Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book: Living the Drama by David Harding

Harding, David. 2010. Living the Drama: Community, Conflict and Culture Among Inner-City Boys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I had the good fortune to receive a free copy of this book via campus mail, courtesy of its author, my UM sociology colleague David Harding. I had the even better fortune to read it.

The book describes the results of David's ethnographic work in three Boston neighborhoods, two of them poor and one of them working class. His focus is on teenage boys, in particular how they think about choices regarding sexual activity and relationships and regarding schooling.

Like many (most? all?) ethnographies, the words of the subjects themselves are the most interesting part. Of course, getting the subjects to say interesting things depends on the skill of the interviewer at designing good questions and building up trust.

Also quite interesting, in this case, is the interpretive framework. David relies on something called the cognitive view of culture. Essentially, basic bits of cognitive science are applied to thinking about culture. Thus, David contrasts the working class neighborhood, where there are standard "frames" or "scripts" for thinking about particular issues related to sex and to schooling, with poor neighborhoods, where multiple ways of thinking about these questions essentially compete, but also coexist, as the subjects sometimes jump from one view to another depending on the details of the issue. While the cognitive view of culture is not original to David's book, this was my first encounter with it and I found it interesting and compelling. The book contrasts, usefully I think, the cognitive view of culture with views in which culture plays little role relative to, essentially, the budget set, and to older views of the "culture of poverty" that posit different, but equally monolithic, cultures in poor and non-poor neighborhoods.

Another bit that I found interesting is David's summary of the literature on how people conceptualize their neighborhood, and its application to his own choice of neighborhoods to study. It turns out that people differ in systematic ways in their definitions of the neighborhood, in particular in how large the area is that they include. Again, this idea is not original to this book, but I had not encountered the related literature before, and enjoyed learning about it.

The part of the book most related to my own work had to do with how the subjects think about higher education. David gets much deeper than the commonplace finding that you can get poor kids to mouth normative platitudes about wanting to go to college in surveys. That is familiar and, I think, pretty much meaningless. Instead, he reveals a great deal of ignorance and confusion about both the higher education process and about the meaning of higher education in the labor market and in life more broadly. Though this is mostly implicit, the subjects do not have a strong sense of quality differences among post-secondary institutions, nor is there often much of a sense that learning more in high school beyond the bare minimum required to get admitted to some college or another might have payoffs of its own both directly and in terms of making success in college more likely. I do not know quite how one conveys these bits of information to kids living in neighborhoods with very few college graduates but it is surely worth thinking about (and will surely take more than a couple of dry presentations in 10th grade).

The writing here is clear, functional and well-organized. It is academic writing, to be sure, but not painfully so. There is some very mild jargon associated with the cognitive view of culture, but it is quickly mastered. The book is very much not a post-modern verbiage festival.

At the end of the day (or, more precisely, the end of the book) David truly won my heart with this bit, which is near the start of the final chapter:
"... the proverbial `policy chapter' that often concludes books like this one typically overreaches and underwhelms"
Having read quite a number of ethnographies in my time, I will confess that I had been nervous as I read along through the book that an otherwise fine volume would be marred by a foolish chapter of policy recommendations largely unrelated to the book's content. That is not the case. David is fully cognizant of what can and cannot be learned from the valuable ethnographic work his book summarizes.


No comments: