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-An unpublished 1920s quote by Robert E. Park, recorded by Howard Becker.