Dickinson students have done significant empirical research in diverse communities and environments through the center. In addition to work done in local communities (Carlisle, Steelton, Adams County) students have one ethnographic field work, oral history, and policy research in a remote Chinese Village; a Cuban Arts community;Patagonia, Argentina; Cameroon; Mexico; Venezuela; Tanzania; and Montserrat. With faculty, students often present their findings at professional conferences and co-author articles; students find these research experiences very helpful for going on to graduate school and into careers in policy research, law, education, business, social work, medicine, journalism, psychology and the media.
The Community Studies Center was developed in 1997 as an effort to support and extend faculty-student fieldwork, including ethnography, participant-observation and oral history. Those involved in the creation of the Center are 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, because of its grounding in the "reality of everyday life", because of the kinds of relationships that are forged, and because of 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 postmodern 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 desires to instill in its graduates.
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