Research in Service of Action


Utilizing services of the SSRC this summer, Associate Professor of Sociology Fernando De Maio and students from the Master of Public Health program have been working with Rush University Medical Center to compile a portrait of what health looks like in the eight West Side and three Oak Park Community Areas that make up the hospital’s city and suburban patient base.

This is among the first projects of the new LAS Center for Community Health Equity (CCHE). Co-directed by Fernando and Dr. Raj C. Shah, a geriatrician and an associate professor in Rush’s Department of Family Medicine and its Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the Center is embarking on an ambitious goal: to help improve community health outcomes and eliminate health inequities in Chicago. By linking the two institutions’ research, teaching and experiential assets in a strategic partnership across disciplines, it aims to connect research and action, recognizing that, “it is not enough to identify a problem and then do nothing to fix it,” Fernando said.

Every three years, as a condition of the Affordable Care Act, non-profit hospitals must conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment describing the health needs of the residents within their service area and to what extent they are meeting them. They receive a mandate and an injunction (don’t exclude any populations within the service area), but get little methodological guidance, Fernando noted. DePaul’s participation through the CCHE now offers an opportunity to introduce “a social science approach” previously missing from Rush’s health assessment, Fernando said. Before, qualitative data was a very small component of the report, which lacked the “richness” valued in social research. “The actual voice of the participants was lost,” he noted.

The benefits of collaboration are already evident. A combination of health care utilization information from Rush, sociodemographic and economic data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), along with GIS mapping and data analysis from the CCHE (assisted by the SSRC) have added a significant change to the next report: Austin will be included in Rush’s Chicago service area for the first time. The 2015 assessment will also include quantitative data collected by a Cook County-wide collaboration of hospitals and qualitative information from focus groups. “The end result, I think, is going to be one grounded in qualitative insight,” Fernando said. “The voice of residents — in Austin, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and other high-hardship communities — should have a more prominent role in the report.”

DePaul students are benefiting from the opportunity to directly observe the assessment planning, implementation and analysis processes. Students Denisha Brown, Kerianne Burke, Ernesto Flores, Aneta Jedrazsko, Maggie Nava and Adenike Sosina have participated as focus group note-takers, facilitators and transcribers. Denisha and Maggie got to join Fernando on a Rush committee that formulated the focus group questions, and Kerianne helped Fernando and Dr. Shah analyze the CDC data. The SSRC has trained students in how to represent data through GIS maps and how to use SSRC transcription equipment to capture the focus group discussions. Fernando said his preliminary examination of the initial transcripts is already revealing “valuable insight, which should add a layer of richness to the community health needs assessment.”

As of September, the Center will be housed at the Loop campus. An official kick-off event is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Rush. “All of us are really excited by the potential of the Center,” Fernando said. “It is a way for us to meaningfully collaborate across disciplines and professions, with community involvement, and work on one of the big injustices in our city — the simple and stubborn fact that your zip code largely determines your life expectancy.”


Learning How We Write with Sarah Read

During a research leave this past Spring Quarter, Assistant Professor Sarah Read of Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse (WRD) has been utilizing ATLAS.ti in the SSRC’s computer lab for her ethnographic project at the facility that operates the world’s fifth largest supercomputer.  With visiting privileges from Argonne National Laboratory as a guest faculty researcher, Sarah is analyzing the technical documentation and reporting processes of the Argonne Leadership Computing Center where the cutting-edge machine is housed. She is studying technical documentation and reporting processes with a focus on the daily activities of the “knowledge workers” who operate it. Her focus is on writing, traced through documentation related to and generated by the supercomputing center.


“I think it’s fascinating to create an account of what it takes to build and operate a world-class supercomputer,” Sarah said. Through her interviews with supercomputing center staff, Sarah has been delighted to discover that they “think like researchers” themselves, tackling uncharted terrain in what is “essentially a research project in supercomputing.” Every year the staff prepares a report on operations required by their sponsoring federal agency. In this report they demonstrate how the facility has met the metrics of availability, utilization and capability supported by data that staff must work out how to generate. “It’s a big machine. It’s not easy,” she notes. Nothing is pre-formed. Staff have no manual to consult when the machine fails, no button to press to spit out the right data. Figuring out how to “write down the machine” is a complex, research-based task itself.

