Home > Uncategorized > How can you tell if someone is a stripper?

How can you tell if someone is a stripper?

February 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

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