethnography

Rock Climbing Culture in Austin, TX

indoor-rock-climbing

by Corey McZeal

This post consists of excerpts from Corey McZeal‘s M.A. Thesis entitled, “Rock Climbing Culture in Austin, TX.”

Supervising Committee: Dr. Harel Shapira and Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson.

The sport of rock climbing has seen a boom over the last two decades. Interestingly, this boom has not been due to the extreme commercialization of the sport, but by the increasing availability of indoor climbing venues that allow individuals to foster the skills that allow them to eventually climb outdoors. While the demographics of climbers can vary by region, in Austin, Texas climbers tend to be middle class, male, and white. Through my research on the climbing culture in Austin I seek to discover what features of the sport make it so appealing to this particular demographic. Through ethnographic methods, in-depth interviews, and participant observation, I gained insight on the climbers’ motivations. Additionally, though climbing offers a peculiar mixture of pain, injury, and even the potential for serious injury, climbers see it as a “stress reliever.” Throughout this thesis, I seek to discover how climbers manage this apparent contradiction, and what their participation in the sport can tell us about other aspects of their social existence.


Eva was overwhelmed. It was her first time rock climbing, and she was at an indoor gym with a few friends who were avid rock climbers. Ascending the wall, she noticed that there were too many rocks for her to grip as she worked her way up, and there were just as many places for her to place her feet. Instinctively she reached for the closest one that seemed easy to grasp, but her fellow climbers quickly reprimanded her. “No, you can’t use that one!”

Climbing-Wall-1990854“Why can’t I use that one?” she fired back. “There are like 800 of them! What’s the point if I can’t use them?” She was confused, but her friends told her that she could not use those holds because they were on a different route.

Eva did not particularly enjoy this adventure into climbing, but another friend convinced her to try outdoor climbing. On top rope with her friend belaying, he said, “You can use whatever holds you want to get there, I’m not going to tell you no. However you want to do it.”

She tried this style of climbing and enjoyed it much more, since she was able to be freer in her movements and do whatever she felt she needed to do to get to the top. Eva remembers the moment fondly: “It finally clicked with me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun.’ And that’s the whole point of the gym, to teach you how to do harder moves. It’s all for training and it’s supposed to make you better.”

In the simplest form, climbing should seemingly be about getting to the top of a rock wall. But among serious climbers, this is not the case. They climb, but only in very specific ways. If it were only about getting to the top of the wall, we would use ladders, build stairs, or simply find an easier route and hike there. Instead, these particular groups of people decide to use possibly the most physically difficult method of accomplishing the task. The activity that rock climbers participate in isn’t practical; it is not about getting to the top of the wall at all. For them, climbing is about creating a certain type of experience.

rock-climbingClimbers, especially middle class suburban climbers, need this particular experience. Climbing gives them a chance to embark in something that they rarely get to do. We currently live in a society of increasing structure, regulation, and technological advancement. Through the generations we have had to exert less and less physical effort to acquire food, shelter, and protect ourselves. Rock climbing gives middle class, suburban individuals, those who occupy generally comfortable spaces of our society, an environment in which they can experience pain and flirt with danger.

Even if sport climbing seems like something very natural and primal, it is still extremely controlled. It sometimes does not feel that way on the wall, but without equipment failure or tremendous human error the climber is almost guaranteed to reach the ground safely. Yet that feeling is key to the experience; climbers create an environment in which they can do something that feels primal and dangerous while knowing that the risk of death is actually very slim. For the typical suburban, middle class individual, this level of pain and feeling of risk is almost completely absent from their home lives. Rock climbing gives these particular individuals a place to embrace the aspects of their lives that they do not, or no longer, have a chance to enjoy.


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PHS Panel: Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson on Transitioning Methods

by Luis Romero

One of the most important things graduate students can do while in grad school is to take as many methodology courses as possible. This advice is given to us by our mentors, faculty and older graduate students. Yet no matter how many methods classes you take, it is impossible to master every method – getting one down is difficult enough. While mastering one method lasts some researchers their entire academic lives’, others venture into different types of questions and units of analyses that warrant the use of new methods. What happens, though, when you are out of graduate school and want to change methods? How do you go about this change? Navigating the different assumptions, techniques of data collection and analysis of a new method can be overwhelming. However, it is something that can and has been done. Professors Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez and Sheldon Ekland-Olson joined the Power, History, and Society Network (PHS) to describe how they transitioned into new methods. Each provides a piece of the puzzle to better understand how sociologists can change methods, even without prior graduate training.

Dr. Michael Young: Keeping Books on the Nightstand

MYoungOf the three panelists, Michael is the most recent to transition to a new method for a project he is currently working on. His training in graduate school was oriented toward the study of old social movements using historical sociology. Specifically, he was trained to map the trajectories of different movements to get at the causal sequence of events (e.g. how the morality and religious schemas of the evangelicals helped to mobilize them during the antebellum era). Michael has recently shifted to studying the DREAMers – a group of immigrant rights’ activists who are concerned with helping undocumented immigrants that were brought to the U.S. as children and attended school in the U.S. However, because the DREAMers and their activities are an ongoing phenomenon, Michael understood that he could not rely solely on his training in historical methods to study this group. Instead, he decided to learn about ethnographic and interviewing methods. This posed a problem for Michael, since studying an active movement followed a different logic than studying something that already had an outcome (and analyzing how and why that outcome came to be). To resolve this dilemma, Michael turned to Professors Javier Auyero and Harel Shapira and asked them both to give him a list of their favorite ethnographies. Once he obtained these lists, Michael read and studied the exemplars of ethnography, keeping these books on his nightstand for easy access so he could read them nightly. Reading these exemplary works, coupled with his interactions with the DREAMers has helped Michael transition from historical sociology to ethnography and given him new insights into the complexity of this new social movement.

Dr. Néstor Rodríguez: An Important Key Lies in Co-authorship

pix_RodriguezNéstor Rodriguez’s transition between methods took a slightly different trajectory than Michael Young’s. Michael’s was a constant transition between historical work, interviews and surveys. Nestor’s graduate work was focused on tracing the trajectory of migration in relation to capitalist growth, combining historical methods with theory building. In his post doctoral research, Néstor began studying Mayans from the Guatemalan Highlands who were migrating to Houston, Texas. It was during this project that Nestor began to incorporate fieldwork into his research. Later on, Néstor also began to use more quantitative methods – surveys and data sets- in order to study deportations. In the past year alone, he has published two articles on El Salvador using surveys, a book (coming in January 2015) that incorporates fieldwork from Guatemala and is a return to his first love of historical sociology.  When asked how he was able to incorporate so many different methods, Néstor stated that an important key could be found in co-authorship. Co-authoring with other researchers that are more adept at various methods allows for the successful incorporation of those methods.  Similar to Michael’s approach, Néstor also recommended that students considering a transition to new methods should read widely in sociology.  That will allow them to become familiar with different sociological methods and their implicit logic.

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson: Delve into Different Projects

Sheldon Ekland-OlsonSheldon Ekland-Olson has done research using various methods throughout his career. His earliest work was heavily quantitative and was among the first to incorporate dummy variables into the research. This was largely influenced by his math background and because he came into graduate school as a student of methods. Sheldon’s first shift occurred during his time in law school, as he finished his dissertation. During his research, he became involved in learning about the rights of those who were institutionalized, which led him to spending time in prisons. It was through this experience that Sheldon began studying Texas Prison Reform, using quantitative methods along with qualitative methods to learn about the lived experiences of the prison inmates. His most recent work on life and death decisions uses historical methods to study the boundaries of social worth when people are faced with different issues such as: abortion, neonatal care, assisted dying and capital punishment. For Sheldon, switching methods was something that was necessitated because he believes that you should let your problem determine the method that you use.  Sheldon’s advice is derived from his own experience: you should delve into different projects and learn new methods by striving to answer different questions.

A Few Warnings about Transitioning Methods from the Panelists

  • While everyone on the panel transitioned after graduate school, picking up a new method is more difficult – “the brain gets old and slow.”
  • Your old training in a method can sometimes be “like a straight jacket” to your new method – it could hinder you since you may be imposing the assumptions of your old training into your new method.
  • Because learning a new method can be difficult and there is a demand on publishing, transitioning methods could undermine your rate of productivity.
  • There may be pressure to stick to the method that has made you known in a field – your colleagues in a field can get caught up in their own methods and may be resistant to your change.
  • On a related point, while multiple methods are seen as a positive, there may be a high cost if you switch methods at any point of your career.
  • However, some subfields are methodologically eclectic, which means there could be opportunities to switch. If you are thinking of switching at any point, be sure to weigh the consequences.

