mesearch or research?

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Thanks, Nuria, for posting this to the air-l listserv!

Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated April 22, 2005

The I in Sociology

My husband and I were sitting in the kitchen, the edited manuscript
of my first book in my hands, the galleys in his. I always read
aloud, he always proofreads -- that's our system. That was the first
time, though, and we didn't really have a system yet. It was just
the two of us, trying to figure out how to review galleys.

Daniel, our first child, was 8 years old. I can't quite remember
what he was doing, but I can picture him, leaning back against the
kitchen cabinet, engrossed in something, while I read. Suddenly his
head snapped up, he turned to me, and he demanded: "What?"

I'd just read a description of his birth, a graphic, personal
account of what it felt like to give birth to him. It was from the
preface of my book, a piece that would segue into an academic
discussion of the home-birth movement and the politics of midwifery,
the work that had been my dissertation. The book opened with my own
story, my own birth. But "my own birth" was Daniel's
birth; my birth story, his.

He had become a character in a book. As, by now, have my other two
children, my husband, other family members, friends, colleagues --
and, of course, I too am a character in my own books. Writers of
fiction are known for stealing bits of life and putting them in
their books. That practice also defines the increasingly popular
genre of memoir. But what does it mean for a sociologist? What does
it mean when I "use" my life and the people in it that way?

More and more sociologists are doing just that: mining our own
lives, our own experiences. Just as the anthropologists have moved
closer to home, losing some of their fascination with exotica and
exploring their own locales, sociologists have moved in closer as
well. But for us, it was never about sailing off to some island
somewhere -- we were always exploring close to home. Increasingly,
though, we've come closer and closer, turning our sociological eyes
on our own lives.

In that first book, I used the personal as a frame -- Daniel's birth
in the preface; Leah's birth, which also took place at home seven
years later, in the epilogue. I published the book in the early
1980s, and that was pushing the envelope about as far as I cared to:
I felt uncomfortable enough discussing intensely personal
experiences, let alone ones as physical as giving birth. So why did
I do it?

I was criticizing contemporary medical practice, and I must have
sounded like a total flake. Whenever I presented my work about home
birth, except at midwifery meetings, someone was sure to ask
me -- no, accuse me -- "But is it safe?" People seemed to think that
home birth was an indulgence for the mothers, but what about the
poor, helpless, abused babies, born without the benefit of a
labor-and-delivery suite?

The way to counter that was not, I came to realize, with endless
statistics demonstrating the safety and improved outcome of births
outside the hospital. This was just not about the numbers, not to be
answered with studies showing home birth to be safer. More effective
than data, I had myself. I was a graduate student when I had my
first baby, an assistant professor when the second was born. I was
married to a computer programmer, living in Flatbush. Could anybody
be more normal, more square? If I introduced myself to the reader --
placed myself in my home, with my family, in all my ordinariness,
decency, plain old niceness -- maybe the reader would accept me
enough to hear what I was saying.

What I was saying was, I thought, really fascinating sociologically,
which made it worthy of being a
dissertation. The work came about because I was at a particular
moment in my life and my work: Academically, I was finished with my
course work; personally, I wanted a home birth. As I explored my
options (really, really limited in Brooklyn in 1974), I found my
mind was working on two tracks. One was trying to solve the
immediate problem of finding someone to attend a home birth, getting
what I wanted for myself. The other was listening to my sociological
imagination, which kept saying, "That's fascinating." I knew there
was something important in what I was
going through that I needed to get back to in my scholarly work.

And so I did. When I had the baby, when I'd accomplished what I
wanted for myself, I went back and mined what I had found in the
world of birth. I was, of course, primed to find things: Years of
sociological training had made me ready to see the ways that
obstetrical knowledge, like all knowledge, is constructed, and the
powers served by that construction.

So I finished my dissertation, using very standard research
techniques. I analyzed the content of medical and alternative
literature; I conducted long interviews with medically trained
nurse-midwives who had begun to do home births. Between my first
book's preface and its epilogue, the word "I" appeared only to
represent the researcher ("I asked the midwives I interviewed ... ")
or the author ("In this chapter I will show ... "). I the mother, I
the woman, I the character in the book showed up only at the
beginning and end.

Now, more than 20 years later, I have just finished another book
inspired by my transition to motherhood: this time, on account of my
third child, Victoria. Victoria is mine by adoption, and it is a
kind of adoption that has a troubling -- and fascinating --history
in America. It's a "trans-racial" adoption: I'm white, as are my
husband and thus, definitionally, our first two kids; Victoria is

I find that sentence very difficult to write. I need pages and pages
to discuss the meaning of terms like "race" and "transracial
adoption," and to explain why I prefer "white" and "black" in this
instance to "East European Jewish" and "African-American." I took
that amount of space to examine those language issues in my new
book, Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption (Beacon Press,

I have written books in between, and probably more as a matter of
style than substance, my use of "I" has grown over the years. Still,
most of the time in my books, it is a fairly restrained,
controlled "I," used to announce my authorial presence, to provide a
helpful anecdote, to ease the reader along with a personal touch
when I present difficult, troubling, or perhaps threatening
material. That is how most of us in sociology have been using the
personal voice in our work.

