Visiting Assistant Professor
Franklin and Marshall College
Department of Sociology
Embodied Knowledge and Participant Observation
Drawing upon my experiences researching belonging among CrossFitters and firefighters (Scarborough 2015), I argue that participant observation is invaluable for producing knowledge on embodied experience. Participant observation offers unparalleled access to corporeal and emotional experiences that cannot be recorded through interviews or observation-only ethnography.
Ethnographers must avoid many potential pitfalls in their research. There are concerns about maintaining one’s objectivity. Total immersion in a social milieu comes at the risk of “going native”—transitioning out of a sociological mode of examining behavior. Even Erving Goffman, one of the most celebrated sociologists of everyday encounters, warns us, “only a schmuck studies his own life” (Goffman in Fine 2009). Losing objectivity, going native, and researching one’s own life all pose risks of succumbing to subjectivity and bias. However, ethnographers must negotiate these dangers and utilize participant observation to examine corporeal and emotional experiences. Participant observation in activities like CrossFit and firefighting produces knowledge only available to insiders. While in-depth interviews yield a wealth of information (Pugh 2013), embodied experiences are best understood by taking part in the action.
My interest in examining belonging led me to join Alliance CrossFit. CrossFit was an enthralling culture of community filled with patrons eager to participate in its focused, ritualistic encounters. Beyond the cultural and social processes animating the “box” (insider lingo for “gym”), there was also an important corporeal dimension to belonging.
After my first workout, I could barely walk up the stairs to my apartment. I spent about thirty minutes lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, regretting having signed a six-month membership. Over the next few weeks, I experienced deep-seated knots in my shoulders and spent a considerable amount of time using hot packs. I’d never been in so much pain for so long.
It was a lengthy process to condition my body to perform Olympic weightlifting movements, basic gymnastic skills, and adapting to high-intensity interval training. With time, my body became accustomed to the routine of CrossFit; my weights went up and my times went down. I found enjoyment in mastering the technique of technical movements and working at the limit of my cardiovascular capacity. I transitioned from suffering in the name of research to longing for the cathartic release of operating at my body’s full capacity.
At CrossFit, my corporeal transition was paralleled by an emotional evolution. In the beginning, CrossFit was nothing more than hard work. On one hand, my gym efforts were research, a necessary evil required for my dissertation. On the other hand, I experienced the work as superfluous physical suffering. As a longtime recreational runner, the pain I was experiencing in the gym and the never-ending soreness led me to question whether CrossFitters were masochistic. In a gradual change of attitude that paralleled my corporeal development, my experience of the physical work associated with CrossFit changed. Beyond an initial shame-avoiding approach of aiming to achieve a time or weight that was comparable to my peers, I began to enjoy completing a set of weighted squats or moving through a circuit of exercises. The journey of developing specialized physical competence and the requisite endurance for CrossFit provided an awareness and appreciation for the embodied process of integrating into a social world that demanded corporeal excellence. Taking part in this development generated an insider’s understanding of the pleasures of challenging corporeal work.
Monacan Volunteer Fire Department
In the same project on belonging, I became a firefighter and served in that capacity for two years at Monacan Volunteer Fire Department. Beginning the project, I expected firefighters to bond around hard, dangerous work in burning buildings. For sure, fires are “magnified moments” (Hochschild 1994:4) of great cultural significance, but this is only part of the story. Over fifty evening and weekend meetings of fire academy involved skipping sleep, acquiring sore backs and knees, and developing previously unused muscle groups. While academy was an experience of institutional indoctrination, it was also a taxing trial of embodied hardships and corporeal endurance.
Serving as a firefighter, I discovered that belonging is forged through a routine of training, bunking together, and sleepless nights running alarms and medical calls. Connection emerged from being “in the trenches together” through the rigors of developing muscle memory of foundational skills for “the big one.” In the station, belonging also was produced through grassroots rituals like “the scrounge.” After training and other institutional responsibilities were fulfilled, many firefighters providing overnight staffing would “scrounge” through leftovers in a friendly competition to concoct the most appealing late night snack. Enduring sleep deprivation or feeling the sugar high induced by a 2:30 a.m. mint chocolate chip burrito are embodied experiences that play a part in connection. It is unlikely that interviews or observation-only ethnography would yield a meaningful understanding of how brotherhood develops out of participation in these acts.
Compared to CrossFit, the emotional experience of firefighting is less bound to the physical work. Yet, “emotional labor” (Hochschild 1983) is a central, often subterranean, component of life in the fire service. Traumas of motor vehicle crashes and medical emergencies become routine. Initially, facing death in its native environment was a jarring emotional experience, but I came to negotiate it as a form of labor.
Awakened from a slumber at 5:50 a.m., I arrived at my first cardiac arrest to a bedroom with a hysterical wife screaming and a police officer performing C.P.R. on an older male. As the F.N.G. (“fucking new guy”) on the crew, I was directed, “Get her outta here.” I corralled the woman down the hallway, charging her with a diversionary task of locating a list of medications and locating insurance information. After turning this chore over to the police officer, I returned to take my turn providing chest compressions. In a bit of a daze, I was instructed by the medic to provide more rapid and deeper compressions. The shrieks of the wife, the expression on the victim’s unconscious face, and the popping of breaking ribs due to compressions were shocking experiences that a C.P.R. course cannot simulate. I functioned as trained and ordered, but the ordeal left me anxious in the moment and disquieted for days.
At the final cardiac arrest I ran during my fieldwork, my emotional experience was quite different. After two years, cardiac arrests had become routine. I learned to dehumanize the victims and get to work. I got satisfaction out of providing deep, bone-crunching C.P.R. that insured circulation of oxygenated blood. Whether the victim lived or not, I found fulfillment in providing optimized professional service: navigating the team swiftly to the call, providing effective C.P.R., and rapid defibrillation. I learned to manage my emotions and reframe death as another firefighting duty. A member of the firefighting brotherhood who has been in the trenches and shares common experiences—an insider—is best equipped to examine, understand, and report on these embodied emotional experiences.
The Value of Getting Your Hands Dirty
Reflecting on my fieldwork with CrossFitters and firefighters, I find that corporeal and emotional experiences are inextricably intertwined in embodied action. Participant observation offers a tool to mine embodied knowledge that is difficult to access. While interviews can offer insight into personal narratives, perspectives, and emotions, a deeper experiential knowledge is acquired through participation. While remaining mindful of our subjectivity and bias, we should continue developing an understanding of the embodied experience of ethnographic fieldwork (e.g., Paradis 2015). Getting your hands dirty in the field develops new empirical and theoretical questions on embodiment, but it also draws us deeper into the social worlds of those we aim to understand.
1. Organization names are pseudonyms.
2. The most common instances of death encountered by Monacan firefighters were cardiac arrests. On any cardiac arrest, effective C.P.R. and rapid defibrillation are essential for survival. To insure effective C.P.R. is performed, firefighters work as a team; each individual provides two minutes of compressions on a rotating basis until the victim is revived or death is declared.
3. In the field, Lifepak 15 monitors report SpO2 levels, the oxygen saturation level of peripheral capillaries.
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