Conducting Fieldwork in the United States


This episode is devoted to thinking through the specificity of the United States as a place in which to conduct fieldwork. Dr. Tali Ziv shares her insights based on her experience of doing research there. The conversation enlightens the necessity of undertaking new ethnographies that would add to, or challenge, recurring narratives about the U.S.

Conducting Fieldwork in the United States

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Guest Bio

Tali Ziv is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Her research is ethnographically situated in the crosshairs of mass incarceration, or the carceral state, and community-based social/health services, or the welfare state as they intersect to manage inequality in the United States. This work has been productive of structural and subjective questions – both historical and contemporary – that have shaped three separate aspects of her research agenda, a program that spans the fields of Anthropology, Law and Society, and Public Health.


Marie Melody Vidal is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris), at the Center for North American Studies.

Sharon Jacobs provided both research assistance and late-stage review.

Theme Song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear


Cattelino, Jessica. 2010. “Anthropologies of The United States. Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 275–292.

Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Nader, Laura. 1972. “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained Frcm Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes, 284-311. New York: Random House.


[Music Plays]

Marie Melody Vidal [0:09] : Welcome to AnthroPod. I'm your host Marie, and in this episode, we'll be talking about the intricacies of conducting fieldwork in the U.S. Our guest today is Dr. Tali Ziv, who's a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. We'll delve into questions of access, funding, choice of research subjects, and also track the genealogies of public anthropology. The interview will be divided into three parts: the first focusing on Tali’s fieldwork, the second on how to conceptualize the familiar when conducting fieldwork at home, and the third part on the stakes of doing research in the U.S. in 2022. Let's have a listen.

So let's start off with maybe, in a few words, picturing your PhD fieldwork to our listeners.

Tali Ziv [1:02] : Of course, yes. So the research that I did for my dissertation, it startedit was motivated, I guess, by the election of Larry Krasner, who's an extremely progressive District Attorney in Philadelphia. And there was sort of this consensus in the city that we were moving away from mass incarceration, and we were going to be doing this new thing called decarceration. And it got me interested in the types of programs that would be offered to replace jail time and to replace the sort of court system in general. And I sort of set out to expect a lot of new programs and a lot of new initiatives. And what I found is actually an institutional network that combines social service providers in the community, who work in conjunction with the courts and the jails, and not infrastructure as existed since the height of mass incarceration, it was largely developed in the 1990s, to respond to national federal lawsuits of overcrowding. So I ended up doing this sort of strange, Marxian project of history, which was, there was a new phenomenon happening, which is that some of those social service providers were being shut down due to Medicaid fraud and other kinds of indictment.

So there are some social service providers who were being shut down, and my research, that is the story the dissertation tells, I'll zoom out to talk about the research in broader terms. But the story the dissertation tells is actually, it's yeah, one of the sort of it's sort of a Marxist history, trying to understand how and why these providers had the space, time, and political and economic interests to develop during that time periodduring the height of mass incarceration. [3:04] And what about the current situation? What about the decarceration era has made their survival and sort of self sustaining nature, their capacity to be self-sufficient? What has threatened that in the decarceration era? And so it's, it's trying to tell that story, ultimately ends up linking the mass incarceration and decarceration eras in Philadelphiait sort of grounds these processes in the community, rather than in the jail in prison, which a lot of stories of mass incarceration are sort of inside the carceral institution. And it links these two areas, grounds them in the community. It also, in linking those two eras, placing them in relationship to one another, I think it tells a very sort of relational story between crack cocaine and opioids in the U.S., as well. That sort of those stories are overlaid over the story of mass incarceration and decarceration in United States. And it also, I think, really combines the analytic frame of carcerality and neoliberalism together, to understand how they evolved in the city in a very local institutional story. So that's the dissertation, and it's was not something I expected to find. But it ended up being the story I'm telling. And the broader rest of the research is, I would characterize it as sort of thinking about the connection between social services and welfare, and carcerality and supervision, and really outlining and fleshing out the ways in which the carceral state has become a provider of social services and sort of advocating the leftist claim that if we want to end mass incarceration, or think differently about the role of the carceral state, we have to invest far more in the welfare state than is typically thought about in those conversations.

MMV [5:22] : And so what were your main issues, difficulties to entering your fieldwork in terms of access of funding…? All this things?

TZ [5:31] : Yeah, well, access was a huge deal. Funding, the one thing about working in the United States is, of course, Wenner-Gren [Foundation] allows you to cover living costs, and NSF (the National Science Foundation) still does notit's only if you travel outside the United States. So for funding, in the funding bucket part of your question, I think I was really lucky that the Wenner-Gren supports domestic research and allows you to do that. The NSF still, you can really get very limited funding because you can't cover rent or anything else like that. But I was lucky enough to get their support, and get that experience. But that's a big barrier. And something we have to work on with the NSF is one of our primary providers in anthropology.

And the access issues were really were… Yeah, that part of your question, I think, is perhaps most important one. It was extremely difficult to start from scratch and introduced, I really got I was trying to meet, or I was very successful in my preliminary fieldwork and meeting a lot of people, even higher people in city government. But what we don't talk about, I think, in the U.S., especially, is that even the most public institutionslike the courts, for examplethere's private programs running in those courtrooms, there's nonprofits who are doing the work of administering case managers, social services… Getting access to those entities, they have no incentive to have researchers. They have their ownmost nonprofits now have their own research and data branches. So it's extremely difficult to make a case for why they should take a lone anthropologist. And so it took many years toI first got access to a recovery house, and that was pretty lucky. And it was largely because they were doing really poorly, and I exchanged research for case manager labor. But it took me another year to even access the Defender Association, which is the public defender's office in Philadelphia. [7:41] Because I was dealing with one point person, and again, I didn't have much to offer the institution in return. And then also to enter an outpatient center, which is the other component of this network. I was again, working with the trying to get all my contacts to go through the phone tree and make something happen. And I eventually got lucky with this one director, but that tookI had been in touch with him for almost a year, over a year, before that finally worked out. And so it was an extraordinary amount of effort. And some people get more lucky, but I think my colleagues who had had an easier time were physician anthropologiststhat's a very different position to be in because the status of being a medical doctor, or being a medical student, and being able to observe in these quasi-medical spaces is really helpful. But yeah, it made me very passionate about the issue of access and thinking about access.

If you work in the United States, and these were small nonprofits, these were like local city nonprofitI can't imagine thinking about trying to do work in sort of transnational nonprofits like USAID (United States Agency for International Development) or not USAID, excuse me, Red Crossthese other types of private organizations. I think physicians, again, are much better positioned to get access to those places. But yeah, if we wanted to think about getting anthropologists in spaces like the World Trade Organization or the World Bank, I can't fathom, if you don't have an economics degree or some other kind of professional degree, they'd have no reason to talk to you or spend time with youand also to find you neutral rather than threatening. I think the conflation between researcher and journalist in the United States is very profound. And in the Global South, I think just the symbolic and cultural capital of being a Westerner, trumps even the research wordyour status is just helpful and assumed to be helpful for cachet, even even if your actual degrees or your actual credentials don't help. [9:58] So I think this journalism research issue in the United States is a big access barrier to access. A number of the judges who I observed in their courtrooms always thought that I was a journalist, and I did get a few interviews with them. But it was very much through them seeing me for months and months and knowing that I wasn't. And still, at the end of the interview, they were like, please don't misrepresent me, right? Please don't represent me in a poor way. So talk about there's a lot of other interesting overlaps between investigative journalism and ethnography. But I think, from a symbolic sense of anxiety and legal action, etc., we should be talking about that intersection more.

MMV [10:37] : Ok. And one last question on your fieldwork? What would a regular day in your fieldwork be?

TZ [10:44] : Oh God, well, during the height of it, which was 20it was about a full...All of these were happening at the same time. And I finally got access to all three of these places where I was in all three of these places at the same time, between 2018 and 2019. And that was incredibly, was a very stressful year, it was too much work. I was spending usually the morning in court, observing the one of the attorneys I was following, and one of the judges who I was also observingusually spending the morning there. I'd go back to the Defender's Office, sometimes I would see one of my longtime participants who I had been following since the recovery house, sometimes I see them or do something with them. And then I'd dedicate about two or three evenings to still be in the recovery house. So I'd go to the recovery house. But I was in all these different sites. So it was just a little frenetic of moving around and trying toI almost sort of I had this network as an object, and I think in my fieldwork, I ended up having to, I personally sort of recreated it by being in all these different places. So that was what a typical, that was what it was, during the busiest time what it looked like during less busy times just lots of hanging out at the recovery house or spending time with people who I was following.

MMV [12:09] : Let's move to the second part of the interview. There are two trends we can observe in the discipline today. One is an emphasis on the necessity of studying so called white nationalists. And the other is an anchoring of maybe discourses of compassiondiscourses that may be linked to the writing about vulnerable research objects. So my question would be: how to grapple with the first figure, and how to draw on compassion for its understanding ?

TZ [12:44] : I think there's a really interesting split between what is most useful politicallylike what we imagine are the most useful politics to make the actual material changes we want to see in the worldand what isn't, is a really useful, like epistemological and emotional stance during fieldwork. And doing research to get the best data and to represent people in the best way for a product that maybe could be politically useful, but might not also be a one to onethere might not be a one to one utility there. So to me, I think compassionyeah, I usually grate against it and when leftist use it in that way, because it to me it conflates in material and political problem with an emotional or moral problem. And those two things are very different for me. But I think in the context of fieldwork, and why I think this sort of white nationalist outside is interesting, first of all, actually, this is probably the one place where the material political project, and the sort of epistemological fieldwork problem and emotional field would probably line up, which is that white nationalists are not our enemy. We have to figure out a way to reach them and involve them in a broader evolutionary project. And we have to be able to, if we're going to overcome the issue of race and replace it with an issue of material equality, we have to reach people and we have to reach people, not because we share moral ground, but we have to find common interest. And I think that the current sort of alienation or specialization of like the white supremacist figure alienates them in our minds from structures and relationships that we're all complicit and we all share. So we all share class status. We share all these things that we actually would have to organize around, create shared interests around.

MMV [14:59] : Well you’ve actually answered my second question because I was about to quote Jessica Cattelino in one of her articles “Anthropologies of the [United States].” She said at some point how to challenge the race presumption that has become so ingrained in cultural critique and, in other words, how to refamiliarize a familiar that has been defamiliarized.

Moving third part, do you think there are specific skills required to, when conducting research in the U.S. because I was thinking, how has your first PhD, U.S. based research has helped you translate to your postdoc research that you're also doing at home? And can youdo you see a difference with your colleagues who have maybe not worked in the U.S. before and are moving there?

TZ [15:48] : Well, you know, I think that's a great question. And I think the answer actually builds nicely off of what we just said, which I think is, I think there's really increasingly to a very narrow space between sort of political discourse and academic discourse. And I think, very easily sort of leftist academics, many leftist academics are writingexpected to writepublic pieces, public political pieces, and journals, like in newspapers and blogs. And I think the reverse is the same. A lot of a lot of non academic sources are being cited by academics. So more intellectual magazines, like Boston Review, etc, are being used in among researchers and the Academy. And I think that's a really productive overlap. But I think it can be a dangerous one, I think the cultural approach and understanding of race and racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a really dangerous space of overlap between academic institutions and mainstream politics. So in terms of the question of skill, I think it'sI think maybe there's some distinct challenges, which is that we're not just writing, you're writing about an alreadyyou're writing within an already very tense field of discourse, even if that discourse is not all in the United States. And that if that discourse is not all in the academy, it's outside. And so I think there's, there can be a little bit more expectation, some more risk. Like I don't know, if you remember, Alice Goffman as a major figure, right? She was written about in the New York Times she was written about in New York, like, that wasn't because her research transcended, it was because everything about her as a figure, a symbolic and social figure, captivated a public audience for a very real reason. And I think, as a figure, she sort of represents that overlap. [18:00] And so when you're working on especially issues of inequality, questions of race, I think there's a sense that things are very tense. And that the real question of censorshipI don't mean that in terms of like a really clunky freeze claim, you know, desire for free speech as people use, especially as conservatives use itbut I think the question of censorship, as a the possibility of deviating from shared cultural and social scripts, assumptions, narratives about these issues, is hard. And especially as institutions, academic institutions in the U.S. are now ever more vulnerable to legal and political threat from the outsideespecially from scandals with students and professorsthere's just a, I think that's it. So it's less maybe specific skills, but more really specific set of conditions that you're working in. And so maybe there are specific skills to navigate that, and I don't think I have them necessarily. But I think I see it as a really specific field of activity and relationships.

