It Didn’t Stay in Vegas

September 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Everett Hughes cautioned that the worst sin for a sociologist was snobbery.   I think he meant not just cultural snobbery, but moral snobbery as well.

The next generation – Becker, Goffman, Gans, and others – similarly showed how our understanding suffers when we turn observation into a primarily moral enterprise.   As researchers, especially as ethnographers, we’re better off bracketing our aesthetic and moral judgments. 
As has been repeatedly shown in the study of non-literate societies, the awesomeness, distastefulness, and barbarity of a foreign culture can decrease to the degree that the student becomes familiar with the point of view to life that is taken by his subjects.  (Goffman, Asylums)
So here’s grad student Colby King back in South Carolina fretting publicly at Everyday Sociology over what happened in Vegas.  He’s concerned that his instincts as a sociologist – to become familiar with the point of view of people in Vegas– were politically correct.  At the ASA meetings in Las Vegas, Colby went out to talk to people. 
I began a conversation with one of the gentlemen wearing a shirt and passing out cards. I asked him about his work, and then when I felt I had established some rapport, I asked him if it would be possible to purchase a shirt like his. He smiled, sat down his cards, reached into a bag, and pulled out a t-shirt that just like the one he was wearing.

Some of my peers have admonished me for this action. They have underscored the point that I could not have done anything to appear more like a privileged white male than to ask a man working on a street corner for the shirt off of his back. I have also realized that by buying the shirt from him I was in some small way endorsing the industry in which he works, thereby furthering in the exploitation of workers like him and the women advertised on the shirt. I even worried about admitting I had purchased the shirt, afraid that such an action would be perceived as unprofessional.
This sort of Puritanism – constant examination of oneself and others for any sign of sin or deviation from correctness  – is not likely to endear the researcher to those he or she is studying.  (The title of the Las Vegas Sun article – “To the sociologists: If you don’t like Vegas, don’t come back” – succinctly summarizes this reaction.  The whole article is worth reading.)  Worse, that view often comes at the expense of seeing the reality lived by the people.  I think it was Becker who said something like, “We want the people we study to be able to see themselves in what we write about them.”

I wonder how Hughes, the son of a Methodist minister, would have reacted if Colby were his student.


Todd Krohn said...

Kudos to Colby. The sociological reaction to Vegas (which I've written about over at TPE as well) was exactly as you described: puritan, privileged and clueless.

I also fail to see how buying the t-shirt would be viewed as unprofessional. The guy he interviewed wasn't selling shirts, he was selling "dates." If Colby had purchased a date, you'd be into all kinds of unethical territory. But a shirt?

And to think, students laugh when I tell them that Sociology, at its roots, is a conservative discipline.

PCM said...

I do not that that sociology is a conservative discipline.

I do think that most sociology grad students, despite their outwardly liberal presentation of self, are quite sheltered and end up subscribing to a strain of liberalism that is historically progressive and often paternalistic ("furthering in the exploitation of workers like him and the women advertised on the shirt"), sometimes conservative, and most definitely "square."

"I could not have done anything to appear more like a privileged white male..."

I imagine more graduate students (and not just in sociology) are a bit too worried about appearing to be privileged than accepting the fact that they might actually, gasp, be privileged. And to that I would say, "so what?" The crime is not in being privileged, it is in transforming one's privilege into a feeling of morally superiority toward those who have to make a living through prostitution or handing out flyers.

I think Lang, quoted in one of the articles, might be right when he said sociologists are, "offended by the habits of the American lower middle class." It's true. It's snobbery. Everett Hughes was right.

PCM said...

p.s. I too do not like Vegas. I've been there once and have no desire to go back. But it's hard to imagine a better place for a sociology conference!