A Roomful of Ethnographers

February 22, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was snowing on the Eastern Sociological Society meetings. Sociologists stood in the shelter of the Roosevelt Hotel.

Inside, in a small conference room, I found day two of the Miniconference on Tally’s Corner Forty Years Later. Ethnographers talking ethnography. They had some questions about what Liebow might have missed or how his interpretations might be incomplete. But all agreed the book is a classic, and they all had their well-thumbed copies.
Liebow was a tall white guy who hung around with black streetcorner men in Washington DC in the early 1960s. And he himself said that things had so changed by the end of that decade that the same project would have then been impossible.

And now? Most of people in that conference room today agreed that the major changes are crime and drugs. For the men in Tally’s Corner scuffling by with dead-end jobs, the streetcorner was a respite, a comfort, a haven for “identity reconstruction,” as Al Young put it. But now, the street is a place of anxiety, tension, and fear. Al quoted one of his informants on his way to a night shift job who was confronted by a few ten-year-olds on the bus.

“What are you ridin’?” asked one of the kids (what gang are you with?).

“I’m riding the Madison bus to work,” he said.

The kid hit him on the head with a beer bottle, and the man was so enraged that in a flash he had thrown the kid down and was on the verge of stabbing him with the 7-inch knife he carried for protection at that hour.

Reuben May, whose Living Through the Hoop is an ethnography of kids in a small Georgia city, had a similar take. Choices for these kids have narrowed. Either they’re inside the gym, or outside on the corner “slinging rock.”
(The panel: left to right, Reuben May, Deidre Royster, Katherine Newman, Al Young, Mitch Duneier.)

I’m sorry I missed Part I of this miniconference yesterday. I was told that Mitch Duneier reported on correspondence he’d come upon between Liebow and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose “Moynihan Report” came out after Liebow had done his research but before the publication of Tally’s Corner. The letters provide some backstory for both publications. And Herb Gans was in the conference room that day to add his own personal recollections of these men at that historic moment.

1 comment:

Corey said...

Thanks for the account of this session. I was unable to make it to NYC for the meeting this year (must the Easterns always be held in expensive east coast cities?).

I hope that Dunnier publishes his paper, I'd like to read more about the back story between Liebow and DPM.