25 October 2008

"Bouncer, let me in, I'm an anthropologist"

In conferences and conversations, people always ask me how I introduced myself in nightclubs and raves during my doctoral fieldwork. This is a good question. Curiosity about nightlife ethnographers is just natural, as this job is often glamorized. Moreover, research institutions try to make sure that scientists follow ethical protocols - an amazing challenge in subcultures operating at the margins of social convention.

My answer is - the way I introduce myself depends on the situation and interlocutor. With party promoters and club managers I was clear about my research goals. So was the case with other informants who wanted to listen to my explanation. Some would later become my friends. Needless to say, many ravers and clubbers have taken classes of anthropology/sociology, so I'd be no stranger!

Now, due to its secretive nature, the psychedelic trance scene would represent a challenge, some people say. Often in illegality and chased by police and tourists alike, trance freaks are protective of their scene. Outsiders warned me that I'd be rejected. In Goa (India), I met a researcher who faced difficulties because insiders thought he was undercover police. Too formal he was, not able to connect with the party crowd, at their level.

But the trance scene also provided a curious advantage to my fieldwork. In Goa, nobody asks questions about who you are (to the dismay of talkative backpackers...). Freaks display a performed disinterest in self-introductions. After a while nonetheless, I noticed that they recognized me as a "researcher interested in electronic spirituality" or a "techno writer" (as I sometimes carried my own club mag articles around). Trance freaks were never hostile to my work. I suppose that it was because I was both discreet (and they appreciate that) as well as sincerely interested in them, engaging them at their level while also asking puzzling questions.

In contrast, in the Ibiza club scene, people were always asking me questions about who I was. Usually in ephemeral and inconsequential circumstances: a club, a bar, on the street, etc. Interested in celebrity games, clubbers were often bemused to learn about my research, the "PhD writing a thesis on club culture." I was even featured in DJ Magazine (London/Ibiza), and also contributed to club magazines on the island.

I must admit that, in a few situations, out of boredom or sheer curiosity, I would make up my answers to strangers, just to see what happened. At some noisy bar or club VIP area, I'd say that I was a DJ, a landlord, a bohemian writer, that I was rich and didn't have to work, and, even, that I was a prostitute. It was really quite interesting to see how people reacted, according to their expectations, interests and stereotypes.

My opinion, in sum, is that, while respecting ethical research principles, a field researcher must also explore the ambiguities implied in the multiple encounters of the nightlife. Yet, I always try to be sincere, revealing my intentions and identity, but according to the person's potential role in my research, to their ability to understand my work, and, as importantly, to their genuine interest in me as a person and professional. It is an issue of empathy as well as of mutual respect.

I finish with an interesting story – recently in Munich, I went to a relatively exclusive nightclub named P1. It was late (3am) when I arrived at the door. Two massive door staff blocked my way. I asked if one has to pay entrance. The chief bouncer replied in good English, "You have to have your name on the list. So, you can't get in, I am sorry." I quickly realized that he was just trying to get rid of me: male, alone, late at night, looking in no way special... I wasn't too bothered but tried a final shot that had worked before. With poise (showing that I was sober), I calmly said: "Well, I am a writer of techno music, from Chicago. My name is Techno Tony. I'd like to check out your place." The giant cracked up laughing. He moved out of the way, and said, "Ok, Techno Tony. Come in. Enjoy."

1 comment:

  1. Haha! Great idea! tell the bouncer "I am a Techno Writer..." will use it from now on! Classic!

    Really enjoyed the article, very interesting!

    Looking forward to more Techno Reports!