Citizen Social Science as a tool to study urban stigma

In Fall 2018 I had the joy of getting back to classroom teaching after an extended leave to focus on research. For my re-entry, I chose a research practicum. The class is focused on exposing global health and anthropology majors to the mechanics of doing social science. The students help develop a real-world project, pilot the tools, recruit participants, collect the data, clean and check what we have and prep for analysis. It’s a challenging process for students and teachers alike, but it’s also a pretty rewarding one. This semester, we put together a project focused on one manifestation of stigma — how urban environments can exclude some groups of people, often in very subtle but powerful ways. It can be women, or people with larger-than-average size bodies, or non English speakers. The messaging can be built into our physical spaces, but it can be hard for others unaffected by it to see (we call this “structural [un]awareness”). That was our hypothesis anyway.

An example of the transects used by the citizen social scientists.

The students designed a set of transects in downtown Tempe, which walked people through prescribed routes and asked them to record what they observed. To get the range of people we needed to make the project worked we used a technique called citizen social science (CSS). Our inspiration – and a lot of good advice — came from ASU’s Center for Global Health, which has CSS as its theme this year under the lead of anthropological linguist Cindi SturtzSreetharan. Citizen social science allows us to reach out into the community, bringing in a wider array of people to help us collect better quality data at greater scale. The hope is it also helps people in the community to understand what we do as social scientists, and have a fun doing it. The students recruited and trained the citizen social scientists from across the Valley of the Sun.

Doing a project that with this many moving parts in 15 weeks is not easy. The students were amazingly generous and engaged and we hit our targets through determination and teamwork. The citizen social scientists were generous with their time and attentive to the task. But it also took help from a number of generous faculty expert collaborators that visited and supported the class throughout the semester so we could be sure our data was of quality: Cindi SturtzSreetharan taught us about CSS and helped the students figure out the challanges of recruiting, Amber Wutich explained text analysis and building codes, Meski Glegziabheri helped us think through the ethical and practical complexities of the project, and Alissa Ruth helped navigate the ins-and-outs data checking.

So that bought the team that designed the project and collected the data to a whopping total of 197 people: 30 undergrad students, 5 expert social scientists, 160 citizen social scientists, 1 amazing teaching assistant, and me. This next semester we will analyze the data, starting with systematic coding, again with expert support to help us move the data forward to publication. Even more students from our lab may help as well, as they learn about data cleaning. In the meantime, I will let one student’s feedback to speak for all: “I learned how difficult doing real social science can be and the importance of collaborating with others.” Yup.

ASU anthropologists (Cindi, Meski, Amber and Alex) out in the noon-day heat checking the student designed transects in downtown Tempe.