Truly Total Ethnography

The Chicago School produced “total ethnography,” capturing the full essence of a place. It should come as no surprise, given the title of this blog and my work, that St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr.’s classic Black Metropolis is a major influence on my work. Written in two volumes, Black Metropolis captures in incredible detail the life of residents of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Unlike some of today’s ethnographies that theoretically follow an idea or object across multiple communities (see Multisited Ethnography, like Threads) or that follow a particular group of people (e.g, Slim’s Table), Black Metropolis covers nearly every aspect of Bronzeville, from “The Power of the Press and Pulpit” to “Lower Class: Sex and Family.”

There is a lot to admire about the Chicago school of ethnography. Black Metropolis, for instance, is engaging, taking us deeply into a social world and describing it in such detail that we feel as though we have visited it. Chicago school ethnographers also give us a lot to engage with theoretically. Although the Chicago school often applied their observations to ecological and social disorganization theories, the depth of their description and the constant comparison between areas lends nicely to modern qualitative techniques like Grounded Theory or Extended Case Method.

I argue that we should include the online, internet-based connections to an area in our fieldwork. A modern “total ethnography” extends beyond the physical boundaries of a neighborhood into the cyber connections that neighborhood has with areas online and the online manifestation of what were once–and only occasionally still are–offline institutions like community newspapers. I refer to these as “place-based online communities.”

The classic example is Craigslist. Operating out of nearly every city, Craigslist provides classified ads that have almost completely supplanted classifieds in traditional newspapers because of their easy of use, cost (i.e. free), and searchability. Like other cities, Chicago’s Craigslist has rentals, for sale ads, job postings, and a thriving personals ad section that mostly focuses on short-term casual sexual encounters.

There are other place based tools though. Yelp provides reviews mostly of restaurants but also increasingly of other businesses. These reviews are by other users, typically by other neighborhood residents. Especially when I lived in a smaller city, it wasn’t unusual to see a review on Yelp by someone that I knew.

For gay men, Grindr is a place-based community for hooking up. Unlike others like Craigslist or Yelp, users don’t self-select a location, identifying that they are in Boystown manually. Rather, Grindr uses GPS to determine the phone’s approximate distance to other users. It then sorts the list of profiles available by distance. The pictures that appear at the top of the screen are closest. In a heavily gay community like Boystown, the app might indicate that other users are only several feet away from you. A group of friends and I used to play a game in gay bars in WeHo, LA’s gayborhood, where the first person to spot the closest profile in real life would get free drinks from the rest of the group.

Lately, some have concluded that the rise of communication technology and social media has led to a decrease in “real” communication and interaction in the offline world. Dr. Turkle’s recent New York Times editorial “The Flight from Conversation” is the latest example of this hysteria, lamenting that now we are “alone together.”

However, people are increasingly using these place-based and non-place-based social media (e.g, Facebook) to connect with the physical world. Technology facilitates engagement with the everyday. For some, like sexual minorities, the place-based online communities might enable the otherwise impossible. One of my first interviews, Alexander demonstrates a number of examples of how the online enters the everyday.

My very first question to Alexander, finally settling down at a desk on the second floor of the Center on Halsted, was whether he was in relationship.

“Well, it’s funny,” he replied. “I haven’t really had a relationship until now and I think you know what I mean.”

“So you’re dating Tyler? I thought I could tell something was going on based on the Facebook comments.”

“Yes, I mean I’m not just randomly post cat pictures on his profile.”

Alexander and I are both well aware of the importance of the internet in relationships here. I use the interaction as a metric to determine if someone is forming a relationship. He in turn is not “just randomly post[ing] cat pictures on [Tyler’s] profile.” Alexander and Tyler are using online communication to flirt! They can’t be around each other every moment of the day, but online communication facilitates deepening their connection while they are away from each other. The online becomes an important aspect of how “real life” relationships are conducted.

Alexander also talks about how the online and offline worlds are not as distinct as we might suspect. Alexander was telling me about his profile on the dating website OkCupid: “I was looking at this guy and I was thinking ‘Oh you look really familiar’ and OKC was telling me ‘You would be such a great match! You’d be perfect for each other!’ and I realized that it’s somebody from the bus, because I take the same bus everyday. So I was really interested in his profile.”

Particularly for gay men–who despite “gaydar” have no foolproof way to determine a stranger’s sexual identity because of the “heterosexual assumption”–the online provides evidence that someone is gay and approachable. Knowing him in Alexander’s everyday life made this bus boy more interesting than if he was only available through the text of his profile. Conversely, the certainty of his queerness because of his profile lets Alexander possibly flirt with this guy when he sees him on the bus, because he no longer has to fear violence by accidentally hitting on a straight guy. The overlap between online and offline worlds makes each more useful and interesting.

Finally, Alexander mentions how meeting people online can often be easier because it allows you to vet the person. He describes how an OkCupid profile allows you to see their answers to a lot of different questions before you agree to meet them. He tells me that “the more you read, really the more insight that it gives you.” In offline life though, you don’t have that option. Unless you’re meeting them through work (like a story of his that I can’t disclose because it is too identifying) or through friends, you don’t have much information to go on. It is hard to tell whether you’ll be able to get along.

The online world facilitates the offline. While there are exceptions, most people have to meet in the physical world to have sex and relationships. Yelp can show us pictures of delicious food, but we have to actually go to the restaurant to eat it. However, to not include these tools, since they are such an important part of people’s lives nowadays and part of their decision making process, would be missing a major component of the neighborhood.

Today’s total ethnography includes online ethnography.

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4 thoughts on “Truly Total Ethnography

  1. I find the opposite for historical research… I find a title of data that interests me, see the stories it is telling, and then tell them. Judy H is a huge advocate of not imposing stories on top of sources before you’ve read them–although a surprising number of historians manage to do this, which I’ve never been able to understand. I’m in your boat, there is way to much stuff to sort through and endless stories to tell about it. But that’s what blog posts are for!

  2. Pingback: When Bakhtin is in Boystown | Queer Metropolis

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