welcome to my thesis, part two

this is the second post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.

you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.


choosing the holidays

in our origin story, i mentioned how i missed out on using halloween as part of my study. no lie, that was a bit of a bummer.

in many ways, though, i’m grateful i didn’t end up using halloween; partly because the holidays i ended up studying ended up having some fascinating connections of their own, but also because halloween in boston in 2011 was cold and wet and gross. i’m incredibly grateful that my graduate career is not commemorated in an ode to how i froze my feet off as i waited in line for hours trying to get into the cambridge brewing company, as the freezing rain turned to snow. just saying.

when i sat down to look at my proposed timeline, three holidays made sense to me: st. patrick’s day, cinco de mayo, and the fourth of july. 

a lot of people have asked me why i didn’t include new year's eve in my study. to be frank, the original reason was timing. having only just started my graduate degree in september and given the proximity of the holiday to the end of semester deadlines, along with the fact that i had only just turned in my thesis proposal in the beginning of december, there was no sane or sensible way to include new year's eve in my research.

instead, i lied and told my parents i couldn’t come home to baltimore for the holiday because i was going to use new year's eve as one of my participant observations, then snuck home to baltimore and hid in am the elder’s apartment, and surprised our parents at our normal friends and family party. that wasn’t a convoluted sentence at all. 

in picking st. patrick’s day, cinco de mayo, and fourth of july as my holidays, i ended up providing a framework myself that was incredibly useful later. here’s how i describe how and why i chose these holidays in my paper, and how i proposed to go about studying them:

my plan was to conduct participant observations of three holidays — st. patrick’s day (march 17), cinco de mayo (may 5), and american independence day (july 4) — in boston, massachusetts. i hoped to observe how these ethnic and nationalistic holidays were interpreted through celebratory drinking in order to better understand how holiday drinking practices engender and reinforce concepts of community. i chose these holidays for their perceived ethnic and patriotic associations that have been appropriated and subsequently reinterpreted by the american public. the participant observations would all start in the morning and range into the early hours of the following day. i intended to observe the relationship between ritual drinking and the celebration of the holidays: who was celebrating, by gender, ethnicity, and age; how celebrants were dressed to represent the holiday; what they drank and how much they drank; what their celebratory behaviors were, both sober and intoxicated; and how drinking served as an embodiment of the holiday for the celebrants. being relatively unfamiliar with boston, i primarily chose field sites based on perceived popularity among drinkers in their 20s and 30s, as opposed to specifically ethnically self-identified bars. i would spend st. patrick’s day in south boston with a group of friends, cinco de mayo in faneuil hall and allston, and independence day in somerville. south boston was chosen for its strong irish american neighborhood identity. faneuil hall and allston were chosen for their perceived popularity among young celebrants. somerville served as a contrasting residential neighborhood. i planned to conduct informal interviews with participants i would meet throughout the holidays about why and how they were celebrating.

i will admit, choosing secular holidays rather than religious holidays was a conscious choice. there is a lot that has been written about religious ritual in relation to alcohol consumption. there is a lot more that can be written about religious drinking holidays. my choice of secular holidays primarily came from a spatial factor: i was looking at public spaces, bars, etc. i don’t know if i’ve ever seen anyone out having their customary four glasses of wine for passover in their local pub. (that would be mad impressive, though. now that i think about it, i might need to be the first. or not.)

i also shied away from the religious holidays from a practical feasibility point. there is a lot of work that has been within alcohol studies focusing on the religious; it’s a bit overwhelming and it’s difficult to know where to start and where to end. certainly the amount of material there is book-length, not master's thesis length. (though, i will admit, given more time and more research, i could see book-length material developing from my finished thesis.)

alternatively, secular holidays also held a certain attraction to me simply because there was less work already written about them. the secular drinking holiday is a phenomenon that i feel has flown largely under the radar. it’s there, academics know it’s there, but for whatever reason, there’s less of a draw to write about them.

i’d like to address a few points specifically about each of these holidays, because i’m sure some of you out there have concerns with my defining each of these three holidays as a secular drinking holiday. and for those of you who don’t — maybe they didn’t occur to you, maybe you’re not accustomed to this sort of academic discussion, whatever (it’s okay, i know we have all sorts of readers here in the garden. nobody’s judging anybody) — there are reasons why you should want me to fully explain my definitions. primarily, i, like all researchers, should be held accountable for my work. and if i can’t explain what i did or why, i’m not doing my job.

firstly, this was an ethnographic inquiry. the research i completed was all here-and-now. yes, my literature review included the historical perspectives of these holidays. however, the primary focus was to gain a better understanding of current practices.

and so of course it’s important to acknowledge the fact that st. patrick’s day began as a religious holiday. however, in the here-and-now, the celebrations i observed were of a secular nature. 

this here-and-now perspective also applies to the whole “drinking holiday” aspect of my observations. none of these holidays were founded with the intention of selling more guiness or providing a venue for sombreros on college campuses. (at least, i’m pretty sure they weren’t.) however, it is the intent of the participants to drink on these days that transforms these holidays into drinking holidays. 

thus, by this reasoning, i consider st. patrick's day, cinco de mayo, and the fourth of july all to be secular drinking holidays.


my next post in this series will discuss questions and concerns dealing with actual alcohol consumption and participant observations.