Telling Human Stories

Telling Human Stories

Laurie Taylor

I still remember the first seminar in sociology that I ever took at York University. Although I was proud to have secured a position as Assistant Lecturer at what was then a very new university, I had no clear idea about how I might best introduce the subject to a bunch of undergraduates.

In the end I decided that it might be most interesting to begin with a discussion about the nature of suicide. I would ask members of the group to consider all the personal and situational reasons why people might wish to commit suicide (a broken romance, illness, revenge) and then I would slowly introduce a sociological perspective. I would show how Durkheim had managed to construct a very telling account of the reasons why some groups of people were more likely to kill themselves without ever needing to invoke biographical or psychological accounts. And that, I would say, leaning back in my chair and looking around the group with an air of triumph shows how a sociological explanation can improve upon the sort of everyday explanations that people give for their own behavior.

But it didn’t work out like that.  One of my students, a rather timid eighteen- year old called Alison, interrupted me as I was prattling about the commonplace psychological explanations of suicide and told me that in the class above her at school there’d been two suicides and one attempted suicide in a single year. It seemed that all the victims had been members of a sort of gang and had somehow come to believe, through their talking and reading, that suicide was romantic. It was, after all, the chosen form of death for many great artists and writers and for countless classical heroes and heroines.

Others in my seminar group protested. How could any group of otherwise perfectly normal human beings come to entertain such irrational thoughts?

It took me a little time to realise that such questions were offering me a quite different way into sociology. Instead of moving on to Durkheim’s detailed statistics about the differences in national suicide rates, I could use the group’s concerns as a way of introducing that branch of sociology and anthropology which had as its primary concern the manner in which groups and subcultures develop their own systems of meaning, their own accounts of what was reasonable behaviour, their own distinctive world view.  I could introduce them to ethnography.

I chose as my first example, a work which was later to become something of a standard undergraduate text, Howard Becker’s essay ‘On becoming a marihuana user’.  In one sense this essay is not a perfect example of ethnography. It is largely based on interviews rather than a long term immersion in a particular subculture, but Becker’s ethnographic sensitivity, which he displayed in his complementary study of the world of jazz musicians, meant that he gave a wonderfully sensitive account of how a person cannot begin to use marihuana for pleasure unless they are first culturally taught how to define its effects as pleasurable rather than disconcerting. Enjoying marihuana wasn’t a pharmacological matter: it was a product of acculturation.

From that point, it was relatively easy to move onto other examples of the manner in which apparently deviant or irrational activities could become normalised. Why, for example, did working class boys not take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded to them by school. What would a close participant analysis of their subculture reveal about their readiness to adopt a style of life, which meant that they were destined for dead-end jobs?  These, of course, were the questions later so sensitively probed and answered in Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour.

It was at this point that I decided to introduce the group to the Chicago school of sociology. Within weeks were talking about the array of subcultural groups which had been so sensitively documented by sociologists back in the 1930’s and 40’s when the city was dramatically expanding.  We talked about the distinctive culture of street gangs, prostitutes and the hobos. And, of course, we also talked about methodology, about the dilemmas encountered by ethnographers.

My American example here was always the Laud Humphreys study Tearoom Trade, a participant observation study of men who used public lavatories for sex. Humphreys’ work did much to subvert the stereotype of such men. He was able to show that many of the participants lived otherwise perfectly conventional lives as family men and respected members of their communities. But was he justified in using the license plates of his subjects’ cars as a means to establish such matters? Discuss.

My more domestic example was taken from Howard Parker’s View from the Boys, a pioneering study of a group of Liverpool lads who specialised in the theft of car radios or ‘cat’s eyes’. Was Parker right to act as an occasional lookout for the boys? Was it right for him to offer them help over their court appearances? When did participant observation come dangerously close to collaboration?

It was the experience of those early years at York which led me to adopt ethnography not merely as a way of introducing students to sociology but also as a method for prompting the sociological imagination. In Foucault’s classic study of the shifting historical manner in which science sought to understand the world, The Order of Things, there is a paragraph in the preface in which the author talks about the experience of encountering different systems of thought. What makes this so exciting, says Foucault, is not merely the ‘exotic charm of another system of thought’ but the manner in which such an encounter exposes the limitation of our own way of thinking. It reminds us of ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that.’

Of course not all ethnography has such a dramatic effect. Some classic anthropological studies of different societies can, as Levi-Strauss demonstrated, make us aware of the categorical predilections which lie behind our customary ways of classifying the world and its objects, but more often, ethnography induces not so much amazement as informed empathy.

So anyone who reads Reuben Andersson’s Illegality, Inc, the book which won last year’s British Sociological Association/BBC Ethnography Award[i] will not only learn about the complexities of the migration trail but will also gain an in-depth understanding of the specific anxieties and frustrations which prompt people to undertake such hazardous journeys. In much the same way, readers of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice Goffman’s ethnographic study of a largely black neighbourhood in Philadelphia, will not only learn about the manner in which the present policing policy in the area almost impels residents into criminality, but also gain a profound sense of how people manage to live their everyday lives in ‘a climate of fear and suspicion’.

All of which means, that we should, as sociologists, be profoundly concerned about the difficulties that now face any would-be ethnographer. The new rush to publish engendered by the Research Excellence Framework is quite incompatible with the long-term demands of participant observation. Neither are matters made any easier by the unavailability of funding for such extended periods of study.

Of course, there is a certain paradox in asking ethnographers themselves to stand up and be counted as their discipline becomes so increasingly threatened. Many years ago I enjoyed a lunch with Alice Goffman’s father, Erving Goffman, whose remarkable studies of human interaction and institutional life are classics of ethnography. There were four or five of us round the table and I was a little disappointed to see that Erving was not joining in the general conversation. Afterwards I asked him if he’d felt a bit side-lined by all our parochial chatter. Not at all, he assured me. He was merely behaving in the manner which had brought him such extraordinary access to places like the closed wards of mental hospitals. He had, he said, been busy doing his ‘disappearing act’.


[i] The closing date for entries for the next Thinking Allowed/British Sociological Association Ethnography Prize is 15th January 2016.


Laurie Taylor FAcSS is visiting professor at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by six UK Universities. Before entering academic life at the University of York, where he went on to become Professor of Sociology, he worked in industry and sales and as work.ed as a librarian in Liverpool, taught in a London comprehensive school, and was a professional actor with Joan Littlewood’s famous Theatre Workshop Company at Stratford East.  He is the author of fourteen books His weekly satirical column on university life has been appearing in the Times Higher Education Supplement for the last thirty-five years. Laurie can currently be heard every Wednesday afternoon on BBC R4 presenting Thinking Allowed, a programme, now in its fifteenth year, devoted to society and social change. He has recently completed the sixth series of his Sky Arts television interview programme, In Confidence. A book based on the series called In Confidence: Talking Frankly About Fame was published in 2014.

Photo: courtesy National Portrait Gallery

1 Comment responses

Leave a comment