Studying Up

In an often-quoted manifesto, Laura Nader urged fellow anthropologists (and, by extension, sociologists and other social scientists) to “study up,” do their research among the rich and powerful ...

In an often-quoted manifesto, Laura Nader urged fellow anthropologists (and, by extension, sociologists and other social scientists) to “study up,” do their research among the rich and powerful people directly responsible for the ills of society, rather than among the poor, who can’t as easily protect themselves from intrusive social scientists who want to pry into their pathologies.

If we look at the literature based on fieldwork in the United States, we find a relatively abundant literature on the poor, the ethnic groups, the disadvantaged; there is comparatively little field research on the middle class and very little first-hand work on the upper classes.

Nicolas Jounin, author of Voyage de classes, teaches sociology at the Université de Paris VIII. It’s located in the poorer outskirts of Paris, what’s called the banlieue, where he himself grew up. Almost all his beginning graduate students come from the poorer classes (les classes populaires), French but mostly of African or Muslim descent. Thinking about Nader’s critique, he made her injunction the basis of a class, and sent his students to do fieldwork in the beaux quartiers, Paris’ 8th arrondissement, whose social class ranking reveals itself when you learn that the three quartiers the students studied (a different one each year) included the Champs Élysées and Avenue Montaigne, some of the most elegant and expensive shopping areas in the city. Working there, they would really be studying up, and would experience the complications of studying the rich and learn how to handle them.

The students first observed public and semi-public places, carefully recording what they heard and saw. Their first forays into the parks and public squares were “uneventful.” They recorded (and sometimes counted) a variety of social events—young people much like themselves being stopped by police and required to identify themselves for no obvious reason; dark-skinned nursemaids watching over Caucasian children; passersby inspecting the contents of boutique windows—and found they could observe that way in public for as much as fifteen or twenty minutes before their behavior attracted attention. They wrote everything down.

But when they went beyond these banal activities, moving into cafes and other public places (which are, as Jounin says. “juridically open to anyone”), things changed—partly because of what the people they encountered did but also because their own feelings snuck up on them. Entering a hotel bar, three of the students, Djamila, Clélia, and Samira, almost immediately felt ill-at-ease, sensing that they weren’t dressed appropriately. Samira says, “All three of us laugh nervously seeing Djamila’s PSG [Paris Saint-Germain, a local soccer team] T-shirt that she’s camouflaged with a scarf. Clélia is stressed about the hole in her jeans. And I’m wearing totally worn-out boots.” And, she adds, “I’m not sure we could have carried it off, even if we were dressed better.” They feel, too, that their behavior “isn’t right.” As Djamila says, “Some people put their napkin on their knees to drink their tea, but I don’t know how to position myself and, even worse, where to put my hands. … I had the feeling that everything counted, gestures, words, looks.” Clélia adds, “Two men in suits, behind us, are completely at ease, relaxed, while we, we don’t know how to hold ourselves. The place is so clean and classy that I’m afraid to leave crumbs … I feel ill-at-ease, out of place. We don’t even dare to get up to smoke or go to the bathroom.” The worst moment comes when they leave. Samira: “I don’t know if it was just paranoia, but we all had the impression that conversations stopped and everyone was looking at us. Getting to the door was interminable.” Other students had similar problems in other bars and restaurants, feeling that the employees and other patrons knew they “didn’t belong.”

Another variant of this problem occurred in fashionable designers’ boutiques. Of course, no one can go into such a store, sit down and start taking notes without explaining themselves and, though none of the students did that, neither did they behave with the ease of people who might really be shopping. No surprise, then, that the salespeople wanted them gone. Not sure that the young woman in the head scarf who looked like a poor Parisian wasn’t actually a rich Saudi or Qatari, however, the staff were very careful about it.

The students might have been better prepared for these experiences if they’d had available some of the things that help more experienced fieldworkers: conversations with employees under other circumstances, comparative observations made in other retail situations, or the research reports of participant observers who had themselves sold merchandise de luxe. Their problems, though they didn’t know it yet, occur in all kinds of fieldwork.

Entering a situation where everyone but you knows how things work and how to behave, you’ll of course feel ill-at-ease. But stay there a while and you’ll learn. That is, after all, how everyone copes with new places and people. The same problems arise when studying down—William Foote Whyte’s classic description of finding his place among the working class Italian-American men, Street Corner Society, tells the same kinds of stories.

After these simple early exercises, Jounin sent his students on riskier social adventures: going in pairs to interview local inhabitants. They learned a lot of useful and important things. They heard lengthy family histories, including where the money came from, how long they’d had it, who their associates and relatives were. They learned that some people who live in a rich quartier aren’t rich, that poorer people work for the richer ones and that some of them live nearby, perhaps in the small rooms at the top of large buildings maids used to live in, or a concierge’s apartment.

