A Recap of November Panel on the Legacy of the Chicago School

Since not everyone can make it to the AAA Annual Meeting each year, we try to provide a summary of some of the more popular SAW events at the meeting.  Here we provide a summary of the panel “The Legacy of the Chicago School: Doing Fieldwork in Occupational Settings.”

The purpose of our panel was to foreground the Chicago School legacy of doing fieldwork in occupational settings by illustrating the social life of bodybuilders, musical venues and butchers’ shops. In promoting a discussion beyond disciplinary boundaries, we have explored the challenges and advantages of ethnographic methods and participatory postures in various occupational settings.

Speaking of the so-called second Chicago School (Fine 1995), starting in the 1950s, we need to take into account the more global background in the field to that time. There was a growing critique of the functionalist paradigm within the sociology of professions, which adopted a restricted conception of what could be considered a profession and therefore of what was worthwhile to be investigated: it was mostly the prestigious or “proud” (Hughes 1970) occupations, largely autonomous, and self-regulating institutions, such as lawyers and physicians. This growing critique has been taken up by interactionnist scholars, including Everett C Hughes and his students at the University of Chicago who stated that any occupation was a potential profession and that the interesting point is to investigate was precisely how an occupational group acquires professional knowledge – this idea has then led to broadening the field of investigation within the discipline, and by questioning an essential difference between so-called professions and ordinary occupations. Thus, it was not by chance that our panel mostly investigated so-called “humble” (Hughes 1970) occupational groups or settings, neither well structured, nor formally recognized.

This shift is also a methodological one: while the functionalists were more interested in macro-sociological phenomena and big data, the interactionnists were more into empirical fieldwork, adopting an inductive methodological stance, or as Robert M Emerson has put it: The classic Chicago-style fieldwork results in an lasting commitment to examining ongoing social interaction through an increasing sensitivity to and insights into interactional processes of ordinary, small and routine troubles (Emerson 2009: 535 – 538).

Here is where our panel took up: looking into the methodological issues we face when doing fieldwork, and discussing the way we practice participant observation and in-depth interviews according to the occupational community under study. We drew from a selection of detailed case studies in occupational settings in fields as varied as musicians, butchers and bodybuilders, addressing various questions related to the circumstances of doing fieldwork and how the relationship between ethnographic observer and ethnographic consultant is shaped.

Ronan Coquet’s and Fabien Ohl’s (U Lausanne) paper on bodybuilder culture (“An ‘Outsider’ in the Gym: Body at Work”) grasps the process of bodybuilders’ involvement in their sporting careers, often characterized by the idea of “conversions” that implies a physical metamorphosis. The authors consider bodybuilding as “work” and seek to understand exactly how such labor is conceptualized by the bodybuilders themselves.  They explore how the status of “outsider” impacts on “doing participant observation” and analyze its concrete implications: although this status does not give direct access to the backstage of this “subculture”, participant research methods do favor a better understanding of the participants’ involvement in this subculture.

In her contribution (“Getting into the Community: Doing Participant Observation in ‘Manual’ Occupations”) Isabelle V Zinn (U Lausanne and EHESS Paris) analyzed how butchers see and experience their work. In so doing she has become an intern at several different butchers’ shops. She discussed the position she embraces – and which is often assigned to her – within the field and what a participant research method implies in a workplace setting that tends to valorize “manual” activities above “intellectual” endeavors. Achieving hands on involvement in work not only enables the researcher to observe the activities in situ, but also makes the researchers’ position more acceptable and facilitates their position within the occupational community.

Marc Perrenoud’s (U Lausanne) presentation (“Insider Among the ‘Outsiders’: Longitudinal Ethnography and Immersion amongst Ordinary Musicians”) deals with doing ethnography as an insider in the occupational group of independent musicians in France. He addressed the main issues arising from his position as an insider, of being “one of them”, as a musician himself. Interactionists often question how outsiders can access “insider” perspectives. In his paper, Perrenoud questioned how ethnographers could or should study a group to which they already belong.

He discussed music as a craft occupation more than as art. Perrenoud is particularly interested in the indigenous classification of the musicians themselves: for instance, the absence of a patrolled border between “amateur” and “professional” musicians. He identifies a much more visible frontier between those musicians who “play full‐time” and those who have “something else on the side”; a distinction which challenges the occupational identity of “ordinary musicians” in a specific way.

Overall, the papers provided a broad perspective on questions of work and the role of the anthropologist in the field. Thanks to discussant Carrie M Lane (California State U, Fullerton) and also to audience participation, many insights on these issues were gained. Although it is interesting to reflect on the concrete implications of a more participatory research setting, and of the dual commitments of researchers, we need to further question assumptions about researcher status in the field. An “insider” is not something that one is but rather a perspective adopted according to the situation. It is not a once and for all status, but a position that is more or less participatory according to the situation.

Carrie M Lane recognized that the three papers offered a fascinating blend of questions about work – both concerning the occupations investigated and the work of anthropologists as participant observers of such occupations. All three touched on the fuzzy but crucial distinction between insider and outsider, as well as what it takes to “do” the work or “be” a worker.  The session thus contributed to what is a growing discussion about the challenges of ethnographic research design in various occupational settings and in so doing it shed light on the development of “qualitative” research, particularly in the socio-anthropology of occupational groups.

Contact SAW Contributing Editor Susanna Donaldson at susanna-donaldson@uiowa.edu.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *