Tracking the lives of academic heroes

Matthew Reisz hears the case for in-depth immersive research among marginalised communities

May 15, 2018

There are many academics who put themselves on the line for their work.

We have long used our occasional Outer Limits series to celebrate the “extreme research” of those who accept hardship, discomfort and sometimes considerable danger to bring back essential stories of extreme poverty, organised crime and life in war zones. One even ended up in an Indian jail. I was enormously impressed by several of the scholars I interviewed, such as the woman who spent 15 months in a remote Himalayan village to explore the realities of child labour and another who travelled across the desert with a protective convoy, four cars in front and four cars behind, while investigating tribal conflict and reconciliation in Yemen. My colleagues have profiled volcanologists, peace makers and those trying to track down illicit traders in antiquities. If it makes sense to describe any academics as heroes, these would be strong candidates.

For the latest in the series I spoke to Jeff Ferrell, professor of sociology at Texas Christian University. He has long been sympathetically fascinated, he told me, by “those on the margins: folks who are criminalised or ostracised in some way”. Some of his research has been historical, looking at the figure of the hobo and the early 20th-century union of itinerant workers often known as the Wobblies. But he has also carried out extensive immersive ethnographic work among train hoppers, street musicians, graffiti artists and “radical bicyclists”. He has occasionally been chased by the police, thugs or irate upright citizens (though now he is in his sixties, his “ageing knees” are making it harder to run away). And he has described his latest findings in a compelling new book called Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge.

Today’s world, in Ferrell’s view, sees more and more people leading precarious, dislocated and often “drifting” lives. Though this is in many ways a very negative development, he also believes that “drift” can offer “a kind of hard-earned freedom”, new forms of community and important political insights unavailable to the sedentary. And he is frank enough to admit that he spends much of his time hanging out with bikers and train hoppers simply because he enjoys their company. Yet his central claim is that genuine immersion in very different kind of lives offers a depth of understanding unavailable to those who conduct “positivist, quantitative, federally funded research” largely from the safety of their desks. Life at the outer limits may not always be comfortable, but perhaps the rest of us should be grateful for the brave academics who have been there and done it.

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