Message from the Director

Legitimacy and legitimation—the sociocultural construct and its attendant socio-political process—occupy a central position in everyday life.  We all want to be taken seriously, even when we want to be taken amusedly. For the past couple of months I’ve been in a small South Carolina town working on a documentary series about Irish Travelers in the United States.  Integral to the local cultural “ethos” is the notion of “authenticity”—acting and speaking such that fellow Travelers take one seriously, perceive, and treat one as a “real” Traveler.  This aspect of the Traveler ethos differs only in form from the cultural structures that impinge on—shape and get shaped by—the goings-on in other cultures, arguably in every other culture.  Capturing and re-rendering on film the ways of “Authentic Travelers” constitutes my principal mission as an ethnographic filmmaker charged with the task of producing a mainstream media “truth movie” about Travelers here in South Carolina.

 

Simultaneously, I am working with colleagues at Louisiana State University (LSU-Baton Rouge) to elevate the “legitimacy factor” of ethnographic filmmaking more generally.  Day in and day out, we find ourselves facing many of the same challenges elucidated in the compelling book Social Knowledge in the Making, the recently released edited volume we mention in this issue of re/search.  With regard to the place of “all things visual” in the social sciences, these are indeed fortuitous times.  Never before has The Image played such a vital role in the public sphere or figured so heavily into the actual doing of social science.  SSRC’s ongoing collaboration with the Video Ethnography Laboratory at LSU is beginning to bear the fruit of legitimacy.  Our slate of endeavors, present and planned, includes cross-institutional and multi-disciplinary ethnographic film working groups, an ethnographic documentary film festival, and a variety of ethnographic video “publishing” initiatives.  With respect to the latter, we’re tinkering with all sorts of alternative academic legitimation mechanisms, including the kind of crowdsourcing of peer review described in this issue’s first article.

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Research Origin Stories

The Beer Can Museum in Northampton, MA. Photo by C-Monster on flickr

Conceptualizing. Counting. Classifying. Categorizing. Typifying. Whether we’re studying jellybeans or the regrettable “jelly” shoes fashion trend, we’re academicians who’ve been deeply conditioned to adopt a critical approach to categories, taxonomies, typologies, and other mechanisms for arraying people, places, things, and phenomena. At the same time, we’ve learned along the way that much of our work hinges on our ability to conceptualize, count, and classify with theory-informed sensitivity and acumen. It’s a difficult tightrope, a love-hate relationship if ever there was one.

The articles in this week’s re/search ushered me through a time warp: I’m 7 years old, and my father has just introduced me to his brother for the first time. See, my Uncle Roger — our family’s ill-fated “bad apple” — had been in prison since before I was born, since the day after he dropped out of high school. Now he was out of the joint and needed a place to stay. That place turned out to be my room. My mother separated my bunk beds, arranging them side-by-side, and under matching NBA/ABA bedspreads my “ex-con” uncle and I slept in what had theretofore been MY room.
Continue reading “Research Origin Stories”

re/direct: Greg Scott

“They could watch themselves. No one who ever comes to know himself with the detachment of an observer is ever the same again.” – Edmund Carpenter (1972, 1973, p. 135)
In 1988 I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California when I first read the work of Edmund Snow Carpenter—in particular his amazing, truly timeless classic Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! At the time, the quote above captured my then-budding sociological imagination. I had recently confirmed “social science” as my major and was taking my third visual anthropology course. I couldn’t seem to get enough of these courses, the topics they covered, their exploration of all things visual, and the works of scholar-filmmakers like Carpenter. In Oh, What a Blow he writes about the participatory nature of the visual (film and photography) ethnography he and his colleagues were doing among villagers in Papua New Guinea and how so many things were irreversibly changed when the tribespeople saw themselves on “the big screen” for the first time in their lives.

re/direct: Greg Scott

The summer appears to be evaporating quickly. But you don’t need me to tell you that. By now I’m pretty sure you’ve caught yourself in a momentary chagrin-filled pause, a cognitive fugue, reflecting on how just yesterday the spring quarter ended and the long summer lay stretched out before you, peppered with opportunities for research productivity. How could the summer be half-gone, or half-remaining (depending on how you view things), when I’m just getting started on this project?

