Americans are increasingly aware of structural racial disadvantages, and especially aware of Black disadvantage. In turn, this paper asks to what degree do whites interested in undermining systems of oppression and privilege understand their own place within those systems (if at all)? Based on participant observation of four grassroots organizations serving the unhoused and 30 semi-structured interviews with volunteers, I show that even explicitly color-conscious white volunteers, many of whom spoke about structural inequality and systemic racism without prompting, struggled to see how their race was important in their day-to-day service interactions. A general inability to speak about interracial interactions despite many interracial service experiences highlights the pervasive power and privilege embedded in the taken-for-granted nature of whiteness and provides empirical support to the idea that racialized social systems discourage racial self-awareness among whites. These findings have implications for social justice- and/or service-oriented whites who seek to undermine the systems they identify as problematic and emphasize that antiracism is a continuous process.
Using the Connected Learning framework as a conceptual lens, this study utilizes digital ethnographic methods to explore outcomes of a Hip-Hop Based Education program developed to provide music related career pathways for Chicago youth. Using the narratives of the participants within the program, I draw on participant observation online and in-depth interviews collected to explore the link between the tenets of Connected Learning and digital participation in this artistic community of practice. I explore participants’ work within social media platforms toward building their creative skill, cultivating a public voice, connecting to mentors, and communicating in ways that strengthens the social bonds within their peer community. This study’s findings affirm prior studies that suggest late adolescence is an important time frame where children are developing social identities online in affinity spaces but in ways that are tied to civic engagement, self-empowerment, and critical skill development for their future pathways. To conclude, I suggest that investigating participant activity on social media platforms as a part of field work can help ethnographers to better connect their impact to the agency and life trajectories of their youth participants.
Activists have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by organizing for mutual aid: creating collective action to meet people’s material needs and build ties of solidarity. I examine the difficulties encountered by mutual aid activists during the pandemic through Alberto Melucci’s notions of latency and collective identity. Through digital ethnographic observations of the Instagram accounts of mutual aid groups based in Philadelphia, USA, as well as interviews with the activists, I explore how mutual aid, conceptualized as latency work, was practiced by activists in the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic and how activists approached collective identity processes. I show that activists experienced a compression of latency and mobilization within the crisis context of the pandemic, which made it more difficult for them to pursue the construction of a collective identity. I also suggest that the effects of this compression were further exacerbated by the logic of immediacy that characterizes social network sites.
There is growing alarm among the media and public that digital social media amplify the frequency and severity of urban violence. Contrary to popular imagination, however, emerging research suggests that social media may just as readily offer novel tools for informal social control and de-escalation. Toward building an empirically grounded theory of urban violence in the digital age, we examine a key mechanism by which social media afford communities newfound capacities to mitigate conflicts. Drawing on digital, urban, ethnographic fieldwork in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, we argue that social media afford a historic level of what new media scholars refer to as “communication visibility.” Specifically, social media allow onlookers to observe others’ online behavior and, in turn, exert influence over subsequent relationships, exchanges, and actions in ways that can prevent and reduce violence. First, we examine how young women protectors and a street pastor exert direct third-party influence by monitoring and manipulating social media communication to extricate potential combatants from risky situations. Second, we examine indirect third-party influence whereby potential combatants, in anticipation of onlookers’ intervention, proactively alter their own behavior in ways that encourage peaceful conflict resolution. These findings not only improve contemporary theories of violence, but also provide actionable lessons for enhancing the life-saving work of violence intervention and street outreach programs.
The basic practice of ethnography has essentially remained unchanged in hundreds of years. How has online life changed things? I contrast two transformative inventions, the telephone and the internet, with respect to their impact on fieldwork. I argue that our current era has created entirely new constraints and opportunities for ethnographic research.
Sociology has a long history of analyzing relationships between strangers in everyday life. The ubiquity of social media and mobile technologies, however, necessitates refined theories of how people relate to and interact with strangers in a social world where online and offline contexts are intertwined. This study examines public encounters between acquainted strangers, a type of connection fostered through social media wherein people are both digital acquaintances and offline strangers. Drawing on ethnographic data of queer men who use mobile dating and hookup apps, I find that queer men experience these encounters as routine yet problematic, which past theories of stranger relationships cannot fully explain. I argue that offline interactions with acquainted strangers amplify interactional uncertainties around identification (e.g. “I know them, but do they know me?”) and recognition (e.g. “What are the moral demands of our relationship?”). Managing these uncertainties is socially significant as the decision to regard or ignore an acquainted stranger marks not only interpersonal acceptance/rejection but also broader forms of belonging and exclusion. These findings underscore how mobile technologies are fundamentally transforming what it means to be a “stranger.”
Sociology’s focus on sociality and co-presence has long oriented studies of commensality—the social dimension of eating together. This literature commonly prioritizes face-to-face interactions and takes physical proximity for granted. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 largely halted in-person gatherings and altered everyday foodways. Consequently, many people turned to digital commensality, cooking and eating together through video-call technology such as Zoom and FaceTime. We explore the implications of these new foodways and ask: has digital commensality helped cultivate co-presence amidst pandemic-induced physical separation? If so, how? To address these questions, we analyze two forms of qualitative data collected by the first author: interviews with individuals who cooked and ate together at a distance since March 2020 and digital ethnography during different groups’ online food events (e.g., happy hours, dinners, holiday gatherings, and birthday celebrations). Digital commensality helps foster a sense of co-presence and social connectedness at a distance. Specifically, participants use three temporally oriented strategies to create or maintain co-presence: they draw on pre-pandemic pasts and reinvent culinary traditions to meet new circumstances; they creatively adapt novel digital foodways through online dining; and they actively imagine post-pandemic futures where physically proximate commensality is again possible.
Diagnoses are powerful tools that fulfill various practical and symbolic functions. In this paper, I examine how a contested diagnosis called orthorexia nervosa has been taken up by users on Instagram, where tens of thousands of posts engage with the topic, many of them from individuals who identify with the condition. I put scholarship on medicalization and diagnosis in conversation with literature on subcultures to foreground the subversive work that is enabled through this diagnosis. Drawing on more than 350 hours of online ethnographic fieldwork and 34 in-depth interviews, I examine how participants construct a shared identity, draw on common language and norms, and undertake collective practices, as they negotiate dominant understandings of health. I show how they draw on the legitimacy endowed by the diagnostic label to validate and make sense of experiences of suffering but also to counter dominant health-seeking discourses, practices, and aesthetics in an online space where these are highly visible and valued. I also discuss some ways Instagram as a digital platform shapes its uptake by this community in meaningful ways. On the one hand, participants draw heavily on the language and framing of medicine to make sense of their fraught experiences with food and their bodies, effectively advocating for the medicalization of their own suffering while also creating a sense of community and shared identity. However, on the other hand, they actively use the diagnosis and the recovery process enabled through it to effectively resignify dominant beliefs, values, and practices that are experienced as injurious, including some that are particularly prevalent on Instagram.
This special issue gathers empirical papers that develop and employ digital ethnographic methods to answer core sociological questions related to community, culture, urban life, violence, activism, professional identity, health, and sociality. Each paper, in its own right, offers key sociological insights, and as a collection, this special issue demonstrates the need to bring ethnographic methods to digital communities, interactions, practices, and tools. Both as a topic and a methodological approach, "the digital" points us to the need to update, rethink, and grow qualitative sociology. The exemplary papers comprising this special issue exhibit this curiosity and expansiveness, with lessons and implications for an interdisciplinary set of fields and research problems.
The emergence of welfare contractualism in the United States in the 1970s marked a shift from viewing welfare as an entitlement to viewing welfare as a right to be earned through work. Combined with the continual degradation of labor markets since the 1970s, the rise of neoliberal ideology emphasizing individualism, and the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the devolved welfare system – most often managed by a myriad of social service nonprofits – has exacerbated the difficulties of the poor. Scholars have noted, for instance, the loss of civil rights and the proliferation of administrative burdens – including incessant waiting – with which poor people seeking aid are increasingly faced. But “contractual citizenship,” I argue, has not just remade relations between the poor and the state. Rather, as a diffuse cultural ethos, contractual citizenship has also remade relations between and amongst the poor themselves, exacerbating stigmatization, distancing, and denigration. Drawing upon an ethnography of a soup kitchen based in Syracuse, New York, I argue that as a consequence of contractual citizenship, prospective recipients of aid and the poor more broadly adapt their behavior to appear as deserving, worthy citizens and, simultaneously, externally defame their peers for their lesser behaviors. Those who take maximum advantage of free resources – such as attending multiple emergency food programs and taking more than one plate of food – are often deemed by other poor recipients of aid as greedy, ungrateful, and selfish. Thus, the repetitious and time-consuming nature of interacting with the state for basic resources – such as housing or welfare – is further complicated by this intraclass stigma. These findings not only shed light on the challenges of building solidarity amongst the poor but show how political and economic shifts influence how poor people interact with each other and the state.
Drawing on interviews with welfare claimants living in Essex, UK, this article examines the material and symbolic effects of the UK government’s 2012 Welfare Reform Act, and it highlights the participants’ interpretations of and responses to that. In reaction to their sense of material and symbolic exclusion, participants made moral claims for their inclusion through a notion of social citizenship based on collective reciprocity and care. They claimed to have paid-in to the national purse in various material and moral ways until circumstances outside of their control meant they could no longer do so. They thus asserted a moral-economic right to social inclusion and an ensuing right to receive adequate, non-stigmatised, and non-punitive welfare. These moral-economic claims differ from other, more public, counter-narratives to welfare reform and government austerity, and they assert a clear but subtle opposition to the market-bound logic of the reform .
In this article, we argue that migrants’ socio-legal experiences in the places where they settle are formed in interaction with how local residents morally reason about the law. Specifically, based on nine months of fieldwork in an impoverished Italian town, we argue that aligning with how local residents approach the law, including when they justify disobeying it, matters a great deal for migrants’ lives. Focusing on the workings of a reception center for asylum seekers, we first show how local residents regularly support various violations of the law by referring to alternative—and in their view higher—principles of justice. Migrants find themselves caught up in these local moral tensions, at times even becoming involved in illegal practices unbeknownst to them. We then show how migrants’ reactions to the marginality of the law in the town affect their access to local support. Those who align with local nonlegal moral norms obtain access to opportunities, while those who in similar situations invoke the primacy of legality tend to experience ostracization. By investigating the dynamic role of local moralities in situated interaction, this article contributes to both the sociology of morality and the sociology of migration. It shows how moral decision-making processes can and should be studied in their collective dimension, beyond individual-level experiments. Further, with its focus on processes of moral (mis)alignment, it allows us to grasp how place matters for migrants’ lives beyond overly general notions of ‘hostile’ versus ‘hospitable’ localities.
