The Park of 9: New OACpress paper and seminar 22nd April onwards. Seminar now closed.


"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.

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Network analysis, pursued anthropologically,can be a useful tool. Imagine keeping track of the men in the park, counting how often and mapping who gambles, quarrels, or borrows tea or sugar from whom. On the one hand, the community in question would begin to take on a more clear and definite shape. On the other, asking when, how,and why the specific relationships were formed would lead to a better understanding of social process.

Dennis Edward Webster said:

Some of you have mentioned that this piece may be used as teaching material, especially toward the end of introducing beginners to fieldwork. While I'm flattered, I was reminded of some of the difficulties I experienced during my research concerning methodology. I presented these concerns in a paper at last years' Anthropology Southern Africa conference. Having used it as my central conceptual point, I was thinking what Graeber's call for a 'sociology of everyday communism' might mean for our method. [...]

I would appreciate any insights in this regard. Are these concerns/questions valid at all? Can a 'sociology of everyday communism' be applied methodologically as well as conceptually?


Hi Dennis, I want to reiterate that your lens on life in the park reveals important insights into the social life of a marginal group. I agree too that "fieldwork" can be taught in a mechanical way that reduces chances for social interaction of the sort that you made for yourself. Your emphasis on making social relations has some affinity with the symbolic interactionist school of G H Mead, Erving Goffman and others, even with Marcel Mauss. It is also the case that you chose a highly restricted field, as you probably had to in the time available. Undergraduate fieldwork can never be the real thing since anthropologists insist on a kind of immersion over time in the society they study and this distinguishes them from other disciplines. Your range of theoretical reference is inevitably quite narrow and you understandably leapt for the link between David Graeber's "sociology of everyday communism" and what had struck you in the park. This is fine as far as it goes, but there is more to the life of these men than the park and more to life there than sharing. So one effect of this line is to reduce the complexity of social life to one idea and that is a different matter from your legitimate complaints about mechanistic training methods. There are benefits to working in a circumscribed space such as a factory floor or a park, but there are costs too.

The anthropologists have lost control of the term ethnography which has been adopted by many disciplines to mean just detailed qualitative observation. Many anthropologists too have lost sight of the larger and vaguer meaning it once had. For me it means internalizing a lot about a society by living in it, such knowledge often being accessible only by intuition. One might call this a Durkheimian process as outlined in his last book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. We all accumulate experience of the different places we live in and often this experience is only accessible to us through writing. Your essay succeeds because, in writing it, you reflect more deeply for example about the often unnoticed small gestures that mark evolving social relations.

Thus when I joined a development think-tank after my PhD based on "fieldwork" in Ghana, I discovered that economists spoke of urban unemployment in Third World cities. That seemed wrong to me, but I didn't know why. Eventually it occurred to me that it was because the people I knew were not unemployed but rather doing a lot in a casual and fragmented way. That is where my paper on informal income opportunities came from. This method, if that is what it is, often implies a leap in the dark towards intuitive knowledge of the whole which can only come from prolonged immersion in a society (I spent over two years living in a slum). There is no reason why other disciplines with a more postivist methodology should buy it.

I believe that your criticisms of how you were prepared for fieldwork are in part a result of realising in retrospect that the important things you learned can't be reduced to a tool kit and perhaps also that the anthropological meaning has been lost from what passes for ethnography these days.

You have all given me so much to think about - thank you.

The discussion concerning Graeber's other two principles (and more, as you suggest Keith) in lived experience. And as much as I think life in the park was simplified in many ways M, I agree with Keith that self-reliance cannot be discounted. While during my research I was limited by the nature of the research, and consciously focused my scope (choosing to answer questions of how it was that acts of sharing existed in such an economically difficult context) at the exclusion of other aspects of these mens' lives (John's earlier reference to the lack of any real discussion of their work, for instance), I think that broadening the papers perspective might now be possible, and indeed necessary. Such a broadening would also demand a more comparative perspective, as both Keith and John have suggested.

Forgive my limited reply - your comments demand a deal of consideration, for which I have not yet managed the time. Thank you again.

In a sense Dennis is arguing for a reflexive ethnographer who actively builds and creates what they then 'observe'/participate in/understand.

John would like, I think, more analytic specificity - more discrete/salient data to work with - the number of times certain actors interracted with other actors and hence a more detailed(?), perhaps more precise map of the relations involved.

What Keith is saying about intuitive openness to the field situation is very important, it seems to me, because this must necessarily prefigure the attempt to break down interactions in discrete terms.

A few points about fieldwork: there is no 'neutral' observer; the ethnographer, whoever they are, is living out a certain stage of their autobiographical/intellectual development; they bring a trawl of personal rules of thumb, prejudices, imageries, theories, avoidances, behavioural quirks, favoured metaphors and so on with them to 'the field'. At which point, interactions 'in the field' change that array, displace some things, reinforce others, disorganise yet others and throw into question a slew of taken for granted ways of imagining things.

What we are registering as 'ethnographers' is whatever difference our encounters have made to our way of thinking up to this point - and that depends on recognising that the differences in question have challenged our pre-conceptions.

