Anthropologist empowers communities through research

September 20, 2011

For Shauna BurnSilver, an ecological anthropologist at Arizona State University, the most valuable social science research combines strong science and real partnerships in a collaborative process. Her ideal research project begins by building relationships with all stakeholders and ends with results being shared iteratively with agencies and institutions, policymakers and the participants themselves.

A strong proponent of community-based research, BurnSilver has racked up years of on-the-ground experience involving people in studies that are not only about them but that ultimately could affect their way of life and well-being. North Alaskan wilderness Download Full Image

This is BurnSilver’s first semester at ASU, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her prior position as a post doctoral researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks focused on the Subsistence Sharing Network Project, funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The project documented the social networks of sharing and cooperation vital to the hunting and fishing livelihoods of three Alaska Native villages (Wainwright, Kaktovik and Venetie) to assess potential vulnerabilities and resilience to the effects of oil and gas development and climate change.

BurnSilver and her UAF colleagues invested a year and a half prior to the project, setting up local advisory boards and working with community members to define how the research should be carried out – all this before beginning the data collection portion of the project. The project was based on strong research partnerships with UAF, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and tribal and village government entities.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm, creativity and local leadership that came out of this process, and our combined efforts contributed to an exceptionally high participation rate within the study,” BurnSilver said. “These communities and agencies can use the data to inform future policy decisions, and that is very gratifying.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently chose the project for its Partners in Conservation Award, which will be presented by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar this week in Washington, D.C.

“We are thrilled and honored to have been selected for this award,” BurnSilver said. “It belongs to many, many people who contributed to the project. It is truly encouraging that this kind of collaborative research process is being recognized by the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

She shared, “I believe that knowledge really is power, and results from research should not just appear in scholarly journals, but be available to people on the ground, as well as institutions and agencies.”

 BurnSilver’s recent Alaska work is part of a long progression towards collaborative research engagement with communities. As an undergraduate, BurnSilver studied international relations at Scripps College. She read obsessively, sorting through the conflicting viewpoints represented in various texts. Finally, in her senior year she decided she "needed to stop reading and talking and start doing."

She joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Mali, West Africa, where she gained experience in the importance of collaboration and process in development.

“Getting out in the field and learning about the ecological and cultural components of a setting made me understand that there are usually very specific reasons why people do what they do,” she said.

She went on to earn a master’s in resource interpretation and a doctorate in human ecology, studying the impact of land tenure change on the livelihoods of the Kenyan Maasai. She found that in the face of broad changes in land tenure, people used traditional social relationships to renegotiate access to critical resources. In 2007, as a graduate student, she received the Lourdes Arizpe Student Award from the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association. The award recognized “her collaborative, precedent-setting fieldwork with the Maasai on community-based conservation.”

From her new faculty position at ASU, her work in Alaska continues, and she is also working with Fulani and Tamashek pastoralists in Northern Mali on issues of land tenure and wellbeing. “Alaska and sub-Saharan Africa are not as far apart as one might think,” BurnSilver said. “One is bitter cold and one is scalding hot, but people face similar issues of livelihood change and insecure resources.”

BurnSilver was attracted to the School of Human Evolution and Social Change since the university and the school are good fits for her interests and skills. “Both the administration and my colleagues here acknowledge that the major problems humans wrestle with are transdisciplinary in nature and that the research we do should matter to people,” she said. “I wanted to be where that type of thinking is epitomized and collaboration among fields is encouraged.”

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Professor unearths insightful 1950s research on gangs, urban culture

September 21, 2011

The unpublished work of late Walter B. Miller – a researcher who, in many ways, revolutionized the scholarship of social service research in regard to gang youth and urban culture – is now available online, thanks to ASU's Scott H. Decker, a Foundation Professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 

The new website features an extensive library of Miller's unpublished research on gangs, as well as his unpublished book "City Gangs" – a 1950s record of his unprecedented field work with gangs in Roxbury, Boston. Download Full Image

When Miller died in 2004, his collected papers "became the property of Hedy Bookin-Weiner, a criminologist who ...  sought applications from individuals who were willing to curate Walter's papers," Decker writes in the foreword to the now published "City Gangs." Decker says he was fortunate to have been chosen to receive the rights to Miller’s work in 2006, but then the real work began.

Decker inherited a staggering 615 papers, 775 newspaper articles, 20 photographs, and an original manuscript of "City Gangs" typed on onionskin paper and bound in 13 separate notebooks.

"The manuscript was accompanied by nearly 100 tables, most in longhand," Decker writes. "The final piece of the treasure was more than 20,000 contact cards, detailing the results of every contact between an area worker and a gang member." After five years of sifting through the treasure chest of voluminous and detailed materials, Decker and his team of doctoral students are ready to share Miller’s work with the world.

A key to Miller's research was his emphasis on the impact of relationships, and "City Gangs" is the most extensive treatment of gang members and their families, Decker says.

"The book describes in great detail the relationships between individual gang members and their families," Decker writes. "In addition, there are extensive discussions of the impact of gang membership on family functioning and the role of the family in shielding delinquents from gang members.

"It’s a compelling and important addition to our understanding of gang behavior, gang culture and youth programming."

So why was the book never published until now? The original manuscript ran more than 600 pages and was deemed too long for publication. When editors requested that Miller shorten it, he refused to do so. He even added another 300 pages.

"In the summer of 2007 we hired a typist to re-type the manuscript," Decker says. "In the fall of 2010, I managed to find a doctoral student who inventoried all the materials, sorted them by author last name within year of publication, and began to type the tables. The manuscript was proofed in the spring and summer of 2011 and prepped for publication by yet another Ph.D. student, Richard Moule, who played an important role in the ultimate publication of this work."

The decision over how to publish "City Gangs" was a difficult one, but in the end, Decker and his team decided to give Miller what he wanted. The published work is 948 pages and includes all of Miller's tables. "The book is as Walter left it, detailed, long and chock full of great information about the study," Decker said.

Miller was not just defined by his research with gangs, but by his prolific involvement with government agencies and public service. His work also acknowledges that little was known about the impact of the social worker. "City Gangs" is Miller's effort to address how one best evaluates process and outcome.

According to Decker, there are many common features between Miller’s work and contemporary gang research. The book's discussion of the role of social institutions, race, ethnicity and immigration; Miller's deep examination of the "street corner" – the space and place of gang youth; and his focus on the role of outreach workers all make "City Gangs" insightful and instructive even today.

The Gang Research website will be an online resource for researchers and students, to provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of Miller’s work, which has gone unseen for more than 40 years.  Additional materials from Miller's work, as well as from ASU researchers, will be added to the website on an ongoing basis.

"While formal network analysis and the software to support such an analysis would be 40 years away, Walter clearly understood what a social network was, how such relationships could be constructed and the significance of such networks for influencing behavior," Decker says.

He then adds: "It is a shame the book wasn't published in a timelier manner. Had it been, our understanding of urban culture, delinquency and gangs would have been advanced considerably."

For more information, visit the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice website.