Sidney Mintz it aint, but…

The New Yorker has a brief “talk of the town” piece about an academic studying Starbucks. It caught my eye because as a grad student, doing fieldwork at hospitals in Boston, I spent a lot of down time in Starbucks thinking about just such a project, every time I witnessed two starbucks employees debate the best way to bilk the Mass. welfare system, or discuss how “fair trade” was not revolutionary, etc. Unfortunatley, most of what this particular history professor seems to be doing is simply going to Starbucks, and occasionally counting the number of patrons, or observing the demographic mix–hardly fieldwork.

I like the idea of a Mintz-esque study of the political economic transformation that Starbucks has wrought–to say nothing of their successful introduction of real coffee to the furthest reaches of America–but I guess I’ll have to wait, or do it myself. But even when I was contemplating such a project, I ultimately decided that if one were serious about a corporate anthropology, or an anthropology of corporations, one would proceed directly to Wal-Mart, without passing go, without collecting $200. Where else could one satisfy one’s pleasure in discovering the exotic in 1300 locales in 10 countries?

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

38 thoughts on “Sidney Mintz it aint, but…

  1. Interestingly, William Roseberry, who *did* do a Mintz-esque study of the world coffee market (_Coffee and Capitalism in the Venezuelan Andes_, among other works), wrote about Starbucks in “The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States” (AnthroSource link).

  2. Pingback: Anthropology.net
  3. A serious, not rhetorical question: Could ckelty please let us know what real fieldwork would look like in this context?

  4. As Mr. Creery already earlier has made clear what he considers as ‘real’ fieldwork, I slightly wonder he claims his question to be not rhetorical.

  5. The question is not rhetorical because what constitutes fieldwork and how it relates to other forms of scholarship is one that I have been pondering for more than three decades and is not one to which I claim to have any definitive answer. The following was written to be part of the thread growing out of Rex’s ruminations on the nature of anthropological knowledge.It will, perhaps, do as well, to stick it here.

    =====

    In my previous message re Chomsky, I pointed to what I believe is a general philosophical point about the nature of scientific explanation that I would happily extend from natural to social science and to humanistic scholarship as well. The “at least two competing theories and a body of data which allow one to be judged superior to another” is a principle general enough that it can apply both to nomothetic and idiographic analyses, to discussions of quantum mechanics and a police detective trying to identify a murderer as well.

    But precisely because it is so general, this principle is far from sufficient when it comes to providing an account of the kind of research that anthropologists do or providing a model of the kind of research that anthropologists should do. Both as a model of and as a model for it remains too abstract.

    My own research has been shaped by the model provided by Victor Turner—but not, I observe, because I was able to emulate it. From Turner I learned that cultural analysis should be firmly rooted in understanding of social structures and processes; his Ndemu ethnography begins with The Drums of Affliction, in which he used the extended case method to transform a classic structural analysis of Ndembu kinship and politics into a discussion of the endemic conflicts by which Ndembu villages are shaped. This analysis provided the context in which he then developed his ideas about rituals, symbols, and the social dramas in which they figure. From Turner I also learned that ethnographies are constructed from three types of data: direct observations (what the anthropologist sees, hears, tastes, smells, touches), native exegeses (the answers the people whose lives we share give when we ask for explanations of what is going on), and background information (background information of the sort described above plus the intellectual baggage that the anthropologist brings to the field). He insisted that all three types were—DATA—and no one type “explained” the others. All were grist for the anthropologist’s intellectual mill.

    It didn’t take me long after arriving in Puli, the town in central Taiwan where Ruth and I did our fieldwork, that while Turner had worked with people who lived in grass huts in communities with a few dozen members at most, I was working with people who lived behind brick walls, in a town of 35,000, with 35,000 more in the surrounding villages. I had, moreover, gone to Taiwan thinking to do research on Chinese popular religion. Even in a place of relatively modest size like Puli, the opportunities were overwhelming. We had a Confucius temple, a City God temple, spirit writing cults, spirit mediums, geomancers, ancestor worship, Protestant and Catholic Churches….

    As it turned out, I got to know a Taoist healer who didn’t mind my hanging around his storefront temple, then one day asked me if I would like to see him perform a major ritual in a village outside the town. Breaking for lunch after a morning of chanting, gonging and performing gestures whose implications were still utterly obscure to me, he pulled me off into a sugarcane field and announced that the Jade Emperor no less (the Supreme God in the most mundane of the Taoist pantheons) had appeared to him in a vision and said that I should become his disciple.

