Ethnography as Precarious Work


Direct all correspondence to Ashley Mears, Department of Sociology, Boston University, 96-100 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02215; e-mail:


Reflecting on a carnal ethnography of the fashion modeling market, I consider the analytic gains from observant participation and experimentation with the sociologist's body as a participant in a culture industry. The ambiguities and uncertainties of fashion modeling, as a highly competitive freelance labor form, parallel the risky position of insider ethnographer, in this case as a graduate student “studying up” among guarded cultural elites. These positions opened an analytic lens into sociological concepts of labor exploitation, value, and social hierarchy. However, in occupying an insider role within a stratified field, observant participants face risks in trying to move beyond their own experiences in order to interview informants. My changing position in the field, from subjugated worker to interviewer, highlights how power and inequality operate in the fashion world. First-person narrative illuminates these analytic payoffs of insider ethnography.