Education, Politics

Tyranny of the Ethnography: How Lived Experience Corrupts the Social Sciences

When Arleen, a single mother of two, was evicted from her Milwaukee apartment, she had one option. It was January of 2008, one of the snowiest years on record. With no safety net, Arleen did the only thing she could. She took her sons — Jori was thirteen, Jafaris was five — to the local homeless shelter.

According to Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond, evictions used to be extremely rare. Who dare cast a mother and her children to the streets? When they did occur, evictions caused outrage, riots. But now, when families are evicted, community outcry is nonexistent. Bags are packed. Possessions are scavenged. A family is uprooted.

Millions of the American urban poor have faced eviction. In Milwaukee, where Desmond conducted his field research,  a staggering 1 in 8 residents faced formal or informal eviction between 2009 and 2011 alone. This doesn’t just happen in Wisconsin. As Desmond says: “This book is set in Milwaukee, but it tells an American story.”

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is an ethnography that was published in March of 2016 by Matthew Desmond. It follows eight Milwaukee families as they cope in the aftermath of eviction. Madly brilliant, but utterly heartbreaking — it has become an emerging cult-classic in undergraduate sociology programs across America. One of my professors assigned me the book as soon as it was published in Spring of 2016. Since then, I’ve been assigned it one more time  — and so have thousands of American undergraduates.

***

Professors assign ethnographies like Evicted because they provide students with compelling stories about imaginary worlds. When I was assigned Evicted in a Columbia sociology course of 100+ students, I doubt the book was assigned because the professor wanted students to develop a more nuanced understanding of their personal experiences. Considering the demographics of Columbia, that would be a poorly planned pedagogical move. The vast majority of Columbia students have never experienced eviction. Thus, the book was assigned to give students perspective into how life unfolds for the underclass of America — the underclass so economically and socially disenfranchised that they can only really exist in the imagination of elite Columbia students.

These imaginary worlds exist in the space between learned knowledge and personal experience. When personal experience is absent, information from books fills the void. These books normally take the form of ethnographies, autoethnographies, and biographies. Delightful to read, they’re a good respite from more serious academic reading. Most social science classes will assign at least one of these books each semester.  

In addition to Evicted, there are two other well-known examples of these types of books. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman is another ethnographic book common in sociology departments. It chronicles Goffman’s 6-year stint in inner-city Philadelphia, where she tangles with disadvantaged African American men and drug-dealers. The book culminates in her allegedly driving the getaway car in a failed inner-city revenge murder plot. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D Vance’s recent memoir of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, is sure to join the “lived experience” sociology canon soon — billed as a way for American liberals to understand the rise of Trump, it’s already on the shelves of many campus book stores.

Evicted, On the Run, and Hillbilly Elegy were the most commonly cited books when I asked sociology professors about what novels will be assigned this semester. All of the books, if you didn’t notice, are about some aspect of the American underclass, with which the vast majority of undergraduates have no experience. In a way, this is good. Books like this allow students to learn about people unlike them. Hopefully, students will come away with a greater sense of compassion and humility. However, there is something far more pernicious about these books than meets the eye.

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Ethnographies — books based on “lived experience” — are one of the most powerful types of books professors can assign. Yet, most of these books give students an extremely distorted understanding of what life is like for people living at the lowest rungs of society. Academia’s multicultural oppression fetish, which permeates the social sciences, ensures assigned books will invariably revolve around at least one aspect of the Holy Trinity of Oppression: race, class or gender.

The complicated and nuanced issues that face people of color, women, and the poor do exist in reality, of course. But ethnographies are not reality. Instead, they are a collection of the most sensational anecdotes of a novel culture deliberately curated to convey the most shock value.

Evicted is no-doubt a book designed to shock the reader. It is an American horror story of epic disaster. Misfortune unrelentingly befalls the families, who are often portrayed as hapless victims of structural poverty with little responsibility for their personal situation.

Arleen, the single mother of two you met at the beginning of this essay, is one such woman. Her eviction leads to a tailspin of unfortunate events. At one point in the book, Arleen was desperate. She had applied for residency at eighty-two apartment buildings but was accepted to none.

