17 January 2013

Scientists of Walmart

When you’re travelling, you can pack a lot of experiences into a very small time frame. When I went on my #SciFund expedition last November, I had a lot of moments to think, since I was mostly on my own in the field, either netting crayfish or digging for sand crabs.

The first part of my trip was searching for crayfish, on the edge of the Florida everglades. The place I was collecting had a little boat launch, where small tourism businesses would load up their airboats and take tourists out into Everglades to see birds and alligators and so forth.

I was listening to some of the guys chatting while they were waiting for customers, either to go out or to come back to land. The conversation turned to things like arguing with lawyers and judges over community service sentencing for minor criminal charges (can’t even remember what it was; it was nothing related to the airboat business). I thought, “This is not the sort of talk I normally overhear on my campus.”

It was warm and sunny, and the work was not all that easy, so by the end of my time collecting, I was feeling scruffy. And I had epic hat head.

Near where I was collecting, there was a gas station where I would stop to get a drink. And it was almost the perfect stereotype of rural American culture. Hunting knives. Beer. Fishing. NASCAR.

The kicker:

Somewhere along the way, though, I ended up talking to some other people who had seen me with the nets and asked me what I was doing. On guy in particular said something like, “Crayfish eat just about everything, I guess, and everything else eats them,” which was so close to a line I’d picked up at an Astacology meeting: “Crayfish eat everything, and everything eats crayfish.” He was dressed not too differently than I was; being out in the heat in rural areas doesn’t lend itself to fashion statements. I saw myself, indistinguishable from the other patrons of the gas station, and thought:

I am a scientist of Walmart.

By which I mean this. Some of you may know the People of Walmart site. It’s a window into perspectives on class in America. A lot of the site is about making fun of people who are low class, poorly dressed, rural, or what have you.

And I realized that the kind of science I do, and the kind of scientist I am, could be viewed through the same lens that focuses on the people of Walmart. Here I was out at the edge of the Everglades (i.e., swamp), funded by two little crowdfunding campaigns, trying to answer some small questions about a couple of crustaceans. I work at a rural university. In Texas. I’ve even boasted about my low prices.

What I was doing, – am doing – is not expensive, not fashionable, not sophisticated, either scientifically or culturally. I realized that while I may have the education and I wanted to think that I was above all this gas station culture, no matter how how I worked or what I did, scientifically, I was probably always be viewed as someone mucking around on the fringe of scientific society.

Related posts

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Hat tip to Scicurious for encouraging me to blog this.


Kevin T. Keith said...

Funny, but . . . dude, try to get over thinking that you're "above all this gas station culture".

You don't have to like the same things that other people like (NASCAR or booby cups); you don't have to have had the same experiences they did (community service sentencing); you don't have to hold the same political or social opinions they do. You might even think some of those things are questionable or betray bad values.

But the idea that they shop at gas stations in rural areas without shopping centers, or that the gas station stores stock things that people in that area actually like or use, is hardly grounds for disparagement.

If you have a real beef with these people (it doesn't sound like you did), you can address it on substantive grounds. But don't think it's some sort of embarrassment that somebody might take you for a lower-class redneck, or that it's unfortunate that your scientific colleagues would look down on you the same way you look down on them.

The problem is not that people might have the same prejudices toward you that you have toward others. The problem is the prejudice itself.

Zen Faulkes said...

Keith: I am not trying to disparage others, and I'm not trying to think I’m above “gas station culture.” I’m struggled a lot with how to articulate what I was after, and I’m not sure I did it well.

Let me try this:

The point is that, in science, like in broader society, there are “social classes.” In science, we like to pretend those are greatly minimized, if not eliminated. I was groping for a way to express my realization that I inhibit a particular scientific class. And I was thinking that moving between those classes can be hard.

This post is “thinking out loud” post, so I hope that clarifies, but forgive me if it doesn’t.

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