By Jonathan Wynn
Although it’s not a problem for every sociologist, accurately and affectively describing people in their settings is a challenge for ethnographers. We’re not particularly trained in writing, yet our credibility and reliability often rests upon crafting word-pictures of people in situations.
This opening from Paul Cressey’s 1932 book, The Taxi-Dance Hall, is a good description of a scene:
The patrons are a motley crowd. Some are uncouth, noisy youths, busied chiefly with their cigarettes. Others are sleekly groomed and suave men, who come alone and remain aloof. Others are middle-aged men whose stooped shoulders and shambling gait speak eloquently of a life of manual toil. Sometimes they speak English fluently. More often their broken English reveals them as European immigrants, on the way toward being Americanized… The girls, however, seem much alike. They wear the same style of dress, daub their faces in the same way, chew their chicle [gum] in the same manner, and—except for a few older spirits—all step about with a youthful air of confidence and enthusiasm. But one soon perceives wide differences under the surface… . (p. 4-5).
Nice description of a setting, right?