Mini Ethnography 1
A Saturday night is a good night for a party. It was a belated birthday party that needed to be thrown on the weekend instead of during the week. Everyone who attended was a university student, myself included. Weekends are, for most of us, the only time to unwind and temporarily forget about our anxieties.
I arrived early at the house, before anyone else. The host, the one celebrating her birthday, was making guacamole right before everyone arrived. I helped set up snacks in the center of the kitchen, which would serve as the primary hub of the party. It was quiet and exciting. We were preparing for a long night. The kitchen was set up with a long counter top down the center, the snacks resting on top, with stools lining one side. Off to the side was a round table surrounded by chairs, large windows stretching from the floor to the ceiling encircled the table. The plan was that this would be the area where people stayed. The rest of the house wasn’t necessarily off limits, but you would be separated from the party.
At this party, two different groups of friends had been invited. The host was a little concerned about how it would go, but was reassuring herself that it will be fun to introduce everyone. One group was her high school friends while the other group was her boyfriend’s friends.
Guests begin to arrive in small groups. First was the best friend of the host who was told to come before the other guests because she’s always late. I was introduced; we had met briefly some time ago. The time was 8:00 p.m. and the rest of the guests began to arrive. A couple knocked at the door and was welcomed in by the host. The four of us sat or stood around the center counter as we waited for the other people. Some of us occasionally took food from the snack bowls to fill the gaps in between small talk. Next arrived a group of guys who waved bottles of alcohol in the air as they greeted me from the doorway.
We now had enough people to begin playing beer pong and we did so immediately. I wasn’t very good at the game and relied mostly on my trash talking to psyche-out the other team. I hadn’t noticed the music playing from the Bluetooth speaker; it must have been turned on once we started playing. More people had shown up too. Almost instantly the volume of the room rose. Voices had to be heard over music, other conversations, and chants or screams coming from the beer pong players. Once everyone was there, we all sat around the table and began playing games that involved everyone. Interest was lost pretty quick however, and people detached from the table one by one to get another drink or change the song on the computer.
As I conversed with people, I noticed the strange nature of our conversations in which our subjects changed very quickly, almost following the pace of the party. While I was talking, some of the women began to dance to the pop music while the men sipped their drinks. I laughed to myself when I noticed that the same dancing women had run off to the side of the living room to take pictures of themselves with their friends.
The relationships forged through the party are significant ones. People who had never met before were acting like close friends. The bond that a party ties between its participants is one that creates a social echo chamber where two different groups of friends who had never met before can profitably interact for the benefit of all. Relationships are forged through proximity; you make friends in High school then make new ones in university. The party served as a ritual of sorts, combining two separate groups of friends as one.
Mini Ethnography 2
It is early evening and guests who have been invited to the party by the host have begun to arrive. Each guest has brought with them their own personal alcohol to consume throughout the night. This alcohol takes the form of beer, vodka, rum, mixed drinks, and even “jell-o shots”. Guests have brought their own alcohol so as not to burden the host with providing alcohol to all of the guests. The party serves the purpose of a safe and fun venue to become intoxicated, and becoming intoxicated is the goal of a party.
Once all of the guests have arrived at the house, partiers begin to participate in competitive games that somehow involve the consumption of alcohol. In most games the player consumes alcohol as a penalty rather than a reward. For instance, if a team gets a point in “beer pong”, the team that was scored on must drink alcohol. Despite being an entirely voluntary and presumably fun, drinking games create an unexpected association between losing and drinking. This is a bit ironic, as partygoers presumably want to consume alcohol but do not want to lose the game.
Red Solo cups are a visual symbol of the house party. These disposable cups are used for games and drinking interchangeably. Solo cups are an icon that represents what is expected from a house party. They were scattered across the kitchen counter, some empty, some full with alcohol, and some full with water. The disposable nature of the cups makes the tendency to array them across the tables even stronger, since they can be emptied and tossed in the recycle with little to no effort. These red cups are used in almost any drinking game, the games being centered on the use of the cups, from beer pong to flip cup, or king’s cup. The house party relies on these cups. For the majority of the night it was these drinking games that occupied the time of these partygoers.
Conversations were also had with red cups in hand, as guests pulled sips in between sentences. Socializing is inevitable at a house party, be it small talk, deep intellectual conversation, or barely intelligible banter between beer pong teams. Social interactions surround the consumption of alcohol at a house party and are made more prevalent because of that consumption. This is because with the consumption of alcohol comes the release of inhibitions and introversion. It is as if one is obliging oneself to interact with others with the aid of alcohol.
The house party begins to slow down when most guests decide to leave the house for clubs and bars in downtown Ottawa to continue their night. Those who have stayed continue to have fun and begin to slowly clean up the mess that the party has made. They empty red solo cups and throw them out, they empty the snack bowls, clean any spills, and finish their drinks.
To throw a suburban weekend party means to indulge in its materiality. The central countertop decorated with plastic cups and beer bottles, junk food arrayed across the room, pop music blasting the Bluetooth speaker, the overwhelming presence of alcohol. It is a treat for the party guest to get drunk and eat chips while playing games with strangers. It is a treat because the individual material parts, when combined, create the party. And the party, as an idealized phenomenon, is desired for itself.
Conclusions and justifications
The site I used for this assignment was a suburban house party in Ottawa. It was a birthday party for a twenty-something year old who invited many friends over to celebrate on the weekend. I chose this site in an attempt to make the “familiar strange” since as a university student, house parties are not foreign to me. I thought it would be interesting to see what I could find in a ritual that many young people participate in. What I ended up writing was interesting to me; it gave me a new perspective on something I already thought I knew.
For my first mini ethnography I primarily aimed to place myself within the site I was observing, being self-aware while I was writing. I wrote in the first person and really tried to encapsulate the party as a whole event or ritual. The tone of this first mini- ethnography was descriptive. I wanted to capture the space of the party, what people were doing, and how they were participating. In sum, I wanted to focus on the party as a cathartic social gathering. To that end, I used some sensorial description but mostly relied on narrative analysis, that is, using narrative voice to portray my observations.
In the second mini ethnography I was aiming for a more analytical tone, examining what I had observed and digesting it in a certain way. I decided to represent alcohol as the main focus of this piece, by writing about the cups, the drinking games, and the alcohol itself. Doing this definitely changes the way the house party is represented. I would call the second mini ethnography an ethnographic vignette since it is describing what the subjects are doing. I also removed myself from this one entirely, acting more like a fly on the wall.
By writing these two very different mini ethnographies I learned that anthropologists must be very careful when they are writing. They have to be careful because the way they choose to write their ethnography can totally change the way they are representing a group of people. Decisions that I didn’t think were a big deal actually affects the way people read and understand the ethnography and consequentially how they understand that group of people.
This semester-long ethnography binge has demonstrated to me the vast variety of ethnographies out there. At the beginning of the class I wasn’t so sure how effective an ethnography like Mules and Men could be, but now I can see its anthropological value. By reading all of those ethnographies I realize that what I write about is second only to how I write it.