Fun, frolics and field studies

March 29, 2002

If you want to combine a holiday with a spot of research, Ivor Gaber's got some tips. But look out for caravan kooks, axe-murderers and stinking naked hippies.

As the Easter vacation approaches, many people will be visiting holiday websites or flicking through glossy holiday brochures for guidance as to the best place for their fortnight away. Academics, however, have another unrivalled source of inspiration - the online peer-reviewed journal, in this case Sociological Research On-line .

Three recent articles caught my eye, all offering exciting holiday prospects for adventurous academics keen to hit the open road in search of fun and frolics. Plus,and here's the real allure, they offered the possibility of getting a research paper into the bargain.

For the least adventurous there's the caravan. Dale Southerton, Elizabeth Shove, Alan Warde and Rosemary Deem from Lancaster University have penned "The Social Worlds of Caravanning: Objects, Scripts and Practices". "Leaving home behind can lead to the thrill of adventure or to fear of the unknown," the authors write, perhaps rather surprisingly in the context of caravanning. Nonetheless, it is big business - more than 60 million holiday nights are spent in caravans each year, making it the most popular form of holiday accommodation after staying with friends and relatives, the authors tell us.

Clearly speaking from bitter personal experience, they remind us: "Only so much can be done in the few square feet available; the cooker makes possible only some kinds of catering and the shower and toilet arrangements have a narrative of their own."

But, overall, caravanners are not adventurous types: "One reason for liking caravanningI was that the caravan interior was known and did not present any of the threats associated with hotel rooms used by untold numbers of previous occupants." The respondents cherished privacy - "they kept themselves to themselves" - and clearly preferred "nice polite chats" to the type of social intercourse favoured on an 18-30 holiday.

It is, perhaps, too easy to see caravanners as all of a type, and the authors, in the best traditions of sociological research, do divine differences. They categorise caravanners into four types: "fun-seeking"; "privatised"; "activity-seeking"; and "committed". They explain: "The fun-seeker treats the caravan as a neutral backdrop. Caravanning is simply the context or the setting for a relatively cheap, typically sociable holiday. The privatised mode values the safety, security that caravanning can offer. The activity-seeking model is one in which caravanning is again a relatively neutral backdrop but for a more privatised form of self-determined activity such as walking, canoeing, cycling etc. The committed mode revolves around the serious pursuit of caravanning, treating this as an important activity in its own right."

But potential caravanners beware, for caravan sites are not necessarily all idyllic rural retreats - there is, as the sociologists say, contestation afoot. "Those who favoured the privatised mode worried about noisy and ill-disciplined children and associated such behaviour with the sites and clientele typical of the fun-seeking form. Meanwhile, committed caravanners reserved their greatest contempt for the privatised type, condemning them for their attachment to the privacy, comforts and barely modified routines of normal domesticity. Experts scorned the incompetence of the inexperienced who failed to select a good position on a site or lacked the appropriate tools for the job."

Caravanning may have its problems, but so does another travel option, hitch-hiking, which is explored by Graeme Chesters of Edge Hill College and David Smith of Lancaster University in "The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability". Note how the last word gives the paper a hint of achieving the holy grail of being "policy relevant". Hitch-hiking has "interesting possibilities for policy-makers concerned with the development of sustainable modes of transport, and for those concerned with the revitalisation of civil society", the authors write.

They then remind us that in 1995 hitch-hiking as a "normal" means of travel effectively died following the trial of Rosemary West, when it was revealed that she and husband Fred used to seek out hitch-hikers as prey, and in the same year, the murder of French hitch-hiker Celine Figard. Their main argument is that this fear combined with widespread car ownership transformed hitch-hikers into "deviants - suspect, disreputable, risky, abnormal and potentially dangerous" types, such as "criminals or people with a mental disorderI Anyone not in a car will become 'definitively other'. The hitch-hiker glimpsed through the windscreen will be defined as inherently a bearer of risks and threats," they write.

But if hitch-hikers are seen as threats, so are drivers. Chesters and Smith warn hitch-hikers to anticipate being "regaled by some drivers with reminiscences of the golden days of hitch-hiking - following rock bands round the country; standing for three days on the road out of Algiers and the like". But, the authors wonder about this "golden age". "Is it true," they ask, "that hitch-hiking is so much a practice of an imagined past, where the risks were non-existent or at least acceptable, as to be merely a matter of reminiscence for those who can remember the 1960s?"

The answer is maybe not. For since starting their research the authors have discovered that, in the UK at least, hitch-hiking is making something of a comeback as a result of the establishment of a number of hitch-hikers'

websites that give people the opportunity of asking for, and offering, lifts from anywhere in the UK or Europe to anywhere else. It is a sensible idea and somehow it seems less likely that axe-murderers would be lurking in cyberspace than on the roadside.

Axe-murderers were one of the few dangers that did not face American researcher Tim McGettigan of Wake Forest University, North Carolina, who set out to investigate life on one of those refurbished buses that brings a group of strangers together for two weeks of mobile heaven (or hell).

In "Field Research for Boneheads: From Naivete to Insight on the Green Tortoise", McGettigan regales us with the agonies of his ethnographic research on the Green Tortoise - a ramshackle bus that made two-week trips between San Francisco and New York.

"Because the buses are usually very crowded (there were 42 people on this journey)," McGettigan says, "passengers are forced to violate many of the niceties of conventional crowd behaviour. I was alarmed throughout the first few days because of how often I bumped into others and invaded their space, no matter how ill-defined."

And if you think that sounds like a warning of trouble ahead then you'd be right. In the early stages of the trip the two drivers - Curt and Arthur ("decked out like charter members of the flower-power movement") spent less time driving and more time trying to persuade the female passengers to take their clothes off and "shed their inhibition". Not sentiments that went down well with the majority of bus members. "I don't **** or shag in public" was the spirited response of the refusniks. At one stage, Art raced out of a skinny-dipping session in pursuit of one of the female passengers who responded with the words, "Keep away from me, you dirty, naked, disgusting hippie."

All was to change when the passengers were taken by boat across the border to Boquillas in Mexico. Curt and Art ensured that sufficient quantities of tequila were consumed and a good time was had by all - all, that is, apart from our trusty ethnographic scribe. His denouement was to come shortly when one passenger, Amanda, jumped into the river to escape the unwanted attentions of fellow-passenger Jake. McGettigan dived into the water to rescue Amanda, noting in passing: "I decided to dive into the river. I was much too alarmed to ponder the methodological implications of helping Amanda (would my interference contaminate the field site irreparably? What are the consequences when an audience-member interferes in a performance?). In urgent situations, even the most fastidious researchers have forgone scientific constraintsI If anyone had told me that I was about to 'interfere' in a field situation and that I was thereby breaking a primary rule of scientific procedure, I think I would have laughed or, perhaps, told the admonisher to go to hell."

Indeed, McGettigan did tell Jake to go to hell and accused him of molesting Amanda. "I looked at Jake and spat, 'You deserve to be in prison!' Jake was rattled by my denunciation and strode menacingly toward me saying, 'You can't prove anything!' Curt stood in his way and then asked if I had witnessed anything. Since I had only observed the aftermath, I had to shake my head. Curt admonished, 'Look man, if you didn't see anything, you can't say anything.' Bitterly, I concededI I found myself in a quandary. I could no longer tolerate either of the available realities: to continue in the role of 'the good researcher', or to become an actor in the 'Tortoise drama'."

McGettigan decided to persevere "without a predetermined set of anchoring assumptions". His conclusion offers no great insights into the nature of the human condition - simply a touching (if hippie) conclusion: "Caring more about people will help advance the cause of justice by defying the subtle, diabolical and often unintended forms of power that, in turn, limit the production of truth within and across societies."

A bewildering choice of holiday options, but I think I'll stick to my paperwork. It might not be fun, but it is likely to be a sight more relaxing than caravanning, hitch-hiking or travels with the Green Tortoise.

Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of journalism at Goldsmiths College, London.

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