Ethnographic Research on a Secret Society, by Conor O’Brien

Whether completing a literature review, gaining access to communities of interest, or analyzing data back at the university, research is a journey filled with twists and turns. For example, you may have an amazing thesis initially; however, upon reaching the field you realize that reality is not the same as it is presented in literature. You may also realize the issue you thought was affecting your target group is different than you assumed. A change of plans can be frustrating, especially after arduous preparation prior to entering the field. This does not mean that your project is over with; in fact, this can be fun. It is important to remain flexible, and open to change, as it is all a part of the journey. I had an idea of what I would find, yet upon reaching the field I immediately had to change my project within the first week of my two-month Cuban journey.

My work examined Abakua, an all-male secret society in Northwestern Cuba. Established in 1836 by slaves, Abakua secretly operated as a mutual aid network which provided protection for slaves, and later as members gained key positions within blue collar professions, a network guaranteeing Abakua initiates employment over those who were not. With temples located in communities of Havana and Matanzas deemed marginal, Abakua is celebrated as an authentic legacy of the Afro-Cuban experience, especially as it is forbidden from being exported or initiating non-Cubans.

President Obama’s plan of reinstating relations between America and Cuba seemed to represent the metaphorical doors opening. I questioned whether Abakua would regain control over the docks and slaughterhouses of Havana, and if they would initiate more foreigners as this would arguably increase economic reach. I planned to do archival work in the Biblioteca Nacional and ethnographies of Abakua ceremonies. Shortly after my arrival to Havana, President Donald Trump announced plans to restrict American travel to the island. I also realized how difficult it is for a religion to have power within a socialist society. Tourist dollars that were coming into Cuba were not reaching the masses of people on the outskirts of Havana and Matanzas.

I was fortunate to have interviews with Abakua members and Cuban scholars my first week in the field. I was notified that power granted through control is not what Abakua represents. Instead, the legacy of Abakua is rebellion against power structures. Members emphasized that manliness, or hombria, is central to Abakua and driving forces behind the bravery that earned them their reputation. In order to be initiated, one must be considered to be a good man by all members of his community and go through an investigation process that will prove this. From initial interviews, I gathered that many youths in marginal sections of Havana had been initiating into Abakua and committing crimes, which many believe is in accordance with demonstrating connections to Abakua. This phenomenon, known as guaperia, and the question of what it truly means to be a man and Abakua member came up so frequently that I decided to further examine this situation.

Instead of focusing on how Abakua members would respond to a changing Cuba, I decided to interview members on their life-stories, asking what brought them to Abakua. I also wanted to gather a general consensus of member’s opinions on the differences between hombria and guaperia. After narrowing my focus, I then faced another problem: access. I needed consistent access to Abakua members in order to gain entry into ceremonies and hold more interviews with members. I needed to make sure that I was not offensive. As Abakua is a secret society, many people were apprehensive to discussing the topic with me. I ensured interviewees at all times that I was not after ritual secrets, but only wished to understand cosas sociales. I also was open to learning about the other Afro-Cuban religions and their roles and perception within Cuban society. Things changed when I was introduced to a writer and journalist who happened to be an Abakua member. After meeting with him a few times, more doors began opening, and I found myself having interviews with more members and being invited to important events.

Stories of exclusivity and power ignited much of my interest in Abakua. However, during my time in Cuba I realized that manhood and fraternity sustain Abakua’s reputation and there is a thin line between hombria and guaperia. Undergraduate research has been a great opportunity that has developed me both academically and intellectually. Being flexible and open to changes that occur throughout this process is one of the strongest strengths a researcher can have.  The times where I felt frustrated, fearing that I would never gain access, were the instances where I began to understand Cuba and what it is like to be an American researching a complex topic.

Conducting Qualitative Research in an LA High School, by Bernice Andrade

Not sure what research approach to use? I had the same concern when I was conducting research for the first time through the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (URFP). As a Sociology and Chicana/o Studies double-major with a minor in Education, I had an interest in the achievement gap, which refers to the disparity in academic performance and outcomes between minority students and their white counterparts. From a student’s perspective I wanted to locate potential factors that contribute to this gap, which led me do qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to gain an in-depth understanding of a problem or social phenomenon from the point of view of those experiencing it, by allowing them to share their perspectives, insights, and ideas. The aim is to understand the social reality of individuals by studying them in their natural setting, and allowing them to teach the researcher about their lives. Common qualitative methods include focus groups (group discussions), individual interviews, direct observation, and participant observation.

