Ethnography and Real Research

Cartoon. What do we do? Just watch. Survey them? Just watch. Interview? Just watch. Focus Group? Just watch. See something? I do.

If you’ve taken enough sociology classes you likely had this assignment at some point,  “go somewhere and watch.”  And if it’s a grad class you might get asked to go back to the same place several times.  Looking back today, these were some of my most memorable academic moments and something I’ve definitely carried with me over the years.

One story comes to mind.  So I went to grad school in DC and lived in the suburbs to the northwest (red line to Shady Grove for those in the DC know).  I’d come home from class at night on the train, along with lots of daily commuters.

At some point I started noticing people hopping train cars as we got closer to the end of the line.  It was almost like a slow migration to the first car.  If you follow along with the migration, or just sit and wait in the front car, you’ll also notice a line up at the first set of doors as you pull into the final stop.

Then the doors open and all of a sudden, a race!  People with brief cases and backpacks, business suits and khakis all running through the metro station.

I started joining the race, thinking the run must end at the buses, but just as much of the time it ended at the parking garage in their own cars.  At some point it occurred to me that this was the first time in many of these riders’ days that they had some control over the length of their commute.

They don’t necessarily have control of their work schedule or control of the train arrivals or control of the highway traffic.  But they could shave a few minutes off the end of their commute with a slow migration to the front car and a sprint at the last stop.

The following quote by Robert E. Park comes from the opening of The Urban Ethnography Reader:

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats. This is called “getting your hands dirty in real research.”

Those who counsel you are wise and honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research.

-An unpublished 1920s quote by Robert E. Park, recorded by Howard Becker.


  1. David Fetterman on June 18, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Wonderful posting and drawing of course.

    You might add the role of cultural interpretation to the mix. The difference between the wink and the blink. In a smokey bar, a blink might be interpreted as a wink (which could get you more than you bargained for) because context matters in how we interpret behavior. For more on that topic see my book Ethnography: Step by Step (3rd edition).

    • Chris Lysy on June 18, 2015 at 11:15 pm

      Thanks David, your expertise in the subject definitely appreciated. Comment sparked a new one, look for it next week 🙂

  2. Lisa Richardson on June 19, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Another great one Chris
    I was reading an article about the kurfluffle over Alice Goffman’s book at lunch today and had a thought that I hoped you would create a cartoon related to it!
    Were you thinking about her book and situation or did the inspiration come from another place?

    • Chris Lysy on June 19, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks Lisa 🙂

      Apparently I’m out of touch with the goings ons in the sociology world. I was just thinking about some of Mitchell Duneier’s work, and that ultimately lead to one of his newer books then subsequently to the cartoon.

      There’s a sociological tradition of diving into things pretty far and the Goffman stuff sounds like something up my alley to find out more about. Makes me think about my old professor from grad school Bill Chambliss (who wrote the book > On the Take among others), Alex Kotlowitz, who was a journalist not a sociologist but his book really stuck with me for a long time and James Loewen, who I got to meet a couple of times and was pretty influential for me in my grad school days.

      There’s definitely lots more cartoon fodder here, thanks for the comment 🙂