Hi, all! I miss being in class with you to discuss the readings! Anyway, since I can’t be there to deliver my pitch for my final paper in person, I’m sharing it here on the blog, instead.
I’d like to explore topic #6, surveying the genre of the undercover “slumming” narrative. Since I really enjoyed reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, I thought I’d use her as the main focus.
Originally, after finishing the book, I was very impressed by her exposé of the working poor. I don’t know if I’d use the word “brave,” but I thought it was commendable to put herself in the shoes of the low-wage workers so she could try to really grasp the feeling of what it is to be poor. She endured difficult living conditions in order to give these people she worked with a voice. Not only that, but she aimed to educate the reader about the reality of trying to make ends meet as a person with a low-wage job. Who could possibly argue with that endeavor? I thought.
After reading the Betensky piece, “Princes as Paupers,” I started to see Nickel and Dimed in a new light. Maybe this work wasn’t all I had made it out in my mind to be, after all. Other sources I found in support and critique of this type of ethnography, this slumming narrative genre were: “Passings That Pass in America: Crossing over and Coming Back to Tell about It,” “The Politics of Welfare and of Poverty Research,” “Of Rhetoric and Representation: The Four Faces of Ethnography,” and a few interviews with Ehrenreich herself, certainly including the one that Professor Allred posted on the blog from The Atlantic.
The main potentiality I’ve found with this kind of genre is that it is able to (and did, in Ehrenreich’s case) reach a wide audience. A lot of readers will, indeed, be exposed to the reality of what it is like to be in the position of a low-wage worker. Also, ethnographies have the ability to capture the voices and issues of people, more so than, say, an academic report on living in poverty, for example. Additionally, this genre is very entertaining and accessible for the average person to read.
One of the problems with this genre, which I suppose was immediately obvious after reading the book, is that one can never truly know what it is like to be poor if it is a temporary situation for research purposes, and one has the knowledge one will return to their middle-class lifestyle afterwards. So there are definitely authenticity issues with this genre. Also, reading the Betensky piece, it got me thinking about the very interesting argument that simulating powerlessness is actually an act of power. Additionally, one must question the motives behind a book like this. While I sincerely doubt Ehrenreich had selfish motivation for writing this book, one must question why she wrote it and what she stands to gain from writing it. Is it, as some suggest, to assuage the guilt of being a member of the dominant/oppressive class, and to thereby be accepted by people from the dominated class? Additionally, we can’t ignore the fact that, while she was living on minimum wage temporarily, she was working on this project as a paid journalist. At the end of the day, one must think she benefited financially from the publication of this book, regardless of whether or not that was her intention. This conflict of interest may interfere with writing an undercover slumming narrative like Nickel and Dimed.
With that said, I would argue that there is still value, despite its conflicts and problems, in this type of genre because it has the potential to increase empathy in readers and possibly effect social and political change.