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Filtering by Category: Public Policy

Stop bashing methods. Help create a better world. #BMJnoQual

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at


Last year, the British Medical Journal rejected an article. Such an action does not ordinarily generate attention; editors reject articles every day. The author, however, tweeted the rejection: “Thank you for sending us your paper. We read it with interest but I am sorry to say that qualitative studies are an extremely low priority for the BMJ. Our research shows that they are not as widely accessed, downloaded or cited as other research.” The tweet produced a lively strand of responses, responses like “shocking and shameful,” “epistemological oppression,” and, “I guess nothing qualitative ever happens in a clinical setting.”

As scholars, we learn where to submit (and where not to submit) our work. I conduct qualitative research with policy implications. I know, however, if I submit an ethnographic article to Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, the editor is likely to swiftly drop-kick it back to me. Similarly, I know my quantitative-oriented friends will not be submitting to Qualitative Inquiry any time soon.

Without getting into nuances like impact factors, tenure decisions, and research standards, most qualitative researchers understand the landscape. To be honest, when I read the BMJ rejection note, I thought it was quite civil. I have received a few rejections that would make that rejection blush. I once submitted a life history on a late Friday evening. Within an hour, I received a rambling three-paragraph response from the editor, perhaps assisted by a nightcap or two, stating that anything with an N of one is neither research nor policy-relevant. Okie dokie. Thanks for the quality feedback. On to the next journal.


Last week, Stephen Porter, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, published a strongly-worded blog denouncing the #BMJnoQual incident, in particular, and qualitative research, in general.

I do not know Porter. He is a senior scholar with a fine record and numerous accomplishments. He is far more accomplished than I—so, take everything with a grain of salt. I am sure he is a reasoned, thoughtful person. However, after even a generous interpretation, the blog demonstrates a provincial understanding of qualitative research and a paternalistic and mean-spirited tone towards qualitative scholars.

Consider a few points:

(1) The title of the blog—“Speaking Truth to Power about Qualitative Research”—is ironic. Whether intentional or not, the blogger alludes to Aaron Wildavsky’s classic Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. Wildavsky, a hugely influential policy scholar, argued that policy analysts need to account for the interpretive nature of policy-making—something that qualitative work is particularly well-suited to accomplish.

(2) Porter argues that qualitative research has little impact and will have less. I agree that qualitative researchers need to redouble their efforts to collaborate with scholars and practitioners across disciplines and methodologies in an effort to produce and advocate for rigorous policy-relevant research. NSF isn’t funding many six- and seven-figure qual studies. But, many examples exist—as models for early career faculty to follow—of scholars who have achieved wide impact with well-designed studies that include qual methods. I’m fortunate to have two of them as mentors: Bill and Yvonna. Even more, look at the list of past AERA presidents over the last few decades. That’s an awful lot of impactful and innovative “dinosaurs,” a term Porter uses to describe qualitative researchers.

The blogger also introduces the technology argument: tech will enable scholars to create, gather, and analyze larger and larger datasets. The argument works both ways. Technology and social media will provide new opportunities for qualitative researchers to collect, synthesize, analyze, present, and share data. Big data will magnify, not lessen, the need for interpretive and site-based inquiry. As we’ve learned from previous examples, policies based on one-sided approaches are often ineffective. Some even reinscribe the same inequities they seek to remedy.

(3) The idea that qualitative research does not appear in well-read publications is fiction. I have read numerous articles and blogs at the NY Times and Washington Post. I am a sociologist of education who examines neighborhood-level issues. For a recent example of impact, search Google for MacArthur Fellow Matthew Desmond’s newest book Evicted, based on ethnographic research. And, while federally-funded qualitative studies in education are rare, there are numerous foundations who do fund multiple methodologies. I’m thinking of the Russell Sage Foundation, which has funded, published, and promoted significant projects that have reached beyond academia and into public and policy discourses.