If you’re reading this newsletter, I’m going to hazard a guess that you generally feel as though you’ve got too much work to do and not enough time in which to do it. Perhaps you’ve even entertained sci-fi daydreams wherein you benefit from the installation of a second brain and/or the attachment of additional high-functioning limbs.

Although SSRC is a forward-thinking and fast-forward-operating outfit, we can’t help you make such futuristic notions come true. But we CAN help you in ways that you might not even be able to imagine. After all, it’s really hard to figure out how any given resource can be useful if you don’t know what that resource is capable of. For instance, did you know that we can help you train your graduate and undergraduate student researchers? In our “Tricks of the Trade” workshop series, we often concentrate our attention on teaching student research assistants how to conduct all sorts of methodological and analytical operations using qualitative, quantitative, pictorial, and videographic data. We also can train your RAs—in small groups and/or one-on-one consultations—in various techniques, including ethnographic interviewing, field surveys, systematic social observation, and just about any other data-gathering tool.

In this issue we’re publishing material that might be of great interest to your student RAs. SSRC’s mandate and mission dictate a principal focus on assisting faculty, and one of the ways we can do this is by helping faculty scholars train and otherwise support their research assistants. We know that in the absence of grant funding, it’s especially difficult to recruit, train, and supervise a student research assistant. Extramural support or no, we’re here to help you with this part of the research enterprise. Remember, your research is our business. So drop us a line or pay us a visit, and let’s figure out how to facilitate and optimize the working relationship between you and your student research assistant.

Greg Scott, PhD
Director, SSRC

re/direct: Greg Scott

Unrelenting heat. Suffocating humidity. Overworked oscillating fans, A/C units cranked to the hilt. Sound like Chicago? Certainly. But it also fits the current climate in New Orleans, which is where I recently spent a 10-day work-ation (working vacation). Ever since a poignantly momentous day in my 12th year of life, when my mother walked me down Bourbon Street (which I hardly ever frequent as an adult), giving me sips of her Hurricane while a female sex worker engaged me in a then-mystifying repartee, I’ve spent as much time as possible in the Big Easy. When I returned a few days ago from my trip and began working on the current edition of re/search, I realized that this week’s focus on oral history coincidentally dovetails with my (and many others’) scholarly and personal perspectives on New Orleans as a physical place (a city) and as a cultural symbol.

House in the Lower 9th Ward, Dec 2006 photo: Greg Scott

Early in this decade I began doing HIV-related research among sex workers and drug injectors in New Orleans Parish; at the decade’s midpoint, I began the process of buying a house there, in the neighborhood known as “Mid-City” (adjacent to Treme, the neighborhood made famous by David Simon and HBO). Then came Hurricane Katrina. Yes, Katrina. Do you remember? Did it make an impact on you? Was that epic disaster salient to you? For me, it was devastating. For many of my friends, it was traumatizing. For nearly 2,000 New Orleanians, it was fatal. An entire city suffering multiple traumas, inflicted only in part by nature, for the real harm seemed to be inflicted by the various institutional actors and bureaucratic entities, whose efforts and initiatives coalesced into a human-made storm every bit as damaging as Katrina.

Remembering natural and human-made disasters like Katrina is arguably critical to our capacities as global citizens. In the case of Katrina—as with nearly every other disaster—a great deal of the “remembering” work gets done by oral historians. I’d like to draw your attention to the oral history work done by Dr. Lisa Pruitt, director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Albert Gore, Sr. Research Center.  Her project titled “Narrating Katrina through Oral History” is a terrific resource, consisting of 48 audiorecorded interviews with first responders and evacuees. All the recordings are downloadable mp3 files, just click, play, listen, and learn. I have used Dr. Pruitt’s recordings in teaching the oral history method, interview techniques, and so forth. I have drawn heavily on the substance of her scholarship to conduct my own studies of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. More often than not, I have to admit, I use these oral histories as a salve, an anodyne for my homesickness.

The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank houses Dr. Pruitt’s collection along with more than 30 other multimedia projects (audio, video, digital and digitized photographs, data visualizations, etc.). I highly recommend that you check it out, regardless of how much you know or don’t know (or care) about Hurricane Katrina, Rita or any other natural-human disaster. Everything in the archive is available free of charge to anyone who wants it. And you can’t beat that. My parting request is that you watch (and listen) to this video, shot in St. Bernard Parish 30 days after “The Storm”.

Oral history is an essential component of academia, an integral element of a liberal education, an indispensable ingredient of critical thought. But I would argue that the greatest proportion of its value lies in its role in helping society understand itself—where it’s been, how it got here, where it’s going. I find oral histories to be inspiring in a way that few other social science products are. In fact, it was an oral history that propelled me into sociology. While it had no substantive connection with Katrina, it did put me in mind of my earlier, highly (if puzzlingly) gratifying experiences in New Orleans. At the age of 17, my high school sociology teacher required us to read Studs Terkel’s Working as part of a curricular module on hierarchy, stratification, and economic & occupational mobility. Specifically, we read the section “Pecking Order”, which concludes with the oral history of a formerly drug-addicted prostitute in Manhattan. That one oral history changed my life—it set me on a path that, while labyrinthine, has led me to the present day and even factors into my current studies of street life. Its dog-eared pages have withstood the test of time (and dozens of cross-country trips, job changes, relationship shuffles, etc.). In a word, it has endured…and that, in my view, is the mark of excellence.

A life without oral history—devoid of people who “hear voices” and re-present them to the rest of us—would be bleak, anemic, layered in shades of beige. So let’s give pause and pay due respect to the oral history method. And let’s work together as the oral history form evolves amidst the swiftly cycling tides of the digital days that are upon us. If you’ve done oral histories, please share your work with us. If you’d like to do oral history work but don’t know exactly where or how to start, then come on by and we’ll help get you going. If you’ve got an oral history project in mind or in progress but need a proper recording technology infrastructure, we can help with that too. Just let us know. Remember, your research is our business.

Greg Scott, PhD
Director, Social Science Research Center

re/direct: Greg Scott

Message from the Director

In response to our re/search newsletter, we’ve been hearing from many faculty. Some write just to introduce themselves; others request assistance; still others share tips and insights with us. Getting such good notes from faculty has led us to start including faculty voices in re/search.

Every week (ideally) we’ll publish either (1) a letter or message from a faculty member offering information and/or insight that other faculty scholars likely will find useful, or (2) a faculty member’s article about a research-related topic.  We want re/search to offer useful information, as any good newsletter should, but we also want it to be a lively space for engaging dialogue.

This week we feature the voice of Dr. Leonard Jason, Director of the Center for Community Research, whose message to us prompted quick action, and the end result will be useful to many of you.

Hi Greg:

Love your newsletter—filled with great stuff.

You might like to know about some thoughts I have. In the future there will be more collaboration and interactions with researchers across various institutional settings, and many of these innovations will allow researchers to share promising instruments, data sets and new methods of exchanging and pooling data.

As an example, REDCap (Research Electronic Data Capture) is an open-access online database at http://project-redcap.org/ which allows researchers to submit their own instruments and scales, as well as use a large number that have already been inventoried. In addition, investigators can share data across settings in databases, thus enlarging communication lines and enhancing standardization procedures across sites.

This is a free service and requires only that a given university sign up as a participating site. I believe that researchers will increasingly utilize such websites to provide greater consensus regarding instruments and methods employed in multisite studies.

There are hundreds of schools that are members of REDCap, and literally thousands of investigators around the world using it. It is out of Vanderbilt and free to join, but an institution needs to join.

Leonard A. Jason, PhD
Director, Center for Community Research

After receiving Lenny’s message, we worked with the LAS Dean’s Office to figure out how DePaul could become a member of this amazing worldwide association.  As of today, we’re entering the final stages of membership approval.  Once we’ve got REDCap up and running, we’ll publish a manual on how to use it and invite DePaul faculty to try it out.

While we can’t promise that every wish will be filled and every request satisfied, you can be certain that nothing will happen if you don’t ask or suggest!  So please let us know what we can do to help you.  Remember, your research is our business.

Greg Scott, PhD
Director, Social Science Research Center