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The shape of neighborhood ethnography to come: Blurred spaces, elastic time, and shareable culture

Randall F. Clemens

I. Facebook is a street corner

Before entering the field, I proposed an outline of my dissertation, a neighborhood study in South Central Los Angeles. “You’re not going to write Street Corner Society,” one of my committee members predicts, “The world’s changed.” I nodded, recognizing some of the immense variations—shifting demographics, rising inequality, and globalizing economies—that had occurred after nearly seven decades. I didn’t fully appreciate my mentor’s council.

Fast-forward two years. I completed my dissertation (which was not like Street Corner Society or Tally’s Corner or In Search of Respect) and accepted a job as assistant professor at St. John’s University. 

I now stand at a street corner near a cluster of housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. I observe five young black men. Wearing basketball shorts and tank tops, they endure humid summer temperatures while discussing a potential pick-up basketball game. One teenager jokes about me on the team and asks about my game. As a white, middle-aged researcher, I am neither part of their group nor at risk of “going native.” However, I feel a sense of camaraderie with DeJuan, the jokester. The scene reminds me of classic neighborhood ethnographies in which the authors examine the extraordinary meanings hidden in quotidian moments. Was this how Liebow felt with Tally? 

During a lull, DeJuan looks at his phone. He makes a comment about Facebook. Two others check their phones. They discuss a mutual friend’s post. At once, I feel the teenagers are both here and somewhere else. I am all of the sudden a part of and apart from an important conversation. Later, I recall my committee member’s statement—“The world’s changed.” 

Common among all neighborhood ethnographies is a commitment to place, time, and culture. What happens when social media create new digital spaces and blur spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries? After over a century of placid existence, social media have irrevocably changed neighborhood ethnography. Facebook is the new street corner, and it exists simultaneous to the old street corner.

II. Neighborhood ethnography 1.0

Neighborhood ethnography occupies a unique (and, to me, hallowed) space among social science research in the United States. Interest in neighborhood scholarship has blossomed and decayed over the last century. The blooms often correlate to significant political and social events—like the Great Migration and the War on Poverty—and increased attention to race, class, and inequality. The methodology focuses in-depth on the complex, context-bound textures of social life among disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups. It includes a tradition of researchers toiling in low-income neighborhoods, befriending residents, documenting local life, and connecting micro and macro forces. 

The best works illuminate inequalities and contest stereotypes. W.E.B. Dubois, for instance, used an innovative mix of door-to-door interviews and census data to create an exhaustive analysis of neighborhood life for black residents in The Philadelphia Negro. Carol Stack, refuting prevalent stereotypes about the “culture of poverty,” examined sharing and reciprocity among low-income mothers in All Our Kin. And, Mitch Duneier, remixing the methodology to focus on Slim’s table, documented the stories of working-class men and presented a nuanced portrait of their lives within a larger context.

Neighborhood ethnography relies on three critical ingredients: place, time, and culture. Place is the simplest concept. For traditional place-based ethnographies, researchers go somewhere (i.e. churches, parks, schools, street corners) and spend time with someone (i.e. parishioners, parents, teachers, teenagers). 

Time is a little more complex (but not too much). Researchers sample across time to get a varied data sample and ensure validity and reliability. Identifying significant times and gaining access during them is the challenge. 

Culture is the most intricate, and engenders the greatest disagreement among scholars. There are two broad (and, for our purposes, crude) cultural perspectives. The first divides culture into two categories, mainstream and sub-mainstream. A dominant culture exists and then non-dominant, local groups introduce their own variations. Think of Gerald Suttles’s The Social Order of the Slum, a study of ethnic enclaves in Chicago. The second perspective interprets culture as heterogeneous, consisting of dominant and non-dominant cultural fragments. Sure, a mainstream culture exists, but so do sub-cultures, and the boundaries are malleable and intertwined. Consider Ulf Hannerz’s Soulside, a study of low-income residents in Washington, D.C. 

III. Neighborhood ethnography 2.0

How do social media redefine place, time, and culture? First, they obfuscate classic definitions of place. Recall the teenagers in the above example. They interact on a street corner and across multiple social media platforms. A single place is no longer the defining characteristic. Methodologists must attend to multiple, blurred locations.

Next, social media magnify the elasticity of time. The teenagers’ interactions—using synchronous and asynchronous communication—disrupt conventional notions of time. They talk to each other in real time and also respond to posts that could be seconds, minutes, or hours old. Researchers must capture and account for varied forms of time.

Last, social media increase the availability and portability of culture. DeJuan and his friends scavenge the internet for resources. They take, edit, view, and upload cultural bits like text, pictures, gifs, and video. They share them with friends and general audiences. Other users then view, comment, and share. Social media allows individuals to access and share different cultures in ways that have not previously existed. Neighborhood scholars must incorporate social media into their research designs and cultural analyses.

IV. What’s next?

Technologies have always influenced the research process. Pencils allowed researchers to sketch settings and jot quotes. Tape recorders enabled new levels of accuracy and verisimilitude. Word processors transformed the editing process. Each of the above examples produced incremental revisions. Social media substantially alters the research landscape. Digital technologies reform place, time, and culture and empower individuals, creating new conditions among researchers and researched. They produce previously hidden opportunities (and challenges) and provoke neighborhood ethnographers to deepen their commitment to rigorous, creative methods.

To some, neighborhood ethnography and social media may be at odds. After all, the methodology emphasizes context and prolonged engagement whereas social media can be fragmentary and ephemeral. However, neighborhood ethnography is uniquely positioned to capitalize on technological trends. To make sense of social media requires time, context, and thoughtfulness. Key to examining the connections among local life, social media, and global social forces is the use of hybrid methods, including a mixture of robust, rigorous traditional tools with innovative new tools. While some may argue that social media diminish the importance of place and, as a result, neighborhood ethnography, I can think of no better methodology to untangle the wonderful, complex, and evolving social media knot.