What exactly is the ethnographic line between entertaining stories and academic content?

One sociologist expresses his dislike of Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City and raises an interesting question about the line between entertaining stories and sociological analysis:

 

Early in my career I had a book reviewed by a wise sage of Fleet Street who mocked my sociological language and academic conceits. Some years later, a literary agent explained that if I were to abandon academic conventions but retain the stories of “low life”, untold riches would surely follow. In exchange for academic orthodoxy I should situate myself firmly in the narrative, charting my no doubt dangerous but hilarious adventures through the life-world of the lower orders. Although I rejected this suggestion, I always wondered what an ethnography eviscerated of academic content would look like.

Floating City has answered this question and much more. A self-styled “maverick sociologist” and experienced urban ethnographer who holds a named chair at an Ivy League university, Sudhir Venkatesh drains his study of illegal entrepreneurship in New York of most of the academic conventions that will come naturally to someone with almost a quarter of a century of experience in the dangerous enclaves of US higher education. On arriving in New York from Chicago, Venkatesh finds life in a “World City” unfamiliar (but isn’t Chicago a World City?), with old standbys such as neighbourhood and community apparently made redundant by globalisation…

The populist format of Floating City is insistent that the Homeric author is a pioneer, the first in the field, an ingénue intent on emphasising that the unique demands of researching the global city require a rejection of academic tradition. But his outsider stance and maverick posturing are an irritant; they get in the way of his street-savvy case studies and vignettes of urban life. For at the heart of this book is a conventional ethnography that challenges the author’s ingénue facade by using the full arsenal of ethnographic orthodoxy, and along the way highlighting the enduring importance of community and neighbourhood.

The best of this book is precisely the result of the “traditional sociology” that Venkatesh derides. I will not forget in a hurry the poignancy of his descriptions of Manjun and his family, who run a shop selling pornographic DVDs, or his fine-grained interaction with a group of aspirational prostitute women struggling on streets paved with something less than gold. His interaction with coke-addled socialites I found irritating and somewhat pointless, and his aim to make connections between the so-called upper- and underworlds fizzles out. For while the city may be more fluid, the rich and the poor remain separated, and the dots are not joined.

This gets at some basic issues sociologists face:

1. What audience should they aim for when writing a book? If they write for the public, they may be derided by fellow academics for not having enough academic content. If they write a more academic book, few in the public will touch it. It is rare to find such sociological works that can easily transcend these audience boundaries. Just the other day, I was explaining to someone how the book Bowling Alone was one of these rare texts that contained an academic approach to a problem that caught people’s attention.

2. How exactly should ethnographic research be conveyed? Yes, there are stories to relate but it also needs to contain some sociological analysis. Different ethnographers rely on different mixes of narrative and analysis but the sociological element still has to come through to some degree.

3. If the sociologist is studying “low life,” how can these lives be explored without being exploitative or cheapening? Salaciousness might sell but it does not tend to grant dignity and respect to those being described. Sociologists also often develop personal relationships with those they are studying and these complicates the retelling.

These are common concerns of ethnographers and there are not easy answers. Amongst themselves, sociologists disagree how to do these things better.

Measuring audience reaction: from the applause of crowds to Facebook likes

Megan Garber provides an overview of applause, “the big data of the ancient world.

Scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious — “a remarkably stable facet of human culture.” Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause – as acclamation, and as celebration. (“And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, ‘Long live the king!'”)

But clapping was formalized — in Western culture, at least — in the theater. “Plaudits” (the word comes from the Latin “to strike,” and also “to explode”) were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, “Valete et plaudite!” (“Goodbye and applause!”) — thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world’s first human applause signs…

As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”…

So the subtleties of the Roman arena — the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning — gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: “What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give ’em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?” The lack of applause, on the other hand — the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing — “that I can respond to.”…

Mostly, though, we’ve used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation — and our approval — by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We’re audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs.

Fascinating, from the human tendency across cultures to clap, planting people in the audience to clap and cheer, to the rules that developed around clapping.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there notable moments in history when politicians and others thought the crowd was going one way because of applause but quickly found out that wasn’t the case? Simply going by the loudest noise seems rather limited, particularly with large crowds and outdoors.

