"a group of men... essentially invisible to the state, live in a public park in Gezina, Pretoria, negotiating the ambiguities of street life and community through acts of everyday communism and illegal public gambling..."
Some of you will have noticed that we have a new paper at the press - The Park of 9. In its method, Dennis Webster's ethnography of drifters in a South African urban park takes us back to the classic roots of ethnography in work like Street Corner Society; his essay is thoughtful, humane and it reserves the right to prioritise witnessing and skilful description above big theoretical claims. Dennis' is offering a commentary about inequality and uncertainty in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa of a particular kind: he asks us to imagine the lives of the Park of Niners - how they share out resources, fight with each other and especially how they gamble. Here we encounter The Great; an urban migrant who has built up a repertoire of skills for living on the streets.
Take a look; this is certainly one of the most readable and accessible pieces of anthropological writing we have published at the OACpress and it is by an anthropologist who has only recently completed his undergraduate studies. WebsterOACPressWorkingPaper16.pdf
The seminar will begin on Monday 22nd April. As ever, we invite all OAC members to participate.
Replies are closed for this discussion.
Dennis, many thanks for enabling us to share your work in this way. Today opens an opportunity for us to explore some of the issues you raise in your ethnography. First, to reiterate how engaging this is as a piece of observational writing: writing ethnography is hard work, partly because selecting what to write about is difficult, but also, of course, because writing about anything is a skilful activity.
What I admire in this paper is something that is often missing in contemporary anthropological reportage where a great premium is placed on establishing attachment to some grand theoretical point of view. In this piece you make some quite simple points very well. You take us imaginatively into the lives of the people who live in the Park of Nine and you show us, in a way that seems easy but actually, as I say, requires considerable skill, how they live there. Your description of sharing cigarettes as a method is a wonderful reminder of how contingent the most successful ethnographic methods usually are.
Before going into depth into what you are arguing, maybe it is best to begin by reminding people how you came to be interested in the park as somewhere to work ethnographically; going a little further into what you have already presented in the paper then -- what kinds of personal concerns and social awareness drew you into the Park of Nine to begin with?
Hi Huon. Thank you - it's thrilling for someone very new to this world to know that people have enjoyed reading their paper, and found in it something to admire.
My interest in the park had very personal beginnings. I moved into a flat in Gezina - quite removed from the traditional student suburbs of Pretoria - at the start of my honours degree (which I was struggling with at the time). As a result, I was at once no longer in a part of the city with which I was familiar, and faced with all the considerations that go along with one's first attempts at ethnographic fieldwork. These two challenges - quite unconsciously I think - became intimately linked for me, and walks to find the closest grocery store or bar to my flat inevitably became searches for places of ethnographic interest as well. It is important to note that during this 'ethnographically-trying-to-get-to-know' my new neighbourhood, I met and became interested in The Great before I was even aware of the park and all of its activity. And so my introduction to the park was also, to a large extent, a result of its importance in his daily life. It was, in this simple and personal sense, where I was hanging out most often with a new friend
Aside from these personal concerns, the park was also a place saturated by practices which I had never understood completely or been intimately exposed to, but which I knew were important in the understanding of contemporary urban life in Pretoria, and South Africa as well. One need only walk a few blocks in the Pretoria city centre to realise the prevalence of something like illegal street gambling in contemporary South Africa - men huddle around dice boards while guarding cars and public parks are dotted by card games. The ambiguous relationship which gamblers, pot dealers, immigrants, and other urban outsiders have with the state is fairly visible on South African streets in their interactions with police. But the logic and complexities of these relationships had always been something I had only been able to guess at. It was a world which I had long been interested in, not only because of its obvious social significance in the city, but also because of how distant I felt from it owing to my life of relative privilege.
I was drawn to the park, then, in the midst of getting to know new surroundings and the contours of a new friendship, and because it allowed me into a world which I knew was fundamental to the social life on Pretoria streets, but which I had for years only ever been able to watch from a distance,
I am sure it makes a lot of sense to start with your rich description. But I would like to touch on some of the ways your study points to a broader understanding of society, both in Pretoria and South Africa, but more generally too. There is no need to address these points immediately. They are just markers that others might want to take up.
It is striking that the activities you isolate are mainly forms and practices of distribution. Like you I was greatly taken with David Graeber's three "moral grounds for economic relations" and especially "everyday communism" since it is so often neglected and seemed so fresh on first reading. (Your insistence too on the importance of little gestures reminds us of hidden features of our own relations.) It seems superficially to be a kind of sharing, but maybe there are significant differecnes in ways of sharing. Gambling is obviously one form of distribution which can be a one-way transfer or, as you suggest, redistributive in the long term. Is the sharing of cigarettes and matches in the park best understood as communism in Graeber's terms (from each according etc)?
