Thoughts on Ethnography, Anthropology, and Living in Compton, September 2014
Bring up the city of Compton in any conversation here in America with people 40 years old and younger, and people will probably conjure up images of gangsters, drive-bys, basically ground level zero of "ghetto-ness," which is basically associated with somehow living a life that is seen to be "in deficit."
I told an economically-more-successful childhood friend that I was living in Compton with my wife. She probably thought it was a joke and said, "straight-up?"
Yup, I'm here.
Been here, actually.
And I'm fine. Mostly.
I did suffer a violent fall...on my ankle. That was my own bad.
Though on the real, I haven't been really connected or connecting to many of the people actually in Compton. I've found that my wife and I tend to prefer doing business in Gardena, Carson, and every other city outside. I've gotten too bourgeois, maybe? I think it does save some mental energy sometimes honestly because the Food4Less on Rosecrans and Central and the Smart and Final on El Segundo and Central are always so damn busy.
But anyhow, I mentioned some Anthropology words: Ethnography and Anthropology. Let me define Anthropology and Ethnography in laymen's terms, and how they can be relevant to my situation now.
I've been somewhat out of touch with the latest literatures in Anthropology and Ethnography; all I have is what informs my conception of it now.
Anthropology is the study of humankind which spans 4 major sub-fields: socio-cultural (studying different cultures), linguistic (people studying the ways we use language), archaeology (digging for bones), and physical Anthropology (people studying primates, human evolution, forensics). I am most interested in the first two sub-fields, which is roughly studying different "cultures" and different ways people use language.
One of the defining research methods of Anthropology in my view is based heavily on the research method of Ethnography, which has largely defined socio-cultural Anthropology. It's a tradition that spans roughly over 100 years with two distinct traditions in America and Europe, and typically involved people going far off to document the ways of strange, foreign peoples. Nowadays, socio-cultural Anthropologists still do go out to document the ways of people that they or the milieus around them consider "strange" or "foreign."
In keeping with that basic theme of studying what some people consider "strange" or foreign", I'm starting to feel an inner push to begin studying the city in which I live. I think that the city of Compton, while a part of American culture, is viewed as a part of an American sub-culture and not really the dominant American "mainstream" culture. It is the spatial symbol of not only black (and Latino) American life, but the worst of. I'd like to shed more insight on the complexities of life here --- from the schools, the workings of city council.
There are some difficulties for sure in doing this kind of ethnography of the city. I think of ethnographies of the past where I largely "imagine" the one person in a geographic region and simply finding some people and actually living with them. I can't quite do that.
I am thinking of how much harder it is to actually live here full-time with a growing family, not knowing anyone, but also wanting to make some kind of positive change here. Sure, I live within the spatial boundaries of this place, deal with the physical infrastructures, see the same people on the street, but my network of relationships doesn't extend beyond my neighbors on each side of our tiny house. I don't think I would be able to live at someone else's house given my commitments to my family and a lack of connection to another family, though UCLA's CELF center does give me ideas. Additionally, there isn't an immediate escape from this place as most of what I value is here with me. If I decide that I wanted to be proactive about something, people know where my family is.
At any rate, I don't think the obstacles are impossible, and think that there is a lot of Anthropological insight as well as potentially different framings (and therefore perceptions and understandings) of the city in which I live.