    That is how I got to spend a year and a half following my Taoist master around, watching him perform rituals, typically several each day. He was not, however, a man embedded in one small local community in which the sort of contextual data that Turner had taught me I ought to have would be easy to come by. On the contrary, we were constantly zooming here and there in taxicabs all over central and northern Taiwan to perform rituals for clients who had reached out through their personal, familial and other networks, in search of a healer who was **ling**, i.e., efficacious. (This is a serious problem in a society where the number of individuals claiming to be healers is large and popular consensus holds that the great majority are frauds.) There was also the problem that with all this running around, my Taiwanese, while passable, was never sophisticated enough to hold deeply meaningful conversations of the kind that Turner had with his “seminar” of Ndembu ritual specialists. At the end of the day, I wound up with photographs and fieldnotes documenting hundreds of rituals, an excellent body of data for the project I finally settled on, writing a “grammar” of the rituals that made up this particular healer’s ritual repertoire—a project deliberately modeled on the work of linguists, who collect hundreds of sentences from one or a few informants and focus their attention on the minimal binary contrasts that signal significant differences between them.

    I hadn’t done the comprehensive sort of ethnography that Turner advocated. I was, however, fortunate (and remain so, today) that working on China gave me access to a huge wealth of other scholarship in history, history of art and religion, sociology, politics, and economics in which to look for useful ideas and a data that might help to check or confirm extensions of the conclusions I drew to wider domains of Chinese culture. Looking back on those years when I was writing a dissertation and ultimately failing to achieve a successful career in anthropology, I note that my greatest weakness was that I wasn’t a good enough sinologist. My languages (Hokkien and Mandarin) were shaky, my grasp of Chinese history and the history of Chinese religion at a bare undergraduate level. Still, I believe, I did some useful work.

    Oddly enough, it was later that I found myself better positioned to apply Turnerian methods—on a much larger scale. Writing a book on Japanese consumer behavior in which I borrowed the eyes and picked the brains of market researchers who work in an institute founded and funded by a Japanese advertising agency, I was able, for example, to do a decent job of writing a chapter on the economic, demographic, and political history of Japan in the second half of the 20th century by drawing on the highly capable work of relevant experts. In the case of economics, I was able to ask a friend and former student, Ken Okumura, a brilliant young financial analyst, to point me to the standard texts on the post-WWII Japanese economy. For my potted history of the postwar development of Japanese politics I was able to draw on the work of political scientist T.J.Pempel. Building on the work of experts in other disciplines, I was then able to combine observations (close readings of the text and visual imagery in the newsletter published by the research institute for its ad agency sponsor) with native exegeses (interviews with the researchers whose work I was trying to understand). The flaws in the final publication are, of course, my own. But I was never under the illusion that I would immerse myself in some corner of the world and learn all there was to know about it.

  6. Well, the Starbucks thing is fieldwork in that there’s a field site and the guy is there to do research. I believe ckelty is saying that this kind of fieldwork is barely above tourism when compared to what social scientists would consider fieldwork (note that the guy’s a historian). In fact, the research method – going to a site and observing but not interacting with the subjects – sounds more like something a primatologist or zoologist would do. Which is all well and good, but studying people gives you the option of actually asking them about their behaviour. If primatologists could interview baboons they would, but Bryant Simon doesn’t take advantage of this option in his work. So the very least he could do would have be to interview some of the people he observes in Starbucks.

    Actually, it would be interesting to find out how Starbucks coffee is thought of in different cultural contexts. For example, is Starbucks patronage seen as a sign of modernity and upward mobility in Singapore? Does Starbucks occupy that position in countries with long traditions of coffee drinking such as Italy and Turkey, or is it seen as the McDonalds of coffee? How does that compare to, say, Japan, which traditionally has been more about the tea drinking?

    Then he could interview the people who grow the coffee, the execs who market it, and so on. Dammit, I should really stop, I’m getting excited about a book that’s probably very different from the one Simon’s got planned out. Obviously he hasn’t researched this kind of thing, since the New Yorker piece says he’s only found “the occasional regional variation,” which is pretty hard to believe for something that’s found in so many countries.

  7. Let’s see how many dubious assumptions we can find in Jesse’s remark.

    1. “There is a field site.” But surely a rather odd one, composed as it is of several hundred Starbucks coffee shops located in different parts of the world. No rooted little community this.

