Lindner: Walks on the wild side

The subtitle of Rolf Lindner’s Walks on the wild side is “a history of urban studies”, a nod to the fact that most historical research on urban places consist of literally walking into the wilder, seedier parts of town. The first urban explorers – an apt title for the 19th century journalists acting as anthropologists in the white spots of their own cities – made an entire genre out of describing their descent into the uncivilized wilds. According to the genre conventions of travel literature, such accounts began not at the thresholds of the wilder sides, but in the dressing rooms of the journalists themselves; the more detailed and exotic the description of one’s preparation for the Descent, the more titillating the read. Ideally, not only the outward appearance of the intrepid explorer would change, but their demeanor and behavior had to undergo a transformation as well. Famously, cleanliness and proper manners were the first virtues to go. Walking on the wild side is not as easy as simply ambulating there – you have to look and act the part of a slum-dweller, lest the natives know you’re not from around and close ranks, sealing off access to their strange ways forever.

It goes without saying that there is something of a class bias inherent in these early journalistic endeavors to depict the wild men at home. What does not go without saying is how much of this sentiment remains in contemporary urban studies, and how the endeavor to this day resembles those early exploratory efforts. Those in the know – the civilized world, the academes, the middle classes – step outside the safe zones of their everyday lives and walk into the dark unknown. The resulting travel reports made for great newspaper pieces back in the early days, and those of a critical bent might suggest they make for great articles in the scientific journals of today – with the important difference that the lengthy description of wardrobe changes have been replaced with lengthy descriptions of methodological considerations. Sometimes, the two coincide.

This historical account serves as a backdrop for Lindner’s discussion of the Chicago school sociologists and their urban escapades. Said escapades usually consist of leaving the confines of the university campus and venturing out into the cityscape in search of interesting places to become familiar with and at. Not in the descent into darkness fashion of earlier eras, but in a more horizontal fashion – the study of sociology requires you to be in social situations, and thus the way to go about it is to find yourself in these very same situations. Not as observer, but as participant. Often, the way to go about it is to simply show up and ask if you can tag along (especially if you are a young student of average delinquency), and then see where things take you. At some point, a return to the campus area is necessary, but it is not the end all and be all of sociological activity. The world under study is, and will always be, out there.

What emerges between the lines is an unfettered fascination with the wide range of different forms of life humans can evolve despite being physically proximate to each other, a happiness over being able to partake in a multitude of contexts, and the sheer joy of exploration. These are not typical traits associated with academics (stereotypical or actual), and the contrast can be seen even more starkly in the dissertation titles from that era. A Columbia dissertation styled itself Modes of cultural release in western social systems, which (with a small dose of counterintuitive thinking) can be parsed to be about the consumption of alcohol. Meanwhile, a Chicago dissertation had the slightly more locally flavored title Social interaction at Jimmy’s: a 55th St. bar. One need not too much imagination to picture the different styles of sociological account given under each heading.

Lindner’s methodological move from being an outside observer to becoming a part of the gang (at times literally) is not only an historical account. It is also a methodological poke at the present. The journalistic descents of old into the uncivilized parts of town were unabashedly meant for a middle-class readership, and it would be a minor scandal indeed if one of the dangerous classes had the temerity to point out that these accounts were by definition limited in scope and accuracy. The Chicago sociologists, meanwhile, had the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of the situations they integrated themselves into, but inevitably ran into the problem of how to generalize from particular situations to general tendencies (whether this is an inevitable feature of human social life is a question for another post). Both genres had the advantage of knowing just who their target audiences are (the middle classes and the social context being investigated, respectively), but the same can not be said about contemporary researchers of urban phenomena. Just who do we, as researchers and explorers, write for? Our employers, our editors, some abstract notion of shareholders, our patrons, the zeitgeist, our friends, our enemies?

Whether or not you have an interest in sociology or urban studies, Walks on the wild side will leave you methodologically confused. Perhaps it will even encourage you to do something as radical as taking a walk into a neighborhood you are not overly familiar with, just to see what’s there. I suspect you will find it is not too different from your current circumstance. But one can not be sure before taking the methodological step of going there.

Lindner: Walks on the wild side

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