Some ethnographic projects are a labor from start to finish. We are standing in a wind tunnel, data coming at us at volume and speed. Eventually a pattern forms, but not before exhaustion and sometimes delirium takes hold.
This project is different. It has a Hogarthian quality. The engraving is rich and complicated, but you don’t have to look at it for very long before the story becomes clear. Oh, there’s the pub owner, oh, there’s the women ruined by gin, the man consumed by a life of crime. The pattern forms, develops photolike in the fixing tray of consciousness.
There is lots going on, a fabulous diversity of response, and just when you then you are going to be carried away by a data storm, the pattern forms. There are moments where you are almost claimed by glib assumptions. Respondents are talking about something you thought you knew. But no, in the course of conversation, you realize that you were supplying an assumption that does not apply. It would have been easy to miss one, and you count your blessings, and thank God for the messiness and redundancy of the method.
This is a demanding project: 3 interviews a day, 6 hours of careful listening and questioning, hours of commuting as I travel back and forth across London. This is a chance to see how truly superb is this system of public transport. Really, I sometimes feel like a datum speeding about in the mind of the machine. This schedule leaves no time to see the London that tourist’s care about, but this morning, coming to the Kinko’s from which I write this, I did get a glimpse of Berkeley square, a place so beautiful it feels thoroughly inhabited.
You could say that the 20th century was, among other things, a contest between two phrases:
1. Don’t you know who I am?
2. Who do you think you are?
I am always glad that the latter won. Almost always.
Thanks to my patron on this trip, Mark Murray.