“The Other Side of Austin” Project

By Pamela Neumann and Caitlyn Collins

Book_Group
Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

It had been a lively, thought-provoking semester. Javier Auyero taught a course called Poverty and Marginality in the Americas, and we had reached the last day of class in Spring 2012 before we parted ways for the summer. Javier sat at the head of the table, cross-armed, leaning back in his chair. Although he often had a look of intensity about him, today he looked more deep in thought than usual. He began speaking slowly, his enthusiasm growing as he presented our class with an idea. What if, he said, we take what we’ve learned during this course about the nature and experiences of those living “at the margins” of society, and apply it to our own city of Austin by writing a book? Javier couldn’t promise us where the project would lead, whether it would be successful, or what the outcome would look like. But he was certain that the collective endeavor would be unlike anything else we had experienced in our years of schooling thus far: a pedagogical, intellectual, and political project that, as Javier writes, would chronicle “the lived experiences of inequality and social marginalization, the ways in which inequality and exclusion intertwine with individual lives and are embedded in intricate seams of biological issues.”

We jumped at the chance. The collective energy we had felt together over the semester, our faith in Javier, and the importance of the joint enterprise all felt compelling. This new endeavor came to be known informally as the “Other Side of Austin” project. Over a series of intellectually and sometimes emotionally intense meetings (held as potlucks on Friday evenings several times a month at someone’s home), we began to develop a consensus about both the aims and methodology of the project.

We decided that each of us would conduct a series of life-history style interviews with different individuals representing various dimensions of life in Austin, which, though hardly invisible, are rarely noticed or discussed in either popular or academic publications about this city, which tend to focus on the city’s reputation as a cool, trendy, creative, musically inclined, and environmentally conscious place to live.  While all of these descriptors are true to some extent, we felt that much more remained to be said about the issues and struggles confronting men and women who live at the margins of most people’s imaginations but who are in fact at the center of everyday life in Austin.

Javer_Katy
Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

We spent many months selecting and then getting to know the subjects of our respective chapters. We visited their homes, ate meals with them, spent time with them at work, and met their families and friends. We conducted many hours of interviews and transcriptions, and then began writing. In doing so our goal was to weave together the details of each individual story – a taxi cab driver, a migrant worker, a musician, etc. – with different structural forces or phenomena shaping their lives—e.g. gentrification, corporate labor practices, gender inequality, immigration policy, racial discrimination. We met regularly to workshop each other’s chapter drafts, offering feedback on style and content, as well as how best to incorporate relevant research and theoretical perspectives to illuminate what C. Wright Mills famously dubbed “the connection between biography and history.” The subjects of each chapter read, revised, and approved their respective stories.

OSAselfie
Photo Credit: Javier Auyero

In the introduction to what eventually became our book manuscript, Javier describes both the “economy of effort” and the “economy of feelings” that went into the completion of this project. For many of us, participating in this collective production of scholarship—a “labor of love”, if you will—has been one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of our graduate career. Much of the work we do (and will do) in academia is done alone, and that may always be the case. But these past two years proved that another model is also possible, one built on collaboration and sustained by common purpose and commitment. If all goes as planned, the seeds of this collective enterprise will bear fruit in the form a book published next year.

A Telling Two Days for Julián Castro

A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.
Photo Credit: Edna Ledesma
A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.

by Esther Sullivan

On Friday, news began to circulate from the White House that President Barack Obama would nominate San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  On Thursday, the day before, Castro and his city council members reviewed and voted on a zoning change that would facilitate the redevelopment of the 21-acre mobile home park Mission Trails. This redevelopment will result in the eviction of 300 low-income residents.

In 2011, I moved into a different 21-acre mobile home park as part of two continuous years of ethnographic fieldwork. I lived within, and was evicted from, these parks in Florida and Texas because of redevelopment. Like Mission Trails, the Florida Park where I lived was being redeveloped into a multi-million dollar mixed-use development. Like Mission Trails this required a single vote on a zoning change by our city council. Like Mission Trails the city council voted that the redevelopment was in the best interest of the city and evicted over a hundred poor and elderly homeowners.

In our case, however, the next director of HUD didn’t head a council that listened to “a lengthy citizen-comment session when scores of residents and advocates delivered emotional appeals, often laced with tears and sobs,” or watched as two residents were taken to the emergency room when they fell ill during this public testimony.

Read more here: http://www.expressnews.com/news/politics/article/Council-approves-controversial-zoning-in-split-5482254.php#/0.

In our case the city council voted unanimously to approve the zoning change on our park. In the case of Mission Trails, Castro not only voted against the zoning change but also urged his council members to do the same. Castro also urged the council to create a task force to address the issue of gentrification in San Antonio. He lamented, “We move mountains to create jobs in this city. We move mountains to preserve our aquifer. We move mountains to save bats. And we move mountains to preserve historic buildings … we need to move mountains for people.”

Castro made this plea in vain and the city council voted 6-4 in favor of rezoning Mission Trails and evicting its residents.

The concurrence of these two events – the news of Castro’s potential appointment to HUD and the apotheosis of the human toll of urban growth – might seem propitious if it weren’t for the fact that mobile home parks operate (and close) with minimal state oversight, and zero federal oversight.

