Anthropology of the Sidewalk

In “What I Wish I Knew Before I was 20,” neuro-engineer and Stanford d.school Professor Tina Seelig writes of a teaching exercise to get her students to think creatively:

The following exercise demonstrates that there really is no such thing as a bad idea. With the right frame of mind, even bad ideas can serve as seeds for brilliant ideas…[B]reak the group into small teams and ask each one to come up with the BEST idea and the WORST idea for solving the stated problem. The best idea is something that each team thinks will solve the problem brilliantly. The worst idea will be ineffective, unprofitable, or will make the problem worse…

This exercise is a great way to open your mind to solutions to problems because it demonstrates that most ideas, even if they look silly or stupid on the surface, often have at least a seed of potential. It helps to challenge the assumption that ideas are either good or bad, and demonstrates that, with the right frame of mind, you can look at most ideas or situations and find something valuable. (Excerpt from “What I Wish I Knew…” posted in Psychology Today)

Instead of imagining the best idea possible, Seelig tries to get her students to think of the absurd, the unimaginable, and the ridiculous. Inspired by Seeling’s teaching technique and some of the ridiculous pots of funding I’ve seen posted on H-NET, I thought: What would be the most ridiculous ethnographic project?

I came up with: Anthropology of the Sidewalk.

In anticipation of the most mundane ethnography project I could come up with, I created a file on my desktop and waited to see what would happen. Here’s what I found:

San Francisco is a metropolis molded, far more than most, by topography and weather, and Kamiya artfully helps us imagine the landscape as it once was: a place of mostly windswept dunes where nomadic bands of American Indians traveled between summer and winter camps, along trails whose contours still exist — as in the route that fixie-riding hipsters today call the Wiggle. (San Francisco Treats: ‘Cool Gray City of Love,’ by Gary Kamiya, NYTimes Review of Books)

The politics of the sidewalk thickens. If you think about it, the idea of plastering cement over rolling green hills and blossoming flowers is more than just an environmental concern but, as in the case of the San Francisco Wiggle, it reveals past and present colonization of Native American land and people that continues today in California.

Col. Richard H. Pratt founded the first of the off-reservation Native American boarding schools based on the philosophy that, according to a speech he made in 1892, "all the Indian there is in the race should be dead." (NPR May 12, 2008)
Col. Richard H. Pratt founded the first of the off-reservation Native American boarding schools based on the philosophy that, according to a speech he made in 1892, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.” (NPR May 12, 2008)

Perhaps further study into The Anthropology of Sidewalks isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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