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.