Research shows that people who face stigmatized work identities attempt to reconfigure their employment more positively, such as by concealing their involvement with their jobs or reframing the value of it. Yet, in an era of rising nonstandard work, how might managing work identities also involve managing multiple jobs across fluid employment contexts? We draw insights from two cases of nonstandard workers facing differing degrees of contested work identity—frontline restaurant workers and sex workers. We find that these workers use similar strategies to manage their employment that involve identity work and job searching, yet their decision to stick to their line of work or opt for alternatives stems in part from the symbolic characteristics of their respective jobs. We conclude by laying out a broader framework for how workers manage contested work identities in an era of nonstandard employment.
This article, drawing from interviews, provides an examination of life after prison for two distinct groups returning from prison: people on parole and people exonerated of crimes. There is extensive research concerning people’s experiences after prison; however, the post-prison trajectories of those who have been subsequently exonerated after being falsely convicted of crimes is a far less studied topic. Exonerees benefit after prison from social support arising from various sources such as their families and non-profit organizations. Social networks allow exonerees to be successful in the job market, as well as assist them financially. I find that with the help of dense social networks exonerees must perform their redemption in order to have their basic needs met. Redemption performances are labor that aim to prove that previously incarcerated individuals are worthy of assistance from society. The various negative social and economic consequences of prison are more notable for individuals on parole who are less likely than exonerees to be equipped with networks to draw on for their redemption performances. However, despite exonerees having more support during their return home, they, like individuals on parole, were also left feeling isolated, lost, and de-humanized. I show how resources and the brokering of stigma of incarceration leads to diverging outcomes for people returning from prison, but that trauma still remains.
The concept of collective memory derived from Maurice Halbwachs’ (1925) seminal work can serve as an excellent analytical tool to understand the integration processes of diaspora groups. In this article, we examine how a diaspora’s social standing vis-à-vis the “host country” combines with relationships to the “home country” and their stance towards their respective “homeland conflict” to develop collective memory. Based on 118 in-depth qualitative interviews with 1.5 and second-generation Somali immigrants, and 50 in-depth interviews with 1.5 and second-generation Tamil immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Canada, we examine how contemporaneous features of diasporas and home countries shape, and are shaped by, processes of collective memory formation and collective forgetting. In so doing, we argue that active “remembering” that is predominately present in the Tamil diaspora contributes to the facilitation of community cohesion, whereas the process of collective “forgetting,” which shapes much of the memory work in the Somali diaspora, has contributed to a slower development of community cohesion therein.
Under what conditions do global scripts resonate among ordinary people? Neo-institutional world polity theory has tended to sideline this question by privileging macro-comparative explanations of states’ adoption and social movement activists’ framing of global scripts. Adopting a negative case approach, we draw on concepts from cultural sociology to explain why global scripts fail to resonate among ethno-religious minorities in Antakya, Turkey. Antakya has been exposed intensely to global minority rights and multiculturalism discourses; it has been targeted by various ethnic movement activists, and its diverse population has long experienced stigma and discrimination stemming from Turkey’s model of nationhood. Yet, ordinary people there have seldom utilized global diversity scripts in their everyday struggles for recognition. Drawing on longitudinal qualitative fieldwork between 2004 and 2015, we find that global scripts fail to match people’s cultural schemas of perceiving and reproducing boundaries—their local repertoires of diversity—due to a deep-seated ambivalence toward the category of “minority.” This lack of resonance potentially weakens popular support for substantial policy reforms advancing minority rights and is one among several factors explaining why Turkey’s turn from an exclusionary to an inclusionary model of nationhood has remained largely ceremonial.
Fashion model selection is a targeted case of aesthetic evaluation. For almost 100 years—beginning with data which Herbert Blumer collected in the 1930s—scholars have tried to understand how models are selected. Most have taken a critical and structural approach. I rely instead on a microsociology which centers endogenous decision processes. It highlights the agency and constraints of situational perception and situational stratification, yielding a novel analysis of the casting encounter. Data comes from an ethnography of a fashion week in a semi-peripheral city. It includes backstage evaluations gathered during a stint as a casting agent. I find that agents surprisingly ignore faces, instead focusing on the embodied cues of height/heels, the walk, and body size. Sustained microsociological analysis opens a layered mode of perception highlighting the dynamics of time, attention, emotion, and situations.
During the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, credentialed experts-scientists, doctors, public health experts, and policymakers-as well as members of the public and patients faced radical uncertainty. Knowledge about how Covid-19 was spread, how best to diagnose the disease, and how to treat infected patients was scant and contested. Despite this radical uncertainty, however, certain users of Covid-19 Together, a large online community for those who have contracted Covid-19, were able to dispense advice to one another that was seen as credible and trustworthy. Relying on Goffman's dramaturgical theory of social interaction, we highlight the performative dimension of claims to lay expertise to show how credibility is accrued under conditions of radical uncertainty. Drawing on four months of data from the forum, we show how credible performances of lay expertise necessitated the entangling of expert discourse with illness experience, creating a hybrid interlanguage. A credible performance of lay expertise in this setting was characterized by users' ability to switch freely between personal and scientific registers, finding and creating resonances between the two. To become a credible lay expert on this online community, users had to learn to ask questions and demonstrate a willingness to engage with biomedical knowledge while carefully generalizing their personal experience.
