It does not match the allure of Grand Central Station for cosmopolitan splendour or as a nexus where the exotic mingles with the quotidian, but beneath the squalor and neglect of Guildford Bus Station you can find a locus rich with opportunities for some prolonged people watching. It was here during the early part of November that I used this very location near Guildford’s Friary Shopping Centre to conduct a short piece of what we could safely call qualitative research. My justification was simple enough: I thought I should try out some of the social research skills I had recently acquired during my post-graduate studies, besides I also reckoned that I might repulse the ennui one gets from watching paint dry by engaging in a little painting of my own.
Before settling for this particular spot, I explored a selection of locations and situations then eventually elected to engage in a discrete, even sneaky ethnographic study of queueing behaviours during the 30 minutes or so that lead up to the boarding and departure of the number 63 bus on its route from Guildford to Horsham. Typically, as few as 15 and sometimes more than 30 – across a varied and interesting spectrum- would regularly take this route on or about 17:30 between Monday and Friday on this particular November. My approach could probably be described as phenomenological in nature, though it might fairly be argued that because of my own embeddedness and emotional investment in outcomes and meanings that an intersubjective component will also have been present. Since it is not possible to credibly claim detachment in an exercise such as this, I may as well concede that, as always, impartiality is somewhat contingent. A declaration of my own vulnerability and an intention to avoid contamination is a trade-off worth making for the pungency that might accompany a closer feel for the action.
By way of reconnaissance, I rode the 63 bus with purpose on a few occasions to observe the habits and rubrics of queueing, in a perfunctory way, to enable me to form some judgment as to the suitability of the exercise and its compatibility with my chosen mode of research. When I tell you an important factor which revealed itself to me during my trial trips you may well regard it as so blindingly obvious that to mention it at all seems a little redundant –as it now does a little to me. This factor relates to the question of establishing what normative levels of intimacy might prevail within the group. The relevance of this bears directly on the expectations related to the nature and scope of my own interaction with those who formed the queue, who would then eventually become fellow passengers on our joint adventure. I
in brief, if lower levels of overt, expressive or dialogical interchange (i.e. talk) prevailed among my fellow travellers, then any mirroring of this same level of interaction would be less problematic say than if there was no interaction at all, or if there was significant or more than cursory interaction and I was obliged to as it were simulate the role of a passenger who was not even remotely engaged in a research exercise. It was then possible to establish through my reconnaissance that it was entirely feasible to blend in with the cohort without having to separate myself from the range of normative activity in the queue or on the bus. I acknowledge as I explain this that by virtue of doing any reconnaissance at all, I was laying myself open to the hazard of having to abandon the entire enterprise in circumstances where the normative practices were markedly different or where the cohort was a more social one ,perhaps even to the point of being gregarious .
I feel my research will have benefited by the absence of any discord or detectable incongruity between what I shall call the group’s style and my own .This in turn will have achieved the desired effect of ensuring that I blended in fairly naturally as well of course as reducing any cognitive burden associated with the task of reflexively monitoring my own separate roles as observer and interlocutor which could run the risk of impacting on the integrity and value of the research itself. One final observation worth making is that I did identify the presence of a split in participants between the young (typically school children between the ages of 14 to 18) and an older demographic (roughly within the age bracket between 55 and 80) which carried the potential for displays and manifestations of labeling.
We have already touched upon the risk of pollution or inhibition that comes into play when the researcher thrusts him or herself into the middle of the action as an observer. The risk increases further when the researcher becomes a participant in the scene. In addition it would be fair to say that regardless of the role adopted by the researcher, subtle influences can be brought to bear on the quality of outcomes by an inadequate appreciation of existing biases and I suppose we would say even the benign curiosity of the researcher whether or not he or she is embedded in the action. A half way adequate initial audit is required so that the researcher can take a cool reflexive look at their own baggage or any strategic or emotional investment they might have in the exercise. This vigilance must be constant and consistent not so much to negate or to somehow root out the impact of the researcher – which is as futile as it is impossible – but to factor it in to any post-event analysis. In this way, it becomes more of an integral and legitimized thread rather than a great looming problematized extraneous thing.
