“On the Run” has an extra level of fieldwork immersion

As publishers get excited about Alice Goffman’s upcoming book, sociologists say the fieldwork she undertook was quite immersive:

Ms. Goffman, who grew up in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia, said she took her first field notes as a teenager, recording observations about the Italian-American side of her family in South Philadelphia. By her sophomore year at Penn, she had moved full time to a mixed-income African-American neighborhood and was hanging out on a tough strip she calls 6th Street (all names and places in the book are disguised), fully immersing herself in local culture.

She abandoned her vegetarian diet, listened only to mainstream hip-hop and R&B, and adopted local “male attitudes, dress, habits, and even language,” as she puts it in a long appendix, describing her research methods. While drugs, and drug selling, pervaded the neighborhood, she did not use them, she writes, partly because “it hampered writing the field notes.”

By her own account, she lost most of her college friends, and struggled to complete her non-sociology requirements. Her thesis, advised by the noted ethnographer Elijah Anderson, won her a book contract from the University of Chicago (probably the first based on undergraduate research the publisher has ever signed, said Douglas Mitchell, its executive editor).

It may sound “absurd” now, Ms. Goffman said of her extreme immersion. “But I was trying to take the participant-observer approach as seriously as possible.”

Fieldwork is intended to get an in-depth view of real life through long periods of observation and interaction. This sounds like going the extra step to truly find out what is going on. I wonder if there isn’t another element involved: Goffman worked in areas that many, the public or academics, might consider dangerous for significant periods of time. In other words, even most sociologists, who tend to be interested in addressing social issues and using a variety of research methods, would not go as far as Goffman did. All of this makes me wonder how much we might have missed about the world because sociologists and others might not always be willing to go further.

People in mosh pits act predictably like gas molecules

A graduate student in physics argues the behavior of people in mosh pits is similar to that of gas molecules:

Being a physicist first and a mosher second (“fieldwork was independently funded”), the student, Jesse Silverberg, can’t help but notice curious patterns in what had always felt like the epitome of chaos. “Being on the outside for the first time, I was absolutely amazed at what I saw — there were all sorts of collective behaviors emerging that I never would have noticed from the inside.” So for an even better perspective, he turns to YouTube, to figure out what happens to people under the “extreme conditions” borne of a combination of “loud, fast music (130 dB, 350 beats per minute) … bright, flashing lights, and frequent intoxication.”

What he found, of course, was the “collective phenomenon consisting of 10^1 to 10^2 participants commonly referred to as a mosh pit.” And he was able to prove his initial observation: While the individual movements of moshers may be random, their collective behavior follows a few simple rules…

Look familiar? Moshers, as they “move randomly, colliding with one another in an undirected fashion,” seem a lot like gas particles, the researchers note. Or, as Silverberg explained to me: “It turns out that the statistical description we use for gasses matches the behavior of people in mosh pits. In other words, people bounce around like the molecules in a gas.” And they can be understood using the same basic principles we use to study those molecules.

Using videos of heavy metal concerts, write the authors, allows them to study crowd behavior in a way that staged experiments haven’t been able to. According to Silverberg, the unique circumstances (re: loud music and intoxication) of mosh pits are applicable to other instances of collective motion, like riots or emergency situations, where panicked crowds tend to break into random, slightly hysterical motion. Better understanding their dynamics might serve to improve safety measures in buildings or stadiums. If nothing else, they may serve as a useful reference to EMTs in the very pits where the research originated (per one study, 37 percent of injuries that took place over the course of a four-day music festival were “related to moshing activity”).

Interesting research. While many may not typically think of physics providing insights into social interaction, a lot of good work has emerged from physics in recent decades on social networks.

This is a funny statement: “the fieldwork was independently funded.” It could be even better if an independent granting agency was willing to fund such research with mosh pits to develop insights into collective behavior. If the project was pitched at looking for insights into safety with such crowds, I imagine some funding could be found.