This project began with a television show. In our Humanities class for 11th and 12th grade students, we examined the social inequalities depicted on The Wire, an HBO crime drama series that takes place in Baltimore. As we watched it with them, we wondered how our students could analyze similar issues in our own Massachusetts community.
While brainstorming, we came across The Wounds of Whiteclay and were struck by the powerful and personal stories of this small community. Reading through it, we discovered that it was the product of twelve university students, and we suddenly had our idea: a collaborative ethnography of our neighborhood conducted by our students.
However, executing this idea was an intimidating endeavor. Neither of us had studied ethnography, so we knew we would need to learn alongside our students. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw proved indispensable in learning how to communicate, observe, and write responsibly within the field. Perhaps most importantly, it provided a methodological and ethical foundation for maintaining the humanity of our subjects and acknowledging our students’ subjectivity as researchers.
As we introduced the project, our classes were continually aware of the project’s potential for exploitation. They expressed caution and fear about how they might be perceived by the Egleston community, and many of them said that they couldn’t get past the idea that they might be using other people for their own academic gain. For some students, this discomfort never entirely went away, and we understood their questions and anxieties. Still, the most potent moments of our own education often demonstrated that discomfort is not always negative, and that it can be one of the surest signals that learning is taking place.
But this sense alone could not create the communication, trust, and procedure necessary to complete this project responsibly. So in addition, through conversations with each other, our students, and some Meridian parents, we realized the importance of informed consent. People who agreed to work with students had to be aware of the project, the intentions behind it, and what they could and could not expect as an outcome. We created a Consent Form, which students were required to discuss in-depth with their subjects before beginning research. In addition, following the guidance of Emerson et al, students were encouraged not to be passive observers but active communicators and participants with and around their subjects.
As these conversations continued, students began the first stage of the project: identifying, observing, and writing about an ethnographic subject. They contacted local businesses and organizations asking for participants willing to give four hours of their time to observation, conversation, and photography. Following weeks of calling, emailing, and walking around the neighborhood, 21 of our 23 students secured subjects, and they spent time with their participants in a variety of ways. Some sat in restaurants, barbershops, or construction sites. Others went on walks or attended fundraising galas or public meetings. The two students without subjects transformed their projects from a written piece into a photographic ethnography of the neighborhood.
Relative to most ethnographic studies, students achieved only a glimpse of their subject in their four hours of observation. The final articles taken altogether provide a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, but it is certainly not as exhaustive or rigorous a process as those behind the books we that we read along the way, such as Alice Goffman’s On the Run and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted.
After students completed their observations, they identified common themes in their field notes and wrote articles based on these themes. In this way, each student attempted not to write a chronological narrative of time spent with their subject, but rather, as the ethnographers did in the books we read, to draw a set of conclusions about their subjects as a the structural basis of their articles.
Once the articles were finished, we moved on to the second stage of the project, in which students used each other’s articles to create a more comprehensive ethnographic portrait of Egleston Square. To achieve this, each student read all of their peer’s articles and coded them with common themes. Students then pooled these together, identifying six primary themes found throughout the articles: Community Organizations, Criminal Justice, Gentrification, Housing, Neighborhood Economy, and Small Business.
In pairs, students then generated research-based papers on these themes. The papers incorporate their ethnographic articles alongside secondary research on how these themes play out in Boston and nationwide. This website, which is an adapted template from Designova, is intended to share the work of the students with the broader community.
This was a challenging project for us. Throughout the process, we never felt like we reached a foolproof ethnographic method. We continually talked about it together, bouncing around ideas and asking questions like:
How could we improve student comfort engaging with people in the community?
How comfortable should students be with this process? How much discomfort is healthy?
What are the ethical implications of sending independent school students on an ethnographic study of their working class community? How should ethnographers engage when they come from greater privilege than their subjects?
Should we have taught students more about Egleston Square before they began engaging with participants, or was it important that they learn from their subjects directly?
These questions remain active in our minds, and we are eager to hear others’ thoughts now that the project has an audience.
We hope you enjoy exploring this project and that its stories help you connect with neighborhoods near and far from your own. If you have any questions about this project, please do not hesitate to contact us.
-- Catherine Epstein & Nathan Sokol-Margolis