It seemed important that I should give some thought to what I could anticipate discovering or what phenomenon I might capture. When I did reflect upon the situation, a few potential complications and pitfalls came to mind, most of which were of a practical nature. It was impossible for me not to hold near the front of my mind a persistent memory of the type of low-level discomfort that can frequently be a part of this journey. I am thinking in particular of the roughness of the ride and the unpleasant rising stench of diesel fumes as we revved away from bus shelters. I have been on a few ferry trips and seen enough of the turbulence that renders a majority of passengers unwilling to risk taking breakfast and those that did incapable of retaining it. Yet on those journeys, I personally felt fine. On many more occasions, I have wished for a journey or for my life to end after spending less than 20 minutes in the back of a warm and bumpy car heading for a day at the coast. It seemed to me that I would face significant challenges if I were to attempt, even on a rudimentary level, to scribble my observations or field notes on this particular bus while it remained in motion.
Despite some thorough planning and preparation on my part, I confess to finding significant differences between what I had expected to find and what I did find. One of the potential weaknesses of the exercise was that I had anticipated to a greater extent than turned out to be the case that a zero-sum game in respect of competition for a finite number of places on the bus would result in a different group dynamic than what I finally noted. My observations and some simple enough mathematics reveal that on the very specific dates which covered my investigation there were in fact sufficient places on the bus for all in the queue. On the one hand, this recognition might lead to behaviour modifications because of the removal of anxiety. On the other hand, a certain level of background anxiety may not have been completely neutralized because of the factors we talk about below.
The first of these was centered on the activities of a number of schoolchildren and the second involved the practices of a small but persistent group of smokers. The great majority of travelers followed the choreography of either occupying the bench (which had the capacity to seat up to four people) nearest the bus stop and/or as soon as that was full, they tended to form a more or less orderly serpentine queue directly behind the bench. The group of schoolchildren operated under a completely separate set of rubrics, which had a whiff of the subversive about it. A small cohort, of about three would gather, all of them being half in and half out of the queue. They would sustain this holding pattern until a few minutes before boarding and then would suddenly –and to all appearances spontaneously – be joined by four other colleagues who appeared from nowhere to merge with an appealing breeziness into the existing formation as it proceeded with the boarding exercise. This phenomenon, as you might imagine, entirely subverted all queueing rules.
The strategy displayed by the group of smokers (though not strictly a smokers group since each actuation was freestanding and discreet without tacit reference to any other smoker or even without assistance in the lighting up phase – unusual it seems to me) slipped into slyness from time to time. Most smokers were respecters of the queuing order though some guerrilla stuff did occur now and again. A sly smoker might, out of his necessity to smoke, stroll past the entire queue to have his cigarette in the great outdoors. If this event happened to happily coincide with the arrival of the bus, the smoker would, like the trail and fumes he generated, merge into the scene but much nearer to the beginning of the queue than he strictly had any right to be positioned. I paid close attention to this danse macabre, as we will see beneath.
The task though narrowly focused on the task of specifically mapping and studying queuing behaviours, the context of this activity and of the actors was itself embedded in a wider scenario and it is only within this wider scope that we can appreciate any of the hermeneutics involved. By which I mean of course that since queuing is never an end in itself, the purposes of the queue, any hazards and consequences of what might be deemed ‘queue failure’ will be better appreciated in order to a get some sort of handle on the queuing behaviour itself.
Since I did not study behaviours on this route at any other departure times, or study any other routes at any times I cannot state definitively that the circumstances prevailing at this particular time and on this particular route are unusual in any way. I feel confident in speculating that since this bus was the last of the day to leave Guildford for its final destination in Horsham, that the notion of missing it entirely and to a lesser extent the specter of not getting a seat on this careering malodorous behemoth would be an awkward and alarming prospect for many. Given that I boarded this bus for the same reasons as my fellow passengers, I did from time to time experience a stab of anxiety regarding the possibility of (a) not getting on the bus at all and (b) not getting a seat on the bus. For older, for less able bodied and for the more anxious passenger the thought of prolonged buffeted by erratic driving could easily introduce (a) displays of anxiety,(b) anxiety avoidance tactics, and/or(c) tactical concealment of manifestations of anxiety . My empathetic recognition of these and other possibilities sensitized me to the point that I was sufficiently alert to detect and to record them. It is doubtful that without my own direct participation in the bus journey, with its concomitant risks and purposes, that I would have adequately considered, if I considered them at all, the motivations and states of mind of the players in the queue.
