Monday, May 16, 2011

For ten days I traveled, practicing anthropology on the Ohioans -- conversing with working people about their experiences in the workplace and the other places they come together with others to get something done; coaxing them to remember what they have seen when people try to make things change for the better in whatever way.

Though it is draining, I enjoy doing these interviews, probably because it is a pleasure to exercise a skill that you're proficient at.  A good interview is complicated.  I've got the analytical agenda - in this case to discover what cognitive and cultural models still exist among regular Americans for the kind of collective activism that unions and other community institutions once both embodied and enabled.  But for this we have to range not just across their stories of themselves and others, but their more intimate thoughts about the nature of human relationships; how they value and are valued by others -- betrayals, alliances, endeavors.  With every gesture, utterance and expression I have to guide the conversation along the necessary lines - without breaking the reciprocity and deference that has to exist to elicit uncalculating, uninhibited conversation.  I can feel my face and voice express the depth of my listening, and my interest and engagement with the things they say; feigning, when necessary, enough agreement that their normal triggers of conversational caution don't trip.  I ask the questions I have, and in order not to interfere with the flow of their thoughts,  I usually accumulate in my head a catalog of follow-up questions, prompts or possible tangents that I want to return to as opportunities in the conversation occur.  

Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Akron.  By the end, I had 70 interviews on videotape, ranging in length from a few minutes to an hour long.

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