A theory-driven researcher and ethnographer, Sarah describes herself as “fundamentally a rhetorician, but I study it in technical environments.” The project combines her competing interests and background in writing, science and the humanities. “I consider myself a collector of qualitative data, but I don’t consider myself really a social scientist. I’m kind of in a grey area epistemologically,” she explains. Her ethnographic approach, which interests her in “the theory-driven points of view,” permits her to admit to strong biases. “I think there’s value in creating descriptive accounts of phenomenon within new theoretical frameworks that make visible previously invisible aspects of that phenomenon” she said. “It makes the strange mundane and the mundane strange again.”

As a self-taught, new fan of ATLAS.ti, Sarah too is learning as she progresses, experimenting with how to make the application work within her methodologies. This spring she worked hard with the networking view tool and is now concentrating on coding. ATLAS is “very object-oriented,” she said, treating chunks of a transcript as a whole document. She’s impressed with its analytical power and its visual capabilities that helpfully reveal networked relationships among research artifacts. “It’s a tool for analysis, but network views can also be research products” she noted.

Currently Sarah is continuing to code interview data for an article about how gathering data for the operations report structures staff work activities at the supercomputing facility. She is also writing a proposal for a book about the infrastructural function of writing and documentation for technical organizations.

Sarah offers to share what she’s learned about ATLAS.ti with other DePaul researchers. She’s found that talking through the process is mutually beneficial. If you’re interested in learning more about the application, please contact the SSRC[] or Sarah [].

Mess Hall: Transition to the Nurse Faculty Role, A National Perspective

On Friday June 5, GSC Fellow and Nursing DNP student Nadia Spawn presented preliminary findings from her current research project with nursing faculty members Dr. Young-Me Lee and Elizabeth Florez.  Spawn presented her findings ahead of several conference poster presentations and talks, set to happen later this summer.

TNFR Presentation (3)_Page_09

Their project investigates the factors associated with nursing faculty’s intention to leave positions in colleges and universities.

This work comes at a crucial time;  there is currently a shortage of registered nurses (RNs) and an even greater shortage of doctoral level RNs (who can teach).  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has suggested that in order to keep pace with the growing need for nurses and nursing educators, that the US double it’s #of RNs with doctorates by 2020.

Spawn’s preliminary findings suggest that the majority of nursing professors who intend to leave report non-competitive salaries, high faculty workloads, and lack of institutional support as primary reasons for leaving.  Spawn and colleagues intend to examine how characteristics such as doctoral preparation, demographic variables, as well as job satisfaction, burn out, and competence to impact intention to leave nursing faculty positions.

The UVA Gang-Rape Case: Reflections of a Methodologist

The following piece is guest authored by Sociology Faculty Roberta Garner.



The UVA Gang-Rape/Rolling Stone story grabbed my attention because my daughter taught at UVA for four years and lived near Rugby Avenue and the fraternity houses. I found it easy to call to mind the stunning Rotunda and residence halls designed by Thomas Jefferson, the lovely magnolia trees, the crowds of student party-goers, and the complex cultural dynamics of the town. The landscape seemed familiar, but I knew it harbored many mysteries.

I circulated my remarks about interviewing to colleagues and the conversation has been great! Bruce Evensen underlined Margaret Talbot’s point that Sabrina Rubin Erdely (the Rolling Stone reporter) should have interviewed more people and made an effort to talk to the accused. Greg Scott sent me a link to a Columbia Journalism Review article by Judith Shulevitz that invoked Karl Popper and the need for openness to the possibility of “falsification” by data of one’s initial hypothesis. (Someday, as a Marxist, I am going to take on the Popperites’ self-contradictory attacks on Marxist analysis—but that is another story). Here is the reflection I circulated, and I hope we can keep the conversation going.

