Can I hug my subjects? One quantitative sociologist’s experience with qualitative research

A guest post by Heather Kugelmass. If you are interested in submitting a guest post or becoming a regular contributor, email 

How do I approach the people wearing white bead necklaces? At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) annual awareness-raising walk, a 10-hour overnight trek through 17 miles of Philadelphia’s quiet streets, I interviewed people whom I identified by the color of their “honor beads.” I spoke to guilt-ridden oranges (lost a sibling), confused golds (lost a parent), bold greens (struggled personally), stoic silvers (lost a military member), compassionate purples (lost a relative or friend), and heart-broken reds (lost a spouse). The white beads were donned by parents who lost a child to suicide. They usually walked in pairs, except for the rare walker whose white beads were tangled with red ones.

image source:

I was there to investigate the rhetoric of suicide-related stigma and deservingness of care. As a quantitative researcher embarking on a qualitative project for the first time, I knew that I would encounter challenges. I prepared academically by reading perspectives on semi-structured and unstructured interviews, how many cases are sufficient, subjectivism, etc. I also anticipated physical challenges and “trained” accordingly – writing legibly while walking and talking; jogging with my headband flashlight securely attached; and maintaining eye contact while looking out for curbs, uneven pavement, and other obstructions. (I didn’t master the last one: I tripped over a bicycle rack before reaching the 1-mile mark and I’m pretty sure that accepting Band-Aids from subjects is not standard protocol).

What I did not anticipate was the crying I witnessed and the ethical questions that it prompted. Can I hug my distressed subjects? “Do no harm,” IRB regulations insist. Surely, I told myself, withholding norm-consistent comfort is less ethical than offering it. If I end the interview before comforting the subject, I reasoned, then I would be ethically in the clear. I interpreted crying as an indication of distress and stopped interviews immediately. Yet, after several interviewees insisted that we continue, assuring me that the interview was cathartic, my ambivalence reemerged. Suddenly, the IRB’s onerous restrictions, which I had resented weeks ago as I crafted my oral consent script, seemed woefully insufficient.

Lack of consent was not a problem; rather, it was over-consent that introduced complications. Some subjects pleaded with me to publish the interviews, desperate for academic attention to their personal cause. I tried to extricate myself in a compassionately noncommittal manner – one that was honestly, albeit unintentionally, unrehearsed. “Thank you for sharing your story with me. I’m very sorry for your loss. Have a good walk.” Voice recorder off. Swig of Gatorade. Repetition of the refrain, “Researchers don’t cry in the field” – quickly followed by a silent self-reproach, “Researchers also don’t talk to themselves aloud in the field. Now stop stalling.” 2

Image source:

Along with beads, the 2,000 walkers before me wore wristband flashlights that literally illuminated their potential as research subjects, but I hesitated. I found excuses to circumvent the white beads in particular: they are deep in conversation, they look tired, I’ll just sprint to catch up with them later. Caffeine did not lift the haze concealing the ethical boundaries. The risk of inflicting distress seemed unavoidable. But was I more concerned about protecting my subjects from an emotionally difficult experience, or shielding myself from it, possibly at the expense of my sample size and representativeness?

Image source:

Image source:

Qualitative sociologists study patients with terminal illness and survivors of domestic violence, among many other vulnerable populations not covered by the “protected” human subjects status. I have newfound respect for how they navigate the ethical dilemmas that arise during the course of their work. And me? I’ll stick with subjects who come in spreadsheets.

 For additional context, watch AFSP’s “Overnight Honor Bead Video” here.

This research was funded by the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University. The author can be reached via email at

Tools of the trade: back-to-school tech tips

As I get myself organized for a new semester, I’ve taken an inventory of the technological resources I use to help my school year run a bit more smoothly. Here are some of my favorite tools of the trade. Do you have any other helpful tools to add? Have you tried any of these? Let us know in the comments!

  • Toggl

What it is:  A free desktop and cell-phone app that helps you keep track of how you use your time.

