The encounter between me doing journalism and New York City was the reason why I decided to become an ethnographer. But my story does not have anything new, well, perhaps just the location. One of the principal researchers of the well famous Chicago School, Robert E. Park, was also driving in that direction many decades ago.
I discovered Park’s work when I was doing my masters in Sociology. It was one of the accidental encounters I had at that time. Nevertheless, the influence of Park in my way of doing urban research is not directly related to his urban ecology program but to his artisan strategies for approaching the life outside.
I dedicated the first year of my masters to read for my pleasure more than for the academical activities I had. The Chicago School was a regular topic I used to read. However, because I never considered their works more than just as a reference in my theoretical frame, I drew my attention to other sides. But when I started my Ph.D., almost two years ago, the figure of Park appeared again in my life.
I found a book written by Rolf Lindner called: “The Reportage of Urban Culture, Robert Park and the Chicago School” that introduces me to the origins of the relationship between sociology and journalism. This serendipity turned to be the beginning of a methodological line based on the observation of the minimum that has fed my work thenceforth. De Certau, Benjamin, and Perec are also part of that methodological references group.
Reading Lindner’s work was going back to the times when I was still an undergraduate student of journalism. Through its pages, I rediscover again how American journalism evolved from being just the messenger of the politicians (partisan press) to an independent group of men and women looking for good stories.
During those times of detachment and consolidation of a new alternative of doing journalism, the principal source of information was the police-court reports. Those files offered a particular approach to produce pieces of information for general interest. They acted as well as departure points for exploring new ways of finding stories and creating content, using the city as their principal resource.
And there was Park, working as a reporter in a moment where press and urban life where creating a kind of symbiosis as Lindner wrote, quoting Gunther Barth: “the biggest press story of the nineteenth century is life in the big city itself.” (Linder 1996, 9). In other words, journalism was shaping the city, and urban life was making journalism grow. That was the context that pushed Robert Park to study the city life in a systematic and sociological way.
Nevertheless, as I early announced in this post, Park’s influence in my work is based on the deploy of some artisan strategies that probably he learned during his time as a reporter. We can call those procedures “the art of nosing around.” This method is basically to go to our study object for learning from and with it. Translating that to urban studies it means to walk, to observe, to ask, to habit, and to decompose the place we chose for describe.
That apparent simplicity of “nosing around” results perfect for dealing with the complexity of the effervescence of urban life. Everything there is being moved and regularly renewed. “Nosing around” implies going to the minimal, untying connections and exhausting places. Instead of elaborating complicated theories for explaining the social, this approach is pushing us to construct more detailed descriptions, taking a look at the shadows and the hidden things we cannot see at first glance.
Of course, the level (if we can call it in that way) of detail and analysis that we can reach doing an urban ethnography is not the same we can get making a report. But both are sharing the same origin as well some of the techniques for collecting and representing information. The bridge between journalism and ethnography has the shape of the nose of Robert Park.