Doing Nightlife Fieldwork


Kiki and Silversurfer @ Le Rex, Paris, 2007

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book entitled, “How To Do Fieldwork in Nightclubs and Bars?”  Certainly, when I was working on my own dissertation, I wished that other nightlife-researchers would be more open about their methods and more generous about giving advice to new ethnographers of nocturnal scenes. To be honest, a fair number of nightlife-researchers have published some details about their methods; it’s usually tucked away discreetly in an appendix or in a section of the introductory chapter. But these brief methodological reflections often lack too much detail to be instructive and—frankly—I’m not always satisfied with their solutions to the problems of nightlife fieldwork. Despite all my griping, I have been guided by the methods of some nightlife researchers, such as Fiona Buckland in her book Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making (2002).

In any case, very few nightlife ethnographers actually describe their research methods in detail, even though the circumstances of nocturnal scenes often pose difficult challenges to conventional fieldwork methods. Just a few of these are:

  1. Exposing/endangering night-lives: the nocturnal world is different from everyday, public life. People often allow themselves to do things at night (in clubs, bars, bathhouses, etc.) that they would/could not during the daytime. Some people don’t give a shit if their boss/parents/co-workers know that they dance, do drugs, go to fetish bars, dress in drag, etc. Others would be mortified. And there’s more than just embarrassment involved: a breach of confidentiality might end up getting someone fired, divorced, ostracized, or even hurt. So, how do you respect the boundaries between a person’s nighttime persona and her/his “real” life?
  2. Establishing trust: if you’re doing fieldwork, you need access; and access only comes with trust. You need to know what’s going on in the scene, you need people to open up to you and tell you their stories, you need to hear about and attend the events that make the scene what it is. But people in nightlife scenes have very good reasons to be suspicious of nosey scholars and journalists: in the case of electronic dance music scenes, for example, most of them were hit with a “moral panic” at some point during the 1990s and 2000s—much of which was thanks to outsiders gaining access to the scene and then publishing reports that portrayed the scene as a teenaged drug-and-sex orgy. How do they know you’ll be any different?
  3. No photos, please: when I was being trained as an ethnomusicologist, the conventional wisdom about fieldwork was, “Take loads of pictures, video, and/or audio of music events.” But how do you get consent from a crowd of partygoers who maybe don’t want their drunk/high, sweaty faces popping up in your next blog post or journal article or conference presentation? How do you know that the DJ/band/artists are OK with recording their performance? In any case, more and more nightlife venues explicitly (and punitively) ban recording of any kind—partially for intellectual property reasons, but also partly for privacy reasons. But even if there isn’t a ban on recording, how socially acceptable will it be for you to whip out a camcorder at the next event? How do you collect “data” without alienating the people around you?
  4. Respecting fun: people go out at night to have fun, dance, hear good music, drink, get high, get off, feel good, be spontaneous, be risky, cut loose, etc. They didn’t go out to complete a survey or engage in a candid interview. In a way, they’re busy having fun; how do you avoid interrupting that while you do your fieldwork?
  5. Noise! Lights! Most nightlife events involve, um…less than optimal conditions for conducting and recording interviews, taking pictures, video, etc. What kind of fieldwork can you do when you’re in a loud, dark, smoky place that is erratically lit by flashing lights?
  6. What do you have to offer? In the past—and even today in more conventional fieldwork contexts—ethnographers have been able to take advantage of their relative wealth, intellectual prestige, or perceived connections to Western modernity to attract interlocutors. This might work when you’re studying an underprivileged group or one that is eager to have its practices validated as “tradition.” But when I was doing my dissertation research, most of my fieldwork contacts made more money than I did and the publication of my research wasn’t likely to make a real impact on their lives. You take their time, their words, their experiences, and you make a (hopefully lucrative) career out of it; what can you offer your interlocutors in exchange?
  7. Nightlife ain’t cheap: most nighttime events (especially in urban centers) take place in bars, clubs, lounges, bathhouses, etc. These are all venues that make their profits by charging very high prices for beverages and usually charging more money at the door. Maybe you can find your way onto the guest list once in a while, but cost is still an issue if you’re doing intensive fieldwork.
  8. Being a night owl: It’s nighttime, after all. Doing intensive fieldwork at night messes with your body-clock and can interfere with your daytime activities; this makes nightlife fieldwork harder to do when you also have responsibilities as an educator and/or scholar. How do you strike a balance?

