Sunday, January 20, 2013

21: Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk

When I write a book, I want it to be like Sidewalk.

Mitchell Duneier is a sociologist who uses what he calls "diagnostic ethnography" to study the lives of poor, black, urban people.  In Sidewalk, he focuses on three blocks of Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where a group of magazine and book vendors, scavengers, panhandlers, movers, and assistants form a complex social network that has ties to both the formal and informal economies.  Duneier is interested in the moral choices his subjects make within the constraints of larger racial, political, and economic structures, but he is also deeply committed to helped these people get their voices heard; this commitment, and the respect that it entails, is what really makes this book for me.

It took Duneier 7 years to research Sidewalk.  He began by making contact with Hakim Hasan, a well-read vendor who specialized in "black books," and Hasan introduced him to other vendors, who in turn connected him with their assistants and eventually with the panhandlers who sometimes work with them to make a little extra money.  Three years in, he began working for Marvin, a magazine vendor, during summers, and he also started leaving a tape recorder on at his table all day so that his transcriptions could be faithful to the original conversations.  He interviewed a wide variety of people, from influential lawyers and city officials to pedestrians, regular customers, vendors, and relatives of the vendors, and he corroborated vendors' accounts with those of others wherever possible.  He also worked with Ovie Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Chicago Tribune, to create a photographic record of the blocks, so that photographs and text could inform one another.  And whenever he felt he needed to explain a phenomenon in larger structural terms (the self-respect vendors got by bargaining with customers, for instance) he delved into whatever relevant research he could find to help him make connections (in this case, he used research about the relationship between worker satisfaction and self-direction.)  This wide variety of methods and sources allow him to reconstruct both the individual people he worked with and the larger structures in which they operate.

His discussion of the "Fuck it!" attitude discussed by many of his subjects is a case in point.  After noticing that saying "Fuck it!" seemed to have a pattern to it, especially for the unhoused people he spoke to, he began to ask them what they meant.  They told him that people who espoused this attitude often recognized that their addiction to drugs or alcohol played an active role in their becoming unhoused, and they talked about having finally given up trying to maintain their former lifestyle - saying "Fuck it!"  For these people, this attitude had several consistent components and was directly related to their homelessness: pervasive application to all areas of their lives; embarrassment or shame, and hope that their loved ones don't see them in their new state; indifference to behavior that the person once saw as necessary or natural, like sleeping in a bed or urinating in a toilet; and the freedom they gained from having let go of their responsibilities to other people.  There were also different levels of "Fuck it!" which ranged from ignoring family responsibilities to actively stealing from others.  For these people, saying "Fuck it!" was a way of regaining a small amount of control over a life that was rapidly spinning away from them; it was also, in the eyes of the people to whom he spoke, something their community helped them avoid, because it was destructive on both an individual and a social level.  Duneier reads into this discussion not a judgment against addiction or homelessness but a strong community that works together to combat depression and excessive drug use, and a support network that works with the few resources it has to keep its members afloat.

Duneier's respect for his subjects is visible in other places as well.  He respected the many hours they gave him for interviews, and returned the favor by paying them for their time.  He eventually chose to tape record their conversations so that their words wouldn't fall prey to his own recall errors.  He asked Hasan, his original contact, to co-teach a seminar with him and secured him a semester-long lecturer position to do so.  When he had finished the manuscript, he sat down with every single person he had interviewed, showed them where they were in the book, and made sure his representations were accurate.  As a result, he was able to use real names for almost all of his subjects.  And, by way of thanks, he returned his publisher's advance and a portion of the book's royalties to 21 prominent figures on the sidewalk.

And, perhaps most respectful of all, he reminds his readers that he cannot speak for his subjects, that he was never quite sure how much of their trust he had earned, and that no one, not even a sociologist, can truly know what is going on inside another person's head.  He emphasizes these points to argue that racial, class, and cultural divides are sometimes insurmountable, but, truthfully, I can't think of a better way to level the playing field.

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