Archive for February, 2014

How can you tell if someone is a stripper?

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment

A few months ago I had an interesting interaction on an airplane that illustrated how different the ethnographic approach to understanding is from the typical American’s approach to knowing.

We regularly make assumptions about situations and people in daily life, and of course we have to.  If every decision required us to systematically collect and analyze data and then carefully place our findings into the appropriate social and cultural context before acting, no one would ever get anything accomplished.

But looking around, I realize that we are a culture of know-it-alls and assumption makers who often base snap decisions on nothing but careless interpretation of limited data and hunches. In contrast, the ethnographic approach requires us to make careful systematic observations from multiple vantage points and to do rigorous methodical analysis before we can claim to understand or explain.  And this mandate is one of the things that I LOVE about my job! Because often the ‘obvious’ interpretation of an event (or person) is not so accurate.

But back to the flight that sparked this reflection.  I had just given a presentation and was looking forward to a flight home filled with nothing but reading.  I had settled into my seat, turned on my kindle, and was wrapped up in my book when my aisle partner started up a conversation.  He asked me what I was reading (Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn).  He said, “Wow, that is a new one.  How did you stumble upon that?” (I hadn’t stumbled upon it, it had been on my list of things I wanted to read for a long time).  We made small talk about books for a few minutes and then he asked me what I did for a living (I am a sociologist).  Without skipping a beat, he launched into some ‘people problems’ he was having and asked for my input in solving them.  He started with a coworker that no matter what he did or said, was always trying to ‘out-do’ or ‘out-say’ him.  He asked me why I thought she did that.  I told him that I really had no way of knowing, having never met her or having never seen the two of them interact. So he moved on to his next ‘problem’ which was a young lady sitting across the aisle from us.  He told me that she had been trying to get his attention since before we boarded.  He said he had deduced that she was obviously a stripper (based on her attire and attitude, which for the record I thought was less ‘stripper-like’ than he did), and asked me if I agreed.  I told him that I didn’t think she was a stripper.  He said, “come on, you are a people expert, right?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have good instincts and that I’m probably better than the average person at quickly making assessments about people and social situations. However, it is precisely because I AM a people expert that I know how dangerous snap judgments can be, how very wrong first impressions often are, and how important it is to collect as much data as possible before making assumptions about ANYTHING.

One of the most important questions that an ethnographer asks herself/himself is:  how do you know what you think you know?  Careful attention to this question is the backbone of ethnographic analysis and how ethnographers make sure that findings are trustworthy accounts of cultural patterns and not misunderstood interpretations of observations or glimpses of esoteric events.   Ethnographers know that most people and certainly most cultural patterns are complicated and require deep examination in order to unravel meaning.  And it is really that deep examination that makes ethnography so useful and what makes my job so interesting and fun.  I’m usually surprised at the depth and complexity of the people I meet and the social situations I observe.  I truly never know what each day of fieldwork holds.

As my aisle partner and I deplaned, he asked me if I wanted to place a wager on the occupation of the young lady in question.  I declined, but I’m willing to bet that the actual story is more interesting than the assumed one.

Categories: Uncategorized

The In(sider)s and Out(sider)s of Shared Meaning

February 14, 2014 Leave a comment

All cultures have their own language and ways of communicating meaning that extend well beyond the spoken/written word. Signs, symbols, gestures, and icons all have varying meaning, depending on the context in which they are found. Often sub-cultures have ways of communicating that those outside of their circle don’t understand, a secret language of sorts, that allows them to pass coded information in a way that keeps outsiders unaware.

A few years ago, I got the chance to take a quick trip to India. I was only there about 4 days, and really that is not long enough to get over jet lag, let alone to really experience a place. Nonetheless, I was determined to squeeze in as much as possible. For the first three days, I was traveling and in meetings so I didn’t have much of a chance to experience India outside of a large corporate office and a fancy hotel. But on the fourth day, my colleagues and I set out to immerse ourselves in some shopping and sightseeing. We had planned to visit a local open-air market and so we jumped into a taxi and told our driver our plans. The taxi driver immediately began to try to talk us into making him our tour guide. We negotiated a price and felt really good that we had found a knowledgeable guide for the day. My colleague gave the driver the address of the market we wanted to visit, and we all sat back in and took in the sights and sounds of Delhi as our driver began our trek to the market.

