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is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

with 11 comments

The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.

 

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Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Gestión y Estudios Organizacionales/Management and Organization Studies and commented:
    Nice post for all of Us that works trying to use organizational ethnography!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

    But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.”

    I think this is a good point insofar as certain ethnographies, like EVICTED, serve the purpose of raising attention to an issue that isn’t on the policy agenda and can subsequently be studied in more depth (and somewhat as an aside, I think that is precisely what Desmond is doing with the MARS survey and a ton of other work).

    However, there is also a responsibility for the ethnographer to situate their policy-relevant findings/conclusions/implications in a particular context–a context that, they should acknowledge, can vary quite a bit. This is perhaps obvious to some, but plenty of ethnographic studies give the impression that their findings are timeless (Venkatesh has a great couple of sentences in OFF THE BOOKS where he speaks out of both sides of his mouth on this issue).

    To continue the theme of EVICTED, one might read about horrible landlords that make obscene amounts of money off of the plight of poor people and conclude that, as Desmond writes, “the hood is good.” But, apparently, that wasn’t so much the case in the year immediately following Desmond’s fieldwork: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R12JWFBNMVJ33S/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_viewpnt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0553447432#R12JWFBNMVJ33S

    Maybe the worry comes down to whether the findings are used to garner more attention to an important issue or used to inspire immediate action on that issue.

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    Jeremy

    March 17, 2017 at 3:21 pm

  3. Is it possible to replicate the results of an ethnography? With the replication crisis in social psychology, one thing that could happen in the next few years is a failed replication of an ethnographic study, which will then demote ethnographic sociology once again.

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    Chris Martin

    March 17, 2017 at 3:59 pm

  4. @Beth – Nice post! Beth Pearson made a very similar claim about the circulation of ethnographies at the Comparative/Historical pre-conference discussion of policy relevant sociology based on her experiences working in Congress. Evicted and 2$/day were the main examples she cited, I believe.

    @Jeremy – Fascinating! I hadn’t followed this thread of the Evicted discussion. It reminds me of discussions of the profitability (or lack thereof) of inner city retailers and especially finance companies discussed in the wake of the 1960s riots and the Kerner Commission (see, e.g. Louis Hyman’s work on the community reinvestment/anti-redlining movement). Credit terms for poor black ghetto residents were atrocious, but the merchants offering those terms still had lower profit margins than suburban retailers. Do you know if MARS will get at this more systematically for landlords?

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    Dan Hirschman

    March 17, 2017 at 4:31 pm

  5. @jeremy — I would guess a lot of that is about the fit between the work and the political/cultural moment, and is outside the control of the researcher. Evicted and $2.00 a Day both have had impact by putting a new issue on the policy agenda, but haven’t been seized on as offering very specific solutions. If a powerhouse ethnography of the health care system came out this month, though, one could imagine recommendations finding their way into policy more directly. I’d hope in that case that the researcher would provide context and make limitations clear, as you suggest. Of course, the fact that I can’t think of an actual example where that’s happened implies it might not be so common.

    @chris — I think transparency is a better goal for ethnography than replicability — making methods clear and easy to cross-check, triangulating types of data wherever possible, being honest about limitations. Social contexts are constantly changing, and can’t be randomly sampled, so it will never be possible for ethnography to be replicable in the way experimental or large-data-set research can. The main way ethnography contributes to cumulative social science is through theory-generation — identifying new problems we might not be thinking about, new mechanisms we hadn’t noticed, challenging our mental categories by showing us how others’ differ.

    There is some comparative ethnography — like Kate Kellogg’s Challenging Operations, which studies how a policy change played out in three different organizations, and these tend to be organized more explicitly around causal claims (though I think most ethnography is at least implicitly causal). But even here, the point is to identify differences that seem important, to be further studied using other methods, rather than to make strong claims about X causing Y in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    epopp

    March 17, 2017 at 4:32 pm

  6. Regarding landlords making “obscene” profits, Sherreena’s profits never seemed all that high to me, anyway. She is described as working very hard for her $400,000 a year (which was an undercapitalized boast as it turns out). The take-away I got was that poor people cannot pay enough rent to make it profitable to rent them nice well-maintained apartments, and the way to make money renting to the poor is to rent them dumps under conditions that keep them dependent on the landlord and easily removed. Maybe this is because I learned the concept of “effective demand” regarding housing at an impressionable age (in the 1970s).

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    olderwoman

    March 17, 2017 at 5:19 pm

  7. As an ethnographer myself, I am always sad when I see students being steered away from ethnography/qualitative work because “it’s not competitive on the job market.” In fact, it has always seemed to me that many of the widely read sociologists (such as those cited in the post) do ethnographic or interview based research. These are the books that actually get assigned in the big Soc courses and have the potential to reach a broad audience (including policy makers — though not at the current moment).

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    soctraveller

    March 17, 2017 at 5:42 pm

  8. Reflecting back on my comment after reading Beth & Dan & alderwoman’s responses….I should note that there is a great and important discussion in EVICTED of fair market rent (FMR) with respect to housing policies like Section 8: The feds will accept FMRs that are calculated at such a big geographic area that they really aren’t “market” rents in any meaningful sense of the term. Landlords really do make more $ from Section 8 tenants than a non-subsidized unit, because they can ultimately charge more $. I know others have seen this in cities other than Milwaukee, and I’ve seen it too in Boston. More on that here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cico.12180/abstract (aside: When this paper was presented at UAA, a housing economist challenged the findings arguing that Section 8 landlords may appear to collect above market rents, but they face additional costs, so it all evens out).

    So, to somewhat contradict myself a bit and support Beth’s original point, I would argue that there’s an important finding in EVICTED that should result in people thinking more about “small FMRs” or rethinking how FMRs get calculated, even if Sherreena isn’t actually getting as rich off of being a landlord as she is portrayed in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    Jeremy

    March 17, 2017 at 10:32 pm

  9. Quantitative sociologists can get their work in the Times, especially when the work reflects meaningfully on the lives of people…

    Liked by 1 person

    Cristobal Young

    March 18, 2017 at 2:43 pm

  10. And of course Shelley Correll is currently on the cover of the Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/why-is-silicon-valley-so-awful-to-women/517788/. There’s lots of sociology out there if you’re looking.

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    epopp

    March 18, 2017 at 6:50 pm

  11. […] Perceived future challenges were a better integration of 1) qualitative and quantitative methods (cases of fruitful interbreeding mentioned were the Venice Time Machine project and Moretti’s Distant Reading. Evaluations of culturomics were more mixed) and, that’s related 2) old and new research (to know if the behavioral patterns are really new phenomena produced by social networks and digitalized markets, or are consistent with those traditional behaviors identified with older techniques). Also pointed out was the need to identify and study social phenomena that are impossible to capture through quantification and datification. This suggests that a paradoxical consequence of the massive and constant data dump allowed through real-time recording of online behavior could be a rise in the prestige of extremely qualitative branches of analysis, such as ethnography. […]

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