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.


Ethnography: Some fresh methodological insights from the ASA

Any ethnographer would want to go to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting just for its fieldwork potential. Sam’s blogpost already highlighted some quirky practices, such as the different afternoon and evening dress-codes and the substitution of eye- for badge-contact as a way to initiate conversation. To this I would add the game of seeing and being seen in the Hilton Lounge, when people wear or do not wear their badge – time of the day, distance from the Hilton, institutional pride? – and the remarkable practice of stargazing at many panels. 


While I am sure that some fascinating studies on ASA’s interactional dynamics can be done, there was more for ethnographers to get excited about. In this blogpost I summarize two methodological discussions that I picked up at the ASA.

(1) Theory-data connection
What is the role of theory in ethnography?

During the closing panel at the Junior Theorist Symposium on Friday, Stefan Bargheer provocatively argued that perhaps we should stop reading theory and instead try to get as broadly inspired as possible, reading anything from neuroscience to People’s Magazine. 

He dismissed synthesizing theoretical accounts (theory based on theory) and argued that these often simply reproduced received biases of previous research. Instead he preferred what he called theory by use: monographs that may at first be critiqued as a-theoretical, but that become classics as people apply its insights in often surprising new sites or using different methods. 

Stefan gave Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) as an example. He held that this book was initially received as ethnologically interesting, but mostly a-theoretical. While I do not fully agree with this characterization of Goffman’s early reception (see book reviews by Stone 1957 and Naegele 1956), it is true that Goffman dared to radically depart from the received theoretical wisdoms of the time. In another review the anthropologist Lloyd Fallers, who studied stratification patterns in African societies, for instance argued that:

“[T]he usefulness of the dramaturgical image would, in our view, be greatly enhanced by a more systematic effort to relate it to the concepts which we commonly use in the more macroscopic analysis of society and culture.” (Fallers 1962: 191)

I am very glad that Goffman did not decide to become a structural-functionalist, and based himself on his own data, gut and creativity instead.

(2) The ‘dual’ positionality of the ethnographer
How does the position of the ethnographer, in both her field site and in the academic field, influence knowledge production?

I also enjoyed the discussion on the dual positionality of the ethnographer. Many readers are perhaps familiar with the idea of positionality, which means that any fieldworker should reflect on how her personal characteristics, such as gender, race, class and life experience, influence her relations to subjects and what she glances from her fieldwork.

However, in his discussion in a Monday afternoon panel, Andrew Deener emphasized how ethnographers are always stranding two fields: the world under study and the world of academia. Hence, considering the position-taking of the ethnographer in these two social worlds, we could speak about ethnographers’ dual positionality

How are the claims that ethnographers make in their work shaped by their current or anticipated position in the scientific field? How do the gender, race, nationality etc. of the ethnographer impact the production and (anticipated) reception of ethnographic fieldwork?

This discussion was prompted by a paper – see abstract here –  on the phenomenon of rogue ethnographers: mostly male ethnographers who study violent subcultures from up close and who may professionally benefit from the masculine ‘heroic’ status that is associated with these practices. Loic Wacquant’s boxing career and Sudhir Venkatesh “Gang Leader for a Day” especially spring to mind. The status associated with these practices in their field sites, may actually translate to a somewhat heroic ‘rogue sociologist’ status in the academic field. 


The authors Hoang, Long and Ankoor contrasted these rogue sociologists of masculine subcultures against the example of mostly female ethnographers of sex workers. They argued that these female ethnographers often personally felt the need to distance themselves from sex work – and put a limit on participant-observation – to prevent to be seen as sexualized objects in the academic field, and be taken less seriously. 

I thought this idea of the translatability of status (or perhaps in other cases: the need to balance competing status claims)  and the consequential call to take into account our dual positionality was very interesting – and one that goes back full circle to the interactional dynamics of the ASA’s annual meeting. The academic field is not insular to the status competitions and cultural valuations we like to study in other places: as we always strand ‘two worlds’ as ethnographers, we should reflect on how our position in the academic field influences our choices in the field, the writing up of fieldwork and the reception of our 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?

