Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Timothy McGettigan (2001) 'Field Research for Boneheads: From Naïveté to Insight on the Green Tortoise'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 2, <>

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Received: 2001/4/27      Accepted: 2001/10/10      Published: 2001/8/31


In the following story, I catalogue a variety of difficulties that I encountered while conducting field research on the Green Tortoise. Oddly enough, the greatest impediments to the early success of this project were my poorly examined orienting assumptions. Nevertheless, the distortions imposed by my flawed assumptions were effectively sundered by an uncomfortable, but invaluable "corrective" crisis.

Validity; Field Research; Good Science; Green Tortoise; Power; Truth


In this paper, I describe a field research project on the Green Tortoise, a neo-hippie adventure travel company. My initial orientation to the Green Tortoise was rooted in an uncritical acceptance of standard research practices. However, an unanticipated emergency altered my perspective profoundly. During a crossing of the Rio Grande, a male Tortoise passenger allegedly pitched a Mexican rowboat operator and a female passenger, Amanda[1], into the river. Although the boat operator made it to shore, Amanda disappeared downstream. I dove into the river to render assistance, but in doing so lost my glasses. Thus, my optical vision became blurred for the balance of the journey. However, my jump into the river also clarified my perspective.

In choosing to intervene as a "real" participant, I transgressed a number of barriers (Wichroski, 1996) that I had erected for the purposes of doing "good science" (Dahl, 1957; Denzin, 1994; McGettigan, 1998a). Ironically, by unintentionally contravening the boundaries that I had assumed would preserve the validity of my research, my uncorrected vision generated redefined (McGettigan, 1998a, 1999a) insights of utmost lucidity.

Field Research on the Green Tortoise

The site of my research project was a fourteen day, San Francisco to New York, adventure trip on the Green Tortoise in October of 1993. The Green Tortoise is a bus travel company, based in San Francisco, that emerged from the youth countercultures of the 1960s. During the sixties, a number of small companies offered cross-country bus trips as alternatives to mainstream carriers (e.g., Greyhound, Trailways). The Tortoise outlived its upstart competitors by converting its routine cross-country trips into adventures.

Photo 1: The Green Tortoise

The philosophy of the Green Tortoise (i.e., Arrive inspired, not dog tired) is to elevate the status and comfort of being on the road. This is achieved in part by remodelling each of its buses with cushioned, wood-crafted benches, tables, and platforms. Also, the Tortoise's open seating arrangement encourages the uninitiated to get acquainted rapidly. Last but not least, the Tortoise is also equipped with its own provisions and kitchen. Thus, most basic creature comforts are well tended on a Green Tortoise adventure.[2]

Photo 2: An Interior Shot of the Tortoise

Many of the 1960s countercultures failed due to organizational dilemmas (Kanter, 1972). Nevertheless, since then a variety of unconventional businesses-such as food co-ops, neo-communes, alternative newspapers, coffee houses, etc.-have attempted to strike a balance between organizational viability and a rejection of mainstream culture (Rothschild-Whitt, 1979). These organizations embrace conventional business practices to raise operating funds, but they also eschew such activities to avoid compromising their subversive philosophies. The Green Tortoise is an excellent example of a countercultural organization because it is a successful business that is predicated upon a celebration of the rowdy, youthful times from whence it came (Wolfe, 1968). Thus, the Tortoise is clearly connected to mainstream culture, but its unconventional image also typifies a compromised rejection of society.

Initially, I planned to ride the Tortoise as a "participant-as-observer" (Gold, 1958), i.e., a semi-detached participant, for three reasons:
1. To acquire an empathetic (Douglas, 1976) feel for the Tortoise experience;
2. To maintain observational distance, and;
3. To avoid reactive effects (Emerson, 1983, p. 100).
In other words, in service to scientific validity (Belgrave and Smith, 1995; Kvale, 1995; Lather, 1995), I wished to maintain a problematic balance (Thorne, 1979, p. 73). That is, I intended to take part in, but minimize contamination of (Richardson, 1994) on-board events.

