By Jeff Ferrell, author of Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge
“I consider myself a scholar-activist – maybe even a public sociologist. Throughout my career I’ve tried my best to make every word of teaching, writing, and public speaking count, as critique of inequality or encouragement of more just arrangements.”
Read more about Jeff as Times Higher Education tracks his life as an academic hero.
Over some thirty-five years of research, this activist orientation has also meant for me close engagement with outsider groups who live in resistance to the predations of late capitalism and the confinements of the law, the court, and the prison. During this time I’ve considered it my duty and my passion to immerse myself ethnographically in the lives of such marginalized folks, to learn from them the pain of their experience and the power of their alternative knowledge, and to write about their circumstances in ways that are critical, compassionate and accessible. As a result, a cumulative list of my research subjects reads like a roll call of folk devils and general undesirables: graffiti writers, gutter punks, pirate radio operators, street musicians, union organizers, radical bicyclists, trash pickers, homeless folks. I like to think that, if nothing else, this roll call constitutes an ongoing act of political subversion and perceptual correction.
A few years ago I decided to put aside some research and writing I was doing in order to focus on what struck me as an increasingly salient phenomenon: drift. A world awash in immigrants and refugees, contemporary economies disorganized around casual labor and part-time work, informal settlements overwhelming world cities, middle classes falling into debt and despair, law enforcement strategies targeting the itinerant and the vagrant – all seemed to suggest forms of drift linked by dislocation and disorientation. Yet my research also showed me that both historical social movements and contemporary radical groups had learned to turn drift back on itself, to use it as a tactic for confronting the structures that impose it – often with remarkable success. Meanwhile, and appropriately enough, I stumbled into ethnographic research with a particular subculture of drifters – the gutter punks who haunt rail yards and hop freight trains – and so found myself waiting with them, drinking with them, catching freight trains and sleeping in rail yards with them. From these and from other drifters I learned some lessons especially useful to a sociologist, and to a scholar-activist attempting to engage with the contemporary world: the shared intensities of ephemeral association, the little webs of community that can stretch across time and space, the hard-earned cosmopolitanism of those who wander, the epistemic power of uncertainty and incompletion, and the hope that new forms of social life can emerge in the hard shell of the old.
So, my recommendations for students and citizens concerned with drifters and drift?
- Fight the criminalization of drifters and the double damnation by which those in power cast them away and then condemn them for their dislocation. Hang with such folks in the streets, ride with them on the rails, stand with them in the courts, and learn from them what you can.
- Read up on the history of nomads, hobos, and refugees – it’s a secret history of the twentieth century, as Greil Marcus would say.
- Get lost.