Stoller, P (2002) 'Crossroads. Tracing African paths on New York City streets', in Ethnography, Vol 3, No 1: 35 - 62.
This is an attempt to describe 'the complex lives of West African immigrants... by describing the texture and meaning of their lives in New York City' (36) [but we know of the unconventional methods developed by this writer from Stanton's commentary]. The story focuses on one West African in particular. Using this story, Stoller proposes to investigate 'scholarly debates on immigration, the informal economy and the changing nature of communities in North America', and the impact of the 'global capitalist economy' (36). Participant-observation in street markets took place over a period of six years, and followed a particularly informal strategy of listening to conversations, developing informal ties with people, 'an unassuming research strategy... [rather than] more invasive methods, including the use of a tape recorder' (37).
[A substantial description of the African markets in New York City follows. Among other things, Stoller notices that the need to make money outweighs any Islamic reservations about promiscuity or immodesty; that the African traders have often developed their skills trading in Africa; that African men have problems managing families in Africa while living among other available women; that the African family is still a major force in social life, even though it is physically absent, and that trading is primarily aimed at supporting the family; that the market traders come from a variety of African linguistic communities.]
Immigration can end in 'a kind of existential limbo' for these traders, many of whom are illegal aliens. African immigrants in particular are still largely invisible on the streets of New York. Some of them have been commercially successful, often in import-export businesses or retail. Some of them refer to inland America --'Indianapolis, Kansas City, Detroit'-- as 'the bush' (43), which they know from following a travelling trade show of African American goods. Not all West Africans are in trading, however, and some have begun to move inland from New York City, especially if they have acquired legal status.[Several of these alternative occupations are described, pages 44f].
US immigration is still increasing, especially involving 'poorly educated peoples of color who come from the "third world"' (45). Many intend to return, and see their stay simply as a way to make money. Where such immigrants have settled, they have maintained their cultural distinctiveness, and this has become 'a bitter political issue of national scope' (45). Local political struggles have also taken place in New York to regulate African trading and residence. Nevertheless, the immigrants themselves 'have used new communication technologies and speedy inexpensive transportation to craft new transnational spaces in which home and host countries are dynamically interconnected', and thus can 'teach us about life in contemporary North America' (46).
[Another extensive extract from observations ensues. This one stresses the cosmopolitan nature of the New York African market. The market appears chaotic but is actually organised informally, just as in African markets -- so that members of the same ethnic group or village cluster together. African markets have a complex history themselves, and this has now been extended to North America. The range of merchandise on offer indicates global trading as well as just African. There is much ambiguity about the 'authentic' goods on offer. The market has become a tourist destination itself. The market was closed in 1994 by New York's mayor, possibly as a part of the gentrification of Harlem. Some traders relocated to another area in Harlem.
One particular immigrant revealed a history of enterprise and trading in African cloth, originally in Africa. He learned English deliberately to improve his business opportunities, and began to trade more with the Americans. He migrated in 1992, bringing cloth by air freight -- but a partner defaulted on payments, and he had to find work, after borrowing from fellow West African traders. He went into the African music business, and gradually reintroduced cloth trading. He still experiences new York as full of uncertainties.]
Migration to New York is fairly recent, and probably follows 'global restructuring' (53). Features include multinational corporations, outsourcing of manufacturing, and globalised financial markets. The effect in Africa has been to polarise the population and to ruin local economies. New York itself has actually declined in terms of manufacturing, and is now dominated by financial service industries and their accompanying 'legion of mainly female clerical workers, most of whom work for low wages, little employment security, and limited health insurance' (53). The City is also polarized between core professionals and a culturally diverse periphery. This left a space for the informal economy, which is normally unregulated legally or socially. This informal economy appears to residents as 'filled with despair, disenfranchisement, drugs and crime', but also as an area of wealth and opportunity for migrants (54).
The City is seen as the site of a crossroads, which are traditionally points of 'danger and trickery' in West African culture (54). Courage and daring is required to proceed and choose the right path. This courage and daring informs the entrepreneurial spirit described above. Ethnographers must also negotiate such crossroads. Stoller had originally pursued ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa, and had studied religious practices (and participated in them). Such participation meant becoming involved in 'a network of social relationships, all of which bore personal as well as professional consequences' (55). Colonial heritage was still apparent and this both facilitated and limited ethnographic research -- for example, sometimes 'people categorised me as a rich white tourists seeking adventure in Africa. Accordingly, typical interactions took on mercenary dimensions' (56). Research practices in New York are quite different -- there was a need to understand the background of leaving home, and the contexts in which migrants now lived and worked. This required a broader focus if full complexity was to be grasped. Again, barriers had to be broken, since many traders were illegal immigrants and in violation of other regulations. The most suitable method seemed to involve 'patient periodic hanging out' (57), after which key informants began to introduce others. Again, there were problems in being a white tourist, but also one who spoke a native African language. Some apparently thought that Stoller 'might be an undercover cop' (58).
Ethnographers must take account of the limits of their situation and the way this affects access to information and experience. A 'theoretically flexible orientation' is required, as this account of the origins of West African traders in New York indicates. Personal stories are still important, however. The goal should be 'to understand how macro sociological forces twist and turn the economic and emotional lives of real people' (58). Abstract global forces need to be fleshed out, and theory linked to actual narratives.
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