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Art and Science -- A Conversation with Hava Gordon

Note: This interview is one of a series with faculty at the University of Denver about writing and the teaching of writing. Interviewer Joanna Ruocco earned her PhD in fiction from DU. She's the author of four books, including the award-winning Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, although she's published other novels under a pseudonym. Her work has been reviewed widely, including in Triquarterly and The Nation.

Hava Gordon teaches in the Sociology Department and directs the Gender & Women's Studies Program. She's currently writing a book that explores neighborhood-based movements that respond to school reform politics. She talked with me about her writing process and about the relationship between creativity and research in sociology.

Joanna Ruocco: How does your researching and drafting coalesce into a book?

Hava Gordon: So first I do in-depth interviews and take field notes, and I have all kinds of things going through my head while I'm collecting the data. But it's the data analysis that really pushes the discovery process. When I actually sit down to code the data, and highlight, and make notes in the margins, that's where the writing really starts. I start to notice recurring patterns, and from there the writing takes off. I'm very old school about it. I don't use any kind of software to analyze the data. I highlight with pens once I identify the big themes. Then I'll storyboard, spread everything out on the floor. I'll cut quotes out of interviews, or even photocopy my field notes and cut those apart, and put blocks of them on the floor, and then arrange them in to a story. And then I write around and between the blocks.

JR: That's such a physical process!

HG: Yes, I definitely use the space around me. It helps me see connections and create the skeleton for the book.

JR: Do you teach your students research methods and how to write ethnographies?

HG: I do. In my Youth Cultures class, they do service learning. I have them go out and participate with a community organization. I teach how to take field notes. At the end of each visit, they write up their notes. Eventually, they have to analyze the notes and write-up a mini ethnography. In social science writing, it's also very important to understand how to write a methods sections. You tell the reader what you're missing, some of the downfalls of your research or the blind spots. With ethnography, you want to do two things. You want to tell a great story and you want to provide convincing evidence that builds a case toward establishing a theory, a social theory.

JR: Can you talk about this balance between writing compelling narrative and providing reliable data?

HG: The field notes give you an opportunity to be creative, to develop the kinds of skills that make for vivid, compelling prose. Attention to sensory detail, for example. When you do field notes, you want to write really lush, descriptive sentences that capture the feel of a room, what things smelled like, the sounds. You want to write about people's body language. This quality of observation doesn't just make for a great story. It makes for great, detailed science. Field notes should be as rich in detail as you can possibly make them. Writing that little detail could give you a huge insight in to a really important pattern that you wouldn't catch otherwise.

JR: Is it possible to go too far when writing ethnography into the realm of storytelling?

HG: Sure, and I have them read real ethnographies, usually ones that have crossed over into the popular market, or have been hailed as great ethnographies because they're such engrossing stories, so they can think about that issue. We pick the ethnographies apart. We ask, "Does this very good story make for good social science?" Sometimes an author might really have gotten caught up in research and written a wonderful story, but if you read it carefully you realize that she only interacted with a very small circle of people in the setting. That wonderful story might not have been grounded then on sound social science.

JR: Qualitative research involves getting close to the phenomenon you're studying.

HG: It does. The goal in qualitative research is to get so close to the phenomenon that you can see the world as the people you're studying see it. But you're still supposed to make some kind of critical analysis of the way people are interpreting the world too. You want to give some context as to where you're coming from as an author. In sociology, we have discussions about whether what we do is art or science. When you write field notes, it sure doesn't feel like science. Field notes are disjointed. Fragments that give the texture of everyday life. In the quantitative tradition, however, there's very little about the author. You never quite find out like where the researcher is coming from, or what political questions motivated the study. You see the numerical breakdown.

JR: So what do you think? Is sociology an art or a science?

HG: It's art, because it's always partial. You never capture Truth with a capital "T." Who you are and where you're coming from affects the story you tell. A young white woman and an older black man doing the same research will tell different stories. That doesn't make one version more true than another. It's important to remember that one version is never giving the one True perspective. And this is exciting because it means the project you choose to do will always be fresh in some way. Sometimes students are worried that the projects they come up with have been done a million times. And I always say, "Well, it's never been done here, and it's never been done now, and it's never been done by you." Every person is in a particular historical, geographical, cultural context, and that means there's something about what each person produces that will be unique and valuable.

JR: Realizing there's no definitive study, or True version, opens the field for students to intervene.

HG: It's a mixed message for them too. They have to realize that their authority is never total either, and it's never without its problems. So if students can get both of those things, that's a good quarter.