Gavin’s War Story: It’s 4:00 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Ethnographer Is?
Gavin Johnston, Principal at People Path, LLC has a epic fieldwork adventure that evokes a darker version of those 80s flicks that might have starred one or both of the Coreys.
The nature of what you’re studying and the importance of context is something one should never forget. This is particularly true when the product you’re focusing on is a fusion of caffeine-infused malt liquor, Red Bull and Tang and is primarily consumed by hipster 20-somethings as they “pre-funk” on a Friday night. On the surface it sounds like the kind of thing one hears or reads about and says “Oh, poor you” with more than a touch of sarcasm. And to be fair, I’ll be the first to admit that doing ethnographic research on a topic like this is decidedly more enjoyable than studying, say, online tax preparation. Or at least it is until it’s 4:00 a.m. in the Bronx, the subway has stopped running for night and your shoulder is coated in a quickly freezing film of someone else’s vomit. This is when knowing your limits and having a back-up plan for getting back to the hotel (or out of jail) becomes as important as the camera, the training or your research experience.
The fieldwork began with a party being hosted by two young women so obsessed with the drink that they had actually dressed as cans of the product for Halloween. They were experts at finding an amazing number of uses for it, from turning empty cans into art to cooking with the neon liquid. Imagine a float made with a mix of the god-awful stuff and strawberry ice cream. As the party heated up and the list of participants grew, simply keeping up was difficult. Notepads were quickly filling up and batteries drained.
Normally, the idea is that you drink one of these concoctions to kick off the evening and one late in the evening, say midnight, to keep the party going. But that wasn’t the case with these folks. No, rather than being used to supplement the other drinks throughout the evening, the stuff was consumed exclusively, leading to what they hoped would be “mad adventures” and general mayhem. Being long past my partying days, I took it in stride, assuming it was just bravado. Fieldwork demands vigilance, so if capturing the full context of use meant losing a little sleep and stinking of cigarettes, so be it. But it turned out that much more was required.
At about 1:00, as one of the roommates found a corner in which to sleep away the night. The other grabbed two more cans of the stuff, three of her friends and me, then headed for the door, intent on getting to an obscure club in the Bronx. After a walk through a foot or so of snow, we hopped on the subway and headed out of Brooklyn. As it turned out, the obscure club was a warehouse in a deserted neighborhood. At this point my camera battery had run dry, my notebook was full from cover to cover and I was running out of steam. As I contemplated calling a cab, I realized that I was too far away, had limited cash and was in a neighborhood that no cab driver would have driven to in the first place. So I decided to continue on with my participants. In for a penny, as they say.
Not long after, around 3:00, my key informant and one of her friends tracked me down (I had lost them half an hour earlier in the crowd) and asked if I was ready to go because one of their cohort had consumed “a little too much” booze. We headed for the door. Unfortunately, making it to the subway for the last late-night train was unlikely. Instead, half an hour later I found myself, my host and her friends sitting in a subway station that was in disrepair. Thirty minutes after that, sitting on a bench in the frigid subway station, waiting for the 5:00 a.m. train, the friend that had downed a bit too much decided it was a good time to paint my shoulder with the Day-Glo contents of her stomach.
The decision to stick with it ultimately resulted in some breakthrough insights and a very happy client, so I can’t complain. But all things being equal, I would do things differently today. The experience helped remind me that it’s important to know when to bow out and how you’re going to do it. It reminded me that it’s important to set limits on what you’re willing to do in the name of research, rather than pushing yourself to the breaking point, putting yourself in harm’s way or being party to what may be questionably legal behavior. Of course, six months later I was sitting in a 130 degree attic with HVAC guys for 10 hours at a time. Sometimes it takes years for these lessons to take hold.