Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods: Volume 44

Cover of Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods

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(16 chapters)
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Abstract

The present paper narrates the methodological and analytical experience of ethnographic fieldwork conducted on a neighbourhood shopping-square in the suburb of a provincial Dutch town. In the multi-ethnic and male-dominated space of this research site, I am firmly rendered as The Other. I reflect on how a group of male adolescents that reside on the square hone in on my quality as a female and I discuss two of my experiences with verbal and physical sexual harassment. Building on the discourse on auto-ethnography, I describe how embodied experiences and the analysis of these experiences eventually lead to theoretical insights pivotal to my research. My personal struggle on the square sensitizes me to understanding how law, both in creation and enforcement, permeates social interactions in public space.

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This paper is based on a personal journey of starting a long-term sociological research project in a conflict zone: the research was to be carried out in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The question posed is: what sort of problems and concerns arise for researchers and ethnographers who work with traditionally marginal communities in violently divided societies? In an attempt to provide an answer, I focus here on such issues as: the social constructions of fears and dangers in what are perceived to be dangerous places; difficulties of access to traditionally underrepresented and marginal social groups; useful methodological and ethical precepts for doing research in risky environments; as well as the advantages of working with, rather than on communities. Moreover, I suggest that conducting research in politically and socially unstable contexts puts into stark relief the advantages of conducting participatory and collaborative research. Such approaches provide researchers with networks of trusted local protagonists, offer more in-depth insights into traditionally marginalized and frequently misrepresented social groups, whilst also generating knowledge that may facilitate beneficial social changes for local communities.

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In this paper I reflected on managing my emotions during a study I conducted of the police in Brussels which consisted mainly in observation. Emotions became problematic because on the one hand, I tried to restrict my observer’s role and did not wish to intervene in the work of those I observed. On the other hand, within my family, friends, or colleagues the issue of police practices sparked emotionally tense discussions because of negative experiences some of them had had with the police. How could I maintain a distance from all the emotion “in” the field and “out” of the field? How could I manage this uncomfortable situation? This paper is based on material from an observation carried out between October 2010 and November 2011 in the context of my doctoral thesis: Police Officers and Youth: the Social Organization of Interactions in Public Space. This paper will not address questions about police officers because the focus is my research experience while remaining relatively involved in my daily social life as a young mixed-race woman in her thirties. I realized that fieldwork consists in a learning-by-doing process and that I had to abandon my confidence in the positivistic ideal of the rational and distant observer who has a full control over herself in the situation under study. The researcher’s challenge is to use her emotions knowingly.

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Although ethnographic research requires researchers to become highly involved in the lives of their respondents, in research reports or articles one rarely finds how the researcher dealt with his or her involvement, how this influenced the execution of the research, the interpretations and the outcome. In this chapter, I would like to discuss the issues that I faced during my research among children and young people living in so-called child-headed households in a disadvantaged community in South Africa.

Although children are recognized as social actors in the social sciences, ethical issues in research following from this new view have received less attention. Ethical considerations are part of any research project, but it is often argued that research among children raises some particular issues. I shall reflect on my emotional involvement and ethical issues on the basis of the principles of informed consent, maximum benefit and protection from harm and the influence of my interpreters on these issues. Doing research to children and young people in such difficult situations requires emotion work. In the conclusions I will make some suggestions for dealing with the emotions of respondents and one own emotional involvement.