But my latest book is different, not only because of the informal
language or the more-frequent use of "I." This is a far more
personal book, one that grew out of and is informed by my life, not
simply framed by, or sprinkled with, personal anecdotes. I weave
back and forth in my writing between my research and my feelings and
responses to that research.

Some sociologists call such work autoethnography, to distinguish it
from simple memoir. In memoir, the driving force is the story: You
want to tell your life. In autoethnography, your life is data.
Autoethnography is a methodology that makes particular sense when
you're living a fascinating life, when you're having interesting,
informative experiences.

But who isn't? To a sociologist -- particularly the kind of
sociologist I am trained to be, someone who does qualitative work,
trained to regard the ordinary world itself as fascinating -- data
are always and everywhere thick on the ground. Sometimes when I'm
talking to a student about events that are happening in her or his
life, like a relative's dying, or a traumatic move, I say, "Take
notes!" When the situation has been resolved, the student may find
something intellectually valuable in the experience, something on
which to do scholarly work, maybe even autoethnography.

And yet that's not quite what my book on race and adoption really
is. It's not an ethnography of my family's lives and experiences.
Partly that is precisely because of the question Daniel asked so
forcefully when he was 8: Who owns the data? The experience I had
giving birth was, I felt then and still feel now, very much my
story, which I own. But Victoria's story is not entirely mine. I had
the difficult -- and yes, intriguing, so here I am writing about it
-- problem of figuring out where the boundaries are. What parts of
the experience are my story, to which I am fully entitled, and what
parts are hers, for her to use if and how she chooses?

One thing I did was have her read the book before I gave it to the
publisher for editing, or at least read all of what she so
charmingly calls the "nonboring, nonsociological" parts. We went
through the manuscript together and stopped at every mention of her
name. Occasionally she changed a word, edited a phrase. But even
before that, I had given the manuscript to someone else who knows
and loves both of us, and asked her to read it through Victoria's
eyes, to show me where I was treading too close to the line, where
we needed to protect her life from my writerly grasp.

In the end, what I am doing in the book is pretty much what I do in
the classroom. It is not memoir, though I certainly do tell some
stories from my life. And it is not autoethnography -- not an
analysis of my life. The driving force is neither the story nor my
life as data. Instead, I have a number of concepts that I want to
get across to the reader. I search for examples in whatever is
available to me. That includes my life.

On the other hand, my life is also what gives me some of my ideas:
Concepts develop out of living; experience congeals into thought.
When I express the idea, I draw upon my life. I'm not searching my
life for interesting scenes and seeing how I can fit them into a
book, the way I would if I were doing a memoir. I'm wrestling with
ideas, which have often come to me in the course of living my
life. I use my writing to try to explain those ideas and introduce
them to other people.

Inevitably, then, in my new book I slide back and forth between
memoir and sociology, treading recklessly close to what my
colleague, Juan Battle, calls "mesearch" rather than research.

"What theory are you using?" one of my graduate students asked me at
a party when I described the book a while ago. She's doing a
dissertation, and she listed the theorists who seemed appropriate. I
stammered answers -- we were at a party, not an exam. I sipped my
wine. Hell, I thought, I'm not using theory here, I'm using

But practice is, for all of us, grounded in theory, in ideology, in
ways of thinking about the world. I'm a sociologist. I'm more a
sociologist than I am a Jew. It's my way of thinking, my stance in
the world. So when I saw how interesting so-called transracial
adoption was, just as when I saw how interesting home birth was, my
mind went off on two tracks: getting done what I needed to in my own
life, and taking sociological notice of things to set aside for
later use.

Perhaps inevitably the book has a lot about who I am, how I live my
life. As I have noted, we see more and more of that kind of work in
the social sciences these days. Some of my colleagues regret that
move to the personal, and some revel in it. Oddly enough, I am
unsure how to feel about it. I hate to read autobiography; I rarely
even read biography. The stories of
individual lives interest me less than the contexts in which they
are placed.

So I have to ask myself if I am spreading my emotions across the
page, my reactions to both the events of my life and to my research
inspired by those events, just because it has become more
fashionable to do so. Is the use of the personal voice what one
expects or needs these days, to reach readers outside academe -- a
way to be nonboring, nonsociological? Or am I making good,
intelligent use of myself, my life, and my experience, as a
resource? What I like to think I'm doing is being nonboring and

But I've just been reading a paper by one of my graduate students,
Colin Jerolmack, about sociability and pigeons -- he hung out in
parks and watched the interactions between people and birds. It was
perfect sociology. And it made me jealous.

I know how to go out and gather data. I could do that again. But my
life, well, my life keeps getting in the way. Just let me finish
revising a book on birth and midwives, wrap up the one on
adoption, make some progress on the new work I'm thinking about
doing on home cooking -- just let me get past my own life for 10
minutes, and maybe I could think about something else.

Maybe I'll go hang out in the park and see what strikes me as

Barbara Katz Rothman is a professor of sociology at the City
University of New York's Baruch College and Graduate Center. She is
the author, most recently, of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and
Adoption, forthcoming next month from Beacon Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 33, Page B10


Thank you for such a great blog. It's a fantatic post, very well written.NICE JOB! —— New Era Hats

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