Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More ethnographic work: Dog Show

I went back into the field again last weekend, spending three days among members of the AKC (American Kennel Club). My wife has gotten pretty deeply involved in showing our 9-month old Dalmatian Charlie, and this time I went along.

As with most special interest groups, they are a quirky bunch who take what they are doing very seriously. I've seen similar patterns in a taekwondo community, a Star Trek fan club, an astronomy club, and an amateur archaeology club.

Some observations:

As in any culture, there are unique shared ideas and values. These are most readily identified by the special terms they use when speaking to one another. There are the official terms and phrases (e.g. major, best of opposite, reserve), and those that have evolved informally (e.g. stack, bait).

There are standards and rules, but it all comes down to the various judge's highly subjective decisions. It is clear that participants believe that winners are not chosen solely on the basis of the dogs' characteristics, but that the reputation of the breeder or the handler (or whether the judge knows them personally) plays a significant part. It is also believed that judges from different regions of the country have significantly different standards by which they judge the dogs. Something besides the documented standards is certainly at work here... in each day of the three-day event there was a different judge, and there were different winners each day. A specific example: On the final day, a judge declared that she would award NO winner among the winners of the previous round since none of them were worthy... and one of these dogs had won a "major" only the day before with a different judge.

There is a high level of segmentation within the dog show culture. The divisions are naturally drawn along breed lines-- I saw very little interaction across breed groups. There are several coexisting hierarchies:

  1. The official stratification of the show itself. This is structured with the show officials at the top, then the judges, and the breeders and handlers at the bottom.
  2. I thought I also observed an informal hierarchy or pecking order, with dog owners (who do NOT show their own dogs) at the top. They are followed by the professional handlers (hired by these owners), breeders who show their own, and dog owners who show their own dogs at the bottom.
Unlike other groups I've observed, the dog show culture's competitive nature results in a broad range of emotions and strained relations between the members. There are, by definition, a lot more losers than winners, and the highly subjective manner in which the winners are chosen leads to continual controversy. In general, I saw a lot of unhappy people. I spoke with more than one individual who questioned whether they wanted to continue their participation.

Note: The photo above shows four pups from the same litter. Charlie is the dog on the far left, and that's Teri (my wife) handling him.

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