Learning the Art of Ethnographic Field Work

Social Studies concentrators are required to take a “tutorial” each semester – during your sophomore year, the tutorials focus on political theory (Kant, Weber, Rousseau, Hobbes…) and are meant to serve as a academic base for the rest of your work in the department. Junior year, the tutorials are topic-oriented and students can pick what their focus is: this spring, I’m taking a tutorial on the American city, which has been AWESOME so far. Each week we read ethnographies about different cities in the country, and we complement our readings with our own field work. The eight of us have to pick a topic area in Boston and then spend 5+ hours a week doing field research. I ended up deciding to write about the relationship between government programs (public housing, food stamps, etc) and community centers, and therefore have been spending the past few weeks wandering around Boston and visiting different offices and neighborhoods to try and get a feel for the area.

My first stop was the Dudley Square neighborhood in Roxbury. I confess: despite having spent the past three years volunteering at Boston Medical Center, which is only a few blocks away from this neighborhood, I’ve never ventured past the area immediately surrounded by the hospital and was excited to have a reason to do a bit of exploring. After a bit of wandering around, I ended up finding this delicious local cafe called Haley House that serves up local recipes – their whole concept is “food with purpose,” so the entire institution is tied in with the surrounding community. I tried a jerk chicken grilled cheese, which was to die for.

I also got to spend a lot of time downtown this week, largely checking out formal programs like the Boston Housing Authority and the Department of Transitional Assistance. After years of working with patients and referring them to these organizations, I found it incredibly interesting to visit a lot of these programs that I’d heard so much about. I admit, I was pretty nervous about doing ethnographic field work at some of these sites, as I generally just have to walk inside and start talking to people about the kinds of services that are offered there. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find that all of the employees I ran into were extremely friendly and willing to chat with me for 20 minutes about their jobs. Today, for instance, I was lucky enough to get a full hour-long tour of this community center called Rosie’s Place, and then was offered an impromptu tour of a job search agency near my hospital! The fact that people have been so willing to help has definitely made the research process easier.

Outside of my tutorial, though, things have been a bit frenzied for the past couple of weeks. This past Wednesday, I had two midterms and a paper due on the same day, with ten pages of field notes due for my research project on Thursday. Egad! Not the easiest academic week I’ve had this semester, but I think I’ve managed to survive it mostly intact. I’m also bummed I couldn’t upload pictures, but my computer seems to have crashed! I made an emergency appointment at the Apple Genius Bar for tomorrow, but in the meantime I’m struggling to figure out what’s wrong 🙁 Fingers crossed!

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2 comments

  1. ruang’s avatar

    exhausting activity, but it is for a success

  2. fargol’s avatar

    Dear Caroline
    Please help me. I know that I should ask this from admission office but I wanna first ask you.
    I’m a 18 years old student from Iran, this year I wanted to apply but I was working on an important project and could not be ready for deadline. I was not ready that time. Now I got ready but the deadline is past and I really do not know what have to do. I really need your help to tell me what can I do. I have a good CV of researches. Also I sent my TOEFL score for Harvard a month ago.What do you think? Now can I send my documents? This is so important for me. I need your advice, please.
    Thank you

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