Mobile home parks operate in a vacuum of federal and state regulation, and yet fulfill a crucial role in national affordable housing production.

Understanding the spread of manufactured housing, over half of which is installed in mobile home parks, requires situating the housing form within historic shifts in the provision of affordable housing in the last four decades. Mobile home communities are not accidental enclaves of individuals making similar housing choices; they are the material expression of the gutting of federal subsidy of low-income housing and the privatization of affordable housing provision.

The rise of manufactured housing occurred directly alongside successive cutbacks in direct federal subsidy for housing. Today HUD has experienced more budget cuts than any other federal level branch of government. And now manufactured housing makes up 66% of the new affordable housing produced in the US.

As mayor of one of the first US cities to receive a grant from the new HUD “Promise Zone” program,  Castro has experience leveraging  diminished HUD funds to reinvest in high-poverty neighborhoods. But the job of secretary of Housing and Urban Development requires balancing the need for housing provision and housing security, with the needs of urban growth and economic revitalization.

Here’s hoping Julián Castro can really move mountains.

 

Esther Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at UT-Austin who studies urban sociology, poverty and inequality. 

“Truth,” “Beauty,” and the Sociological Photograph

From left to right: Paul Kasun, Emily Paine, Shantel Buggs, Anima Adjepong, Amias Maldonado, Eric Borja, Professor Ben Carrington, Vivian Shaw, and Katie Jensen.  Front: Professor Max Farrar
From left to right: Paul Kasun, Emily Paine, Shantel Buggs, Anima Adjepong, Amias Maldonado, Eric Borja, Professor Ben Carrington, Vivian Shaw, and Katie Jensen. Front: Professor Max Farrar

by Maggie Tate

In The Aesthetics of Uncertainty (2008), Janet Wolff challenges the assumption that images exposing social injustice for political disruption must also abandon, or work against, standards of beauty and aesthetic pleasure.  Her claims attempt to reopen the possibility that it is not inherently wrong to “provide aesthetic pleasure in the face of moral or political wrongs” (18).  Thinking of aesthetic qualities is not often the terrain of Sociology, and for this reason Wolff raises more questions than her book alone can answer.  It is, therefore, perhaps fitting that her most poignant suggestion appears in the title: approach visual imagery with an attitude of doubt, uncertainty, or incompleteness.

At the heart of Wolff’s project is the idea that at the very least, images are rich with sociological information and ought to be taken seriously.  It was to this end that the Sociology department’s Race and Ethnicity Group and Urban Ethnography Lab collaborated on a photography workshop in late March.  Traveling all the way from Leeds Metropolitan University, Professor Max Farrar brought his years of photographic experience to begin a discussion about what photography can add to sociological inquiry.  The event included a talk on Friday, March 21, by Professor Farrar.  This was followed by an all-day workshop on Saturday, March 22, led by the combined photographic expertise of Max Farrar and the award winning photojournalist, and professor, Donna De Cesare.

Professor Max Farrar with one of his cameras.  Donna De Cesare in the background.
Professor Max Farrar with one of his cameras. Photojournalist and Professor Donna De Cesare in the background.

Farrar’s talk laid the foundations for Saturday’s workshop by engaging with theorists of photography, including Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, bell hooks and Les Back.  Their theoretical work suggests a range of ways to consider the political possibility of the photograph.  Susan Sontag represented the most critical voice with her claim of the danger inherent in the act of aestheticizing the political image therefore rendering it impersonal and unable to invoke empathy.  John Berger’s ideas were also introduced as a critique of the depoliticizing effect of some photography, in particular photography that depicts human atrocity through pictures of agony and despair.  Yet, Berger was also mentioned for his interest in photography’s ability to tell sociological stories by representing the universal in the particular.  Photos of particular people provide images that become part of a collective social and political memory.

Amidst these challenges to photography’s ability to have political import, bell hooks’ writing provided a powerful reminder that the political is not always a measure of whether there is a change in public sentiment.  Instead, she described the importance of the private space of the home as a site of personal self-definition, a privilege of which was long denied black Americans in public culture.  Farrar’s own writing also asserts that the politics of photography are not just about reception, but lie also in the relationship that develops (or doesn’t) between the photographer and the photographed.

Photograph of presentation by Anima Adjepong, workshop attendee.
Photograph of presentation by Anima Adjepong, workshop attendee.

Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of representation gave us clear language to describe the sociological relevance of photography through its transmission of myths.  A photographic representation almost always stands in for broader ideological meanings.  Yet, Barthes also recognizes the affective dimension of the photographic image, which is often the unexpected impact that a particular image or combination of images has on a viewer.