How I use it: A fellow graduate student turned me onto Toggl last semester, and I started using it to see how much time I was actually spending doing work each day. The unpleasant reality — that most of us have a lot of wasted time during the average workday, even when we claim to be working — was a really important insight. Now I use Toggl to make sure I’m getting in a pre-determined number of hours of good work-time each day, to have an overview of where and how I’m allocating my time, and most importantly for me: as a reminder to not waste time.  The extra step of having to pause my toggl timer every time I want to go chat with an office-mate or idly read Buzzfeed helps keep me on task.


  • OneNote

What it is: OneNote is a Microsoft Office program that mimics the structure of a physical notebook — it organizes your work into “Notebooks” that have as many sections as you need. Within each section, you can add as many pages as you need. The seemingly endless number of useful features (audio recording, ability to add excel spreadsheets, searchable images, screen-clipping tools, and being able to print into your pages) all come in handy for academic work. The best part: it all auto-syncs to your microsoft account, so you can access it from any computer.

How I use it: I use OneNote to take my notes in class for two reasons: I think it has the best functionality of any word processor and it auto-syncs, much like Google docs. OneNote also lets you draw and, overall, lets the user have much more freedom, which makes it very easy to take visual notes, like I like to: charts add in easily, text is easily move-able; you aren’t confined to any real constraints on where you can move things, begin a new textbox, etc. If you copy and paste something from a website, it automatically includes a link to the URL; if you want to add a PDF, the text becomes searchable. OneNote has really improved my note-taking and project management over the years. You can watch quick videos that demonstrate the functionality. Unfortunately, I think it’s still not available for mac users (with the exception of the web-app, which anyone can use.) Now available for macs!!


  •  Google Keep

What it is: A free, google-based memo app. Keep functions similar to many digital post-it apps, with a bit more functionality. For example, you can add alarms and  pictures and can record audio, and it auto-syncs to your google account (you can also use it on your desktop).

How I use it: I like to set myself small reminders on the go using Keep. While I use an old-fashioned planner to keep track of assignments, appointments, and more, Keep is great to use for ongoing lists. I have a list for blog topics, for example, and another for books I’d like to read in 2014, articles of interest, reminders attached to the list of dates to send in my quarterly taxes, etc. Any running lists — groceries, wishlists, to-do lists, goals, things to read/watch/listen to/buy — or notes that require reminders go in Keep. It also lets you color code (which is always a selling point for me, as anyone who has ever seen my keychain knows)

 Some other tips I try to live by:

  • Still try to take notes by hand — research says you learn and remember better. In some cases, it’s impossible: a super speeding-talking instructor, classrooms in which discussion or lecture never proceeds linearly (and thus makes notes on paper fairly tough), three hour seminars in which your hand will be on fire by the end, etc. It’s super easy to scan in your notes later (if you don’t feel like re-typing them) in OneNote or whatever program you choose.
  • Have a go-to source of background noise. I really like coffitivity (a website) and elmnts (a chrome extension).
  • Put your phone on airplane mode. Sometimes when I’m in the office, I put my phone on airplane mode to avoid getting texts, calls, or emails until later.
  • Work outside! That is also a good way of unplugging — just you, the grass, your book, and some loose-leaf.
  • Work standing. I have a chest-height filing cabinet I use as a standing desk; there are lots of ways of improvising a standing desk: make a tall pile of books (we all know grad students have plenty of books to do this with…), put your computer on a bookshelf, etc.
  • Give yourself a break! Have clear guidelines set for when you can leave your work and take some time for yourself. Toggl helps with this, but so does a daily checklist: once you reach a certain level of productivity for the day, pack up and go do something to recharge before your next day of work.


Conference advice: looking back on ASA

Observations from the annual conference

Last week, I flew to San Francisco for a sociology conference, the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. This was my second ASA, after attending the 2012 meeting in Denver while I was preparing my graduate school applications. With a year of grad school under my belt and a teeny bit of perspective, I offer some musings on conference attending as a grad student.

View from the escalator of a lobby crowded with sociologists

View from the escalator of a lobby crowded with sociologists.

