Reading as an ethnographic tactic

One of the things, totally unsurprising, about the social world where I’m working is that it’s full of texts. Even restricting ourselves to written texts, we find not only books but also articles, dissertations, textbooks, pamphlets, blog posts, media coverage, government proclamations, analyses of government proclamations, activist manifestos, online books, posters, banners, schedules, graffiti, email, text messages, announcements of the birth of professors’ children, warnings not to break the sociology department copy machine, security warnings, maps and directional signs, historical placards, captions attached to bombastic statues, conference programs, course descriptions, online discussion forums, advertisements printed on the outside of bookstore sales bags, activist pin-on buttons, government ID badges, and the like. I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list of the written genres I’ve encountered — and of course, most of these genres are themselves compound genres containing other genres within. It would be a project in itself just to diagram these genres and analyze their interrelations and metapragmatics.

With the onset of summer, I’m faced with the end of the academic year, the end of class meetings and conferences, the end of departmental meetings and protests, and hence the temporary loss of most of the usual opportunities for face-to-face ethnographic observation in the traditional sense. My field site is shutting down. But I’m trying to ask myself: what do I make of the fact that I still possess an wonderful, unmanageable number of printed pages, of written things, of texts, that I need to read? And that this reading is simultaneously a chance to do textual analysis but also, and this is what seems to deserve more attention, a form of participant-observation in the world in question. Academia is nothing if not a community of readers. What then are the tactical or theoretical implications of a summer spent reading in a project on academia?

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Beginning of fieldwork in France

I’m writing this from a small white room on the 9th story of an apartment building, comfortably spartan, the shelves still full of the shirts and camera equipment of the previous occupant, the bed sprawled out under a striped duvet. A squadron of black birds are patrolling outside in the chilly rain. This is only a month-long sublet, and the precariousness of not yet having a place to live in July is beginning to alarm me.

After not having written much in the blog for a couple of months, I’m hoping to start writing a lot more regularly now that I’m in Paris for my fieldwork. The universities are just in the middle of closing down for the year, having final exams and the like, so it’s a bit unclear what I will really be able to accomplish before the summer doldrums. I’ve gone to a couple of demonstrations against the government university reforms, and will probably blog about that in my next post. And I have some initial contacts and invitations to pursue. No doubt this is pretty much the typical situation for the start of a research project. (If anyone is curious about the details of the research plan, you can read my long research proposal.)

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