MMV [19:14] : Building on what you just said, where do you think that comes from this necessity of being present in the public sphere for academics in the U.S. and to have their research having an impact outside? Because that's something we do not really have in Europe and so, where do you see this genealogy?

TZ [19:33] : Oh, you could talk for hours about that. It's a really brilliant question. And I don't know if I have, you know, I have my like, my own personal opinion, I don't know if it's super educated. But, so my sense a global, there's like a couple there's a sort of a global narrative that I think explains some of this and then there's some more local, smaller narratives. The global big meta narrative that historians would hate is the United States has one hundred, like almost fully corporatized and privatized higher education. In doing so, we've also defunded public arts, humanities, and social science investment. That means that academic institutions are corporate bodies, even if they're nonprofit corporate bodiesthey operate on market logics, they're extremely scared of risk, they're extremely interested in investment. And so the blurring of the boundaries between like a private institution dependent on public, private consumers, as students and their families, and all of the banks and stuff that they're trying to and all of the funders they're trying to gain interest from, really blurs. And so there's really no sense of independentthat there's an independent security, that institutions are supported by the government and their research is valued on its own terms. There's the sense that academic institutions have to be extremely relevant to the current political landscape and the current needs of the markets. So producing students who are valuable in the labor force. You've seen that in enrollment, you know, huge drops of enrollment in the social sciences and humanities in favor of more pre-professional degrees in undergraduate spaces. And so this is where this question of impact relevance is constantly being hammered home. And so that's the sort of meta narrative and then I think the more sort of smaller cultural question is alsoand this, I think, is really distinct from a place like France, which has had a really strong public intellectual tradition for a very long timeyou know, we've never, the U.S. has never valued intellectualism on its own terms. It has valued intellectualism as it's linked with a certain elite culturalism. And I, and I think that that lack of cultural commitment, I think it's secondary to the sort of broader structures that are in play, but I think it's really, I think that's really important, as what we value is intrinsically connected to what is valuable from a monetary and sort of capitalist standpoint. And so I think, this really slow fusion of like business markets, labor, the labor pool, these like private institutions, and this lack of cultural historical commitment to independent thought, is extremely dangerous, and I think is creating this collapsed space.

MMV [23:14] : I’d like to head to where it would be important to conduct research in the U.S. in 2022? Because I think you've previously underlined the necessity to study institutions of power, like Karen Ho did in both Stanford and Wall Street, although she had access because she was also completing a degree. But I'm wondering, I think, since at least the 90s, there have been calls to studying up, but it has remained rare. And first, how would you explain that and also how to study power without making it a trope because there’s always more to ethnography than just power. And so maybe how to embody power in a way that would not further reify it?

TZ [24:06] : It’s a complex questions, there’s a lot of different parts. I think the question about studying up was a really, this is tricky, because this sort of poststructural turn, I think dovetailed the neoliberal turn. So we sort of had this moment of realizing, okay, this whole intellectual project we're doing is totally fraud. It's founded on these like horrific global arrangements, economic, social, symbolic, cultural arrangements. How do we go, what do we do that stuff? How we do this differently? And I think studying up was a way to sort of say like, “Okay, you know, our gaze, it has to change. Why are we? We don't need to understand anything about the poor, like, we've done that. We've done that too much. So what about why aren't we looking up?” And I think, again, a really simple answer to you know, why has that not happened or that call has gone unheeded, I think is, is really largely an institutional issue. I think the humanities, arts, and sciences have really lostwe've just continued to lose cachet and relevance in the current academic, sort of political and economic landscape. And as we've lost relevance, we've lost any opportunity to develop more systematic and comprehensive research programs that would create more collaboration and sort of cachet. [25:39] So we could imagine, for example, if there were a really radical economist at a place like Penn, he would partner with a relevant anthropologist at Penn, and they would create a joint research program. He would have access to an economic institution that he spent a lot of time working in and she would have ethnographers, and they'd have this amazing program and all of their undergrad, all of their graduate students could be ushered into that project, for example. That's something we don't have: psychologists have that, hard scientists have that. So, I fundamentally don't see how we could ever heed a call to study up if we don't have a systematic way to gain access. And with access comes questions of relevance and questions of contribution. And I don't think that we are strong enough on either to make anyone give us a more sort of systematic and rigorous access, that we don't spend years of personal relationship building to cultivate that ends up being more of a favor than anything else.

