Interview with Jennifer Sherman about her new book, Dividing Paradise
Jennifer Sherman’s new book Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream was released in April 2021. The book “tells the story of ‘Paradise Valley,’ Washington, a rural community where amenity-driven economic growth has resulted in a new social landscape of inequality and privilege, with deep fault lines between Old-timers and Newcomers” (University of California Press). We interviewed Jenn about her important new book, lessons learned, and tips for early scholars, as well as her exciting new work examining rural jails and incarceration.
Sadie: How did the project for your new book, Dividing Paradise, develop?
Jenn: The project began many years before it actually began. As the book’s prologue explains, it began during a trip to go rock climbing. My climbing partner took me to this remote place we hadn’t been before. As we were driving up, I thought, “Wow this looks in some ways so much like Golden Valley, the subject of my first book, and in some ways so different,” and I was really struck by that. Physically, the attributes were really similar; they were both these remote mountain valleys with similar landscapes, the big mountains, the Cascades rising above them. But this new place, which I call “Paradise Valley,” had all these services, and there was nothing like it in my previous field site. There are restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, and little trinket shops—all sorts of things that cater to tourists. I understood that this is a place that’s really benefited from amenity tourism, which at the time, the late aughts, was being sold to rural communities as their one chance to recover from the loss of extractive industries like logging or mining. It was really believed that amenity tourism could solve the problem by bringing new populations and money into the area and revitalizing the economy. Certainly, this place gave that impression. Things looked okay and it looked vibrant compared to this burned out, dead mill town that I had lived in, at that point, five years earlier. I was curious to know more about that. It was something I had heard in Golden Valley—like, if only we could have tourism, we might be okay. There was this real sense of amenity tourism bringing people to recreate in your mountains, or whatever, will save you.
For me, the original question was, “What does it look like on the ground, and where are the kind of people that I knew in Golden Valley?” There are so many beautiful homes all over Paradise Valley, but there weren’t a lot of signs of what I thought was normal rural life, so it left me with a lot of questions. Over the next couple of years, I visited that place for various forms of recreation, and I continued to wonder what’s going on here. So, when I had a sabbatical in 2014, I decided to take a deep dive into this phenomenon of amenity tourism and understand its impact on local community.
Sadie: It makes me think of my hometown in Wyoming, which is an oil town, and there has been a lot of resistance to move beyond that industry and how to do so. But I can see the turn to amenity tourism happening, like you can come hunt and fish here. During the pandemic a lot of the camping spots were full through the summer with people coming from places like California, but also wealthy people moving in or getting second homes, and it reminds me of my conversations with people back home. Can you tell us about the major findings and contributions of this work?
Jenn: The findings focus on some of the things you just mentioned and what happens. It wasn’t so much about the tourism itself; tourism is a mixed bag because the types of jobs it creates are low-wage service sector jobs and it doesn’t tend to create money. It brings money into the community, but the local workforce is not really benefiting from the economic activity that’s created.
That I sort of knew already, but what was happening turned out to be much more interesting. I envisioned this originally as a project that was focused on this local population, because that was how I saw it naively going in. There’s going to be a local population, and then tourists that come visit, and nothing in between. What I hadn’t thought a lot about were the people that are, like you say, buying into these places. Originally in Paradise Valley there were a lot of retirees coming in, but by the time I moved there, it was also a lot of wealthy younger adults with families moving in. There was a certain sector of the population that was leaving cities like Portland and Seattle telling me, “We just wanted to be closer to nature. We wanted to be able to go hiking.” They had jobs that were flexible enough that they could do this, or they could retire from their high-powered job, sell their house in Seattle, and take that money and invest into a massive property in this place, and then find something to do, whether it was construction or whatever. A lot of guys quit the corporate life and took on often seasonable but high-end finished carpentry type jobs. A lot of women found jobs in schools or local nonprofits, but they found ways to make it work. That’s what the book begins to chronicle.