Although conservative evangelical Protestants advocate for protecting the embryo in their opposition to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, they generally support the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure that routinely results in embryo loss. This study draws on 42 interviews with Protestant women experiencing infertility—the majority of whom are evangelicals who ascribe personhood to embryos—to examine how these women navigate issues of fertility, religion, and reproductive technologies. In their pursuit of parenthood, these women drew on cultural ideals of femininity, such as nurturance and protection, in forming attachments to embryos. These ideals of femininity were also invoked in the women's moral reasoning surrounding embryo loss, where women emphasized their procreative intention as the creation, not the destruction, of embryos. In doing so, the women described themselves as embracing motherhood. Embryo loss was often understood as a means to create the family formations that God intended. I develop the concept of gendered moralities to show how evangelical women mobilize and enact culturally valued forms of femininity in their reasoning about embryo loss. These findings shed light on larger debates about when and why embryo loss becomes a moral issue. I argue that because embryo loss in the fertility clinic occurs in a space where women are striving to become mothers, the clinic and its largely white, middle-class clientele are shielded from moral condemnation that occurs in other settings. This suggests that the fertility clinic, along with its patients and practitioners, occupies a privileged space within the moral hierarchies of reproduction.
Drawing on ethnographic data collected in three informal communities, one in Argentina, one in México, and one in Ecuador, we address the long-standing question posed by Larissa Lomnitz’s and Carol Stack’s now-classic studies of how impoverished people not only survive but what strategies they adopt in an attempt to build a dignified life. By focusing on the diversity of strategies by which the urban poor solve the everyday problems of individual and collective reproduction, we move beyond the macro-level analysis of structural constraint and material deprivation. Our findings show a remarkable continuity in the difficulties residents of these informal communities confronted and the problem-solving strategies they resorted to. We found that networks of kin and friends continue to play a crucial role in how poor people not only survive but attempt to get ahead. Additionally, we highlight the role of patronage networks and collective action as central to strategies by which the urban poor cope with scarcity and improve their life chances, while also paying close attention to ways in which they deal with pressing issues of insecurity and violence. The paper shows that poor people’s survival strategies are deeply imbricated in routine political processes.
The transition from late adolescence to early adulthood represents a key moment in trajectories of social reproduction and mobility. A central mechanism influencing these trajectories is the cultivation of specific versions of selfhood. Research shows that socialization within various class locations shapes individuals’ sense of self in ways that impact how they imagine the future and the actions they take in pursuit of goals. Thus far, however, existing literature has neglected to consider the experiences of youth from immigrant families, a population that encounters unique challenges in the transition to adulthood. This paper relies on 40 in-depth interviews to explore the self-narratives of second-generation immigrant (SGI) youth. We seek to understand how these narratives relate to their future orientations and approaches to planning. Additionally, given the findings of prior research, we consider variation in SGI youths’ self-narratives by social class background. Respondents from middle-class families displayed a durable sense of agency, crafting either a focused self with a clear trajectory toward a white-collar occupation or an exploratory self, open to unbounded personal discovery. By contrast, most respondents from working-class backgrounds exhibited a more tentative sense of agency and narrated a vigilant self that was proactive but cautious in the face of uncertainty. Divergence in participants’ self-narratives related to different strategies for planning for the future. Our findings extend the literature on the construction of agentic selfhood for college-going youth in the transition to adulthood.
The term “qualitative” is best considered a disciplinary convenience, not a careful index of research practice. Viewed closely and historically, qualitative research is a shifting, expanding collection of techniques and logics of inquiry, though for curricular reasons we often define that collection by techniques. An effort to discern a single, shared definition of “qualitative” distracts us from the more central questions: What are qualitative researchers trying to achieve, and how do we know if they are doing that well? Qualitative research aims to access meanings that orient actors. Researchers have several historically evolving, mutually reinforcing standards to guide our efforts to access and conceptualize actors’ meanings. These standards currently are interpretive validity, groundedness, and theoretical imagination. When we switch from asking what is qualitative to inquiring after the aims and standards of interpretive research, we find that communities of inquiry continue cultivating logics and observation techniques, and re-visioning standards for deploying them as we investigate meaningful action.
Most qualitative research relies on the researcher’s close engagement with the data that they collect and analyze. While acknowledging this pattern, this article cautions against any narrow definition of qualitative research. Efforts to shore up or clarify collective definitions of “qualitative research” may conflict with the productive unsettling of extant categories and definitions generated by getting close to data. We ought to embrace collective uncertainty and debate about how to define qualitative research as one way toward critical conversations about the boundaries between different methods, as well as about the utility of the research categories on which we rely.
Building on the definition offered by Aspers and Corte, I argue that qualitative research is not qualitative simply because it encodes for the ability “to get closer” to the phenomenon being studied, so much as it is anchored by a methodological obligation to critically examine how and why that closeness matters. Qualitative research considers the positionality of both the researcher and the researched as core aspects of inquiry to understand how knowledge and experience are situated, co-constructed, and historically and socially located. This methodological expectation for reflexivity does not just allow for richer data, but also requires researchers to consider power within and surrounding the research process and to employ an ethic of care for their subjects and for the overall work of qualitative research.
In this text we respond and elaborate on the four comments addressing our original article. In that piece we define qualitative research as an “iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied.” In light of the comments, we identify three positions in relation to our contribution: (1) to not define qualitative research; (2) to work with one definition for each study or approach of “qualitative research” which is predominantly left implicit; (3) to systematically define qualitative research. This article elaborates on these positions and argues that a definition is a point of departure for researchers, including those reflecting on, or researching, the fields of qualitative and quantitative research. The proposed definition can be used both as a standard of evaluation as well as a catalyst for discussions on how to evaluate and innovate different styles of work.
What is qualitative research? Aspers and Corte (2019) make a case for a definition that they believe captures what many qualitative researchers intuitively know. Although I agree with many of the authors’ points, I argue that the effort to identify what makes qualitative research qualitative requires there to be a clear single thing to define, and there is not; that confronting this fact forces their paper into a central contradiction; and that in spite of these and other problems, the paper succeeds in crystalizing questions that qualitative researchers must grapple with today. The authors’ most valuable contribution may be less its definition than the issues we are forced to clarify when concluding what we think about it.
