Community Studies: The Pedagogical Uses of Ethnography, Oral History, and Memoir

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We observed huge amounts of scrap metal lifted by an immense crane with a "magnet" on the bottom and loaded into enormous "buckets." Greg explained that it was extremely important to distribute the scrap metal evenly; otherwise the crane operator would have a difficult time pouring the buckets into the furnace. An experienced crane operator, Greg realized that the buckets were unbalanced and the crane operator would have to compensate. Becci perceptively compared the process to cooking: "It's like pouring tortellini into a pot of boiling water! You have to put them in slowly or the water will splash out of the pot." We watched as huge cranes opened the "roof" of the furnace and three buckets of scrap were poured in. The furnace, like a massive black volcano, spewed bright sparks of fire (a Fourth of July spectacle); the transformation of the scrap metal into molten steel created a deafening blast. To signal the completion of his task, the crane operator sounded a shrill alarm (like an ambulance siren). Greg joked, "oops...I forgot to bring along earplugs!" By the time we left this department, I had a throbbing headache...

In the tradition of the new social history, oral history, and ethnography, we wanted students to listen to what people had to say, to honor people's narrative truths as well as the documented history and "offical" stories, and in the process, to consider how knowledge and history are constructed, challenged, and reconstructed. History, as Trouillot reminds us, refers to "both the facts of the matter and a narrative of those facts, both `what happened,' and what is said to `have happened'" (Trouillot 1995: 2). The goal therefore was not to finish a "history of Steelton and its people" as the final class project but rather to discover the complexity of "knowing" oneself and "the other" while interacting and producing work that was academically substantive and meaningful to the community. This meant recognizing the overlapping complexities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender both in the present as well as in the past; in oneself as well as the other -- and in the inter/action between the two.

As a way of introducing students to the study of "communities" and various fieldwork methodologies, we spent the first six weeks reading other ethnographies (Lynds' Middletown, Jay McLeod, Ain't No Makin' It, Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities; Kai Erikson, Everything In Its Path, John Bodnar's Steelton, Homestead...); research guides (Michael Agar, The Professional Stranger, Wolcott, The Art of Fieldwork, Valerie Yow, Oral History, selections from Earl Babbie's The Practice of Social Research and Patton's chapter "On Interviewing;" Linda Shopes and Karen Olsen's "Interviewing Working Class Women and Men"); screening and critiquing relevant video documentaries ("Struggles in Steel," "Coal Miners"); and engaging in initial forays into the community of Steelton. The first writing assignments included writing an autobiographical essay and a participant-observation paper of a church service. Excerpts from the second paper illuminate the power of experiential learning and the importance of establishing interest in and rapport with those with whom you are collaborating.


Published as:
Rose, Susan D. "Community Studies: The Pedagogical Uses of Ethnography, Oral History, and Memoir." Transformations 14, no. 2 (2003): 21-44.

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