Friday, May 29, 2009

Lt. Columbo, LAPD Ethnography Division

Anyone who has had a conversation with me in the past few months knows that I have been avidly (compulsively) watching the original run of Columbo on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature. Initially, the show was an escape from the doldrums of beginning fieldwork. I would come home during the wee small hours, after having sat in one or more jazz venues, silently looking around at folks, constantly telling myself to walk up and “make contact” (“Make contact, dammit!”), yet too self-conscious to make a move. What could be more therapeutic than sitting down with a cold beer to watch Columbo oafishly poke around until he gradually deciphers the murderer’s motive and method? It was at once a complete escape from my own troubles, and yet an oblique affirmation of my endeavor: here was someone who’s work depended on his roaming around and gathering information from people whom he barely knew.

More and more, I have come to view Lt. Columbo as my model ethnographer. Anthropologist John Jackson discusses his ethnographic alter-ego, “Anthroman” in his nuanced, writerly, and often richly humorous book Real Black. “Anthroman” was a persona Jackson could channel when the field-going got tough; becoming Anthroman was an elaborate self psyche-out he could use to feel less like himself and thus more courageous about doing his fieldwork. Jackson also mentions that he often asked himself the question: WWZNHD (“What would Zora Neale Hurston do?”) to help guide him when he felt at a loss in the field. I can claim with complete seriousness that I have often asked myself WWLCD (“What would Lt. Columbo do?”). Now I’m not saying that I walk around wearing a rumpled raincoat and chewing on a cheap cigar, imitating Peter Falk’s euphonious New York accent. But, when I manage to be courageous enough, when I can achieve the right combination of self-effacing politeness, persistence, and calculated ignorance, the “Columbo effect” sometimes works quite well.

(I am compelled to digress here for a moment to discuss this supposedly well-known “Columbo effect;” the popular notion of Columbo, I feel, does not do complete justice to the character as he existed on 1970s television. The Wikipedia article on the show rehearses these misconceptions:
Police Lieutenant Columbo is a shabbily-dressed, seemingly slow-witted police detective whose fumbling, overly polite manner makes him an unlikely choice to solve any crime, let alone a complex murder. However, his demeanor is revealed to be a complex put-on, designed to lull suspects into a false sense of security…

To me, there is nothing seemingly “slow-witted” about Columbo’s act. He can appear distracted, folksy, and excessively self-deprecating, but in most episodes the murderer has realized at least by the halfway mark that Columbo is no chump; often this realization comes much sooner. Egotistical murderers (always marked as upper-class – I’m sure someone has written about the class politics of the show) often get annoyed at just how pesky that little goofy detective can be, but they don’t quite seem to assume any incompetence on his part. To me the brilliance of Columbo’s approach lies in its winning combination of persistence and sincere courtesy. If you are really polite to people, they will often put up with more questioning and pestering than they would otherwise.

The lead-up to Columbo’s hallmark “Just one more thing…” device is also, I’ve realized, a paradigm of ethnographic inquiry. (For Columbo non-initiates, the detective will often conclude a seemingly meandering interview with a suspect or witness by suddenly remembering “one more question” he wanted to ask, which turns out to be a far more pointed, topical query than any he’s posed during the interview proper.) I’ve found that I have more relaxed and informative conversations, and ultimately get more interesting evidence if I don’t come out and ask the kinds of questions running through my head (e.g., “What do you listen for in this jazz recording you say you love so much?” or “How would you describe why this album means so much to you?”), but instead let the conversation/interview go where it will, often include my own opinions on things (non-jazz related too), and keep the interviewee guessing as to the themes/agenda of my questioning (I like to think of this last aspect as another performative fiction in action, since I myself often haven’t formed an idea about the “theme” of, or what I wish to find out during, said interview; so I just pretend I know what I’m getting at…)

So, am I putting on my informants, and thus engaging in ethical questionable behavior? Well, I guess my honest answer is “Yes and no.” First of all, as one informant and I agreed, “Everybody has a motive.” So why should an ethnographer be any different? Most of our interactions with other humans happen because someone wants something: your boss wants your labor-time, you domestic partner wants your attention, you want his/hers, you want a bus ride, the waiter wants your money, etc. Second of all, I again invoke Columbo. He manages to catch murderers without ever using abusive or coercive tactics (sure, he may sometimes play a trick that ensnares the murderer, but this trick usually relies upon the murderer’s own duplicitous behavior). He is consistently respectful, and dare I say, in his unassuming and clumsy demeanor, achieves a kind of rare dignity and even grace.

But I must define how Columbo serves as a model with greater precision, since I really do not try to trick people into sharing cultural knowledge with me; my hope is that this sharing is voluntary. Yet, even when I try to be as respectful, unassuming, and mild-mannered as possible, I often feel that there’s something confrontational about asking informants direct questions – it just makes me feel nervous and slimy at times. And it’s here that Columbo’s manner comes in handy, because I think it provides an example of how to minimize the confrontation implicit in any kind of questioning (even the ostensibly amicable interactions between the ethnographer and his/her informant). At his best, Columbo’s technique is about what remains unsaid, how he manages to get information and answers to his questions without ever uttering interrogative formations; if, as many have argued, ethnography is an art, then I contend that, had he existed in the “real” world and been an anthropologist, Lt. Columbo would have been one of its great virtuosos.


Mary said...

I love the Columbo approach! Very useful in interviewing patients as a social worker, and sometimes in dealing with the system as well. I had a grad school professor who recommended it and would act out the Columbo chin scratch often. Holding back your agenda and getting in touch with some genuine curiosity is not at all a bad thing and will probably get you some very interesting information.

Matthew said...

Thanks for the comment, Mary! I could see the Columbo act doing even better for social work.