The following article addresses the complex nature of informal exchange in contemporary Russia. I borrow the term “brift” from Abel Polese in order to analyze a hybrid nature of informal transactions that have a ternary nature embodying bribery, gift-giving, and a mechanism of building social capital. While there exists a wealth of studies on informal exchange in Post-Soviet states and modern Russia, the question of how participants of the exchange make sense of the transactions and conditions of the exchange, how they morally and mentally estimate the value and price of the favors, and how they choose appropriate items for reciprocating for the favors still remains understudied. The study addresses this theoretical dilemma and provides a detailed investigation of the meaning-making process intrinsic to this type of informal transactions. The article provides analysis of the in-depth interviews with citizens of St. Petersburg and demonstrates the complexity of the cognitive work of calculating the right price and estimating the proper value and fitness of the items to be used in the brift transactions. This research generally points to the need for a greater sensitivity to intricacies of meaning, practice, and cognitive work that saturate informal exchange, and further calls for a wider acceptance of the concept of brift.
How do teachers use children to shape the behaviors of their peers, and which students benefit? In this qualitative case study of a half-day preschool classroom, I find that teachers encourage children to shape one another’s behavior in ways they regard as classroom-appropriate in order to prepare them for the student role in kindergarten and beyond. At the beginning of the school year, children use varying techniques to shape peer behavior, with some employing rudimentary strategies which may be effective but regarded as inappropriate for the classroom. To encourage preschoolers to influence their peers to behave in more appropriate ways, the teachers sequentially introduce three sets of strategies—simple communication, situational exclusion, and rewarding inclusion strategies—which prescribe increasingly nuanced rules for the children’s provision or denial of attention and inclusion as a means of influencing their peers to comply with classroom expectations. When, in their own peer interactions, the children interpretively reproduce the strategies learned in creative and occasionally excessive ways, the teachers intervene to provide coaching or more effective classroom-appropriate strategies. I show that this manner of teaching and learning school norms and rules advantages children who begin the year demonstrating classroom-appropriate behaviors and disadvantages those whose behaviors are initially less appropriate. These differential advantages have implications for students’ future interactions with the school disciplinary system.
We offer effective ways to write interview protocol “prompts” that are generative of the most critical types of information researchers wish to learn from interview respondents: salience of events, attributes, and experiences; the structure of what is normal; perceptions of cause and effect; and views about sensitive topics. We offer tips for writing and putting into practice protocol prompts that we have found to be effective at obtaining each of these kinds of information. In doing so, we encourage researchers to think of an interview protocol as a series of prompts, rather than a list of questions, for respondents to talk about certain topics related to the main research question(s). We provide illustrative examples from our own research and that of our students and professional colleagues to show how generally minor tweaks to typical interview prompts result in richer interview data.
The “AIDS industry” has been a contested topic for scholars of sex work and sexuality in India. Predictions of an AIDS crisis in India in the 1990s led to an influx of global funding for HIV prevention programs targeted toward sex workers, sexual minorities, and transgender people. These programs were managed by a state agency, the National AIDS Control Organization, but implemented through non-governmental and community-based organizations (NGOs and CBOs). Existing scholarship shows that this incorporation of civil society into state programs both furthered epidemiological surveillance into intimate life and created openings for activist claims on the state. In this article, I argue that HIV prevention programs, as mediators of state public health imperatives and the everyday lives of “at-risk” targets, became sites for cultivating new ways of naming, embodying, and practicing sexuality. Drawing on ethnographic and in-depth interview fieldwork in Bangalore, I show how HIV prevention workers cultivated respectable ways of dressing, speaking, soliciting clients, and moving through public space, while learning how to speak openly in the right contexts and at the right times. HIV drop-in centers became a route to respectable sexuality, an index of class and caste, that enabled new individual and collective engagements with the state while generating room for collective care. As sociologists increasingly turn to the state’s production of legible subjects, HIV prevention programs in India provide an instructive site for demonstrating how, at the interface of state and civil society, sexual respectability was central to both surveillance and the formation of collective demands.
In the United States, mobile homes provide the country’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing. Yet, state planning policies have relegated mobile home parks, the communities where many of these homes are located, to inferior lands in nonresidential areas of towns and cities. These practices spatially and socially marginalize mobile home parks while creating conditions that facilitate their redevelopment. When mobile home parks are redeveloped, entire communities are evicted en masse. This article examines how residents in closing mobile home parks engage state power through the public sphere of city council meetings, a primary place where average citizens directly confront political authority. Through a multi-year, multi-sited ethnography of city council hearings on redevelopment projects that closed mobile home parks in three US states—Texas, Florida, and Colorado—I analyze how mobile home park residents encounter state power as they assemble, make claims, and debate municipal responses to their eviction. I consider how marginalized residents perform citizenship differently—as suppliants, as watchdogs, or as self-advocates—and compare the outcomes of these different modes of engagement. I consider the implications for the “communicative turn” in urban governance and show that mere participation—lauded as a major goal of civic engagement—is not enough to produce effective outcomes for evicted residents.
Despite public sector working conditions that are increasingly precarious, how does the state manage to attract and retain its workers? I draw on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork with women community health workers in India, called ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), who labor under precarious conditions as “remunerated volunteers” to connect the poor and marginalized to governmental health services. I find that the Indian state is the holder of what I call “promissory capital” for its workers. Women become ASHAs because they believe the role is, or will become, a sarkari naukri (government job). While this has not happened, the state keeps the promise alive through its plurality and potentiality, experienced in the everyday by ASHAs. By plurality, I mean the sense that the state is multivocal with various vertical and horizontal nodes that can be activated for one’s interests. By potentiality, I mean the sense of a state that cares and makes overtures to ASHAs in various forms, fueling the hope that it will eventually give them what they really want, that is, salaried and tenured employment. Together, plurality and potentiality shore up the state’s promissory capital. This highlights the mechanisms through which legitimacy is secured for agents in the state.
The articles in this special issue demonstrate that ethnography is an unparalleled way of penetrating and making sense of what the state is and does, of how ordinary citizens think and feel about it and, in the process, perpetuate and/or challenge existing relationships with it.
Refugee status is often imagined as a holy grail. Yet it can have radically different meanings for refugees, even under inclusive policy regimes replete with legal and symbolic resources. Though Brazil is seen as a model of contemporary refugee protection, asylum seekers and refugees there often feel indifferent about the status they seek and obtain. Why are immigrants sometimes apathetic about a status they pursue, even in the face of favorable policies? To resolve this puzzle, this article introduces a cultural sociological approach to contexts of reception by bringing culturalist accounts of the state to bear on this arena of immigration research. Existing scholarship presents the context of reception as a landscape immigrants traverse, shaping various outcomes and in which their sense of belonging is nested. The perspective espoused here builds on this literature by capturing how contexts of reception are imagined and constituted from below. It interrogates how policy regimes are perceived from the migrant perspective, and it conceptualizes context of reception and political subjectivity as mutually constitutive. Based on an ethnography of the asylum process in Brazil, this article employs that framework to explain the production of refugee status apathy—a measured disinterest and lack of enthusiasm about refugee status amongst those in search of safe haven. Taking seriously how refugees themselves understand the legal status they seek and obtain, and how those perceptions develop in and through their encounters with the state and beyond, illuminates how experiences of the legal and socioeconomic contexts of reception in process and practice affect the salience of migratory status—in ways missed when we pursue immigrant meanings as driven by and embedded in formal policy environments.
I describe how the upper and middle class in Metro Manila see the democratic state and how they imagine reforming it. I argue that they are not turning away from democracy towards authoritarianism but, rather, seeking to “discipline” democracy. The notion of discipline connects an experience of democracy as disorder with support for “strong” or quasi-autocratic leaders. I develop it with respect to the following observations: (1) The disciplinary state is largely inspired by examples set by the Philippine state itself operating at the subnational level and by states elsewhere. These “pockets of discipline” effectively function as heterotopias in Foucault’s sense. (2) Informants look to “strong' leaders” to cultivate discipline in a population. (3) The exercise of discipline is a performance aimed at an unruly public. (4) The idea of discipline is rooted in upper- and middle-class social position. And finally, (5) as informants see it, the disciplinary state is not necessarily an undemocratic one. By unpacking the notion of discipline, we are better able to understand why the Philippine upper classes largely supported presidential strongman Rodrigo Duterte and why they continue to support him despite the illiberal character of his administration. The notion may also provide insight into democratic disenchantment elsewhere in the Global South.
Building on recent ethnographic research on social provision in the global South, this article examines the everyday construction of a welfare state that links distributive inclusion with social degradation of the urban poor. The Chilean state has long affirmed its responsibility for housing poor citizens, and claimed considerable success in doing so. Since 1979, subsidized provision of privately built housing has moved millions from precarious residence into formal homeownership. In beneficiaries’ eyes, however, state housing agencies often appeared not as benevolent guarantors of social inclusion but rather as producers of material and symbolic indignities endured by poor city-dwellers. This ethnographic study of social housing in Santiago examines how residents’ understandings of social rights, and of the state itself, are produced in routine encounters with agents of housing provision. In particular, it traces two competing images of the state that emerged in state-citizen interactions. First, grounded in lived experiences of claiming and inhabiting social housing, residents envisioned a denigrating state that regarded the poor as second-class citizens and willfully relegated them to substandard conditions. Second, housing officials challenged this view by presenting the alternative image of an incapable state, which was unable to guarantee dignified housing in a market-oriented society. Each of these images, in turn, informed residents’ everyday political practices. While the denigrating state-image elicited contentious claims-making for better conditions, official performances of an incapable state encouraged residents to abandon collective action in favor of costly private strategies of home improvement.
While existing literature has amply demonstrated how states may “see” their populations, we know less about which residents are legible to the state as populations. Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork and interviews conducted between 2011 and 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa, this paper compares the fate of two large land occupations, one of which was evicted, one of which was not. In doing so, this paper demonstrates how rather than taking “populations” as a given, this status should be understood as an outcome. It suggests that participants in each respective occupation began with different views of the state. In other words, the way residents saw the state impacted each respective organizational outcome, which in turn affected how they were seen by the state. In one occupation, participants saw the state as a partner in obtaining housing, and so they organized themselves as atomized recipients. In the other, they viewed the state as an obstacle, and so they organized themselves collectively. Only in the latter case were residents viewed as a population; in the former, they were all evicted. Ultimately, this paper argues that, by bringing tools from political sociology to bear upon urban ethnography, we can gain insight into a process otherwise overlooked in the literature, allowing us to make sense of a question that is central to understanding urban politics in the global South: how do municipal governments decide which occupations to evict and which to tolerate?
Political sociologists have typically studied the state as a self-enclosed institution hovering above civil society. In this formulation, the state is rendered as omniscient, gazing out over a passive civil society as if it were a naturalized landscape. But in this special issue, we think about how states “see” in relation to whom and what is seen, and how these subjects and collective actors become visible in the first place. We advocate a relational political ethnography that views the state and civil society as inextricably intertwined and mutually co-constitutive. People’s experiences with the state shape their visions of that state, which in turn inform their strategic decisions and everyday engagements. And these decisions and engagements affect how the state views them. To put it differently, in this special issue, we explore the dialectical relationship between how the state “sees” and how it is “seen.” They are inseparable processes. As we argue here, the very unity and coherence of the state apparatus turns not just upon its self-representation but equally upon how people make sense of these representations. How people understand this apparent state in the context of their everyday lives is a crucial source of its power and authority; it explains the reproduction of the state as a social institution. We conclude by introducing the seven empirical contributions to this issue, all of which practice relational political ethnography.
Using data from 77 supervisors in seven hospitals across the U.S. that participated in a national workforce development program for low-wage frontline workers, we explain how supervisors justified and reproduced social inequalities by accepting culture of poverty and neoliberal discourses and how supervisors used these discourses to resolve identity-work dilemmas. We demonstrate how supervisors engaged in identity talk that justified deprivation for workers and shielded management from blame. We discuss how supervisors subtly invoked class, race, and gender stereotypes—and thus reproduced ideologies supportive of structural inequalities—as they crafted accounts that drew attention away from economic and organizational problems and focused on the victims. This research extends the literature on blame attribution, explained here as victim-blaming in disguise, which subsequently shaped supervisors’ perceptions of their staff, defined workers’ opportunities, and inadvertently, reproduced inequality.
Out of 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries, only 22,000 applied for Advance Parole to travel outside the United States before this benefit was rescinded by the Trump administration. This article sheds light on this DACA benefit that has received less scholarly attention. We conducted 23 in-depth interviews, half with DACA youth who traveled to Mexico for the first time and half with their undocumented parents who witnessed this trip from the United States. Our findings expand on four important bodies of immigration literature, including DACA recipients, mixed-status families, return migration, and transnational family ties. In this article, we show how this brief return to the homeland allowed the DACA youth, and by consequence, their parents, to have temporary healing by closing an old cycle or “cerrar ciclos,” as they said in Spanish. The youth also acquired an experiential dual frame of reference that enabled them to reflect and empathize with their parents and their reasons for immigrating to the United States. The post-trip debriefing with the youth made parents feel vindicated for their decision to bring their children when they were young. Ultimately, Advance Parole helped create stronger family bonds between the DACA youth and their parents and it strengthened transnational family and community ties.
This article offers an intersectional analysis of how non-elites frame neighborhood as a synecdoche for nation through tourism. In Cape Town, South Africa, white Western tourists perceive the peripheral Black townships to be more dangerous than the city’s white center but also more representative of the country and thus worth visiting. Drawing from ten months of ethnographic fieldwork, I illustrate how Black women who have established home-based township accommodations iron out the tension between tourists’ fear and desire. I employ Goffman’s theories of impression management to demonstrate how township hostesses make Black South African space fit for Western consumption through race, class, gender, and nation. On the frontstage, women assuage tourists’ inhibitions by acting as maternal African figures. On the backstage, they cover the risks borne of poverty as communal Black mothers. Their gendered production of Black place palliates post-apartheid problems and projects South Africa’s stability on the global stage, which invites further Western visitation and capital.
How did narratives about character education in the United States change between 1985 and 2016 and what does this reveal about the changing meaning of character over this time period? Policymakers and pundits have frequently invoked ideas of “good” versus “bad” character as they attempt to blame individuals for their own circumstances. It makes sense to trace these narratives in their various forms, beginning with the discourse around character and children. Character education programs are a natural object to study in order to capture these narratives. Despite this, sociologists have largely ignored character education, which leaves a significant gap in the scholarly knowledge about both character education and the social construction of designations of “good” versus “bad” character more generally. In this paper, I address this gap by examining the narratives around character education between 1985 and 2016. After analyzing 600 articles from Education Week and the New York Times mentioning character education, I find that there is a significant expansion of the ways in which advocates argue for character education in the schools. Whereas earlier narratives encouraged character education as a means to teach students how to be good, moral people starting in the early 2000s, these narratives expanded to include teaching character as a means to improve academic performance. This finding is significant as we continue to see both education reformers pushing for character education as a tactic to improve achievements and policymakers and pundits invoking character flaws as a means to blame individuals for structural inequality.
In each of four nearby city areas, residents orient to local centers of collective activity in different geographic patterns. In a “perimeter” neighborhood, residents and outsiders are drawn to religious and retail organizations located on streets that form a rectangle. In an “intersection” neighborhood, residents are most visible to each other at an agglomeration of stores and services located where two high traffic streets cross. Residents of an “in-between” area travel to socio-economically and culturally different neighborhoods centered in all directions elsewhere. In a “contested” geography, rival organizations disagree over who, living where, for what purposes, has the right to define the neighborhood’s boundaries and social identity. These different social ecologies took shape without coordination yet became an interdependent, quadriplex set. After 1965, a series of retreats in government control of local social life created unprecedented opportunities for intermediaries who reshaped the social landscape with new businesses, cultural institutions, and interpretations of neighborhood identity. This case study revives the “collective action” explanations of the “Chicago School” by showing how urban social ecology was transformed in the late twentieth century as people of different generations and in different geographic areas interacted indirectly, creating durable neighborhood patterns without centralized, top-down leadership from business or government, in response to locally recognized affordances of anarchy.
