Which Project Should Mike Do?

Hello, fellow historians and the history-minded!

I made a longish post about digital publishing and peer review, and now I have to put up or shut up. I want to want to conduct a research project equal in “mass” to a journal article, and post it online as I go. I’ll have to rethink the format, the use of media, etc., but I want it to contain original research and stand up to peer review. The “peers” will be the larger set of history-minded people who use the internet, rather than 3-6 professors chosen by an editor. Will it work? I don’t know, but my University isn’t giving raises anyway, so I have nothing to lose.

I have two projects I’ve been kicking around for a while now. Which should I do?

Music, Creolization, and Segregation

Ralph Ellison famously observed that American popular culture was far more integrated than American politics. I want to look at the musical careers of two early 20th century contemporaries, Eddie Lang and John Powell. Lang was born Salvatore Massaro to an Italian immigrant family in Philadelphia. He was possibly the most recorded musician of the 1920s: playing guitar on everything from classical to blues to jazz to country at a time when those genres were being established. Lang often worked under assumed names to preserve the illusion of segregation: he recorded blues music as “Blind Willie Dunn” and “country” music as one of “the Georgia Crackers.”

Powell, from Richmond VA, was classically trained in Europe. His most famous work, titled Negro Rhapsodie, drew self consciously from African American sources. He eventually became a highly influential folklorist. But Powell also ended up a hard core eugenicist and racist, helping co-author VA’s “Racial lntegrity Act” in 1924. He wrote essays on the “folk” in music under false names. I want to know about the daily practice of music in the two men’s very different American lives, and what might have led one to embrace “creolization” and the other to flee it in favor of hard-core racism.

The Strange Career of Mr. Zip

Many years ago the late Roy Rosenzweig and I started work on a history of the zip code. We wanted to see how it went from a simple tool of administrative efficiency to a marker of cultural and social identity, as in the old TV show “Beverly Hills 90210.” The key player in the transition seems to have been an early pioneer in computers and demographics employed by Johnson’s “Great Society” in “the war on poverty.” Jonathan Robbin figured out how to link census data with zip codes, and realized that zip codes reflected “lifestyle” choices. He then set out to make this data available to marketers, which only intensified people’s tendency to “cluster.” We were interested in the relationship of government and commerce and particularly in the way private enterprise gained more surveillance over, and knowledge of, individuals as “big government” declined.

As is often the case, I’m not sure where either project will lead, or if I have anything at all original to say. You can vote by clicking on these words or on the picture. Which should I do?


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Cohen and Sheila Brennan, Mike O'Malley. Mike O'Malley said: Which Project should I do? http://theaporetic.com/?p=602 Looking for input or a crowd sourced academic article […]

  • Suggest the ZIP code story because it will have broader reach. It’s just easier for people to get their arms around, and it’s something everyone can relate to.

    Might also include the battle between a few communities here in Mass. about who would get the ZIP 01776.

    (Trivia: Who knows that it once stood for “Zone Improvement Plan?”)

  • One idea I’ve been kicking around as I kick this new project into high gear is exposing all the preliminary and ongoing research in a public Zotero collection. I’m so sick of hearing fears voiced about the risk of being “scooped.” Like there are hordes of evil academics just waiting to “steal” our brilliant, brilliant ideas about zip codes, French cooks, time, and colonial botanists.

    You in?

  • Yes–I haven’t networked zotero yet but I think it’s an excellent idea. I’ll start a public collection once I settle on a topic

  • Ellen Noonan wrote:

    Mr. Zip! One, because of the Roy connection; and two, because it does seem like a story of larger import. The musicians are interesting, and you would do a great job with them I’m sure, but that doesn’t feel like untilled ground to me.

  • I’d say go with the zip code one, but then, I’m a real estate geek and I find things like that fascinating. The link between social status and zip code is clear, at least to me. It affects apparently unrelated things like services – having the “wrong” zip code means service techs are less likely to come out, or a utility company will charge higher hookup fees to new residents. It seems to be a creative way of attacking the problem of entrenched class differences.

  • Mike started his own successful consulting group in 1995, person, million dollar business in a single year. Musical

  • Mr. Zip! It’s hasn’t been done as much. Surveillance studies folks are mostly concerned with CCTV and post-9/11 spying, and the joint history of marketing and surveillance is still waiting to be written. Perhaps you’re the one to do it?