    2. “Barely above tourism.” Right. Your ordinary tourist is obsessively focused on one type of business enterprise, to the point of visiting as many as he can. Doesn’t sound like many tourists I have encountered. In fact, compared to many anthropologists I know, he has actually taken the trouble to accumulate a very large, albeit rather specialized, data set. Who is the social scientist here?

    3. He is (gasp!) a “historian.” You mean one of those people who normally have a far better grasp of the languages, history, etc., of the peoples and places they study than the anthropologist who, having spent most of her time reading anthropological theory and descriptions of other places may have lots of interesting ideas but considerably less relevant local knowledge.

    4. He behaves like a “zoologist or primatologist.” The last time I looked primatology was still a flourishing branch of anthropology. I also recall that one of the most successful anthropologists involved in marketing is Paco Underhill, author of The Science of Shopping, who has built an amazing career and highly successful business on meticulous observation of shopper behavior and knows full well that the people he studies are rarely, if ever, aware of the spatial and physical factors affecting what they do. Crass things like aisles that are wide enough to avoid “butt brush” or the positioning of signage to be maximally readable at precisely that point where customers, having entered a store are slowing down and starting to look for where to find what they’re shopping for.

    5. Ah, here’s the rub. He isn’t talking to people. That simply isn’t true. Consider, for example,

    At the 125th Street Starbucks, Simon quickly noticed a couple of irregularities, such as the hoop earrings belonging to one barista (“She shouldn’t be allowed to wear those”) and the lack of any ambient music or CDs for purchase. (Simon has obtained a copy of the employees’ manual, and is contemplating applying for a summer job.) The store was busy and cramped—too cramped, he thought—and lacked the usual niceties like upholstered furniture. The dinginess struck him as more than coincidence. “It’s a classic American story,” he said. “African-Americans get less of everything.”
    Simon and a guest each ordered regular coffees, size Grande. All the tables were occupied, so they waited by the milk dispensers until a man in overalls sitting near the window got up and, in apparent violation of Starbucksian etiquette, approached. “There’s a chair right here, and a chair right there,” the man said, pointing at a couple of empty seats about ten feet apart. “Come on, it’s a community thing.”
    Maybe it was a corner bar, after all. Simon took a seat by an elderly woman and a younger one. “I don’t actually know very much about coffee,” he confessed, glancing at the menu of specialty drinks on the wall. “I’ve ordered a mocha Frappuccino before, and hot chocolate. But most of this stuff just sounds gross.”
    As he sat, and only occasionally sipped, Simon flipped through a composition book, where he records his Starbucks data. Unlike the man in overalls, Simon prefers not to approach strangers while in Starbucks (“It’s a biased sample”), so, to pass the time, he often counts customers. On one page, from a stop in Singapore, he’d noted forty-eight people between 2:22 p.m. and 3:40 p.m.; all but six stayed and sat. In downtown Philly, by contrast, he saw forty-four in a twenty-oneminute span, thirty-three of whom ordered their drinks to go.
    Simon has a number of Starbucks informants, such as his best friend’s niece, a twelve-year-old in Brooklyn Heights. “She calls it Flirtbucks,” he said. “She doesn’t drink coffee—she’s afraid it’ll stunt her growth—but boys try to impress her by drinking coffee drinks.” In Brooklyn Heights, apparently, it is cool to go to Starbucks if you are eleven or twelve, but not once you turn fourteen. “Whereas along the Main Line near Philadelphia, it remains hip until about age twenty,” Simon said.

    In a curmudgeonly mood I note that here, once again, we have a young “anthropologist” reacting from a clearly prejudiced position to a third-party account of a text that he hasn’t taken the time to read for himself, which is, in fact, another third-party account of a work still in progress.

    But, putting that aside, I notice the incident of the man in the Starbucks in an African-American neighborhood who approaches the researcher: “in apparent violation of Starbucksian etiquette.” I find myself thinking about Starbucks-situated behavior as I have observed it here in Japan. Here, verbal interaction is generally limited either to talk across the counter as baristas take and fulfill orders from customers or to conversations between people who already knew each other before they entered the shop. Generally speaking, a Starbucks is a place of what we might call asocial sociability, not unlike a Japanese train or a Japanese apartment complex. People seek comfort but follow the rules, which include “Don’t speak to strangers.”

