Journalists get there first, anthropologists get there second, historians get there third.
It’s a maxim John Villecco learned from a professor years ago, and now he’s learning the lessons first-hand. He is an anthropology Ph.D student at American University in Washington, D.C.
His dissertation topic? Us.
Villecco, 29, wants to interview Luzerne County residents about politics and voting for an ethnographic study.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his work will be carried out in the context of the 2016 presidential election — but not only that election.
“Essentially I want to ask people why they vote the way they do, what informs about how they think about politics generally,” Villecco said during a visit to the Times Leader last week.
“I am interested in the deeper cultural, historical, philosophical reasons” why and how people participate in the political process, he added. I want to understand people’s histories, and relay their stories as honestly as I possibly can.”
“Depth is what I am going for — depth beyond what most journalism can get at,” he added.
One of his frustrations with coverage before and after the election was the superficial, patronizing way in which some observers characterized voters.
“I got a little bit disillusioned,” Villecco said. “I really do approach everyone I speak with as someone who can teach me something.”
Why come here looking for those subjects, though?
“Following the election I was reading almost daily, and Luzerne County started popping up repeatedly, as a harbinger county in Pennsylvania,” Villecco said.
Since 1932, every presidential candidate who won Pennsylvania has also won Luzerne County.
“There were a handful of counties around the country that started popping up as places that had a mix of the demographic, economic, historical factors” that would predict rising support for a populist candidate like Donald Trump, he explained.
The others Villecco considered were in Michigan, upstate New York, Virginia and Iowa.
Our county “checked all the boxes I was looking at,” Villecco said, the foremost being immigration debate since the early 2000s in the wake of a sudden, significant influx of immigrants.
Other factors: Below average per capita income and high childhood poverty rates.
“It fits the post-industrial story, and also has the immigrant population,” Villecco added.
He is looking for about 30 people to interview overall, ideally beginning in the next two months. But his research and writing will take more than a year, and Villecco stressed that he’s looking to talk with people more than once — and to go more deep than mere survey questions.
“When people say ‘I am not political, I don’t know very much about politics,’ I definitely want to speak with them as well,” Villecco said.
“I really want to understand how people are processing the politics around them, from someone who never watches the news to someone who’s a news junky — from someone who’s never voted before to someone who switched their registration.”
While he is looking to speak with a broad cross-section of residents, Villecco admits that voters who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 are a major focus. That is important, he said, because 177 out of the county’s 180 precincts shifted to the right from 2012 to 2016.
So far, he has interviewed about 18 people. He had in-depth interviews with about a handful. More scheduled.
In person interviews are best, Villecco said, and he is willing to meet wherever is most convenient — coffee shops, bars, at subjects’ homes.
Everyone who he interviews must sign a consent form. It explains their rights, and gives his advisor’s contact information. Participants also will remain anonymous.
He hopes to eventually turn his dissertation into a book.
“It’s going to be about the people who decided to vote, and not people as voters — 2016 drew me here, but that’s not the focus.”
To participate, call Villecco at 303-241-1390 or email him at [email protected]