  • I love this idea. To my mind, the most intriguing part of your experiment is the ability for others (scholars, general public) to follow along with what you’re reading, including manuscript primary sources. But I’m also curious about the intersection between this article-writing project and intellectual-property issues….

    Powell’s papers at the University of Virginia are a goldmine. Having worked with them for my current project, I’m interested in the Lang-and-Powell piece— but I’m also curious about whether you’re planning to post your sources online as you go.
    Doesn’t the copyright on Powell’s papers (held by UVA) limit your ability to post excerpts from his papers as part of your ongoing research? If so, what’s your approach to balancing openness in research process with these intellectual-property constraints?

  • I vote for the Lang and Powell piece. First, because it seems crucial (and difficult) to understand the various ways whites approached black music in the US. Second, because you already know what you’re going to say about the zip code. And third, because eventually you’re going to have to write about music, no?

  • Monica McCormick wrote:

    I’d suggest doing whichever is best suited to open conversation — if you can post a lot of primary sources (music? images, texts, etc) for one project and not the other, that would push me in one direction or the other.

  • Gretchen wrote:

    Another vote for “Mr Zip”—like others I like the Rosenzweig connection but mainly because its one of those projects where everyone is sure they know what the outcome will be but one where a systematic examination will either formally and finally confirm that or lead to very interesting surprises.
    Being a cultural historian, my natural inclination would be to favor the piece on the musicians. Oddly, I find that if anything I feel like I’m going to “know” the outcome of that one—immediately essays on Jazz and the Nazis, “Hillybilly” music and other class/race/gender dissections come to mind. (Superficially I’d guess that Lang’s ethnic background vs. Powell’s seemingly WASPy Va background drive a lot of the choices and context each worked within…) Not that you wouldn’t bring in something new here but more a case that it would *seem* to be done in some way and have less overall appeal.
    My .02 cents

  • Both interesting project ideas.

    For the second one, I want to point out a lecture on street addressing and its history: http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4490

    Also: “87% of the US population is uniquely identified by {date of birth, gender, 5-digit ZIP}”. That comes from this paper:
    Uniqueness of Simple Demographics in the U.S. Population. Latanya Sweeney:
    Carnegie Mellon University, School of Computer Science, Data Privacy Lab White Paper Series LIDAP-WP4. Pittsburgh, PA: 2000.
    There used to be an abstract at http://dataprivacylab.org/dataprivacy/papers/LIDAP-WP4abstract.html (probably in archive.org, or go up a level or two)

  • I vote for Mr. Zip as well. It sales to everyone, since everyone has a zip code, everybody can tie into that research and apply it to themselves somehow.

  • I vote for the “ZIP code” thing (we call them “postal codes” in the rest of the world) mostly because of my own interest in it. Now you know my bias.

    That said, I think that going at this in a serious way might be a larger project than you think.

    I, of course, being a privacy-minded kind of guy, generally give out 90210 as my ZIP code when I happen to be in the U.S. and in a position where someone (say, a department store) is asking for one just for demographic information. But why that particular ZIP code? And why do all of these cultural associations come to my mind when I think of it?

    In the case of the U.S., it’s just because I’ve heard about the TV show. (I have to admit I’ve never actually watched it.) But the “feeling” of 90210, if I may put it in such a way (I’m not an academic, or even knowledgeable, at least not in this area) reminds me very much of my time in London where there was something that was so similar that I’d guess it’s the same.

    I went there for a working holiday and lived in an area called “West Kensington.” When I mention this to people who know London at all, they almost invariably come back with a reaction along the lines of, “very posh.”

    It wasn’t at all, actually; it was a cheap bedsit (so small that it didn’t actually have the “sit,” unless you folded up the bed) just off the Cromwell Road. Really, a much more descriptive name for it would have been, “North Fullham.”

    But I only figured that out when somewhere I’d heard someone describing his flat in Battersea (quite a “low-class” area) as being in “South Chelsea.” (For Americans, this is akin to describing your residence in Oakland as being in “East San Francisco.”)

    So, my point is, I suppose, that if you start to research this, unless you very strictly limit what you do, you’re going to find that either it turns into a monograph, or it goes far beyond ZIP codes.

    That said, don’t put too much into what you hear from the peanut gallery.

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