(4) Porter presents a straw-man argument about generalization and qualitative research. Of course, qualitative research can’t (and shouldn’t) generalize—while a conversation for another time, most quantitative work shouldn’t either. And yet, from rigorous, well-designed qualitative studies, scholars can and have provided actionable findings and policy implications. At school and community levels, researchers and participants creatively and meaningfully employ strategies like action research and participatory action research to improve practice, research, and policy.

(5) The blogger writes, “Some qual researchers insist there are multiple realities. What do you think the average person, who lives in a single reality like most of us, thinks of this idea?” The answer is—while probably not using the pedantic words of academics—they would agree. As accomplished scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings, Rich Milner, Luis Moll, Michelle Fine and numerous others have demonstrated, education research and policies often propagate white, privileged perspectives. Deficit-based policies represent dominant beliefs and assumptions about whose knowledge matters and how it is defined and measured. The “average” person who has experienced persistent poverty and endured racist policies would probably argue that their voices are not heard and their experiences are not represented in policy discussions and designs.

Critical (and necessary) exchanges about epistemologies and ontologies and axiologies and other fancy words and concepts are easy targets. From a policy perspective, overly theoretical arguments unmoored from practice—Latour refers to these stances as “fairy positions”—become counterproductive. I agree that navel-gazing rarely influences policy design. But, skilled academics have the ability to connect theory and practice, something the aforementioned scholars (who have employed qualitative methods) have done to great and consequential success.

I could go on, but I won’t. Again, I do not know Porter. I’m sure he has reasons for his fervent and seemingly unyielding opinions about qualitative research. He certainly has years of experiences to inform his perspective. But, a narrow approach to research—and, by extension, knowledge, beliefs, values, assumptions, etc.—is misguided, at best, and harmful, at worst. When has a one-size-fits-all approach to education ever worked, particularly for underrepresented populations? Social inquiry and policy design require a plurality of approaches. Each has strengths and limitations. We have a large toolbox of methods to examine complex, intractable issues. Why would we limit ourselves to just one?

Qualitative research as public scholarship

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

At this year’s AERA conference, Bill Tierney and I presented a paper, “The Role of Ethnography as Ethical and Policy-Relevant Public Scholarship.” We had a great panel, including Rob Rhoads, Jessica Lester, Laurence Parker, and Yvonna Lincoln. Fellow blogger Antar chaired. Michelle Fine acted as discussant, providing great commentary.

The idea for the symposium developed after Bill sent a link to an article in The Chronicle about Goffman’s On the Run. If you remember, last year, I blogged about the book. Rather than focusing narrowly on Goffman’s research—many people have already critiqued her work—the session focused broadly on concerns of conducting ethnography as public scholarship.

What is public scholarship? Stated simply, it is a scholar’s engagement with multiple publics in order to inform social issues, provoke civic participation, and promote social justice. Typical examples include writing nonfiction books, appearing on NPR, and creating policy reports. This blog is a form of public scholarship. Unconventional acts—although, certainly not rare—include teaching courses, participating in local political movements, and conducting participatory action research. The difference between the first and second categories depends on the scholar’s level of engagement. A nonfiction book creates a one-way conversation from researcher to reader. Organizing a neighborhood-based planning committee or providing a summer outreach program involves collaborative engagement.

Qualitative research is particularly well-suited for more participatory examples of public scholarship. For years, the Pullias Center, based on research, provided mentoring services for students in Los Angeles. They even created and shared an infographic (another form of public scholarship). And, among other examples, they have developed apps and games to reach more students.

Public scholarship, as an abstract concept, seems noble and harmless. Why wouldn’t scholars want to advocate for social justice and facilitate deliberative democracy? In practice, it is considerably more complicated. While some (particularly those who believe in positive science) may disagree, all research is a political act. To engage with multiple publics draws attention to its political nature and makes researchers vulnerable to critique. That makes some uncomfortable.