But Arleens’s case was an outlier. An outlier so extreme that she could have been dropped into a fictional story of inner-city misfortune and her travails still would have been mind-boggling. But Arleen’s story works for the narrative Desmond wants to present, and the books he wants to sell. Who cares if she’s an outlier? Arleen serves her purpose well.

The reader of Evicted develops a strong understanding of the struggles the eight families that are profiled contend with. But does the book give readers an accurate representation of the aftermath of eviction? Of course not. An average and accurate account wouldn’t be sensational enough.

What’s awful is that books like these give students the sense that they “understand” phenomena they’ve never had personal experience with. College students are impressionable. They look towards professors for answers. And students heed professors’ words, often without question. “I know what it’s like to live in the inner-city,” a second-year acquaintance once said to me, “I read Evicted.”

“Was that the only book she ever read about inner-city poverty?” I wondered.

***

In most cases, these books are presented as incontrovertible truth. After all, they are written by researchers with tenure at our nation’s best universities. Then, the books are assigned to students by accomplished professors at our own hallowed institutions. There’s no need to question the narratives these books present or the conclusions easily drawn from them. Is there?

“[Ethnography] must neither be in the service of some political establishment or profession nor an organic intellectual seeking to further the interests of marginalised, exploited, or dominated groups. Both of these orientations greatly increase the danger of systematic bias” writes Martyn Hammersley, a professor of sociology at The Open University in the United Kingdom. “Many ethnographers have come to see their work as involving political or practical commitments of some sort, these going beyond a commitment to the production of value-relevant knowledge.”

Indeed, just as many ethnographers have political commitments, so too do the professors who teach these works. The imperative for ideological conformity manifests throughout academe. The lack of political diversity means students’ conceptualization of imaginary worlds are entirely fed by curricula designed to align with whatever political ideology reigns. Right now, liberal bias is rampant. This is how indoctrination happens. A biased curriculum results in students developing a biased, warped and incomplete understanding of society.

In ethnographic books, anecdotal information forms the crux of the narrative. In the natural sciences, anecdotes would never pass as valid forms of evidence. But in the social sciences, lived experience is elevated; personal experience commands respect.  This is regardless of the fact that anecdotes can only truly represent an n of 1. Professors tell me it’s a way of remediating past injustice. As most history is written from the white-male perspective, focusing on the individual lives of women, racial minorities, and the economically disenfranchised is a radical and empowered way of teaching students.

But students must be taught reality as it truly manifests; not reality in form of sensationalism. Professors owe it to students to teach these ethnographies in a more nuanced and balanced way. Assigning poverty-porn books like Evicted and On the Run is an irresponsible way to educate students on the multifaceted and complicated realities of minorities and oppression. These books often only present one type of narrative; they often call for only one type of solution. When books are routinely used as tools of indoctrination in the regime of liberal pedagogy, when will students ever hear the other side of the story?

 

Toni Airaksinen is a reporter for Campus Reform, The College Fix, and Red Alert Politics. She is a junior at Barnard College in Manhattan. She Tweets @Toni_Airaksinen.

Filed under: Education, Politics

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Toni Airaksinen is a reporter for Campus Reform, The College Fix, and Red Alert Politics. She is a junior at Barnard College in Manhattan.

19 Comments

  1. A bit florid, but point well made. Anecdotes are not data.

  2. Isn’t the point of these types of novels that they’re one part of a full course? These books may not be used to define what you should think but serve in cooperation with other reading. Your essay even says that these personal stories are a nice break from the dense sociology books. I’ve never taken such a course but I imagine the idea of the curriculum is: Here’s the dense data and here’s a book that gives meaning to that data.

  3. Andre says

    I think the point is that the book doesn’t represent the data; rather, it represents what would be extreme values in the data. Thus, students are give a skewed view of reality.

  4. hasan says

    This text seems to be ignorant of ages-old debate over generalisation in social sciences. If the problem arises from a general lack of acquaintance with these issues; it can be ignored. If, on the other hand, there is a hidden agenda behind it, you have to dismiss it, which has references like “poverty-porn”. Really? poverty-porn?