A minor but nonetheless very practical issue needed addressing at this point. It bears on the question I raised earlier regarding my inability to write comprehensive ‘field notes’ while the bus remained in motion incorporating the need to take covert notes (as raw data) at the queuing stage. Despite the complications of ‘motion discomfort’, it would still be necessary to mitigate the handicap and satisfy the need to jot down my primary observations before any significant memory erosion kicked in. My work around was to prepare templates, identified during the reconnaissance phase, and to conceal these templates close to my partially completed crossword puzzle.
When we return to our smokers we see that one by one (at intervals of 2 minutes, 5 minutes and 8 minutes) the individual smokers either abandon the position they held near the rear of the queue, in the first instance or (in the second and third instances) from never having been in the queue, lit their individual cigarettes (every one a roll-your-own) near the exit by the bus stand. In all cases the smokers puffed right up to the time for boarding the bus, then 2 smokers extinguished their cigarettes at a point – by virtue of their presence at that location at that time –, which became the de facto beginning of the queue. A final straggling smoker continued to smoke until all were boarded. We might regard this smoker as deviant only in so far as he was deviating, not from the rubric of the queueing system- for he was not- but from the protocols and practices of the smokers group – which he was.
Since I had observed and recorded variations on this behaviour on previous occasions, it would be reasonable to assume that others, especially the regulars, would have noticed exactly what I noticed and would have attributed the same significance to the performance. That being the case any assumptions that by virtue of being located in a particular position in the queue (using the calculation x-35 = Qn , where x is your position in the queue and 35 is the number of seats on the bus ) would provide you with the reassurance and anxiety reduction regarding the likelihood of getting a seat on the bus needed to be tempered by the additional knowledge that an indeterminate number of smokers and schoolchildren behaving contrary to queuing conventions could jeopardise this calculation and introduce additional hazard linked to the mostly incalculable number and nature of these actions. Though the events themselves could not be fairly described as capricious since they actions were somewhat predictable even if the number of actors varied.
A significant number of my fellow passengers (probably 65%) were regulars. This group seemed to have made the accommodation in their own minds regarding the conditions and risks described above and accrued enough experience to learn that the hazards on most days operated within a margin of comfort. By which I mean that the bus seemed close to full but was never entirely full on the many occasions that I used the bus. Given the tightness of the margin, however, it was possible to feel a certain edge and vigilance as passengers engaged in a covert head-count while innocently and nonchalantly admiring structural components of the bus station, the floorscape and the antics of ardent pigeons. Some regulars also seemed to enjoy the sole privilege of being regulars, which was to derive the consolation of amusement as they anticipated with relish and observed with a muffled glee the flummoxed reaction of the non-regulars as they were so brazenly out-flanked by the combined but uncoordinated maverick movements of smokers and schoolchildren.
Apart from the gabble and cackle of schoolchildren, no conversation of any kind takes place among the other passengers. The paralinguistic stuff I recorded centered mostly on displacement activity e.g., clockwatching, time checking and time table scrutiny – not much else. There was very little prolonged eye contact apart from the usual furtive flickering you will find among in ad hoc community with, on the face of it, only one thing they share in common. When we look at proxemics, we noticed little reluctance on the part of the group to queue in the tight formation prescribed by a spatially confining configuration. My observations on the use of the benched area revealed a measurable tendency of those already seated to create little zones of inhibition around their persons, either via the awkward positioning of bags and belongings or through tactical sprawling. And all of it executed with a not entirely convincing degree of insouciance.
I could go on at some length to discuss the pages of raw observations or go through the riveting -or mind dulling if your curiosity does not take you with me on this trip – detail of movements and twitches but rather than watch my paint dry in this way you might be tempted to do some painting of your own. Go on, give it a go. Enjoy the ethnography, and enjoy the journey.