Monday, October 10, 2005

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).

Bookmark and Share Posted by at October 10, 2005 7:00 PM to Methods

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?

Posted by: pops at October 10, 2005 8:21 PM

Always room for levity here, more or less.

Posted by: Derek at October 10, 2005 8:34 PM