  1. Don’t be afraid to submit a paper. Our whole scientific enterprise is based on feedback and discussion. We’ve all put hard work into projects that feel like they can just sit on our desk once we’re done writing. Why not kill two birds with one stone and get feedback while brushing off your ideas — present! Submitting a paper can be scary (it certainly was for me!) but there are low stakes ways to start out; a roundtable was a comfortable way to get my feet wet.
  2. Make an effort to meet NEW people. It’s easy to gravitate towards familiar faces. On my first full day in San Francisco, I found myself sitting in a cafe with two other Princeton PhD students. While it is great to see your friends — especially over the summer, when you may not have seen them for a bit — there is lots of time to see them throughout the year. Instead of defaulting to sitting with people you already know, make an effort to make new connections. When surrounded by interesting people, this is easy to do: peruse the program in the lobby instead of in your hotel room, sit next to a stranger in the audience or attend a round table on subjects that relate to your work. Perhaps best of all, scope out the evening receptions for groups or sections of interest.
  3. Don’t do too much work. During my first go at ASA, I over-did it. I went to all the panels I could fit into a single day — from 8:30 am through 7 pm. I hardly had time to have lunch, and I definitely was mostly undercaffeinated. I took lots of notes and was totally exhausted by the end of the day, leaving me no energy to mingle in the evenings. In retrospect, those notes didn’t really help and I didn’t get that much out of the panels. I wish I had paced myself, been more selective with my time, and spent more time getting to know people.
  4. Dress. This is tough. I’ve learned to better balance professional outfits (think regular-office appropriate, not academic-department-appropriate) and casual clothes. I now pack basically two outfits for each day: a pencil/skirt+blouse outfit for the day and a jeans + blouse outfit for the evening receptions. My first go, I felt a bit underdressed. I invested in a comfortable pair of low wedges that I could around in — which I was extra grateful for when I was invited on impromptu walks or coffee outings.Flats are better for evening receptions to pair with jeans and let your feet recover after a long day. I’d say plan on dressing a notch or two up from your regular office-wear, but most importantly, to make sure you feel comfortable and confident.
  5. Let it be a lesson in socialization. I always try to pay extra careful attention to the norms and unspoken rules of the discipline: how are questions asked? how are they answered? are there trends in how the presentations are organized or delivered? what caught your attention in others’ talks that you’d like to keep in mind when you’re in that position? What wasn’t particularly engaging for you, and so you’d like to make sure not to do in your future talks?
  6. Follow up. If you met someone new, don’t be afraid to follow up with them after the conference is over. if you promised to send something along (contact information, a syllabus, an article of interest, etc) be sure to do so promptly. Building these relationships, however informally, is a great way to get in the loop — perhaps they’ll think of you if something relevant comes up, like a seminar of interest. Encourage others to follow up with you, too. A business card is a good way to do that.
  7.  Make time to tend your roots. Prioritize seeing people from earlier chapters in your life: your undergraduate institution, your grad school, other graduate students or faculty you met on visiting days at various departments or at conferences or seminars over the years. It’s important to tend these relationships. Sociology (or rather, academia) is a small world with much overlap, and these colleagues will be operating in the same small circles with you for many years. Identify friends and stay in touch!
  8. Make eye contact (not badge contact!) first. It is a super strange feeling to walk around for a few days with a sign bearing in large font your name and institution. This signals a lot of things to everyone who sees you, and they will make instant micro-decisions about your value and their interest given your name and the name of your school. Don’t be that guy: remember to make eye contact before badge contact. Interact sincerely and genuinely with all those you meet. Try to recognize faces before searching name tags for a hint at why the person looks so familiar.All in all, learn what you can, eat good food (and that’s important — don’t forget to eat! especially if you’re in a different time zone), bring band aids in case you get blisters, and enjoy the whirlwind of lots of bright minds around you.
  • Do you have any pro-tips for conferencing?
  • Any definite “don’ts” that are important to keep in mind?

