Week 3: Sex, Drugs and Ethnography

drugs hunter s thompson

The cohorts efforts in the ‘memory research’ assignment have yielded a plethora of insightful, entertaining and awkward parent conversations. Countless BCM240 students have taken the plunge and sat down with their parents to discuss the influences that TV had on their social dynamics as it was slowly introduced. Now you’re all caught up, let’s dive in.

A majority of pieces that I read focused on the expansive, almost inclusive effects that television had on social units. Rather than being the death of society, the ultimate degenerator that our parents warned us about as children, the majority of elders reflected on television positively. Almost all blogs that I read mentioned a fondness for the television and the role it took in the home. Rather than dividing and reducing the unit, elders described the television as a binding force. Units would come together, especially in the day of fixed or live broadcasting, to watch a program. Instead of being a simple media item to consume, the program would be a spectacle or activity enjoyed simultaneously by the whole family – a collaborative media performance producing common experiences.

This was not alone as a common factor. Recollections of sitting on the floor to make space for adults, kids not being allowed to watch any TV without the watchful and wary supervision of an adult and countless other commonalities perviate the BCM240 blogs. After the surprisingly positive effects of television, the second most important common trait was the evolving role of the news. Set amidst such historically significant events as the Vietnam war, the space race and the larger Cold War, news became a messenger delivering incredible, amazing and terrifying bulletins straight to the living rooms of people everywhere – even in living colour, as technology advanced.

The Moon Landing, JFK assassination and footage of the Vietnam war all feature in recollections of past broadcasts. Compared to these, frequently, lies on of the most disturbing and instantaneously televised events of modern history, the terror attacks of 9/11.

Research projects like these are incredibly valuable. More than a simple recording of an oral history, projects like these allow for a form of ethnographic advance. As well as allowing the transfer of simple data, ethnographic exchange allows for the recording and propagation of emotional impressions and effects. When this flourishes ethnography becomes a collaborative effort. Either to simply enhance communication or to address and solve a problem, collaborative ethnography emerges to involve not just the researcher trying to understand the subject, but to also feature the studied understanding the researcher. The exchange fosters, in the ideal example, mutual benefit.

In class we have covered a fair deal of this, but I promised sex and drugs, so I’m going to talk briefly about a practical application of ethnography.

After researching and writing about the Hells Angels motorcycle ‘gang’ in 1965, Hunter S. Thompson spent over a year in close proximity with the club. Though functioning at the time as a journalist, eventually Thompson would publish a book on his time with the club in an ethnographic fashion. The book, “Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga”, would later be described by social and cultural geographer Bradley Garret as one of the top five most influential ethnographic works.

If you haven’t heard of Thompson, no description I could give would adequately explain the personified madness. You should research that yourself. The entire Hells Angel book is available online for free, here. I’d strongly recommend reading it drunk, but reading it sober will do in a pinch.

Through a mutual exchange with the gang, Thompson was able to somewhat explain their violent and anomalous behavior “from the inside out” (Garret, 2015). As well, in exchange for the study of their behavior, members of the gang were able to explain and defend their lifestyle and actions. The ethnographic exchange proved incredibly effective, leading to a greater academic and social understanding of the emerging trends of social deviance and criminality. As a result, the book is held in wide regard within both social geography and literary circles.

Of course, the study concludes with Thompson being attacked and beaten by dozens of members of the gang, what they coined as “stomping”.

I guess what I’m saying is that ethnography can be an incredibly effective tool in the exploration of other cultures and people, but some bikers will probably beat you up. I’m surprised that didn’t come up in our classes attempts at memory research, actually.



Garret, B 2015, ‘Why gonzo journalism is crucial to our understanding of cities and their tribes’, The Guardian, 20th May  < https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/20/gonzo-journalism-cities-tribes-ethnographer-hunter-s-thompson >

Lassiter, LE 2005, The Chicago Guide To Collaborative Ethnography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago


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