This interview is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.
Scholars’ Conversations: Richard Ocejo, Masters of Craft
By Rachel Rybaczuk, UMASS Amherst
This is the second installment of the Scholar Interviews, a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website. I had the chance to interview Richard Ocejo, associate professor of sociology at John Jay College, and member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Ocejo’s most recent book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (Princeton UP, 2017), explores the ways in which low-status occupations like bartenders, barbers, distillers, and butchers became “cool” jobs in urban creative hubs like New York. He previously published Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton UP, 2014). We talked about urban culture, gentrification, Brooklyn, and the making of his latest book.
Rachel Rybaczuk: When and why did you become interested in consumption as a field? What drew you to pursue research in this area?
Richard Ocejo: My interest in consumption started in graduate school. My adviser was Sharon Zukin, who has extensively studied consumerism in an urban context, and who played an important role in starting up the ASA section. At the time I met her, her book, Point of Purchase, on retail shopping and American culture, had recently been published and she was starting work on what would become Naked City, on urban authenticity. For my dissertation I was conducting fieldwork on people and places in a gentrifying area, and I still primarily consider myself to be an urban scholar (if I had to choose).
My focus was on the bars and nightlife scenes of downtown Manhattan, and how commercial cultures and growth policies were shaping conditions for people within these neighborhoods. From my observations, my conversations with Sharon, and my reading of the urban culture literature, I came to analyze the importance of consumption in people’s everyday meaning-making, whether for the purpose of community formation (like the regulars at the bars I was studying) or identity formation. So I came to consumption through a back door and have kept it in the mix ever since.
RR: Given the various ways people approach consumption studies, what does consumption mean in your work?
RO: In my work I’d say I’ve looked at consumption by focusing on production, or people who construct spaces of consumption, who form and disseminate meanings of consumption, and who shape consumer tastes. I’ve examined these foci empirically by studying business owners and workers, mostly culturally hip urbanites. My aim has always been to embed consumption spaces, meanings, and practices in the sociospatial contexts where they take place, and in my case I’ve focused on gentrifying places in cities. Examining how gentrifiers consume in their neighborhoods and why—e.g. where they shop, what they buy, what types of architecture and housing they prefer—has helped my understanding of this type of urban change.
My current project, which looks in part at a group of middle-class New Yorkers who feel they have been displaced from the city due to its unaffordability and move to an “affordable” (i.e. poor) small city nearby, is an example. Right from the jump, my interviews with them revealed how important the industrial urban form was to them: the old brick buildings, the grit, the density, the warehouses, the diversity. The very texture of the place spoke to them. They wanted to become stakeholders there as they weren’t able to or no longer could be in New York City in part by becoming homeowners (sometimes of multiple properties) and getting involved politically. I’m finding that their tastes and preferences for a particular brand of urban living and their contextual buying power (which is turning them into small-scale developers—i.e. producers of urban space), then, are having an outsize influence on the social and political environment in the city.
RR: What book or article has been particularly influential for you?
RO: When talking to colleagues and students about their work I seem to often reference Michele de La Pradelle’s Market Day in Provence. It’s such a lovely book that I first read toward the end of grad school, around when it seemed “authenticity” was really becoming a popular topic. (I was also shifting my own shopping habits at the time to greenmarkets and such from supermarkets, so it was enjoyable on a personal level.) I can’t recall the finer details right now, but she was an anthropologist who studied an old public market in southern France, where locals go every week to buy produce. At first glance it’s a very traditional, time-honored endeavor of residents buying their food from small, local farmers, as their ancestors have probably been doing for generations. Nice and authentic. But De la Pradelle finds the whole thing is a collective drama, a deliberate performance by both the buyers and sellers.
The buyers know that the vendors aren’t what they say they are (some are from Paris, some buy their goods from wholesalers, etc.), and the vendors put on an act of adding dirt to their vegetables to make it look like they just picked them out of the ground and inflating the price because they know people want to haggle. Everyone knows what’s going on is remarkably “inauthentic,” but they participate anyway, every week, like they’re in a play, and they love it. There are some larger points about market economies and the performance of consumption in there, and about identity and immigration (I believe there’s a group of African immigrants who sell their wares near the market who the locals kind of ignore).
The book was influential to me because her writing style is remarkable. She serves as the personal guide and makes herself an unsuspecting character who learns about the machinations of the market as we do. I like that form of narration. It’s wonderful ethnography.
RR: I think it would be interesting for people to read about what inspired Masters of Craft and what sparked your interest in this particular group of people (the bartenders, butchers and barbers). How did you narrow it down to this group given the many types of “people who construct spaces of consumption,” particularly in New York City (and Brooklyn)?
RO: I began the research for Masters of Craft while I was still a grad student, and still conducting fieldwork for my dissertation. Since I was studying conflict and nightlife scenes, I visited a lot of bars (no judgements), especially ones that nearby residents were really upset about and protested. I wanted to see them for myself, meet and interview their owners, chat with the bartenders, etc. Two of these bars were high-end cocktail bars called Milk and Honey and Death & Co. To be perfectly honest, when I first walked in I was blown away by them as both a sociologist and a consumer (fine, judge).