Therefore, the intention of the photographer is perhaps not always the most telling or sociologically relevant aspect of a given photographic image.  This reveals one of the central tensions of the photograph; that it is at once a private moment frozen in time and a reproducible image that takes on a social and political life of its own.  Les Back’s writing was referenced to remind us that these tensions can themselves become objects of sociological inquiry, such as the tension between detachment and intimacy that he reads in the photographs taken by Pierre Bourdieu during his fieldwork in the Algerian fight for independence.

With this theoretical background, attendees of Saturday’s workshop spent the day trying to engage in these critical theories while also gleaning tips in photographic technique, methodological strategies, and rules of composition from both Farrar and De Cesare.  Some of the distinctions between photojournalism and visual Sociology became at times more clear and at other times more blurry during these discussions.  Through a presentation of photographs from De Cesare’s recent book Unsettled/Desasosiego (2013), attendees were given a window into the making of photographs that are both beautiful and complex.  De Cesare’s photographs representing youths living amidst war and gang violence in Central America are heartbreakingly complicated in that they convey a wide range of emotion.  They are at times peaceful, at times distressing, and most often an image will shift from the former to the latter as the viewer begins to realize what they see.

Thinking of De Cesare’s photographs in relation to Janet Wolff’s claim about the aesthetics of uncertainty, it becomes clear that the images are so emotionally provocative (and perhaps therefore so politically provocative as well) because they operate initially at the level of uncertainty and doubt.  Captivated by the serene and sweet face of a young child, for example, the viewer only slowly begins to realize that the body lying on the sidewalk next to the child is a casualty of war.  The composition created by the two figures is beautiful, but only because of the angularly distorted posture of the one lying down, which the viewer comes to realize, is lifeless.

Emily Paine looking through Donna De Cesare’s book Unsettled/Desasosiego
Emily Paine looking through Donna De Cesare’s book Unsettled/Desasosiego

From De Cesare’s photographs, we learned that indeed “beauty” and pain (“truth”) can exist simultaneously, and can be represented as such in a photograph.  Not all photographs produced by visual sociologists need to meet this challenge in order to be insightful representations of social phenomena.  Nor do they all need to be about pain in order represent the affective or political dimensions of doing sociological work.  As Farrar has told me since, “photography is, basically, a relationship – between you and the person/people but also between you and the physical world.”  Like all relationships, this one quickly becomes fraught with power dynamics, ethical concerns, aesthetic dilemmas and (perhaps productively) feelings of uncertainty.

 

 

 

SOC 388K: Field Methods with Dr. Harel Shapira

Austin

This post is introduced by Dr. Harel Shapira, where he discusses the aims and motivations for his course SOC 388K: Field Methods. We will also hear from three Sociology graduate students who are currently taking the course. They will briefly describe the individual projects they are pursuing in the North Austin neighborhood of Rundberg.

Dr. Harel Shapira

The primary motivation for this course comes from a desire to provide hands on training for graduate students in ethnographic methods (participant observation and in-depth interviewing). In that sense, with the input and support of Dr. Christine Williams and Dr. Javier Auyero, we thought we would transform the ethnographic methods course into a year-long sequence, with one semester focusing on reading ethnography and the second on doing ethnography.

At the end of the day, its also my effort to mimic (in the best way as I can) training I received as a graduate student at Columbia University from Herb Gans. Gans (a student of  the great Chicago ethnographer Everett Hughes) embraced the “Chicago School” way of doing things: get your hands dirty. He modeled his own practice based seminar on a syllabus he still had from the class he took with Hughes back in 1947, and I myself have now modeled my class on that same syllabus. From day one, when students hit the field,  they are required to conduct at least five hours of fieldwork every week; and submit field notes weekly. On certain weeks they need to turn in reports which ask them to direct their research toward a particular task, such as conducting a life history or attending a public gathering.

The majority of class time is spent with students providing updates on their research and engaging in a collective conversation on issues and ideas that come up in the process of data collection. Beyond this, the course has a basic motivation to have students go out and learn about the communities in which they live. I think this is something all students should do, but has a particular importance when they are at a public institution such as ours, whose mission is and should be to learn about, learn from, and perhaps give something back to the larger public. Our class is focusing on the Rundberg neighborhood of North Austin, a choice inspired by our own Dr. David Kirk who has been working in the area as part of the Restore Rundberg initiative. Dave’s help in both setting up this class and also providing guidance to myself and the students, has been invaluable.