  5. Andre says

    given*

    Also, another side of the same coin: Paul Bloom’s work saying (I’m paraphrasing) that compassion + rationality lead to better decisions than empathy.

    Empathy is precisely what anecdotes are used for: to prod people into an emotional response.

  6. The author should probably be forgiven for her ignorance if, as in the works she criticizes, her perspectives are based on her own “lived experiences.” This piece lacks any depth and shows little effort to research the topic. I would begin by saying that ethnography is part of the sociocultural anthropology discipline and differs from sociological writing in a few important ways. The primary research method employed by ethnographers in participant observation – where the researcher attempts to at once get a feeling for the practices and experiences of the culture under investigation, and also gather a broader and more generalized view of the people being studied. I admit that this is hard to do well and requires judgment, discipline, and perhaps some detachment in order to do scientifically. The author cites a few examples of “Poverty Porn” and generalizes about the corruption of the social sciences. Unfortunately the shelves are lined with fantastic works of ethnography that describe cultures that may be unfamiliar to us in ways we can both understand and appreciate – and if that generates some sympathy for the subjects, then I have little to complain about.

  7. Andre~

    I whole heartedly agree with Bloom in being against “feel your pain” empathy. I use the word sympathy instead because there doesn’t seem to be a better word for a somewhat more complex concept. To me, there’s nothing wrong with humanizing people that I don’t know, from a culture that might seem quite alien to me. However, I feel that one can be a better consequentialist/(neo)utilitarian if people are not understood in purely abstract terms.

  8. Tamara says

    It feels an obvious point but it important to note that empiricism within the social sciences is similarly flawed in that it places emphasis on abstracted data (i.e. means modes etc) that don’t actually represent anyone. It is the opposite problem really in that ethnographic data cant be extrapolated to populations while empirical data cant be extrapolated to individuals.

  9. C Mack says

    Tamara~ This is a feature more than a bug in the way the non-quantitative aspects of the social sciences are conducted. The intent of most ethnographic works – traditionally – is that it’s very local and not intended to be extrapolated broadly. The history of anthropology and thus ethnography began with outsiders investigation typically small, isolated, and relatively homogenous populations. It’s a much newer phenomenon that sees the anthropologist taking as subjects ostensible members of their own culture. When this happens, we start to see overlaps in what you are talking about. Prime offenders are disciplines like “Queer Theory” and other XYZ Theory disciplines who believe they can create predictive frameworks just like physicists.

  10. Dylan says

    “ethnographies are not reality. Instead, they are a collection of the most sensational anecdotes of a novel culture deliberately curated to convey the most shock value.” – Way to broad brush stroke and invent a straw man/woman.

    It would seem your list of ethnographies is very short, and only related to sociology in the US

    Further, and you may not agree, but ethnography is both an art and a social science at the same time. Anthropology is the bridge between the humanities and the social sciences, and ethnography really emerges from it.

    Ethnographies are sensationalist and contain anecdotes, amongst much else, because their very purpose is to do more than the literal; they are meant to make you feel and transfer a sense beyond the cognitive. Something they seem to have done successfully to you and others you speak of.

    It would also seem you havent gone far enough down the rabbit hole to really understand what you yourself can only describe in anecdotal form

  11. I have a few question regarding the post. Doesn’t socio-anthro perspective different from that of the hard sciences? Hard sciences experiment in vacuum, and that is precisely the opposite of what social sciences bring to the table.

    Normalizing data doesn’t give one empathy or inspiration, it does provide commentary though. So if the context of ethnography is to provide a social commentary then perhaps normalizing data could be acceptable. But if the context is to find resolution, understand dynamics, provide solution, identify problems, then outliers matter.

  12. Santoculto says

    AND ”students” who can’t see and understand for themselves are dumb… period.

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  14. Smaller version of the identical error: Rolling Stone story of the rape of “Jackie”.

  15. The author refers to these books as “novels”, apparently unaware that novels are fictional. I find this interesting as it’s a phenomenon among students I’ve noticed – do high schools not teach the difference between fiction and non-fiction these days?

  16. Simon Kiss says

    Dear Toni: Thanks for this insightful essay. Please be aware, *none* of the examples you cited are “novels”.

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