They often made a lot of sacrifice; it wasn’t necessarily easy to relocate to the rural community, but because these were people who tended to have a lot of resources—both real financial resources and symbolic resources like education and cultural and social capital, all the kinds of invisible resources that sociologists study—eventually, they were able to make it work in this place. They were able to find the best jobs. They were able to find things that they enjoyed that gave their lives meaning. They could afford to live off not-great wages because oftentimes their homes were paid off and they didn’t need a massive income. They often had quite a bit of wealth to push in for seasonal layoffs and things like that, so living there was a struggle—I don’t want to downplay it—but it was a manageable struggle. They could figure this out and, in the meantime, they found other people like them, who were smart, liberal, and well educated, and they could share resources with each other. If there weren’t music lessons or ballet classes or yoga, they created them and created these little worlds where they get their needs met. They created networks for sharing chores and childcare, so that if they needed somebody to watch their kids after school, they had a friend who had a flexible job. There were just all these different ways to pool their resources to make this place work.
So, this was one sector of the population, and then on the other hand, you had the population that I had originally expected to find: the people who were from there and had lived there longer. In the book, I call them “Newcomers” and “Old-timers.” There’s this huge contrast between them. The Old-timer population are people who were tied to the forest army or worked in logging before the collapse—the ones who worked for the forest service before the jobs started to dry up, or once worked in fire suppression, who now were facing this economy where the jobs are mostly low wage and seasonal but without those same advantages. They don’t have the education, they don’t have the soft skills, the communication skills to impress the Newcomers who want houses built, but they would rather work with a carpenter who speaks their language than one who doesn’t. They didn’t have the networks full of people with resources to rely on when they needed help, and those people were increasingly marginalized. As these Newcomers bought up bigger lots of land, it meant that housing became more and more scarce. But also, those low-wage jobs no longer pay the local housing costs. As the prices rise, you end up with massive housing shortages. It was an interesting project because, from day to day, I would be traveling to amazing, beautiful houses that are, like, all rough-cut wood with 360-degree views perched at the top of a mountain looking down on the valley below, and then the next day I might be in a travel trailer that somebody’s living in full time that doesn’t have plumbing or winterization, or really squalid conditions. People described camping for months at a time because they had been evicted and couldn’t find a place to live. Housing was so scarce.
So, the book chronicles these divisions and the ways in which all these real and symbolic resources get hoarded by one group, while they’re systematically withheld from the other. So, this group figures it out and that group is struggling more and more, and this group can’t understand why people can’t make it work because, you know, “They must be lazy if they’re not surviving the way I am.” This is something we’ve seen and heard about, of course. In the book, I refer to it as class blindness, which is sort of a corollary to colorblind racism—this idea that your own advantages are often invisible to you and you can’t understand why somebody else isn’t successful the way you are because you are basically unaware of all the ways in which you are privileged. That was really what I saw—not only was this divide occurring, where some people had a much easier time than others in the same place, in the same labor market, etc., but this cognitive divide where you have one group of people that’s like, “I don’t understand why they’re not working harder. You can make it if you try. I tried, I made it.” And then you’ve got another group that’s getting kind of angry and bitter and feels like something has been stolen from them because they grew up here, and now they can’t afford to live here. They have the same education as their parents, but they can’t get as good of a job. They can’t figure out how to buy a house, they can’t figure out how to make it. So, their vision of the American dream just gets slimmer and slimmer, and they have to give up on certain aspects of it and diminish their hopes over time, while the other guys figure out how to make it. The book digs into those two sides of the story and then puts them back together and looks at how those judgments occur, how that class blindness manifests on the ground, and then the political beliefs that spring up around that. It does a dive into the anti-government sentiment that was big at the time—we’re talking the end of the Obama era—so you have a lot of people that feel like they’re losing something, and they can glom onto that ideology and use it to help explain some of this experience. It’s particularly grounded in a rural community where land that used to be open is now restricted, and government agencies control a lot of your access to resources that used to be seen as kind of infinite.
On the other hand, I also critique the liberal understandings that I saw there, which often include espousing a belief in social justice and equality but then also judging individuals and not wanting to interact with those poor individuals. You want to solve poverty, but you don’t want your kids playing with their kids. There’s cognitive dissonance between the ideals of equality and the actual practice of it on the ground. I have a lot of quotes from the same individuals saying, on the one hand, “Oh I care about all these lofty ideals,” but then telling me, like, “I don’t know if you’ve met the poor people here, but they’re really lazy,” expressing a lot of judgment for the individuals, while still claiming to care about the ideology or the ideals, which again is that class blindness. The end of the book suggests that one of the things that’s gone wrong here is the division of this place. People don’t know each other the way they once would have in a rural community where everybody is kind of friends with everybody. Some had more than others, but you understood what the other person was going through. Your experiences were similar enough that you still had empathy. I saw that, as these divisions grew more hardened, empathy disappeared and people didn’t understand each other’s experiences and didn’t work together as a community to solve problems.