There is a second motivation here, which is that (unfortunately) very little sociological research has been carried out in Texas. Indeed, and especially when it comes to urban sociology, a couple of cities (Chicago and Los Angeles, most notably) dominate the field. Without wanting to criticize all the foundational work that has been produced out of those places, I do find it both morally unfortunate that our knowledge base is limited. But also, it raises scientific issues if our models of urbanization and urban poverty are drawn from a limited set of cases.

It would therefore be wonderful if we can begin to train a group of students who will begin to use Austin, and the wider scope of Texas (which currently has four of the fastest growing cities in the states) as a kind of laboratory in much the same way that Everett Hughes and his students used Chicago as a laboratory.

Luis Romero

Luis pic

I am spending most of my time at a cemetery in Rundberg that was founded in the 1850’s. The cemetery is currently maintained by a non-profit association that provides full-service burials (casket, tombstone, fees, etc.) for under $700. There is, however, one rule that must be followed should you want a family member buried there: that person must be related to someone already buried at the cemetery.  As part of my fieldwork, I have been helping members of the association by completing various tasks around the cemetery, such as the mapping of individual graves and placing flower holders on grave sites.

While I have not yet figured out my “puzzle,” I am interested in seeing how the cemetery and the association deal with gentrification – money was offered to buy the cemetery in order to build businesses in that location – and what residents of Rundberg think about the cemetery and its policies on who can be buried there.

Katherine Jensen

A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to
A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to its neighbors to the north.

Heritage Hills is a residential neighborhood just east of I-35, that sits between Anderson and Rundberg Lanes. I have gotten the sense it is unusually racially diverse in the extent to which white and black Austinites share a small residential neighborhood. Yet, in spite of the racial heterogeneity among the community, its demographic makeup and economic situation varies drastically from the area neighboring Heritage Hills to the north, on the other side of Little Walnut Creek. In comparison, that area is over 80% Hispanic (by some sources), the medium household income is only $27,746 ($50,000 less than in Heritage Hills), and 15% of residents live below the poverty line (compared to 5.9% in Heritage Hills).

Age also contrasts greatly; in Heritage Hills, the median age varies from 32-62 (with most residential tracts in the 40s), while across the creek it is 27. Thus, while Heritage Hills is diverse in some senses, how it differs from its neighboring community to the north seems to be much more marked then any differences internal to the neighborhood.

During Field Methods, I’ve been working on getting a sense of Heritage Hills, how it’s changed over time, what people care about, and how they see their community. In particular, I’m interested in how Heritage Hills residents imagine their community, how they imagine their neighbors across the creek, and the dialectic between the two. In other words, how do Heritage Hills actually make sense of these statistical realities on the ground?

Corey McZeal

ARG

I’m studying the North Austin Rock Gym in Rundberg. As a beginner to rock climbing, I would like to explore the process of becoming a climber, learning about the subculture and how the climbers see themselves as opposed to other types of athletes. I am also interested in the particular demographic that participates in this activity; there are already definite gender, racial, and age patterns that I’ve been able to observe in my short time at the gym. What makes climbing appealing to this particular type of person, and what keeps them coming?

We will revisit these projects at the end of the spring semester to see how they have evolved and where they might be headed.

The Social Construction of Laughter

Stand-Up Comedy

by Jamie Carroll

Comedians need to be sociological about their stand-up sets to have a successful performance.  They have to perceive how the crowd will react to their jokes and how the crowd will perceive them.  After performing ethnographic research at a New York City comedy club, I developed the following tips for comedians.  These tips are based on my observations of audience reactions and informal conversations with comedians and staff members at the comedy club.  They depict sociological tools comedians can use to support the social construction of laughter during a stand-up routine.

Tip #1: Begin with a self-deprecating joke about your personal appearance.

 

Most comedians begin their act with self-deprecating humor that deals with the comedian’s heritage or appearance.  One comedian, who is pale and lanky with glasses, always starts his set with, “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Can this guy fix my computer?’ ”  Another big, Italian comedian starts with, “Hey tourists, this is what New Yorkers look like.”  One bald comedian tells a joke about looking creepy when he takes his daughter to the playground, then points to any bald guy in the audience and says, “See you next Monday at the meeting.”

This self-deprecating humor sets the tone for the show.  First, it connects with the audience’s awkwardness.  Instead of ignoring the fact that they look like they belong on the Sopranos or they look like a computer geek, they put it out there themselves.  They let the audience know it’s okay to laugh at them.  Since many stand-up acts are about the comedian’s personal life, starting out by making fun of themselves shows the audience that  yes, you can laugh at me and with me.  Also, the comedian expresses to the audience that he (the majority of comedians I observed during my research were men) thinks like them.  He understands how he looks to the crowd and wants them to know he is similar to them. “A performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case,” according to Goffman (1959: 48).  By making any physical differences explicitly clear, a comedian shows the audience that they observe the world in a similar way.

