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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.

UT Austin Sociology at SWS in Atlanta

by Jamie O’Quinn and Katie K. Rogers

Feminist sociologists from UT Austin and members of the department’s gender working group, Fem(me) Sem, were well-represented at the annual winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) this year in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference offered presentations, sessions, and workshops that engaged the theme of “They Persisted: Feminism, Work, Activism, Resistance.”

This year’s meeting addressed pedagogy and academic freedom in the age of hate speech and “fake news,” and tackled ongoing issues of race and racism in the academy, the discipline of sociology, and SWS as an organization. SWS President Adia Harvey Wingfield of Washington University in St. Louis convened plenary sessions on topics such as gender and precarious labor, feminism in the academy, and race, gender, and feminist activism.

(Left to right) UT-Austin PhD Kirsten Dellinger (now Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi) with current graduate students Jess Goldstein-Kral and Caitlin Carroll

Plenary sessions and workshops spotlighted the voices of faculty and activists of color who, in addition to sharing critiques of existing systems, offered strategies for the path forward. They urged feminists to make careful decisions about how to reform and transform their departments without experiencing burnout. They reminded young scholars that joy exists in research and teaching, even within institutions that can feel impossible to change. They also pushed white feminists in the audience to reflect on their own politics of solidarity, and consider how they might show up more effectively to build coalitions with feminists of color in their institutions, organizations, and networks. Ultimately, they challenged all feminist scholars to, as stated by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virgina Commonwealth University, “figure out the difference between performance politics and solidarity.”

Sociologist Kimberly K. Hoang asks a question during a plenary session on feminism in the academy

A contingent of feminist sociologists from UT Austin represented the department, with presentations that centered gender in varying ways. One highlight was a session that grew from Fem(me) Sem‘s Spring 2017 conference, “The Gender of Ethnography and the Ethnography of Gender,” which was organized by a group of  sociology graduate students who were interested in using feminist methods in their research. The session, called “Feminist Ethnographies: Dilemmas from the Field,” featured Professor Christine Williams as a discussant, and UT Austin graduate students Shannon Malone, Vrinda Marwah, Ruijie Peng, Beth Prosnitz, and Katie K. Rogers as panelists. They grappled with a number of questions related to feminist methods, including what exactly makes a research design “feminist,” how to manage demands for “proof” in response to situated knowledge, what it means to “gain access,” and how to reckon with accusations of “bias,” particularly with respect to projects that center a researcher’s own community (“me-search”) or emerge from explicitly feminist commitments.

(Left to right) “Feminist Ethnographies” graduate student panelists Vrinda Marwah, Shannon Malone, Katie K. Rogers, Ruijie Peng, and Beth Proznitz
(Left to right) Professor Christine Williams and panelists

UT Austin also exhibited a presence among the individual paper presentations, with graduate scholars sharing feminist research on topics that ranged from intimate relationships to the gendered state to issues of gender, race, and labor.

A list of individual papers by UT Austin graduate students is as follows: 

Caitlin Carroll
“Antiviolence Organizations in Sweden and the Reproduction of Gender Regimes”

Jess Goldstein-Kral
“The Relationship Dynamics of Polyamorous Triads: Resisting and Reproducing Inequality”

Jamie O’Quinn
“Emerging Sexualities: Girls’ Sexual Agency and the State”

Katie K. Rogers
“Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S. Legal Cannabis Industry”

Kara Takasaki
“Racialized Masculinities: How Work Shapes the Lives of Asian American Men”

All told,  the feminist scholarship and engagement of graduate students, alumni, and faculty affiliated with UT Austin Sociology helped make this year’s SWS conference an event to remember.

 


Jamie O’Quinn is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is currently researching state efforts to regulate young people’s sexualities.

Katie K. Rogers is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current research examines how women who work in the U.S. legal cannabis industry reconfigure the meanings of “dealers” and “users” during legalization.

 

Reflections from NWSA 2017

by Jamie O’Quinn

On November 16, 2017, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) began its annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I was thrilled to have my first NWSA conference oriented around the 40th anniversary of the prolific Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement, a call for radical Black queer feminist practice.

This year’s NWSA meeting was unapologetically activist-oriented, with plenaries connecting the CRC’s aims to the current Movement for Black Lives. Scholars noted the continued relevance of the CRC Statement in its ability to address the overt racism of the Trump presidency and color-blind racism of #AllLivesMatter. The spirit of intersectional resistance that permeated the conference can best be described in one passage from the document:

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” (CRC Statement, 1977)

#Blacklivesmatter co-founder Alicia Garza and abolitionist, feminist activist and scholar Angela Davis kick-started the conference in the Keynote Address, discussing the urgency of Black radical feminism in the Trump era. In a plenary session, original members of the CRC, including Barbara Smith, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Demita Frazier, spoke alongside intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw about the importance of reclaiming intersectionality and embodying a Black feminist politic. In still more sessions, scholars whose work I have been reading since I was an undergraduate student discussed theorizing radical, “unruly” feminist ethnography and reimagining possibilities for reproductive justice.

I was overwhelmed in the best possible way.