    The immediate temptation, of course, is to start talking about African-American vs. Japanese culture. But what I suspect is going on involves a contrast between communities/neighborhoods in which people who interact at Starbucks mostly already know each other, by sight or name, if not intimately, in contrast to Starbucks in places where the clientele are mostly strangers to each other—a situation that urban sociologists have been analyzing for years, at least since George Simmel.

    That the latter should be the dominant mode of interaction in a Starbucks is hardly surprising, since the firm’s marketing strategy first targets busy locations where lots of strangers, a.k.a., prospects are passing by. Only later, as prime locations are filled, does it then move on to quieter, more down-scale neighborhoods, where neighborly interaction is more likely to occur.

    Thinking about how I might do fieldwork in a site where most interaction involves the asocial sociability I’ve mentioned above, I recall a story I heard from Terrence Turner. Terry had been turned on by Victor Turner’s use of extended case studies to enrich his analysis of Ndembu social dynamics and wanted to do the same sort of research among Ge-speakers in Brazil. Arriving at his fieldsite, he discovered that while it may be true that long-running, multigenerational feuds in which everyone has an opinion about who was at fault when are a staple of daily conversation in Central Africa, this kind of discussion was of absolutely no interest to the people Terry was working with. There went that research strategy!

    I remember, too, a time, just after Ruth and I arrived in Puli, we were enjoying a bit of time off with Fr. Clancy Engler, a Maryknoll missionary. Father Clancy asked, What is it that you think you can learn that we don’t already know? He was speaking from the perspective of someone who was dead-fluent in Taiwanese and had already lived in Taiwan for fifteen years. When he asked the question, I had no good answer. A year later, I did. I realized two things: First, I had been given the extraordinary privilege of spending two years in a place with no need to make a living or achieve any other practical goal, noticing and asking questions about whatever I pleased. Second, there were the odd bits of knowledge acquired while reading anthropology in graduate school. I recall pointing out to Father Clancy the special role played by the bride’s mother’s brother at Taiwanese wedddings. He’d never noticed that. I, who had read Radcliffe-Brown’s “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa” in graduate school, had—and was thus delighted to discover that in this patrilineal society, mother’s brothers also had special roles to play.

    The privilege of extended fieldwork and an odd education that encourages us to notice things that people from other disciplines might not. As far as I can see at this point in my life, these are the only serious differences between anthropologists and other social scientists. That is what makes the question of what we actually do during our fieldwork and how it relates to the information gathered by other scholars is an endlessly fascinating question to me.

  8. P.S. Jesse writes,

    How does that compare to, say, Japan, which traditionally has been more about the tea drinking?

    Point of information: Coffee has been drunk in Japan at least since 1933 (the year in which UCC, Japan’s largest indigenous coffee importer was founded—Google “UCC Coffee and click on the ‘English’ button for details) and coffee shops abound throughout Japan. In terms of marketing, Starbucks (and its imitators, of which there are now several, Tullys, Seattle’s Best, Excelsior, etc.) are fourth-generation coffee shops.

    The first generation are mostly individually owned places where the owner or his wife, sometimes one or two other employees make coffee to individual order and offer a limited menu of cakes, sandwiches, pasta or curry rice to cater to a lunch time trade. The coffee is expensive, up to two or three times the price of Starbucks; but buying a cup is a license to sit and nurse it for hours on end. These sorts of coffee houses have played an important role in the development of modern Japanese literature, providing places where writers could sit and write in relative comfort and meet other writers as well. (The same is true, by the way, in other parts of East Asia. The Astoria coffee shop in Taipei was the epicenter of the Taiwanese “local literature” movement in the 1960s and 70s.)

    The next generation were coffee shop chains like Renoir, which were larger and designed to cater to business people stepping out of their offices for lunch or a quiet private chat with clients or colleagues. But the prices were still high and the food offerings still minimal.

    1980 saw the launch of Doutor Coffee, a radically different type of self-service coffee shop. Doutor and its imitators are the fast food of coffee shops. The coffee is cheap. The sandwiches are bigger and better than the traditional coffee shop offerings. The ambience is bright, light, up-tempo. The layouts and furniture are designed for rapid turnover.

    Starbucks is nicely positioned between the traditional (expensive, slow, dark, smokey) and fast-food (cheap, quick, bright, also smokey) coffee shop alternatives. People can and do hang out in Starbucks, the regulars being quick to seize the easy chairs in the back. But a lot of the business is in a better-class-of-fastfood style. A quick in and out, either take-out or gobble it down at the hard chairs and small tables in front.

