Skip to content

Sugar’s Life in the Hood

by on September 21, 2011

The Story of a Former Welfare Mother

Sugar Turner & Tracy Bachrach Ehlers


Tracy Bachrach Ehler’s book Sugar’s Life in the Hood is a narrative of a middle class, white, female professor and cultural anthropologist and her relationship with a lower class, African American woman from the hood. It is a heart-warming tale of ethnographic research that lead to a life-long friendship between unlikely individuals. The book explores what happens when social science is overpowered by the eternal bonds of sisterhood.

Cultural anthropologist Tracy Ehler began her ethnographic research in the rural regions of Guatemala in hopes of better understanding the trials and tribulations of the female Maya population. After finishing her dissertation research there, Ehler became interested in finding parallels between African American women in America and her Mayan subjects of Guatemala. Tracy first met Sugar Turner at the Coretta King Center for Women, where she was immediately drawn to Sugar because of her outgoing, outspoken, and wildly charismatic persona. The two spent five years together in an effort to recount Sugar’s life as an African American woman on welfare, and how her self-identity was everything but that.Through their years of interviews, their relationship became more of a friendship than a professional relationship between researcher and informant. On their path to friendship, Tracy found that even within a nearby community, her views and methods were more ethnocentric than she had expected. Early on, Sugar brought to her attention that she had been “unconsciously inserting stereotyped black speech” into her writings and tapings.

Despite being from opposite backgrounds, the two women found a mutual understanding and trust between them. Tracy’s relationship with Sugar allowed her to gain more intimate and truthful details from Sugar’s past exploits with prostitution, drugs and poverty. Together, the two women created this book  Tracy did however encounter challenges in her work with Sugar, explaining that is was difficult for her to stay passive and not press her feelings with Sugar. She struggled with not intervening in Sugar’s life, and keeping her advice to herself. While being objective and mindful is a goal of cultural anthropologists, it’s is not so easily obtained.

As an aspiring scholar of cultural anthropology, Tracy and Sugar’s experience is something I could only dream of finding in years of research and observation. Tracy’s recounts of past fieldwork are generally filled with stories of informants both willing and eager to share their stories.  In Dance of the Dolphin, author Candace Slater recalls her experience with informants was generally positive, yet there were many people who were skeptical of Slater’s research and unwilling to immediately answer questions and let a stranger delve into the realms of their personal lives and beliefs. This leads me to my first question:

We practice and learn how to observe and ask questions and dig deeper, but we don’t practice being observed. If you were the one being observed, would you be immediately  willing to let someone into your life? Would you answer every question accurately, despite fear of shame or embarrassment? Would you be willing to share intimately, both emotionally and physically? Would you feel strange not knowing the same things about them?

My second question is this:

Throughout Tracy’s Introduction, she touches on many ways that her friendship with Sugar was advantageous to her research; like learning more intimate details, accessing the truth, and understanding Sugar’s life experiences by sharing both her joy and pain. In an ethnographer’s research, could there be drawbacks to such a close friendship?



  1. 242colleencarey permalink

    As for your first question, no, I would not immediately be willing to let someone into my life. I also think that this depends on the person though. In Sugar’s case, Tracy was very lucky to find a woman so willing to be open and share her life stories with her. I think that this definitely played an advantageous role for Tracy when doing her ethnographic study. Tracy was able to see Sugar’s emotional, mental, and physical side due to their closeness and Sugar’s ability to be so open.
    As for the second question, I believe that Tracy and Sugar’s close relationship could also have draw backs. Sugar and Tracy became close friends. This meant that they shared advice, cared for one another, loved each other, and etc. With Tracy doing ethnographic research and trying to maintain an objective point of you, this could prove to be difficult when you have such a close bond with your subject. This bond involves emotions and those emotions can get in the way of the ethnographer being objective.