To learn more about the achievement gap, I developed a student-centered study. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews, I learned about students’ schooling experiences as well as the positive and negative factors that shaped their academic performance and engagement in school. I recruited participants from an alternative high school in Los Angeles that is predominantly African American and Latino. Recruitment can be difficult if you do not have access to the population you want to study, but, luckily, I obtained access to this school through a UCLA service-learning course I was taking at the time. As part of this course I completed twenty-eight hours of fieldwork to practice mediation and mentor students on how to do mediation. This gave me the opportunity to talk to and interact with students before I carried out my study.

My role as a mediator helped me get to know the students on a more personal level and allowed me to become a part of the high school community. After multiple mediation sessions I noticed the students stopped seeing me as a stranger and more as someone they could confide in. As a mediator, I learned to be a more attentive listener and developed the capacity to discuss issues with sensitivity, objectivity, and confidentiality. These abilities coupled with my interpersonal skills helped me connect with the students and prepare me for the research I planned to conduct. One of the takeaways from my experience is the need to establish a positive relationship with participants beforehand. Gaining trust and convincing individuals to participate in your study is easier when you get to know more about them. Thus, collecting data qualitatively takes time.

Different methods can be used to recruit participants. It was most suitable for me to use convenience sampling, which means I interviewed students based on their availability and willingness to participate. Due to time constraints and students’ schedules, I was only able to include four students in my study. Although this is a small sample size, in qualitative research such a sample can still yield important findings. Deciding what days and time to conduct interviews may be challenging at first. I recommend developing a schedule with your participants to decide the best times to collect data. Doing this keeps you organized and helps you track your progress.

To prepare for the interviews, I formulated a list of open-ended questions that would help guide the discussion. For example, I asked students “Can you describe what a typical school day looks like for you?” and “How would you describe yourself as a student?” I noticed students had more to say on certain questions, which helped me decide which questions I did not need to ask or I needed to change. Depending on the answers they provided I saw certain themes emerge. Some questions also brought up topics I had not previously considered. In addition, the information they shared sometimes countered what I originally anticipated. This shows how interviews can take your research in different directions and it is okay for changes to occur.

How you conduct your interviews can also shape the information you collect. For instance, I found benefits in interviewing two of the students individually, and the other two students together. For each one-on-one interview I noticed the students were more open to sharing about their personal life, including very sensitive information. However, in the interview with two students I found they elaborated more on their answers. What one student did not mention, the other added. Sometimes they agreed on questions and other times they disagreed. Both methods provided me substantial insight.

Another qualitative method I used was participant observation, which requires the researcher to immerse themselves and participate within their participant’s social environment. When I visited the school I engaged in classroom activities, helped students with their school work, and interacted with students and faculty during breaks and/or lunch. This method helped me establish mutual trust and respect with the students and the school at large. The data I collected through my observations and participation in the school also helped me understand how students’ behavior and interactions aligned with the experiences and perspectives they shared with me during their interviews. This method turned out to be my favorite part of doing qualitative research because it gave me the opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. I had a great experience, and I would recommend research to anyone looking to expand their education beyond the four walls of a classroom or the pages of a book.

Jessica Jimenez (2009) wins 2017 Kavli Institute Award and her research in 2018 receives press

Jessica Jimenez was the winner of the 2017 Kavli Institute Award for Distinguished Research in Neuroscience at Columbia University for her thesis research in the laboratory of René Hen.

Jessica Jimenez’s research on ‘anxiety cells’ in 2018 also recieved significant press and was featured on January 31, 2018 by Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Jonathan Radda (2017) received the Dankook Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Students

Jonathan Radda was awarded the Dankook Award for Outstanding Undergraduate at the 92nd Commencent Ceremony at the Southern Oregon University for the Class of 2018. The Dankook Award honors recipeints for their demonstration of academic excellence, contributioins to campus life as a leader, and proof of citizenship and character.

Emma Carley (2017) wins Dean’s Prize Award and Dunn Award

Emma Carley was a Dean’s Prize Science Award winner for her poster presentation at UCLA’s 2018 Research Poster Day, which showcases undergraduate research in all areas.

Emma Carley was also the recipient of the Dunn Award for Excellence in Biochemistry at the 2018 Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry Commencement Ceremony.

Robert Lamm (2012) showcased as a founding member of A-Alpha Bio

Robert Lamm was showcased as a founding member of A-Alpha Bio, a new startup focused on improving drug-testing efficiency. A-Alpha Bio took home the $25,000 first place prize from the 2018 UW Business Plan Competition.

Emily Brown (2011) selected as a 2018 STFM Student Scholar

Emily Brown received the 2018 Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) Conference on Medical Student Education Student Scholarship Award. This award highlights students who have an interest in family medicine and have potential for an academic career.

Jonathan Diep’s (2011) graduate research on identifying a cellular ‘death code’ showcased

Jonathan Diep’s graduate research on identifying a cellular ‘death code’ was showcased in the press on June 7, 2018 by EurekAlert, an online, global news service opperated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.