    Smoking is an interesting issue for Starbucks. In line with the America parent’s policies, smoking is prohibited inside Starbucks coffee shops. This has attracted a lot of younger customers, especially young women, who prefer smokefree environments. It has, however, also created an opening for competitors like Tullys and Excelsior, which offer a Starbucks-like experience but allow smoking.

    Starbucks has countered by allowing smoking at tables set up outside the shop. Thus, for example, the Starbucks we most often frequent offers in effect a continuum of coffee house experiences, a modernized version of traditional comfort in the back, fast-food in the front, a European boulevard ambience outside. Young people flock to Starbucks for an experience that is, indeed, a bit more sophisticated but also cheaper than the old-fashioned, traditional shops while at the same time, less chop-chop, in-and-out than the fast-food style shops.

    Meanwhile, green tea continues to be served as an accompaniment to “Japanese” meals and offered, with coffee or soft drinks as alternatives, to vistors to Japanese businesses. Sales of canned and bottled oolong, black and herb teas are robust. The frothy green tea used in tea ceremony is now encountered most often as a flavoring in ice cream or pastries.

  9. John McCreery:

    I thought I was being rather mild in my criticism. I don’t generally participate in anthropological policing, mainly because my own program quite happily mixes anthropology and sociology together and I’ve generally been more cross-disciplinary than my peers (my favourite undergrad prof was in women’s studies), and I don’t really see what I wrote as being as strong an attack as you apparently do. I really do think you’re reading more venom in my statements than there is.

    To address your own criticisms:

    1. Field site. Yes, Simon works in several different geographically dispersed locations. Yes, I consider them to constitute a single field, despite their spatial dispersion, and no, I don’t actually find this dispersed nature unusual (almost everything I’ve read in the last few months have been about globalization, diaspora, or transnationalism). If you insist, I will allow that I should have written “field sites” instead. How else do you define fieldwork besides having a field site (or sites) that you do research in?

    2. Barely above tourism. Ok, tourists don’t study people. I promise to refrain from using rhetorical flourishes in the future.

    3. Historian. Here’s what I wrote: “I believe ckelty is saying that this kind of fieldwork is barely above tourism when compared to what social scientists would consider fieldwork (note that the guy’s a historian).”

    My point was that historians normally don’t receive training in fieldwork methodology and that therefore Simon’s definition of fieldwork would differ from that of social scientists, who presumably have had that training. I don’t see anything in what I wrote that implies that historical study is less important than what social scientists study or that historians smell worse or something. In this especially, I think you’re reading far more into what I wrote than was actually there, possibly for reasons of evil and/or as a subtle opening gambit in an eventual campaign of world conquest.

    4. “The last time I looked primatology was still a flourishing branch of anthropology.” Not at my school, actually, which is not four field, so nowadays when I use “anthropology” I’m generally only referring to social/cultural anthropology. Occasionally I tend to forget how you wacky other people organize things.

    5. Bryant Simon not talking to people. Ok, I admit to seeing only the part about exchanging, like, two sentences with the one guy and skimming over the later and shorter part about niece informants. You have me there. I is apologuised.

    Really now, I must agree with you that you’re being a cranky old git today (i.e., a curmudgeon). I don’t particularly enjoy accusations of being an anthropologist. Oh, and being prejudiced, but the first is really just the greater insult. Oh wait, no it isn’t, how about that. I note that 6:42 PM is early in the morning in Japan. Not had your coffee yet or what?

    PS
    On preview I see I have been reprimanded for saying that Japanese people have traditionally preferred tea over coffee. Note that I covered my ass with the words “traditional” and “more about,” wonderfully non-specific things that they are.

  10. I’m having a George Romero moment — the zombies wandering the SM comments section have come and eaten John McCreery’s hitherto un-acrimonious brain.

  11. “the zombies wandering the SM comments section”

    Shut the comments down in your personal entries, if you can’t deal with criticism. Ain’t there no feature for your problem?

  12. “Could ckelty please let us know what real fieldwork would look like in this context?”

    I consider real fieldwork in any case to be dependant on specific research question(s). A general answer therefore in “this context” or any other hardly can be given at all.
    The article delivers no specific information here.

    “Unfortunatley, most of what this particular history professor seems to be doing is simply going to Starbucks, and occasionally counting the number of patrons, or observing the demographic mix—hardly fieldwork.”

