Talking city trouble: Interactional vandalism, social inequality, and the “urban interaction problem”

Duneier, M., & Molotch, H.

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Duneier, M., & Molotch, H. (1999). Talking city trouble: Interactional vandalism, social inequality, and the “urban interaction problem”. American Journal of Sociology, 104(5), 1263–1295.

This article uses ethnography and conversation analysis to pinpoint what “goes wrong” when certain so-called street people “harass” passersby. The technical properties of sidewalk encounters between particular black street men and middle-class white female residents of Greenwich Village are compared with interactions expected from studies of other conversation situations. The men attempt to initiate conversations and to deal with efforts to close them in ways that betray the practical ethics fundamental to all social interaction. In this way they undermine the requisites not just for “urbanism as a way of life,” but the bases for how sociability generally proceeds. These acts of “interactional vandalism” both reflect and contribute to the larger structural conditions shaping the local scene.

Main finding
Three out of twenty-one men observed, consisting of black street vendors and homeless individuals, addressed female passersby in problematic ways. The men's persistent questions and compliments in the face of conversational cues to end interactions reveals a tactical betrayal of social norms in order to interrupt and entangle women who pass by. Follow-up conversations revealed that some women felt conflict between their liberal support for civil rights and their need to be rude to unwanted solicitations on the street. The authors suggest that race affects the way the men are generally ignored and that, subsequently, they interact with passersby in ways that reflect a social distance, reinforcing mutual suspicion and incivility. However, regardless of race and class, ignoring the social norms of conversation breaches trust and creates tension.

Description of method used in the article
The data comes from a larger, long-term study of street vendors, and includes recorded interactions between people on the street, analysis of conversations, and about 30 interviews in which people reflected on their experience.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

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