Why study handmade bike builders? To be sure, they occupy a niche. There aren’t all that many of them. Many that are working now weren’t working a few years ago…and many of them now won’t be working much a few years from now. They don’t produce a lot of output. They don’t seem to make a lot of money. They aren’t making things that are radically different from other kinds of producers (mass) and their products are fairly expensive. Not to mention….bikes? Who cares, right? Why not study cars or something else with more significance in the “real” world and everyday life?
Lots of reasons, in other words, to not pay attention!
Nonetheless, I still think it’s worth the time, but it all comes down to framing.
As a sociologist, how I might justify looking at handmade bike builders largely depends on what sort of phenomena I see them as a “case of”. This is what social scientists do – or what we are supposed to do – when thinking of a project: we move back and forth from the theoretical to the empirical, from ideas to evidence, and back again. [If you are into this sort of thing, check out Charles Ragin’s nifty summary of this process in graphical form] A sociological project, then, is one that investigates and analyzes a particular realm of the empirical/observable world (e.g. bike builders, who they are, what they do, why they do it, and so on) in its full complexity in order to use this analysis to inform a more abstract “theory” about how the social world operates more generally (for instance: how small-scale manufacturers compete with large-scale operations, how niche markets survive through brand and lifestyle affinities with specific communities, how trade shows facilitate networks of producers and consumers, and so on).
A sociologist is therefore expected to use her empirical observations to develop and evaluate theories about larger mechanisms and processes, and not simply to justify a project by the novelty or intrinsic value/interest of the empirical material in its own right. Empirics are a means to the end of broader theoretical understanding, not the “end”/goal in and of themselves. Or, again, that’s the game we are supposed to be playing as scholars!
So, in the next set of posts I’ll be working on this sort of framing – talking about the larger set of issues, questions and concerns that motivate my research into the handbuilt bicycle world and how I think investigating this world can speak to those concerns. I must warn you, though: it won’t be all academic, for my motivations are both personal and political as well…which is another key aspect of the framing process. More on that to come…ideally on a weekly or every-other-week schedule.