In many ways 'ethnography' simply describes this process of conceptual-imaginative challenge-change in the company of other people who are also changing. The ethnographer is always a victim of the flow of time - 'he took the tea just like that, strange! That's him again... was that important, what's the relation?'  - From that point of view 'the field' is really nothing more than the nominal horizon or boundary we place around an accumulation of encounters of this kind, some significant, some not.

Afterwards, in what we call 'an ethnography', all that is codified - to an extent. The codification is valuable but in many ways secondary, post hoc. Nonetheless, it establishes a moment of judgement about what has taken place. We cannot travel back down the line of time and achieve a more accurate version of this fieldwork that has already happened, already changed our view. Even so, we can use the field as an autobiographical springboard for constructing more difficult questions the next time round.'Writing up' 'an ethnography' seems valuable, less because it defines the past, more because it helps us redefine what we expect about the future.

Dennis has to travel tomorrow, Friday, but the seminar will be open until Saturday for any final comments on where we think this intriguing line of enquiry might go from here.

John would like, I think, more analytic specificity - more discrete/salient data to work with - the number of times certain actors interracted with other actors and hence a more detailed(?), perhaps more precise map of the relations involved.

Yes, but this makes it sound like the greater specificity is an end in itself. The larger point is that the search for specificity or simply counting what is countable directly addresses some of the questions that we have been pondering. Consider requests for sugar and tea.  Are they

  1. Completely random, with every other man besides the asker equally likely to be asked
  2. Affected by proximity, with the asker turning to the other physically closest to him
  3. Affected by visibility. Is a man more likely to be asked for tea and sugar if he is seen making tea?
  4. Are some men asked more than others? If so, why? 
  5. Is being asked for tea and sugar correlated with gambling success? Or other sources of income?

As soon as we begin to ask questions like these, notions like "primitive communism" reveal unexpected dimensions. From my reading of Graeber, the example that sticks with me is people working on a common project, e.g., a crew building a house. One of them needs a hammer and turns to the fellow next to him who has a hammer in his tool belt. Conversation follows: "I need a hammer?" "Sure, here's one." There is no calculation here; but there is commitment to the common project. Do the men in the park have a common project? Reading Graeber, I also thought of Meyer Fortes' "axiom of amity," seen as defining the boundaries of households or larger groups whose members are expected to share freely with each other, in contrast to "others" who are "not us." Do the men in the park form a group in this sense?

Fortes' discussion of Tallensi kinship and Maurice Freedman's subsequent research on lineage organization in Southeast China suggest that the axiom may also be constrained by the types of things supposed to be freely shared. If you visit a Chinese family, you will almost certainly be offered tea (which may, in fact, be nothing more than boiled water). If you are around as dinner time approaches, you will be asked to eat. If you are polite, however, you will say that you have already eaten or have something else you have to do. Then, depending on your relationship to the family you may be repeatedly urged to stay and eat or allowed to quietly go away. And being offered tea or food in no way entitles you to worship the family's ancestors or bury your own dead in the family's graves. So, I find myself wondering what happens in the park if a man has food more substantial than tea and sugar. Is he expected to share? What about a spare blanket if the night gets cold? It is interesting how many questions arise when you learn to think not only in terms of what is exchanged but how often and how much.

Hi all.

Forgive this latest of replies - I have been travelling without internet, and getting back to it has proven difficult.

I think that, at it's most fundamental, the paper was an exploration of people's ability to live efficiently through acts or practices of sorts of cooperation. This ability appealed to me for two reasons:

1. As I have mentioned before, I had expected that under conditions of severe uncertainty, social relations would have been founded on considerations of individual economic survival, and would have generally manifested themselves hierarchically or violently.

2. It was interesting that the men were best served - both socially and economically (Graeber might suggest the two are more the same than they are different, an I would probably agree) - not by calculations of individual maximisation, but rather by their integration in what I saw as a closely linked a redistributive system of illegal gambling and sharing

I think that its lack of any real engagement with broader discussions of humanity, or what have you, was a result of both the conditions under which it was innitially produced (the naturally limited world of honours level research), and a subtle hangover I experienced coming out of an undergraduate course which had highlighted ethnographic specificity and some of the dangers of anthropological 'ambition'. And so, moving forward, I think the issues which will demand further consideration are those around this sort of engagement; on the one hand regarding it's place with regard to literature (the Polanyian bias towards modes of distribution mentioned by Keith, for instance, or even with the rest of Graeber's framework of economic relations), and on the other hand how I might fit it into a more comparative framework which takes into consideration  the contemporary moment in world history, what has preceeded it, and what may follow it.

I suppose, then, if I were to hesitate the beginnings of what such considerations may look like, it would be closely linked to what I have listed under 2. above. The men in the park may be an example of the importance played by human (I think that there are a host of terms I could use here) drives and considerations in the contemporary moment. And, most especially, what we may consider democratic human drives (help etc.). Stripped of many of the complications of market relations and interactions with the state - where human interaction remains key, although it is underplayed in the representation of them - the Park of 9 represents a space where we might consider the importance of democratic social practices (like sharing) in the real, lived experience of contemporary economic and structural realities. Maybe even one which will allow us to consider the importance of these kinds of practices in the rethinking and  possible rebuilding of these realities going forward.

Thanks Dennis. The good thing about this format is that it is forgiving of absences. All good things must come to an end, though, so it just remains to thank you again for allowing yourself to be part of the experiment; good luck for the next stage of your project.



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