This strategy emerged out of various unquestioned commitments that I subscribed to as a "good" scientist (Dahl, 1957; Denzin, 1994; McGettigan, 1998a). In my role as a "good" researcher, I envisioned my job would be to observe others, whereas the primary objective of those I observed would be to experience the Green Tortoise. I imagined that this distinction would be subtle enough to permit inconspicuous interaction, but also sharp enough to maintain requisite observational detachment. It was as though I planned to attend an avant-garde play wherein I, the lone audience member, had to ensure that the actors remained heedless of their performances. Having determined the parameters of my involvement, I turned my attention to getting in (Pollner and Emerson, 1983).

Tension and Intolerance on a Neo-Hippie Bus

One of the unique features of the Green Tortoise is that "getting in," or what Wax (1971) refers to as "the first and most uncomfortable stage of fieldwork," is equally difficult for all. Field researchers often study well established groups, and, prior to initiation, they can appear hopelessly inept (Evans-Pritchard, 1940; Malinowski, 1967; Mead, 1966). However, on the Tortoise there was no pre-established community. Instead, all of the passengers were cast into the role of bungling outsiders.

In fact, developing a cohesive in-group is one of the principle features of Tortoise journeys. Adventure travel on the Tortoise is predicated upon cramming overbooked passengers onto old, refurbished buses and taking them on long trips without precise itineraries. Because the buses are usually very crowded (e.g., there were forty-two people on this journey), passengers are forced to violate many of the niceties of conventional crowd behavior. Sean, a German man on his sixth adventure trip, noted that a common saying on the Green Tortoise is "Move your meat, lose your seat." Nevertheless, I was alarmed throughout the first few days because of how often I bumped into others and invaded their space-no matter how ill-defined.

Further elevating onboard tension, the drivers, named Curt and Arthur (who were decked out like charter members of the Flower Power movement) kept asserting that we would all benefit by shedding our inhibitions. Many of the women felt particularly threatened by such comments-rolling their eyes, crossing their arms, and shaking their heads in good-natured disgust-especially when the drivers advocated nudity and sex.

The drivers often spoke reverently of their exploits with uninhibited, sex-crazed passengers, and, indeed, they did more than preach. Whenever the opportunity arose-and it did regularly-the drivers emphasized their disdain for social norms by shedding their clothing. Curt, the lead driver, professed that his advocacy of sex and nudity derived from a deep-seated resentment of mainstream social repression. According to Curt, discomfort with sex and nudity was simply the product of a warped, socially-imposed sense of privacy.

In keeping with this attitude, the design of the Tortoise invokes routine assaults on passengers' personal space and privacy. When a woman named Daisy objected to having men nearby while she changed clothing, Curt vetoed her by shouting "Hey, we're all people!" In fact, there was little sense in seeking privacy on the bus. Passengers had a choice between changing clothes in the semi-privacy of outhouses or roadside bushes, or in the Tortoise's undelineated public space. Regardless, the Tortoise also found ways to undermine "decency" off the bus as well.

Photo 3: Desert Stopover

Although the Tortoise alights at many conventional locations (e.g., truck stops, grocery stores, freeways, national parks), it also calls in at numerous unorthodox destinations. On day two, we journeyed to a remote, cactus bestrewn corner of the Mojave Desert called Deep Creek Hot Springs. Despite initial enthusiasm, many passengers were alarmed to learn that the springs were "clothing optional." At that stage, few of us-least of all the females-felt comfortable about swimming nude. While Curt gamely took advantage of the no- clothing option, several witnesses disapproved indignantly of his performance.

The tension and intolerance resulting from such flagrant violations of social conventions made all the passengers wary observers. This heightened guardedness created an effect that was opposite of the intended Tortoise experience (i.e., a friendly, tolerant travelling community). The passengers became exceedingly conscious of the barriers that help maintain social norms and privacy, and clung to them doggedly.

I got the feeling as I observed the passengers' vigilance that we were all going to be outsiders forever. Anyone who behaved too casually was viewed with much the same disdain as the drivers. When Sean hazarded a swim without his bathing suit, I heard Karl, another German man, snarl derisively "Aren't we lucky! Sean is giving us a strip tease!" Still, the drivers appeared untroubled about the prospects for an unsuccessful Tortoise trip. It was only day two, and there were many more surprises in store.

