Teaching Ethnographic Methods with Progressive Dystopia

Photo by MChe Lee (@mclee) on Unsplash.

Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia presents an ethnography of Robeson Justice Academy, a San Francisco school distinctive for its explicit espousal of a social justice orientation in its mission and curriculum. Positioning Robeson as a “best-case scenario” for anti-racist schooling, Shange goes on to show the ways in which even this school’s progressive “wins” perpetuate racial inequality and marginalize Black students. She asks, “If Robeson is the best-case scenario and it still fails the basic needs of Black youth and educators in southeast San Francisco, what does that reveal about the political imaginaries that shape social reforms aimed at the democratization of social services like education and health care?” (158). Through her work with the students, staff, and parents at Robeson, Shange constructs a pointed and eloquent critique of the state under late liberalism. This critique is built through a theoretical scaffolding that offers a way for students to analyze and reflect upon ethnographic methods more broadly.

This post is the first in a Teaching Tools Book Club series, for which the members of the Teaching Tools team read and discuss how to teach (with) recent ethnographic monographs. In this installment, we present some ways in which Shange’s ethnography might be used as a companion to a methods course, especially one in which students are conducting their own short-term ethnographic projects. The following classroom activities are geared towards an undergraduate methods course in cultural anthropology but could be adapted to other contexts.

Small-Group Brainstorming: Site Selection and Sampling

The ways in which Shange locates her selected site in the broader contexts of San Francisco, California, and the United States can serve to guide discussion and brainstorming on ethnographic sampling. Shange’s explanations of her site selection provide examples of how an anthropologist might choose critical cases to gain insights into a broader context that a ‘representative’ sample might not provide. The discussion questions below invite students to unpack Shange’s reasons for selecting both Robeson itself and the classroom that she describes in chapter three, before applying a parallel reasoning to their own research project site(s). This activity could occur in the initial days of an undergraduate methods course to facilitate site selection for individual or group ethnographies in the class. For the first set of questions, you may encourage students to revisit passages on Robeson’s race and class composition (40), disciplinary referrals (84), and otherwise ambivalent position (2, 102). If students will be conducting team ethnographies in the course, it may be helpful to have them answer the second set of questions in their designated groups.

Discussion Questions

  • Why does Shange call Robeson “the best-case scenario for surviving late liberalism” (18)? What can we learn from the ethnographic study of such “best-case scenario[s]”?
  • What characteristics of Robeson Justice Academy made it an appropriate focal point for Shange’s research? Through what forms of evidence does Shange present these characteristics?
  • Within Robeson, why did Shange choose Sofia’s Beginning Spanish classroom as a site for regular participant observation? How did the attributes of both the teacher and the students help Shange form her arguments about the possibilities and limitations of social justice-oriented instruction?

Project Brainstorming

  • Consider a theme or problem that you might explore through your own research. What kind of site would constitute a “best-case scenario” within your area of focus? What kind of site would constitute a “worst-case scenario”?
  • What criteria will you use to distinguish these two ends of the spectrum?
  • In each of the cases, what kind of findings would seem surprising or contradictory? For example, what might be going ‘wrong’ in your best-case scenario? What kind of sources and evidence would you need in order to identify such findings?
  • Are there other sites that you would consider critical cases for the questions you seek to answer in your project? What makes these sites a useful ‘sample’ from an ethnographic perspective?

Class Discussion: Ethics, Method, and Writing

Throughout Progressive Dystopia, Shange continually returns to questions of ethics as she engages with diverse interlocutors at Robeson Justice Academy. The following questions are suggestions to lead a discussion involving the entire class and get students thinking about ethical decision-making at various stages of the ethnographic process. Four examples listed below highlight some of the different ethical dilemmas Shange grappled with throughout her fieldwork. Ask students to reread one or more of these excerpts, jotting down notes on the who, what, where, and why of each conflict or question, and then come together for a class discussion.

  1. Misreading, co-writing, and collaboration: Read “#OurLivesMatter: Reprise” (153-157).
  2. Archives, ethnographic records, and collusion: Read the beginning of “We Got Outsiders Up Here: Shadowboxing with Carceral Progressivism” (130-131).
  3. Choosing pseudonyms: Read “A Note on Names: Race, Language, and Ethnographic Sincerity” (48-50).
  4. Ethnographic refusal: Read “The Opacity of the Flesh: A Methodological Coda” (119-121).

Discussion Questions

  • Who is included in Shange’s ethical practice? Did any of her deliberations surprise or confuse you? What unexpected ethical questions have surprised you in your research?
  • How did Shange make ethical and methodological decisions in the moment? How did she reflect and adapt to the ethical quandaries she faced? What factors constrained or enabled her choices? Reflecting on your own research, are there any decisions you have made that you wish you could have done differently, or that, upon reflection, you did decide to redo or rework?
  • What are the pros and cons of sharing your writing with your interlocutors? What did Shange learn or gain from her collaboration with Sophia? How did she deal with Aaron’s “misreading” of her arguments? Do these examples influence your own thinking about when and what to share in the writing process?
  • What is Tarika’s “ethnographic refusal”? How did Shange respond when students refused to participate in her research? What kinds of refusal might you encounter in your own research? If you have already encountered ethnographic refusal, how did you respond, and why did you respond as you did?

Writing Exercise: Constructing a Theoretical Framework

In Progressive Dystopia’s lucid and sophisticated theoretical framework, Shange frames the connections between three of her key concepts“progressive dystopia” (11), “carceral progressivism” (14), and “willful defiance” (15). Her framing of the interrelations among these key terms as the field of activity, the prevailing circuit of power, and the countercurrents within and against that power, offers an implicit roadmap that students can use to deepen their own thinking about their research contexts. As students near the end of the methods course, they can use the writing and discussion activity below as a guide for transforming their own ethnographic findings into conceptual insights.

Either before class or as an in-class writing assignment, invite student to answer the three questions implicit in Shange’s framework for their own ethnographic site:

  • How would you characterize the type of space or context that you are studying? What label would you give it? Why is that label appropriate, and what does it capture about your site?
  • What are the predominant mechanisms and processes through which “material and discursive resources” (14) move through that context?
  • What other forms of agency parallel, counter, or otherwise interact with those predominant mechanisms? How would you name these forms of agency?

Then, in a class discussion, ask students to further examine Shange’s three main concepts:

  • What is a “progressive dystopia”? Are you persuaded by Shange’s argument that San Francisco is a progressive dystopia? Why or why not?
  • Can you give any examples of “carceral progressivism” from your own experience or other sources? Explain why those examples fit Shange’s definition, or in what ways they diverge.
  • Shange distinguishes what she calls “willful defiance” from the anthropological literature on “resistance.” How does she create this distinction?
  • Shange repurposed the term “willful defiance” from disciplinary manuals to a theoretical category. Why did she make this choice? Are there actor categories from your research site that could be (or have been) redeployed in similar ways?

After the discussion, invite the students to share their own theoretical frameworks (drawn from the writing assignment) in partners or small groups, including any modifications they would like to make after the further discussion of Shange’s text.

Classroom Activity: Abolitionist Anthropology

With Progressive Dystopia, Shange theorizes abolitionist anthropology as a response to carceral progressivism and its many manifestations, including institutions like Robeson, whose missions cite liberation and anti-racism, yet continue to perpetuate anti-Blackness. Shange defines abolitionist anthropology as “the necessary conjuncture of antiblackness theory and a critical anthropology of the state” (7). Abolitionist anthropology recognizes the inadequacy of progressive institutions and draws attention to the harm these endeavors have enacted on Black communities and Black students. The following activities and discussion questions are intended to guide students through Shange’s theorization of abolitionist anthropology, understanding its intellectual genealogy and distinguishing it from other forms of engaged anthropology.

Direct students to (re)read the following excerpt from Shange’s introduction:

Progressive Dystopia attends to the tensions between coalition, antiblackness, and the state by documenting the afterlives of slavery as lived in one corner of San Francisco. The argument of this book turns on the generative antagonism between “our” and “Black” in the mattering of lives. By examining a series of successful progressive reforms, and what they cost Black communities, I critique “winning” as the dominant logic of social justice work. I ask, “Who loses when ‘we’ win?” not so much to expand the “we” of winning to an ever more inclusive list of deserving subjects, but to ask what becomes impossible when we engage in contest as the primary mode of Black politics—this is the differential between revolution and abolition. Revolution seeks to win control of the state and its resources, while abolition wants to quit playing and raze the stadium of settler-slaver society for good. (3)

Afterwards, ask students to gather in small groups (3-4 individuals) and reflect on Shange’s critique of carceral progressivism and its hold over social justice work. How does Robeson Justice Academy attempt to provide students with a social justice education? How does carceral progressivism haunt this education, and what examples does Shange provide in support of her argument?

After discussing these questions, student groups should discuss the difference between Shange’s theorization of abolitionist anthropology, and other forms of engaged anthropologies. Begin with a collaborative close reading of page 10, starting with “Abolition is not a synonym for resistance…” and ending at the top of page 11. What does Shange mean by abolition? What intellectual genealogy is abolitionist anthropology linked to? How does she suggest we enact this abolitionist anthropology? And finally, how does abolitionist anthropology differ from activist, applied, or public anthropology?


Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.