The academic who hopped a freight train to live and learn with drifters

For insight into the ‘pervasive dislocation’ of people’s lives today, the sociologist Jeff Ferrell rode the rails across the US. He tells Matthew Reisz about life on the road and the limits of mainstream research

May 17, 2018
train view truck

There are no doubt many commuting academics for whom long waits and uncomfortable train journeys are a way of life. But sociologist Jeff Ferrell’s unauthorised trips on American freight trains certainly put crowded metropolitan railways into some perspective.

Much of Ferrell’s new book, Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge, describes the period he spent hanging out with a “gutter punk” he calls Zeke and “his group of train-hopping comrades” known as the “Slow Drunk Krew”. The professor of sociology at Texas Christian University and visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent is now 63 and suffers from “a wrecked right ankle and aging knees”. Nevertheless, Zeke agrees to let him come train hopping with him, partly on the basis of “a big bicycle sprocket” tattoo that Ferrell has on his right arm, which establishes his credibility as an “old‑school bike punk”.

After grabbing a few provisions, Ferrell and Zeke sneak up to the train yard and wait in a “long cement corridor” for the chance to “catch out”. This is a pretty risky activity. Ferrell recalls an earlier occasion “when the momentum of a slow-moving train all but pulled me under it as I grabbed a passing ladder”, as well as an earlier writer’s reference to the “many amputation and decapitation stories about people trying to ‘catch out on the fly’”. Given his age and physical condition, he has therefore “promised myself and others: only stationary trains on this trip”.

Once they manage to board a train, Ferrell and Zeke “drop down into a little sunken space at the back of the car…so as to avoid being seen by the rail-yard workers”. The pair become “two small bodies riding a massive machine, whose tons of weight and power stretch out from us half a mile in either direction. On the other hand we’re confined to a little metal box barely big enough for the two of us – and more to the point, we’ll stay confined there for as many hours as it takes until this train decides to stop…The only thing to do is to kill your ego and roll with the ride.”

On another occasion, Ferrell decides to try to catch out on his own. He hunkers down in “a tangle of underbrush” and, afraid that he might have been spotted, “take[s] a tangle of small leafy limbs and shoots and fashion[s] it around some branches, creating a little blind in which to hide”. Unfortunately, the foliage turns out to be poison ivy.

jeff ferrell


Drift is a book with a bold central thesis: namely, that millions of people’s lives are now dominated by “pervasive dislocation”, something that Ferrell flags up as “a new and immediate problem of astounding magnitude”. Characterised by a sense of precarity and rootlessness, “drift is the consequence and condition of late modernity, the price to be paid for the predations of neoliberal social policy, global social inequality, and high-speed social change”. It is also, he adds, very much an issue within American higher education, where “a part-time university instructor has more in common with the contract janitors that clean university buildings than she does with the few remaining tenured professors”.

There is a sense in which train hoppers are the ultimate drifters. But rather than study them through conventional methods, Ferrell’s urge is to “do research as independently and immersively as possible and with as few resources as I can manage”. That can lead him into some tight spots: as well as his adventures in dark rail yards, his book describes “dodging deep holes in an abandoned flour mill frequented by Denver’s down-and-out” and “picking my way through demolished buildings as an urban scrounger”. But this dramatically unorthodox approach to research reflects his doubts about much “mainstream” social science – and chimes with his politics, which “tend towards anarchism and resistance”, leading him to “sympathise with those on the margins: folks who are criminalised or ostracised in some way. I am fascinated by how their worlds work and how they engage in platforms of resistance.” This interest, he adds, arises out of an “early family humanism”: his father was a civil rights activist and his mother was the first teacher to integrate African American pupils in the town where they lived.

Ferrell’s research methods, he admits, also relate to the kind of life he finds attractive. Although he still does a lot of teaching and believes that it is important to help students think critically, he stresses that “in terms of existential comfort, my preferred community would be the drifting community of those on the margins and not the bureaucratically stabilised community of employees…I would always choose to be out on the streets with the train hoppers and the graffiti artists rather than in the sedentary world of institutions.” He also finds it “energising” to “traverse the space between academia and marginal subcultures”.

Such perspectives are very evident in Ferrell’s previous publications. He describes his 2001 book Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy as a chronicle of 10 years spent “exploring urban conflicts by riding with radical bicyclists and playing music with buskers, going to pirate radio stations”. Even more striking is Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking and Street Scavenging, published in 2005, after Ferrell resigned from a tenured professorship and “lived a little over a year without an academic position from trash picking” (plus his wife’s minimum-wage job). He still dumpster dives “on a daily basis, as an act of anarchist self-determination, to get much-needed goods and supplies to homeless shelters and food banks – and, to be honest, [as a counterbalance] to offices and classrooms. The streets are an entirely different place, and I know them pretty well. I enjoy the skill and adventure of an alternative life.”

train field sky


One of the lessons that Ferrell learned from dumpster diving was that “trash is not trash: it’s clothing that has gone out of style, tools which have a chip in them, home appliances that can be fixed with a little bit of tape. I got everything out of the dumpsters: clothing, home supplies, deodorants, soap, shampoo, on and on. You soon realise just how wasteful a consumer society is. Most everything in my home at this point was found in the trash and is far better quality than I could ever afford.”

