Conducting Ethnographic Research: Strategies and Lessons Learned in African
Sherri Lawson Clark, Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State
February 25, 2003
Abstract: This presentation draws upon fieldwork I conducted at two NPS sites, the Civil War Defenses of Washington (CWDW) and Anacostia Park (AP), and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (BvB). While both studies involved diverse racial and ethnic populations, my participation involved primarily African Americans traditionally associated with the parks. I compare both the similarities and differences between the two studies and the overall challenges of conducting fieldwork that has policy implications for individuals and cultural groups. I discuss the challenges I had as an ethnographer, contracted by the National Park Service, in negotiating the stories told and the ways in which they should be presented to the public. In the CWDW and AP study, I worked with a group of at least two-dozen other researchers, due to the number of sites under study. The goals of the study were to retrieve data that identifies contemporary user groups, the ways in which the groups utilized park resources, and the significance of the resources to user groups. The data was gathered via a Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure (REAP) of the sites to be used in the preparation of management plans and associated NEPA documents. My fieldwork in the study focused on the African American communities traditionally associated with Fort Dupont and Anacostia Park. I organized and facilitated focus group interviews, individual interviews, and transect walks with sports teams, community gardeners, and family reunion organizers. My findings included thick descriptions of the ways African Americans use parks, the values they attribute to having a park in their neighborhood, the symbiotic relationship of what effort they extend to parks and what rewards they receive from parks. In the BvB study, the emotions surrounding the controversial decision loom large among those who participated in the study, though it has been almost fifty years since the landmark decision. These participants desperately want their voices heard and to play active roles in the presentation of the site, scheduled for its grand opening in 2004. As principal investigator, I worked with two graduate students of anthropology in conducting a community study of the neighborhood in which the site is situated. Our extensive review of previous studies and archival research, knowledgeable park service staff, and community advocates paved the way for the data collection process. We conducted intensive interviews with contemporary neighbors and those no longer living in the neighborhood but associated with it during the 1951-54 period of significance. We were able to overcome many of the obstacles surrounding data reliability and validity by acknowledging the racial and class conflicts in the present-day neighborhood as well as the 1950s environment. As a work-in-progress, it will be instrumental to continue our outreach efforts to those associated with the neighborhood in hopes of sharing the many voices of Brown v. Board of Education.
This paper focuses on two ethnographic research studies that I participated in for the National Park Service—one as a graduate student in anthropology and the other as a post-graduate applied cultural anthropologist. In 1996, the NPS commissioned an eleven-week Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedures (REAP) of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, DC and Anacostia Park (CWDW/AP). Due to the volume of research that needed to be collected (17 fort circle sites and the more than 1200 acres of Anacostia Park) and the limited amount of time to conduct the research, a large team of researchers was contracted for the study. Juarez and Associates, Inc., a research and management-consulting firm, teamed with a professor of anthropology and graduate students from the American University in Washington D.C. to conduct the research to be used in the preparation of management plans and documents required for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a graduate student at American with interests in urban anthropology, I took advantage of the opportunity to conduct fieldwork with African American communities located near the fort circle and Anacostia parks. I was given several tasks over the five-week data collection period, including facilitating and recording focus group interviews, individual interviews, and community memory mapping at Fort Dupont and sections of Anacostia Park. Topical interviews focused on family reunions, class reunions, community gardeners, ice hockey and football teams. Some of the research questions that we sought to answer were—
- Who are the user groups? Which groups are established and which are new users and/or new to the area?
- Are there other local groups, which have expressed interest in using the parks but feel that they have limited access to park resources? What are the factors limiting their use?
- What park resources do different groups use? How do they use the resources? Where and when does the use occur?
- How do groups perceive neighborhoods and why?
- What is the social/cultural context of their use of park recreational resources?
- What is the social/cultural context of consumptive uses of park resources?
- What places in the parks hold special significance beyond recreation to groups?
- What other relevance do the sites have to park neighbors and users?
- What would groups like to see happen at the parks that currently do not happen?
- How can NPS personnel effectively communicate with each group?
My first contact in identifying traditionally associated peoples with the parks was NPS staff. I attended community meetings held in conjunction with the study and made contacts with attendees. I also spoke with park personnel and asked for information about both informal and organized user groups and individuals to contact. Outside NPS, I contacted individuals, organizations and family members that I knew who were associated with the parks. Finally, I relied upon my own experiences of using the parks while visiting and living in the District of Columbia. All of these strategies proved useful in identifying and documenting traditionally associated African American communities.
The original study called for an eleven-week schedule, which was extended several weeks due to the diversity of sites under study and the fact that our research was being conducted in the middle of winter when not many individuals were observed using the sites. While the weather posed a problem, it actually worked toward our advantage. Had we conducted the research during the summer months, activities that occur throughout the year might have been overlooked. We focused more heavily upon "artifacts" such as graffiti, condoms, trash, and toys left at the sites to determine user activity. Many of the parks were used year-round for dog walkers, joggers, and nature lovers, while others were left vacant during the colder months. The diversity of park size, geographic location, user groups, activities, and amenities, creates complications when trying to document user activity as well as traditionally associated peoples, making ethnographic research a valuable tool.
