September/October 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 6

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An Ethnographer, a Teacher,
and the 2014 ASA President

Robin Leidner, University of Pennsylvania

Annette Lareau

Annette Lareau

Annette Lareau, the 2014 president of the American Sociological Association, has greatly expanded our understanding of how social inequality is reproduced while extending the possibilities—and raising the bar—of qualitative research. Through meticulous fieldwork, theoretically informed analysis, and engaging writing, Annette has had an impact on scholarship and public discussion about education, family life, and social class. A believer in telling the truth about the nuts and bolts of fieldwork, she has sometimes been self-critical in print. Its time to right the balance. Annette is an extraordinary sociologist and a person of integrity, generosity, graciousness, and understanding. Over the course of her career, she has continually deepened and refined our understanding of inequality by focusing on the connections—or disconnections—between families and other institutions, especially schools. Carefully uncovering the everyday patterns that confer advantage to some children and not others, she has linked culture to social structure, biography to history.

Early Influences

Annette’s own biography provides some clues to her long-term fascination with education, family, and social class. She grew up in Northern California, the daughter of two teachers whose college educations were made possible by the GI Bill. Her mother’s stories about her impoverished childhood made a deep impression: the family experienced multiple evictions and as a child Annette’s mother spent many hours in the library—not only because she loved books, but also because it was too cold at home.

While Annette was working her way through college at UC-Santa Cruz, she participated in a community action program in a small town in California’s Central Valley, volunteering in the working-class African American community’s school and neighborhood. She was struck by the contrast between the parents’ eagerness for their children to do well in school and the “scathing comments” of the teachers about how supposedly little the parents valued education. All these influences and experiences sharpened Annette’s sensitivity to the consequences of economic inequality and the importance of both families and education in its reproduction.

Had the employment prospects for teachers been better when she finished college, Annette might have become a kindergarten teacher herself. Instead, she spent two years working as a full-time interviewer in San Francisco’s city jail, gathering information on whether prisoners qualified for release without bail. Her skill as a fieldworker can no doubt be traced in part to her experience conducting interviews with people who were often furious or drunk or bloody. She learned, too, that bureaucratic procedures led to differential outcomes by class even when they were applied even-handedly.

Encouraged by a college professor to pursue graduate work in sociology, Annette chose Berkeley. As a graduate student, she found that much of the academic literature was as critical of working-class parents as the teachers she’d heard in the Central Valley. The mismatch she’d noted there between teachers’ expectations and the ability of working-class parents to communicate comfortably with the school was an important focus of her dissertation, which became the award-winning Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education. Based on both interviews with teachers and parents and observations in two elementary schools, she showed that while working-class parents cared deeply about their children’s success in school they did not feel able or entitled to make demands on teachers. Middle-class parents, in contrast, had no compunction about insisting that their children’s individual needs be met, a difference Annette attributed to their different cultural capital. Julia Wrigley, in her introduction to the second printing of Home Advantage, describes Annette as “Americanizing” the concept of cultural capital, enlarging Bourdieu’s concept so that it does not refer only to high culture. In this and subsequent work, Annette has extended Bourdieu’s analysis of class reproduction in several important respects (i.e., demonstrating the effort required to activate cultural resources, effort which may or may not succeed in any given case).

Intensive Fieldwork

While teaching at Southern Illinois University, Annette began the ambitious project that culminated in the publication of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2001), a work that reveals her remarkable talent as a fieldworker, one who has extended the scope of ethnographic work. As in Home Advantage, she took a comparative approach, gathering data from multiple sources, including classroom observations as well as interviews with parents and teachers; this time she attended to variation in the experiences of families of different races as well as different classes. But the fieldwork for Unequal Childhoods goes much further. At first Annette planned to make this an interview study, but she was dissatisfied with the data she was getting, which did not seem sufficiently rich. “With great trepidation,” she asked one mother if she could follow her around, the mother agreed, and Annette’s first experience shadowing a parent persuaded her that more intensive fieldwork on family life would be possible. After joining Temple University, she and a team of research assistants eventually used this method with the families of 12 third graders, making multiple visits and observing them hanging out at home, visiting doctors, getting food stamps, and shuttling to and from numerous activities. One of the great strengths of Unequal Childhoods is that it vividly conveys the distinctive textures of life in these families.