Some of the rich (women especially, it seems) welcomed the students, responded honestly and at length to their almost-impertinent questions, even praised their behavior. Classic “good interviewees,” they followed the students’ lead, did their best to correct misapprehensions without making the mostly female interviewers feel stupid, and provided lots of “sociologically interesting” stuff to think and talk about in class.

Others, (mostly men, it seems, and especially those asked to explain family or business arrangements) resented students’ questions, thought them impertinent or stupid or both, worked at making them look and feel silly and out of place, and often succeeded. Thoughtless at best and, at worst, deliberately cruel.

So the experience of studying up wasn’t all of a piece. Some students felt “dominated,” although not always because of race or class differences. They were studying up other hierarchies—age, gender, and experience—as well.

Jounin’s teaching, which he hoped would help students overcome these inequalities, differed markedly from conventional French university teaching, which assumes that the teacher knows everything and imparts that knowledge to their students, who have nothing valuable to add. In the standard French classroom—a large, often steeply raked, auditorium in which all the seats face front—the professor, standing at a lectern, talks, usually rapidly, for the entire class hour. Students take notes but seldom ask questions or make comments, even when the teacher might like them to.

Jounin taught differently. He wanted his students to talk, partly because he thought it an effective way to teach (as I do). But also so he could learn, as they described their field work, from what they had seen and heard that he didn’t know (I expected that, too, and also profited from the results). He chose his students’ assignments partly to help them experience what it meant to do social research, and he wanted them to talk about those experiences, feelings, and results, and so learn from each other. He thought it would help them learn to handle the stress that studying up produces, and how to make sociology out of their discomforts, and in the process learn useful things about social interaction.

Jounin regards the students’ most difficult interviews and observations as classic examples of symbolic class domination. I suppose he’s right. But social science interviewers and observers always start one down, no matter what their position in other hierarchies is. They are always studying up, because they want something for nothing, something no one ordinarily asks for or has any right to expect: free access to people’s surroundings and daily life, honest answers to (let’s face it) questions so intrusive many wouldn’t answer even if asked by close friends.

Jounin is more sympathetic to the students’ anguish than I am, not because I’m exceptionally hard-hearted, but because I know that most of the time, when we do field research, we provide nothing of value in return, and so expose ourselves to all sorts of embarrassments and rebuffs. We should expect, sometimes, to be greeted with suspicion, even rudeness, and not be surprised or hurt when we’re treated as not very well-bred intruders. It’s just what we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t study people more highly placed than us in some social hierarchy, just that it may not be easy. We can expect the “subjects” of such a study not always to cooperate as we’d like them to. But that goes for research at every level of every pyramid whose way of life, and secrets, we would like to know.

We all eventually learn how to overcome the rebuffs and discomfort. But Nader got the diagnosis wrong, and Jounin followed her uncritically. Sociologists do like to study the poor and disadvantaged, often because they think they can help them by doing so. And they may not have studied the most inner of the inner circles that control the economy, if anything can be described that simply. But social scientists have also studied people higher up the social ladder, as even the most superficial look at the historical record shows. They have certainly studied members of the middle and upper classes, the higher ranks of industrial and business management, and a lot of other people and organizations who more than satisfy Nader’s criteria. It can be done, and the proof is that it has been.

We can and should recognize and learn from these earlier studies not only that studying up is possible, but also where the problems with it are, and what specific techniques and ideas can overcome them.

social science interviewers and observers are always studying up, because they want something for nothing, something no one ordinarily asks for or has any right to expect.

Robert and Helen Lynd’s 1929 book Middletown and its 1937 sequel Middletown in Transition reported on their study of Muncie, Indiana, top to bottom. Several other community studies—describing whole communities, rather than focusing on the disadvantaged—appeared in the 1940s, well before Nader made her complaint, based on research done by anthropologists in the ‘30s. Deep South, based on fieldwork conducted by Allison and Elizabeth Davis (black), Burleigh and Mary Gardner (white), and St. Clair Drake (black), reported in detail on caste and class in Natchez, Mississippi. The two couples’ observations and interviews of all the class layers of both racial castes, and Drake’s meticulously detailed study of the sharecropping system, showed how political and economic power were used to exploit poor black farmers. They reported in detail on the social life of the upper and middle classes of both racial castes, and described the mechanisms which maintained the unjust and repressive agricultural system.

W. Lloyd Warner’s six volume Yankee City series similarly reported on all the social classes in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A full volume described the town’s industrial organizations, and analyzed a strike that occurred while the study was going on; another reported on the social systems of the various ethnic groups. Everett C. Hughes’ French Canada in Transition analyzed industrialization in a town in Quebec, describing the class and ethnic division of labor at every level, as well as the mechanisms that produced the inequalities he observed. And he took the added step of nesting his field report in a statistical account of the economic control of industrialization in Quebec by banks and other financial institutions in Montréal and Toronto.

