Ethnography in extremis

Fabulous_dames_at_the_pontiac_cafe Chicago may be the best place on earth to do ethnography.  People are forthright, smart, clear, and exact.  No posturing.  No carrying on. They give us flinty clarity funded by personal, intellectual, and emotional depths and generosity. 

I loved the Los Angeles interviews of the week before, but, as we know, most Californians are a work in progress (several works in progress), so answering simple questions with perfect clarity can be tough for them.  I noticed that my notes of the interviews have lots of arrows, the usual sign of linear-defying complexty that makes the ethnographer’s life interesting but more difficult.

It is not impossible to imagine why Chicago was the place where anthropology made it’s first splendid efforts to make itself useful in the marketplace. This is where Lloyd Warner, Syd Levy, Irving White, Philip Kotler (Gods, all) got down to business. 

But Friday I did an interview that earned, I submit most humbly, a place in the record of methodological difficulty.  From a sensory point of view, it was a full contact event and not even the hurricane that awaited my landing and return to New York City has been able to shake the memory.

I agreed to meet a nervous respondent in a public place.  This is always a bad sign, isn’t it?  But the topic was money, and when the topic IS money, we are deeply nervous about our privacy.  Who is this person who says he’s an anthropologist?  Why must he interview me in my home about money, stock, bonds, investments, capital markets, financial planning, and my future?  I don’t think so!  Americans, generally speaking, would rather give you a detailed account of their sexual escades at Studio 54 than supply so much as the current balance of their checking account. 

Fair enough.  We meet under the Damen stop on the Blue line that sits, wooden but sturdy, smack up against the second story windows of Chicagoans who can’t believe they didn’t notice those tracks when they rented the place. 

The "meet" takes place, and by this times the language of American spy novels feels ever more appropriate, at an open air bar, the Pontiac Cafe (as above).  Open air in case I make any "sudden movements."  Open air incase in case I "try anything."  In an open air bar, help can be summoned in the event that the anthropologist goes completely berserk and begins to ask questions about one’s 401K.

The Pontiac Cafe is a study in badly managed commotion.  First, there are the trains that arc through the heavens above us briefly to stop at Damen before heralding the one true armagedon with their departure. And of course the bar has a sound system that competes with all the sound "out there" in Chicago the way a household furnace competes with winter on those few occasions that your Dad will actually allow you to open a door.  The sound system will never win, but this does not mean it will ever stop trying.  Then of course there are all the peace keepers and EMS personnel who work ceaselessly to make Chicago one of the noisest places on earth.  (Chicago, the city that works you over.)   It’s as if everyone has decided to memorialize the stock yards with sounds that express and inflict misery. 

But that’s not all.  The pit pull who has been amiably sitting beneath the table beside us  has slipped his leash and is wandering the bar in the hopes someone will surrender burger and fries at the approach of some thing so fearsome.  I would be happy to do this but I actually don’t have anything to surrender, except of course my dignity, and this I give up straight away with a look of alarm that tells everyone that I believe myself to be in the path of harm’s way.  (So much for the spy motif.)

I would take my complaint up with pit bull’s owner but I can’t help noticing that she has dyed a leopard skin pattern onto one half of her head, in pink.  Master of the semiotics of the world of goods that I am, I feel quite strongly that this means she will respond to my plea for pit bull constraint with the suggestion that I go "fuck myself," and this will occasion a visit from the pit bull who will prosecute the argument less tenderly. 

Happily, the respondent is an extraordinarily interesting guy who, under the cover of the noise of peacekeepers and the anxiety induced by attack dogs, offers exact details of his investment activity and so the job gets done. 

And from this and other interviews, there emerges a picture of the investor.  The client wants to know why he is not acting like a rational, maximizing, "economic man."  Asking an anthropologist this question is liking a statitician what the best approach is.  The answer from both of them is, always, "well, it depends."  In this anthropological case, it depends on what you mean by "rational," "maximizing," "economic," and "man."  Unlike the economist, the anthropologist posits a creature who is complex, various and multiple.  This creature has many plans, fitful frames with which to define value and strategy, and a variety of ways of getting on with it.  All of this is rational.  But there is never a single right path. It is for high flyers, those creatures of the higher sentience, by which I mean of course the analyst, to crunch through to the one, best course of action.  The rest of us have many ways of thinking and acting in a rational way. 

Thanks god this is so.  Who would hire me otherwise?


Thanks to Rachelle Bowden for the photo of two people on the patio of the Pontiac Cafe from her website here.

3 thoughts on “Ethnography in extremis

  1. Candy Minx

    It is so noisy here while I type, trucks down the alley, that I can hardly read your blog. So funny to read about Chicago noise. Word.

    I like it that your interviewee asked you some questions. Did you ask the server with leopard hair if she makes investments?

  2. Grant

    Candy, I think she said she worked for Morgan Stanley, or maybe it was Morningstar. Hard to hear. Best, Grant

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