Lingering Suspicions

While the drivers studiously ignored the tension created by their insouciance, some passengers attempted hesitantly to do likewise. Indeed, most of the male passengers tended to feel less threatened by the drivers. An illustrator from Canada named Hal, said he thought all the sex-talk was "just a way of getting to know each other."

The drivers' articulated reasons for conspiring against inhibitions were often superficially non-voyeuristic. Time and time again, Curt and Arthur emphasized that their primary objective was to "be cool." In addition to being more tolerant of nudity and sex, being cool implied that one should not fret-as uptight travellers generally do-about schedules, routes and destinations. The drivers typical responses to queries about the itinerary were: "Are you happy with where you're at? If so, then relax and enjoy yourself. If not, how will going to some other place solve your problem?" Rebuffs such as these tended to pre-empt vocalized concerns about the itinerary.

However, the same logic did not easily transpose to nudity and sex. Many of the women were, to say the least, dubious about the drivers' lofty aspirations. Maggie, an adversarial English woman, repeatedly declared, "All you want is to see us naked!" One of the tiresome facts of life for women-from which the Tortoise offered no respite-is that they are pursued relentlessly as sexual objects. Although, with an effort, one could read altruism into the drivers' arguments (i.e., "lose your inhibitions and be liberated"), their communiqués generally sounded more like cheesy come-ons. A quizzical woman named Bernice added, "Why must we be naked to have fun?"

Thus, throughout the early days of our journey the drivers thwarted the development of a "mobile utopia" (McGettigan, 1999a) because of their curious, aggressive, and irritating demands. Predictably, onboard tension persisted and the passengers remained exceedingly boundary-conscious. I felt, once again, that maintaining a problematically balanced analytical perspective was child's play. The more suggestive the drivers became, the more fiercely passengers clung to countervailing suspicions.

Consolidating Disapproval

Mid way through week one a pocket of antagonized female passengers coalesced. The "disapproving group" often set themselves apart by whispering in tightly closed circles, and its members began announcing regularly "I don't shit or shag in public!" The disapprovers also began voicing judgmental comments about the deportment of both the drivers and other passengers: "I can't stand it when women don't shave! Look at that tan line! Is Curt swimming without his shorts again?!"

On the fourth day, we arrived at Big Bend National Park and spent the morning hiking. For lunch, we stopped in Terlingua, a Texas frontier town, and then drove to a remote, brush-filled state park. Curt parked the bus in the prime site, only thirty meters from the Rio Grande, and announced that we would be spending the night. While a cloud of dust settled, Curt also recommended a swim in the river. Being late in a very warm afternoon, the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty agreeable. Most of the passengers changed into their swim suits, while the drivers stepped into the river after dropping their shorts.

I took a beer from the cooler and stood on the riverbank. The Rio Grande was chalky and surprisingly narrow; I judged that I could skip a flat stone across it with ease. Upstream, Hal plunged deeply into the swift current. When he waded out on the far side, Hal became the first among us to set foot in Mexico. Inspired by Hal's humble achievement, a flood of swimmers surged to Mexico.

After finishing my beer, I walked to the point where Hal had launched. The smooth stones wiggled underfoot as I splashed into the silty water. I dove and then pulled hard through the river's strong flow. When the stream slackened, I lifted my head and was struck by a glob of mud. For the next twenty minutes, mud flew wildly and the air filled with a rich, earthy fragrance. While, for the most part, the mud battle served as a harmless, tension-relieving game, there were several casualties: Sean was struck in the left eye, and Sandra, normally a cheerful Swiss woman, suffered a direct hit in the mouth.

Just as the mud battle was subsiding, Arthur noticed that Maggie, Carla, and Leslie (three principal members of the disapproving group) had crossed the river but were standing well beyond the range of battle. With a piercing scream, Arthur charged out of the water and sprinted after the women. While she ran, Leslie roared, "Keep away from me, you dirty, naked, disgusting hippie!" Watching Arthur streak in vain after his more agile prey, I was struck by the aptness of this scene. The more that Arthur and Curt pressed their agenda, the more they inspired fear and loathing in their targets. Perhaps Hobbes (1996) was right in claiming that, minus strict social constraints, we might all become slavering, lascivious werewolves like Arthur.

