Labels in Everyday Life
Labels are a clue to how our culture is organized both in interaction, in institutions, and in the stories we tell about people and the world. This assignment asks you to become an ethnographer — a skillful observer of everyday life — to identify a label produced by communicative interactions of talk, gesture, and/or artifact use. Each of the social scientists we will study in weeks 1, 2, and 3 talk about how people assign and live through categories in everyday life, though they have different ways of talking about it: “labels” (McDermott & Varenne), “ordinary” members of a category (Ong), and “‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ performance or product” (Strauss). Through communicative interactions, people label one another, make standards, and draw boundaries between what is legitimate and illegitimate. You will draw on the labeling practices explained by McDermott & Varenne (e.g. “learning disabled”), Strauss (e.g. “a new school of ‘art’,” “pilots,” or “science”), and Ong (e.g. “body projects”). These readings will be your intellectual resources.
Your job will be to observe and analyze a category that is organizing some aspect of everyday life around you. Carefully observe what people say and do. Look for how people act on the basis of labels and categories in interaction. Drawing on Strauss, you might look for the subsocial worlds to which people belong and how they draw boundaries between their practices and others. Drawing on McDermott, you might observe how people act based on categories that acquire them and others. Drawing on Ong, you might observe how people engage in practices that let them simultaneously inhabit categories that are in tension. And, most importantly, notice what practices rely on those categories, whether taken for granted or in dispute.
Step 1: Observe (Notes of observations)
Observe everyday life and look for a category at work. Examples from lecture include “gang member,” “girl”/”intersex”, and “learning disabled”. Do this by opening your eyes as you go about daily life and noticing the ways people organize their relationships through such categories. Categories come to life and are maintained by communicative interactions of talk, gesture, and/or artifact use.
Keep notes on your observations. For ideas of how to observe and document, see McDermott & Varenne. They have many examples of how to notice and describe details of activities, interactions, language, and tools. Pocket notecards, emails to yourself, and voice memos are convenient ways to take notes on your observations as you go. Photographs can help you remember physical layout, gesture, or artifacts in a situation.
This observational work is not the sort of thing that you can cram at the last minute, as you can’t control when the world gives you interesting examples. The purpose of notes and images is to help you become a more careful and thoughtful observer. You will include your notes and images as a way of backing up your description and analysis, but you will not be graded on them.
Step 2: Document and Analyze (6 paragraphs)
Describe and analyze your observations of three situations in which you observed the category in practice. For each situation, give one paragraph of detailed description and one paragraph of reflective analysis drawing on the readings. Make sure your assignment draws on at least two course readings.
Description paragraph: Describe each situation in detail to offer a clear picture of the observed practices so a reader who wasn’t there can see and follow the interaction. Make sure your description makes clear how you know the category was recognized — whether accepted or disputed — by multiple participants in the situation. In other words, your observations should provide evidence that the category mattered to people — that they organized their interactions by drawing on it.
Analysis paragraph: Analyze the situation by drawing on concepts from the readings. Use the readings to show how there is more to the observed practice than meets the eye. This is a chance to be creative with the concepts and arguments from the readings.
Step 3: Submit your description and analyses of situations 1, 2, and 3, along with your collected notes attached to the end of your document. For voice memos, upload them to Google Drive and include a URL link in your assignment so your TA can access them.