Sadie: Thank you, Jenn, for a phenomenal overview and so relevant to many of the issues that we are facing currently. In your first book you talked a lot about moral capital and how it operated in Golden Valley, but it sounds like, in Paradise Valley, with its different population of people, this looked different and was not able to be leveraged in the same way. I’d love to hear about the differences and similarities between the places you studied and how capital operated.
Jenn: I’m still unpacking how different forms of symbolic capital work in this place even after having finished the book because there’s so many layers to it. I found that the Old-timers were making claims to moral capital in a very similar way to what I described in the first book where they described their work ethics, their family values. They tried to portray themselves as hard workers, and it just didn’t have the same value in this place. I make the argument in the first book that moral capital rises in importance in this place where there are very few other forms of distinction. Because Paradise Valley was more complex, there were these other forms of distinction in play, and so it became more about having income and wealth. That was probably the most important, but social capital played an enormous role. This story is so much about who people knew and your social capital was closely related to your cultural capital. I described the differences in leisure activities, like, “Are you in book clubs, and do you go skiing, running, and hiking with your friends; or do you play video games, ride snowmobiles, and horse pack?” and the circles that end up being created around these different activities. The Newcomers built so much of their world around a shared cultural capital, where there was an entire community built around the arts and certain kinds of high-end entertainment. But often those events, whether it was the theater or the art galleries, weren’t meant to bring in people who were new to it, and if you were, it felt uncomfortable. Even as someone with that capital, it felt uncomfortable to be there the first time. It was an exclusive space, and a lot of the events are expensive, and low-income people can’t afford that, so they were left out and they did not interact with those people. Their kids are not taking the music and ballet lessons. The kids reproduce this because of who they’re exposed to, but the community has since worked on and reversed this. For quite a while they even had pay-to-play fees at schools, meaning that extracurriculars and sports cost extra fees, and so, again, it meant that the low-income kids couldn’t be on a sports team with the wealthy kids, and it reproduced the divide. The book doesn’t get into that in a ton of detail; I have a forthcoming article that focuses on the educational system in particular.
What I find is social capital matters, human capital matters, cultural capital matters—all those things matter, and you have very deep divisions, and the one thing that didn’t matter to Newcomers was moral capital. They had all these other forms of tradable capital. So, you had Old-timers on the one hand making claims to their morality, and Newcomers completely ignoring them because they didn’t know them. They didn’t care that they had a nice family and they were hard workers. They weren’t paying any attention to them and didn’t interact with them well enough or often enough to see those forms of capital being expressed. But often as well, they just assumed that they had no moral value or values. So, the one form that the Old-timers were clinging to was the one that had been utterly devalued by the new population, the new power brokers. What I found was moral capital just wasn’t much in this community.
Sadie: That makes sense with Golden Valley being more homogeneous in the population and circumstances as compared to Paradise Valley. Extending that a bit, what can we glean from your work and these places to help us understand rural places and issues of poverty and employment in general?
Jenn: There’s two ways in which the book can be extended: One is to think about the implications for rural communities, and the other is to think about how this place is a microcosm of the U.S. more generally.
First, for rural communities, as we talked about in the beginning of this conversation, amenity-tourism is still seen as the best bet for your future. Extractive industries, for the most part, are not coming back, and the ones that are like fracking, there’s not a real future there. To be fair, a lot of those industries were exploitative in their own ways, anyway, so I think we must accept that there isn’t a future in manual labor industries in rural communities, at least not soon. So, we are going to continue to see this issue of development of recreation activities as one of our main forces for growth and economic development in rural places and they’ve been struggling with it for decades. I’m certainly not the first or the last to study this phenomenon and it’s only gotten worse since COVID.
