Ethnography in San Francisco

San_fran_interviews_2 I am in SF doing ethnographic interviews and Saturday night I was briefly swarmed by 8 or 10 young women who were, apparently, gay, punk and drunk as a skunk

They were set up at the entrance to the 24th street Mission station of the Bart system.  It’s impossible to know but my internal prayer ("please don’t kill me") may have helped.  Seconds later, of course, I thought, "Wow, what an opportunity for anthropology!" but by that time I was being spirited away on the Bart.  Darn! Whew! Darn! Whew!

I am doing 14 interviews in SF.  You can see some of their locations marked on this Google Map.  These interviews are what I do for a living, but it is also ought to be what I do for fun.  Going home to home, talking to San Franciscans in their home for a couple of hours, this is fantastically interesting.  If the objective of tourism is to "get to know" a city, there is nothing quite like ethnography.

I am pretty sure tourists wouldn’t want to do 3 interview a day.  That ends up being a little grueling.  But perhaps that’s only because I am asking questions to a very particularly purpose, listening as carefully as I can, keeping lots of data and interpretive possibilities in my head at once, and otherwise fatiguing myself to the point of incoherence.  Three more general interviews might be fine.

Between interviews, the trick  is to take public transport.  Moving between those blue "push pins" on the map gives you a pretty comprehensive view of the city.  You don’t actually see any tourist sights, but then aren’t tourist sights the very thing that’s wrong with tourism?  The SF transport system is fantastically good.  And it is of course filled with San Franciscans, another opportunity for ethnographic observation and the occasional conversation.

Someone has to create a business here.  It’s a great opportunity to meet smart, thoughtful, interesting people.  It is a great opportunity to get beyond the cliches of the usual tourist experience.  Whether you want to talk to punks on a street corner, well that’s up to you. 

5 thoughts on “Ethnography in San Francisco”

  1. So the business in question would be tourism via ethnography? I like it – do an interview or two a day, write up the results, get your room and board paid for. Even better, blog the results to create an open-source ethnography database that everybody could learn from. Sell access to the results with the Media Lab model (companies can restrict access to their results to themselves, but at the cost of not being able to see anybody else’s work). Not sure if there’s a business model here, but it’d be fun to do anyway 🙂

  2. Grant, you have repeatedly stated that doing interviews in people´s homes does not suffice to use the label “ethnography” for one´s methodology. I agree. The hipness of the term is a threat to its precision, because of its frequent and sometimes undeserved use in both consultancy and academic research. But then why do you call your three in-home interviews a day “ethnography”? Because you ride public transport there? Or do you actually do any of the “deep hanging out” with the same informants that would approach the ethnographic ideal?

  3. Eric, I like the idea of working in payment, but my notion was to have the tourist pay for recruiting and subject participation…as a way of enriching the tourist experience. Best, Grant

    Jeppe, I am unhappy when people use the term ethnography to describe interviews merely because they are done in home. Of course when they are done by an ethnographer that’s a different matter. I don’t believe there has to be deep hanging out. The advantage of working in your culture, especially over a period of years, is that you can draw upon this experience to supply data that you cannot supply in the moment. In this event, I believe that ethnographers actually have access to more and better data than do ethnographers who are in place for the more traditional period of a year or two. Best, Grant

  4. Grant, by all means a compelling formulation of what it can mean to have an ethnographic insight into context.

    thanks for a great blog

    – Jeppe

  5. one of my favorite ways to travel through a country is via WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). In exchange for room + board, you spend the day working on the farm. It’s a brilliant way to get off the tourist track and to quietly absorb different aspects of countries and culture…

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