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Interviewing and the importance of listening

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

Have you ever read a Henry James novel? I have, as an undergraduate in an American lit class. I, along with 20 or so of my peers, read Portrait of a Lady. James—the brother of psychologist William James—is known for long, descriptive passages and a focus on the minutiae of life and consciousness. You can imagine, for a group of 20-year-olds with the attention spans of hummingbirds, the novel was a tough sell.

In one class, during a discussion of the book, the professor said something I think about often: “We should all have the ability,” he argued, “to sit quietly on a bench and observe.” How much do we miss, he wondered, when we live a life of constant motion?

Be still. Watch. Listen. Contemplate. 

In a well-known article, “On Seeking—and Rejecting—Validity in Qualitative Research,” Henry Wolcott makes a similar point about interviewing: “Talk little, listen a lot.”

As a qualitative researcher, I have the unbelievable privilege of listening to people’s life stories. A few weeks ago, I met with a second-generation Latino teenager who lives in a low-income neighborhood in New York City. He wants to go to college. He will be the first in his family to attend a four-year university. He is an exceptional young man; however, his grades and test scores don’t completely represent that. He worries that he won’t get into a college.

During the interview, we talked about his family. He has an unstable home life, having lived with several relatives. As a follow-up question, I asked, “Is that tough?” He looked at me for a few seconds. His face changed, almost imperceptibly. He had the look of someone who knew, if he spoke, he would cry. I imagined, as a 17-year-old young man, he didn’t want to do that. He nodded. I nodded. And, we both looked away. I paused for about thirty seconds to give us both time to recompose and then redirected the interview.

I don’t know if I could ever truly represent those few thick moments and the moments afterwards when neither of us spoke. I don’t pretend to know what the student felt or thought. In time, I might have a better idea. But, I know for that moment I, at least partially, grasped a depth of emotion and significance that participants do not always reveal.

Life tends to be full of constant motion. Sometimes people want their stories heard, and it’s the researcher’s job to listen.

Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

The realities and perils of the school-to-prison pipeline have been well documented. Scholars like Michelle Alexander and Victor Rios have illustrated the ways in which discriminatory practices and policies criminalize young men of color. And yet, despite all of the data that demonstrate the need to improve public policies and available opportunities, little changes.

Last week, Harvard’s debate team lost to a group of prison inmates. The results spotlighted the positive outcomes of Bard College’s prison initiative, a college program to provide liberal arts education to inmates. In comparison to statewide recidivism rates of around 40%, less than 2% of participants in the Bard initiative have returned to prison.

The news supports recent research that highlights the benefits of education for prison inmates. RAND, for instance, conducted a meta-analysis of studies. The researchers concluded that prisoners who participate in prison education are 43% less likely to return to prison after release and are 13% more likely to be employed. They also note, “The direct costs of providing education are estimated to be from $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate, with re-incarceration costs being $8,700 to $9,700 less for each inmate who received correctional education as compared to those who did not.” From an economic perspective, what more do policymakers need to know?

Education reforms have to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many young men grow up in neighborhoods where they are punished for their race and class. Consider a few facts: As of 2010, black men were six times as likely to be imprisoned as white men. The Center for American Progress found that, while people of color constitute 30% of the population, they make up 60% of imprisoned individuals. Considering disciplinary measures in education, including suspensions and expulsions, scholars have widely documented the disparities between white students and black and Latino students.

Too many young men have already been punished. More than one out of three prisoners have less than a high school education. They encounter the compounding problem of not having the skills to enter the workplace and having sanctioned stigmas as criminal offenders—for right or wrong. It is our job to answer a critical question: Do we want to use the prison system to further alienate young men of color—tacitly agreeing with current bad practices and policies—or do we want to help them become better individuals and productive members of society?

The answer seems straightforward.

Doctoral training and innovation for qualitative researchers

Randall F. Clemens

One of the principal tasks of a research university is to train doctoral students to be able to design and conduct quality research studies. Optimally, training includes a mixture of theory and practice, coursework and experience. While a student marches to class to learn about research techniques, she also conducts research as part of major projects. For example, she learns about purposive sampling in class and practices it in the field. The idea is that both activities enrich each other. During my own experiences and those with students, the blended approach often leads to those important “Aha!” moments. It’s one thing to read about participant observation; it’s quite another to do it. And so, the interplay between theory and practice allows students to constantly refine and improve their skills and expertise.

Doctoral programs usually require students to obtain 15 credits related to research methods. Students enroll in a mixture of quantitative and qualitative courses, depending on their focus. An example of a qualitative-focused program of study may include a two-semester introductory strand along with a few courses that highlight specific approaches like ethnography or case study. It provides a nice overview of qualitative research and a more in-depth exploration of a few methodologies. But, is it enough?

In a new book, The Graduate School Mess, professor Leonard Cassuto argues that graduate schools need to do a better job preparing students for a variety of professional tracks. It’s a familiar—and often ignored—refrain. And yet, coupled with increasingly dire job prospects and a changing job market, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. While tenure-track positions are decreasing, job opportunities with funders, policymakers, think tanks, school districts, and others are increasing.

How have schools of education responded? While both education and technology have undergone massive transformations over the last decade, doctoral programs have not maintained pace. They have relied on established and well-worn strategies without embracing new ideas.

Of course, there are exceptions. I know of a few programs that secure internships with state policymakers, school districts, or think tanks. I have many talented colleagues designing and implementing creative courses—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, students are often more enthusiastic about and engaged in those courses. And, I know of doctoral advisors who have modified their stances towards the processes and outcomes of graduate education. They provide students with new coursework and publishing opportunities and support alternative job placements. But, as Professor Cassuto highlights, admiring the innovations of a few exemplary programs and professors does not solve the over-arching problems that haunt graduate schools of education.

What’s one possible solution for qualitative researchers? My own work focuses on the uses of qualitative research for public policy. One of the biggest limitations when considering the topic is the degree of misunderstanding about what qualitative research is and what it can be for policy design. In order to improve the utility of qualitative research, some scholars try to make it more like quantitative research. Such an approach undermines the unique strengths of qualitative inquiry. For instance, thick description, a hallmark of ethnography, has the ability to illuminate policy issues in ways that quantitative research cannot. Think about the ability of photographs and videos to move people to action. Now, combine that with the creative possibilities of social media.

It’s more important than ever to focus on the foundations of qualitative research. Recent examples like Alice Goffman’s On the Run and the subsequent controversy it created illustrate the increased scrutiny qualitative scholars encounter when producing public scholarship. Doctoral students need to be able to understand and examine the underlying epistemological, methodological, and axiological assumptions of research. They also need quality research experiences. However, the current approach to doctoral training fails to embrace the future of qualitative inquiry.

A course that focuses on designing research for multiple audiences—e.g., laypeople, funders, policymakers—prepares students for jobs inside and outside academia. Understanding how to translate ethnographic findings into actionable policy solutions is an important skill, so is recognizing the potential of emergent technologies to present and distribute research. A course that highlights the multiple uses of qualitative research has the capacity to help researchers make their work more accessible for diverse audiences and to improve the marketability of graduates as they pursue alternative job tracks. It also has the ability to alter how individuals view the utility of qualitative inquiry.

Like all education reforms, challenges exist. Faculty members may not understand new technologies or may disagree with efforts to expand the reach of qualitative research. In order to gain competitive advantages, universities are trimming coursework requirements. Methods already get squeezed. The prospect of one more course may not be too palatable to some. And yet, the challenges are not insurmountable. In order to stay relevant, schools of education must adapt.

Why people talk about Dukes of Hazard, not the Charleston Massacre

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

A few weeks ago, Antar and Bill posted personal and thoughtful blogs about the Charleston Massacre and, more broadly, the repeated and targeted violence perpetrated against Black people in the United States. Antar asked “scholars to do some soul searching.” Bill wondered if he could do more.

Since the tragedy, I’ve been thinking a lot about my hometown.

I grew up in a small town, clusters of houses grouped around tobacco fields. A single highway bisected the county. We called the main road Route 4; if you drove long enough, the name changed to Pennsylvania Avenue—maybe, you’ve heard of it. When the county installed a second stoplight, it made the front page of the local newspaper. Residents were outraged.

In Southern Maryland—like a lot of places below the Mason-Dixon—the past and present exist simultaneously. People try to move forward, but they’re always tethered to some old way of life. It sticks to you. The reminders are everywhere. Waterways and towns carry the names of Native American tribes. Placards celebrate this building or that field for something or other, usually related to the colonial era. Tobacco barns dot the landscape. And, farming and fishing are still professions. Most forward momentum is due to a growing number of commuter families; otherwise, I’m positive there would still be one stoplight.

On the bus ride home from school, at the entrance of my neighborhood, I passed a one-room house. It used to shelter slaves. Behind the deteriorated structure stood a two-story house that had been converted into a church. Black families congregated there; for perspective, my high school had enough black students to occupy one lunch table—and they did. On Saturday nights, the church came alive, all music and dancing. If I took a black and white photo of the scene, you’d have trouble telling if it occurred ten or one hundred years ago.

On Friday nights, if I took another route home from school, I occasionally passed a gathering of Ku Klux Klan members. They didn’t look much different than a bunch of bikers—unless you knew what to look for.

I grew up around men who embodied tough, no-nonsense identities, something like what Matthew Desmond calls country masculinity. They exhibited aggression—both physical and verbal. I often heard the worst imaginable slurs about gay and black people.

As I got older, I heard fewer slanders. Front stage turned to back stage. Rather than overhearing the n-word in public spaces like a mall or restaurant, I heard it in the garage where I worked or on the soccer field among players. I’m not so sure the changes occurred because people were enlightened; more likely, they were ashamed. It was no longer publicly acceptable. So, the hateful expressions retreated to more protected spaces.

The debate has now turned to the confederate flag—a symbol I still see on the bumpers of pickup trucks when I visit home. Politicians have petitioned for the flag’s removal. Flag supporters argue for its historical and regional importance.

That’s the trick of racism (and the reproduction of social injustice). Instead of focusing on the murders of nine innocent people and the contexts that led to such tragic outcomes, the public debates a flag and the media wonders why TV Land removed the Dukes of Hazard from its programming schedule.

Alice Goffman, ethics, and advising

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

A few years ago, as a graduate student at USC, I visited the American Sociological Association’s website. A name grabbed my attention. “Goffman,” I thought, “She can’t be related to the Goffman.” Alice Goffman, as it turns out, is the daughter of renowned sociologist Erving Goffman. I hurried to Google. She received her Ph.D. from Princeton. She conducted ethnographic research. She won ASA’s dissertation of the year. And, she became an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin.

So, here we are a few years later. This spring, she published On the Run, an account of her dissertation research. She is embroiled in a scandal (or witch hunt, depending on your perspective). At the center of the controversy is a scene in which the “rogue sociologist” drives a young man around the neighborhood in order to avenge a friend’s murder. The man has a gun and wants to use it. Reviewer Steven Lubet noted that the researcher, by driving the car, engaged in conspiracy to commit murder according to Pennsylvania statute. Goffman denies it, claiming the ride was about catharsis, not murder. I believe her; however, the case isn’t simple. As my lawyer wife has reminded me before a few trips to collect data, ignorance of the law is not a defense. In other words, if I am arrested while conducting a participant observation with a teenager selling drugs on a street corner, I can’t say, “But officer, in the name of science, I’m a researcher!” 

Several academics have commented about the tricky and contextual nature of ethics and ethnography. For an informed discussion, see anthropologist Paul Stoller’s take in the Huffington Post. I could go on about the book and design, but I will save that for another time. I read the ethnography. I was underwhelmed. The focus—the impact of surveillance and over-policing on black men in low-income neighborhoods—is important and necessary. However, agreeing with Patrick Sharkey’s observation, the argument lacks empirical support. She often presents statements without evidence.

Although she received high praise—the front- and back-cover include blurbs, which verge on unctuous, from superstars like Cornel West, Carol Stack, Elijah Anderson, and Malcolm Gladwell—it’s still dissertation research. That does not absolve a researcher from creating a sound research design and upholding high ethical standards. But, a number of conditions—including quality mentoring and prolonged engagement with scholarship and practice—are necessary to become a skilled qualitative researcher. One study does not an expert make. She deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least until proven otherwise.

I assume Alice Goffman is well-meaning and didn’t willfully commit conspiracy to commit murder. I know she is an early career faculty member and has the right to learn and improve. I also know that research is subjective. It depends on countless factors, including research experience and researcher / participant positionality. Critics who assert that there is an objective roadmap about how to conduct and judge research (and that Goffman ripped it up) are wrong. Last, I assume that Goffman has a lot of important scholarship ahead of her. I look forward to reading it.

Research rarely receives so much attention or stimulates so much dialogue. Conversations about ethics and research are important. So too are exchanges about two of the most pressing policy issues in our country: the increase of concentrated poverty and its negative effects. So far, discussions have focused on whether or not Goffman messed up. I get the sense that a number of people would rather vilify her than engage in productive dialogue about underlying issues, like how we train scholars to conduct ethical research; how social position influences factors such as who conducts research and where; and, how we develop policies to improve pathways from school to career, not school to prison. That’s unfortunate.

As a postscript, last week, The Chronicle published a comprehensive review of the case. At the end of the article, the author includes a surprise detail:

Ms. Goffman’s graduate-school adviser at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, also defends her work — mostly. She crossed an ethical line in the episode that Mr. Lubet argues was a crime, Mr. Duneier says, and she left herself open to criticism with her thin discussion of it in her text. But he vouches for the credibility of her book. One reason is that he has met some of her subjects himself.

While Ms. Goffman was working on the dissertation that she would ultimately develop into On the Run, Mr. Duneier conducted independent interviews with some of her subjects. Ethnographers, in his view, should identify the people and places in their studies when possible. The sensitivity of Ms. Goffman’s research made that standard of transparency impossible, Mr. Duneier says. So, while he trusted Ms. Goffman, he also took steps to ensure his own comfort with her story. "I feel confident in the research that I supervised as an adviser and that our committee approved at Princeton," he says.

Just as ethics and quality of research are inextricably linked, the care, time, and expertise of an advisor is critical to the training of his or her advisee. Mitch Duneier—an accomplished Princeton professor, the skilled ethnographer who wrote Slim’s Table and Sidewalk, and an extremely busy person, I’m sure—took the time to interview his advisee’s participants in order to ensure the quality of her research. Think about that for a moment.

Update: Steven Lubet wrote a follow-up article.

Using qualitative research to contest stereotypes

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

How are black men portrayed? After Freddie Gray’s death due to the brutality of six Baltimore police officers, newscasts focused on Gray’s criminal record and suspect behavior. When city residents protested, the media became more interested. Reporters searched for provocative stories and trolled for increased viewership. They showed dehumanizing videos of wild mobs looting and rioting.

Mainstream media ignored the peaceful protests of informed residents who understand the intricate factors that contribute to distressed neighborhoods in the city; a city where one out of four individuals live below the poverty line; a city where more than three out of four low-income households are headed by single women; and, a city where nearly one out of three children live below the poverty level. Of course, we know these figures underestimate poverty. Federal poverty lines are notoriously unrealistic. The qualifying amount for a one-person household is $11,770. The amount for a three-person household is $20,090.

I could go on. I could mention that, while most research indicates the multiple benefits of homeownership—from health to upward mobility—nearly eight out of ten low-income families rent, not own. I could talk about the failure to provide living wages, the lack of food security, the disproportionate number of dismal public schools, and a robust school-to-prison pipeline. I could criticize reports about exorbitant amounts of money spent on failed public policies to revitalize Baltimore neighborhoods, reports that imply residents somehow refuse to improve their economic standing despite the good deeds of politicians.

