Underground Markets as Fields in Transition: Sex Work in New York City

Venkatesh, Sudhir (2013): Underground Markets as Fields in Transition: Sex Work in New York City, Sociological Forum, Volume 28, Issue 4, pages 682–699, December 2013

Abstract

Most ethnographers visualize their fieldwork study vis-à-vis their long-term commitment to a bounded sociospatial context—an “ecology.” In this manner, the majority of ethnographic studies are presented as studies not only of practices but also of recognizable physical ecologies that breathe life into the practices—for example, homes, ghettos, firms, schools, and so on. In the pages that follow, I consider the ways in which the status of place has shifted in urban sex work. The shifting commerce of sexual services in New York enables me to open up a set of methodological issues about the role of space in ethnographic work. One in particular is at the core of this paper: namely, because so many ethnographic labors begin with the selection of a field site, what conceptual issues arise that fieldworkers must pay attention to vis-à-vis that decision? For example, the field site may change, the field site may itself be shaped by wider societal forces, and it may be simply dissolve over time. How does any of this impact a technique that is premised on the dependability of “sitting” so that others may be dependably followed? I draw on the notion of “strategic action fields” to present an alternative analytic framework, one more useful for the challenges ethnographers face.

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