September 16, 2013

Failure is an Option: Lessons from Mitty and Sports Journalism

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

I recently saw the trailer for an upcoming Christmas movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. It is a remake of a classic 1947 film about a mild-mannered man who daydreams about his own fantastical successes and journeys. As an undergrad I often felt assigned books were daydreams too. I would read old ethnographies and then envision myself as the noble researcher: diving into unknown worlds and becoming a member of some group or tribe. Early on, I had no idea how troubling this idea really was.

As a grad student I read a lot of qualitative research with a more trained eye, preparing to embark on my own research, and saw the same storylines of participant-observers struggling to be accepted as members of the groups they study. Sometimes, ferreted away in an appendix, there will be admissions that the ethnographer didn’t quite fit.

For example: Elliot Liebow’s timeless ethnography Tally’s Corner describes a moment when he is speaking to a respondent through a chain link fence to illustrate the social and economic distances between them.

Reading more qualitative research I came across more Mitty-esque ethnographies, like Loïc Wacquant’s Body and Soul, which made me question my own chances for success at becoming a member of a community.

Wacquant’s book centers on his education as an apprentice boxer through a methodology of emersion as he breaks down barriers between his observer’s position and the subjective knowledge of the men he was studying around a gym. His passionate prose brings the reader into the visceral, sweat-and-blood world of Chicago’s boxing community as he learns the ropes from the men at the club and his coach, ”Dee Dee.” It ends with Wacquant portraying himself as a victor in the battle to collapse subjectivity and objectivity, claiming he was an “honorary black” and ”One of Dee Dee’s Boys.”

As I read so many of these classic ethnographies, the bar for completing my research inched higher and higher: Could I become the folks I study? Could I, a while, middle-class male, reach past barriers of race, class, and gender? Conducting ethnography seemed akin to another movie, Avatar, wherein the white protagonist (like Wacquant) becomes one of the ”others” through science. 

Thank goodness I read good, non-fiction too. Although I hoped to learn to be a better writer, I learned far more when I picked up George Plimpton. Plimpton was a rather effete dandy, cofounding the honorable literary magazine called The Paris Review, editing authors like Kerouac, Roth, and Mailer. But his writing for Sports Illustrated interested me most. Although he seemed more suited for the faculty lounge at Harvard, Plimpton embarked on a rather haphazard career of participatory journalism (similar to ethnography) in the world of sports.

Like Wacquant he tried to box, but he talks about how he couldn’t ever master it. The titles of the rest of his encounters communicated everything you needed to know about his self-image on his intrusions into the sports world, and how it differed from Wacquant’s: Out of My League (about pitching a few series at an All-Star baseball game to limited success), Paper Lion (about going through the Detroit Lions’ training camp as a quarterback, only to lose yardage in a preseason game), Open Net (for his stint as a goalie for the Boston Bruins, wherein he describes himself as the only hockey player to be shorter on skates due to his weak ankles), and The Bogey Man (for his time playing on the PGA tour). In each, Plimpton talks about constantly reaching the limits of his abilities rather than surpassing them. 

Mitty always succeeded in his daydreams. Plimpton always failed. Again and again. Rather than a daydream, these seemed like ethnographic nightmares. Hemingway, in fact, once told Plimpton that he was “The dark side of the moon of Walter  Mitty.”

There are plenty of reasons why Wacquant might have succeeded where Plimpton failed. For one, Loïc was a passionate and learned student of urban culture and boxing. But the comparison should make us think about our claims of success. 

On the one hand, it’s hard to find a scholarly work that claims to have failed. There is a built-in reason for success in qualitative research. We can adapt our projects based upon changes in the field and from what we learn mid-process. Howard Becker reportedly would tell his students that the great thing about doing qualitative research is that a.) you likely started doing research already; b.) it’s fun while you are doing it; and c.) regardless of what happens, you’ll finish it. I recall the example: if your study is about a factory and it closes down during your research, then you change your research to be about a factory closing down! Success!

But another reason could be the questionable presumption of success on the part of ethnographers themselves. Are there real life Walter Mittys in our midst? 

So, what to do? One answer can be found in Women Writing Culture,  the feminist critique of these seemingly bold (often male) ethnographers heading out into the field. One of the editors of that volume, Ruth Baher, writes that qualitative researchers should “keep our heads a little bowed,” that “greatness eludes us,” and that it’s a “loss of nerves that makes us ethnographers”. Doing so would limit our claims of becoming, and would make us particularly cognizant of the lines of race, class, and gender that are particularly challenging to cross.

Think of the problem of race in the film like Avatar: the white protagonist is transformed through science into a blue-colored native from a seemingly less advanced society to become not only accepted as one of them, but better--and even their savior! (If there are few ethnographies of failures, there are probably even fewer films about them.)

I think, along these lines, qualitative researchers--and students interested in methods in general--should try to search out failures, and limits. In my mind: Be like Plimpton.


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I am sure you really like this way game.

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