As you described with regards to your hometown in Wyoming, this Zoom town phenomena is just exploding. This idea that anyone can work remotely and why wouldn’t you do it from a really pretty place? You’re going to continue to see more of the same pressures, so when you move to that really pretty place, now you need really pretty services (laughs). You need things that weren’t there. You want your coffee shop, you want your upscale pub—not the dingy local bar. You want your yoga studio, and you want to reproduce your urban amenities in a rural community. Which is understandable, but it does fundamentally change the nature of that place and how rural places include their own members. So, for rural communities it’s a challenge moving forward to think about how to integrate Newcomers into a rural lifestyle rather than creating a bifurcated community where they have everything and the people who have been rural for longer have very little left and are culturally devalued and looked down upon.
There is this problem of the people who have the resources to make this kind of move right now; the Zoom towns are not filling with working-class individuals. They are filling with very wealthy people who have resources that make it possible for them to buy that second home, and maybe live there while COVID’s happening and then move over again when things get safer. We don’t know how it’s going to play out, but we know that it’s a rapidly changing landscape in terms of gentrification of rural communities and pretty much any rural place that has amenities is seeing. We’re seeing it here on the Palouse. I can’t afford a home in Paradise Valley now. The prices have gone through the roof. They had been for years, but since COVID, it’s nuts there, two-bedroom homes are going for over half a million now in what was once this depressed rural community. So, these pressures of gentrification and bifurcation and division are things that rural communities are going to have to face in the future—if they’re lucky. That’s the tragic piece. If you’re lucky enough to face those problems, you’re going to have to face them. And the other communities are continuing to be left behind, so I think we’re seeing trends in rural communities themselves between those who have these amenities that can be commodified and those that don’t.
I don’t know that the book has a lot of big solutions beyond trying to think at the community level—at least about ways to ensure interaction between your Newcomers and your Old-timers—finding ways to create a safety net that is desperately needed, while also creating dignity, creating interaction, and creating space for people to actually get to know each other and to see each other as human beings rather than enemies across the divide or something.
A lot of rural communities have to contend with those dynamics, and that’s sort of on them and sort of on these Newcomers coming in. In a lot of ways this book is meant for them. It’s meant for people like you and me because it’s easy to get sucked into what feels most comfortable to you and not understand the person who has way less, whether it’s real or symbolic resources. A lot of the challenge is for those better-resourced people to recognize their class blindness and try to find ways to deal with it, address it, and be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
Sadie: That makes total sense in terms of bringing people together because it’s easier to empathize with people that you know, and it can debunk some of those misunderstandings when you’re interacting and talking with them and hearing about their lives.
Jenn: And often that they are actually super hardworking and that they don’t end up looking like you does not at all speak to their character. A lot of times they face constraints you can’t imagine because you’ve never had to, and getting to know people and learning about those constraints can help you understand and that understanding creates empathy for caring about their needs as well as you own.
Without that, you just see people who have dogmatically different opinions than yours and are completely different. I heard from Newcomers who were like, “Why would I want to interact with people who don’t want anything to do with me? We don’t have similar interests, we don’t care about the same thing, we don’t have the same belief system, so why would we?” I think that’s a toxic and problematic way to think about it, particularly when you’re in a small community that sort of behooves you to get to know each other. You have something in common in that you both inhabit this place and want the best for it, so figure out how to respect each other.
On the larger scale, I think of this community as in some ways a microcosm for what’s going on in the United States. On the national scale we have some people for whom the last few decades have not been so bad. Nobody’s doing great—this isn’t really a time of economic expansion unless you’re a corporation. Most individuals are dealing with some level of stagnation or insecurity, but nonetheless, within that larger framework, some of us have a lot more than others, with vast gaps in resources. Again, I think it makes it hard to understand somebody who’s different from you. So, I think this plays out between rural and urban, between Newcomer and Old-timer, but more generally, most American communities have some version of this. Because most places have these divides that have gotten so deep and so wide that we truly can’t understand another person’s experiences. That concept of thinking about how to challenge it is applicable whether you live in a city or a rural community in our nation. I think we all suffer from some version of it. If we have any resources at all we often are unaware of just how privileged that makes us.
Sadie: There’s been so much conversation recently about the problem we’re facing with division, so it speaks to that and how to bridge these divides. You’ve spoken about beginning to address these divides in communities, can you talk about the larger policy implications of your work?
