Once you gain someone’s trust and ensure their anonymity, it’s amazing how honest they’ll be. You’d never get this kind of information from a survey.

Jennifer Silva

“Being at Bucknell offers an incredible opportunity to examine the real-life attitudes and experiences of rural, working-class Americans,” says Professor Jennifer Silva, sociology.

Lewisburg, she explains, is within 40 miles of an area known as the Coal Region, a collection of towns that have been in steady economic decline for decades. In the years leading up to and immediately following the 2016 election, Silva conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews of black, white and Latino residents of the Coal Region, often visiting people in their homes and meeting numerous generations of the same families.

“Life is brutal for them,” she says. “They know the American Dream has been stolen from them — and the institutions they once relied on, like unions and churches, are no longer providing the support they need.”

Many of the stories they told Silva concerned issues of addiction, domestic violence and homelessness. “Once you gain someone’s trust and ensure their anonymity, it’s amazing how honest they’ll be,” she says. “These people didn’t hold back. You’d never get this kind of information from a survey.”

Results of Silva’s interviews appear in her second book, We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (Oxford University Press, 2019), a project Silva’s students played an integral part in producing. “They assisted with writing code to manage data, helped analyze the data, and read the manuscript to provide fact-checking, editing, proofreading and conceptual input,” she says. “One of my students even presented the findings herself in front of the American Sociological Association.”

In her field research course, Silva teaches students how to get people to open up when conducting their own independent projects. “Student projects have addressed everything from the controversies surrounding new low-income housing in Lewisburg to the struggles of hookup culture on campus,” she says, adding that students are often shocked at what people will share. “But sometimes they really need to talk it out.”

Silva encourages her students to open up about their own lives in courses that examine culture and power. One such course, offered to first-years, examines transitions to college life while another, exclusively for seniors, looks at transitioning into the workplace.

“Students come from a wide mix of backgrounds,” explains Silva. “Fitting in can be a challenge, but examining personal experiences from a sociological perspective helps students make sense of the process.”

Posted December 2018