After several minutes, we arrived at a high-end store that looked nothing like the market we had in mind. The driver explained that this store was in route to the market and that we were assured to find many nice things to buy there. Not wanting to be rude, we piled out of the taxi and into the store. The store was nice, but very touristy and over priced. We politely perused the shop and then got back into the taxi, assuming our next stop would be the market. But after several minutes we stopped at another shop. Again, the driver assured us that we wanted to go inside and that this shop was also on the way to the market. We went into the shop, purchased a few items, and returned to the taxi. On the way out the door, I noticed that our driver was talking to the shopkeeper. They seemed to be well acquainted and I realized that our arriving at this shop (and the previous shop) was no coincidence. And although both shops had been nice, they were not providing us with the sort of ‘authentic’ experience we were seeking. So, my colleague became insistent that our driver take us to the market we had originally wanted to visit. He agreed.

As we drove on, again, presumably towards the market this time, our driver asked us if we would like to see a beautiful temple. He said we were driving by there anyway, and really should stop to see it. Of course we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see a beautiful temple, so we agreed. The driver pulled up to the temple, which was actually on a very busy, noisy, dirty street. And just as promised, the temple was beautiful. We went into a side room and took off our shoes and placed our things into a locker. It had been a long morning and we were already very hot, over stimulated, sweaty, and tired. But immediately upon entering the temple, I felt a sense of calmness wash over me. It was several degrees cooler in the temple than outside (despite the fact that there was no air conditioning). It was very quiet (despite the fact that the noise of Delhi was right outside the door). And it was just so peaceful. I remember thinking that I hoped I would never forget that feeling. As we moved through the temple, a man came up to me and put a necklace of flowers around my neck and welcomed me into the temple. I felt so special to be singled out. But after a few minutes the man indicated that I should pay him! I realized that what was happening was not at all what I thought. Still, I went ahead and paid the man and became resolved to not let that interfere with the experience I was having. As soon as the man took my money, he also removed the flower necklace and put it around my colleague’s neck. He consoled me by placing a marking upon my forehead with some red powder (I assumed it was a religious ritual that everyone did upon coming to the temple).

After exploring the temple for a while, my colleagues and I returned to the taxi and continued our tour of Delhi. We visited some ancient buildings, some government offices, some opulent palaces, and saw some beautiful plant life. Finally, we arrived at the market we had set out for several hours earlier! The market was wonderful and just what we had hoped. We were getting a taste of ‘real life’ in Delhi. Most of the other customers were locals, not tourists, like ourselves. The market contained dozens of small shops and we wandered through most of them. At each shop, the worker would greet us, show us their wares, and try to make a sale. Everyone paid a lot of attention to us.

In fact, we had attracted a lot of attention virtually everywhere we had gone that day (except for the first few shops we visited). We obviously did not fit in and everyone seemed to notice us. I assumed this was due to our lighter complexions and accents. But towards the end of the day, I met a young man that let me know there was another reason there had been so much pointing, staring, and attention. He approached me and asked where I was from. I told him I lived in Kansas and asked if he had ever heard of it. He said he had and then asked me where I had gotten the red mark on my forehead. I told him that we had visited the temple earlier in the day. He explained to me that the mark was not for religious reasons but indicated that people could easily take my money. Initially, I found myself wanting to dispute his claim. I told him that I had seen others at the temple with similar markings. He explained to me that yes, the ritual does exist for religious reasons, but that in my case, the location and specific marking of the powder had been placed on my forehead as a way of branding me as someone who would easily give away money. He told me to wash it off immediately. I quickly began to replay the afternoon and all the people who had taken notice of me and realized that I had stood out for different reasons than I had assumed. I had been labeled as an ‘easy mark’ and had been treated accordingly. I was completely unaware of the hidden meaning behind the marking and with this new information was able to reevaluate the events of the day with a totally different sociological lens. Obviously I went home with a completely different story than I would have if I hadn’t run into the teenager in the market who took pity on me and shared his insider information.

Categories: Uncategorized