Community Studies and the Liberal Arts

Dickinson established the Community Studies Center at Dickinson in 1997 as an effort to support and extend faculty-student fieldwork in the social sciences, including primarily ethnographic, participant-observation, and oral history research methods. Those involved in the creation of the Center were firmly convinced that the approach to knowledge facilitated by fieldwork is of unique value to students and ultimately to the world because of the soundness of its philosophical base; its grounding in the "reality of everyday life;" the kinds of relationships that are forged; and the flexibility combined with discipline that fieldwork of high intellectual and ethical quality demands from its practitioners. Cultural study through fieldwork has a long and honored history in anthropology and sociology, but is a relatively new technique in historical work, developing hand in hand with U.S. social and cultural history in the post-Vietnam era.
Responding to the post-modern criticism of all knowledge as determined by power, recent fieldwork seeks to go beyond the relativist bind that post-modern understandings create, to explore the complex and multiple ways that people make meaning that allows them to act in the social world. This necessarily involves scholars (be they students or professors) in what Clifford Geertz has called "thick description," by which he means cultural analysis that is extremely self-conscious in method, detailed in observation, rich in context, attentive to the individual as well as the group, and complex in interpretation. Because such work is taxing and time consuming, it has often been left to graduate study, but we who formed the Community Studies Center have found that it offers much to undergraduate students and is perhaps uniquely able to develop some of the attributes that Dickinson College desires to instill in its graduates.

Community of Inquiry

A community of inquiry is inevitably created throughout the various projects that the Community Studies Center supports. As faculty and students collect materials and resources for the study of a community, they develop working relationships with various institutions within that community as well as with individuals who both contribute to the knowledge base and provide intermediate contact with others who may be willing to be interviewed. To study a community is to become part of it, at least temporarily, so field work has the advantage of involving community members in the generation of new knowledge and reflection on their own lives within that community. These particular communities of learning constitute themselves, then, as automatically grounded in the realities of life in the community being studied as well as in the disciplined study as understood in the academy. Students learn to explain their projects not only to academic audiences but also to members of the communities they study. This teaches a unique responsibility to both the academy and the community. What is produced is collaborative in the best sense of the term. Moreover, the students and faculty are exploring not only the community within which they are working but they also are reflecting on themselves and the other communities of which they are apart.

Global and Domestic Perspectives

The Community Studies Center emerged out of the successes of the first U.S. Mosaic, providing a much needed social science research lab for students and faculty, and as an archive for research materials and productions that would also establish a base for longitudinal research. The impetus for developing the first Mosaic in the multi-ethnic town of Steelton, Pennsylvania was to engage students in exploring issues related to domestic diversity (race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and religion), engaging them with neighbors both like and different from themselves. Soon thereafter, the first Global Mosaics were organized connecting the global and the local. Both the Patagonia Mosaics that focused on a comparative study of migration in company towns in Pennsylvania and Patagonia, Argentina and the Mexican Migration Mosaics that examined migrant work and circular migration between Mexico and Adams County, Pennsylvania became explorations in these interactive “glocal” connections.


Recognizing that curiosity itself is a form of knowledge, fieldwork teaches students that there are questions to be asked about all social interactions, both those that form communities (the field) and those that collect data (the fieldwork itself). They learn that asking good questions, ones that engage respondents and interviewers alike, is not as easy as it might seem. In learning this they learn the meta-fact that their questions will have a direct bearing on the kinds and quality of the information they gather. The second thing that fieldwork cultivates is responsible and attentive listening, and the realization that being able to listen well requires considerable background preparation surrounding the issue/event/person focused upon. Here is the heart of the kinds of response an interview elicits. Being prepared shows respect and interest in a way that simply saying one is interested cannot. Good listening also requires good follow-up questioning, whether that be in a single session or in a later one. The third thing students learn is how to make use of the different forms of records (field notes, audio and video recordings) that might be employed in investigation along with just what advantages and disadvantages the use of each of these forms entails. The fourth thing they learn is that analysis, including relating what they have collected to theory (narrative as well as cultural), and to demographic, statistical and structural data and concerns and to previous study, precedes any form of production and dissemination, be it a paper or an audio or video production. Finally, students learn that as they disseminate the results of their research, they have a deep responsibility to those who have participated in the research collaboration. While respondents, students, and faculty may reach differing conclusions about the data than the respondents alone might offer, there is nonetheless an honorable way to present them that recognizes those differences and reflects on the situated character of all analysis. To subject the accuracy of one's own analysis and observation to the scrutiny of respondents is a unique discipline and one that helps to develop patterns for ethical treatment of others. In this work, students also acquire interaction skills that cross all sorts of boundaries of race, class, sex, gender and generation. Community Studies sees these skills as precisely the ones needed to produce citizen-leaders that will make Dickinson proud. The Center itself also becomes the archive of the materials collected, recorded and transcribed, and the resultant analyses. Here, within the parameters defined by those interviewed, others can come to study and draw on unique primary materials. Future historians as well as the communities themselves, then, will have a record of a sort often missing: a record especially of ordinary citizens' lives in communities within Dickinson's sphere. This, in some small way, returns to the community itself something in exchange for its allowing our students to participate in these joint projects.

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