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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Prairie Ethnography (2b)—Bavaria...Wieder

[a] North of the Danube RF
Click here for the other part of this Round and Square Series:
Bavaria 1            Bavaria 2 

Back in Bavaria in November, I got to thinking about the cultures of applause and waiting patiently for traffic signals. I also started asking questions. This is what ethnographers do, and it is the key difference between doing historical research on a topic a hundred or more years old and being an ethnographer. So I started questioning as many people as I could. "Why do many German academics rap their knuckles on the table rather than clapping hands?" "How long should one rap?" "Is it only in Germany...or Bavaria?"

[b] Rapping RF
These are just a few of the questions I began to ask, following my simple and straightforward "method" of asking the same questions over and over (and over). I call it the "Thousand-Ask Question," and I have been using the "methodology" for over twenty years now. I'll write a bit more about the simple but eminently useful process later this week, but today I want to stick to Bavaria and the cultural practices I noted in my first Bavaria post. This one is "Bavaria II" or "Bavaria...ein mal wieder."

When you ask a question over-and-over, the answers can be illuminating. With regard to "applause," I was struck by the relative consistency of the answers. For example, whole clusters of people said that it is a German practice, and many asserted that it was centered on academia (and not, say, opera halls). A few added that they knew Austrians who rapped rather than clapped, and one person said he had seen the practice in Switzerland. How long should one rap? Just about as long as an American might clap. How loudly? Enough to be heard and not so loudly that it makes a scene.

[c] Audience RF
When I speak of "clustered" answers to such questions, I mean to emphasize a very important point that almost everyone knows...yet forgets...almost all of the time. So inured are we to the idea that there is an answer that we often forget—in practice, since only an objectivist dolt would really think that there is one answer—that societies are complex and that answers can run the gamut. What a concept. This is not so much a "subjectivist" point as an obvious one. Ask any thousand people how "applause" works in the American midwest, and you'll get a thousand different answers. There's more, though. You'll get anywhere from 500-800 of them that "cluster" together and provide a very workable understanding of the cultural practice. There will be outliers, to be sure, and those can be equally useful, as we'll see at the end of this post.

Exactly the wrong way to think about clusters, however, is through a silly sort of common denominator interpretive lens. Large clusters of "centered" answers don't make them "right," even though such clusters certainly do tell us a good deal about how people articulate their cultural practices. We will examine this point further in future posts highlighting the work of Pierre Bourdieu. I asked my "applause" questions to more than a hundred people in Erlangen, Germany during the week I was in town—in the university, the local mall, a few restaurants, my hotel, and various parks. The answers clustered; most people, I was told, tended to balance rapping and clapping, depending on the situation.

[d] Clusters RF
Well, what kinds of situations? Is rapping seen as an assertion of national identity, while clapping is a kind of globalized phenomenon? No, not really. Indeed, this is the question that most perplexed everyone I asked. It appears that no one had even considered the question of nationalism and applause. Does that mean it is irrelevant? Of course not, but it behooves the ethnographer to consider the perspectives of the people s/he wishes to understand.

To wrap up these matters for today, I would like to look at the "clustering" question from a different angle—the outlier. Another thing that every anthropologist (and politician) knows is that culture is contested. There may be clusters of answers awaiting the ethnographer, but there are also opinions from left, right, and center field. As we'll discuss tomorrow, these outliers can tell us as much about our subject as tightly clustered sets of answers. Let's conclude with a specific example that raises as many questions about the individual and society as it answers.
***  ***
[e] Terrific RF
My last ethnographic "interview" in Germany was instructive. I enjoyed a thirty-minute cab ride from my hotel in Erlangen to the Nuremberg airport. The driver was one of those social figures we all know, and the kind I always wish to question—ideally at length—no matter where I am. You know the kind of person. Absolutely fascinated by society, s/he thinks (and talks) about it a lot. S/he has far stronger opinions on some matters than more closely clustered folk. S/he contests the views of people who have not considered fully the implications of their views. S/he is a poet and sociologist of the slice of time and space in which s/he lives. If you are a young anthropologist, you would do well to balance your nice, clean, "surveys" and their seemingly objective data with a few conversations with opinionated people who know more (this is how they often tell it) than you...or anyone else...does. 

Some people call them know-it-alls. I call them ethnographic gold.

Well, that was my cab driver. "I have a question for you," I said after helping him lift my bags into the trunk. "Why do German academics rap their knuckles on their desks rather than clap their hands after presentations?" 

"What have you been told?," he replied, already giving me the sense that his answer would not "cluster" with the rest. 

"Well, I have been told that it is a Germanic practice that signals general social appreciation, and that it has the same meaning as clapping does in other parts of the world."

"Wrong," he stated. "Clapping means 'pretty good' or 'ok'; rapping means 'terrific.' Germans clap their hands to express mild derision."

[f] Cloudy RF
This was only the beginning. I asked about the practice of waiting on street corners, even in the dead of night. I mentioned that I had only seen this practice so strictly followed in just a few far-flung locations. Half-expecting another odd answer, I was startled by his own sense of wonder. He didn't have an opinion. Instead, he basked in a kind of social-analytical pride.

"We really are like that, aren't we? I have never thought about that before!"

We neared the airport, and there was only time for a little more discussion. Rather than launch into a full-fledged question, I simply remarked—as a sort of conclusion to cultural inquiry during my brief stay—that I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bavaria, and planned to return very soon. End of story. End of journey. I was ready to drive in respectful silence for the last few hundred meters.



"This is not "Bavaria. Yes, the map says it is, but you are in Franconia. Bavaria is Munich, where people drink beer and party. We are in Franconia, and life is different here—more serious and industrious. South of the Danube is Bavaria. You are in Franconia."

Culture. It's contested. Tune in to "Prairie Ethnography" Thursday for more discussion of the Thousand-Ask Question.

Click here for the other part of this Round and Square Series:
Bavaria 1            Bavaria 2
[g] South of the Danube RF


  1. In Mongolia, Russia and (can't quite remember, also Romania?)-- clapping when the airplane lands. The form of the clapping, in unison with rather long intervals between claps and in rhythm, is also basically what happens at appreciated performances and exceptional lectures.

    I have heard way too many ferners claim that this is because planes used to "not make it" so much, but I really do not, do not believe it. Besides the "Thousand-Ask Question" method Rob, did you find yourself also "rapping" as well as clapping? I clap Soviet-style on the airplane at least in some contexts, though I found it very very jarring when I was in Seoul in the dead of night, no cars, many groups of drunk students and "salarymen" pedestrians, waiting for the light to turn... And I feel I can offer up some explanations of the Soviet clap but not the Seoul crossing signal respect. I thought that you might go their with the Bourdieu, maybe that's coming up ;)

    1. I am not sure why I missed this the first time, Marissa...but I wrap and clap. Great comment!