i've had to make the difficult decision over the past month or so to take a step back from finishing this series. this decision stemmed from both the family health issues i mentioned back in april, when my mother and grandmother underwent rotator cuff surgery (all of which became more complex when my grandmother broke two ribs in the beginning of june), and from the realization that a different writing project was taking precedence. when you realize you've written almost fifty pages in the span of about two weeks, maybe less, it makes sense to stick with what you're doing because it's probably something right.
so, while i'm only about half-way through that great other writing project o' mine, i've finally hit a nice plateau where i can take a few minutes to finish up this thesis discussion and free up future posts to whatever topics jump into my head. (i have an excellent idea about who the best worst anthropologist is, that i want to tell you all about soon.)
in any event, this will be the last post in this 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. if you're joining the party late, here are links to posts one, two, three, and four.
please note that the abstract for this paper is published in the first post, so if you just want the simplest run-down, that's where to go.
difficulties and discoveries within research, and final thoughts
in part four, i discussed some of the difficulties i had focusing my research and understanding what my work was actually about. in this installment, i want to acknowledge some of the more concrete difficulties i faced, what i learned from them, what i would do differently in future research, and what i've taken away from it all.
the two most outstanding challenges i faced researching drinking holidays were temporal and geographical issues. namely, i had very limited windows to conduct my participant-observations. because of this, my one-shot ethnography was limited to not just when i could work, but also the practical logistics of where i could go. knowing where to go in a new city, getting there, and even just figuring out how long to stay (or not!) in a given spot were serious issues i grappled with.
holidays are, in themselves, a state of mind. if we did not acknowledge them and celebrate them, they would not be. (such is much of our socio-cultural lives.) in considering this, i was able to reconcile one question in my mind, specifically: when does a holiday begin and when does it it end? it's very easy to just point at a calendar and say: there! that's it. cinco de mayo is may 5. midnight hits, and we're done. it's may 6 now. everyone go home.
but that's not how things work.
midnight hits on these holidays, but the bars don't close. the drink specials (if there are drink specials) don't suddenly stop. decorations aren't immediately packed up.
no, the celebration continues.
it was this series of thoughts that led me to consider the temporality of a holiday to be more of a state of mind rather than a set calendrical fixture, determined by intent rather than some autocratic clock. as long as celebrants considered themselves to be celebrating the holiday in question, i was still observing/participating in the holiday.
of course this understanding didn't solve my larger temporal problem, which i addressed during my thesis defense: to truly have done this work well and properly, my ethnographic field work would have to have ranged over multiple years, during which i would return to the same sites. even more thorough research would have also included dedicated time spent at field sites before and after the holidays, in order to explore the differences between the every day and the celebratory. such a scope of research, however, would be better presented and realized in a book or a dissertation, not a masters thesis. i, sadly, did not have the social or economic luxuries needed to pursue such a study.
returning to my thoughts on geography, i already mentioned the practical difficulties i faced above, but i'd like to switch gears and share one of the (i think) really awesome elements that emerged in my analysis.
this paper ultimately explored the processes of assimilation and acculturation that takes place throughout out these secular holidays, but it examines them through the idea of ritual. this is specifically seen in ritualized actions, behavior, and materials. in considering these ideas, however, i ended up talking about a type a of ritual i had not originally considered to be relevant to my subject: pilgrimage.
while pilgrimages are traditionally considered religious in nature, the extension of the definition of pilgrimage to include the secular is a growing trend among academics, as evidenced by n. collins-kreiner’s flexible notion of pilgrimage (2010:440) and in simon coleman and john eade’s reframing pilgrimage: cultures in motion (2004). in reframing pilgrimage, motorcycle pilgrimages and tourism pilgrimages are given equal importance with those of a religious nature. the journey of celebrants from bar to bar, from party to party on drinking holidays reflects the conception that pilgrimages can be ritualistic processes that are not necessarily religious in origin. the trek from neighborhood to neighborhood via bars on st. patrick’s day was predetermined with an ultimate destination in mind. material artifacts, such as the mustache straws brought out on st. patrick’s day or the beer ponchos taken home on cinco de mayo, were produced specifically to connect celebrants to the event. on these holidays, bar-hopping is imbued with meaning: it is a “kinetic ritual” (turner and turner 1978:xiii) concerned not just with a final destination, but with the experiences and individuals encountered along the excursion.
finding this element and ascertaining it's importance was an "ah-hah!" moment for me ― one i could not have had without the help of am the elder, who specifically stopped me at one point when i was trying to talk out all my spinning thoughts and literally said, "it sounds like you're talking about pilgrimage."
secular pilgrimage was a concept i was completely unfamiliar with which, considering the new-ness of it and the traditional religious origins generally associated with pilgrimage, is rather unsurprising. while there is a growing movement within academia addressing secular pilgrimage (and it's differences and similarities with tourism), resources are still somewhat limited. (there is one book i wish i could have used as a source, gary vikan's from the holy land to graceland, however it was published just as i was concluding my work. it's first on my list to read right now, regardless whether i decide to return and expand upon my original paper.)
ultimately, exploring the elements of pilgrimage within these holidays was incredibly rewarding, and it addressed some of the recurring themes and patterns i observed within the celebratory framework. i believe not addressing pilgrimage would have been a mistake. it would have meant neglecting a whole set of practices and embedded meanings that inform and direct celebrants over the course of the holidays.
so, i guess to conclude all of this, i'd like to sum up my thoughts on my whole thesis researching-and-writing experience. i certainly learned some important lessons along the way, lessons i'm seriously considering framing and hanging up over my desk:
- research ideas can come from the most unexpected places, and sometimes they have to ferment a bit before they taste right.
- the work you think you're doing isn't always the work you're actually doing.
- it's okay to get things wrong, just acknowledge it when it happens and remember. also, apparently everyone breaks down and you are likely not the first person to cry in your thesis advisor's office (sorry, rb!)
- the names of two segments of the hobbit, an unexpected journey and there and back again, apply incredibly well to academia and research. tolkein was a genius.
making the decision and then going on to write a thesis instead of completing a smaller project or taking a couple extra classes was one of the most wonderful, enlightening, stressful, harrowing, excellent, overwhelming, opportune, frustrating, sensibly foolish, ridiculously smart choice i ever made.
i'd do it again in a heartbeat.