2. The translation of clapping into Facebook likes loses the embodied nature of clapping and crowds. Yes, likes allow you to mentally see that you are joining with others. But, there is something about the social energy of a crowd that is completely lost. Durkheim would describe this as collective effervesence and Randall Collins describes the physical nature of “emotional energy” that can be generated when humans are in close physical proximity to each other. Clapping is primarily a group behavior and is difficult to transfer to a more individualistic setting.

3. I have noticed in my lifetime the seemingly increasing prevalence of standing ovations. Pretty much every theater show I have been to in recent years is followed by a standing ovation. My understanding is that at one point such ovations were reserved for truly spectacular performances but now it is simply normal. Thus, the standing ovation now has a very different meaning.

Media looks for ways to better measure fragmented audience

As media platforms proliferate, media companies are looking for better ways to measure their audience:

“We have Omniture data, comScore, Nielsen, some of our internal metrics that we look at — they don’t match,” Wert said.

Hampering the effort are audiences splintering into ever smaller shards as they use an array of outlets and platforms — including websites, mobile devices, print and broadcast…

The tinier the pieces the more precious each becomes. It’s more important than ever for traditional media looking to cover the costs of producing content to deliver to marketers as much information as possible about who’s watching, reading and listening.

Arguably, technology has made the measurement systems better than ever. But the result is counterintuitive: Consumers are followed more closely but the numbers don’t always add up, and it’s not clear how to put a value on those numbers…

Nielsen’s Patrick Dineen, senior vice president of local television audience measurement, said it’s “wildly inappropriate” to try to track audiences through one medium. Kevin Gallagher, executive vice president and local director at Starcom, said his firm has replaced talk of traditional media planning with something that tracks targeted consumers’ daily interaction with media.

Getting the right numbers means media companies will be able to more accurately gauge advertising, particularly target audiences, and then make more money. Solving these issues and appropriately valuing these media interactions will be a huge issue moving forward and whoever can do it first or do it best could have an advantage.

The ubiquity of the standing ovation

My wife and I recently had the chance to see Les Misérables in Chicago. At the end of the show, the crowd gave a standing ovation. It seems that this is no longer unusual: whether it is a high school play, an orchestra concert, or a big-time musical, the crowd gives a standing ovation. Is this a new social norm?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, here is the definition of a standing ovation: “a rousing ovation conferred by an audience standing as a mark of enthusiastic approval, esp. after a speech.” But I have always thought that a standing ovation is not just given when the crowd enthusiastically approves; rather, it is reserved for special occasions, when the performance or speaker has done a tremendous job. This more restrictive definition is supported by Wikipedia: “A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding. This is done on special occasions by an audience to show their approval and is done after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim…Standing ovations are considered to be a special honor.” If this is the social norm, how can every performance be worthy of a standing ovation?

So why might crowds be more willing to give more frequent standing ovations? A few thoughts:

1. It has lost its status as something done for a special or noteworthy performance. It is now perfunctory. Crowds think they are supposed to give a standing ovation no matter what.

2. A more nuanced explanation: in the case of something like Les Misérables, the average attendee does not know whether the actors have given a good performance or not. This is a world-renowned musical, the attendees have paid a lot of money to attend, and so it must have been good and deserving of a standing ovation. The key here is that the average person can’t easily distinguish the quality of many performances and is left to judge the performance by other factors, such as its status. Since the theater or going to the orchestra is a rare event for many and it is accompanied by ideas about high culture and fancier dress, the standing ovation may just seem like the right thing to do.

(This is supported by an incident after the musical: a teenage couple was walking out and one said, “Epinone was just terrible.” The other said, “Yeah, her singing was bad.” A few of us who overheard this just smiled and looked at each other. How were we to know whether this was true or not? Presumably, one would have had to see this musical multiple times or listened to the music many times before a judgment could be made.)

If the standing ovation is now normal, what can a crowd do to show extreme enthusiasm or to mark an excellent performance? A few options: a prolonged applause or loud whistling or yelling along with the clapping.

Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.