A custodian cleans a classroom at sunset. (Babz Jewell 2017, all rights reserved)

A custodian cleans a classroom at sunset. (Babz Jewell 2017, all rights reserved)


i am a sociologist who specializes in visual ethnography and cutting edge social research.

My largest project, “Doors Unmarked: A Study of Custodial Professionalism,” focuses on the identities of custodial workers who clean buildings full-time in Appalachian America. I spent 5 years embedded in a community photographing, interviewing, and observing my informants. I use cultural analysis of contemporary films and politics to provide context for my original qualitative analysis.

I also work as research and communications assistant with the Veterans Film Project (see above tab).


I am a qualitative sociologist who specializes in work with vulnerable populations.

I employed a four-fold approach for ethnographic data collection: I gathered fieldnotes while embedded in the field, interviews, field materials and photographs that speak to the complexity of human experience. I performed content analysis on these documents to supplement my findings. I collaborated with my informants by inviting them to take photographs of their experience in conjunction with a strategy called Photo Elicitation Interviewing (PEI). I encouraged my participants to speak about their experiences based on their photos.

My role in the field with custodians was as observer. I took the stance of complete novice and watched as workers demonstrated and explained their tasks, trials and errors, community relationships, and victories in their role as custodian on campus to me as fully as they could.

Methods include:

  • participant observation

  • fieldnotes

  • interviewing

  • visual ethnography + photography

  • cultural analysis

  • content analysis

  • qualitative coding

  • literature review

  • survey design

  • focus groups

  • transcription

  • recruitment

  • UX user testing

  • UX card sorting

  • UX interviewing

My intense qualitative study and expertise in visual analysis has allowed me to transition well into UX research and design since May 2018. Please see my UX design tab for my UX work and resume.

research questions for “Doors Unmarked: A Study of Custodial Professionalism.”

  • How do custodians perform their jobs?

This inquiry evolved into a much more complex review to include:

  1. How do custodians clean?

    • How do they prioritize tasks?

    • How do they negotiate space while on the job?

  2. How does a person become a custodian?

  3. How do custodians see themselves in their jobs?

  4. How do custodians exert autonomy while on the job?

    • How do they leverage professional social networks?


I analyzed 110 pages of fieldnotes from spending approximately 520 hours in the field and performing 19 formal and and informal interviews. Custodial work and break schedules are inherently erratic, constantly changing and flexing around the demands of their charge. As a result many interviews were impromptu and revolved around specific episodes from the field. Occasionally I would write a script of questions for my informants; most often, questions evolved from the immediate context and how custodians were staying on top of all things. Many times a regular field visit would run the course of an interview.

As a trained photographer, I most often captured moments wherein custodians performed their custodial tasks. I shot a couple formal portraits of custodians during the downtime we shared swapping stories seated at tables in unused rooms. I used these photos as an in-the-moment rapport-building technique with prompts that asked custodians to demonstrate their professional duties, as well as to collect images of documents and objects that custodians consider valuable to them in their work (see Category II: Professional Identity). Often I would ask, “Can I take a picture of what you’re holding? Of that mess? Of that tool?” Past the moment of taking the photo, my photographs now serve as visual documents to better explicate the full scope of their custodian labor. I took hundreds of photographs over the tenure of my time in the field.

In hundreds of hours of conversation and observation with my informants we covered many dynamics, details, and events that they find to define their professional position at Clay State University. Utilizing a grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998), I employed traditional analytic techniques for coding ethnographic data. By examining my fieldnotes, interviews and photographs, I began open coding the pages of my fieldnotes and interviews to identify general patterns of language and content to develop foci. After identifying general patterns of the above, I open coded for terms relevant to custodial professional identity, as well as conflict with management and institutional barriers.

I abstracted my findings to generalizable categories that represent my themes. I have synthesized my empirical findings into three generalizable categories. I: Custodians demonstrate their expertise while executing tasks with refined professional craft, skills, techniques, innovations, and tools of the trade. Workers employ their honed craft through doing, training, and learning from trial and error while on the job. II: Custodians foster a strong sense of self in their professional roles. Identity is embodied through personal and group identity, marked by expertise, pride, accomplishment, hopes, affirmations and aspirations in their work— often expressed by storytelling. III: Custodians demonstrate a sense of relational identity through their professional networks with customers and management. The data speaks to patterns in ceremonial acts of customer service as well as conflict management, and power negotiation with management.

Laced through all three themes is a struggle for maintaining professional visibility. Visibility means prominence and recognition in their workplace on campus, while conversely, aspects of invisibility give custodians invaluable privacy and autonomy to their work quickly and efficiently. I make the argument that complete invisibility— as in a total disconnect from customers and coworkers— is an institutional construct that custodians work hard against.

MAJOR FINDINGS for “Doors Unmarked: A Study of Custodial Professionalism.”

The data revealed that custodians perform with a professionality that has hereto remained unrecognized in blue-collar labor. My findings elucidate three major aspects of custodial work. First, custodins’ professional craft attests to the complexities of managing dirt. Second, identity traces the methods for becoming a custodian. Third, within their creation of a relational identity custodians manage complex power networks with customers.


Conferences & Workshops

  • paper presented: Jewell, Babz. “Doors Unmarked: A Qualitative Study of Institutional Invisibility.” Sociology and Anthropology Colloquium @ Ohio University 2018, Athens OH

  • paper presented: Jewell, Babz. “Doors Unmarked: A Study of Custodial Professionalism.” Appalachian Studies Association Annual Conference 2018, Cincinnati OH

  • workshop reviewer and discussant: Data & Society Lessons From The Field Workshop 2018. Featured papers from authors performing qualitative research on data-driven technologies’ intersection with society. Data & Society, New York City, NY

  • paper presented: Jewell, Babz. “Doors Unmarked: A Study of Custodial Professionalism.” Rural Sociological Society Annual Conference 2017, Columbus OH

  • round table presenter: Jewell, Babz. “A Door Unmarked: A Qualitative Study of Institutional Invisibility.” American Sociological Association Annual Conference, Montréal Canada 2017

  • paper presented: Jewell, Babz. “Marked Men: A Photography Study of Veterans Court Participants,” A study by Dr. Ursula Castellano. American Society of Criminology Annual Conference, New Orleans LA, 2016

  • project presented: Jewell, Babz. “One City, Multiple Stories: Visual Narratives of London Urbanism.” Royal Anthropological Institute’s Anthropology and Photography Conference 2013. London, England

  • project presented: Jewell, Babz and Dr. Jennie Klein.“Exhibiting Women Artists in South Eastern Ohio: How Does the Appalachian Experience Shape Artists?” Appalachian Studies Association Conference 2013, Huntington WV

  • panel chair: “Women Artists of South Eastern Ohio.”Women of Appalachia Sisters in STEM Conference 2013, Zanesville OH

  • panel chair: “The State of the Discipline: An Open Art History Session.” Mid-American College Art Association Biennial Conference 2013, Detroit MI

Please contact me for a writing sample or an excerpt from my thesis.