Research methods: The challenges of interviewing:

The sensational UVA/Rolling Stone gang-rape case demands attention from anyone interested in research methods. I am always surprised when I hear students respond “Let’s interview” to the question: how can we learn more about this situation, action, culture, or institution? Of all research methods, interviewing is the most problematic and the one least suited to neophytes. I want to make clear that I am not out to slam the RS reporter (though Evensen and Talbot’s criticisms are well-taken), attack the victim’s story, bash Rolling Stone for not fact-checking, or debate UVA policies. My focus here is on what happens in interviews and why interview data are extremely complicated and often deeply flawed—exactly why multiple sources and fact-checking are so important.

A lot has been written about how there are huge gaps between what people do and what they say they do (people lie or are mistaken in their answers, so we cannot reach conclusions about their behaviors from their verbal assertions).

But I want to go beyond this obvious defect in interview methods to a more troubling insight, often associated with postmodern ideas about knowledge. The interview is an interactive discourse that elicits and creates stories with only a loose and untraceable association with the verifiable, empirical facts that we would like to establish—facts about behaviors, cultural norms, practices, beliefs, and so on. Without unreservedly embracing the postmodern view of interviews, Greg Scott and Roberta Garner give it careful attention, saying “We have to be aware that we are constructing social reality by the way we ask questions and that the data we have produced (not collected) in the form of an interview transcript are the discourses in which we participated (2013: 281).”

Consider two alternatives to the interview:  One is the first-person audio-taped or written narrative that expresses the experiences and feelings of an individual –a subject, not only in the sense of research subject, but in the sense of an “I” who takes action and can be held responsible for it.  The narrative might be a lie or a self-deception, but we know who produced it. The other is the research report of a trained social scientist or journalist that expresses the observations and data collected by an individual: the material may contain other people’s lies and self-deception, as well as incorrect interpretations proffered by the researcher; but an individual researcher or journalist is responsible for the account and must defend its objectivity, show awareness of misrepresentations that may have been recorded from research subjects, and reflect on contending interpretations.

Carry out two corresponding thought experiments for the UVA incident: Imagine Jackie writing an account of what happened to her (as trauma victims are often encouraged to do to contribute to their recovery); and imagine the reporter spending several years writing an ethnography about UVA and its Greek life. Would these two narratives resemble the Rolling Stone interview-based article?

In contrast, the interactively and collaboratively created interview narrative—the result of a dialog—exists in a bright, shiny “interview space” where no one is exactly responsible for the product. It is brought into being in an interaction, and it is difficult to ascertain the limits of responsibility for what is said and how it is framed, even if we have a complete transcript of it. I believe that this ambiguity and haziness would have arisen even if Erdely had interviewed more individuals.

The “bubble space” of the dialogic interview (especially the one-shot, parachuted-in type of interview) becomes even more problematic when we are not “merely” trying to establish facts (Who? What? Where? The name of the fraternity?), but venturing conclusions about “culture.” How often we read about “culture”—corporate culture, ghetto culture, the culture of rape, and so on….as if culture were a sort of tarpaulin that we can pull down and tie over a group of people—as if there were no variation, ambivalence, transgression, and contradictory performances among these people. The interview—decontextualized from a complete ethnography — is a particularly difficult method for reconstructing the way people live cultures. This problem is related to the “attitudinal fallacy” discussed in a recent ASA paper by Jerolmack and Khan, but it goes even further: not only is there a gap between what people do and what they say, but they consistently do and say many contradictory things, in a tangle of words and actions that (as Jerolmack and Khan point out) cannot be learned from interviews.


Jerolmack, Colin and Khan, Shamus. “Talk is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.” (ASA paper)

Scott, Greg, and Roberta Garner. Doing Qualitative Research: Designs, Methods, and Techniques. Pearson 2013.

Shulevitz, Judith. 10:15 AM – December 6, 2014 What happened at Rolling Stone was not Jackie’s fault Overcome confirmation bias with responsible reporting.

Talbot, Margaret. New Yorker article on December 7, 2014

Note: RRoberta Garneroberta Garner is a full professor and Interim Department Chair of Sociology at DePaul University.  Her research interests are political sociology, sociological theory, urban sociology, and research methods.


Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.