In some studies, outcomes may present NPS with contentious solutions on improving parks, solutions that might not be feasible from a management perspective. We sympathized with NPS staff who exclaimed, "There's only so much an agency strapped with budgetary, time, and personnel constraints can do!" One of the biggest concerns, for me, in conducting the CWDW/AP REAP, was negotiating the needs and wants of user groups with the implementation of park plans. During much of my research, individuals spoke candidly about their park experiences, relationships with park personnel, and suggestions for improvement. As a "cultural broker" between park users and NPS, it was a real challenge to navigate the data collection process and not fall into the role of making promises that I had no control over.
There is no mistaking that racial inequalities exist in our national parks as they do throughout all of society. As a contractor for NPS, though, I felt it was necessary to deliver reports that offered constructive criticism that could be acted upon for the benefit of both NPS and its user groups. One example where we achieved this goal was documenting the symbiotic relationship of the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and the surrounding African American community. While the club felt their facility and the team were neglected because the rink is located in a predominantly black, lower income area of Washington, DC, they were proud that, besides the odds, they can boast at being the only all-black ice hockey team in the country. Furthermore, the fact that the coach of nineteen years announced that his team is "the best kept secret in Washington" informs the community and NPS and helps to get more support for the team's activities an informal, but very much part of the community fabric, park user group.
Brown v. Board of Education, NHS
My experience with the CWDW/AP REAP and my graduate training in cultural and applied anthropology laid the foundation for my role as principal investigator in a Community Study of the Brown v. Board of Education NHS. The site consists of the Monroe Elementary School, one of four segregated schools for African Americans in Topeka, Kansas before the landmark decision on May 17, 1954 ruled that separate schools are inherently unequal thus violating the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees "equal protection of the laws." While much research has been conducted about the case itself, little has been documented about the residents and the neighborhood in which the school resides during the 1951-54 period of significance. During that time, the neighborhood was a mixture of light industrial and residential land uses. As other methods of transportation toppled the railways, many industries closed leaving the neighborhood in a state of neglect with many boarded-up and deteriorating structures. Many of the families who lived in the neighborhood in the 1950s are deceased or have moved away. Those few who still live in the neighborhood are elderly, thus deeming it necessary to get as much information and as soon as possible. During the summer of 2002, I, along with two graduate students of anthropology from American University, began the first of a two-year ethnographic study of the Monroe neighborhood to identify and document traditionally associated peoples and the resources they consider significant. Our schedule consisted of conducting fieldwork during the first year and completing analyses, interpretations, and write-up during year two. The site is scheduled for its grand opening in 2004, the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education, et al. decision.
While I was familiar with many of the user groups in the CWDW/AP study, I had no personal contacts in the Brown study, which made it more challenging to identify those traditionally associated with the site. Nonetheless, I began with NPS personnel, which most researchers agree should be the starting point in any NPS study. At least three of the site's employees were native Topekans and supplied us with names, telephone numbers and addresses of family members who attended the Monroe Elementary School. These contacts, then, produced a snowball effect wherein we were able to expand our interviewer list. We familiarized ourselves with NPS documents such as NPS Management Policies 2001, the Cultural Landscape Guidelines, the Historic Structure Report, and an Oral History project prepared for the site. Just as some of the other researchers and myself were selected for the CWDW/AP study because of our personal connections with park user groups, I sought out individuals in Topeka who were outspoken about the opening of the park. I began this search with Cheryl Brown Henderson, Executive Director of the Brown Foundation and youngest daughter of Reverend Oliver Brown after whom the case is named. I took care, however, in not relying solely on advocates because many did not actively campaign for the park, yet their lives will be affected by its opening, either because they live in the neighborhood or the stories told at the park reflect upon their lived experiences. Another reason for not relying solely on community meetings, I found in both studies, is that many do not attend meetings for both legitimate and indifferent reasons.
Our team reviewed school records, archival research at the Center for Historical Research located at the Kansas State Historical Society, the Kenneth Spencer Research Library housed at the University of Kansas, newspapers, telephone directories, Sanborn maps, contacts at the City Planning Commission, the Metropolitan Parks and Recreation department, City Council, local businesses, churches, and civic organizations. The Center for Historical Research held an eclectic array of micro-film on Topeka schools during the time of significance, detailing the names of superintendents, principals, teachers, college attainment, salaries, number of years taught, in what schools, grades taught, class size, bus schedules, dates when the schools were built, and school hours. As you can imagine, this information was quite helpful in validating our data as well as aiding the memories of those interviewed. We also attended community meetings, conducted semi-structured interviews, transect walks and drives for those unable to get around in the summer heat, hung out at the local barbecue restaurant, and attended ethnic celebrations. During our time in the field, we also took lots of photographs, not just of the site and its surrounding environs, but also of individuals. We found those individual photos to have great sentimental value for those we interviewed. I remember one particular encounter where we had just completed interviewing two sisters in their eighties who still live independently next door to one another. After the interview, we asked if we could take some pictures of quilts made by one sister. She exclaimed, "Let me get my quilts!" and the other replied, "Wait! Wait! Let me go get my hat!" In every setting, we sought information about the community in an effort to get as broad a range as possible of experiences and perceptions of the community.