    You make me wonder whether we have read the same article,
    as what I read there is all about qualitative observation [mikro-makro, u know? *g *cnr.]

    @Jesse,
    I very much disagree in your statement of historians not being trained in fieldwork. Actually history and sociocultural anthropology basically do very much of the same job: we (re)construct realities.
    But I don’t want to go too much offtopic inhere – perhaps someday someone puts up an entry on interdisciplinary rivalry within humanities and it’s impact on knowledge production.

  13. To Jesse: I didn’t see venom in your remarks. I saw them as thoughtless and half-assed. The heart of the complaint was summed up in,

    reacting from a clearly prejudiced position to a third-party account of a text that he hasn’t taken the time to read for himself, which is, in fact, another third-party account of a work still in progress.

    To Ozma, re the zombies eating my brain: Does happen now and again when accumulated irritations spill over some threshold. Here Jesse caught the brunt of growing dissatisfaction that I have with a lot of what I read in the blogosphere. Too many posts seem to me to be playing the same “Got,cha” game I frequently observed in graduate school. You know, the one where someone is doing a presentation. The others wait…for what…the chance to pounce on a weakness. And when the pounce is misdirected, because it is clear that the pouncer hasn’t been listening carefully, it’s not only a disgusting little power play, it is, if you are me, intensely annoying as well, not least because it drives the discussion in unproductive Punch-and-Judy directions. I wonder why it wasn’t until I started work in advertising that I met someone who taught me that to have a productive discussion, the way it should go is, “I see, interesting, but what if we added this or changed this bit.”

    Jesse wouldn’t be wrong, of course, to accuse me of doing something similar in my reaction to his comment. In my defense I can, except for pleading guilty to yielding to the temptation to show someone how serious taking down is done, only note that I didn’t stop there. I went to the data in question and tried to offer some thoughts that might advance the discussion.

    I had rather hoped that my statement,

    The privilege of extended fieldwork and an odd education that encourages us to notice things that people from other disciplines might not. As far as I can see at this point in my life, these are the only serious differences between anthropologists and other social scientists.

    would elicit some interesting responses. Sigh….

    Finally, to orange: You and I apparently read the same article and also share similar concerns about the relation of disciplinary boundaries to knowledge production.

    I haven’t read it yet, but you might want to check out Immanuel Wallerstein, The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Have a look at

    http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1734_reg.html

    I’m about to buy a copy myself.

  14. “Here Jesse caught the brunt of growing dissatisfaction that I have with a lot of what I read in the blogosphere.”

    This is what I read, too. A similar thing recently happened to me in NPepperell’s blog. Apart from reflections on the real addressants of what is articulated your expression made me ask myself last night, why does he not write a blog ?
    Though not being a friend of politics and culture of advertisementworld, I d be one of your regular readers. Why not think about it?

  15. Yikes, people are taking my name in vain! However, I’m afraid the last thing I could be suckered into would be a discussion of “real” fieldwork, so you’ll have to imagine that for yourselves. Though I did mean to imply, by referenciing Mintz, that I thought an anthropology of Starbucks would conceive of the field in considerably broader terms, political economically and phenomenologically speaking, than going to Starbucks stores and drinking coffee and watching (or talking) to people. A historian could do it, an anthropologist could do it, a baboon might be able to do it… but my reading of what this professor is doing left me wanting more.

  16. Wanting more is one thing. Doing more is another. That is what I learned when we arrived in Puli and realized that 35,000 people living behind brick walls don’t lend themselves as well to all-embracing ethnography as a few dozen people living in huts with grass walls do.

    In the case of an institution like Starbucks, getting to everything will require a team effort, the guy who sits in coffee shops and counts and classifies customers, keeping track of who is there at different times a day, the fellow who grinds his way through all the corporate PR, both on and off the net, the interviewers who talk with the baristas as well as the executives, the accountant who analyzes years of financial reports, the expert in coffee growing and the, likely quite different, expert in the logistics of shipping and packaging coffee beans, the lawyers who understand the contracts and the activists who critique them, the designers, the noses who understand the different types of coffees and generate explanations of them, the neuropsychologists who study the underlying chemistry….

    ckelty is right to remark that whether fieldwork gets real or not depends on fit with the questions you ask. It also depends a whole lot on ethical and practical feasibility. Terry Turner wanted extended case studies; the people he was studying either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide them. I wanted to know the background to all of the rituals I studied. But when you arrive in a cab, perform the rite, and it’s off to another place, maybe 100 km or more away, that’s not easy to come by. IMHO real fieldwork is matter of choices, not just what I want to do but I can do in the time and place I find myself.

    Blessed be he who counts the customers. That will be very useful, indeed, when, in the course of writing my macrohistorical account, I need a reality check on what the corporate PR says.

  17. FYI, fresh from the URBANTH-L list

    =======

    We welcome graduate students to submit abstracts for paper presentations at
    the Eighth Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference. We encourage graduate
    students in all academic disciplines to present their ethnographic research,
    and to meet colleagues with similar research interests at the conference.

    The Eighth Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference will be held at Ida Noyes
    Hall on the University of Chicago campus (1212 East 59th St.) on Saturday,
    April 15, 2006 from 9a.m. to 5p.m.

    Papers can be based on a variety of ethnographic field methods including,
    but not limited to: field observation, in-depth interviews, focus group
    interviews, auto-ethnography, visual ethnography and other forms of
    qualitative research. We welcome papers in virtually all substantive areas.
    In the past, presentation topics have included: culture, class, crime,
    education, ethnicity, gender family, globalization, health and illness,
    immigration, medicine, methodology, race, religion, social movements,
    technology, urban poverty and work and employment.

  18. orange writes,

    why does he not write a blog ?

    Well…aw shucks….says he, his ears turning a pretty pink….come the end of this month when, if all goes well, the new Expression Engine driven Word Works website is up, it will include four blogs: Current tentative names are “Our Town, Yokohama” (where Ruth and I will post notes about what is happening and what we have noticed in our favorite city), “Ad/Japan” (where I plan to post thoughts about what I see around me but mostly about what I read in the Japanese advertising and marketing trade press), “Reading Matter” (reviews of new and favorite books), and “Where We Find It”(An annotated list of sites where we discover useful or simply wild information, mostly while translating stuff for our clients). I will also continue to write occasional political pieces for bestoftheblogs.com, where I am the resident Democratic Party hack, surrounded by guys foaming at the mouth about the rotten state of the nation and both political parties. For my anthropology fix I will continue to hang out and comment on Savage Minds, which is to my mind the very best anthro blog around.

  19. “.. but my reading of what this professor is doing left me wanting more.”

    Give him a real chance then and refer to something else to get an impression on his work than a newspaper article that is written by someone and for a non academic audience.

  20. orange, I love it. Just clicked through to your blog and realized that, since you are German, there is no particular reason why you should know that The New Yorker is one of the USA’s most famous magazines. For details, see the Wikipedia entry.

  21. I see there obviously is something that you know and that I do not know.

    “Just clicked through to your blog and realized that, since you are German, there is no particular reason why you should know that The New Yorker is one of the USA’s most famous magazines.”

    Still, it is ‘pop media’.
    Admittedly a ‘magazine’ is not a ‘newspaper’, but both do not adress an academic audience and therefore hardly represent an academic work to other academics, especially to those of the same or a kin discipline, in an adequate way.
    Second, ad hominem, I googled on the author of discussed article and what stuck in mind were texts on football.
    Now, probably author’s name is very common in the US.

  22. Just clicked on your highlighted name at the start of the comment and got taken to

    http://orangemcm.twoday.net/

    Is this not you?

    Re “pop media”: This seems to me a far too facile characterization, a defensive maneuver that says “our journals are us, the rest have nothing going for them but being for the uninitiated.”

    Note the Wikipedia entry’s remark that,

    Within the journalism profession, The New Yorker’s fact-checking and copyediting teams have a reputation for unparalleled rigor. Lastly, the The New Yorker is noted for its peerless stable of writers, journalists, contributors, and critics, all in the top of their fields.

    .

    Lumping it together with the likes of, say, Hustler(Pornography) and The National Inquirer(A tabloid famous for scandal and sensationalism, whose concern for accuracy is essentially non-existent) is stereotyping of the grossest sort.

  23. The blog you re linking to is written by me, yes.

    “a defensive maneuver that says “our journals are us, the rest have nothing going for them but being for the uninitiated.”

    Despite of not having noticed to be defensive, I can’t follow. What I tried to maneuver your attention on are differences in writing that touch style as well as content in dependancy on adressed audience.

    “Lumping it together with the likes of, say, Hustler(Pornography) and The National Inquirer(A tabloid famous for scandal and sensationalism, whose concern for accuracy is essentially non-existent) is stereotyping of the grossest sort.”