How to make the most out of your visit days

By Sharon Cornelissen and Samantha Jaroszewski

This past fall and winter must have been a nerve-racking grad school application season for many of you. As first year PhD students, we still vividly remember those anxious days and weeks awaiting graduate school decision emails, compulsively checking gradcafe. Congrats to all of you who have been accepted to one or more programs! Now that decisions have been sent out, it is your turn to decide.

One year out from making our own visits and decisions, we have reflected on the experience and compiled some advice for prospective graduate students to make the most of their visiting days.

thinking woman deciding

General advice

  • Narrow down your options. If you have more than one acceptance, remember that the visit days can be really draining personally, and also are an investment in you by the university. Often they pay for your trip, a current student hosts you and professors take time to get to know you. If you’ve already mentally ruled out an option, consider declining the offer to visit. Perhaps it will also free up a spot for a waitlisted student to go on the official visit.
  • Stay for a couple of days rather than hopping from campus to campus. This gives you an opportunity to ‘feel out’ not just the departmental culture, but also go explore the town or city and housing situation. After all, you are not just choosing a school but also the place where you are going to live for the next 5 or more years. Why not take that extra day to explore the town beyond the university?

  • Get to know your fellow admitted students. Not only may these people be in your future cohort, but also if they end up at other schools they may be good contacts to have. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a place to stay in Chicago or Seattle for a future conference?

  • Keep notes about your visit day experiences. Jot down first impressions, pros and cons, etc. It may be more clear in your mind now than in a month when you have to make your final decision.

  • Be nice to everyone. You never know when you will meet them again, so handle all interactions — including declining offers of admission — respectfully. It may be prudent to email the potential advisor yourself before declining the offer formally, thanking him or her for the time and hospitality.

Questions to ask of current graduate students:
Pay particular attention to the other graduate students — admitted and current students. Your colleagues are the ones that you’ll learn the most from and who will support you in the most difficult moments – trust us, those moments will come. How collegial are they? Is there a more friendly or more competitive atmosphere?

  • Are you happy here? Do you feel students around you are happy?

  • What made you decide to come to this school rather than other schools? How do you feel your expectations have held up?

  • What dissertation projects are current graduate students working on? (Are their projects inspiring and interesting to you?)

  • What are the weaknesses of this department? What would you like to see done differently?

  • How are faculty-student interactions? What type of advising structure is common in the department? Examples of advising structures include hands-off, workshop model with larger cohorts or apprenticeship one-to-one relationship with a main advisor.

  • How much time does it take to fulfill the teaching requirements? Are there other service requirements? How long on average does it take for people to graduate?

  • Do students get offices? Often, visiting days are a time when everyone coalesces in the office, so this can give a misleading impression. Ask about how much time people spend in the office on the norm — are people around?

  • What standard of living does your stipend afford? Can you afford an apartment, studio, close to school, do you need roommates? How is the housing situation? Do you need to take out loans? Is there 6th or 7th year funding available? Do you get reimbursed for conference travel?

  • What is the social life like in this town and/ or with fellow graduate students?

Questions to ask of faculty you want to work with
Often schools schedule individual meetings for you with professors. Prepare ahead of time. What are you going to ask them? An informal sample among our cohort yielded unequivocal conclusions: most meetings are going to be awkward. Knowing what to ask will not only give you better information, but also allows you to evade some of the endemic awkwardness of academia…

  • What projects are you working on? Where do you see your research agenda going in the next few years?

  • How many students are you working with? What are some examples of the topics of dissertations that you are currently supervising?

  • Do you work on projects together with your students, for instance co-authored papers?

  • How would you characterize your advising style? How often do you meet with your students?

  • What kinds of jobs have graduates from this department in the last couple of years been able to secure? What kinds of jobs have your students been offered in recent years?

Final advice: Stop asking everyone for advice. What school fits you well – your interests, ambitions, finances, happiness, family life? How do you want to live your life for the next five or more years? Balancing all these factors is very personal and no one knows as much about your situation as you do. Don’t worry too much about making the “right choice.” There may be many places where you could be productive and happy.