They’ve specialized in Literature, Civilization or Communication, are graduate students, they are quite fluent in English -some are even native speakers, want to become Web editors or journalists, are mainly interested in culture and the arts, and are compelled to attend two sociology courses in their Masters’ degree syllabus. What to teach them and how to do it is what I’ve been tackling with since the creation of these courses. The whole purpose being that the slight taste of sociology the students get enhances the skills they already have and that sociology as a tool for grasping society widens their perspectives on culture and art as social processes set in specific contexts. My stand is that a hands-on experience of sociology is better than a text-based one.
I first designed an M1 course in partnership with some cultural institutions programming US photographers or video makers (Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Jeu de Paume, for instance). The students had free regular access to the exhibitions so as to investigate the distribution of art by observing, listening and interviewing the participants. Students could go and visit the exhibition on their own but we also had a few collective visits planned along the semester. I would provide methodological guidance as well as theoretical material so that they could collect proper data and set them into perspective when building their analyses. Student also had to look for documentation on their own so as to contextualize data. During our class meetings, we would exchange experiences, difficulties on data collection, share results and discuss key notions thanks to the sociological texts they had been given.
If most of the students enjoyed our little fieldwork outings, the discovery of new methods, the collective nature of artistic activity -not to mention unknown cultural institutions, the field turned out to offer limited possibilities for thorough sociological analysis. The students mainly got to observe a very small part of the distribution process and the institutions tending to expect attendance assessment and reception analyses as a payback for providing free access were reluctant to provide further access to other parts of the process. I felt this was a major constraint on the quality of the material collected. Although the students didn’t mind this restriction, it tended to reinforce the conventional view of sociology as a way of merely accounting for socio-demographics rather than uncover processes. Added to those qualitative hinders, was the fact that final productions had to be written in English which meant that the students had to translate their field notes.
With a limited number of places easily available for investigation that would provide a live sociological experience in English to students in the French university system the nature of the data to be collected had to be redefined. Exploring textual and visual material would have been a way of replacing fieldwork as it offered easier access to the kind of English-speaking cultural reality that was aimed at. This kind of material would enable the students to build on the skills they had developed prior to attending the sociology course and relying on the kind of speech analysis they had learnt in literature and communications studies. Because of the importance of textual and visual material to the artistic activity of theater, it also would give me the opportunity to share the knowledge I had acquired during my own fieldwork in the US theater world so as to help students build sound contextualization despite the distance from the actual field of activity. However this material would offer little grounds for hands-on live experience at doing qualitative sociology. The solution I found to this issue is to adapt the method developed by a few qualitative sociologists dealing with news media to another media and choose to study theater websites as a means of documenting theater activity in the San Francisco Bay Area with some students of Paris 8. A rather challenging work in progress for which we are devising our own tools as we go along the study. To be continued…