|[a] North of the Danube RF|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
"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:
|[g] South of the Danube RF|