Challenges in the Field
One of the challenges of the CWDW/AP study was managing the group of researchers who worked part-time on the study. "Selling" the study to a group of novice researchers, some paid as little as ten dollars an hour, requires a little maneuvering and, in many cases, is not totally based on how much one is paid. Graduate students welcome opportunities to expand their professional development and realize that the more time they spend conducting field research, the better their prospects of securing employment upon completion of their graduate program. Allowing researchers to participate in all aspects of the study enhances data collection. Thus, regular team meetings that are concise but constructive cannot be overstated. While the principal investigators and other managers require weekly, if not daily, updates, it is imperative to keep communication with those in the field open and constant. When developing ethnographic studies, it is important to incorporate regular and task-oriented meeting time into the study design. These meetings keep the team members abreast of changes in personnel, research questions, locations, salary, consent forms, termination of study date as well as surprises in the field and other research strategies more appropriate for the study.
A second challenge to overcome in the field was how does one effectively review the enormous amount of materials AND collect new data under the time constraints of a NPS study? Not so much in the CWDW/AP study, but in the Brown study, our team encountered a massive amount of material related to the Supreme Court case. While we spent a week reviewing these materials to learn as many names and experiences about the case as possible, when we sat down to interview individuals, many wanted to discuss the legal case rather than the Monroe neighborhood. Keeping those we interviewed and ourselves on task was a constant challenge. In our interaction with community members, we began by articulating that the goal of our study was to document the life stories of those who lived in the Monroe neighborhood and/or attended the Monroe School during the period of significance. Thus, when an interviewee remarked, "Well, my dad played an important role in the case," we gently asked, "Did he attend the Monroe school…what grades did he attend…did he live in the neighborhood…what did he do for a living?" We had success using these gentle reminders in getting individuals to focus on the neighborhood and school.
While ethnography is conducted with specific cultural groups, the process of doing ethnography, itself, is cultural. These cultural processes need to be taken into consideration throughout each phase of the research. In developing models on how to conduct ethnographic research, one has to consider the groups under study and their negotiations of power. The long process of establishing a national historic site requires a great deal of ambition, resources, and political savvy. It is understood, then, that those individuals who actively participated in the process would want to have some ownership in the management and administration of the site. As researchers, we sought to balance the negotiations of power, recognition and ownership. In doing so, we had to keep in mind that NPS is mandated to tell the stories, not the story, of those who participated in the desegregation of schools throughout the U.S. The naming of the case, Brown versus Board of Education et al. betrays the polylocality and vocality of those who participated in the struggles for equality in education, not only in Topeka, but also throughout the entire United States. One needs to understand this complex history and its sensitive nature before entering the field.
Many might argue that BvB is about segregation. As a visitor to the site, I would expect to learn about the struggles of inequality faced by students attending Monroe during the period of significance. But is that all? None of the current neighborhood residents we interviewed wanted to discuss race and, many talked of the overall good relationships neighbors had amongst themselves and, indeed, the neighborhood was integrated. Details of Sanborn and other maps of the neighborhood in the 1940s-50s, show both blacks and whites living in the neighborhood; however, not on the same blocks. We interviewed individuals who interacted with others living on their block and did not necessarily come into close contact with residents living on other blocks. Those who had moved out of the neighborhood talked in great detail of the discrimination they faced, BUT only in relation to the schools. The African Americans we interviewed who attended the segregated Monroe school spoke highly of their experiences in elementary school. Yet, their biggest problems came when the transitioned into the integrated junior high school. Some recall this time as "the worst time of my life!" Their experiences were the antithesis of the mentoring and modeling they received in elementary school. Is it possible to display these contradictions without offending those who live in the neighborhood and park visitors? Clearly, people who live in the Monroe neighborhood did not want to discuss racism, perhaps, because of the pain…perhaps, because it still exists. Some believe that establishing a national historic site does little to right any wrongs. The NPS, though, is charged with balancing history with compassion. One way to achieve this lofty goal may be via an explanation of institutional racism versus individual racism. That is discriminatory practices similar to redlining or blockbusting and segregated facilities create an atmosphere of contradiction. By utilizing an ethnographic study to demonstrate the social geography of the Monroe community displaying its cultural richness within the historical context of segregation, we hoped to achieve quality and fairness.