Conceptualizing. Counting. Classifying. Categorizing. Typifying. Whether we’re studying jellybeans or the regrettable “jelly” shoes fashion trend, we’re academicians who’ve been deeply conditioned to adopt a critical approach to categories, taxonomies, typologies, and other mechanisms for arraying people, places, things, and phenomena. At the same time, we’ve learned along the way that much of our work hinges on our ability to conceptualize, count, and classify with theory-informed sensitivity and acumen. It’s a difficult tightrope, a love-hate relationship if ever there was one.
The articles in this week’s re/search ushered me through a time warp: I’m 7 years old, and my father has just introduced me to his brother for the first time. See, my Uncle Roger — our family’s ill-fated “bad apple” — had been in prison since before I was born, since the day after he dropped out of high school. Now he was out of the joint and needed a place to stay. That place turned out to be my room. My mother separated my bunk beds, arranging them side-by-side, and under matching NBA/ABA bedspreads my “ex-con” uncle and I slept in what had theretofore been MY room.
The first night was awkward. I didn’t know the man. He didn’t know me. Given my young age, I wasn’t exactly an astute conversationalist. What I wanted to ask him was, “Why were you in prison, did you rob a bank? Did you shoot a man in Reno?” But I knew enough to sense that I ought not ask these pointed questions, particularly of a man who might well answer “yes” to either or both, and with whom I was sharing a room. The first night passed awkwardly. Unfortunately, as it turned out, we both suffered from insomnia.
On the second night, my uncle broke the ice and permanently cemented our relationship when he began telling me about his beloved (and, according to him, much-coveted) beer can collection. To that point he had collected more than 1,500 unusual beer cans, many of them still full of beer, and at least half of them from countries other than the U.S. I thrilled to his detailed, almost cabalistic descriptions of the various ways he had accumulated, organized, and evaluated his collection. In the course of a fortnight, my uncle taught me a great deal about the beer can — its design history, the industry from which it came, changes in form over time, the intra-industry marketing battles that propelled aesthetic variation in the cans, and so forth. For hours upon hours we debated the different ways one could approach the organization and classification of cans … We even came across a few new cans on our daily outings to the landfill. He taught me how to assimilate these into the collection. Most of all, he imparted to me a passion for what we social scientists might call the “negative case”, the one can that just defied the whole “theory” driving the taxonomical scheme. Only years later would I come across cans such as these.
One morning I woke up to find the bed next to me made up perfectly — military style. A faint smell of cooked bacon wafted into my room. Clearly someone had eaten breakfast hours ago. When I went downstairs I discovered that my uncle had left at dawn, off on another adventure (one that would land him in prison again). I was crestfallen. For days I slogged through the doldrums. My uncle, the beer can collector, world sojourner, and criminal mastermind (that’s how I thought of him, notwithstanding his many arrests and prison bits) was gone from my life as quickly as he’d arrived. Two weeks later I came home from school and proceeded through my routine — eat a bologna sandwich, watch cartoons, enjoy a glass of milk with a cookie or two, and head to my room for a bout of homework. As I walked through the door of “Greg’s Room” (the sign told me so), I was astonished to find nearly 2,000 beer cans stacked along two walls, floor to ceiling. On my bed lay a note from Uncle Roger: “Greg, thanks for sharing your pad with me. Have fun with these cans. They should be good for years of classifying and reclassifying. Take care of them, and they’ll take care of you. Yours Truly, Uncle Rog.”
At the age of 7, I met my Uncle Roger. From him I gleaned a deep appreciation for, well, gleaning industrial detritus, re-conceiving it as artifact, and organizing and curating the collection along thematic lines determined variously by form, function, industrial history, political economy, and so on. Simultaneously I learned an even deeper, more important and enduring lesson: Ex-convicts are human. They’re our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers; they are Uncle Roger. My re/direct this week is a tribute to my uncle, who’s currently serving time in a large midwestern prison. Thank you, Uncle Roger, for inspiring in me a deep appreciation for conceptualization, classification, and compassion. Last but not least, thanks for igniting my interest in beer.
What’s your story? How did you first become interested in the kind of work you’re doing now as an intellectual, an academician? We’d love to hear about your formative experiences! Please send your stories to us by email or post them in the comments here. Whatever the case, let us know how you first stepped on the path that led you here, however serpentine the journey. Who researches the researchers? I don’t know, but there aren’t enough of them. At SSRC we’re interested in Big Data, Little Data, Methodology, and the like; but we’re also interested in the “behind the scenes” world of doing research. So please … drop us a line. Give us a glimpse of your “backstage” research life. There’s much to be learned.
Remember, your research is our business!
Greg Scott, PhD
Director, Social Science Research Center