Photo 4: Big Bend Camp Site

Following the mud battle, many of the combatants got together for a beer. Interestingly, as the atmosphere became more chummy, the disapproving group became more physically and socially reclusive. Hal shot me a puzzled look after spotting the solitary clique and asked "Why did they come on the Tortoise?"

At the time, I shared Hal's perplexity. I sympathized with the disapproving group, however, my goal was to observe evolving group dynamics on the Tortoise, and it appeared as though the disapprovers were holding up the process. Impatiently, I thought that if the disapprovers would just relax, they might do us the courtesy of permitting "more important" developments to unfold. Although I had not tried this line of reasoning on the disapproving group, others had-but to no avail. The disapprovers were far too cagey to be budged by argument. In fact, the more compelling the claim, the more their defences were alerted.

Nevertheless, over the course of the next twenty-four hours, the disapprovers' opposition finally yielded. However, this turnabout was triggered by neither argument nor appeal. Rather, the disapprovers' transformation was produced by charm: the irresistible charm of the Green Tortoise.

The Irresistible Charm of the Green Tortoise

During our camp out there was a pronounced party atmosphere. This was attributable in part to the mud battle, but it was also due to our plans for the morrow. In the morning we were travelling to Boquillas, a small Mexican village. This was a much anticipated day because of the international border crossing and because of Mexico's tariff-free liquor.

Following a quick breakfast of cold cereal and juice, we rambled for an hour along an isolated road and then turned into a well concealed parking area. Before opening the front door, Curt reminded us that Boquillas was an unusual tourist destination. He urged us to respect the town for what it was: a real Mexican village.

Photo 5: Boquillas' Surroundings

Although there was only one trail out of the parking lot, a group of men lounging on folding chairs herded passers-by toward the river saying, "Amigo, amigo. The river is this way." The footpath was narrow, well-trodden, and shaded by tall trees. At the river, a Mexican man busily loaded people into a rowboat. When its seats were full, the boatman hurriedly thrust the craft into the current. There were two oars in the centre, and I was annoyed when Jake, a perpetually drunken "free-rider," rejected the boatman's request for assistance. The boatman had to tug hard through the flood. On the far side, a man dawdled quietly by a pick-up truck and, as his customers scrambled ashore, the boatman directed them to pay the "nice man" two dollars: one for the trip they had just taken and another for their return. They paid their fares and wandered across a wide beach covered with large, round stones.

The boatman wasted no time in hustling back. We refilled the boat and then Sean helped paddle across. After landing, we followed the established routine: paying the boatman's partner and then picking up the trail to Boquillas. At the outskirts of the village, the trail swung uphill past a line of shacks. Animals stood outside many of the little shanties, and, occasionally, children would burst out waving wristbands and necklaces. Atop the hill, there were two relatively large buildings: an unpopulated market and a bar.

I asked Hal if I could buy him a drink, and he agreed obligingly. The bar was a whitewashed, flat-roofed building with royal blue trim. The door stood open as did each of the deep-set, adobe windows. The interior was simply a large room with a polished wood counter running along the side wall. Inside the door, a guitarist crooned loud, unmelodious songs. Card tables took up much of the bar's central space, while the rear was reserved for a couple of dilapidated pool tables.

I bought two bottles of Carta Blanca and sat with Hal on cracked vinyl chairs. In a short time, Perry, a dark-skinned English traveller, invited us to a game of billiards. The game progressed slowly because the table's surface played like a sandbox. In the midst of our game, I noticed that Jake had acquired a bottle of tequila. His jug of Cuervo Gold quickly attracted a large, boisterous throng.

Hal and I lost our game, but rather than joining the others, I sat on the unused pool table and observed the tequila party. It was fascinating to witness how eager the partiers were to discard their formerly inviolate inhibitions, and it occurred to me that the tequila appeared to create a "slingshot effect." The drivers had been challenging people to become intimate in a very short span of time. While the passengers had resisted the drivers' provocations, such counter-pressures had elevated rather than diffused tension. However, the passengers' defiance had risen to the challenge until, in the impersonal atmosphere of the bar, they permitted their emotions to explode. With the assistance of an acceptable vehicle-tequila-a wave of tolerance burst over the drinkers like a tsunami. Their opposition had only tightened the springs of the Tortoise's snare.