But while noting that “the trash of the wealthy is a notch or two above the best the middle class can do”, he confides that there is a trade-off for those “dumpster diving in the nicer neighbourhoods” between “better quality finds” and “more police harassment”. He has often been chased and, on one occasion, was arrested, had to appear in court and received a year’s probation. He has also been given “a felony trespass warning from a medical campus I didn’t even know I was on. I’m now banned from that area legally.”

Putting up with such inconveniences and occasional dangers is very much an ethical issue for Ferrell. Although honest about his research purposes with the people he lives among, he has taken “a very serious vow not to play the card of revealing that I’m a professor to police or security guards or angry homeowners. If I’m out with graffiti artists or street musicians or train hoppers, I try to live that all the way.”

Such “shared vulnerability” is crucial in building rapport. “You have to genuinely engage with the risks of the world you are part of, which may mean arrest, physical danger, gross discomfort or waiting for hours for something to happen. I’ve found that if I learn about those risks and then submit myself to them in an honest fashion, that obliterates my ‘other’ status…[or] any resentment about my being a professor ‘slumming it’ – I’m not doing that.”

side of train


Ferrell sees himself and his form of research as “very much on the margins of US social science, which, since the Second World War, has largely been taken over by positivist, quantitative, federally funded research, so people want numbers, the illusion of certainty, tables and pie charts and statistical analysis. Immersing yourself in the lives of others is not only marginal but sometimes dismissed as not good research.” Despite being trained in quantitative research while at graduate school, it never seemed to him to be “a useful way of learning about things”.

Indeed, Ferrell goes further. While living in Denver, he recalls, “the media and mayor claimed that the worst crime problem was the graffiti writers: that they were all in gangs, and so on. I knew enough criminology to strongly suspect that that wasn’t the case.” By immersing himself in their world, he came to “understand the emotions and the motivations and the skills”.

What he deplores, by contrast, is what he calls in Drift a “burgeoning anti-gang industry” of academic experts, who “measure at a distance the amount of gang activity, the number of gangs and gang members, and the overall magnitude of the gang problem”. Such experts produce findings that are “in many ways artefacts of the methods themselves”, but that does not stop them from offering to help solve an allegedly “growing and virulent form of youthful organised crime”. Ferrell even cites the view of Simon Hallsworth, former professor of sociology at the University of Suffolk, that “the contemporary gang ‘problem’ is in many ways a problem of improper method [in social science]”.

Despite swimming against the methodological tide, Ferrell has managed in recent years to “create a kind of alternative status as a radical researcher”, which has opened doors into the leading journals. And he is heartened to come across “young scholars emerging who want to do [my] kind of research because they see it as a rebuttal to the neoliberal quantification of scholarly life” – although many are discouraged from pursuing their inclinations by their supervisors, or by fear that it will hold back their careers.

jeff ferrell american scrap yard


About a century ago, Ferrell reflects in Drift, the American mechanical engineer Frederick W. Taylor developed a form of “scientific management” for “measuring worker productivity, enforcing efficiency, de-skilling labor, and increasing employer profits”. The Slow Drunk Krew, on the other hand, present “a study of unabashed inefficiency and inebriated uncertainty that undermines everything Taylor and his corporate allies sought to enforce”.

But while such a lifestyle may sound appealing, do drifters really provide pointers to alternative forms of politics? Ferrell’s book includes a chapter on the Industrial Workers of the World. Founded in 1905, the union campaigned against “an everyday order of legal and social injustice” seen, for example, in the crooked practices of “employment sharks”. It was often “the very itinerancy” of the union’s members, known as “Wobblies”, that made it successful in campaigns, Ferrell believes: “their practiced mobility, their gritty durability and on-the-fly self-reliance, their serial disregard for locality and law”. When cities introduced clampdowns on speaking in the streets, for example, “the IWW decided to break these new laws en masse [so as] to turn each new ordinance back on itself by filling the jails with Wobblies who had violated it – Wobblies who would then each demand an individual jury trial, thereby overloading the criminal justice system, straining city finances, and forcing repeal of the ordinance”. Although the lives of workers defined by drift made them “a challenge to organize”, Ferrell concludes, they could also be “a hellacious force for social justice once they were”.

In today’s world, too, he believes that the drift phenomenon has its upsides. Dislocated lifestyles can offer “a kind of hard-earned freedom, and an ability to see comparatively and critically, that the sedentary person doesn’t achieve”. Drift has “powerful potential to liberate people from structures they may not even be aware of”, and can “allow us to imagine different kinds of community”.

As for Ferrell himself, he acknowledges there may come a time when he is too old to engage in, and enjoy, the kind of full-on immersive research that he has made his own. Although “hiphop graffiti has been around since the late 1970s” and he knows of fellow “63-year-old graffiti artists”, as well as old hobos, he realises that there is “a sense of absurdity in my studying youth subculture” at his age. Even now, he adds, “my knees are so bad I couldn’t actually run from thugs or police officers or angry citizens”. 

Jeff Ferrell’s Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge was recently published by the University of California Press.


Print headline: Hop on, share the ride and learn

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Reader's comments (2)

Is there any acknowledgment of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book ‘Nickled and Dimed’?
Prof. Ferrell must know what he learns about his subject pool is heavily conditioned by what his subjects know about him. So he must be aware that his conclusions about them are not independent of his presence as would ideally be the case.