Durkheim on the basketball court

Princeton's nearly empty gym

Princeton’s nearly empty gym

I sometimes sit in Princeton’s steamy, ancient-feeling gym and watch as a handful of individuals organized from strangers scattered across the five full basketball courts in one large room, into two teams for one full court game in a matter of minutes. This is a phenomenon that has fascinated me since, as an undergrad at North Carolina, I would sit outside at picnic tables and watched as an empty basketball court would fill with a 5 on 5 game and a number of guys “waiting for next” on the sidelines in a matter of minutes. My  now-husband called it the “bat signal” — there were guys all over campus ready to play at a moment’s notice, and the echoing dribble of a basketball summoned them to the court.

Strangers, bound together only by the knowledge of a common game and the serendipity of being in the same place in the same moment, become teammates. They assess each others strengths and weaknesses, develop a system of nicknames and draw on a common language of the game that helps them adapt, organize, and generate order out of what appears to be chaos.

As I watch this process, I’m often in awe of how rapidly it unfolds. I have thought a lot about sociology as it relates to sports in the conventional ways: collective effervescence and mega events, the conspicuous leisure of country clubs, and the associated refinement of tastes.

But how do we make sense of the transition of strangers into a team and then back to strangers- a process  that lasts from thirty minutes to a few hours. I was reading Robert Bellah’s introduction to Durkheim on morality right before I got to the gym which offered me a specific set of lenses for my post-run observations on the basketball court.

First, for collectives to emerge, how important is a shared moral order? Durkheim discussed a shared moral order not necessarily as a normative phenomenon but rather as the underlying assumptions and orientations that make the social fabric of a society. Durkheim himself advocated a moral order based in discipline, commitment to social groups, and individualism. We can see through the lens of Durkheim how these concepts apply to the seemingly random coalescence of players into teams in pick-up-basketball.

Teammates playing basketball together

Teammates playing basketball together


The role of physical discipline in athletics is overt – success requires practice, which can be monotonous, the extending of one’s physical and mental limits. But what of social discipline? There exists a code: there are well known rules of the game, shared knowledge that allows the participants to respect and defer to the authority of the game. Even with no referees the players self regulate, immediately accepting blame for illegal plays by raising a single hand in the air, often placing the other hand over his chest (of course, what counts as an illegal play draws on the bank of shared knowledge and past experience and intimate familiarity with the rules.)

Those who call fouls too often though are also considered undisciplined, unable to concede to the intrinsically physically tough game or prioritize the good of the game — i.e., maintaining the flow of play  — over their own individual-level discomfort of being fouled.

Finally, as someone who didn’t play sports growing up, I had little appreciation for the level of discipline involved in team sports. This year, my first year of grad school, I played on an intramural flag football team, during which time I learned quickly how difficult it is to remain level headed in moments in which your physical and emotional senses are heightened. The amount of interdependence and cooperation required for team sports inevitably leads to conflict within teams or between them — during which individuals must self-censure and self-regulate in an especially conscious way to maintain the good of the team, the game, and the social group generally.

Players gather to begin forming teams

Players gather to begin forming teams

Commitment to social groups

This commitment to the social group is particularly interesting in a spontaneously-emerging team of pick-up basketball because the group usually has no ties to one another before or after the game. Here on the basketball court, the team is the salient group. The individuals who come together are undergrads, graduate students, spouses, faculty, staff, and spouses of any of those groups (and, rarely, members of the Princeton public or alumni). Often, friends in pairs of two will come to the gym in pairs and form the basis of the teams.

For teams to emerge, one person usually has to take charge. He’ll perhaps approach a player or pair of players “just shooting around” on another court and ask if they’re up to play. This is a pretty visible ritual in the open gym, and other individuals or pairs are usually on the lookout; if someone initiates this conversation, generally others will begin wandering — dribbling the basketball — toward the newly formed small group.

Once a quorum has been met — usually a minimum of four willing players — teams are generated. First, usually, pairs that came together are placed on the same team. Then, often teams are arbitrarily divided, sometimes based on some fortuitous coincidence of markers (for example: white shirts, team A, every other colored shirt, team B) but otherwise just more or less randomly assigned.

