Urban Ethnography in Action: Methods and Findings to Inform Social Work Research
We address theoretical as well as practical aspects of urban ethnography. Snow and Andersen’s analytic ethnography (2003) and Madison’s critical ethnography (2012) argue for the need to incorporate theories yet remain sensitive to issues of race, gender and poverty. Challenges of conducting urban ethnography include defining the ‘field of action’, the dynamic and changing nature of actors and contexts, and ethical issues associated with observation in restricted access settings. The growing reliance on photos, video and geo-coded mapping brings visual enrichment to a study but also introduces more complex protocols.
The first presentation illustrates ethical complexities of doing ethnography in an involuntary setting. To collect observational data on life skills classes in a county jail, the authors had to be initiated into and gradually acclimate to a highly oppressive setting. The paper describes the authors’ process of adapting to jail norms, including mundane routines such as "pill call" as well as larger disruptions such as searches and lock downs. The authors discovered that life skills classes for inmates could not be separated from the built environment, routines, and oppressive nature of the facility. As researchers, the authors had to attend closely to their responses to the environment in order to make sense of their emerging findings.
The second presentation focuses on combining overt participant observation and interviewing to explore the intricacies of practice in a clubhouse for people with severe mental illness. Participant observation influenced the formulation of interview questions while interviewing clarified observation and generated directions for observation. The multiple modes of data collection from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives provided the basis for comparative analysis and triangulation. This approach also demanded the researcher’s constant ethical decision-making regarding boundary setting and level of involvement with the clubhouse community.
The third and fourth presentations are part of a larger study of formerly homeless adults with serious mental illness living in supported housing. This federally funded study afforded the opportunity to use multiple ethnographic and visual methods as well as in-depth interviews. The first report focuses on the clients via use of shadowing and photo-elicitation interviews; findings center on urban mobility as part of mental health recovery. The second report focuses on the programs and case managers, using ethnographic sites visits and ‘ride-alongs’ to explore divergence-convergence with interview data regarding recovery-oriented practices. Emphasis in both papers is on integrating diverse forms of data to create conceptually-rich and critically-informed findings.
This symposium will highlight the diversity of observational methods and interpretive frames that make urban ethnography a valuable part of the social work research toolkit.