Examining the Texture of a City

Signs that read “No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here!”

In Summer 2018, Jennifer Garfield-Abrams was walking along a main street in a small city in New York’s Hudson Valley when she happened upon a series of signs. First, she passed a longtime resident of the town wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, standing next to a hotdog cart outfitted with a “Hillary for prison” sign, and American flags. Some blocks away was another set of signs, this time from the new guard. Many of the most recent newcomers to the community were former Brooklyn residents who flocked to this less densely packed town during the early days of COVID-19. With them they brought liberal politics and ideas, the city’s most recent wave of gentrification, and on the side of the brick building housing the vegetarian café, words that read “No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here!”  

“These (signs) are material parts of the place, and people are interacting with them, and responding to them,” said Garfield-Abrams. Currently, Garfield-Abrams is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, examining the inextricable link between places and the people who inhabit them. In her research, Garfield-Abrams focuses on how places operate as a resource for constructing identities that, in turn, inform social action and negotiations over a place’s social and moral order. Referring to the signs, she says, they are “part of the cumulative texture of the city”–– a term coined by Urban Sociologist, Gerald Suttles, to describe how the built-in environment, and representations of place affect us all. “It affects people differently” she says, “they see it differently, they interpret it differently.”  

Garfield-Abrams was inspired to pursue graduate education in Urban and Cultural Sociology after taking an interdisciplinary course at Hobart and William Smith Colleges called “Two Cities: New York and Toronto,” co-taught by a Sociology and Economics professor. The course was about how cultural differences between New York and Toronto shaped how the cities developed, and the people who live in them and how they do things. During the course she even had the opportunity to travel to both cities and interview residents about their experience living in their distinct communities. “That hands on experience was a big motivation for my wanting to study cities.” 

But this was not the first time Garfield-Abrams noticed how material parts of place influence identity. When Garfield-Abrams was young, she grew up between two communities, part-time in a mostly White suburb of Baltimore with her mom and part-time in a Jewish enclave of the city with her dad. Going between these two communities, she experienced for the first time just how much the makeup of the places she lived in allowed her to slip in and out of the various identities she holds. 

Currently, in her dissertation, Garfield-Abrams investigates how longtime residents and newcomers of the city draw on the material parts of the place they live to structure their social lives and construct their identities and sense of self. Garfield-Abrams uses ethnographic methods, in-depth interviews, and visual research methods, including a method known as “photovoice” which uses photographs taken and selected by participants as a mechanism to link place and identity.

To incorporate this methodology in her own research, she designed a photo journal activity with a series of prompts. She asked her participants to respond to the prompts using photographs they have taken and a brief description of why the photo fits the prompt. “Visual methods, from my perspective, are very under-utilized in Sociology,” she says. However, when reflecting on the value of visual methods to her own research she notes, “It is a strategy to literally see through your participants eyes.”  

When describing what she likes most about the work she gets to do, Garfield-Abrams said, “It’s playful, it’s fun…I get to talk to people about, oftentimes, one of the things that they’re most passionate about. I get to hear a whole lot of stories about the place where I live… and how it’s not only shaped their sense of self, but also about their contribution to the place and how it’s constructed their identity, and progress or trajectory.”  

Garfield-Abrams was awarded both the Graduate School’s Predissertation Research Grant and Dissertation Research Grant for this work. She says both grants have been tremendously helpful in not only purchasing the equipment needed to conduct this research, but also in overcoming the recruitment challenges she initially faced. Although Garfield-Abrams says she must have taken almost half the methodology trainings at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), the one that really sticks out to her was the photovoice training. “(This) training was tremendous in helping me develop this visual portion. That’s not training I would have gotten in the Sociology Department. It’s not part of our standard methods class or an elective methods class, so ISSR has been an awesome resource for my development.” 

In reflecting on her time at UMASS, she said that even though the nature of her research has pulled her away from the campus community, the Sociology Department has been a fantastic place to call home. At the same time, she also spoke about how influential reaching across departments and getting to know people in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department was in informing her approaches. Garfield-Abrams described how important it has been for her to build community among faculty and students within her program, but also with those outside her department and the academy. These relationships have helped her grow in all areas of her life––both professionally, informing the interdisciplinary nature of her research, and personally, as not only a scholar but a full person. 

Garfield-Abrams is currently working on defending her dissertation prospectus this upcoming Fall. After earning her PhD, she plans to pursue a faculty position, teaching, and conducting research in a Sociology Department on how place informs the various identities we hold and the actions we take. 

Written by Trisha Dehrone, PhD student in Psychology, as part of the Graduate School's Public Writing Fellows Program.