Normal Bob, extranormal anthropologist

So little useful anthropology is being done in/on contemporary American culture(s), This Blog celebrates anything that serves the cause.

Last week the New York Times wrote up a guy who calls himself Normal Bob.  NB (aka Bob Hain) has made himself a student of the Union Square area.  His blog is a treasure trove of ethnographic observation.  Bob has made a typology for the Square, including "skaters," "scenesters," "models," and "junkies."  He also has documented individuals: Ramblin’ Bill, The DJ and Quarter Guy.

Bob’s view is unblinkered and unsentimental.  In this passage, he documents the passage of a runaway teenager from Goth to Punk to heroin addict.

One of the funny things that I’ve experienced since moving here to New York that I’d never seen before is witnessing first hand the frequent and predictable junk-related falls of the human being over the course of just a couple years. This girl is one of those cases.
 
Just a few years ago she was another teenager hangin’ around the cube, goth, bashful and (found out later) a runaway. Then the winter comes and goes, and in the spring I see her doin’ more of the punk thing, hangin’ out with squatters, a little less feminine, a little more soulless. The transformation is so predictable.
 
Then another year passes and there she is, a useless junkie squatter nodding out in a Starbucks with her Grande Mocha Frappuccino and her forehead on the tabletop. Now I’ve almost gotten to the point where I can see the kid and predict their nodding routine almost to the month. It’s sad but true.
 
References
 
Hain, Bob.  2010.  The Union Square Chronicles.  here.
 
Kilgannon, Corey. 2010. “Normal Bob Chronicles a Park’s Oddballs.” The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/26/nyregion/26union.html?_r=1 [Accessed December 3, 2010].
 
Acknowledgements and thanks
 
The photo in the upper right corner is from Normal Bob’s website.  I have used it without permission.  If Mr. Hain has any objection to my use of it here, I would be pleased to take it down.

5 thoughts on “Normal Bob, extranormal anthropologist”

  1. Last part of the passage seems a bit simplistic – is maybe Bob perspective biased to assign too much importance to the cases which confirm his hypothesis? Maybe he won’t notice a girl that goes back from addiction to normal life and will not hang anymore with junkies in Union Square area.

  2. Do not confuse what Normal Bob does with anthropology, sociology,
    ethnography or any kind of academic research that requires a methodical
    approach, creation of hypothesis and testing of hypothesis, or rigorous
    analysis. There may be potential to do interesting studies at Union
    Square but Bob Hain is not doing that nor should he be the one doing
    that. He makes extended observations and he often records his subjects
    using video recordings or photos. In his commentary, he makes some valid
    observations but he speculates far too much and makes no attempt to
    detach himself, and his analysis, from his own feelings and cultural bias.
    Bob does this because it interests him and his videos bring traffic
    to his website and Youtube channel which provides him with an income.
    I really like some of his videos and I don’t object to what he is doing
    in general, but don’t confuse this with science. I think he would be
    amused that someone takes him seriously.

    1. Sinister, The qualitative tradition doesn’t much care about science or detachment. (See my The Long Interview for more on this.) And as long as no one else is studying Union Square, I say hooray for Normal Bob. Thanks, Grant

  3. Grant,
    Point taken about qualitative research. I will point out two
    examples of his work. The first is his “Lessons of a Junkie” video which
    is certainly good journalism if not qualifying as a long interview from
    your point of view. Here is the link:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jwM3dJYPC8&feature=player_embedded
    I would like to see him do more of this but I think he has too much
    disdain for most of the people there in Union Square to do such interviews.

    In the next example, Bob chooses not to shed any light on his subjects,
    participants in the free hugs movement. Instead, he creates and passes
    out a flier which falsely claims that an upper east side infestation of
    bed bugs is due to the free hugs occurring in Union Square. Bob knew this
    was false and went so far as to invent a phony expert working for a phony
    organization and then quoted him in the flier. This was a prank and he
    videotaped the moment when he handed a leader of the free hugs group
    this flier. The guy was understandably angry and Bob tries to provoke
    him further in the video. There is quite a contrast between these two
    videos. Watch both of them and then tell me what you think.
    link to the flier:
    http://www.normalbobsmith.com/amazingstrangers/freehugs/freehugsbedbugs_flyer.pdf
    link to the video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzaa036J-_w&feature=player_embedded

    BTW, I don’t go by sinister, that’s just part of my email address and has
    more to with being left handed than being evil.

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