When I teach qualitative research methods the first assignment involves a participant-observation exercise in public spaces and I encourage students to disrupt those settings, at the very least by asking questions, but even better by participating in ways that provoke a response in others. For the very brave these may become what Garfinkel calls “breaching experiments” where behavior is strategically designed to go beyond the realm of acceptable or predictable. The idea is that one can reveal some of the inner-workings of social interaction in the way those subject to such behavior try to resolve and make sense of what is, essentially, senseless. I like to show this flash mob – Frozen in Grand Central – in my class to illustrate the point.
For a couple of years students chose to do participant-observation in a local DMV office (Department of Motor Vehicles) and we started to talk about what sort of site this was and how it differed from the bus stops, farmer’s markets, and public parks other students had selected. The DMV offered a space where citizens encounter their government, its rules and regulations, its efficiency (or lack thereof) and from their field notes this seemed to often generate a lot of talk between strangers about government.
I recently became intrigued by the idea of pursuing this thinking on my own, looking at where we as citizens encounter government most directly and apparently, but at the federal level. One way to do this was to reflect on experiences of airport security. I offer this here in this blog (with our particular thematic focus) as a way of thinking about how a research mindset might inform and enrich our own personal experiences and our conversations with one another. This is method meant not simply for scholarly write ups, or for applied spaces of design, policy, etc. but to sharpen our awareness in the way we go about daily life and reflect upon our own experiences. In this case it offered an opportunity to think about certain government regulations (relating to security and the war on terror) and our position as citizens pulled into this security apparatus.Read More… On Opting-Out at the Airport