A recent study from scholars at the University of Nebraska concluded that both men and women gazed more at women’s chests and waists and less on their faces.  Women with bigger breasts and smaller waists (the typical “hourglass” shape that represents a feminine  “ideal”) received longer looks.  Essentially Gervais and colleagues have confirmed something that the infamous Sir Mix A Lot proposed in his 1992 prologue to the iconic music video Baby Got Back: women and men check out women’s bodies.  In case you’ve been blessed to forget that particular part of the 1990’s, I present you with the lyrics:

Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.
It is so big. She looks like,
one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, you know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because,
she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so big.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,
out there, I mean – gross. Look!
She’s just so … black!

So, this basically changes everything!! We all objectify!!

But before you get all

I ask that you hold your collective horses.  Gervais suggests that this finding might represent an evolutionary response to the dynamic between scarce resources and fertility, where men associate shapely women with childbearing and women see shapeliness as competition.  Interestingly, men tended to rate women’s personality on their looks, where more curvy women tended to be rated as having better personalities.”That’s weird, right?” Said no slightly chubby, friend-zoned girl ever.

In case you got a bit nostalgic reading the poetically elegant genius of Sir Mix A Lot, I present to you his famed video.  Afterall, I shouldn’t be the only one walking around with this particular ear worm today:
You’re welcome.

Three Apps/Websites to Get You Writing

We here at the SSRC are all about helping researchers make their research better by making their lives more manageable.  We often do this by training research assistants or trouble shooting data problems or software problems.  Sometimes we do it by reporting about resources that our readers might find interesting.  Today, I report on three gems that I have discovered that have been crucial for helping me make steady progress towards writing goals.

Don’t Break the Chain is a very simple web-based calendar where you indicate all the days that you have successfully completed a daily task.  For many academics, daily writing is a MUST-DO.  Don’t Break the Chain allows users to set several goals and mark progress on each one.  It’s best for daily tasks that might require a little encouragement.  Particularly for individuals who like to keep a trend going.

Screenshot 2013-10-16 11.41.07 750 Words is very simple site where users write text.  The user’s words are counted with the goal of reaching 750 words per day.  This probably isn’t the best tool for polished writing (as in that kind of writing that would require tables and figures and such), but it’s a nice place to just get one’s thoughts down.   Words are counted in the lower right hand corner.  Text can be copied and pasted into a text editor for more polishing and massage.  When a user meets the 750 word requirement, a mark is made by that date.  A nice long row of those might be useful for individuals who like to keep track of their progress.

Screenshot 2013-10-16 11.43.21

Write or Die offers a web interface, desktop program, or app where users are penalized for not producing enough words with the deletion of previously written words.  Users can select their time goal and word goal, as well as the strictness of their consequences (which ranges from gentle to electric shock mode) and forgiveness period.  This is probably better for people that just need to spend time getting their ideas down.  And those who are easily distracted, who might sit down to right, but who suddenly find themselves perusing the DePaul SSRC blog or Facebook doing other things.

Screenshot 2013-10-16 14.17.07

Bestowing GRACE

We’re happy to announce the two projects that will be getting RA assistance through the GRACE program this summer. It was a close call, but this quarter, the final winners are:

Ramya Ramanath, School of Public Service

Project: Place-making by displaced women: A qualitative action research on slum relocation and rehabilitation in Mumbai, India

The RA working with Ramya will be helping her to organize and analyze qualitative data collected in focus groups and face-to-face interviews with women in Mumbai in 2012.

Tom Foster, History

Project: This project examines the sexual assault and sexual exploitation of enslaved men. It examines forced reproduction, sexual assault by men and women, and the broader context of sexuality within the institution of slavery.

The RA working with Tom will be reading through the WPA Slave Narrative archives for references or allusions to the experiences of sexual and romantic life of slaves.

All the applications were very good, so we will be looking at all of the proposals to see how we can work to support them outside of the GRACE program with consultations, trainings, or smaller chunks of RA time. We will offer GRACE again every quarter, so watch this space for the announcement of the next GRACE session.

A special thanks to all of the applicants and to the SSRC Advisory Board for their part in reviewing applications. [Note: Ramya Ramanath is a member of the SSRC Advisory Board, but did not review the GRACE applications.]