What is interesting is that, despite random or quasi-random assignment to teams, the individual begins to associate himself with that team; the in-group/out-group dynamic is immediately established and salient. The players demonstrate pride and excitement when they contribute positively to the team’s effort and frustration when performing poorly, hurting the team. However, when another player seems to struggle they are reassuring; gestures such as high-fives, pats on the back or butt are common, as are the “it’s all right, man” -type comments. Individuals fill themselves into niches based on the team’s needs, not their own preferences, because someone has to play the less-fun positions of defense if the team is going to be successful. The team success, rather than individual excellence, is the goal: performing otherwise leads to sanctions such as being thought of as a ball-hog or stats-padder.


While the team is the salient group, individual skill and player identity is important to the game. Players assess and diagnose each other individual — on their own team and the opposing team — for strengths and weaknesses. This has a predictive function; the players can strategize about which shots to “let” the other player take based on his odds of making it, determining which teammate to pass to for maximum likelihood of a basket, etc.

The individualism also creates a distance; there is the team (again, commitment to the team) or nothing. Players rarely bother learning each other’s names or details of each other’s lives. As an observer, this has always been striking to me. If I’m assigned to a group, my first instinct is to get to know my new group-mates: I’d want to know his or her name, department, how long they’ve been at this particular hobby, other hobbies, etc. This, I’ve been told, would be considered weird — even inappropriate — on the basketball court.

In the game I was observing, nicknames emerged such as “shorts,” “buckets,” “red,” and “blue.” Only one player’s name was routinely used — Sam — and he was easily the best player on the court; perhaps his name was known to all because of the frequency of his play or, because of his skill, the others made a point to recognize him by name.

This distance, while contributing to the group commitment by making it the more salient (indeed, the only relevant) identity, maintains an air of individualism. This isn’t, for example, a game of old friends or a time for generating new friendships. The space between the individuals is closed by participating on the same team, but returns to normal — a number of strangers who once shared the same court — once the game or series of games ends.

Over the course of the game, individual discipline enables the game to proceed smoothly, while commitment to the team encourages self-sacrifice, pride, and strategizing based on contextual experience and tacit knowledge. However it is the individualism — the anonymity of the team before and after the game — that is particularly interesting. The groups cooperate within teams and engage in explicit conflict against the other team, and then dissolve again into individuals as they leave the gym without expecting to ever play together again.

Becoming an academic: on hummus and crudites

“I’m trying to figure out what food to get for the party tonight. A few people suggested hummus and vegetables but I feel like that’s all grad students ever eat.”

“Yeah, I actually just had some hummus for lunch”

“…so did I.”

Why do we eat so much hummus? One of the most salient things I learned in my first semester of graduate school was, precisely, how to look like a graduate student — being socialized into a discipline that we enthusiastically claim as our vocation. At orientation, I remember admiring wide-eyed the poise of the more senior students, their penetrating questions, and their concise summaries of their research projects. It felt like they were on display, and I was window shopping for my future demeanor.

This is why we go to job talks. Of course, it is an exciting opportunity to become familiar with the research of our colleagues and of other graduate students or faculty in our discipline and others and offer feedback. But beyond that, we learn how to perform sociology. That includes demeanor and comportment, but also audience interaction: how to ask good questions, and how to answer them. In this informal way, I’ve developed a running list of successful practices and also what not to do; I’ve ruled out possibilities for what “good sociology” looks like and narrowed down the approaches I consider appropriate moving forward. In fact, I recently transferred this running list from a mental note into paper form that I keep in my desk!

  • When an audience member asks you a multi-point question, make notes of the question and answer it in order.
  • So… don’t forget to bring a pen and paper when giving a presentation!
  • Include a road map of the presentation in the first few slides
  • Theoretical framing comes up front! Classical and contemporary theorists if possible!
  • Mixed methods > single method

In our daily encounters with faculty — at the coffee pot, in the mail room, or in our excruciatingly long hallway (a breeding ground for awkward encounters) — we learn to see our academic idols not as daunting figures behind closed doors but as friendly colleagues, insightful and brilliant though they are. We learn how they carry themselves but also develop confidence in our own interactions with the leaders in our fields.

