Terry Williams: The Cosmopolitan Life of an Urban Ethnographer

“To see the real city you must descend deep into the shadows, go into the bowels of the city and be guided through history, remembrance and the sensorium, capturing a mosaic of people and places; the adventure will take you underground, in sex venues, crackhouses, teenage hangouts, toxico-maniac dens, as these physical spaces juxtapose the romantic reality of a multi-ethnic metropolis.”

Terry Williams, introducing his Cosmopolitan Life Series

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in a February, a crowd gathered at the home-hosted Harlem Arts Salon to hear about the latest book from Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. As filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets, sociologists, and current and former graduate students entered the inviting apartment, Williams warmly greeted them by name, creating a sense of community and connection rare at academic book talks.

But this wasn’t a ‘regular’ book talk. For one, host and Harlem Arts Salon founder Margaret Porter has known Williams for decades. Both grew up in Mississippi, found their way to New York City, and moved to Harlem in 1979. Guest moderator Hakim Hasan, a poet and former Director of Public Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, also cited a deeply personal relationship with Williams, whom he called “gracious, soulful, and dedicated.” 

And Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club (Columbia University Press, 2020) isn’t a ‘regular’ academic book, with obscure jargon and heavy prose. In it, Williams deftly weaves together ethnography, sociological sources, and storytelling to create a fascinating and accessible account of the cocaine culture at a Harlem club in the 1980s and 1990s — a book for, in his words, the “cosmopolitan nonspecialist.”

A Multiethnic Panorama

“I am insatiably curious about the life of other people,” says Williams. “Some would say I’m nosy.”

A keenly observant scholar, Williams has turned being “nosy” into a decades-long career studying urban life and policy. His preferred methodology is ethnography, embedding himself in different situations to observe how people interact with each other and their surroundings. “I try to see the world as other people see it,” he explains.

When Williams was a doctoral student at CUNY in the early 1970s, ethnography was not a part of a sociologist’s toolkit. Focusing on non-quantitative social science made him an outlier in his department, and he instead found mentors at the University of Chicago, well-known for its pioneering work in urban sociology and advocacy for ethnography as critical to sociological research. Ethnography has become such a staple of his work that he even co-wrote the book on it; On Ethnography (Wiley, 2018), with colleague Sarah Daynes, shares lessons learned from decades of research in the field.

Williams publishes prolifically, and Le Boogie Woogie is the latest book in what he terms his Cosmopolitan Life Series; previous subjects include con men, Harlem building superintendents, crackhouse residents, and teenagers who self-harm. The series is a multivolume ethnography of place and behavior, and while the topics are diverse, none are forced; all evolved organically from Williams’ established relationships and interests.

Inside the Club

That’s especially true in the case of Le Boogie Woogie. While Williams’ father had run a small after-hours club in Mississippi, Williams was never allowed to get too close to it — a fact that only attracted him more. Once in New York City, he became connected with Le Boogie Woogie and other clubs like it via former students he taught at Rikers Island correctional facility and later befriended. He became curious about the club’s patrons who shared a lifestyle based around the enjoyment of cocaine and, with a professor’s encouragement, he began to work out a plan for research.

“No study had been done on cocaine users in their natural setting or to describe users as they lived,” he writes in the book’s introduction. Others told him it wasn’t a good idea, “…but my job as a researcher is to see if I can gain the trust and acceptance of people other than my kinfolk.” He pressed forward. 

Granted access to the club by way of his connections, Williams began to attend regularly. When talking with patrons and workers, he listened closely, keeping mental notes so he could later reconstruct dialogue. “Only on a few occasions did I use a tape recorder or openly take notes. I relied on memory for the most part, even though I was concerned that reconstructing conversations was problematic and porous and would affect my narrative,” Williams writes. He later opened up to some patrons about his research, and they began to share their extended stories with him.

The result is a vivid narrative that brings the setting, the scene, and the many characters who populate Le Boogie Woogie to life — so much so that the reader begins to feel like a nightly regular. “What he unveils,” says a recent Kirkus review, “is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an ‘example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.’”

Not only did Williams have to reconstruct dialogue after the fact; he had to reconstruct the entire scene years later. By the time Le Boogie Woogie was published in 2020, the club had been closed for decades. At his publisher’s encouragement, Williams broadened his research to the current day by studying Murphy’s Club, an after-hours club on the Lower East Side frequently mainly by wealthy, white millennials. In doing so, Williams is able to draw important connections and contrasts over time around drug usage, buying, and consumption; nightlife; sex work; race; class; gentrification; the War on Drugs; and the transformation of New York City itself.

“From a methodological perspective, most urban ethnographers do not imagine themselves to be historians in the classical sense of the word,” writes Williams. “Yet there is an inherent and unavoidable historical framework to all ethnographic work.” Le Boogie Woogie is a journey through time, through space, through states of consciousness, and through discreet worlds, each with their own cultural practices and lexicons.