As climate change increases the frequency and severity of disasters, and population and social changes raise the public’s vulnerability to disaster events, societies face additional risk of multiple disaster events or other hazards occurring simultaneously. Such hazards involve significant uncertainty, which must be translated into concrete plans able to be implemented by disaster workers. Little research has explored how disaster managers incorporate different forms of knowledge and uncertainty into preparations for simultaneous hazards or disaster events, or how front-line disaster workers respond to and implement these plans. In this paper I draw on ethnographic research working as a wildland firefighter, interviews with firefighters and fire managers, and state and agency planning documents to examine preparations for two events occurring in Central Oregon in August 2017: (1) the height of wildfire season and (2) hundreds of thousands of anticipated visitors for a total solar eclipse. I find that different qualities of risk, hazard, and uncertainty across these two events were central to the development and implementation of disaster plans. Agency leaders devised worst-case scenario plans for the eclipse based on uncertain predictions regarding hazards from the eclipse and the occurrence of severe wildfires, aiming to eliminate the potential for unknown hazards. These plans were generally met with skepticism by front-line disaster workers. Despite the uncertainties that dominated eclipse-planning rhetoric, firefighters largely identified risks from the eclipse that were risks they dealt with in their daily work as firefighters. I conclude by discussing implications of these findings for conceptual understandings of disaster planning as well as contemporary concerns about skepticism and conspiracy theories directed at government planning and response to disaster events.
This paper extends our knowledge of consumer redlining by providing empirical evidence documenting its occurrence at Dollar General stores while also providing an explanation as to why it occurs in the first place. My data was primarily collected during six months of fieldwork working as a low-wage sales associate. It was also supplemented by additional participant observation at the eighteen other Dollar General stores in my fieldsite’s district and fifty in-depth interviews with coworkers and employees. My findings revealed significant disparities in store quality and customer service between the store locations I examined. Of the nineteen stores in the district, three standout stores emerged as the very worst. Conditions there were dirtier and more hazardous than the rest, with under-stocked shelves, slow customer service, and a contentious atmosphere for those who worked and shopped amidst the squalor. Therefore, I identified these stores as consumer redlined. My findings illustrate how the automated management of Dollar General’s labor supply undermined frontline managers’ authority and workers’ ability to resist precarious scheduling, contributing to the degradation of retail work. While algorithmic labor management standardized employer-driven “flexible” scheduling, the system also resulted in an unequal distribution of payroll hours amongst store locations. I argue that this automated scheduling system functioned to minimize labor cost and maximize profit, exacerbating the degradation of labor and instigating the reproduction of inequality—in this case, by generating consumer redlining. Additionally, my research shows how computer technology can intentionally undermine the power of frontline managers by automatic flexible scheduling, making it difficult to remedy the source of complaints at consumer-redlined stores: systemic understaffing.
Why, in the context of a rural Colombian mayoral election, do poor clients donate goods and services to political campaigns? The literature on clientelism describes it as a political order in which politicians exchange resources or favors for political support. In this article, I describe the clientelist relationships and exchanges in a 2019 rural Colombian mayoral election, including what I call pork belly politics, where poor clients also donate scarce resources—most notably crispy fried pork belly—to patrons. Based on eleven months of ethnographic and interview data from before, during, and after the campaign, I show that elections are a crucial time for the rural poor to position themselves vis-à-vis the future mayor. Further, I show that the practices I describe are simultaneously instrumental, calculated to guarantee their access to needed public resources for the four-year term, and moral, rooted in a broader political culture based on norms of reciprocity. I explain the three levels of clientelist relationships that emerge during campaigns, and the practices and expectations at play in each. These findings add new depth to our understanding of rural politics and poverty, client agency, and the moral and instrumental dimensions of clientelist exchanges.
Progressing quickly from school to work is an indicator of early career success for college graduates. Recent research shows that inter-institutional connections between elite universities and prestigious employers easily move students at these schools into a select few firms. Prior research has yet to fully address whether students at non-elite colleges have differential access to connections between their colleges and potential employers. Drawing on 176 longitudinal interviews with students across four majors, I track 91 seniors who have all completed internships as they graduate and enter the labor market. In doing so, I document the inter-institutional connections through which employers recruit some students for internships that often lead directly to permanent employment opportunities, a process I call the career conveyor belt. Career conveyor belt internships have procedures in place to hire some, or all, of their interns immediately following graduation. Students that must find their own internships rarely end up in career conveyor belt internships, and they often spend 3–6 months job-searching after school ends before finding full-time work. Analysis reveals that college major plays a critical role in determining which students access career conveyor belt internships. These findings suggest students’ differential access to inter-institutional connections between schools and employers produce unequal labor market outcomes between college graduates by major.
Past research on unwanted sex has often emphasized individual risk factors or institutional determinants. As a supplement to past research, this article bridges interactionist theory with a sexual scripting approach to explore how unwanted sex is also produced in situ during sexual encounters. This article examines 110 heterosexual and queer college students’ accounts of unwanted sex. Results show that as a sexual encounter unfolds, people do not just go along with it. Rather, people routinely feel a need to make sense of its progression. In existing literature, violence and incapacitation are the predominant ways that scholars, as well as the public, presume that unwanted sex happens. In my data, there were indeed instances of force, threat of force, and incapacitation. However, much more common, and more surprising, were the pressures from gendered sexual scripts and generic interactional smoothing that emerged. Across interviews, it was also common for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students to report a lack of familiarity with queer sexual scripts. I argue that focusing on situational pressures and gendered sexual scripts for women, as well as men and queer students, sheds new light on understandings of how and why unwanted sex happens.