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t enough mentorship and teaching going on between scholars of EDM or of nightlife in general. Sure, there were very few of us ten years ago, but our numbers have been growing steadily and there is still very little collective discussion of fieldwork methods in the main journal for EDM, Dancecult, or on the corresponding mailing list. I had to figure out most of my methods on my own; I did occasionally check in with the small set of EDM scholars that I knew personally, but mostly I proceeded by trial and error. That didn’t make writing my dissertation any easier, that’s for sure.

So, fellow nightlife ethnographers, let’s be more generous with our knowledge and maybe raise the profile of EDM studies by developing a set of “best practices” for nightlife fieldwork. Over the next few days, I’m going to write two more posts that describe my own methods in some detail, along with some point-form tips and notes for the beginning nightlife-ethnographer. The first one will be about participant-observation at EDM events, and the second one will be about conducting interviews in an EDM scene (including recruiting people to interview, which is important!).

You’re all invited to share your own experiences by posting a comment or by posting it on your own blog and sending me the link. How do you do what you do?

Up Next: Doing Nightlife Fieldwork II: Going Out

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9 comments

  1. I would like to respond or ask additional questions to a few of your points:
    5) The few times I conducted interviews in actual night clubs and loud events, I ended up transcribing them almost immediately to avoid mishearing content.
    8) The night owl aspect is probably the number one reason why I did most of my research with record executives and producers; they keep normal hours!
    1) I would like someone to discuss how we deal with interviews conducted when people are intoxicated… Is the content we gather more suspect?

    1. Thanks, KG! Great responses/questions. As for 1), I’m also concerned about the nature of consent under intoxication. At some point, you have to trust people’s abilities to make decisions (and speak honestly) under the influence, but it definitely complicates things for the ethnographer. As for 5), I just do everything in my power to avoid having to conduct interviews at the event itself. Thankfully, my diss topic (and my post-doc topic, to an extent) focused on issues that were better discussed in long-form interviews in a private place, so I’ve successfully dodged that bullet for now.

  2. in depends on your topic but I think a lot of your problems are solved by confining your research in clubs to participant observation and making contacts. all the rest (interviews, surveys) can be done during daytime in a quieter place?

  3. Thanks for the great post – we’re doing research as a team in Frankfurt on postmigrant club scenes in several European cities and have encountered pretty much the same issues and challenges, but I’d like to add some more: as female researchers, how do you deal with unwanted sexual attention and harassment in heteronormative scenes, where even showing up as a lone female can be interpreted as ‘looking for it’, and how do you get home safely at night? I find Dina Perrone’s article on Gender and Sexuality in the Field really useful there. And how do you deal with expectations regarding buying rounds or drug use when it’s a huge issue in the scene you are dealing with and trying to participate in. Anyway, this would make a great topic for an edited collection – and thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. Hey Kira, thanks for your comments! Yes, there are some concerns about nightlife research that are very much about gender and the different ways that the researcher’s body is legible to the people s/he works with. I definitely enjoy freedom from some of these concerns because I’m male, especially regarding unwanted sexual advances and possible sexual violence. As a queer male, however, I am sometimes vulnerable to another set of risks based on hostility towards male homosexuality. Thankfully, I work in music scenes that are mostly (but not always) queer-friendly, although my research sometimes takes me to areas of the city where looking queer gets your but kicked (so to speak). Actually, take a look at this very old blog post from one of my first fieldwork outings in Paris back in 2006 or 7: http://luisinparis.blogspot.com/2007/01/lessizmore.html . The last 3 paragraphs or so briefly touch upon the way that gender impacts nightlife fieldwork.

    2. Ach, and I forgot to address your other question about buying rounds and drug use. Yes! That’s definitely a tricky one, especially when you’re trying to be sincere about your efforts to do participant-observation, but there are also issues of professionalism, privacy, “objectivity,” self-control, safety, and respect within the group that you’re studying. Ironically, drug use is so common and undramatic in the scenes where I work, that there’s nothing unusual about spending the whole night drinking water or Club Maté. But at the same time, the sharing and circulation of drugs is an element of group solidarity and intimacy that we can’t ignore…

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