Tag Archives: airports

Making culture, categorizing culture

Good things happen when we loiter.

We start to notice.

Someone was noticing at the Boston Book Festival.

Here’s what they saw:

literary tattoo
cat jewelry
Chicago Manual of Style tote back
funny hat
drunk author

These are telling details.  They are not a perfect rendering of Book Festival culture, but they’re a charming first start.  Next Book Festival, everyone will be a little more alert.  Except for of course for the drunk author.  

BusinessWeek sent observers to airports in Paris, Montreal, and New York City. 

They began to notice and then to generalize:

Luggage Riflers
CNN Segment Chortlers
Twitchers and Touchers
Fortress Builders
Food Stuffers
The Wired Neurotic
Tabloid Readers
Chair Hoarders

Stuck at an airport, people try to make the best of a bad situation.  They resort to several strategies, all of which test the rules of public life.  Noticing happens, categories blossom. Is this perfect anthropology.  But of course not.  We have a very short while to make our observations.  The trick is to see whether we can find a "square inch" and work it.  

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the anthropological work of Normal Bob.  He has done a typology of the people we see at Union Square in New York City. Normal Bob, (aka Bob Hain) has observed "skaters," "scenesters," "models," and "junkies." He also has documented Ramblin’ Bill, The DJ and Quarter Guy.

Spotting culture is a way of creating culture.  Everyone is smarter and more observant when we’ve given them the ethnographic head’s up.  Cat jewelry?  I had no idea.  But now I will look for it.  When I am stuck at the airport, I will use the BusinessWeek typology to observe the people around me.  New categories will suggest themselves.  Old ones will get refined. Union Square?  I will keep my "Normal Bob" cheat sheet in mind as I go.

Our culture is that it is in a state of constant churn.  There is lots to observe. Patterns come and go.  And when we notice stuff happening, our work is only particularly done.  Now it’s time to create artifacts like Bingo cards, BusinessWeek typologies and Normal Bob categories. Having observed culture, it’s time to create it.   


Anonymous.  2010.  Boston Book Festival Bingo Card. Boston Phoenix. click here.

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Normal Bob, Extranormal Anthropologist.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  click here.

Murphy, Tim. 2011. Airport Gate Semiotics. BusinessWeek. January 10 – January 16. pp. 76-77.


Patti Wood, author of Success Signals; Jason Barger, author of Step Back from the Baggage Claim, David Givens, author of Your Body at Work.  Wood, Barger and Givens are the authors of the Airport Gate typology in BusinessWeek.