Affording Ethnography

Chicago can be an expensive city. Especially in an area that’s in late-stage gentrification (a topic I shall take up in a post soon), apartment prices, restaurants, and even groceries can be more expensive than what I was used to living in Madison. Although we’re not talking about New York City prices, doing an ethnography in a gentrified area can be a challenge, especially if you want to live in the area.

Living in Boystown is important for me. It gives me a bit of the daily life of the city. If I lived in a different part of the city–say Andersonville or even Uptown which is only a few blocks north–then walking to the grocery store wouldn’t be a field outing. Whenever I walk the 2 blocks to the Whole Food’s that’s attached to the Center on Halsted, I get a chance to look at who is in the Center at that time of day. Doing work at a local coffee shop lets me code interviews while I also eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

However, the typical rent in Lakeview East is 1345 a month, according to that combs online listings. Although mine is a steal in comparison, my one-bedroom apartment takes up almost 80% of my monthly paycheck as a research assistant. A typical financial advisor will suggest that no more than 33% of your income is devoted to paying rent. When I told my mother how much my apartment cost, her voice on the phone faltered a bit and she stuttered, “Wo-wo-wow, that’s expensive, Jason. How can you do that?”

Ethnographers typically have a number of avenues to afford their fieldwork. The most prized is a grant. Obviously, someone paying for your time in the field is the best situation, because it allows you to focus on writing and spending the hours necessary out with participants.

Another option is to get a job in the community. This is an option that I’m newly considering. The job fulfills two roles: money for your survival and time spent in the field. Essentially, it is getting paid to do your fieldwork. The difficult part is that often ethnographies don’t neatly fall into topics that make it easy to get a job. In Mitch Duneier’s Sidewalk the jobs available in the area would have isolated him from the street vendors that he was studying. If he spent most of his time doing something else nearby, he wouldn’t have had the time to learn about ‘laying shit out.’ A job can also put you at odds with the people that you are studying. If C.J. Pascoe in her research for Dude You’re a Fag had gotten a job at the school, she would have been identified as part of the administration or teachers, not an adult that you confide in.

For my part, I’m considering getting a job at a local bar, if I can manage to secure one. The time spent at work would let me observe. I also would be put into a different class of people within the bar, someone you’re more likely to chat with because you want a free drink, not because you want to get in his pants.

Professors, and grad students without grants, often take the route of doing their ethnography half-time and taking up unrelated paid employment. University work–whether that’s teaching or research assistance–falls into this category. Since I’m in Chicago, yet affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching isn’t available to me. My paycheck has come from doing RA work and grading contracts. The obvious drawback is that paid work takes time away from your ethnography. Sometimes significant time. I’ve had weeks where I’ve been unable to follow up with research because I’ve been working on a last minute grading assignment. I’ve been focusing on the benefit: there are no funders or other entities to put limits on my work.

Still, that paycheck doesn’t cut it. I can’t live on the 20% of my income that is left.

Inspired by a friend, I’ve used AirBnB to help recoup some of my apartment costs. At 50 dollars a night, I rent out my bedroom to travelers and I sleep on my couch. I get some extra income to cover my expenses and they get an experience that is nicer and cheaper than most hotels. It’s certainly not for everyone. I’ve been described as a “champion sleeper” because I can sleep through anything and fall asleep on any surface (e.g., planes, buses, the marble floor of a State Capitol building). Even 10 nights a month cuts my rent down to Madison levels. Plus, during the rest of the month, I get to live without a roommate, in a much nicer apartment than I used to have, and in my gentrified field site. Already this month, I’ve got enough reservations to pay for my entire rent. If it fits your life style or if you have an extra room, AirBnB can make otherwise impossible fieldwork situations practical.

Beautiful Apartment in Boystown

If you have questions about AirBnB or suggestions for ways that people can pay for their fieldwork outside of grants, leave a comment!


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