participation. observation.


I think a fair amount about participant observation. Trained as an ethnographer, this is one of the things that I am supposed to be preoccupied with, I suppose, and I’ve done my best to be preoccupied with it. Because my focus has been on tourism, I’ve noted a trend in the travel literature in tracing historical routes: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday follows antiquarian tourism paths, Horowitz’ Blue Latitudes follows Captain Cook’s journeys, Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God traces the path of the Indian god Rama, and Richard Bernstein’s Ultimate Journey walks a Buddhist monk’s Seventh-Century journey down the Silk Road. In the more academic tradition, Loic Wacquant follows Pierre Bourdieu to claim that the sociologist has to “submit himself to the fire of action in situ” (2004: viii), in the hopes of spurring a “carnal sociology.” He continues, later, to write, “it is a general approach to social life because all agents are embodied and all social life rests on a bedrock of visceral know-how, or prediscursive knowledges and skills that are both acquired and deployed in practical entailment with a definite social cosmos” (2005: 463). (This is not unique to ethnographers, either: C. Wright Mills once wrote that he felt it “useful… to report in some detail how I go about my craft” (1959: 197) and Max Weber wrote that the sociologist should express the position from which he writes (1949: 83), and Robert Park famously recommended that his students,

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called ‘getting your hands dirty in real research.’ Those who counsel you are wise and honourable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful; first-hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in the orchestra hall and in the Star and Garter burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. (Cited in Prus 1996).

One of the benefits of staying with my partner’s parents for the weekend, besides the food, is to read Esquire. Something I never do. But Chuck Klosterman has a nice little blurb about method writing, that made me think about how things can go terribly askew with participation. He mentions Eric Nuzum, someone who, to get the essence of his subjects, forced himself to drink blood for his book about vampirism, The Dead Travel Fast. I prefer the author who just insisted that, to truly know Van Halen, he had to learn to play Eruption on guitar. I think of Duneier on the sidewalk, Waquant in the ring, Kornblum in the factory. (Not because they drink blood.) I like the idea of visceral know-how, and set to do a little of my own–becoming a licensed NYC tour guide for my last project and playing in a band at several local and international music festivals for my current one. But I am less of a member of the Wacquant school of ‘mastery’ than of the Plimpton school of ‘close, but never-quite.’ (Also, I stood right next to his full, seer-suckered self in the front row of Radiohead’s Kid A show at Madison Square Garden…) This is the paper that I’m going to be working on next, I suspect. It will start with that fabulous appendix in Tally’s Corner, when Liebow contemplates a chain-link fence that separates him from the subjects of his book.

(Yes, this is two mentions of Radiohead/Thom Yorke in recent posts.)


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