We know that healthy neighborhoods rely on five pillars—quality health, safety, education, employment, and institutions. One-dimensional reforms rarely account for interconnected factors that reproduce concentrated and generational poverty. They disregard a history of corrupt institutions and prejudiced politics, facts that have significant implications for policy implementation. When politicians do introduce comprehensive reforms—think of Promise Neighborhoods—they are woefully under-funded. When they fail, critics use them as evidence to quell future anti-poverty efforts.

Distorted media coverage has wide-ranging effects. It informs public discourse and policy discussions. It’s also divisive. How do reactions while watching the nightly news differ between a middle-class 50-year-old in Loveland, Colorado versus a low-income teenager in Baltimore? I imagine the two might have drastically different interpretations. No one likes to be misrepresented. In this case, news organizations misrepresent entire groups on a national stage.

So, what’s the function of qualitative research? Thoughtful research has the potential to contest negative stereotypes, to show why poverty is rarely a choice, to illustrate how living in poverty is not the same thing as being poor. Skilled ethnographers, for example, have the ability to present the complexities of local conditions and connect them to overarching social and economic conditions. Such insights are critical to creating more productive public dialogue and designing more just social policy.

Indiana, Duke, Yik Yak, and the purpose of education

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

The news has been full of lamentable examples of bigotry and discrimination.

The governor of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that permits businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion—a restaurant, for instance, could refuse service to a gay couple. The politician posed the law as a moral argument; and yet, any logical person recognizes how wrong the legislation is. Either he didn’t think or care about the signals such a decision sends to a gay teenager who lives in a small town in Indiana and struggles with identity issues.

At Duke University—just before the men’s basketball team won its fifth national championship—a student hung a noose from a tree. A few weeks earlier, a group of white men shouted racist chants at a black woman as she walked on campus. The examples illustrate that universities are not safe or inclusive places for many students. Would you feel safe as a black woman walking home from class at Duke? 

Sadly, the bigoted and discriminatory acts are occurring on campuses across the country. Yik Yak, a social media platform, permits users within a particular geographic range to post anonymous “Yaks.” Think about a bathroom stall or dormitory bulletin board where anyone can write anything, even the most racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Only Yik Yak knows the identities of users. Universities have requested the names and emails of offenders; the social media company—citing a privacy policy that guarantees complete anonymity, except for cases that involve the law—has not complied.

The inappropriate uses reveal where we are as a society. Some critics argue platforms like Yik Yak should not be permitted on campuses. I’m not sure censorship addresses the real issue. Bigotry and discrimination, however masked, are insidious. Sure, cyber bullying exists, but what happens in dorms and on campuses everyday. Have you heard the language of some students as they walk to class? Even if the social media platform didn't exist, people would still find venues and ways to express hate speech and commit violent acts, whether physical or symbolic. Duke illustrates that.

What’s the purpose of education? In No Citizen Left Behind, discussing the importance of civic education, Meira Levinson writes, “Part of the beauty of democracy, when it functions effectively and inclusively, is its ability to create aggregate wisdom and good judgment from individual citizens’ necessarily limited knowledge, skills, and viewpoints. To exclude citizens from this process is to diminish the wisdom that the collectivity may create” (p. 49). Examples like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak illustrate uncritical and intolerant responses to deeply rooted and complex issues. They are indictments of our current educational system and one-dimensional approaches to reform.

Standards, assessments, and school choice are important issues. We need to improve graduation rates and prepare students for college and career. But, we also have an obligation to nurture young men and women to be caring, healthy, and empowered citizens. That point is too often absent from public discourse. If we are serious about allaying intricate and enduring issues like intolerance and discrimination, policymakers have to widen the scope of educational reforms. Inclusivity is a precondition—not an accidental byproduct—of successful teaching and learning. Otherwise, instances like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak will continue.

Re-reading old posts

Randall F. Clemens

I was searching for some articles about Carol Stack's All Our Kin, and I found an old blog I published for I started re-reading some of the blogs I wrote during graduate school. As I progress from year to year, the topics become more and more focused on my current research interests. I thought it'd be fun to repost a few.

