Culture Program Profile: UT, Austin’s Urban Ethnography Lab

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Nino Bariola

Katherine Sobering

Javier Auyero

Ethan works at a luxury hotel in downtown Austin, Texas that caters to the 1%—elites and celebrities that visit for the South by Southwest music festival, the Formula One races, and other mega events. His job isn’t by any means unimportant for the reproduction of the social order of Austin’s “new urban economy.” Yet handling the instability, meager wages, stress and emotional labor demanded by his job takes a toll: “We [service workers] are the genuine junkies…” Ethan explains. “Waiting tables and working in hospitality is very, very stressful and demanding, you know? And so all that fuels the fire.” The comparative benefits of luxury hospitality work do little to address his social suffering. As Katherine Sobering, a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab, reveals, Ethan also struggles with addiction, which he explains as “a product of the [service] industry.”

Sobering is part of the group of graduate students who wrote Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City with professor Javier Auyero. The book portrays the life stories of people like Ethan who struggle with precarity as Austin consolidates into a “creative city,” a trendy hub for technology and finance. While sociologists have produced excellent accounts of “objective” inequalities in changing urban contexts, “We are on less certain terrain when it comes to understanding the many ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities,” argues Auyero. “These experiences matter because they oftentimes do the cultural work necessary to perpetuate the social order, but at other times they serve as the basis for challenging it.”

Invisible in Austin is the first project of the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Discussions and debates that started in one of Auyero’s graduate seminars transformed into a collective project, and eventually, a collaborative book. In one of the journal articles about the project, Caitlyn Collins (now an assistant professor at Washington University, St. Louis), UT graduate student Katherine Jensen, and Auyero explain, “the book sought to intervene in the local public sphere by shedding sociological light on the sources and forms of affliction and on the manifold ways in which inequalities are lived and experienced on a daily basis.” Exemplary of the potential of public sociology, the book today is widely utilized as a learning material in high schools and college classrooms to teach about the often hidden and sometimes forgotten social problems associated with the so-called “creative class” and growth of  “new urban economies.”

Housed in UT’s Sociology Department, the Urban Ethnography Lab has been a stronghold of ethnographic and qualitative research since its inception in 2012, organizing and sponsoring conferences and talks with leading scholars and providing graduate student fellows with guidance, resources, and space for individual and collective scholarly creation. Of note are regular workshops like the biweekly brown bags where students and faculty present their work. As Invisible in Austin shows, many fellows and faculty affiliates are invested in the study of cultural dynamics and particularly how social inequalities in terms of class, race, and gender are (re)produced, legitimized, or challenged via cultural work.

The Lab brings together a growing number of faculty who use ethnographic methods. Christine Williams’ recent work explores gender inequality and diversity culture in the oil and gas industry, and her previous and widely-cited book, Inside Toyland, inspects low-wage retail work to expose how the social inequalities of gender, race, and class inequalities are embedded within consumer culture. Sharmila Rudrappa’s book, Discounted Life, is a fascinating account of the cultural politics of exchange in transnational surrogacy. Gloria González-López’s book unveils the intricate cultures of gender inequality as well as the social organization of secrets and silence that enable incest and sexual violence in contemporary Mexican families. Harel Shapira—who leads one of the seminars on ethnographic methods—currently studies gun culture in the U.S. Sarah Brayne’s work examines the use of “big data” within the criminal justice system, and particularly how the adoption of predictive analytics is changing views and practices of surveillance in law enforcement organizations. Daniel Fridman’s research looks at the intersections of culture and the economy in his book, Freedom from Work, which explores the social world of financial self-help in Argentina and the U.S.

Graduate student fellows carry out qualitative and ethnographic research across the globe, from Brazil and Peru to India, Nepal, Sweden, and the U.S. They are developing innovative research questions, including: “What are human rights organizations doing to get social media taken more seriously in courts?” (Anna V. Banchik); “How do ‘bad jobs’ become legitimized as ‘cool’ and ‘crafty’ occupations in the Peruvian culinary field? (Nino Bariola); “How do people working in the gig economy conceive of work and choice?” (Kathy Hill); “How do micro-level interactions within a family unit influence whether these individuals choose to utilize formal care services for their elderly family members?” (Corey J. McZeal); “How do Chinese rural residents who stay in migrant-origin communities continue to support urban migration even if economic returns from migrant workers become increasingly small and unpredictable?” (Ruijie Peng); “How are stereotypes about cannabis dealers reconfigured during legalization?” (Katherine K. Rogers); “How has Japan’s political crisis after the nuclear disaster in 2011 set the stage for emerging anti-racism politics? (Vivian Shaw); “How do Tunisian women’s groups protect their existing (secular) rights during an Islamist-led transition to democracy?” (Maro Youssef).

The culture of intellectual collaboration and support continues today. Most recently, Auyero and a new group of graduate fellows are studying the political culture of the working class in Texas. Teams of graduate students conducted fieldwork in five Texas towns experiencing drastic economic, socio-political, and environmental transformations to examine how communities cope with and make political sense of inequalities. The group is now extending the model of Invisible in Austin to use the qualitative data they collected to write a book that will richly describe and theorize political culture in everyday life.  

In the Urban Ethnography Lab, the craft of sociology is undertaken collectively and horizontally through the sharing ideas, field notes, proposals, and papers. It is a place where students and faculty come together to provide, as Loïc Wacquant accurately captures, the “mutual support and crisscrossing control at multiple stages [to] help each [other] to fashion a better research object than would have been possible on one’s own…” As messy as ethnographic research may appear from the outside, at UT Austin, cohorts of sociologists now have a space to learn what it takes to produce rigorous ethnographic research in both theory and practice.

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