Field School 2017


Mason student Kirsten Bongiovanni (center) helps prep a new garden plot at the Lang Street Garden as part of the 2017 field school.


The Field School has been progressing nicely–the students have interviewed about 35% of the 70 gardeners at Lang Street Garden–it’s been fun, intensive and exhausting.

One of the fun parts of working with community gardens is the distinct opportunities for participant-observation research. Some of the students have “dug in” to the experience by helping gardeners haul mulch, sift dirt to remove weeds and their pesky roots, or in the case Kirsten Bongiovanni (above), had helped clear a plot of a new gardener.

Reading through the field notes and listening to the interviews, I find it remarkable that this group of advanced undergraduate and graduate students have transformed into independent researchers. They’re asking uninsightful questions, documenting astute observations and providing a deep analysis of a community project that is so much more than a place to grow vegetables. The community garden is a shared experience that brings Arlingtonians together for a shared purpose. It’s the location of community engagement and connection.

On Tuesday (June 20) students will present their findings to the gardeners and the general public at the Fairlington Community Center at 4:30.  I look forward to meeting the gardeners I’ve been reading about, and the lively discussion that will follow.


The Latest & Greatest in Ethnography: Evicted by Matthew Desmond


From today’s Book World in The Washington Post

Thank you, Matthew Desmond.

Thank you for writing about destitution in America with astonishing specificity yet without voyeurism or judgment. Thank you for showing it is possible to compose spare, beautiful prose about a complicated policy problem. Thank you for giving flesh and life to our squabbles over inequality, so easily consigned to quintiles and zero-sum percentages. Thank you for proving that the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head is a cause, not just a characteristic, of poverty.

It has been a long time since a book has struck me like Desmond’s “Evicted,”not since Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering,” which showed how Americans dealt with their Civil War dead. I suspect the resonance is not coincidental. Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard University, writes about another kind of mass death: The demise of opportunity and of hope that occurs when individuals are forced to leave their homes.

“Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street,” Desmond writes. “It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.”

Read the rest of this review here.

Arlington Community Gardens


Last weekend I began fieldwork for the Summer 2016 Field School. I’m back along the Columbia Pike, this time studying community gardens along Four Mile Run and Douglas Park.

The project stretches me in new and exciting ways. I’m an avid “urban farmer”–I cleared the azaleas alongside my house to create three 8X10 garden beds. The azaleas were beautiful, but they had the best sun on our otherwise wooded lot. The community gardens are county-owned properties that are leased to residents who don’t have space or availability to grow fruits and vegetables near their own homes. But I’ve never considered the impact of community gardens on food security and sustainability from an academic perspective. I plan to spend spring break reading up on the academic literature on community gardens.

The growing season for hearty spring and root vegetables begins on March 1 in Northern Virginia, so gardeners got together for a recipe and seed swap on February 27. I was shocked by the number of people who showed up–nearly forty people in all. The chief gardener, Maraea Harris, reviewed rules for the gardens and important dates. I also met nearly 20 gardeners who are interested in participating in the project. That’s a fantastic number of people to have on board so early in the process.

I’ll be talking to gardeners and visiting the garden plots periodically between now and the official start of the field school in mid-May. I’m extremely pleased to be offering the field school again this year and to be back in Arlington County for the project.

Two Arlingtons? An Ethnographic Reflection

Two years ago I wrapped up a two-year ethnographic project along Northern Virginia’s Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. The project provided a great site for the Field School for Cultural Documentation, but tensions in the community were running high. Long-term residents reported being ignored by their county board members. Small business owners said they were uniformed and shut out of discussions about the planned redevelopment project. Students were exited about the data they were collecting, but many reported feeling conflicted: residents, especially small ethnic business owners, were asking for help getting information. That was not the role the students were supposed to take.

Columbia Pike, Arlington VA


It was time to move to another project.

That field school ended, just as all of them have, with a public presentation of our findings. We had a huge crowd that day, nearly sixty community members and activists. We were very pleased to see Chris Zimmerman, then a member of the county board, join us.

The world emerging along Columbia Pike was divided. There were residents who supported redevelopment and the increased property values they believed would accompany the facelift. These residents uniformly supported the streetcar project.  The second large group were residents who were suspicious of redevelopment and did not want a streetcar.  But both groups spoke of the larger Arlington community, particularly those who live north of Route 50 in North Arlington. Many Columbia Pike residents believed that the interests of North Arlington were being enacted through the redevelopment project, that the board was unresponsive and interested only in raising tax revenues. It was common for Pike residents to say that redevelopment was threatening the unique qualities and culture of their community.

After my students completed their presentations, I had a minute to talk to Chris Zimmerman. I told him about the divide the ethnographic team found in the community, and I encouraged him to read the project fieldnotes and listen to the oral histories we collected. “I think it would be useful for you to hear what your citizens are saying about leadership in the county,” I told him.

Columbia Pike

Mr. Zimmerman declined my offer, noting that there are always discontented community members who disagree with major civic projects.

Today’s Washington Post published this article about two Arlingtons, north and south. The article ends on a positive note, quoting a north Arlington resident who sees the poorer residents south of his community as part of his Arlington. It’s a nice sentiment, and a great ending for the piece. But that statement doesn’t sum up what’s going on in Arlington along Columbia Pike. The streetcar defeat is no surprise to me or anyone who has spent time listening to residents who live there. The county board would be wise to spend some time listening those constituents as well.

Fear and Loathing in Ethnography

We’re into the second week of fieldwork with the field school. I’ve been meeting with research teams and talking about their progress I find that students have two major obstacles to overcome. The  first is moving into the field. The second is setting up and completing interviews

Moving Into the Field

The first week of fieldwork, students are out in research community observing, meeting people and getting a feel for the parameters of the project. When I’m teaching a fieldschool, I generally send students out in groups of 2-4 and ask them to do their initial observations together. This is good for safety (no one should be in a study community alone, no matter where it is), but also to develop comaraderie.  The first few times out I generally find out who the most outgoing students are, who’s most likely to hang back, and who is likely to be a natural. Students often report the first week in the field is the hardest. They have to practice ethnography and use every opportunity to engage the research community.

While the initial contact can be difficult, it’s not the biggest obstacle. Even the most reserved student can become an expert observer of a social scene.  The next step-engagement and oral history-can also be a challenge.

The Oral History

Much as been written about the ethnographic interview; some researchers mistake the interview as ethnography itself, a major oversight. Ethnographic interviews are most reliable in a larger context of participant-observation research. They provide the necessary depth, allow informants to explain their social milieu, and provide the unseen aspects of ethnographic collection, allowing the researcher to see how the past has influenced the present.

Last week students were asked to dedicate their time to setting up and completing their oral history interviews. Some had immediate success; others had to ask for my help to make the connection to get informants so they could complete this part of the project. In all cases students came back from their interviews with a new understanding of their field site and the people with whom they are working.

The final hurdle is the public presentation, which will take place on June 19 at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation (2 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA).  Ethnography is a form of public scholarship. It requires the collaboration of a community and the results are belong to that community. I pleased with the work the students have completed this summer and I look forward to their public presentations and the feedback we’ll all receive at the public forum.




On the Waterfront

NVFA_AWP2014_AP01_ph08.tifStudents just completed the second week of the field school; the first week of actual fieldwork. I’ve met with each team and they’re doing a fantastic job. I will be posting photos from the field this weekend to keep readers up to date on their activities.

What we’ve discovered so far: that Alexandria has a vibrant and active waterfront. It’s an honor to document the the day-to-day life here.

Photo: Sailing Club of Washington. Photo by Ashlee Payne