The Sole of the Matter

Williams with his latest project: shoe construction

While Williams continues to prepare new books for his Cosmopolitan Life Series, he’s sharing his research skills and gift for storytelling with NSSR students in his classes on ‘Ethnographic Field Methods’ and ‘The Living Book: From Research to Manuscript.’ 

He’s also collaborating with Catherine Murphy, Senior Research Associate at Parsons School of Design, on ‘The Social Life of Stuff,’ a course that examines the social world of objects, products, and people. Their guiding questions: “What discoveries do we make when we trace the life of the objects that surround us? How do we understand craft? What does the spirit of capital mean in present-day life and the act of making and re-making? What responsibility do we have in addressing the impact products have on the worlds we live in? As we think about examining unusual materials and items of the sacred what remains sacred today? Where does the moral compass stand as it connects to the Internet and places like Silicon Valley?”

That insatiable curiosity that’s led Williams across New York City and around the world of stuff has also led him to a new field: shoe construction. In between teaching and writing, he’s been studying the ins and outs of creating shoes, and currently has prototypes of five different models made from mink, pony, leather and raffia. Several are named after his books or his ethnographic subjects and evoke something about the topics in their design and construction. He hopes to begin selling his shoes in 2021, with profits going to support the Harlem Arts Salon’s Gloster Arts Project and Parsons School of Design students. For Williams, it always comes back to creativity, connections, and communities.

Integrative PhD Fellowship Unites Design and the Humanistic Social Sciences

On a Tuesday afternoon class in April, Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey (above, right) was recounting a recent conference she had attended — standard talk for graduate students. But Carey hadn’t been at a sociology summit; rather, she had traveled to a gathering of the International Association for Chiefs of Police, where she listened to high-level law enforcement leaders discuss their strategies for combating crime, and tech developers present the newest data-focused software, such as Palantir, that helps predict future crime patterns.

That software is what most interests Carey and her classmates in “Thinking Through Interfaces,” an interdisciplinary seminar that examines what interfaces — the points where systems or subjects meet and interact — are, how they work, and how they shape our lives, as well as the pressing social and political issues surrounding them. 

“Usually only designers think about interfaces,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, who co-created and co-taught the class with Professor of Anthropology Shannon Mattern. Both professors approach the visual from different perspectives; while Mattern explores urban intelligences and maps, Adams focuses on architectural history and the built environment. In developing a syllabus aimed at helping social science students build interdisciplinary muscle, they incorporated texts from disability studies to media studies, and applied scholarship from human-computer interaction to information studies.

This seminar is part of the Integrative PhD Program, made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program supports NSSR doctoral students looking to combine their humanistic social science backgrounds with training in concepts and methodological approaches to data visualization, graphic design, coding, and digital media

Integrative PhD students are required to take a small collaborative seminar, like Thinking Through Interfaces, that is co-taught by one professor from NSSR’s social sciences departments and another from design or digital media, generally from The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement. They’re also required to take a course completely outside of NSSR; most choose to study data visualization or cartography.

Learning from professors with complementary skills means Integrative PhD students can become fluent in the full range of qualitative and quantitative methods as well as design thinking, and can better analyze the digital dimensions of political and social movements, media, culture, identity, and other topics critical to the humanistic social sciences.

“I think that for younger people, our graduate students, that combination of skills is within their reach,” says University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici (above left), co-director and co-founder of the Integrative PhD. “They don’t see that they have to decide, ‘I’m in one camp or another’, which was more or less the case when I was coming up as a young scholar.” In other words, it’s less “Are you qualitative or quantitative?” and more “In what ways are you combining methodologies?”

Birth of an Idea

Wagner-Pacifici became interested in interdisciplinary study about 13 years ago, as she worked with two fellow sociologists to examine President George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy Report. The relationship was complementary; Wagner-Pacifici had strong close reading skills while her collaborators were experts in network analysis and formal modeling. “At that time, it was just the beginning of doing computational analyses of texts,” she says. One could put certain passages into a computer “and out came elements…or patterns that, in theory, an individual reader could not have seen.” This kind of combination of quantitative and qualitative skills wasn’t common at the time. “For us, this collaboration was as much a part of the project as whatever we came up with.” 

In 2015, as The New School was looking for ways to better integrate its strong programs in design, social research, and media studies, NSSR Dean Will Milberg decided to approach the Mellon Foundation about a new program. This Integrative PhD initiative would equip graduate students with skills like “computational text analysis, data visualization, cartography and other kinds of mappings so that they could enhance their dissertation projects and ask certain questions that their traditional methodologies did not allow them to ask, and make themselves more marketable,” remembers Wagner-Pacifici.

