Sidewalk (1999) and Method

Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk is a multi-year ethnographic study of the
informal mercantile and social activity covering a three-block zone in Greenwich
Village.  Duneier, now a professor of sociology at Princeton, overhauled
his study after his initial project focused too heavily on a singular "public
character"–Hakim, a respected book vendor who often acted as a leader, an "old
head" who mentored others, who advocated for GED completion, and who eventually
co-taught a course at UCSB with Duneier.  Although Sidewalk reads
easily as a sociological research project unto itself, we could view it as an
update to Jane Jacobs’s 1961 project on the complex social, spatial, economic
and architectural dynamics of the street in New York City,

The Death and the Life of Great American Cities
.

Methodologically, Sidewalk is ethnographic; a participant-observer,
Duneier spends countless hours on-site, taking notes and recording
conversations.  Shots by photographer Ovie Carter are interspersed with
Duneier’s research account and narratives.  The photos are subtle and
quiet; without captions, they comply with Duneier’s telling, more often as
visual complements than visual disruptions.  In other words, there’s little
discord between Duneier’s writing and the photographs selected for use in the
book, and Duneier’s prose rarely refers directly to the photos.

Does Duneier enact imitable methods? His practical activities–taking notes,
writing, deciding among figures and arrangements–are obscured, and instead,
Duneier reflects on the ethics of naming and anonymity in human-subjects
research, complications involving trust and racial and economic difference, and
the camera and tape recorder as an intrusive technologies.  Most useful to
me among Duneier’s strategies in presenting the research (the writing that’s not
method?) are his honesty about difficulties (his humility and candor fill
Sidewalk
with an appealing manner; nice to see thread of modesty
throughout), the resemblance of this ethnography to networks and systems (I’d
call this a systems view of the sidewalk), and the sleight of reference
grounding each of the chapters to persistent themes and scholarship.

Terms, topics: public characters (6), Rolodex (21, 320), informal social
controls, strategic tensions, differential association (143), Broken Windows
(157, 288, 315-16), holding money (160), test informal controls (171), gotta go
(175), normalization of deviance (221), Streetwatch (128), business improvement
districts, "scholar knows best" (327), Conversation Analysis (196).

2 Comments

  1. The title, “Sidewalk,” reminded me of Silverstein’s, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” I couldn’t resist a little levity here.

    The Crocodile
    Went to the dentist
    And sat down in the chair,
    And the dentist said, “Now tell me, sir,
    Why does it hurt and where?”
    And the Crocodile said, “I’ll tell you the truth,
    I have a terrible ache in my tooth.”
    And he opened his jaws so wide, so wide,
    That the dentist, he climbed right inside,
    And the dentist laughed, “Oh isn’t this fun?”
    As he pulled the teeth out, one by one.
    And the Crocodile cried, “You’re hurting me so!
    Please put down your pliers and let me go.”
    But the dentist just laughed with a Ho Ho Ho,
    And said, “I still have twelve to go-
    Oops, that’s the wrong one, I confess,
    But what’s one crocodile tooth, more or less?”
    Then suddenly, the jaws went SNAP,
    And the dentist was gone, right off the map,
    And where he went one could only guess…
    To North or South or East or West….
    He left no forwarding address.
    But what’s one dentist, more or less?

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