In the Field
A Sociologist's Journey
In the Field: A Sociologist’s Journey, by Renée C. Fox, is a narrative account of her life as a sociologist. It is not a memoir in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it is an ethnographic autobiography that draws on the vast amount of notes and documents that chronicle the span of her career and the places to which her perpetual field research has carried her.
Fox’s accounts of the firsthand research that she has conducted include studies of an “experiment perilous” hospital community formed by patients and physicians on a metabolic research ward; the professional education and socialization of medical students; social, cultural, and historical factors affecting medical research and research careers in a European society; organ transplantation, dialysis, and the development and implantation of an artificial heart; bioethics as a sociological phenomenon; and of the moral dilemmas associated with their medical humanitarian and human rights witnessing and advocacy action that Doctors Without Borders encounters.
Integrating her research and this book are the recurrent themes that infuse her work— training for uncertainty; the allocation of scarce material and non-material resources; the relationship between self and others, the individual and the community, detachment and concern, and the particular and the universal; the “double effects” of human action—especially the harm that can result from intended good; and the questions of meaning posed by illness and accident, pain and suffering, and by death. It is Fox’s commitment as a teacher and mentor of generations of students, in the United States and wherever she has traveled, with whom she has shared the experiences and lessons of her life “in the field,” that lies at the heart of this book. This volume will inspire new generations of social researchers.
“After having read Renée Fox’s memoir, one is convinced that her life is definitely a novel, which takes the reader from her Russian grandparents immigrating to America to her study of the action of Doctors Without Borders in Moscow, from her New York public school years to her endowed professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, from her survey of students at Cornell Medical School to her study of organ replacement in the Harvard Program on Technology and Society, from her experience of polio as an adolescent to the discovery of her breast cancer as an adult, from Belgium to Congo, and from China to South Africa. Her life covers most of the twentieth century and spreads over four continents. Her role in the making of medical sociology is valuable and influential. . . . A rich documentation of Renée Fox’s exceptional professional trajectory in the US academic world. It bears witness to her eclectic curiosity, her commitment to the social sciences, her moral engagement in her time.”
—Didier Fassin, European Journal of Sociology
“Renée Fox’s life, like that of any pioneer in a tough field, glimmers before us as both an unreachable standard and a useful model. The word ‘inspire’ has been flattened into meaninglessness, but I’ll use it anyway: Fox will inspire sociologists, anthropologists, and bioethicists to do their best work and be their best selves.”
—Anne Fadiman, Francis Writerin-Residence, Yale University; author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
“If only every autobiographer were an ethnographer as talented as Renée Fox! In the Field is at once the enthralling life story of one of the leading sociologists of the past century and an intellectual and cultural history that provides profound perceptions regarding the many disciplines and varied cultures in which Professor Fox has been a participant-observer. Through her eyes, the reader travels on an extraordinary journey that encompasses patient wards and research labs in the US and Europe, the Upper West Side of New Yorkin the 1930s and the heart of Central Africa in the 1960s, the complex, dualistic and sometimes quarrelsome world of Belgium and the exciting, multidisciplinary, and sometimes quarrelsome world of bioethics. Like all books by Renée Fox, this autobiography is a literary gem, alight with vivid characters, moving recollections, treasured friendships, and humanistic reflections.”
—Alexander M. Capron, Gould School of Law, University of Southern California
“A lifetime of participant observation on several continents has given Renée Fox a wealth of fascinating stories, illuminated by reflection and gentle humor, while her development as a questing sociologist offers a model of the way that ethnographic methodology, meticulously respectful of human diversity and of the values of both individuals and communities, can unfold in profound ethical commitment.”
—Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom
“A brilliant social scientist and vivid storyteller, Renée Fox describes an intellectual, epistolary, and peripatetic life lived to its fullest. Her life is filled with long relationships with salient figures of the twentieth century, close escapes with fatal illnesses, fascinating experiences on four continents, descriptions of academia at places and times where women were scarcely to be found, key roles in founding intellectual fields of inquiry, and even brushes with violent crime. The woman who began her career as the “young lady who misses nothing,” brings her astonishing powers of observation to her own life…. An illuminating and entertaining read.”
“She’s not just a pioneering figure; she’s a towering figure. Several of her books are landmark books, and she has trained generations of social scientists and dozens of senior academics now at departments of sociology and medical schools around the country.”
—Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Harvard Medical School, Harvard University
“This book is a fascinating and heartening life adventure story among compelling elements of medical research, medical education, and medical ethics… No book that I have read in many years provides such an excellent guide on these fundamental issues that affect us all. Yet the charm of this beautifully written book which is such a joy to read is how exciting and fascinating Dr. Fox’s life story is and how she braids it together so effortlessly with these fundamental issues. While one finishes the book easily and with great pleasure, the deeper and illuminating messages resonate far beyond to our continuing benefit. Every citizen must read this book.”
—Kenneth E. MacWilliams, Portland, Maine, Amazon Review