Recently in Waco, Texas, a deadly brawl broke out between rival biker gangs. Most of the news stories around the event have highlighted the facts: the numbers of those killed, injured and arrested, how the police responded, and whether any innocent bystanders were caught in the melee. But, as an ethnographer, I am more interested in the culture of the bikers themselves. It seems to me that what this story calls for is long-term immersion reminiscent of the gonzo journalism of Hunter S Thompson in the 1960s with the Hell’s Angels. As Peter Høeg has written, “There is one way to understand another culture. Living it.”
The most alluring stories about cities are those that revolve around our relationships to places and each other. Cities are where wealth pours, where the poorest hide and where power plays out in the spaces in between. This has always been the case, though now these flows are more visible than ever before. The social unrest in Baltimore over the past few months has made this clear, as daily footage was streamed around the world of clashes between the state and its citizens, from thousands of perspectives.
However, with increasing exposure, the risk also increases that the story gets boiled down to representations where the most spectacular components – those most resembling a Hollywood film – float to the top and are plucked and presented as wholly representative. The battle lines (sometimes less literal than in Waco) that emerge in cities are often an indication of something more systemic bubbling beneath the surface. […]