by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

It is hard to say goodbye to Richard Fenno (1926-2020).  He was truly one of a kind.

Fenno called his style of qualitative research “soaking and poking.”  More formally, it is known as participant observation.  Many students just call it shadowing.  By whatever name, Fenno’s signature work on the home styles of Congresspersons can never be replaced—or duplicated.

Fenno began his career doing qualitative work on members of Congress in Washington, DC.  There he developed his signature blend of interviews and observation, though his subsequent research would shift the emphasis toward the latter.  His most notable book from this period was Congressmen in Committees (1973).  This book is still worth a read — a rare qualitative analysis of Congressional committees, which are almost always studied by political scientists using quantitative, not qualitative methods.  Fenno’s classic is getting pretty long in the tooth, as are similar works on Congress by scholars like Barbara Sinclair and Burdett Loomis.  Our discipline could use a new, qualitative “soaking and poking” treatment of Congressional committees.  Hint, hint.

By the time Congressmen in Committees was released, Fenno had already begun his new approach to research, one that would define the rest of his career.  After spending several years traveling to the home districts of Congresspersons, he explained his reasoning in his seminal book Home Style (1978).  Fenno realized that most scholarship on Congress centered on Washington, DC.  We were missing the activities in the home districts, and in so doing, we were missing the chance to study the relationship between representatives and represented.  For the rest of his career, Fenno’s many books relayed his stories and lessons from decades of “soaking and poking”—that is, participant observation conducted by shadowing members of Congress as they interacted with their constituencies.  His focus changed from book to book.  In one book, he discussed changes in the “new South,” for example, while another focused specifically on Black representatives, and a few others specifically focused on explaining how and why he did this type of research.  Each book was loaded with examples featuring Fenno’s trademark “thick description.”  After Home Style, he abandoned his practice of referring to his subjects by pseudonyms.  His most famous phrase is “Congressmen run for Congress by running against Congress,” that is, they sought election and re-election by denigrating the very institution they sought to join.  (In his later works, he would update his gendered language and shadow numerous Congresswomen.)

Fenno got noticed outside the discipline when he spoke up in defense of Dan Quayle, who served as Vice President in the George H. W. Bush Administration (1989-1993).  Quayle was widely ridiculed as being young, inexperienced, and gaffe-prone.  Fenno countered, portraying Quayle as an effective policy advocate.  Fenno happened to have studied Quayle’s earlier work crafting and advancing bipartisan legislation known as the Job Training Partnership Act, while Quayle served as a U.S. Senator from Indiana.  This was an extremely rare occurrence of Fenno advocating for or against any politician.  Typically, the legendary scholar focused his attention on describing members of Congress and letting readers draw their own conclusions—though it should be noted that Fenno’s thick descriptions were almost always supportive and sympathetic to whichever member of Congress he happened to be studying, regardless of party.  Fenno had many fans and few critics—but his particularly sympathetic portrayals did attract the occasional Devil’s advocate.

Fenno’s research is one of the great puzzles of political science.  Congressional scholars revere his legacy, assign his books in their classes, and encourage students to read them—yet hardly anyone has sought to do their own “soaking and poking.”  Fenno may be a legend, but he sure did not inspire many to do his kind of research.  The conventional wisdom about this focuses on the fact that Fenno’s research was enormously time and resource-consuming.  He literally traveled to home districts all over the United States and spent several days or even weeks in each place, soaking, poking, and taking detailed notes.  By contrast, most statistical analyses require quantitative sophistication, but they can typically be run from a desktop computer, and the analyst can still be home in time for dinner.  Even Fenno’s own colleagues at the University of Rochester are famous for their sophisticated, mathematical analyses of political science.  Fenno was always an outlier, even in his own department.

I tried to be a rare Fenno protégé while in graduate school.  I did not attend Rochester, rather I did my work at Ohio State and the University of Missouri.  It was at Ohio State where I first discovered Home Style and was immediately hooked.  At Missouri, it became my dissertation topic.  I lacked the resources to travel extensively, but I also discovered an open field for research—my literature review could not unearth any examples of political scientists applying Fenno’s soaking and poking to state legislators.  Stepping into this breach, I soaked and poked with Missouri and Kansas state representatives from all around the Kansas City metropolitan area, plus one each from rural Missouri and rural Kansas.  The result was a completed dissertation that in turn became my first book, Bringing Representation Home (2003).  In the book, I argue that Fenno’s concentric circles of representation (district-reelection-primary-intimate) need some expansion to account for the fact that state representatives often represent constituencies which lie in more than one district.  Of course, I also included all the thick description I possibly could.