These studies dealt with relatively small communities, more or less similar to the small societies anthropologists usually studied. Not so Black Metropolis, by anthropologist St. Clair Drake and sociologist Horace Cayton, which described the black society of Chicago’s South Side, based on field work done by a large team of WPA-paid fieldworkers. The book contained detailed analyses of economic, religious, and political organization in the area, and introduced a distinction, unfortunately missing in community studies of the distribution of power, then or later, between the “shady” and “respectable” segments the researchers found at every class level: the respectable well-to-do businessmen on one side of the line mirrored by the equally well-to-do bosses of the illegal “numbers” racket, the poor respectable churchgoers who bought the lottery tickets and their “shady” neighbors on the other side of the line who sold them.

In all these studies, we see researchers overcoming obstacles like those Jounin’s students encountered, and see the situationally specific ways they did it.

Specialized fields of research have also paid close attention to the upper echelons of society. Contemporary sociologists of science study relatively powerful and well-placed scientists (e.g., Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life), and some medical sociologists study physicians, as Eliot Freidson did in Doctoring Together, just as Melville Dalton’s Men Who Manage and Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers penetrated the upper reaches of business elites. They produced what Nader called for, before (in most of these cases) she asked. On a slightly lighter note, Robert Faulkner studied the elite of the Hollywood music business—the A-list players in the studio orchestras who recorded the musical backgrounds for films, and the A-list composers who wrote that music, both at the top of the prestige system of musical production.

But it is perhaps easier to study poor people than rich people, and it’s also perhaps more satisfying ideologically. Andrew Abbott has drawn attention to the persisting sociological predilection for studying inequality, documenting the wounds, suffering, and injustices society inflicts on the poor. Poor communities seem to many a more important, and, at the same time, more conveniently available, research target.

This predilection often starts early in sociological training. As a first year sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago in 1946, I took Everett Hughes’ required class, “Introductory Field Work.” He assigned us, in pairs, to do our exercises in observation and interviewing in census tracts near the university. I don’t remember anyone in our class being assigned a tract in the sophisticated University neighborhood or in the adjoining wealthy Kenwood area, though some (my memory of all this is a little dim) found themselves in middle-class South Shore. Not me, though I lived there at the time. Like most of the class, my teammate and I got census tracts in the ghetto, also nearby. None of us thought that odd. So we collected genealogies, observed church services and neighborhood businesses, and interviewed people about whatever topic Hughes was interested in that year. In 1946, when I took the class, he was curious about people’s aspirations for their children and their experiences with the public schools (surely an interesting and important topic and we asked about that). I was more used than most of my fellow students to being around the largely black South Side, because I was playing piano at the time with a racially mixed big band that, in then-segregated Chicago, played only for black dancers. That put me on the street in “Black Metropolis” late at night, and I was accustomed to being the only white boy around. Which didn’t ease the embarrassment when my teammate and I “observed” a Sunday church service and were asked to address children in a Sunday School class. The people we intruded on that way treated us very politely, even kindly, and we were never humiliated as Jounin’s students occasionally were.

Our later training, and whatever life experience we brought with us, enabled many of us to study people in the very groups Nader suggested were not studied. In my own life, I never studied anyone poorer than me, and often people considerably better off, actually or potentially (I describe my own research topics to demonstrate that in What About Mozart? What About Murder?).

Experienced researchers gleaned important lessons in their early training, just as Jounin’s students did. To learn, for example, whatever relevant things you can before you interview someone and then lay down clear ground rules, as Morris Janowitz did when he interviewed admirals and generals, who could hardly have been expected to welcome an interviewer who was clearly a working class Jew from industrial Paterson, New Jersey: “No effort was made to establish rapport on the basis of simulated warmth or friendliness. Instead, rapport was developed on the basis of the relevance of the questions, and the ability of the interviewer to effectively probe their implications.” In other words, don’t try to bullshit me, it won’t work.

Or by providing yourself with a well-understood role to play in whatever situation you immerse yourself in: I did this by being a musician when I studied them, Mitchell Duneier did it by helping Sixth Avenue’s booksellers take care of their merchandise, many others have done so by announcing that they were “writing a book” about whatever it was. Use your own experience and the connections your family and friends can provide to smooth the way when that’s possible. It’s what Seymour Martin Lipset did for his book on the printers’ union; his father was a member.

And that’s the real lesson about “studying up.” There may be some added costs to doing it, but they’re mostly in the form of supplying yourself with the ammunition needed to overcome attempts to evade your inquiries. Accept being stupid, as you always are when you study a social milieu you don’t yet know. Accept being ill at ease, patronized, and even humiliated. You learn, for every new research, how to get beyond the barriers that turn up. Because it’s been done before and can almost always be done again. icon

Featured image: Christmas Tree at Galeries LaFayette, Paris (2007). Photograph by Adam / Flickr