    Probably that would be that way.

  24. I know. You wouldn’t dream of doing this deliberately. It is interesting, though, how easy it is to be misread in these hypercritical times.

    How would you know that characterizing The New Yorker as “pop media” would grate on the sensibilities of someone for whom being a New Yorker reader is a marker of belonging to the intellectual or at least highly educated class. Which is, of course, on my part a bit of intellectual snobbery.

  25. “How would you know that characterizing The New Yorker as “pop media” would grate on the sensibilities of someone for whom being a New Yorker reader is a marker of belonging to the intellectual or at least highly educated class….”

    There are similar pseudoacademic magazines in germany and similar mechanisms at work within reception of those aka the content that is published in there.

  26. There you go again, prejudices showing. The New Yorker isn’t pseudo-academic. It is non-academic, but on the whole better researched and by far better written than any academic journal I know. If asked which would be a better contribution to anyone’s education, I’d pick a year of The New Yorker over a year of any anthropology journal I read without a moment’s hesitation.

    That isn’t to say that there’s nothing useful in academic journals, simply that the prose is typically appalling and the fresh ideas far rarer than people like to pretend. (Those are my prejudices.)

  27. The New Yorker isn’t pseudo-academic. It is non-academic, but on the whole better researched and by far better written than any academic journal I know.

    Wtf? Oh man, instead of spending years in the malarious tropics and submitting my findings to the J. Royal Anth. Inst. I should have just drawn up that cartoon idea I had for the New Yorker! Boy do I feel silly. Or maybe I should have done an interview with a real academic over coffee at Starbucks, and published that…

    You are being a nob with a capital S. The problem with identifying so strongly with a magazine is that any time someone calls it a newspaper, you are going to feel all that dirty ink and newsprint on your hands, sullying your rep.

    In fact I think most of this ‘debate’ has been the fault of the New Yorker, or rather people’s reading of it. The piece as written is light in tone, funny – intended to ammuse as much as inform. It is, in other words, nothing like academic writing. For this reason the article is very good, and does something different from what Bryant Simon’s study will eventually do. They fulfill different roles, and in the same way that criticising someones academic work based on a magazine profile is unjust, so too is comparing the writing skillz of that mag vis a vis an academic rag.

  28. Hi, Tim, I agree, absolutely that comparing The New Yorker to an academic journal is a case of apples and oranges. I am more amused than anything else that the Net has brought us together in an ethnographic encounter in which the American participant-observer (me) unthinkingly assumed that everyone in the intellectual world is familiar with an American magazine.

    I only hope that, as an ethnographic encounter should, it points to some interesting issues, in this case the relationship of academic research, not so much to popular media (we are not talking Oprah here) but instead to that segment of the print media which caters to the folks that Robertson Davies (in a marvelous little book called A Voice from the Attic calls the clerisy, the self-consciously intellectual, both literati and policy wonks. In the USA these are people who read such periodicals as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books , American Scholar, Harpers,The Atlantic Monthly,Foreign Affairs, or Scientific American (sorry if I’ve left out anyone’s favorite). Arguably, an anthropology that hopes to be relevant to public debates has to appeal to these people. It should also appeal to wider publics, but if it doesn’t influence to this crowd, its chances of wider influence are slim.

  29. FYI: Last year the New Yorker had one of the best articles ever written about Boas. It was good because it was informative and entertaining without trying to score any academic points – exactly what the New Yorker can do well when at its best. The rest of the time it can be elitist to a degree far beyond what any academic might aspire to.

  30. “ckelty is right to remark that whether fieldwork gets real or not depends on fit with the questions you ask.”

    That was me as far as I m capable of your language.

  31. “(…) the article (…) does something different from what Bryant Simon’s study will eventually do.”

    Exactly.
    It is the role of mediators as actors between academic and non-academic knowledge-spheres and the dynamics of implied transformation processes that keep me going for quite a while now.

  32. To Kerim,
    I don’t doubt, there are “good” articles published in the New Yorker. Having read through the issue that is linked to in the beginning I even happened to find some very useful material for another uni project I m working on. Just, and this is a historian’s Berufskrankheit, I can’t take any text as anything else than what it is: a source.
    I admit, terms ‘pop media’ and ‘pseudoacademic’ had been chosen in an attempt to push the discussion on by polarization.

    Thank you, guys. I too very much enjoyed this conversation.

Comments are closed.