By Jennifer Erickson

Our primary research method for this project was ethnography, which involved participant observation in four of Muncie’s largest and oldest parks (Heekin, Tuhey, Westside, and McCulloch), conducting surveys and semi-structured interviews, attending meetings, conducting archival research in the Ball State University library archives, gathering information from the Muncie Star Press newspaper, and reviewing social media posts about park activities in Muncie.

After reading about ethnographic methods and the theory of public space in Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity, edited by Setha Low, Dana Taplin, and Suzanne Scheld (2005), students began familiarizing themselves with the parks and getting a sense of who used the parks, when, and for what reasons. This meant leaving our university campus and student rental homes to explore new (or, in some cases, old) parts of Muncie. Several students in the class had never been to a park in Muncie and hence the task at hand was to make the strangeness of off campus life more familiar, or in the case of students from Muncie, to look at Muncie differently, to make the familiar strange. To use our time most effectively, students joined one of four teams, one for teach park, and focused on that one park for the semester.

Participant Observation

One of the hallmarks of anthropological forms of ethnography is participant observation, which involves spending long periods of time studying a place and group(s) of people to discover often unanticipated patterns of thoughts and behavior, and to supplement data collected through other methods to be used for later analysis. Such data creates a different approach to understanding culture that focuses on everyday practices among a group of people in a particular place and not quantitative survey data alone.

This class was worth 3 credit hours and took place during fall semester 2021, so we did not have time for the kind of deep immersion that anthropologists strive for. We did, however, have 20 intrepid researchers, which allowed us to gather significantly more data about Muncie parks that one lone anthropologist might be able to do. This enabled us to engage in more than 100 hours of participant observation. Students documented their participant observation through field notes as well as sketches, audio recordings, and photographs. They observed and had informal conversations with people about their park activities. They noted sounds and smells, traffic patterns, park animals, and the state of the built environment as well as the natural environment. Students counted approximately 900 people in the four parks during these 100 hours of observation, but some of these park users may have been counted more than once.

A sketch from Westside Park by Kiera McWhinney

In order to make more sense of the practices we observed in the parks, researchers also each attended at least one Parks and Recreation Board meeting, city council meeting, neighborhood association meeting, and/or the Indiana Park and Recreation Association annual conference which was held at the Muncie Convention Center November 2-4. In total, students attended nearly 50 hours of community meetings.

In class, we compared our findings from observations in the park and information we learned at community meetings. We began constructing an argument about how parks serve as a lens for the city of Muncie by understanding the relationship between municipal government and its residents and exploring the role of power in the city. We began to question, “Who is most responsible for the care and maintenance of Muncie parks?” Resident? Park staff? City of Muncie? Should it be all of us? Who do people believe should be responsible and how has this playout out over time?

Once we had a better idea of how and why people used municipal parks and who had power in shaping them, we created two different interview protocols: a short survey for park users and a semi-structured interview protocol for the Parks and Recreation board members and staff.

In total, we conducted at least 30 surveys with park users and 17 semi-structured interviews with park users and Park board members and staff.

Archival Research

The Archives and Special Collections at Ball State University has a wealth of historic data related to Muncie going back to the early 1900s due to its status as Middletown, U.S.A. We spent a class period, led by Becky Marangelli, learning how to find sources in both the physical and digital archives and how to cite these sources.  

Class at the Ball State Archives in Bracken Library

Another archival resource, Lost Muncie, was a source for contemporary ethnographic research methods—social media. Lost Muncie is a Facebook page with more than 32,000 members (as of December 2021)[4]. The page was created by Larry Broadwater, a formal columnist for the Muncie Star Press with a column called Lost Muncie, who had a great interest in the history of Muncie. Though Larry has moved out of the Muncie community, he asked Jeff Koenker, a long-term Muncie resident and frequent commenter and poster on the page, to help him manage the page[5]. Each of the members can post pictures of Muncie from the past, comment on them, and share them as they see fit. It is a public group, but members must be approved. A direct relation to Muncie is not necessary, but many members had lived in the city at one point, or still do. Photos, newspaper clippings, and general questions about the history of Muncie make up the news feed, and something is posted almost every day. The page is active, and while not all of the content relates to the parks, we found some pictures and stories about them.

Jasmine Davis, a master’s student in sociology helped Professor Erickson with this class as a graduate assistant by searching for Muncie Star Press newspaper articles that addressed Muncie parks and created a spreadsheet with links to the articles, and then coded these articles. Students in the class were able to use the spreadsheet to fill in gaps about parks activities that we were not able to observe due to the time of year (there is more park programming in summer months than fall) as well as history of parks that were not found in the archives.

Along with undergraduate student Sydney Lundy, Jasmine also watched the sitcom Parks and Recreation about parks and small-town government in a fictional Indiana town called Pawnee, which urban legend says is based on Muncie (Rumor has it that the map of Pawnee is the map of Muncie upside-down and the rivalry between Eagleton and Pawnee is based on the supposed rivalry between Muncie and Yorktown, not to mention that the character Jerry in the show has a condo in Muncie.)

Analysis, Write-Up, and Design

After students had completed their participant observations, interviews, and meetings, we conducted coding exercises of field notes and semi-structured interview transcripts. Codes were turned into themes, which included:

  • people (for example, according to age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, and family make-up);
  • types of practices and activities that people engaged in (dog park, walking, biking, driving, reading or studying, playing on the playgrounds, basketball, baseball, fishing, Frisbee golf, and simply enjoying the green space that parks provided)
  • the built environment (playgrounds, cabins, picnic shelters, bike paths, walking trails, basketball courts, bathrooms, abandoned buildings, and more); and
  • the natural environment (trees, wildlife, animals, and other ecology).
A student from each of the four parks teams writing their codes on the chalkboard.

We spent two days in the library learning how to find scholarly sources that would help frame our data and arguments. Led by librarians Andrew Misler and Amy Trendler, students learned about popular anthropological data bases, such as AnthroSource, Abstracts in Anthropology, Academic Search Complete, and Jstore, as well as in urban studies.

Each student in the class was responsible for writing something for this research. In teams, students decided what they would be responsible for, but each researcher was to examine and analyze at least some archival or ethnographic data and find three scholarly sources to frame their arguments.

Public Presentation of the Research

Because there was no Park and Recreation Board meeting scheduled at the end of fall semester, Professor Erickson plans to attend the first Parks Board meeting of the 2022 year to present our findings. Students from the class will be invited to attend.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s