Wednesday, May 29, 2019

URSP Student Ellen Carlson Conducts Ethnographic Study on Public Spaces in Washington D.C.

My project, “Food for Thought: Street Vendors Navigating Public Space in Washington, D.C.” originated during a sociology course, The Urban World (which I highly recommend), where we had to conduct an ethnographic study on public space in Washington, D.C.  Out of equal parts nostalgia and insatiable hunger, I decided to investigate how street vendors shape public space. What I didn’t realize, however, was how this question would change and evolve into this project.
During those initial interviews with several vendors on the National Mall, they shared their thoughts, feelings, and stories.  They told me they were struggling to support themselves due to the rapid growth of food trucks in D.C. and the introduction of the lottery system, a blanket approach to regulation, which only permits them to work two days a week.  Two days are not enough to support themselves and their families back home.  So, many of the vendors resort to working informally.  As a result, some vendors are arrested, ticketed, and criminalized.  One vendor exclaimed to me, “What am I selling, drugs? Cocaine? For 2,000 dollars? I’m not even selling ice cream for 3 dollars!” As I reflected on my experience, I realized my question of how street vendors shape public space has changed to, how does public space and those who govern it, shape them? Therefore, I decided to conduct a cross-sectional analysis of mobile food vendors in D.C. to draw comparisons among different types of vendors, such as gourmet food trucks, to better understand why some vendors are struggling to achieve upward mobility.
Throughout this process, I spent time canvassing food truck hotspots in D.C., recruiting participants and conducting interviews, and of course, eating delicious food.  I also gained skills in research design and qualitative methods such as coding, categorizing, and data analysis. What appealed to me most about qualitative research was its exploratory nature. It utilizes a systematic framework to find answers to challenging or unresolved problems, yet, still fosters my passion for creativity through the use of different methods of coding and data interpretation. As a social work major, qualitative research also complements the profession’s values of social justice and inherent dignity and worth of the individual.  Therefore, the vendors are embraced as the experts. By working collaboratively with the vending population, this study unites their voices to advance an agenda for reform and change to improve their lives.  Overall, their stories and this project had a profound impact on me.  They inspired me to ask questions, dig deep, and think critically.