Consume This! Ethnography and the “Tuned-Up” Palate
By Michael Ian Borer
Despite his vast experiences in the field as well as the numerous students he supervised doing fieldwork, Erving Goffman never published a methodological treatise or even an abbreviated discussion of the subject. He did, however, as a panel member and presented some of his thoughts on the matter during the 1974 Pacific Sociological Association Meetings in San Jose, CA. It was later transcribed and edited by Lyn H. Lofland and published twenty-five years later to the benefit of novice and veteran ethnographers alike. Though he disparagingly quipped that ethnographers equipped with the ideals of participant observation were “finks” who must “be willing to be a horse’s ass,” ethnographers of varying persuasions have relied upon his words to inspire theirs and others’ fieldwork.
Though most of his contemporaries overlooked it or merely took the idea for granted, Goffman opened a door he didn’t fully step through in his own studies. Namely, when doing participant observation of and with a “set of individuals,” he argued that it was necessary to subject “your own body and your personality . . . so that you are close to them while they are responding to what life does to them . . . to pick up their minor grunts and groans as they respond to their situation.”
And even though you can leave their situation
“you act as if you can’t and you try to accept all of the desirable and undesirable things that are a feature of their life. That ‘tunes your body up’ and with your ‘tuned-up’ body . . . you’re empathetic enough to sense what is that they’re responding to.”
Goffman’s focus on the body trained or “tuned-up” to sense and respond to the situations and objects uncannily anticipated the recent recognition of and focus on both sensuous scholarship and the “entanglement” of people and the things they revere, are near, or hope to be someday.
When I set out to study the burgeoning yet structurally stunted craft beer scene in Las Vegas for what would become Vegas Brews, having a “tuned-up” body was paramount for gaining access to and establishing rapport with local craft brewers, distributors, brewery representatives, bartenders, and consumers from the neophyte to the self-identified beer geek. More importantly, I learned quickly that it wasn’t merely my body as a whole that needed to be “tuned-up.”
It was my palate.
I wanted to understand how the local scene influences and is influenced by the aesthetic experiences of those who set and act across the multiple stages of the scene. In order to so, I wanted to feel the very experiences that led them to craft beer and led them to engage it with valor and sometimes sacred fortitude. To foster an intimate relationship between the tasting subject (me) and the tasted object (craft beer), I sought out ways to train my palate by engaging in informal chats with beer geeks, taking formal certification classes, attending beer festivals and “bottle shares,” and drinking, drinking, and drinking some more. I wanted to taste what they taste, or at least taste how they taste, to help me uncover the ways that taste is performed though interactions with others, including interactions with the tasted or soon to-be-tasted object.
All scenes revolve around at least one central “core thing” that scene members—from those in the center to those on the periphery—endow with meaning and value through interactions with it and others. Paying attention to the thing itself is an important corrective to the vast majority of studies of scenes in cities, across them, or elsewhere. As an analytical term, “scene” derives from and expands Goffman’s dramaturgical writings as a theatrical metaphor and from popular parlance about collectivities with common aesthetic preferences and affinities.
Though scenes of varying configurations have been studied in multiple contexts and around varying interests from punk rock to gourmet food, direct sensorial engagement by ethnographers tend to by lacking. Sociologists have provided valuable works on the social organization of social worlds and local cultures, as well as the discourse and talk of, in, and about them. But many studies largely ignore the aesthetic experience of the consecrated object that provides the social adhesive as if all adhesives were created equal. Knock-off Band Aids stick to skin like water.
It would be a shame to continue to ignore the care with which someone might carefully unwind the tiny metal of a small cage that surrounds a cork, slip their thumb beneath it to slowly push it to pop open, pour the sour nectar that spent a year sitting in white wine barrels into a tulip glass, and then fill their nostrils with the oak and fruit aromas before finally letting the spirited liquid roll beneath their top lip to invigorate their taste buds. I’ve not only seen this; I’ve done it. When someone opens a rare and highly coveted limited-release bottle—a “whale” as it’s called across the translocal beer scene—and shares it with perfect strangers; the thing matters.
When a series of small 4 oz. pours are passed over the bar in carved wooden paddles or planks with a list of corresponding names, styles, IBUs and ABVs to either first time visitors or brewery veterans to quaff and compare; the thing matters.
When people get excited that a local brewery is throwing a party where Las Vegas’s desert dwellers happily don furry Russian ushanka hats as they sip one-off variations of a Russian Imperial Stout as I observed and participated in at CraftHaus’s Comrade release party; the thing matters. Knowing why and how the thing matters—and how it is produced, distributed, and consumed—are matters of utmost importance for ethnographers interested in embodied sensory experiences and the ways they unite or divide, or both.
We can’t simply separate the valued object from the valuing of it; the two work together in tandem. Like Gary Alan Fine, I too am sympathetic toward interpretive studies that focus solely on the interactive practices that help people define the situations and the people they encounter. But, in recognizing both the social significance and the sensuous significance of the things themselves, I follow Fine’s lead when he argues that “[sociologists] dismiss the aesthetic characteristics of works too quickly. People respond to objects viscerally and through culturally linked ideas of beauty. While aesthetic judgments are subjective, they are not random.” And they aren’t random because they are learned through often intense engagements with the “core thing” of a scene.
Sensuous knowledge is learned by the people and groups we study and their tastes are performed through both explicitly and implicitly learned tasting acts and techniques. Ethnographers can learn these too, just as some have learned to box, blow glass, butcher, fight fires, and walk the runway. When we make such learning explicit we can better understand the practices of sensuous learning and tasting especially as aesthetic objects continue to diversify throughout privileged cultures burdened by the freedom of choice.
Learning to taste is also a means for obtaining, as Goffman contended, “the ecological right to be close to them (which you’ve obtained by one sneaky means or another).” As we “tune-up” and take in their world(s) through our palates, breaking through a level of intimacy rarely permeated, ethnographers will see the benefits of embracing taste, or more pointedly tasting, as both a worthwhile subject and method of inquiry.
About The Author
Michael Ian Borer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Borer is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and mentor. He was awarded the UNLV Graduate and Professional Student Association Outstanding Mentor Award in 2012 and the College of Liberal Arts William Morris Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014. In 2015, he was presented with the Early-in-Career Award by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.