I was feeling rather pleased with myself as I viewed the mounting uproar-much as Thorne (1979) must have when she wrote:

...I sensed...that I could have my cake and eat it too. I could share in the excitement, the thrills of participating in events that seemed almost magnetic-and be spared the costs: the uncertainty of risk-taking (Thorne, 1979, p. 81).

I noted smugly that even though I was accepted as a member of the group, I could still control the intoxication of both the alcohol and the Tortoise. I alone remained in charge of my distant and privileged viewpoint.

The besotted passengers were not content to sit and drink, they also began dancing. At first they capered amongst themselves, but soon began partnering with village residents. I presume such antics were a routine spectacle for the inhabitants of Boquillas, however, I noted surprise when Judy, a small Irish woman, began squirting the locals with water. From that point on, the bar scene became utterly outrageous. Many had guzzled so much tequila that they were having difficulty walking. Others slowly slid down the walls they were leaning on, or out of the chairs in which they could no longer sit. As a viscous torpor of grievous intoxication descended upon the revelers, Hal borrowed the guitarist's six-string and began playing "A Whole Lotta' Shakin'." While Hal jammed, several others began stacking a column of beer bottles. The pillar climbed to four feet before all the bottles crashed to the floor.

Even though I was pleased to witness such a momentous change in group dynamics, the ear-splitting clatter of the bottles also made me anxious. The drunkards had reached the point where a bit of gentle supervision had become advisable. Although I was not unwilling to aid my intemperate companions, it was not my desire to take charge. I wished to participate as "one of the gang," instead of imposing restrictions that would alter the natural flow of events. Fortunately, before impending disaster could strike, the drivers appeared. Thus, I was spared the inconvenience, for a little while longer, of having to muddle my role as a problematically-balanced observer.

A Double-Edged Sword

Impressed as they were by their charges' stupefaction, the drivers were not bent on concluding the party. Instead, they were even convinced to join the fun. For example, Maggie announced that she wished to have a special tequila shot with Arthur. To my lasting amazement, Maggie poured a whopping measure of tequila into Arthur's mouth and then sucked out the booze with a horribly sloppy kiss. As a circle of onlookers groaned in disgust, I inwardly rejoiced. Repulsive as this display may have been, it was evidence that a truce had been reached. Now that even the most disapproving of passengers had embraced the drivers-symbolized by the revolting tequila kiss-I suddenly became more optimistic about witnessing the development of a mobile utopia (McGettigan, 1999a).

Indeed, the passengers had undergone a remarkable shift in their relationship to the drivers. Prior to Boquillas, the passengers had resisted the drivers' attempts to explode their inhibitions, whereas now they needed to rely upon the drivers to temper their lunatic escapades. While the drivers' introduced a somewhat calming influence, there were soon additional crises. Two normally peaceful men, named Frederick and Peter, got into a shoving match. After Frederick threw Peter to the floor, Curt intervened and then signaled to the door.

The drivers made arrangements with several truck owners to provide transport to the river. Following a bumpy ride along the dusty trail, the Rio Grande presented the next major obstacle. I volunteered to help row the first boat across the river. In the confident hands of the experienced boatman, our navigation was flawless. However, the process of disembarking presented difficulties anew.

The boat landing was nothing more than the muddy riverbank. Getting a sure footing on the slippery mud was difficult enough for the relatively sober, but almost impossible for the inebriated. I slipped off my backpack and then, with Sean's help, hoisted the first load of drunks ashore. When finished, Sean and I looked at the befuddled state of the next boatload and decided to assist them, too.

Before the final shuttle, Curt and Arthur put their clothes in the boat and headed for the river. The drivers had not bothered to pay for a ride earlier, however, Frederick and Monty, a staggeringly intoxicated Englishman, decided they too should swim. The four skinny-dippers plunged in. While one crossing was sufficient for the rest, Frederick turned for an extra lap. Upon his return, Arthur anxiously urged Frederick to climb ashore. Monty, on the other hand, had departed merrily without troubling to wait for his clothing-I heard bawdy cheers from the direction of the bus when, I presumed, Monty hove into view.

The final boat crossed and, with the drivers in the lead, we hiked to the bus. As we reassembled, the partiers' high spirits were renewed. Monty had not yet bothered to get dressed and, rather than censure, his demonstration elicited howls of encouragement from unqualified admirers.

Although I was hoping for rest, a head count soon determined that two people were missing. No one had seen Jake or a female passenger, Amanda, cross the river. Since few others were steady on their feet, Sean and I volunteered to conduct a search. In the quiet, beyond earshot of the bedlam, my head hummed like a tuning fork.

Before I could grow used to the tranquility, Sean and I heard shrieks from the river. We decided to speed our pace and, at the landing site, were puzzled to clap eyes on neither the boat nor its operator. We were soon shaken from our perplexity, however, by an angry bellow. The boatman, who was sitting in the water about thirty feet downstream, exclaimed "It's not right! You shouldn't have left me with a crazy man!" I stood frozen in bewilderment, but the boatman gestured angrily at Jake, who was struggling up the riverbank. I shouted, "Jake, what the hell are you doing?" He ignored me, but the boatman declared that Jake had pitched he and Amanda out of the boat. "It's not right. He's got no respect. Now my boat is gone!" I was too stunned to respond. However, I was jolted out of my shock when the boatman added that Amanda was still stuck in the river.

I darted to the end of a small outcrop. Unable to spot Amanda, I decided to dive into the river. I was much too alarmed to ponder the methodological implications of helping Amanda (i.e., Would my interference contaminate the field site irreparably? What are the consequences when an audience-member interferes in a performance?). In urgent situations, even the most fastidious researchers have foregone scientific constraints. For example, Wax (1971) stated after joining the resistance against a terrorist gang:

If anyone had told me that I was about to "interfere" in a field situation and that I was thereby breaking a primary rule of scientific procedure, I think I would have laughed or, perhaps, told the admonisher to go to hell (Wax, 1971, p. 158).

I took off my shirt, but, in my haste, forgot about my glasses. A moment after I dove in, I realized that my glasses were lost and beyond recovery. I swam into the central current and searched from bank to bank. It was not until I had rounded a bend that I sighted the boat. A Mexican man wearing only white underpants was standing in it. He was struggling to control the spinning vessel, and, in a swirl of backwater, I finally spotted Amanda. She was trying to grab the bowline, but the boat's unsteady rocking yanked the rope from her hand. As I drew closer, I encouraged Amanda to swim to the Mexican riverbank. We were only a few feet from calmer, shallower water, but Amanda failed to understand. Instead, she lunged for the boat and gagged on a mouthful of water.

When I managed to gather her attention, we agreed to swim sidestroke, facing each other, to the Mexican bank. Following a few steady, purposeful strokes, I found that I could stand and help Amanda to the beach. The man who had rescued the boat was soon ashore also, and he immediately began hauling the boat upstream. After Amanda recovered her breath, we turned toward the landing site. While we walked along the rocky shore, Amanda puzzled over what had happened. She said she remembered that one moment everything was fine, and, an instant later, she was foundering in the water.

At the landing, the boatman appeared annoyed with Amanda. On the far side, Curt, Sean, and a few others collected atop the bank. The moment we docked, there was a flurry of questions. The boatman explained that the accident occurred after Jake began making crude sexual advances toward Amanda. When she resisted, the boatman had intervened and then Jake had dumped them both into the river. Jake had completed the crossing and then cast the boat adrift.

At the bus, Curt called sternly for Jake. He emerged looking like a puppy who had pooped on the carpet. Curt asked Jake to explain what had happened, and, without lifting his eyes, Jake shrugged and stammered, "I don't know. I think someone might have fallen out of the boat." The boatman blurted out, "That's not true! He jumped the girl and then knocked us both in the water." Faced with contradictory stories, Curt turned to Amanda who shook her head slowly and claimed she had no idea what had happened. Given the lack of other available witnesses, Curt decided to drop the matter.

