Writing About A Fair
(September 30, 2008)

This writing assignment relates to county fairs or agricultural fairs that people may visit for SOCI 215 as one of your required field experiences. Fairs are more difficult to observe than one might expect. Because vendors relate to large numbers of people and often are seen as quaint or interesting by visitors they may be emotionally defended from talking openly about the experience of being part of the fair or they may have stock, unimaginative comments to make about the experience. Finding ways to dig deeper and to find interesting angles in the experience can be a challenge.

This assignment has two objectives.

One is to place you in an unfamiliar setting where there are many social activities and relationships to observe, where many kinds of people are interacting, and where values we each hold and that the people we are observing manifest all come to the surface. This is an exercise to demonstrate the richness of social and community life. This is the first step in an understanding of what sociologists and anthropologists try to do when the do ethnographic observation. Your paper ought to provide a description of the rich social scene you encounter and discuss your feelings and the reactions you have to the things you see and experience.

The second objective is for you to look for and describe social structure in community life. Social structure includes distinct social roles you see participants at the auction playing. Be attentive to the way that there is a front stage and a back stage at the auction. The backstage is comprised of the auction managers and those people selling animals. The frontstage is comprised of people actively buying animals and also the people and groups who attend. Pay attention to the nature and variety of groups that are there. Pay attention also to how the parts of the auction support and interact with each other. This is an important economic and social system for community residents. You want to understand how these things work and also you want to look for evidence that the auction supports and flows into a larger community life with elements that may not be evident in this single setting.

Your paper ought to be short. Write the length you want to write, but you can do this assignment in 3 or 4 pages. As you get ready to write, think about specific things that you found most noticable, interesting, and intriguing. Often these things involve contrasts to things you are used to from home or from the cultural groups you are part of. Concentrate your paper on these things. Avoid taking up all the space in your paper by describing the overall scene, how you got there, and how comfortable or uncomfortable you and your friends felt in the scene.

What to Do

Fairs are made up of many settings that are jammed up against each other and often overlap with each other. Choose one or two particular settings that may be one large event (like the livestock barn) or examples of a feature that is repeated over and over (you might talk about food booths limiting yourself to a few of the hundreds that might be at a fair). Write about settings that interested you. Tell what was interesting. Try to focus on people you see in the setting and tell specifically who they are, how they relate to the setting, and what conversations you had with them. What did you learn and what puzzled or surprised you?

You may find the fair surprising, unexpected, and very different from things you have experienced at home. You may want to try to capture the sense you have taken away from the whole experience. This can be a good way to write about a big, new experience but it carries the danger that your writing will be vague and overly general. You may want to capture the overall sense of what the fair was like and make that the focus of your writing but you still will want to focus on particular people, events, and moments that particular caused you to react emotionally and that led you to think about new ideas. Be concrete and specific as you build up your general ideas.

When you talk about the interesting aspects you have identified, describe things in as much detail as you can. Be mindful of the way that specific actions often have multiple meanings to the people who are part of this setting. Can you see evidence of these multiple meanings and describe them at work? Try to tell what you expected, and how what you saw differed from your expectation. What sense do you make of the difference between your expectation and what you saw?

In addition to describing particular aspects of the scene, talk also about aspects of community that you saw. When you do that, it helps to "position" the people or the events or the scene in relationship to the structural aspects of community mentioned above, given in our reading, or discussed in class. This might lead you to do a census of the kinds of people you saw and the different roles you noticed. This can be a helpful way of conveying the complexity of the event.

I have suggested lots of things to look at and write about. You don't need to attend to all of these suggestions in your paper. I really mean it that you should write 3-4 pages. The important thing is to concentrate on a few events that you found particularly interesting.