I enjoyed my time soaking and poking my way around Kansas City.  Yet I did not follow up with more qualitative research in this same tradition.  The closest I came afterwards would be my time interviewing and shadowing in the Kansas Legislature, about 20 years ago.  However, the research methods I used there were more like Congressmen in Committees than Home Style.  To my knowledge, no other political scientist has devoted themselves to Fenno-style research in home districts since then.

Fenno died in 2020 after publishing his last book in 2013.  Do qualitative methods have a future in political science?

I believe that the answer is yes, but first we are going to have to think differently.  The conventional wisdom focuses on the enormous commitment of time and travel needed to “pull a Fenno,” but my own work hit an entirely different wall.  When I was out in the field soaking and poking, I did not mind the commitment.  I was having fun and doing something in which I believed.  However, I did find that I could not emulate Fenno in a different way:  I simply could not maintain his scrupulous, dedicated nonpartisanship, nor could I be content as an observer alone.  During the period I conducted this research, I became enamored of the idea of seeking public office myself.  Of course, I knew I needed to treat all subjects with respect, regardless of their political views, and that I needed to complete the dissertation, Ph.D., and book before doing anything further.  Nevertheless, I set a long-term goal for myself of seeking public office and remaining politically active.  I later coordinated volunteers and helped develop a strategy for a come-from-behind candidate seeking a seat in the Missouri state senate in 2002, and he won.  I chronicled this story in my chapter of the book Inside Campaigns (ed. James Bowers, 2011).  Since then, my plans have changed—but I still know that I could never maintain Fenno’s dedication to being the observer and never the subject, and that I cannot entirely separate my own political opinions from my work as an academic.

Fortunately, there is hope.  While good qualitative field research will always be time and travel intensive, the other barrier—the one I hit—can be breached.  Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild even gives this “wall” a name.  In her book Strangers in Their Own Land (2018), she uses the term empathy wall to name the difficulty that so many of us have in understanding the views and perspectives of those who have sharply different political views than our own.  Specifically, she applies this to the deep red-blue partisan divide that has been so much a part of U.S. culture and politics so far this century.

A resident of Berkeley, California and Professor at the University of California, Hochschild identifies her own political views as liberal/progressive.  She had trouble understanding the perspectives of those who supported the Tea Party movement.  Beginning shortly before the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency, Hochschild’s own field work took her to Lake Charles, Louisiana.  Lake Charles is a very Republican part of a very Republican state, where much of the economy centers on the petroleum industry.  She lived there for several months and made many friends, and she tells their stories with plenty of Fenno-style thick description.  Like Fenno’s Home Style, Hochschild’s Strangers has won awards, and for good reason.  Yet unlike Fenno, she does not claim to be unbiased or nonpartisan.  Instead, her stated goal is to breach the empathy wall, befriending and ultimately coming to understand the lives, cares, and concerns of these conservative people in a conservative place.  She was particularly interested to know why so many Lake Charles area residents defended the petrochemical industry, despite the rather clear evidence of environmental degradation it has caused in this part of the country, known as cancer alley.  The short answer is, they defend the industry that employs them because of the heavy emphasis and pride they put into their own jobs, and the value they place on work itself.  Want the longer answer?  Read the book!

Hochschild made friendships and deeply embedded herself in this community, so different from her neighbors and colleagues in Berkeley.  She did not change her political views, and she disclosed these views up-front to her subjects while she was staying in Lake Charles.  Yet she also explained to them—and to the reader—that her goal was to breach the empathy wall.  She even showed a draft of the book to the subjects and asked if they thought they were treated fairly in her write-up.  They did think so, and she remains friends with some of them to this day.

I do not believe time and travel to be insurmountable barriers to recruiting new qualitative researchers in political science and related disciplines.  After all, many universities still grant sabbaticals from time to time, and there are still plenty of doctoral students seeking dissertation topics.  Surely we can find a few more to keep the fire burning, now that Fenno has passed.

In that earlier phase of my career, one subject asked me if I could be a Boswell—a reference to the celebrated biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson.  I knew immediately that I could not be such a person.  It was this, not the commitment of time and travel that stopped me from devoting my career to Fenno-style research.  Fortunately, Hochschild’s successful efforts to scale the empathy wall show a different approach to doing qualitative research.  Hochschild discloses, rather than conceals, her own political views and then does plenty of empathetic listening, soaking and poking, and thick description in an effort to scale the wall that separates her from those with different political values.  She succeeds, not only producing a must-read book, but also lighting a path for future research.  There may never be another Richard Fenno, but thanks to Hochschild, the future of qualitative research looks quite promising.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter