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Laubach: Research

Research Statement

My basic research interest is about how people create social realities from their lived experiences. This broad interest is being translated using multiple research methods into two agendas within different substantive areas of sociology. It has so far resulted in my masters thesis, dissertation, and three papers submitted for publication.

Construction and Use of Spiritual Experiences. My first research agenda focuses on the construction and effects of spiritual experiences and is the topic driving my dissertation. This research crosscuts the subfields of social psychology, religion, and sociology of knowledge to examine the development and effects of spiritual altered states of consciousness on individuals and on society. It builds off the General Social Survey’s findings that 75% of the American population have reported at least one such experience, and that almost 15% report experiencing at least one form “often.” My dissertation, titled Self Possessed: The Sociology of Altered States of Consciousness, involves three separate but interconnected studies. The first is an ethnophenomenological analysis of spirit possession which defines the core phenomenon of spiritual experiences as psychism, or psychic intrusions into the stream of consciousness that are interpreted by the actor as not originating within the self’s normal information channels. The second is a mixed ethnographic and text analysis of the epistemology of esoteric culture, which examines how neopagans examine claims of spiritual experiences. The third study analyzes nonrecursive statistical models using the GSS data to demonstrate the directionality of effects between psychism and (a) religious beliefs and practices, (b) behaviors that reflect a theorized connection with schizotypy, (c) behaviors and attitudes reflecting physical and mental health, and (d) attitudes regarding elements of exoteric culture. I have two papers submitted for publication from the dissertation – the ethnophenomenology study at Symbolic Interaction and the model of beliefs and practices at Sociology of Religion. In addition, there are several more that are effectively written and only need to be reformulated as stand-alone papers, but are waiting for the first paper to establish the paradigm.

This line of research is alsoprogressing along three additional lines not stemming from the dissertation. The first involves ethnographic observations of a 10 session training program for spiritual altered states practices. Sessions and pre- and post- program interviews were audiotaped to analyze how success was constructed and communicated. Much of this data has been transcribed and is being analyzed for a co-authored paper with Tom Gieryn and Sara Griffin, a former student. Data has also been collected to analyze how participants incorporated their experiences into their spirituality.

The second line explores the blend of countercultural ideals and altered states practices during the developmental phase of the neopagan movement using a text analysis of articles, art, and advertisements in journals from the late 1970s to early 1990s. I have collected approximately 350 issues from 60 journals, developed a database, and have conducted some preliminary analysis to determine the feasibility of this study. I started this project with a couple of former students and will be looking for additional student assistance to complete the data entry and analysis.

The third involves interviews and participant observations of social interactions in a university-based neopagan group. This group is unusual in that its primary focus is social, not religious. This study has focused on how members maintain religious autonomy within a group, on the factors that influence group stratification, on how members deal with the stigma of deviance, and on this group’s interconnections with other groups regarded as deviant by the general student population. This research also involves an independent study student, and to date we are transcribing audiotapes of interviews with group members.

Two additional lines are being developed for grant proposals. The first is through the NIDA Small Grants Program to investigate the use of drugs to obtain spiritual experiences by members of the neopagan movement. I have been researching writings of people who associate drugs use and spirituality in preparation for writing the grant. The second line will analyze the considerations which prompt people to abandon medical treatments in favor of alternative health practices that are based on spiritual beliefs. I have collected some information and identified a group with which to conduct the study, and am considering targeting the grant towards the Lilly Foundation.

Consent and Informal Organization. My second research agenda comes from my master’s thesis and my previous experience as a manager, and focuses on the effects of informal organization in the workplace. I observed that the intersubjective world of the workplace, known variously as “organizational culture” or “informal organization,” produces a stratification among workers and a structure that has effects on subjective responses and behaviors that are independent from the formal organization. This stratification divides the workplace into a clique of workers that effectively run the organization, a clique that crosscuts occupation, hierarchy, and functional divisions, and apparently corresponds to the “coalitions” envisioned by organizational theory. This stratification also identifies workers with the weakest connection to an enterprise, a group that corresponds to the “periphery” which is regarded as expendable during periods of staff reductions.

This research began with understandings gained from my experiences as a manager, which was then bolstered with a workplace ethnography that identified the basis for this stratification. I then identified these components in data sets developed from the Indiana Quality of Employment Survey, for which I was a telephone interviewer, and the Indiana Survey on Work in a Polarized Economy, for which I was a research associate and helped design the instrument, supervise telephone interviewers, and append archival data to cases based on respondent’s characteristics such industry, occupation, and geographic location.

Using statistical analysis of the survey data, I found that the informal administrative structure can be measured as a latent factor underlying the elements of the “consent: deal”: autonomy, schedule flexibility, and workplace participation offered by the organization in return for organizational commitment by the workers. I theorize that the resulting scale recovers the variation that results from lived experiences of workers, variation which is lost when workplace models only use occupation or formal hierarchical position.

My first paper from this line, under review at Social Forces, establishes the basic paradigm. The second paper analyzes broad workplace models comparing the relative effects of formal and informal organization on workplace attitudes such as job satisfaction and the meaningfulness of the job, perceptions such as pay and promotion equity, discrimination, and relations, and outcomes such as wages, stress, expectations of promotion, and perceived social class. The third paper, coauthored with Michael Wallace, analyzes the effects of consent on class based attitudes such as job entitlement and perceptions of union effectiveness. A fourth paper, with Michael Wallace as first author, will examine the effects of the new economy on workplace dynamics such as informal organization structure and job attitudes, perceptions, and outcomes.

Methodology. Both of these research agendas involve a multi-method approach in which I integrate ethnographic and statistical work in a process that I believe is important to studying the taken-for-granted phenomena which most interest me. The first step uses ethnophenomenological observations to effectively become immersed in the community under study, with the goal of understanding the lived experience in question and translating them into a concise form that can be used in a wider data set. The second step generalizes my ethnographic findings to wider populations using representative survey data sets. I believe that at this point in the development of my research agendas, both steps are necessary to probe these phenomena and to develop my findings into a convincing contribution to the scientific dialog. To this end I continue to develop my research, narrative, and presentation skills.