Researching the Human Condition
USC College's Veronica Terriquez leads undergrads on an 'intellectual adventure' in sociological research.By Emily Cavalcanti
February 2, 2010
Ms. Kerry arrives at the Theresa Lindsay Senior Center by van, Ms. Nash by car. The two African American seniors share breakfast and then it's time to engage in their favorite activity — playing the card game Skip-Bo — again and again until lunch. The two have been meeting at the Los Angeles center at 42nd and San Pedro for five years and they have their routine down pat.
“I’m sure they’re playing right now at the senior center,” USC College junior Danielle “Dannie” Taylor said.
Last fall Taylor spent two days a week at the center observing the friendships that were forged there: how men interacted with women, how women interacted with each other, how cliques formed and how friends served as support networks.
Taylor, a sociology and communication double major, collected ethnographic data on the everyday lives and memories of African American elderly women as part of her Sociology 313: Introduction to Research Methods course project.
The class provides undergraduates with a footing in sociological research methodologies, but with Assistant Professor of Sociology Veronica Terriquez at the helm, Taylor and others are accomplishing much more.
In addition to learning about ethnography, developing surveys, analyzing existing survey data and collecting in-depth interview data, students also explore how this valuable information can be used by local organizations, institutions, programs and governments.
“I want to empower students to use or collect data in order to address interesting theoretical questions and practical community concerns,” Terriquez said. “I want them to get their hands dirty with data and really work on their projects because I think that’s one of the best ways for students to understand what the research process is about — to develop their own project and see it through from beginning to end.”
Terriquez, who spent five years as a community organizer in Oakland, Calif., before pursuing graduate studies at UCLA, is keenly aware of how research can support everything from grassroots organizations to government institutions.
“It’s so exciting to see how student research helps inform what is going on locally,” she said. “It’s not a far stretch for me to link the academic world and on-the-ground reality through a sociological research methods course, especially being here at USC; it’s in the heart of L.A. This is where so much is going on.”
With her vast network of contacts, Terriquez offered students the opportunity to conduct research connected to the work of graduate students or local organizations, or to choose their own topics.
Joining Forces with Area Researchers and Organizations
Taylor collaborated with doctoral student Nazgol Ghandnoosh in recording the histories and stories of elderly African American women at the center, and found it to be an eye-opening experience.
“I loved that Professor Terriquez really pushed us to understand every part of sociological research, while keeping it interesting by bringing in real people doing these type of projects for their dissertations,” Taylor said. “No matter if I end up in television or in law school, I have learned an invaluable lesson about understanding others and taking time to really see people and hear what they’re saying.”
Sophomore Alejandra Vargas-Johnson crafted her project around the needs of the Building Skills Partnership, a statewide non-profit collaboration between the Californian janitors’ union, SEIU Local 1877, community leaders and businesses.
She and her fellow student researchers collected original survey data from the Aramark janitors at USC about their education, their children’s education and the educational resources that interested them. They noted that even though the janitors’ children attend low-performing schools that the workers as parents are not satisfied with, they still expect their children to complete a college-level education.
Impressed by their steadfast dedication to their children’s education, Vargas-Johnson and her group created and distributed a handout with their survey findings. Building Skills Partnership intends to use the survey findings to implement programs and workshops geared toward the janitors’ interests and needs.
“I really enjoyed sharing the results with the janitors, and the whole experience taught me the power of social research — to bring social issues onto paper in a way that is representative of both the demographic surveyed and the researchers’ motives,” she said.
Devising Original Research Projects
Aspiring physician Kevin Platt followed his intellectual curiosity when he decided to analyze the 2005–07 American Community Survey to determine whether there are any predictors of becoming a doctor among the college-educated population in California. Platt, a junior double majoring in sociology and biological sciences, discovered through his statistical analyses that gender, race and immigrant status affect one’s likelihood of pursuing a career in medicine.
For example, he found that among college-educated residents, immigrants are more likely than natives to become medical doctors. Not only does this imply a potential change in the make-up of California’s healthcare professionals, it also raises important questions as to the effects this might have on doctor-patient, doctor-doctor and doctor-legislation interactions.
“This course both enhanced my general practice of conducting research as well as my knowledge and insight into the medical field,” Platt said. “I think it’s important to share my results and analysis because these trends can be used to enhance medical practice, based on the breakdown of physicians.”
Junior Jayme Wilson opted to focus on USC students’ experiences within art museums and whether their majors are related. The sociology major, who is also minoring in art history, observed, among other things, that though unprompted, each of the interviewed subjects mentioned the topic of touching art. She believes this offers some insight into how the boundaries put in place by art museums afford more control over visitors than any other type of museum.
“I think that because art museums are educational institutions my research would interest them,” Wilson said. “It gives them information about the experiences of their visitors that they do not necessarily have access to and hopefully will lead them to a better understanding of their audience as well as who is missing from their audience.”
Sociology for the Future
For Tim Biblarz, associate professor and chair of sociology in the College, these projects show exactly what makes Terriquez’s course cutting-edge.
“She takes students on the intellectual adventure of studying the relationship of individuals to society and the interaction of culture, economy, and politics in shaping social life,” he said. “And at the same time she provides them with extensive training in concrete research skills — surveys, statistical analysis, participant observation, interviewing and so on.
“This combination is precisely what students need to become future leaders in organizations,” Biblarz continued.
Whether they structure their own projects or join forces with a graduate researcher or local organization, Terriquez hopes her students agree. Research can make a difference.