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.