Tip #2: Know your audience.

Knowing your Crowd

At some point during a comedy show, the audience is required to respond to a comedian’s crowd work (speaking directly with the audience).  The MC, or person who opens the show and introduces the comedians, warms up the crowd by asking questions, such as “Where are you from?” or “Who’s married?”  He is a kind of sociologist, trying to decipher the age of the crowd and what kinds of jokes they might like.  Although most comedians do not tailor their sets to specific audiences, they will change the order and emphasis of jokes if they are getting very little response. They can quickly change their minds about jokes by pulling in cues from the audience.  By asking questions, comedians get a feeling for the crowd and whom they are performing for.

Tip #3: Define the fourth wall.

This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.
This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.

In theater, “breaking the fourth wall” is when an actor speaks directly to the audience.  The actor is usually on a raised stage, peering down at the audience sitting in rows a few yards away from the stage.  In a comedy club, the comedian is alone on a tiny platform, standing in the center of tables less than a foot away.  While theater audiences are not supposed to respond directly, the comedy club audience is an integral character within a standup routine.  As one comedian put it during a slow, late Saturday show, “I think I’m feeding off your energy, which sucks.  The other crowds tonight have been awesome, so you’re going to have to laugh a lot harder if you want me to tell jokes.”  Comedians need audience members to play their role in a comedy club: a subordinate actor who is essential to the outcome of the show.

Goffman speaks of the subordinate role comedy club audience members must take: “Subordinate involvements are sustained and muted, modulated and intermittent in fashion, expressing in their style a continuous regard and deference for the dominating activity at hand”(1959: 44).  Audience members need to give themselves up to the performance and defer to the comedian as the dominant actor, responding when the comedian offers cues and remaining quiet at other times.  By using crowd work, comedians can define the fourth wall of the comedy club and control the audience responses.

An example of how a comedian uses crowd work is when they ask the crowd where they are from or what they do, and quickly turn their response into a joke.  The audience’s job is to respond when asked, but be quiet when the comedian moves on.  For example, one comedian asked audience members if they are from out of town and where they are from.  Then she makes a joke about how tourists always walk too slowly in New York.  Although she asked an audience member to participate earlier, she does not want a response after her joke, other than laughter.  By starting an act with these kinds of jokes, comedians train the audience to respond to cues and uphold the norms of stand-up routine.

Tip #4: The comedy style determines the style of laughter.

 

Comedians develop different styles of stand-up that affect the amount and timing of laughter.  According to Goffman, “The performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance” (1959: 51).  Some comedians have well-defined “punchlines” to end each joke, and generally pause for a sip of their drink, to glance at their notes, or wait for the audience to stop laughing or clapping.  For comics, these cues tell the audience that it is a socially acceptable time to laugh.  This is when you are supposed to respond.  The laughter is thus unified in these acts.  While “punchline” comedians are not guaranteed to have a positive response during these pauses, the laughter they do receive is clumped together, making it seem loud.

Another style of stand-up comedy does not have these triggers imbedded within the sets, so the audience response is more spread out.  This kind of comedian is extremely high energy and says a splatter of jokes at once, speaking very quickly.  (Think Robin Williams.)  The comic will pause for a sip of a drink or to look at notes, but these pauses are not at the end of defined jokes.  One such comedian relies on very selective audience participation.  He starts a conversation with someone, makes fun of that person, refers to a past joke, and makes a new joke in almost one breath.  Throughout the entire exchange, members of the audience laugh and nod along, looking at each other to say, “this dude is crazy!”  The reactions are positive, but there is no specific cue for everyone to laugh at once, so the laughter seems lighter because it is more spread out.

The last style of comedy is story telling.  These comedians tell long stories with small sarcastic jokes in between and a punchline at the very end, using a mix of high energy and punchline styles.  Most of the comedians I observed followed this style.  The laughter was scattered during the story and ended with the punchline.

Throughout my research, I could not ascertain whether one style of comedy was better than another, only that the style of laughter during the show changes according to the placement (or lack of placement) of punchlines.

Following these four steps will ensure that a comedian has trained the audience into the proper behavior in a comedy club.  The content of jokes, people in the crowd, and organization of the club also influence audience reactions, but these four steps are under the control of the comedian and can easily be adapted into any routine.

If Talk is Cheap, are Tweets Cheaper?

This post was authored by Megha Arora, a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Math who is also an aspiring sociologist, and co-authored by Eric Borja, a third-year graduate student in the Sociology Department. Eric was Megha’s mentor for the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, and this post came out of their many discussions regarding social media as a data source.

Introduction

According to the World Bank, there are nearly 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide[1], and according to Facebook’s Investor Relations site[2] there are more than a billion monthly active Facebook users. With more researchers mining social media for data, it is important to explore the scope of such a data source. On November 8, Dr. Shamus Khan of Columbia University visited the Ethnography Lab to deliver a talk on his co-authored article with Colin Jerolmack, entitled Talk is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.

The premise of the article is simple with important implications for the field of sociology: talk is cheap. Jerolmack and Khan demonstrate that “sociologists routinely proceed to draw conclusions about people’s behaviors based on what they tell us,” committing what Jerolmack and Khan call the attitudinal fallacy. Given the concept of the attitudinal fallacy, can social behavior be deduced from analyzing data pulled from the Internet, specifically social media? In other words, if talk is cheap, are tweets cheaper?

This post is divided into three parts, each answering one of three questions. First, what is social media as a source of data? It is important to think through what kind of data is pulled from social media – is it qualitative or quantitative in nature? Second, are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography? A large amount of data can be pulled from social media, but does that mean we must use quantitative methods when analyzing it? Finally, what can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media? Can social behavior be discerned from data pulled from social media?

What is social media as a source of data?

In an instant, a researcher can collect a large number of tweets through social analytic sites such as Topsy, then analyze the data utilizing statistical or computational models, such as agent-based modeling. A number of demographic characteristics can be pulled from public accounts. For instance, a person tweeting or posting a major life event can be recorded and then pulled. These methods can be used to see who is participating in social media, and how. With geocoding, the researcher can spatially understand social networks and trends by pinpointing the location of a specific tweet or hashtag.

Qualitative methods could be utilized to analyze a small subset of tweets. This could involve comparing tweets before and after a specific event to be analyzed, or observing discourse between users. Directly observing people and interactions between people is a form of qualitative research in a new field: the Internet.

Are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography?

These methods, though mixed with parts of quantitative and qualitative research, are more similar to ethnography than demography. Demography is used to reveal shifting trends of a given population by analyzing data collected through surveys and censuses. The gaze of the researchers is present whenever a respondent answers a question in a survey or census. In ethnography, people are examined over time in a field. Instead of taking a survey of a respondent’s answer at one point in time, the ethnographer has the advantage of placing what they say in the context of what they do. In the field, the ethnographer can see people “do things” over time and across a multiplicity of contexts. The Internet, then, is a new sort of field.

The Internet as a field, of course, is not physical; but, similar to an ethnographic site, the Internet – specifically its users – can be observed from many perspectives in many different contexts over time. The amount of time you are “in the field” is indefinite because when someone uses the Internet, either through tweeting or posting, this activity is recorded.

On the Internet, people can be observed for as little or as long as necessary, both retroactively and in real time. It is a field in which the observations of this data can be made at any time, and because of the technology now available, data is being collected faster than ever before. Collecting observations where people are not being prompted to answer surveys or interviews and are behaving without recognition of a researcher is much more similar to ethnography than demography. Essentially, the researcher can place what someone says (i.e. what they tweet or post) in the context of what they do. 

What can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media?

Within the field of the Internet, data is collected and behavior is observed with mixed methods. Aggregating a large number of tweets and analyzing them statistically uses quantitative methods; however, when observing real people, in whom attitudes and behaviors can differ, when the researcher analyzes and uses that data the methods are also qualitative. These observations of and between people express behaviors because attitudes are expressed when prompted but behaviors are observed. Using the Internet can allow researchers to observe people and interactions both in real time and passed time, within different contexts and from different perspectives, and use qualitative, ethnographical methods to extract behaviors from quantitatively collected and analyzed data.

 

In conclusion, we claim that social behavior can be deduced through Facebook posts and tweets because what people post/tweet is a close proxy of what they do. Because the users observed are not prompted to answer a series of questions and are instead observed from a relatively outside perspective, the collected data can allow the researcher to observe discrepancies between what people say and do, and provide a more holistic view of social behavior, one similar to ethnography.

Marcos Perez awarded NSF Dissertation grant

Congratulations to Marcos Perez on the award of a full year of NSF support for his dissertation research in Buenos Aires!

Marcos

The grant will support Marcos’ research on the Piquetero movement in Argentina. His dissertation explores the processes that influence people’s experiences before, during, and after they are involved in collective action. In particular, he seeks to explain why some activists in the movement are able to overcome significant obstacles to participation (becoming, in their words, ‘iron fellows’), while others withdraw as soon as the relative costs and benefits of involvement change.

Kudos on your outstanding success in an extremely competitive grant competition!