There is a bias towards distribution rather than production in many approaches to society (think of Polanyi for example). Could one argue that work plays a relatively marginal role in the lives of these men and that is why their society relies so heavily on distributive practices? I recall that exchange/reciprocity and hierarchy (both based on debt in Graeber's terms) are more commonplace in societies shaped by the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Conventionally, anthropologists have found sharing to be the dominant economic principle of hunter-gatherer societies which do a lot less work and are often addicted to gambling in their voluminous spare time. Studies of prison inmates sometimes come up with similar observations. I wonder also how generalisable this might be to South Africa, not just to the homeless, given the very high levels of unemployment there.
Distribution also comes into the question of unequal wealth and income which for you was at first personally disturbing. These men are poor no doubt. But in some other ways they are rich, a common observation. Your fat landlord for example comes across as an emotionally impoverished individual. You leave us with The Great rethinking how long he can afford to stay out of the mainstream, but the park has a hold on him for good social reasons. His family don't sound very attractive either. So we have the old expression "poor but happy". Clearly we can't leave it like that, but the complexity of your description raises profound questions along these lines.
As I said, just some thoughts thrown into the pot. Sharing of a delayed kind (I hope). No urgent need for reciprocity.
Thank you for your comment - your points have proven fantastically challenging, and I have been forced to think about the paper in ways I had previously not. For the most part I am still caught up in these new considerations and unable of equal reciprocity, but will keep revisiting your points in the hope of articulating a more certain reception of them. I also hope that they will be taken up by others.
I was drawn to Graeber's three moral grounds mainly because of his view that communism, as he understands it, is a principle immanent in everyday life. Indeed, that it is the foundation of all human sociability. In the park, where life is not muddled as much by market or bureaucratic interactions, the foundational nature of this baseline communism became quite visible - it underpinned most of what went on there. I think that the sharing can be understood within the framework of Graeber's everyday communism (from each according etc) - I never witnessed a request for tea or sugar denied if the man in question had sufficient stock of tea and sugar. Although I think the clearest indication of these communistic principles is the way in which those in the park react to anyone who breaches them (for instance, the man who had tallied up and demanded payment of a debt The Great owed him - a debt which would usually have been an act from the man, according to his ability at the time, to The Great, according to his need at the time).
The question of economic vs. social impoverishment was one which I had not considered, but am now trying to address, with Sahlins' 'original affluent society' in mind. Also, that the park is ruled by practices which - or at least which I have argued - guarantee a sort of collective survival. My first assumption would be that in some ways, they are rich. Here I am reminded of nights around the fire, sharing drinks and jokes until the early hours. And also of the dependability which existed between the men who stayed there. I am only hesitant to overstate this social richness because of the violence - whether it be over a dice board or with the police - which I witnessed, albeit comparatively rarely.
I see Webster's work as a move (back) towards the Manchester School of ethnography, the classic case study and a focus on networks through and beyond which he shows rather well the ways in which the people he is working with respect, fear and attempt to appropriate the seen and unseen powers of the state, and the shadows thereof through which they live their lives. As an ethnographic fundamentalist, i find his tendency towards 'letting the people speak for themselves' very refreshing, and thus the call for excessive conceptualisation rather mute. Contemporary ethnography, in my opinion, should refrain from making abstract models that speak largely only to other abstract models. It should embrace the mess that is life, and not be defined against straw men that never stood a chance. What we have here, as i see it, is an attempt to look at the lives of people in Pretoria and beyond as they see it. Webster's reliance on current approaches to communalism may well be a weakness, but he is clearly using this as a way to break down dominant approaches to explain social cohesion. What i find particularly interesting here is the symbolic resonance between a state having to do certain things in order for speculative capital to be drawn to it, and people in the park having to operate in specific ways in order for people to take them seriously as forces that can make multitudes from other people’s money. Gambling here is not chance, it is knowing what to do and when to do it. There are Warren Buffets in this park, and they are seemingly legitimised by their organic communalism.
Congratulations! Nice piece of writing and definitely readable.
I'm not sure how to frame my comment/reaction. Should I ask more from you? Or should I only deal with what you offer? Since I can see the possibilities of your work, I will do both.
I appreciate your honesty--especially your act of giving (money and cigarettes) most anthropologists will consider bribing in the field for information. There's nothing wrong about that. Sharing and giving for acceptance and trust in return happen all the time in the field, and they are necessary and unavoidable. Even a new neighbor gives and shares to be accepted and trusted by a community. Unfortunately, some anthropologists are not honest and open about it. Also, the fact that you recognize your internal conflict--you living in your apartment and the guys, in the park--tells me a lot about your intellectual honesty. I see no illusion/pretension that you can easily adapt, belong, and become. I see your struggle, and it is very insightful.
As far as your theoretical framework is concerned, I think it's thin but not malnourished. From the first page to the last, reciprocity and Sahlins keep popping up in my head. How is The Great’s altruistic false confession reciprocated? Do they feel that the money and the cigarettes you give need to be reciprocated with acceptance and information? Are cigarette bummers free-loaders, and is freeloading communistic? How does reciprocity work in common property? I see a unique reciprocity in the park—it’s not the usual individual to individual but more of individual to group and vice-versa.
It seems to me that you frame your work to appropriate Graeber. There's nothing wrong about that, but it is not convincing. I see communistic undertones, but Graeber alone is not effective. I know Graeber considers reciprocity as meaningless, but if you apply Sahlins and his reciprocities in your work, I think reciprocity is meaningful. Your communism theme is not clear and solid. Yes, "everyday communism" is nice, but reciprocity in the park is nicer, richer, and more evident. Sahlins will definitely complete Graeber and Hart in your study.
You have my attention when you mention Hart in relation to group dynamics and mechanics--uncertainty, adaptation, regulation, exclusion--but you do not elaborate it with ethnographic examples. I think expounding Hart's ideas will enrich your study and help you treat the park as a human ecology--complete with informal exchange and dynamic interaction. Is the group’s disassociation from the drug dealers social exclusion? Who exclude who? Is it simply a peaceful coexistence of two nodes (drug dealers and gamblers) in a network (park)? How weak or strong is their mutual interaction?
Your ethnographic method, though it has been done before, still comes out fresh and unusual. Your informal and free-flowing techniques in gathering data are the kind I like--raw and edgy. I 'm not sure if you take notes in front of them or do things that establish you as an anthropologist studying homeless gamblers. From what I read, I do not see an anthropologist doing participant-observation in front of the homeless guys. You don’t just watch them; you join them. Your act of joining is not superficial. The informants are your friends, and the field site is your neighborhood--not typical, indeed. Also, I don’t see any process of cross-checking, but I don’t wonder. You become part of the group, and its narrative is not far from yours. Their information is somewhat also yours. To up the ante, I ask: can an ethnographer be his own informant--source of information?
I don't think you do the typical participation and observation. What you do seem belonging and becoming to me. It sounds semantic, but definitely your methods are not the usual ones. You do become a heavy smoker and later, a gambler (not sure if money is involved when you learn how to play cards). You do belong to a group that accepts and protects you. You are scared of the cops too. You do what they do. They are your friends, and you are their friend. I wonder though if this friendship is sincere and not for the sake of gathering data. Will you falsely confess too a la The Great for the sake of the group or will you disassociate yourself from them by claiming that you are an anthropologist studying them?
I do not see any special respect and hierarchical consideration usually afforded to anthropologists in the field. It seems they do not treat you differently. Your landlord suspecting you and The Great protecting you is the point, I think, that blurs the divide--outsider-insider or me/I-them/they. Maybe you can go further later by conceptualizing becoming and belonging as ethnographic methods.
I think you restrain yourself from conceptually and theoretically exploring so many things. These two are interesting: performativity of ethnography and gambling as a narrative. The performativity is related to belonging and becoming, and it is about you. You have a lot of personal baggage, for sure—being White, educated, economically better—but you are able to penetrate a close-knit, difficult group that doesn't easily welcome and trust. The gambling narrative is about them. I wonder if that narrative can give you rich information about their views on poverty, dispossession, marginalization, alienation. The Great saying you are his luck seems to me an indication that this group has its own worldview. Losing as a physical battery is indicative of a metaphorical language they share. The gendering of dice is also an indication of their logic. Why are they feminine?
Gambling as redistributive and communistic is a problematic assumption. I don't see equilibrium, cooperation, equality, efficiency in that activity. The Great winning more than losing says a lot about social instability and fragile sociality. The chaotic incidences you mention are all related to gambling--the man accusing The Great of cheating, the winning gambler asserting his domination, and the cops disturbing them.
Very nice read. Please consider this as a close-reading of your work, not a critique from an expert (since I’m not). Thank you again.
Dennis, I, too, enjoyed reading your paper. Two questions, however.
1. Is your thick description thick enough. I can easily visualise down-and-out men hanging out in a seedy urban park, gambling, fighting, sharing cigarettes, tea and sugar, organised around informal groupings and hierarchies. But I still know nothing about the down and dirty economics of their lives. Where do food, clothes, money come from? What happens if one of them is seriously ill? What sorts of relationships do they have with others outside the park?
2. Why should someone with no particular interest in South Africa or down-and-out men be interested in this case? Eloquent, thick description is a good beginning. But in a world of billions of people and billions of problematic circumstances, why does this one deserve particular attention? I suggest that providing answers to that question are the basic roles of both the classic literature review and discussions of theory and method—which are intended to demonstrate the place of the case in a larger conversation. You might want to do a bit more here.
in a world of billions of people and billions of problematic circumstances, why does this one deserve particular attention?
This makes me think about the role of indifference in mass society, Dennis - both benign - 'let them do what they want, why should it involve me?' and malign 'why should I consider these people as part of the same polity as me?' Years ago, I was in the Haight district in San Francisco. A yuppy banker had bought a flat there: he was narked that his pretty girlfriend had invited these two scruffy British students to stay. As he looked out the window yuppy banker gestured at a cluster of people in the park below - 'they don't pay taxes so why should they be allowed to vote?' I was struck by the idea of 'no representation without taxation' which I had never come across before.
One counterpoint to the quite dense exchanges/acts of sharing amongst the park of niners (I take M's point that it is worth asking whether reciprocity is also a valid term here) is the seeming indifference of the white suburbanites to the presence of the drifters there. I note the incident where your landlord went to ask the Great whether you were taking drugs or not: it made me wonder what the property owning class thought about what was going on in the park; how do the drifters fit into their worldview? You mention that they employ the park people for minor jobs; what is the quality of those relationships? Then there are the periodic bursts of violence by the police which seem hard to interpret - what imperative are they working with?
Hi M. Thank you - I'm finding your close reading challenging and extremely helpful. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't address all of your questions immediately.
I agree with you concerning the presence of acts of sharing in the field. Although I would go further and suggest that they permeate more than the field. More, even, than new meetings and introductions (the neighbour you suggest, for instance). I feel they are present in most of our daily interactions, or, at least, those in which we want to be involved. As I suggest in my reply to Keith, this was one of the main reasons I was drawn to Graeber.
I have found your remarks concerning the workings of reciprocity in common property the most interesting. Whether or not reciprocity is indeed a valid term in the park is, I feel, an important question. Upon interrogating why I never addressed it directly during my fieldwork or in the writing of the paper, I've realised that I had always conceptualised the sharing in the park as a sort of collaborative system. And here I may be beginning to address one of your later points about the role of the ethnographer - I think that I was involved enough in the park to consider it absurd that there be any other response to your sharing of a cigarette than some other reciprocal act somewhere in the future. But again, debts of this nature were never tallied or mentioned. And, if in this instance you allow the ethnographer to be informant, they were never really thought of either. It was more an accepted part of the social rhythms there. Indeed, I only began to realise the importance of sharing in the park after later re-readings of my notes, so natural had it seemed. Of course, this is not enough to deal with the way in which reciprocity operates there. While my initial suspicion is that it may be similar to what you suggest (individual to group etc.), and that it may form part of the collective survival I mentioned in my reply to Keith, I will follow up on your suggestion of reading Sahlins to compliment my use of Graeber.
You suggest that the way in which I have framed gambling may be problematic. I must clarify that in no way was I trying to make a statement about gambling in general. The gambling in the park cannot be compared to sitting at a slot machine in Reno, or playing the South African Lottery. Rather, I was speculating at the function it performed in the context of the park. For some time it bothered me how the park, a place of such uncertainty, continued to exist along lines of everyday communism - why did it not experience the slip (one which Graeber suggests happens quite easily) into relations of hierarchy? I believe that gambling was the answer to the question - it was not communistic (I think that you've read it as such?), but rather maintained the conditions for communistic relations to continue in the park. Hierarchy did, of course, raise it's head at times in the park. The violence around the dice board were perhaps the most conspicuous examples of this. And there were times when men lost or won big (my comment of The Great winning more than losing referred only to those times when I had sponsored his exploits - he did most of his gambling without my money, and, indeed, without me). But overall it evened out and operated redistributively, which I argue allowed for communistic relations in an environment one would assume would be dominated by hierarchy.
I hope I've managed to address some of your questions. You've certainly given me a lot to think about - thank you.
I have always found that ethnographic writing is a great teaching vehicle and I have not yet discovered a viable way of teaching world history, despite many efforts. The reason that ethonography works it that it presents an artificially closed world in a rounded and humanistic way which can then serve as a launching pad for all manner of discussions. Dennis's essay is, we all agree, superbly written and limited in scope, as he would be the first to admit. It is a remarkable achievement for a student at his stage. Of course the argument can be extended indefinitely: what about reciprocity, the neighbourhood, the labour market, world poverty etc? In this particular setting, it is up to Dennis to decide which extensions of his argument he wants to take up. My guess is that this essay would be a great teaching instrument for students at any level, but especially beginners, since it offers a well-defined focus for wide-ranging conversation, as here.
It is not a criticism of Dennis to say that he chose to engage with a restricted theoretical repertoire. That was an aesthetic and intellectual choice. But ethnography is just a method, a powerful one indeed, but not the end of anthropology. In order to make any example personally meaningful we have to engage with more general propositions, often of a comparative sort, and these have to share a sound analytical basis. Maybe commentators who wish to interrogate the argument and extend its range could offer some alternatives, as M did. Or discussion could be framed in terms of the ethnography that was presented, rather than what was not.
Since David Graeber's approach was explicitly referred to, it should be pointed out that his moral grounds for economic relations were ideal types which operated as a set. The three forms occur together in different proportion according to the dominant economic principles of a society (capitalism for instance). In this sense the set is analogous to Polanyi's modes of economic integration. It is not often a good idea to isolate one type from a set and discuss that one alone. Graeber uses the term exchange rather than reciprocity and he claims that hierarchy often appears in the guise of reciprocity (I take your crops in return for not beating you up). I do believe that Sahlins' essay on the principles of exchange is deeply flawed and ethnocentric, if we want to go down that road. Also Marcel Mauss, who is often cited as the godfather of reciprocity in anthropology used the word only twice in The Gift. And so on.
My guess is that this essay would be a great teaching instrument for students at any level, but especially beginners, since it offers a well-defined focus for wide-ranging conversation, as here.
I agree. The ethnographic encounter allows us a kind of cosmopolitan pragmatics if you will - 'what kind of world do I live in? what kind of world might I (want to) live in?' and it opens up a conversation that always has those questions in its background. I don't think any other method allows discussion to take shape in quite that way since ethnography is always partly empirical (based on direct autobiographical immersion/observation) and partly utopian (heuristic/holistic in its analytical construction).
Dennis, your central proposition is that the gambling in the park equalises over time since the participants lose and win in what is essentially a closed circuit. So, gambling acts as a redistributive mechanism. Two things - one is the perception of this gambling by the wider society; this is why I was interested in why the police persistently come to break up the games (what is their motivation?). Second, you never mention any explicit ethos invoked by the park people themselves - they never seem, in your account at least, to express any particular moral rules about how to behave. The teabag sharing example is a nice one in this respect - entirely behavioural and inexplicit. Is that because the rules are embedded so firmly in practice that they don't need to be voiced? Have the rules evolved without them being aware of them? And, or, would it damage the possibility of being able to continue in this way if principles were made explicit?
PS On that theme, I notice that park of niners speak five distinct languages between themselves, which says something about their capacity to share an ethos.
"Why should someone with no particular interest in South Africa or down-and-out men be interested in this case?"
I think the academic value of Dennis' paper is undeniable. Anthropology professors can use it to demonstrate to their students that there's an alternative to participant-observation or an extreme form of participant-observation--if becoming-belonging is too radical and not acceptable to their professorial taste. The paper can pose many questions to future anthropologists and fieldworkers. Can friends be informants? Can an ethnographer be his own source of information? Can one's neighborhood be his field site? Is a field site very familiar to an ethnographer a good thing? Will that familiarity (to the point that he can answer his own questions) negatively affect his ethnography? Is giving and sharing in the field really unavoidable and necessary? If informants smoke marijuana or drink liquor, is it ethical (in anthropology) if an ethnographer smokes or drinks with them? If it's unethical, is it an institutional imposition of biases (against smoking and drinking)? If one studies criminals, is it a crime or violation of law not to report them? Can an ethnographer be himself in the field? If he is a gambler, can he gamble with his informants? Numerous questions can be drawn from this paper. It is definitely valuable in the study of ethnographic methods.