Watching the detectives

Sitting in the Rathskellar at Gallaudet University, surrounded by fluent ASL conversation and understanding none of it, I reflect on the nature of the exotic in ethnographic fieldwork. Blommaert and Jie (2010) write about “rich points,” moments of amazement or surprise in participant observation, and comment that “when a sophisticated urbanite from New York, London or Berlin arrives in a native village deep in the Amazon Forest … the whole world is one big rich point” (Blommaert & Jie 2010: 41). Now, Gallaudet is not the Amazon, and at first glance, the setting has an air of the familiar to it: food for sale in a cafeteria-style setting; groups of people eating together and conversing; banks of muted televisions tuned to different channels, with captions displayed. Watching the interactions between people, though, there is so little I understand. When I see two people using spoken language with one another, why are they signing as they speak? For that matter, when I buy my lunch, why does a hearing cafeteria employee sign while she is speaking to me? I overhear two people speaking aloud, and the first has a voice that “sounds deaf” to me while the second doesn’t; why, then, does the first seem to prefer speaking, while the second prefers signing? In an environment populated mainly by deaf people, what does an individual say about themself by wearing iPod headphones? When two young men carry on a conversation in English across a distance of perhaps fifty feet, are they assuming that loud speech won’t bother their deaf neighbors, or are they following Deaf cultural norms that allow greater physical distance between participants in conversation? All I have is questions, and I can’t imagine how I would begin to answer them. The overall effect on my sociological imagination is like a spotlight in the eyes, so much input that it’s like seeing nothing at all. Against all intention, I find myself concentrating on the plot of Criminal Minds on the TV nearest to me; yes, I’m distracted by the glowing rectangle, but also grasping for something I can understand without effort.

In case anyone asks me what I’m doing, I have my story prepared: as a Georgetown student, I feel isolated from the city where I live, and this is just one stop on my self-guided tour of the DC that tourists don’t see. The notebook in my hand is just a private journal of my reflections. As it turns out, though, nobody asks. Nobody approaches me. Even when I am sitting in a small round room outside the bookstore, openly staring at four young women and their children and writing notes on their movements, they take no notice. I feel invisible. So much for my goal of challenging myself to move beyond the observer’s stance and participate more; since I paid for my lunch two hours ago, I don’t know if anyone has even noticed my presence.

Of course, it’s always possible that everyone notices me, while I don’t notice their noticing. But there’s no way out of that observer’s-paradox rabbit hole.

Looking back into my notebook, I realize that I’ve written very little, considering the length of time I’ve been here, and that much of what I have written is question, interpretation, and hypothesis rather than direct observation. Elements of SPEAKING that are totally lang. dependent, I wrote, referring to Hymes’ SPEAKING grid: how can you think about speech acts, key, and genre if you don’t understand a single word? For that matter, how can you think about setting if you have no access to the participants’ way of understanding and categorizing space? What is this round room outside the bookstore—a place to leave your bags while shopping, to meet friends, to eat the Pringles you’ve just purchased, or what? On the next page I’ve written I’m looking for clues who’s deaf; I’m observing my own thought processes as much as I’m observing the people in front of me. I’ve been watching people as they move from one interaction to another, failing to predict whether they will be able to speak English, hopelessly trying to categorize them as deaf or hearing according to my own definitions. But it occurs to me now that deaf is quite likely an ethnocategory as well: what do you call someone who’s hard of hearing, product of an oral-aural education system, and learned to sign as an adult? Or someone who lost their hearing as an adult, has cochlear implants, and lives totally in the mainstream hearing culture? What’s the maximum amount of residual hearing that an individual can have and still count as deaf—or is that question altogether meaningless? I imagine it varies depending on who you ask.

After a little more than two hours, I decide that I’ve had enough. I could keep observing, but I would feel more and more overwhelmed, and learn less and less from the experience. I need some time to think and try to understand what I’ve seen. I walk past the statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and out onto Florida Avenue, and as I head up M Street toward the Metro, I turn a question over in my mind: if I were to come back, where would I go? What areas of research seem potentially interesting to me, after this afternoon?

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice

Walking around the campus earlier, I noticed the empty football field and wondered about the interactions that take place there. Playing sports is so physical and visual, as I imagine signing to be. How is it possible to do both at once? Thinking more practically, an athletic practice is a more clearly structured interaction than casual conversation over lunch, and I’m hoping that the structure would give me some clues about participant roles, genre, and speech acts. I’ll be able to distinguish the coach from the players, and when they run plays, differentiate defensive from offensive players and backs from linemen. I wonder what good that would do in the larger enterprise of making sense of what I see. Would I go from my current extreme, drowning in the exotic, to the opposite fallacy of assuming that everything is familiar? How could I identify non-obvious differences between football practice at Gallaudet and on a hearing team?

My other research question comes from a trend I noticed in my own noticing: interactions between deaf and hearing individuals. When I bought lunch, I ordered from a cafeteria cashier who did not speak; once I had signed SORRY NO ASL, we conducted the transaction through pointing and writing. This was more extreme than any other case I observed, involving one participant with no ASL at all and another who used no spoken English, but my observations left me with the general impression that speaking proficiency varies widely within the Gallaudet community, and from what I’ve read, it seems that ASL proficiency varies as well. And yet, all of these people manage to communicate with one another somehow. If I observe individuals moving from one interaction to another, choosing one language or another (or both), and displaying more or less comfort in each setting (as far as I can tell), I might begin to triangulate some norms that are guiding these individuals’ choice of code.

But why are these the research questions that occur to me? Both of these ideas say as much about me as they do about the community I’m observing. The focus on football practice as a speech event, or on hearing individuals as participants, are both strategies for including something familiar in my field of inquiry, and so giving myself a first handhold on interpretation. In both cases, though, there’s the danger of making categorical assumptions about what is “familiar” and what is “exotic,” relative to my own experience. Football practice at Gallaudet is like football practice on other teams—except where it isn’t. Hearing members of the Gallaudet community are like me in that they have good command of spoken English, but beyond that, I can’t assume anything. The challenge is not so much to allow individuals to define themselves, as it is to ensure that I am listening when they do.

This is likely the greatest danger of exotic settings for the ethnographer: not that they create too many “rich points,” but that they obscure so much else behind a surface resemblance to the ethnographer’s own experience. Blinded by the spectacle of ASL, I take English for granted — and not just English, but any aspect of what I see that doesn’t immediately strike me as new, foreign, exciting. What was I overlooking about the cafeteria line or the bookstore cash register, as my attention moved on to more obvious targets?

This challenge of seeing “rich points” in the familiar exists regardless of where I am. As I move forward with participant observation in less exotic settings, I have to look for new strategies to crack the veneer of my own expectations and see through to what is really going on.

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