Although Curt believed that there was no point in pursuing the inquiry, I felt differently. Even if events had not transpired precisely as the boatman described, I felt certain that Jake must have been more culpable. I looked at Jake and spat, "You deserve to be in prison!" Jake was rattled by my denunciation, and he strode menacingly toward me saying, "You can't prove anything!" Curt stood in his way and then asked if I had witnessed anything. Since I had only observed the aftermath, I had to shake my head. Curt admonished, "Look man, if you didn't see anything, you can't say anything." Bitterly, I conceded, but fumed in exasperation.

The boatman resignedly informed Curt that he felt entitled to reparations. Curt sighed, reached into his pocket, and said, "Look, I've got twenty bucks on me." The boatman accepted the money and then asked Curt to deliver two new oars. I returned to the bus and sat on a bench, while Amanda wandered to the rear platform with Jake. They appeared intent on working out their differences. I was too frazzled to caution Amanda against further involvement with Jake. Instead, I draped a towel over my head and rubbed my eyes. As I did so, Hal said, "Hey! Where are your glasses?" I shook my head and told him they were in the river. He gaped in alarm, but I raised my hands to forestall further discussion.

Demolished Roles and Restructured Perception

Curt drove out of the parking lot, but rather than returning to the main road, he diverged onto another dirt lane. After wrestling the bus along a series of dusty paths, he pulled off and shut down the engine. One mile down a nearby path, Curt claimed, there was an old historic hot springs. While others rushed off in search of the springs, I scanned the desert for a likely retreat. In the early dusk, I took few steps into the scrubby landscape and plumped down, hidden and alone, on the crunchy husk of a dead plant.

In the quiet desert, my mind raged. Chief among my thoughts emerged an overriding antipathy for Jake. Even though I am not usually an advocate of imprisonment-I like to imagine that there must be more constructive ways of managing troublesome people-I felt as though Jake deserved incarceration; he deserved to be handled as inhumanely as he had treated others. Also, I was still annoyed that Jake had been permitted back on the bus. I seriously considered deserting in protest.

It is not unheard of for researchers to "loathe" (Lofland and Lofland, 1984) some of people they study. However, despite the enmity that I bore for Jake[3], I decided that it would only compound the day's injustices if I permitted him to disrupt my work. Therefore, I decided not to abandon my research project, however, I was forced to radically revamp my perception of the Tortoise. That is, from the outset, I had cultivated the ludicrous misperception that while I may have been physically present, my analytical psyche had been removed-as if I had been a researcher "witnessing a reality impervious to his presence" (Pollner and Emerson 1983, p. 236). However, the river incident convinced me that no one had been acting-especially for my benefit-and I had not been in an audience. Furthermore, I had developed the unshakable conviction that I had both the right and responsibility to interfere with trouble-makers. To put it mildly, I was disgusted with my naïve orienting assumptions and I was disenchanted with the Green Tortoise.

As a result, I found myself in a quandary. I could no longer tolerate either of the available realities: either to continue in the role of "the good researcher," or to become an actor in the "Tortoise drama." Instead, I decided to proceed without a predetermined set of anchoring assumptions.

The afternoon in Boquillas had produced the desired effect on many of the passengers. The shouts of cavorting bathers echoed throughout the surrounding hills. When I rejoined the others, I found the hot springs full of noisy nudists. Again, I had to marvel at the results of their binge. The sobering crowd appeared perfectly comfortable about skinny dipping together. Yet, although I had sidestepped the drunken insanity in Boquillas, I no longer sensed I was the master of my surroundings. I felt dizzy and slightly aswirl, as though I were caught in an unseen current.

Back Aboard

In the days that followed, I noted with interest a new twist in my behaviour. After Boquillas, I became more outspoken about the potential dangers of various activities. I had no desire to witness any more disasters-no matter how sociologically interesting. When Chagnon (1977) encountered a Yanomamö mother who was starving her daughter he was faced with a dilemma. Although this sort of mistreatment was not negatively sanctioned among the Yanomamö, Chagnon's culturally-biased sense of morality compelled him to intervene. Chagnon imposed an alien morality-and, in doing so, altered the "natural" course of events-because he could not bear to condone such brutal neglect. While Chagnon's culturally-biased intrusion threatened the validity of his research, in another sense he also enhanced it.