Milberg also brought Daniel Sauter, Associate Professor of Data Visualization at Parsons, into the discussion. It was a bold act of academic matchmaking — one that Wagner-Pacific views as a success. “We have different ways of asking questions and answering them, and different approaches to data, and that’s been at the heart of the Integrative PhD.”

“We often hear from applicants and fellows that this program is doing exactly what they thought The New School was about in regards to cross-disciplinary learning,” says Sauter. “In that sense, we are happy to implement a core mission of the university, continuously translating methods and pedagogy across schools, and contributing to a learning experience that we believe better prepares fellows for their academic and professional careers.” 

Bringing It All Together

Carey is certainly asking different and more focused questions than she had imagined. When she arrived at NSSR as an MA student, she planned to study Roma human rights in Europe. As her focus shifted to predictive policing — in which law enforcement officials use data analysis software to identify what kinds of criminal activity might happen in the future, as well as where and when it might occur —  she knew she needed to develop new analytical skills. 

“I wasn’t familiar with the theories, or how to go about studying that sort of topic as a qualitative social science researcher,” she says, noting bigger conversations in the field around how to study proprietary systems, whose internal workings are not public, and machine learning algorithms, which continually rewrite themselves. So she applied to the Integrative PhD program and was accepted in the 2017-2019 Fellows cohort.

“The best thing I’ve gotten out of the Integrative PhD was clarifying my methods, and what I hope will be innovations in how social scientists can study data systems,” Carey reflects. “In interdisciplinary work, you have to pull from all these different areas and sometimes your conversations get stuck on concepts or theories instead of the nitty-gritty of combining the methods from these different areas.”

Working with other Fellows has helped Carey answer a variety of research-related questions, from how to manage notes to how to collect and store data. “[More advanced Fellows] had resources to share with me, and now I’m doing the same with the Fellows behind me,” she says.

Another “Thinking Through Interfaces” classmate, Clinical Psychology PhD candidate Emily Breitkopf, is using the class to develop a visual component to her dissertation.

“My larger body of research is about media and technologies of gendering, and my dissertation looks at fetal gendering and sexing practices during pregnancy in the U.S.,” Breitkopf, a 2018-2020 Fellow explains. In particular, she examines how one specific class of technological interfaces — those that help us look inside a pregnant person, such as ultrasound — transform a fetus into an expected boy or girl through the language of gender.

Why do people care so much about fetal gender? “In order to relate to others, even imagined ones, many of us are compelled to wrangle them into binary gendered language because it helps alleviate the anxiety of not feeling stably-gendered ourselves,” Breitkopf says. “So when we have technologies like genetic testing or the ultrasound that offer this ‘promise’ of binary gendered language even during pregnancy, it stands to reason people would want it.”

The interactive visual component of her dissertation is “meant to convey the ways these cultural myths of gender stabilization play out visually, emotionally, through words, sound, and desire,” 

“I’ve always been interested in not only engaging the public at the level of language, but also at the level of feeling, to compel people to encounter the questions I’m asking  at a visceral level,” she says. “Producing a media-based interface has been both familiar and runs counter to the ways I’ve learned to be heard in academia.”

The Integrative PhD program is also helping more established scholars like Adams move their research forward, and in new directions. “This is really a chance to do philosophy in the present,” he says. “These are new devices that we’re surrounded by, but because they’re so new they haven’t yet been adequately theorized.” He’s now planning a conference around the topic, and is digging deeper into interests in architectural history and the built environment.

And emerging scholar Zeyno Ustun, a 2017-2019 Fellow, NSSR Sociology PhD graduate, and a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, has combined her ethnographic and data visualization skills to examine state surveillance and the social and political conditions that facilitated the 2013 Gezi Resistance in Turkey and other networked movements of the 21st century.

The future is collaborative — and with the Integrative PhD, the humanistic social sciences will continue to lead in the digital era.

Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”

Researching Subcultures, Inc.

Gregory Snyder is a PhD alumnus of the Department of Sociology and received his MA in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is currently a Professor at Baruch College, where he dedicates his research to the scholarly study of subcultures. His book Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding will be published this December by New York University Press.

And he was also a clue on Jeopardy!

Snyder was born on a U.S. military base in Germany and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of NSSR’s Liberal Studies program, as well as the chance to live in New York City, Snyder enrolled at the New School for Social Research in 1992. Following the completion of his MA thesis, he was accepted to the PhD Program in Sociology at the NSSR.

Snyder remembers with fondness the New York City of the 90’s, a time when graffiti art was at its apogee and the Wu Tang Clan was ascendant. Despite having conducted research in the sociology of religion, Snyder had a “conversion” moment that altered his scholarly trajectory. While riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge to meet his dissertation advisor, Snyder was struck by a beautiful bit of graffiti. Dwelling on the art and reflecting on the dearth of scholarly engagement with graffiti, Snyder made a decision.

“By the time I arrived at the meeting,” he said, “I told my advisor: I’ve got to write about graffiti.”

Snyder had little idea of how to go about formally studying graffiti culture. “I started researching graffiti before I knew about subculture theory,” he said. He immersed himself in a growing milieu by interviewing artists, winning access to the painting process, and eventually producing some of his own work. Combining an amateur’s fascination with scholarly ethnographic practice, Snyder began to hang out regularly with some of the most prominent graffiti artists in the city. Given the importance of passion and motivation to his dissertation, Snyder’s advisor lent his support to the project of developing a sophisticated scholarly understanding of what was—in the mind of many—a crude form of vandalism.

At the time he was first studying it, graffiti had a reputation as more of an urban nuisance than a valuable object of study. “Combating simple binaries is really important,” Snyder suggested. For him, scholarship attains its value precisely acts that complicate—thereby weakening—binary ways of thinking, while at the same time exposing nuance and compelling gray areas. “When things are contradictory, there tends to be beauty involved,” he said. Such was the case with the underground culture of graffiti artists. “To me,” he continued, “graffiti was high art vandalism […] I liked my art vandalistic and my vandalism artistic.”

But what counts as a subculture, and how do sociologists and other social scientists go about studying them? Snyder explained that, in the more than twenty years since he first began studying graffiti, a new subfield has emerged to address precisely these issues, while codifying methods for researching and understanding subcultures. He said that subcultural groups, “are sophisticated enough to self-identify.” So despite the scholarly debate about what really counts as a subculture, he relies on self-identification. When a group describes itself as a subculture, Snyder suggests that we should take them at their word.

The subfield of subculture studies was originally developed at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. More informally known as “the Birmingham School,” the Center pioneered cultural studies methodologies for understanding subcultures. The young scholars that made up the Birmingham school argued that working class subcultures, like Mods and Punks, were evidence of symbolic resistance to the mainstream consumption imperative of capitalism. They argued however that this resistance was fleeting, it was merely symbolic and did not alter the lives of working class kids, because there were in fact no subculture careers. It is on this final point that Snyder takes issue, and having spent years studying subcultures that have become self-sustaining, he argued that graffiti writers and skateboarders do indeed create subculture careers. While this brings up issues of co-optation, he shows that despite this economic incentive, skaters, writers and a host of other subcultures, profit from their activity while still self-identifying as members of a subcultures.

Snyder’s claim is precisely that, pressing back against this thought, subcultures can take on lives of their own that replicate the mainstream, and can even become a part of it while retaining their distinctive “subcultural” quality. Graffiti and skateboarding thus become ways of showing that subcultures can indeed become careers; indeed, they are industries, and nonetheless retain their subcultural status. In this way, Snyder seeks to contest some of the most influential theoretical approaches to understanding subcultures. In order to understand why the Birmingham framework may have missed the mark, Snyder argues that it is necessary to go to the subcultures themselves, and spend time with the people who participate and make them grow.

Reflecting on the theory and practice of studying subcultures, Snyder said: “When I committed to ethnography, I committed to graffiti.” However, graffiti was not his endpoint. Following his initial research on graffiti, which resulted in the book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Snyder set his eyes on another emergent subculture: skateboarding.

He was inadvertently immersed in the skateboarding crowd through his brother, professional skateboarder Aaron Snyder. Relating skateboarding to his previous studies in graffiti, Snyder said, “Both practices are misunderstood, and conventional wisdom is that they’re dumb or deviant, which makes them sociologically interesting.” Snyder has long been interested in the way that graffiti artists and skateboarders professionalized and monetized their alleged deviance (skateboarding was, for a time, illegal in many places in the United States) in order to form legitimate industries and find ways to make a living.

“Skateboarders are very deft at recording and distributing their work along industry lines,” he explained. He added that, just like the graffiti artists of the previous generation, skateboarders demonstrate a great amount of “creativity, athleticism, and competition” among themselves. The work of both subcultures is marked by “artistry and dexterity” that has challenged the negative associations and characterizations of their early days. This has allowed them to scale, and, in a way, gain acceptance within the mainstream, even while retaining their spirit of rebellion and irreverence.

In this sense, Snyder tells me, “subcultures produce their own contexts.” More importantly, Snyder argues that the maturation graffiti artists and skateboarders, as well as their ability to promote their work commercially, “indicates a blind spot in how people have thought about subcultures.” We continue to miss the value of subcultures as they emerge, and are belated to accepting the value that they create. This is as true today, despite the increase in books and articles on the subject, as it was when Snyder first had his epiphany about graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In his research, Snyder develops the theoretical and ethnographic tools to help guard against a tendency to miss the full breadth of creativity, know-how, and gradual development of a variety of subcultures. Armed with his insights, we are better equipped to appreciate the richness of these tendencies, which stand apart from our culture, but which can also teach us so much about it.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”