Tag Archives: Normal Bob

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.  

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.
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.