Grassroots Participation in Global Perspective

This course focuses on volunteer groups, activist groups, and nonprofit agencies that invite ordinary people
to learn to speak out to improve society. How does the involvement change the participants’ lives? How
does it change the lives of the people whom they aim to help, if at all? How does it affect the society as a
whole?

While the course is about a topic—civic associations—it is also about a method for doing social research
that researchers use more broadly, to study all sorts of organizations: ethnography (also called “participant
observation”). Most exciting about this course will be this direct link between theory and research. Using
Los Angeles as a case, everyone will have to attend at least four meetings of a civic group--that is, any
kind of activist group, volunteer group, or government-sponsored meeting that involves ordinary people
in discussion and action aimed at improving society. The group can be on or off campus, as you wish. If
you are already involved in an organization, feel free to study it (as long as it fulfills the requirements listed
under “What is an Adequate Fieldsite” found in the syllabus). You will take detailed notes on
what you observe in your group. You will learn the research skills of closely observing interaction and
finding patterns, taking notes, and connecting data to theory. We will use the theories that we read, about
civic associations, to ask questions in real life, in familiar situations.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land
in Los Angeles.” He meant it as an insult, but we can take it as a great compliment: when all the world’s
loose parts land here, we have an incredible, fascinating blending process that shows various inspiring,
terrifying, and funny future possibilities for a cosmopolitan world. This kind of ethnographic “lab” was
the root of American sociology at the University of Chicago in the 1920’s, when immigrants from all over
Europe were pouring into Chicago; Los Angeles is the “Chicago” of today: possibly the best place in the
world to learn about how multiple cultures interact.