Social movements 2.0

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on November 11, 2011

Technology is changing the ways in which people communicate their thoughts and experience their surroundings. Augmented reality apps, for instance, add layers of information to places like museum exhibits and sporting events. Twitter connects individuals to trends. Social networking sites provide quick access to information about nearby places including parks and movie theaters.

In their new book Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World, Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva explore the implications of location-based technologies and information. They write, “The street is no longer limited to the perceptual horizon of the person walking down it. A network of information that is accessible through a mobile device augments it. The provinciality of the small town, physically isolated from the rest of the world, is potentially cosmopolitan because of the integration of information into its streets” (p 3). In short, we are now living in a blended world of physical and digital realities.

In high school, my history teacher described globalization as a sweeping force. The economies of nation-states intertwined. Capitalistic forces subsumed entire political and cultural systems. And, McDonalds restaurants ended up in once-rural African villages. Sitting at my desk with a textbook that stopped at the fall of the Berlin Wall, I remember thinking that the globalization process seemed to contain equal parts mystery and magic. I couldn’t connect my small-town experiences with the reality of a globalizing world.

Technology and connectivity, however, have transformed everything. We live in a world where the relationship between local and global is changing. Need proof? Consider the rebellions in the Middle East or Occupy movements across the globe. Social media now makes social movements both possible and effective; control of information flows equates to social, cultural, and political power.

Net Locality is a timely book that reimagines the relationship between the physical and digital and highlights the promise and peril of location-based technology. Just think: The same technology that allows you to know your friend just checked-in at a nearby restaurant may facilitate a widespread social movement to end concentrated poverty.

Adaptive strategies and underground economies in the 21st century

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on November 01, 2011


In 1974, Carol Stack published All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. The groundbreaking ethnography chronicled the adaptive strategies of poor African American families. Stack provided thick descriptions of women struggling to raise their children. In doing so, she indicted poverty as pathology and inadequate public policies.

Since then, ethnographers have continued to explore adaptive strategies, including underground economies. Sandra Smith’s Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor, for instance, studies the affects of joblessness among African Americans in Michigan. Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor examines the creative methods residents in the Southside of Chicago use to make money. These books, and many others, illustrate the effects of social inequality on marginalized populations.

But, considering adaptive strategies, what is the role of technology? From my current study, initial findings indicate that teenagers from low-income households are using technology in sophisticated, entrepreneurial ways. I present two snapshots to illustrate my point.


Chuck, a seventeen-year-old senior at a traditional high school in South LA, lives with his grandmother. He has a 1.9 grade point average. He loves skateboarding and dancing. Every few weeks, he invites his “cameraman,” who is also his friend, to tape him as he jerks in the driveway. Chuck, with tattoos covering his arms and chest, moves rhythmically with the music. Afterwards, they upload the video to YouTube. Chuck, who has over 2,300 friends on Facebook, later tells me, “I have my friends advertise for me, especially the girls. It’s important to have a big network.” By the end of the week, the video has over 5,000 hits. Chuck meets his quota. In a few weeks, he will receive shirts and shoes from his sponsor.

Mario, an eighteen-year-old senior at a continuation high school in South LA, lives with his mom and dad. He has a 2.0 grade point average. He loves drawing and tagging. At night, he cleans office buildings with his father. On weekends, he travels from house to house to groom dogs. He received a credential from a local community college. I ask him if he will come out to Culver City: “Yeah, no problem. I’ll go wherever. It’s $10.” Mario also plans and promotes parties. He finds a house, gets a DJ, and then advertises on Facebook. His profile picture is the latest party he’s promoting. I ask how much he makes. “A lot,” he says.


Chuck and Mario receive free or reduced lunch and live in a low-income neighborhood. They are average to below average students. Chuck may gain acceptance to a California State University campus through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Mario, who has not met all of his high school requirements, will have to attend community college or a trade school. By most standards, their academic achievement has been lackluster. And yet, both are digital entrepreneurs. They exploit the creative possibilities of technology to earn goods or money. They re-define adaptive strategies in the 21st century.