Jenn: There’s certainly implications of a larger scale. I try to speak to that question of what I can do as an individual. As a sociologist, I like to remind people that there are rarely individual solutions to social problems. You can do something to help, but the reality is that, while recognizing privilege and understanding disadvantage goes a long way towards creating space and empathy that might open us up to better policies, in themselves they don’t change much. I argue that we need something to level the playing field and we need to stop creating divides of this nature, this vast difference in resources but also in opportunities. I’ve already been called out on the radio for being a socialist (laughs). My answer to that was you have two options as a nation to fix this problem. One is your more socialist version: to create some kind of social safety net to lift up the very bottom so that gap gets a little narrower. That could look like supports for childcare, which is one of the things I get into in the book, supports for healthcare, educational supports, or different kinds of supports that give people some help to make it. How are you supposed to work if it takes two workers to survive but there’s nobody to take care of your children? We have a problem here that we can solve that way.
If we don’t like the idea of providing universal access to something like health care or childcare, our other option is to put pressure on our markets to value work more fairly. We’re talking a lot about the minimum wage at this moment and certainly that would help, but as Washingtonians already know, $10 an hour is not actually a living wage. I think one thing that’s come out of this pandemic is a better recognition and understanding of the fact that service work is work, and that people making the lowest wages are some of the most “essential” to our society but often treated as people who don’t have a real job or a real career and thus don’t need to be paid for one. A solution we could consider is rethinking why we devalue manufacturing, service work, food service, or any of these jobs that are at the bottom of the pay scale. Why and does it have to be that way? Could we figure out a way to pay for the services provided to us that we know to be essential? Because that could also lift up a whole bunch of people and give them resources to then choose to buy their own health care or childcare, or whatever we don’t want to provide on a societal scale. I think something of that nature to level the playing field is absolutely necessary because a divide this grave doesn’t occur if people don’t have such different experiences within the social structure. It’s created by the fact that a group of people cannot fathom the experience of another group. If we were all facing somewhat similar circumstances, I think we’d come a lot closer to understanding what’s in the best interest of our country. So, making social location closer together would be very helpful or closing that gap in the first place.
Sadie: I appreciate your framing that this policy solution can look different ways, but the reality is people just cannot make it and are doing everything they can, so something must shift.
Jenn: And again, that experience does really differ depending on your other resources. Some of those people that were written off as lazy had to make really tough choices between work and childcare and often found that work didn’t pay. It actually paid to have one adult stay home, and it was whichever adult had the hardest time in the labor market. It wasn’t always the man or the woman.
For a lot of families, we counted childcare expenses and commuting expenses across a long valley in not the most efficient vehicles, because you can’t afford that, and all the other expenses that come with work, whether it’s uniforms or whatever. Families would realize I’m actually losing money by doing this, so I guess I’ll stay home and raise my kid. Versus some of these other families that could patchwork it together because they have the human capital, they could get the more flexible jobs, they could find a way to make it work. I saw that the ones who made it work didn’t understand how you could not. They’re like, “There’s jobs available. I don’t know why these people won’t take them.” But why would you take a job that keeps you in poverty? You’re looking for something better, not because you feel that it’s beneath you; but, in fact, because it doesn’t pay the basic expenses of your life. Whether or not that seasonal layoff is experienced as a hardship or a vacation is going to depend on other resources.
Sadie: Next, I would like to turn the questioning to a different track. For grad students or recent PhDs who are hoping to turn their dissertation into a book, what knowledge can you share on that front? What lessons did you learn between publishing your first and second book?
Jenn: My first book was my dissertation, and it’s more work than you expect, but certainly you can start by writing your dissertation in that book format. In some ways you won’t be able to entirely because dissertations require a level of academic interaction and detail that books don’t. That was the first lesson I learned when I went to convert my dissertation into a book. I thought I had toned down the front-end theory and they told me I needed to tone it down way further and that it was not something a general audience could access. If you’re looking for a wider readership you do have to eventually address that issue in thinking about how the needs of a dissertation are different than the needs of a book. For a dissertation, you need to prove to your committee that you know everything (laughs), you read all the things, and you can cite them and use them. For a book you need to pare that down to just what’s most important and find a way to present it in a more accessible style. Certainly, my second book is much more accessible than the first because I learned that lesson, but I also wrote it that way from the start because I didn’t have to impress a committee of faculty. I knew going in that I don’t need to prove that I know how to use Bourdieu (laughs). So that was an important lesson and not one that you can get around, but you can write dissertations as a sort of first draft of a book. And paying attention to the formats that academic books of your particular genre/methodology take and try to write it in a similar way. There will be differences, such as a dissertation almost always has a methods chapter and a book almost never does, so there are things that you’ll have to collapse and rewrite later.
Thinking about a dissertation as a coherent story is one of the best ways to set yourself up to turn it into a book later. So, thinking about how do I set up this story in my intro chapter? How do I set up my chapters so that they flow one into the other? A lot of times we think of the dissertation model as just each chapter, but putting them in conversation with each other, having one flow from the previous one, things like that are relatively easily done. Outlining it ahead of time and knowing how it will come together to make one clear argument in the end. All of those are tips I could have used as a graduate student. I think some of that I did intuitively, and some was just luck.
There are lessons I’ve learned along the way, things like books are expected to have clear hooks. This was great advice from a friend who’s also a book writer, she’s like I want each chapter to have a hook, in the sense that if I was going to assign just one chapter out of your book, I could ask my students what this chapter is about, and they could say “this chapter is about class blindness” or “this chapter is about the deepening divide”. Being clear from the start and returning to that theoretical hook throughout so that your reader sees the thread. Especially when you’re working with qualitative data, where it’s easy to get lost in the story, to keep reminding them that this is an example of this larger phenomenon. With my students, I’m often asking them, “What is your contribution?” But with the book, you want to boil down that contribution even more to things like these pithy two words that I can use to sum up the main point of each chapter and that hopefully helps your reader grasp what you’re talking about.
Sadie: That is all so helpful in thinking about the mindset shift from the dissertation to the book and how your audience and purpose is different. You are also such an outstanding writer—readable, clear, enjoyable, and engaging—and I would love to hear your thoughts on how grad students can cultivate their writing skills and about how you approach writing and your writing philosophy.
Jenn: Writing is a tough one. Academic writing is hard because I think some of us want to see ourselves as creative writers and the academic world wants to destroy that (laughs) and wants to homogenize us into a very specific format and style. I have a couple of key thoughts about what makes something readable.
I remember from high school on that kids try to make themselves sound smarter by using bigger words and more complex language and end up with very complex sentences that are hard to understand. Certainly, a lot of brilliant academic scholars write like that. I don’t and that was a conscious choice because I didn’t like to read it. I made a choice to try to avoid being overly jargony, to avoid confusing my reader, to try to make things as clear as possible, and not to fear simplicity, not to fear a more concise sentence structure and use of language. I don’t shy away from academic terms, but I don’t go out of my way to overuse either academic terminology or jargon if I can avoid it. I try to write in a style that I would want to read versus what I imagine an academic audience is looking for. But it’s finding a way to get your voice into that format. You’re constrained to some degree by the norms of academia. Certainly this is more the case with academic articles than it is with books. Books allow you a lot more space to have a standpoint and a personality and to insert yourself into the story—and that is again something that I have never shied away from, and it’s not something that’s universally agreed upon as a good thing. My first book was written in a way that one of my committee members at the time hated and was like, “I don’t like the way you’re writing this. I don’t care about Jenn Sherman and her experiences. I want you out of the story. Just the facts. None of this description is helpful.” And I said, “Well I respectfully disagree. I think this makes it readable and interesting.” And as an ethnographer, which, to be fair, she was too, I feel that I’m the lens here, you know? This isn’t impersonal, I was there. Everything you’re reading is filtered through me, and I think it’s important that the reader be reminded of that from time to time. I was the human being who saw this. I was the camera, I was the lens, I was the filter. So, I matter and my experience on this matters and you shouldn’t, in my opinion, depersonalize qualitative work to that degree because it’s often done to give it this air that it’s more scientific, but the method is what the method is. It’s a different way of thinking about science and scientific observation but, to me, not divorced from the human experience of the observer. It’s different from quantitative work in that way, where it is several levels of separation from the person who’s doing the calculation. This is all filtered through me, so it was important to me to keep my standpoint, my eyes, and my personality in that story.
In terms of leaving in the description and things like that, you must be careful. You can go overboard in either direction and it’s a hard balance. I’ve read qualitative books that come across as too dry and I wish we got to know the characters or field site a bit more. And I’ve read books where they seem incapable of introducing a single human without telling me what they look like and their personal ticks. After a while I’m like, “I don’t need this level of information about the individual.” You have to be careful not to overwhelm the reader and annoy them and also put in just enough that they can put themselves in that place and have some sense of the setting, of the humanity of individuals. Finding that balance is hard. For me it was finding how to insert my voice into what is otherwise a dry academic standard.
Sadie: It’s interesting to hear about the push back you got on the first book because I found it so readable and enjoyable; but I also don’t enjoy reading work that feels purposely difficult to understand. And regarding the method, there have been interesting methodological lessons that have come out of that and what it means to be an ethnographer in these settings, which is important.
Jenn: And I don’t want to hide that. I want the reader to understand that I’m a player in this drama too. I’m not objective, not fully. I try, and you have to be careful with that. Nobody wants to read a book that is full of personal judgments about the individuals that they’re talking to you. You have to be careful to keep that to a minimum, but nonetheless, I think it’s also false to pretend that you are capable of omniscience or complete objectivity when, as human beings, none of us are. The best I think we can do is be aware and open as much as possible about our biases.
Sadie: Great insights and tips. I’ll end by asking about what you envision for the next leg of your career and your next project to undertake?
Jenn: It is interesting to be finishing up this project while I’m knee-deep in a newer one as well, but I’m already engaged in new qualitative research on rural jails and incarceration. I don’t know that I went looking for the opportunity, it was sort of presented to me. I think it grows out of having done decades now of work on rural communities, and being seen as somebody who understands them, that created this opportunity to dive into a specific policy issue. It wasn’t something that I thought I’d be doing, but when the opportunity came to me, I thought this is an issue that always interacts with my work. Because I work with low-income populations, I am always hearing stories about the impacts of the criminal justice system on people’s lives, so it felt like the right time to branch out into something a little bit different. I could continue to do these deep cultural dives into rural places because that’s my passion—and I certainly have other things I would love to explore about the ways in which the current cultural moment is playing out for different populations in rural areas—but this project is exciting to me in a couple of ways. One is it’s my first big project that’s collaborative where I get to work with a whole team and a quant side of the team, so that’s really cool that we can dive into the issue in multiple ways and angles. We have this stellar team led by Jen Schwartz who can look at the quantitative big picture data, which is a piece that I’ve never really succeeded at. If I can navigate the census on my own, I’m pretty proud of myself (laughs). I think the possibilities of what we can learn utilizing both sides of the methodological spectrum are exciting to me.
I’m also excited to engage at a policy level in ways that I haven’t before. Most of my work has been these community ethnographies where the policy implications are reasonably vague (laughs). So, I’m excited to engage in this work that will hopefully have not just policy implications but real policy engagement. We are going to look at what we can concretely do differently in rural Washington communities to address rising incarceration levels, how we can work with local law enforcement and social services on the ground, how we can help facilitate partnerships that support people to keep them out of the criminal justice system and to keep their lives from spiraling out before that spiral begins, rather than trying to help them after, and things like that. We are already partnered with our local sheriffs in six counties. We are also getting to know service providers on the ground and finding partnerships there to think about how we can work with the mental health sector and other types of victim services to create change. I’m still very optimistic at this stage, but I’m excited about the possibility to be part of something that has the potential for real change in individuals’ lives. I love looking at cultural issues and I think there’s value in just creating understanding and translating it to a mass audience. I don’t want to devalue my previous work at all, but in my next stage, I am looking forward to doing something a little bit more concrete and seeing what comes of that. Our hope is still for the project to have a large product like a book. It would just be a different one and that’s exciting too. Between the two first books I’ve covered quite a lot and I think it’s a good time to pivot to something new.
Sadie: I’ve heard about the project and it sounds just awesome. I’m excited to see what comes out of it as well.
Jenn: There’s still so many stories to tell from this book and articles coming. I have one on rural housing and the impacts of gentrification coming out in Social Problems soon, and another one on rural education with the Russell Sage Foundation Journal that’s delayed because of the pandemic. I’m still thinking about what else I want to talk about from this work because it’s a massive amount of data and it gets older every year, but there’s some interesting things around the same topics we discussed today and the different ways in which these invisible forms of resources structure all sorts of life chances, whether it’s education or housing. Another one I’m considering is access to disaster relief which, again, tends to go to the people who already have the most—those we think of as deserving of help versus the ones who were already struggling that we tend to paint as less deserving despite that they needed more. So, I’m not done with Paradise Valley yet. Paradise Valley might be done with me (laughs).