(Left to right) NWSA President Barbara Ransby, Alicia Garza, and Angela Davis at the Keynote Address (photo courtesy of NWSA.org)
(Left to right) Loretta Ross, Lynn Roberts, and Whitney Peoples discuss their new edited volume, Radical Reproductive Justice, at a local bookstore event

Throughout the weekend, I couldn’t help but note my gratitude at feeling a sense of political urgency at an academic conference. Too often, activism is pushed to the margins of the social sciences, delegated to a fringe panel on public sociology and absent from plenaries and major events. This  raises questions about the role of activism in the academy and the politics of representation.

Professors (and even graduate Teaching Assistants) have recently come under attack for their progressive politics. As educators, what does it mean to embody our radical, queer, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist consciousness in the classroom? Can we imagine a world in which activist-oriented scholars of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks are not marginalized in the academy  for their politics, or, as often happens, accused of conducting “me-search” for their “activist agenda”?

Here’s to hoping ASA’s 2018 meeting, “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” will centralize the importance of theory translating to feminist praxis. See you all in Philadelphia!

(Top row left to right) Me, Sarah Atwood-Hoffman, Sasha Suarez, and (bottom row) Leah Roberts after our panel, Body Talk/Talking Bodies: The Intersections of Power, Education & Resistance

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Jamie O’Quinn is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is currently researching state efforts to regulate young people’s sexualities.

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.

On the Market: Robert W. Ressler

Our “On the Market” series is back, featuring UT-Austin graduate students who are on the job market! This series provides sociology graduate students a space to share their research and exchange advice and insights about the job search process.

This installment features Robert W. Ressler, a 5th-year doctoral candidate and Population Research Center Trainee:

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

My mixed-methods research focuses on the intersection of community organizations and educational inequalities. With an attention to race/ethnicity and immigration, I investigate questions that ask how nonprofit organizations influence community dynamics and educational opportunities. One project I’m working on uses Twitter data to evaluate the nonprofit sector impact on community well-being.

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

The department supports a job market group. Each week over the summer professors volunteered their time to meet with ABDs about the different parts of the job market process. It was sort of a demystification process that answered questions like “What is a good research statement,” helped us to write our materials in a timely manner, and to get feedback on things before using them.

How do you stay organized when it comes to the job market?

For me this was not a huge deal. I structure my productivity around a normal work day, so that requires keeping up with deadlines, meetings, and concerted times of productivity. I just substituted the amount of time for about one project and dedicated it to the job market. Practically this means that I work on market stuff as much as I need to on Mondays to prep to apply to a few jobs a day throughout the week leading up to major deadlines (September 15th, September 30th, October 15th, etc.). I also have a spreadsheet with job requirements for myself and information that my letter writers requested. I’ve been updating this frequently along the same deadline schedule, and because new jobs are posted throughout the fall.

What is it like being on the market at ASA? What are the keys to success?

The job market is one of the only times in my life I find myself openly saying something like this, but it’s a miserable experience. Especially at ASA. You can get so bogged down by the anxiety and tension that is palpable every time you’re in a situation to talk about your research. So, the best thing to do is to practice your elevator pitch (something we did in the workgroup and Mary Rose helped us with—thanks Mary!), and just remember to breathe. When you tell people you’re on the market they will genuinely listen to what you have to say, showing a level of interest in your work that you might not have experienced from people before. Everybody in my experience was very encouraging and that sustained my enthusiasm for pursuing a career in this discipline.

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

My mentors have been phenomenal. I have been lucky to work with both Rob Crosnoe and Pam Paxton and that has led to innumerable learning experiences. In terms of actual research, just the other week a woman I was recruiting into my dissertation study looked me in the eyes and sincerely thanked me for the work I was doing because it was important to her; that was pretty great.

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

I’ve really enjoyed all of the opportunities the college provides for learning about the teaching process. I TA’d for one semester so I have great memories of those classes, but the highlight would have to be things like the “difficult dialogues” symposium I attended. Not only can these things spruce up the teaching experience section of your C.V., but they provide real opportunities to develop your teaching skills, and ways to talk about those skills.

How are you practicing self-care?

I go to the gym, schedule a mental health visit once a year as a check-in, ride my bike into work, eat a vegetarian diet, sleep in when I’m tired, attend events in the department, and try not to work on the weekends. We really do not make enough money over these five to eight years of graduate school to overwork ourselves. You have to be productive, but you’re going to have to be productive through tenure, and even later on when you’re busy with the added pressure of departmental business, so it’s okay to purposefully keep some “you” time in your schedule.

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

Seriously evaluate where you are in your timeline and make a decision based on what you think you could be successful doing. Take a look at your C.V.: do you have a first authored publication? A co-authored one? It’s pretty much a requirement to have something published. The next thing is to think about whether you have articles under review or articles that have an R&R. These demonstrate the ability to remain productive for the near future. You also should consider how far along you are on your dissertation. Can you finish it in a year? You won’t have a lot of time to work on it, because you’ll be busy, so make sure you’re confident in your ability to finish it if you get a job. If you think you’re competitive, go for it! It’s just another part of the game. Once you’ve made the decision, take on major hurdles as they arrive, and try not to spend too much time (or emotional energy) dedicated to job market stuff.