They had hidden front doors, one had a reservation policy, both had no standing policies, one had a crazy menu with bizarre drinks, one had a verbal menu (with bizarre drinks), I didn’t recognize most of the bottles on the backbars, the aromas were incredible, they were super dark and played jazz, and, most importantly, the bartenders were amazing: wearing shirts, ties and tie clips, vests, and arm garters; methodically following processes to make drinks; and being hyper-focused. When I’m doing fieldwork, everywhere I go I ask myself “What’s going on here?” I had never experienced a bar like them before, and I couldn’t come close to answering that question after those first visits. I had to learn more. So I kept going back. It really started that innocently. Whatever instincts I had at the time were buzzing, so I followed them.
Once I eventually figured out that my focus would be on work and workers in these types of specialized occupations (see below answer), I had already pretty much finished collecting data on cocktail bartenders and bars and craft distillers and distilleries. So when looking to expand it by finding more cases, I wanted to avoid another alcohol/drinks-related one. That meant no craft beer, and no coffee, which were and still are rather popular topics and products. I did some theoretical sampling and wanted to look at other cultural industries. I was aware of men’s fashion and grooming trends, especially with shaving, so I looked into barbers and barbershops (which are great places for conducting fieldwork—you just sit there while the show unfolds before you). I wanted a fourth case in another industry, and food was the obvious one. But I didn’t want to study the most obvious occupation that would fit the bill: chefs.
Quite simply, kitchens are horrible places for fieldwork, and after the bar stuff I was done with late nights. I was aware of the “whole animal” trend and the butcher shops that were promoting it, and after speaking to people at a few places I realized it would be very feasible to do, and it would provide another relevant case. I only realized in hindsight that I had one manufacturing job (distillers) and three service-oriented jobs, and that all four were traditionally masculine. I now wish I had balanced it out more, but once I realized the project I had designed I tried to work these aspects into the analysis. But if I could retroactively design the project, I’d probably do it differently.
I’m glad you mentioned Brooklyn. Brooklyn became “cool” in the late ‘90s and ‘00s, essentially. But the first waves of these businesses all began in lower Manhattan, which is where I did the bulk of my research. (Craft distillers are an exception—due to the spatial needs of distilling, the liquor laws at the time, and the expense of starting and running a distillery, the first craft distilleries in New York State were all outside the city, so that’s where I went to do my fieldwork. Months after I left the distilling field, the laws had changed, and distilleries started opening in Brooklyn, one down the street from where I was living at the time. That annoyed me.) That said, Brooklyn’s become synonymous with this kind of activity, so I certainly could’ve done all my fieldwork there.
RR: What was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project?
RO: At first, the project was about the craft cocktail scene, in New York City, the US, and even around the world. NYC was a central node in the global circuit. Part of this endeavor was the rise of craft spirits, which all the cocktail bartenders were into because it gave them more ingredients and flavors to work with. That’s how I started studying those folks. Three years went by, during which I finished my dissertation on a totally different topic and started my job, and still didn’t really have a clear focus or research questions in mind. I just kept “following the thing” of the cocktail, as anthropologist George Marcus says. I was reading a lot, mostly literature on cultural intermediation and social fields, but I wouldn’t say I was comfortable with my focus.
But after nearly three years I finally stood back and thought more carefully about what I was really interested in. I realized out of everyone I had met and studied and all that I had seen, I was most interested in the folks who were at the main point of cultural production—the workers themselves at the cocktail bars and distilleries. They made the stuff, they created the actual meanings, and they spread them all around to consumers, mostly interactively. They were the ones who devoted themselves to these low-status jobs, despite having other options given their educational and professional backgrounds. I wanted to focus on them and others like them. So it became a project about the people behind certain occupational and cultural shifts.
RR: How long did you take to publish since your first conceived the project? What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you handle them?
RO: I’m slow. Or at least I think I am. My dissertation took four years of fieldwork and then the book that came out of it was published six years later, and Masters of Craft took six years of fieldwork and then the book came out four years later (some of the lengthy writing process had to do with having a kid—children slow down production), with other publications coming out along the way. Like I said, it took me nearly three years to figure out what the project’s real focus and questions were. To be honest, that time wasn’t a waste at all, even though a lot of the early data didn’t make it into the analysis or book and will probably never see the light of day. I’m not someone who can just neatly plan out a project and then implement it. I need to wade around for a while. My lines are never straight. I’ve accepted that. (I’m almost two years into my new project and I think I figured out the focus last month. Hopefully.)
Having a child aside, the writing presented a challenge. I had written a book before, but it was based on a dissertation, which is a book-length manuscript that had been evaluated by my committee. How to start from scratch? I decided to join a writing group with some friends and colleagues, which was really helpful to get the ball rolling. I also knew I wanted to be more expressive in my second book, which helped me approach the writing differently. I like it when I hear how musicians and actors and artists place limitations and obstacles on themselves to make their work, like only using certain types of instruments or themes in lyrics.
I’m hardly like those kinds of folks, or even creative (or a good writer), but I decided to break the frame of writing academically, so to speak, to help me figure out how to proceed, by putting some obstructions in place. A key one was never mentioning the name of a scholar or author, or having any direct quotes, in the text. “As Peterson said…” and block quotes from citations were verboten (they’re in the endnotes). I wanted to avoid all the academic shorthand we use, which challenged me to explain our concepts in other language and not rely on what we take for granted. It really helped ease me into the writing and even make it fun. My editor talked me out of some of these exercises at the end (and she was right), but some stayed in the final version.
About the Interviewer
Rachel Rybaczuk is Ph.D candidate in the Sociology program at UMASS Amherst.