Summer School with Rosalie Post and Corina Enache

I have recently taken part in a summer school pilot led by two applied anthropologists Corina Enache and Rosalie Post. They were advertising their workshop with the catchy question “Are you wondering how to sell your talents as an anthropologist to a future employer?”, followed by “Would you like to add a concrete & tangible business research project to your CV in only one week?”. As I was in Rome sending applications to diverse job positions, I thought this might be a unique opportunity to get to know anthropology in a more business-oriented context and experience fast ethnography and its benefits and drawbacks.

In only one week we, the participants, were asked to:

1. define a question and find a possible stakeholder,

2. conduct a fast ethnography research within 24 hours,

3. structure, analyze and code our gathered data,

4. design a solution based on our findings and in line with our question,

5. and finally to pitch it to our stakeholder in a presentation.

Even though we were guided and assisted by Rosalie and Corina through daily zoom calls it really represented a challenge to me, much more than any of my university assignments. Not because it was difficult to find a question. Actually, this was the easiest part: there were so many interesting cultural and social topics for me to explore in Rome. The problem was rather that this was not an abstract question backed up by sophisticated theory and outlining possible gaps and helpful changes in the respective field of inquiry. This was a very specific simple question that was supposed to result in a concrete and applicable solution… and above all a question someone was interested in. Let me take you through my journey of experimenting with fast ethnography!

What first came to my mind was the balance between the expenses of preservation of cultural heritage and the regular mass-tourism that greatly benefits the city of Rome. I did some research and refined my idea.

Proud of how I had managed to break down my big idea into different concepts and how I had identified some potential stakeholders I confidently presented my idea to Rosalie and Corina to find out that my proposal was simply too big, too abstract and not at all observable in one day. Rosalie and Corina both liked the idea and encouraged me to dive deeper and to zoom in on the one detail within this topic that was really tangible, visible, perceivable in a 24 hours timeframe. The brainstorm with the group was helpful and so I was able to redefine my topic and target.

In order to be able to observe the damaging of cultural heritage, I decided to look at social practices that lead to this. And the most obvious one (and one with which the city of Rome has been fighting with for a long time now due to its popularity) is the social practice of tagging the murals of the houses in the old city of Rome. The problem is ubiquitous to such an extent that taggers are widely known as “graffitari”. As a potential stakeholder I identified a civic initiative Retake Roma that regularly cleans the city and streets from stickers, tags, and more. They had recently been cleaning stickers from street signs in the old district Trastevere, so I decided to have a look at the specific street they had been cleaning: Via delle Fratte di Trastevere.

In the early morning, I took the bus to the city center and walked up and down the Via delle Fratte di Trastevere. I took several pictures. I entered local businesses and talked to the employees, shop owners, and shoppers. These included a perfumery, a bookstore, a vape store, a bar, and a restaurant. I would say I am an extrovert and easy to talk to but honestly it is difficult to approach people from one moment to another and involve them in qualitative research out of the blue. I quickly started using an intro. “Hi, I am an anthropology student and I am doing research on how to enhance awareness towards the preservation of cultural heritage. I wanted to ask you about the tags on your wall…”… Some people still acted a bit suspicious. However, I was able to gather some data and make relevant observations. And so, I detected the following relevant themes.

The State vs The People: legal notice on the prohibition of tagging walls

Relevant themes I was able to identify around the social practice of tagging were: the representation of the government, the differences between day and night, the popularity of the location, Perception on art vs. vandalism, responsibility vs. ownership, frequency and sense of belonging, dirt and indifference. By looking at my themes, the relations between them, and the people involved considering their individual interests I designed practical and yet simple possible solutions.

All in all, doing fast ethnography inspired me to start looking at very simple things that are easily accessible discovering how much complexity is inherent to them. At the same time, it is nice to work on a scale where my research might have an actual impact… and not just end up as a theoretical outline. Thanks Corina and Rosalie for this great opportunity and for sharing your expertise!