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Field Notes from a Demographer-in-Training

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I thought my first summer job after starting a Ph.D. program in population studies (demography) would be staring at statistics on a computer screen, most likely in a windowless office. My prior summer research had included watching drunk driving public service announcements; poring over state laws; cleaning data for large federal surveys; and creating tables for annual reports. What I did not picture was frantically writing field notes about ATV trips or church services, trying to recall the names and demeanors of people I met, all from a slightly angled trailer in the woods of Kentucky, staring at 105 structurally questionable steps leading down to a lake. But there I was.

A common sentiment among my Ph.D. student friends is, “We are our work.” But for some of us, including me, that statement is a bit more literal. I study humans, and I am one—at least I was last time I checked. And studying humans while being a human poses some unique challenges. For me this tension manifested during my fieldwork in two ways: methodological and personal.

One challenge was the radical departure from my sedentary large-dataset life to delve into qualitative interviewing. The project, titled “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage,” is a joint effort between Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, at Princeton University and Luke Shaefer, at the University of Michigan. It started with compiling statistics on poverty, poor health (low birth weight and life expectancy) and low social mobility. From these numbers, we found clusters of disadvantage.

But statistics tell only part of the story. They cannot capture the day-to-day realities or the experiences of the people who call these places home. So, a partner and I were sent into the field in Clay County, Kentucky, and asked people about such things as household structure at birth, fertility and marriage trends, mortality and morbidity, migration and employment. Demography was suddenly no longer just a set of numbers for me; it was brought vividly to life.

A number or a percentage or a survey response does not really tell you what the lived experience is like. What does having a life expectancy seven years below the U.S.’s look like? How does a community come together in a place where poverty and addiction are the norm? Statistics tell us what is, but not necessarily why it is. Beyond that, most survey data show just a snapshot in time, and we focus on averages or medians but not so much on the distribution.

For example, we know the average life expectancy in Clay County, but that included people killed in their 20s, those in their 40s and 50s battling early onset diabetes and cancer—and people in their 80s hiking in Natural Bridge park. Or consider the median age. For the county we were in it is average (around 39), but that does not tell you about the exodus of young people from the county, or a teenage birth rate triple that of the U.S. as a whole. How does a simple number characterizing household size reflect the complex family dynamics of people doubling up with family, friends, partners, and the partner’s family and friends?

In addition to my reckoning with statistics, I found myself wrestling with the personal and emotional tolls of fieldwork. While the summer was the first time I had been in Kentucky, I spent most of my childhood in small towns in western Colorado. Working in Kentucky, I constantly found myself drawing connections between the two places. While my home community does not top any lists of hardest places on an Index of Deep Disadvantage, it has problems and occasionally makes the national news. The New Yorker ran a piece about how Trump was transforming rural America. It was about my county, “Grand Junction, a rural area with urban problems” was the line that jumped out. What is a “rural” problem and what is an “urban” problem? This was a question our respondents asked and one I was asking myself quite a lot. As far as I can tell, there is no consensus of on an answer in social science. 

I know stories from my adolescence and young adulthood of people who died of drug overdose, or were killed because of meth-related violence, or committed suicide. I see updates from people who got pregnant in high school, early marriage and divorce, and needing to set up GoFundMe to regroup after domestic abuse. It’s been relatively easy to push these thoughts aside as I balanced classes, teaching and research, but in Kentucky they came flooding in.

“Why don’t they come back?” a community leader asked in a hushed voice—“they” being the young people who graduate high school and go away to college, or to find better job opportunities, and don’t return. People from my town ask the same questions. “Emily, when are you coming back? We really need people like you,” my high school history teacher told me on my last visit. My parents get variations of that question at church, at school board meetings and at the grocery store. I always wanted to leave western Colorado and never come back. I have had East Coast professors and co-workers tell me going back would be a “waste.” I used to believe that. Now, I’m not sure. Seeing and hearing about a similar challenge in Kentucky made me confront the reality of a community I and other young people like me left behind. 

According to core demographic measures—age, sex and race—many of our respondents were the same as me on paper: mid-20s, white, female. But unlike me, they often had kids. And while I had completed my 17th year of school, several respondents had less than a high school education. My demographic matches in Kentucky had often lived through severe trauma: domestic abuse, child neglect, violence, deaths of family members. These interviews were challenging for me. Why? Why did we live such divergent lives? In a way, that is the question our research is designed to answer. Hopefully, we got at least a little bit closer to understanding.

I think that one of the main reasons I had initially discounted field work for myself was fear. Fear no one would talk to me. Fear I would not know what to say. Fear I would misrepresent someone’s life. Fear I would insert too much of myself and my perspectives and possibly my judgments into the work. Fear I would not get answers. But being a little uncomfortable and questioning your position and perceptions as a researcher is probably a good sign. A sign that you are growing, that you are wrestling with questions that matter.

I left Kentucky with a newfound love for Loretta Lynn and for bourbon. But, more importantly I have a better understanding of a different side of social science, and hopefully a way to ask better questions and get more complete answers.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Olivia Mann and Lanora Johnson, my partners in the field, as well as the rest of our research team. Also, I am grateful to the people of Clay County who opened up their lives, invited us into their homes and shared their stories.

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