Similarly, in our contact with our more senior graduate colleagues, we are inducted into the academic life — but more specifically, the life of our department. We learn about the prestige of the different journals — tacit knowledge that is invisible to the casual observer. We also learn how to dress the part: we see the degree to which casual attire is acceptable in the office, the more looks they adopt when precepting a class, and how nicely they clean up for a presentation or interview. In a recent seminar with the politics graduate students, I was really struck by how differently the sociologists and the political scientists in the room dressed. It drew my attention to the culture of our department, and perhaps our discipline more broadly: while we are serious and professional,  we’re not overly formalistic.

While I’ve spent hours reading classical theory and learning statistical programming, I’ve spent even more hours chatting with my office-mates, sitting in a writing group with my cohort, and taking notes at job talks; I’ve gone to more wine-and-cheese receptions than I could count and volunteered to show a visiting lecturer around. All of these experiences have shaped how I think, act, and understand what it means to be an academic.

This is — I hypothesize — why we eat so much hummus. If I were planning a party for undergrads, the obvious choice would have been to order pizza for the group. As an undergrad, I ate a lot of free pizza. As a graduate student, I eat a lot of free hummus and crudites. However, as sociologists, we are also being socialized into more professorial preferences. While pizza is still Mediterranean food, it doesn’t quite signal “I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate school” like a strong taste for wine and antipasto.

Caring as Invisible Work

By Samantha Jaroszewski

Feeding the Family

Over winter break, I read Marjorie Devault’s Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, a book Devault argues that those responsible for the caring work of the family, usually women, deploy a vast store of tacit knowledge to perform their work, specifically feeding the family. Devault discusses this work as “feeding” work rather than merely food preparation because of the processual ways in which caregivers are constantly considering, calculating, negotiating, and preparing for the nourishment of their families. Feeding work constitutes part of reproductive labor, the daily or oft repeated tasks that reproduce the ability of household members to contribute to society. This usually includes feeding work, childreading, home economics, and other domestic sphere tasks without clear boundaries or definitive ends, summed up in the idiom, “A woman’s work is never done.”

I liken this work to a computer running with a high powered program running in the background. Writing this post, I had R Studio running on my desktop, a handful of annotated pdfs and eight tabs open in Chrome. The mental space my computer dedicated to these background tasks cannot be allocated to running whatever foreground program I needed at the moment. Similarly, Devault argues, women engaged in housework, work without clear boundaries and no actual “end,” impinges on their capacity to dedicate their mental CPU to other tasks.

In our roles as students, too, we have this constant background noise of the “reproductive labor”  of our schoolwork. There is always more to read, more to write, more to do. There are always four talks a week that we wish we could have gone to, but couldn’t spare the time that would be better spent getting our own stuff done. There are the paper and conference deadlines that loom above our heads, making it difficult to ever take a full break from work. These tasks garner us no positive reinforcement, no awards or praise. Its just part of the job. Similarly, there is much work and constant effort exerted towards feeding the family that just gets noticed when it doesn’t get done. We develop systems of tacit knowledge and routinize the tasks at hand in ways that perhaps we can’t articulate. Many of Devault’s interlocuters had trouble putting their routines to words, the ways that they made the decisions about food based on the preferences, schedules, tastes, and resources of each member of the family unit.

Devault’s book and her theoretical framing of mundane reproductive labor as gendered and inseparable from emotion-work for the women who perform it, has helped me reflect on my own practices and behaviors. It also reminds me to be thankful for the caring work that my husband does — not least listening attentively to my mundane stories about the lecture in my theory class — and the devalued caring work of many traditionally gendered occupations: mothers and child-rearers, teachers, nurses, cooks, housekeepers and secretaries. When I think of the women in any of those roles, I recall their warmth, their care. As people who care — not just gendered persons — Devault offers us a useful map of the caring landscape: the work that goes into feeding a family and organizing the care of a household.

  • What ethnographies, studies, or theories made you reflect on your own everyday practices?
  • What are other examples of invisible labor?