Fleuhr-Lobban (1995) argues that social scientists do a disservice by avoiding interference in the plight of the oppressed. By adhering to a "holy" (Kvale 1995) orientation to science, researchers minimize contamination, but also acquiesce to forms of coercion that systematically subvert truth, e.g., interpreting quietude as consensus (Gaventa, 1982). Although Fleuhr-Lobban is cognizant of the dangers associated with superimposing alien cultural standards, she argues that science cannot ignore the misfortunes of the oppressed while also esteeming truth. Thus, Fleuhr-Lobban proposes that truth-seeking must be associated with the amelioration of particular injustices within and across cultural boundaries.

Truth on the Green Tortoise

After Boquillas, my interference, much like Chagnon's, at times approximated surrogate parenthood. For example, during an evening in New Orleans, one woman replied "Yes, Daddy!" when I cautioned her against the hazards of the French Quarter. Such solicitations eventually earned me the nickname, "the father of the bus." Nevertheless, rather than contaminating the Tortoise, my morally-involved participation affirmed and advanced its "naturally" evolving social dynamics. That is, after Boquillas there was also another notable modification in my behaviour: I became increasingly caught up in the enthusiasm of the adventure trip. For example, if somebody sprayed me with water, I would spray twice as much back. Also, during a food fight, I found myself hurling more muck when everyone else had given up the game. A man named Ken, who was thunderstruck by my antics, remarked repeatedly about how much I had changed since I lost my glasses.

Photo 6: Tidying Up

Although it was not clear at the time, when I rejected the perspective that had characterized other passengers as actors, I began to treat the Tortoise as a real place. As a result, I became more susceptible to the "Tortoise Effect." That is, I began associating with others in the zany fashion the Tortoise inspires because my inhibitions had gone out the window behind theirs. By breaking through the boundaries that had preserved my aloofness, I was "charmed" by the Tortoise and drawn to a more verisimilar (Lincoln and Denzin, 1994) understanding of its unique experience.


The social world is far too complex for imperfect scientists ever to presume that they have determined its final truths. Yet, although ultimate truths may be forever out of reach, humans are still capable of changing profoundly the shape of the thinkable. As certain as we may ever be about "absolute truths," the process of redefining reality (McGettigan, 1998a, 1999a, 1999b, 2000) generally causes such certainties to appear, in a new light, as rather silly beliefs (e.g., the earth being flat, or lying at the centre of the universe). Therefore, I believe that imperfect scientists can most faithfully serve truth by caring more about people than "valid" knowledge.

Science has been criticized repeatedly for maintaining established paradigms (Kuhn, 1970; Lather, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1999; Wright, 1992) more effectively than divining truth. If truth emerges through the process of reducing distortions over knowledge (Habermas, 1981; Lemert, 1991; McGettigan, 1998a, 1999a, 2000), then a sacred (Kvale, 1995) view of scientific validity obviates truth by endorsing a wide range of sacrosanct limitations on knowledge. As in the early stages of my Tortoise journey, such constraints tended to insulate and filter my "good scientific" perceptions. Yet, when I "botched" my project (i.e., when I lost my glasses, contaminated the field site, and muddled my good scientific perspective), I acquired more and better information about the Green Tortoise than I ever could have otherwise. Thus, I argue that truth-seekers would be better off caring about people more than "good science" because, at the very least, privileging human welfare decreases the chances that imperfect researchers will harm "others." At best, caring more about people will help advance the cause of justice by defying the subtle, diabolical, and often unintended forms of power that, in turn, limit the production of truth within and across societies.


1All personal names have been substituted with pseudonyms.

2Also see Neumann (1993) for an account of a trip he took in 1987.

3I decided that my opinion of Jake could not improve sufficiently to tolerate any kind of interaction with him. Instead I decided to ignore him. While this was a daunting project because of our restricted quarters, nevertheless, we were able to maintain an impressive distance for the remainder of the trip. Interestingly, as reprehensible as I consider Jake's behaviour, I found his presence instructive. Largely because of my abhorrence, I consciously-and not without annoying plagues of conscience-exercised double standards in relation to his behavior. Thus, I learned useful lessons about the value-based nature of my "objective," analytical mind.


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