  2. janellekramer permalink

    To answer the second question, Tracy and Sugar have a very unique friendship. They have kept each other in a professional light and as close friends, and sometimes that can bring on drawbacks, like being biased or not wanted to publish things that would put Sugar in a bad light. However, Tracy and Sugar were both dedicated to the truth and reality of Sugar’s life and neither were looking to hide any part of her past. It is absolutely possible for either party to want to be biased. the person of study could want to hide some dark part of their past from their new-found friend, and the anthropologist might not want to publish or delve into some blemish in the history of the person in question. However, in Tracy and Sugar’s relationship, this does not seem to be a present issue.

  3. Similar to the Abu-Lughod reading we did at the beginning of the semester, i still have trouble with the whole morality of performing ethnographic research. Since it is impossible to be entirely objective, I find it difficult to understand how people are so willing to open up their lives to a stranger. I think it makes more sense to develop a good friendly relationship with another person like Ehlers did with Sugar, but then that takes away from the objectivity of her research. I don’t think I would ever be comfortable letting someone observe me in such an extensive matter especially when I am aware that there is a potential of so many other people reading about my thoughts and experiences.

    • I agree with you about the whole morality of performing ethnographic research. I think that even within the case of Tracy and Sugar, existing somewhat of an exploitative power dynamic. The forward explains how the story is about, “a most unlikely friendship between a black ho, hustler, and welfare mother, and a white feminist college professor of slightly daunting intelligence,” representing a new perspective of “the poor.” Automatically Tracy is placed in the position of power. Even as their relationship develops she is still essentially studying Sugar. I just think it would be difficult to develop a relationship within these parameters without it feeling somewhat exploitive.

  4. I do agree with how lucky she was in meeting someone who so easily opened up to her. As to your second question, I do not think so. While you would think that there might be some reservations when using the life and information of a friend in a book, to not use it could be considered rude or something like it. Sugar so easily gave her the information that she wanted to know for her research knowing that other people would see it. So I don’t think there was any drawbacks to their friendship. Its only the other way around. The two of them only gained things from one another.

  5. Within both anthological and ethnographic viewpoint, intimate relationships between the researcher and the subject can present some drawbacks; the most obvious drawback being the loss of objectivity. Once a relationship switches from a professional to personal relationship, the researcher can potentially loose their ability to look at situations objectively. The second drawback may be the limitations of the material shared. By establishing an intimate relationship, the researcher is establishing a high level of trust and confidence with the interviewee. This may facilitate discussions full of deep, emotional substance, which the interviewee is sharing to their friend not anthropologist. They may ask that this information remain off the record, creating a situation where the researcher has to be sensitive to the subjects wishes. The final product will then be altered to please the interviewee, rather than stating, objectively, what had been found.

  6. When we talked about this article a little bit in class I remember thinking about another book that I read called “In Sorcery’s Shadow” by Paul Stoller. Stoller is an anthropologist who was studying in the Republic of Niger. He was criticized for becoming too close to the people he studied when he decided to learn sorcery. Critics felt that if he was too involved in their culture and customs that he would have a biased view of them and would therefore jeopardize all of his research. However, I think that these criticisms are harsh. Stoller’s research gave us an in depth understanding of a custom that is disappearing. In my opinion, Tracy’s relationship with Sugar allowed her to share a very important side of Sugar’s life that could have been missed entirely.

  7. i consider myself a very open person,and would be glad to answer a variety of questions if asked. this is easy to say, considering i have had the luxury of living an overall good life that has encompassed a variety of circumstances that could never be compared to the hardships that Sugar had endured. if feel that if Tracy did not have such an amazing bond and friendship with Sugar that she would not have revealed so much of her life. this brings me to the point that it is very important in my opinion to build trust with those you are writing an ethnography on. in order to get a real perspective of that persons life you need to obtain a relationship that will person, which would inevitable cross so-called “professional ailments.” i think that as an anthropologist your primary job is to be an academic voice for those that would otherwise be unheard. with that said, you much do this i a very respectable and also an emotional context.

Leave a comment

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

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: