Writing About Estate Auctions in Sociology 206
(revised January 28, 2015)
Your assignment is to visit a rural auction where vegetables and small household items are auctioned off in an auction hall where the audience represents a regular community of participants. You must visit three times. The first time observe and write field notes. The second time think about visual aspects of the setting that you found striking or that exemplify basic aspects of the setting. Take five photos, planning in advance what your five shots will be. Explain your shots in a narrative. Third, find a person to interview from the setting using video. Place all of your responses on the Videoethnography blog at: https://videoethnography.blogs.bucknell.edu/
I normally ask students to locate and visit one of the many small town auctions that are held in summer and fall in Central Pennsylvania. You may want look at the “Finding Auctions” link on my website under the course SOCI 215 : http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/milofsky/HumServSys/FieldWritin g/Index.htm since it provides you with a description of what auctions are and where to find them. This assignment has two objectives. Unfortunately since we now are in the middle of the winter, the only auctions available are ones held in auction houses at regular intervals and they are somewhat different from rural estate auctions. However, you still will find them fascinating and a bit uncomfortable to attend.
One goal of this assignment is, in fact, to place you in an unfamiliar setting where there are many social activities and relationships to observe, where many kinds of people are interacting, and where values we each hold and that the people we are observing manifest all come to the surface. This is an exercise to demonstrate the richness of social life that can lead to classroom discussion. This is the first step in an understanding of what sociologists and anthropologists try to do when the do ethnographic observation. Your paper ought to provide a description of the rich social scene you encounter and discuss your feelings and the reactions you have to the things you see and experience.
The second objective is for you to look for and describe social structure in community life. Social structure includes distinct social roles you see participants at the auction playing. It includes dimensions of difference in terms of social class, social affiliation and community involvement. You are likely to notice difference from your own background in terms of the wealth and social style of the people at the auction. You are likely to learn some things about the person whose goods are being sold. You may notice differences among the people attending the auction, especially the many different roles they play. Count the number of people you see; list the roles you observe; note down the possessions on sale that interest you and tell what they represent. Any single auction represents the life of one person (the person whose goods are sold) and the presence of a collection of groups. You need to be mindful of the fact that the groups and roles and relationships you see are relatively permanent, ongoing parts of the community that you are visiting. An auction brings permanent aspects of community structure into view. Talk about this in your paper.
What to Do
Your paper for the first writing assignment ought to be short. Write the length you want to write, but you can do this assignment in 3 or 4 pages. As you get ready to write, think about specific things that you found most noticeable, interesting, and intriguing. Often these things involve contrasts to things you are used to from home or from the cultural groups you are part of. Concentrate your paper on these things. Avoid taking up all the space in your paper by describing the overall scene, how you got there, and how comfortable or uncomfortable you and your friends felt in the scene.
It would be good for you to read “Writing Interpretive Field Notes”, Ch. 9 in The Field Notes Manual, which you can find on Moodle.
When you talk about the interesting aspects you have identified, describe things in as much detail as you can. Be mindful of the way that specific actions often have multiple meanings to the people who are part of this setting. Can you see evidence of these multiple meanings and describe them at work? Try to tell what you expected, and how what you saw differed from your expectation. What sense do you make of the difference between your expectation and what you saw?
In addition to describing particular aspects of the scene, talk also about aspects of community that you saw. When you do that, it helps to “position” the people or the events or the scene in relationship to the structural aspects of community mentioned above, given in our reading, or discussed in class.
I have suggested lots of things to look at and write about. You don’t need to attend to all of these suggestions in your paper. I really mean it that you should write 3-4 pages. The important thing is to concentrate on a few events that you found particularly interesting.