Unequal Childhoods argues that the child-rearing ideas and practices of the poor and working-class families and of the middle-class families can be understood as cohering into distinct logics. Using a gardening metaphor, Annette demonstrates that the poor and working-class families sought the “accomplishment of natural growth” while the middle-class families practiced “concerted cultivation.” She emphasizes that there are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches—for the children and their families—and she stresses the investments of love, labor, and worry of all of the study families. However, she argues that the middle-class parents’ strategies are much more readily recognized and highly valued by educators and other professionals, and that middle-class children develop attitudes and skills that will be advantageous in their dealings with adult institutional representatives. Middle-class children develop an emerging sense of entitlement, while poor and working-class children come to feel constrained in their dealings with adults outside the family. Unequal Childhoods won awards from three ASA sections (Culture, Family, and Children and Youth) and the American Educational Studies Association. The expanded second edition, which includes a 10-year follow-up, provides even more evidence of the power of class cultures. The children Annette studied had become young adults, and interviews with them and their parents revealed that they had followed markedly different paths to young adulthood.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Fieldwork

This 2011 edition also built on Annette’s practice of providing a detailed look at the difficulties and dramas of fieldwork. In both Home Advantage and Unequal Childhoods, Annette included candid appendices that describe not only her methods but also the dilemmas, confusions, and missteps that inevitably arise in qualitative research. In the second edition of Unequal Childhoods, Annette addresses head-on the reality of the power differential between research subjects and researcher. She documents the reactions of the families to the book itself, reactions that range from pleased satisfaction to deep hurt, anger, and disappointment. Annette believes that frankness about the details of producing research is important to give readers a basis for gauging the persuasiveness of the evidence and also to help students and fellow researchers by providing an accurate picture of the research process and advice on avoiding some of the pitfalls. She is at work on a book on ethnography that she intends as both a practical guide and a statement of standards.

Annette credits a post-doc at Stanford with deepening her understanding of the different strengths and dilemmas of quantitative analysis, and she has become increasingly interested in such methods. In an ongoing collaboration, she and Eliot Weininger have brought quantitative as well as qualitative data to bear on the relations among class, family, and education. They are currently working on a project called “Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools,” and Annette and Kimberly Goyette have co-edited a forthcoming volume with that title. Two other current projects extend Annette’s investigation of the American class system: an interview study of very wealthy people and one on the experience of upward mobility (with Heather Curl and Tina Wu).

A Teacher and Mentor

Despite her prodigious research schedule, Annette is a dedicated teacher and colleague, and she finds time for some non-sociological pursuits as well. Grateful for the guidance she received from such mentors as Troy Duster, Arlie Hochschild, Michael Burawoy, Aaron Cicourel, and Hugh Mehan, she devotes much time and attention to working with graduate students and young sociologists newly embarked on their careers and takes great pleasure in seeing them flourish. Both while at the University of Maryland and now as Stanley I. Sheerr Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she regularly teaches large classes of introductory sociology, eager to draw undergraduates to the field. Because building community is important to Annette, she works to create occasions for informal conversation among colleagues and grad students. She loves to entertain and also likes to garden, read novels, and attend baseball games, theater, and—influenced by her husband, the political philosopher Samuel R. Freeman—the opera.

As is evident from her highly readable books, Annette is committed to making the insights of the discipline accessible to a broad audience. She wants to make sure that ASA stays current with new forms of media and also hopes to increase ASA members’ skills and confidence for participation in public debate. The 2014 conference will include a series of workshops aimed at strengthening sociologists’ facility at sharing their research with the public, and she is planning to make relevant tools and guidelines available on the ASA website. These efforts reflect her aspiration to give Americans “an awareness of social class in daily life” and a language for discussing it. “We have an awareness of race, we have an awareness of gender,” she says, but Americans find it hard to recognize what the empirical research shows: that in many ways social class is more powerful. It is hardly surprising that she has chosen “Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals” as the theme for the San Francisco conference.

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