And the way I find power is an interesting, interesting one, I tend to think, I think Foucault is brilliant, and I think sort of poststructural work on power is brilliant. I, as an empirical researcher, I think in a very micro context, you can analyze power from an empirical standpoint, I don't think I have the skills to really do that. But I'm not sure I think the words in the sentence I was gonna say before the jury's out on whether it's a useful concept for empirical research. To me the question of power is much more interesting when is looked at through an institutional lens, and so what are the relationships, political and economic that create power? And how is that power enforced? And to answer that question, you focus less on the reification of power as some sort ofyou know, in its own way, though, Foucault is absolutely a deconstructionist, rightthere's this there's some sort of magical essential essence to power that it can't, it's so slippery, it's capillary, it's everywhere, you can't see it, you can't find it. [27:49] So it feels very similar to the way people talk about racism, right? It's this sort of moral sin. It's everywhere, it's in you. And so I tend to think that from an empirical research standpoint, more qualitative standpoint as an ethnographer, that stuff gets slippery and really useless pretty quickly. And I think we're much better off grounding ourselves in understanding power as emanating from political and economic power. And those are grounded institutional arrangements. And I think tracing those arrangements and tracing those associations avoid reification. And they also avoid these sort of, the powerful, as these figures, right? And they decenter individuals and bring to the foreground institutional arrangements, so that we can actually see those institutions more clearly and try and change them. Rather than find the evil person, who is at the helm in some way. Because the evil person could be replaced by any evil person: the deeper question is, how and why can they do what they do? And how and why did the institution that they run or that they manage, what were the historical conditions that allowed that institution to develop as it did? Right, those are the ground and empirical questions.

MMV [29:03] : So maybe one last question: what should a forthcoming PhD student in anthropology, working in or on the U.S., should be aware of before starting today?

TZ [29:15] : Working in the U.S., well, if they're entering academia and they want an academic job, my question would be: do you have familial wealth and do you not want children? Because if those two things are in place, you're fine, but it's a dead end career wise. I mean, I'm engaging in a career in it, but it's become a lottery. It's not a vocation anymore in terms of sustainability. Within that, work in the U.S. is devalued even more in anthropology. So you're at a higheryou have an even greater fight to become relevant to departments. Otherwise, in terms of what they should know, I mean, I think choose what interests you but choose wisely. Like really think about… I think so much of the work being political has beenever since the poststructural turnit's been this, like, the ethnographer has power and responsibility and the act of doing ethnography is political. I believe that it is in some way. But I think that it really takes away from the politics of like the subject, the object. And I think we should focus much more of that angst and intensity in choosing an empirical object that can actually, you know, potentially do political work or, or contribute in some way to a political understanding of where we are. [30:44] And the the other thing is, I would warn people, students, incoming students against doing a project that just reproduces the narrative we already have. I felt that a lot in my field work, if I had just sat at the surface, I would have come away with a project that said, all of these drug treatment providers are, you know, greedy, and all they want is money. And, you know, people who are addicted to drugs are being taken advantage of and, sure, and that's the journalist take, you know, that's the take where you spend two months and fine, but if you're doing two years of fieldwork, what was more interesting was why, why were peoplewhy would the subjects framing these institutions in this way? What did that mean? And whyhow do these institutions see their subjects, and that ends up being much more interesting than just sort of doing these early interviews and just reproducing a very easy narrative that ends up I think, reifying the sense of power and domination that's sowhen in reality, it's so much more complicated than that.

[Music is fading]

MMV [31:56] : Well thank you very much for the conversation.

TZ [31:59] : Oh you’re so welcome.

MMV [32:01] : You’ve been listening to AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, produced in association with the American Anthropological Association. We want to thank Tali Ziv for talking to us. In the meantime, you can subscribe to Anthropod via Itunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud, and you can also find us on c-u-l-a-n-t-h-dot-o-r-g. There, on the website, you can find out more about the author, as well as the journal, Cultural Anthropology. Thanks for listening.