For qualitative researchers, whose work is often misunderstood or dismissed, public scholarship poses even more risks. Think about two examples:

  • A group of university researchers conduct a large-scale experimental study. Education Week writes about it. The study gains national attention. Policymakers use the findings to argue for reforms. Later, statisticians at a think tank contest the validity of the findings. Debates ensue about the researchers’ methodological decisions.
  • A researcher conducts a five-year ethnography. The scholar publishes a book that becomes a NY Times best-seller. She performs a popular TED talk and appears on national news outlets. Journalists and scholars begin to critique her work. Discussions transition from the topic of the book to the qualifications of the researcher.

How do the two scenarios differ? There is often a degree of separation between quantitative researchers and their studies. Critics may read the methods section and think, “That’s a terrible design.” But, they typically don’t denigrate the researchers. The same separation does not exist for qualitative scholars. If critics perceive a problem, they often target the methods and the researchers. At a certain level, this makes sense. The researcher is the instrument. However, having witnessed enough controversies, the discussions often become personal, not professional. Instead of discussing flaws in the methods, critics target defects in the researcher.

Still, qualitative research as public scholarship is important and necessary. It contributes unique and grounded perspectives and contests deleterious stereotypes. It also has the ability to incite change.

The question then becomes, how might qualitative researchers improve the utility of their research as public scholarship and, relatedly, establish standards and techniques to enhance the quality of their work. These are a few of the issues Bill and I address in our paper. We plan to revise it this summer and invite feedback. If you have suggestions, let me know via comments, email, or Twitter.

Why Between the World and Me is required reading

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at


Written as a letter from father to son, Between the World and Me chronicles key moments in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ life. Imparting lessons to his son and the reader, the author, who contributes to The Atlantic, presents an unidealized portrait of America and its history of racial injustice and violence.

The emotional center of the book is the death of Prince Jones, a bright star and dear friend whom Coates met while attending Howard University. His murder, by a Prince George’s County police officer, is a reminder of an unrelenting and harsh system that constantly works to harm men of color.

Coates employs clear and precise prose to appeal to a broad audience. Rooted in a long intellectual tradition, he peppers pages with references to critical writers and activists. He uses symbols like Mecca and Dream to describe complex ideas. The author, however, always returns to the real, or corporeal, to be more exact. While recalling his youth, he writes—and I quote at length:

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker. However you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black—what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. (p. 17-18)


Why is Between the World and Me essential reading?

We have all read alarming statistics about the unprecedented rise of the carceral state: 1 in 12 black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated, compared to 1 in 87 white men. Since the 1970s, 1 out of 4 black men have been incarcerated. As a result of stricter policing and sentencing laws, since the 1990s, while violent-crime rates have fallen, incarceration rates have risen. High school dropouts are more likely to go to prison. Former inmates are less likely to obtain employment. Households are stripped of husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, and friends.

Coates knows the statistics too. Between the World and Me, however, is about the people that populate statistics. Prince Jones. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. And, countless more.

Coates does not allow his son, or the reader, to lapse, to be misled by persuasive talk or lulled by fantastic promises. He writes, “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world” (p. 36). He demands more. Be critical of everything. Focus on what is real. He commands, “So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (p. 71).

The book is an illustration of the effects of bad policy and the need for good policy. It is a warning and invocation. Similar to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, it takes the form of a letter to a loved one. The editorial decision to write using second person allows Coates to speak to his son and the reader, creating some intimate and evocative moments. We learn as the son learns. And, when he writes "What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility" (p. 137), we listen.

Snow days! And, Technology!

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

Snow days are magical events, for students and teachers. The days preceding them burst with energy and anticipation. The magic starts with murmurs. One student says to another, “Did you hear it’s supposed to snow on Thursday?” As the snowstorm strengthens, students start rearranging plans and due dates. They think, “Let’s see. If we get a foot of snow on Thursday, that buys us at least four more days to write the essay about Hamlet.” Students are not alone. On Wednesday afternoon, teachers stare longingly out windows as the first flakes fall. “Is it too late” they wonder, “for the district to announce a two hour early dismissal?” They dream of a weekend without grading papers, a weekend with two days of guilt-free Netflix binge watching.

As someone who experienced snow days as a student and teacher, I can tell you: They are magical events.

Snowzilla, the massive blizzard that attacked the east coast, has reminded some of the opportunities of technology to attenuate the negative effects of missed school days. Last week, the author of an article in The Washington Post wrote, “[E]ducators have real concerns about the academic impact of the closures, which can slow progress and leave struggling students even further behind.” Technology to the rescue!

I love the prospect of technology to facilitate extended learning opportunities. In fact, I wrote about it six years ago when Snowmageddon rocked DC. I’m a bit like a broken drum in that way. We know the best learning experiences are engaging, relevant, and experiential. Technology has the ability to magnify learning both in and out of school.

Indeed, districts have implemented a number of tech-focused reforms to facilitate out-of-school learning for students, from preschool to high school. Some are stopgap solutions like online announcements and assignments in lieu of traditional seat time. Others are more integrated measures such as flipped classrooms. With the latter example, extended learning opportunities are not a response to inclement weather; they exemplify a philosophy that views learning as an ongoing and integrated event.

But, here’s the rub: Six years ago, when I campaigned for digitally connected snow days, the possibilities were still somewhat unfamiliar. Since then, technologies like iPhones and course websites have become commonplace. So too has the assumption that all students have access to technologies and the requisite literacies to access and use them. They don’t.

Technology is alluring. Over and over, policymakers have championed well-intentioned reforms that, once implemented, have had unintended, negative consequences. We cannot assume that all students have regular access to technology; students and families have the necessary skills to use technology; or, schools have the resources to maximize its potential.

Snow days are magical. Learning is magical. I’m still excited for the possibilities. Let’s make sure they are available to all students.

Semester in review and students as change agents

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

The semester is ending. Students are submitting papers. Professors are grading papers. And, hopefully, all had a great four months. As I reflect, I am thankful for a challenging and rewarding semester. I am grateful to have a career that allows me—via research, teaching, and service—to interact with an array of people and, along the way, to become a better professor and person.

And yet, as we look back, it is impossible not to think about many troubling events that have occurred, from mass shootings to blatant racism. Across the world, people are experiencing repeated acts of symbolic and physical violence. Most believe the current state of affairs needs to change. However, judging from national dialogue, there seems to be little agreement about how to do so. More locally, reading my Facebook feed has become a schizophrenic act. One person frustratingly posts about a blustery demagogue; another frequently retweets memes about the right to bear arms. There seems to be a heightened amount of political and ideological strife. More than anything, there seems to be quite a bit of prostrate frustration.

Maybe I’m naive, but I still believe in our capacity to create a better world. Two weeks ago, my students reminded me why and, perhaps, how.

In class, we discussed an article by Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton about school reform as a social movement. An overwhelming amount of leadership lit talks (very rosily) about the importance of consensus building and collaboration—and we read some of the work earlier in the semester. Oakes and Lipton’s point is that, if we are serious about equity, we have to acknowledge that it's not in everyone's best interests. Positive change is conflict-based. It requires leaders to adopt a grassroots mentality to bring attention to and contest racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, and a variety of other prejudiced actions and policies that are reaffirming inequities in our schools and neighborhoods. I was blown away by how respectful, thoughtful, and passionate students were when discussing the topic. There are so many negative examples of injustice occurring across the country and world right now. It would be an easy out for students to be cynical.

Most of the students in the class are aspiring school leaders. It was our last in-person class of the semester. We've talked before about the challenges of being a principal, balancing professional and personal responsibilities. A district mandate may not always be in the best interest of students. But, if you choose to advocate for students or teachers and believe in social justice, that may also put your job in jeopardy. That's not easy for a variety of reasons, especially considering family and financial obligations.

It was such a great moment as students acknowledged that they want to and have to be the ones to ensure equitable opportunities for all students. It was such a pleasure to be a part of their conversations during the semester, to see them challenge and learn from each other. And, it's reaffirming to know they're working in our schools and for our students.

Happy holidays and cheers to a new year.

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.

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.