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Abstract

Geertz is well known for his methodology. Many Symbolic Interactionists refer to his notion of “thick description.” They may not know his work on Indonesia in general, but they often know his famous essay on the Balinese cockfight: “Deep Play” (Geertz, 1972, 1973). That essay is often held up as an exemplary “model” of ethnographic fieldwork. But we need to examine what he calls “thick description” more carefully. After the first few pages of the essay there is actually very little “idiographic description” per se. Much of the paper concerns general description and analysis. We do not get a blow-by-blow account of a cockfight as viewed by Geertz. Instead we get an analysis that is based on Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism (Parekh, 1998). There is a good deal missing from the broader analysis as well. Much of that can be found in other work (Geertz, 1959, 1966, 1980, 1995). Students who only read “Deep Play” often form a superficial impression of the method of “thick description” and a distorted sense of Balinese culture (Howe, 2001; Vickers, 1996 [1981]; Warren, 1993). This essay supplements Geertz’s essay with a discussion of a religious ceremony of far more importance than the largely secular cockfight. I touch on a central feature of Balinese society not emphasized by Geertz: the temple anniversary festival. It is called an odalan (Belo, 1966 [1953a]; Eiseman, 1990; Geertz, 2004). But the problem is not just restricted to the “Deep Play” essay. Geertz’s other work is often also not based primarily on ethnographic thick description. It concerns historical and sociological generalizations. Those are often based on archives and general fieldwork. Geertz also benefits from reading of Dutch research not available in English. The celebrations which take place at a temple are “deeper” than more immediate, largely secular games like a cockfight. Geertz’s oeuvre is well worth reading, but his notion of “thick description” needs to be seen in a broader, comparative historical sociological context. That involves Interpretive research paradigms that Geertz, as a symbolic anthropologist, distanced himself from, including Symbolic Interactionism and Weberian verstehende Soziologie.

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This paper investigates whether in the case of obesity medicalization implies transforming deviants into patients. First, a brief history is presented of the social construction of obesity as an epidemic. Since the turn of the millennium obesity experts claim that a continuously increasing proportion of the Western population is becoming overweight and that this trend is spreading across the globe. Other claims have been made as well, such as that fatter people die younger and add substantially to the cost of health care. Counterclaims have been made too, such as that in Western countries obesity no longer increases and that only extreme obesity increases the risk of dying young.

Furthermore, several explanations for the obesity epidemic are discussed. Public health experts all over the world prefer two explanations that suggest the obesity problem is amenable to intervention. Most basically, it is held that people become overweight because their intake of calories exceeds their expenditure. In addition it is proposed that modern societies are obesogenic, for example, offering food in abundance while removing the need for physical exertion. The first explanation leads to blaming overweight people for their own condition. The second offers opportunities for disciplining the food industry, which following the anti-tobacco movement is labeled “big food.” Especially with regard to individual citizens the conclusion seems warranted that medicalizing fatness adds opportunities for stigmatization and discrimination beyond those offered by conceptions of beauty and fitness. This causes a double bind for governments that want to fight both obesity and stigmatization.

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In this paper on police officers who monitor coffee shops in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, I relate their work to Becker’s moral entrepreneur (1963). Becker describes two categories of moral entrepreneurs: rule creators, such as the crusading reformer, and rule enforcers, for example the police. According to Becker, the rule enforcer is less naïve and more pragmatic than the rule creator. The main question of this paper is: in what respect can the work of the police officers be described as moral entrepreneurship? To answer this question I conducted in-depth interviews with six police officers on the meaning they attach to their duties of monitoring coffee shops. The research shows that police officers take a pragmatic approach, which also contains layers of morality that influence their rule enforcing. For instance, the way they define the character and intentions of the coffee shop managers is decisive in how they act towards them. Another difference is observed in relation to the two interests of the rule enforcer described by Becker. The police officers interviewed did not have to justify their existence and they did not have to gain respect by coercion. This is explained by (a) the routine character of the monitoring, which has created a predictable situation and a modus operandi known to all parties and (b) the criminalization of cannabis in recent years. The effect of this process is that the position of police officers in relation to cannabis sellers is not questioned.

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New Empirical Studies

Abstract

This paper examines how young people develop meaningful self-concepts in the postmodern social world. Drawing from an ethnographic investigation of punk subculture, I explore how identity work is performed when young people are saturated with competing self-definitions and encouraged to engage in reflexive self-doubt. Focusing on the ecstatic qualities of concerts, I describe a complex process of identity formation wherein youth emotionally experience their identities through ritual performance rather than constructing them through institutional affiliation or narrative. My analysis draws heavily from Bourdieu’s practice theory and the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, emphasizing the centrality of embodiment and performativity to postmodern identity. I conclude with a discussion of how postmodern theories of the nonself exaggerate the insecurity of contemporary identity, and I outline a new theoretical framework regarding identity formation that bridges the literatures on subjectivity and embodiment with classical work in symbolic interactionism.

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About the Authors

Pages 197-198
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Cover of Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods
DOI
10.1108/S0163-2396201544
Publication date
2015-03-09
Book series
Studies in Symbolic Interaction
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78441-854-0
Book series ISSN
0163-2396