New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens

by Andrew Irving,  Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”
Oscar Wilde

As Oscar Wilde suggests, because there is so much to be gained by observing surfaces, their study is not to be concerned with the shallow, superficial, and trivial. However, after making this declaration Wilde cautioned “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril”. Consequently, I would argue it has become necessary for the social sciences and humanities to place themselves in greater “peril” by venturing beneath the surface to try to gain a better understanding of the interior dialogues and imaginative lifeworlds that constitute people’s experiences of urban life.

The capacity for a multifaceted, imaginative inner life encompassing internally represented speech, random urges, unfinished thoughts, inchoate imagery and much else besides—is an essential feature of the human condition and a principal means through which people understand themselves and others. Simply put, without people’s inner expressions and imaginative lifeworlds there would be no social existence or understanding, at least not in a form we would recognise. And yet, while early modernist writers, such as Joyce, Dos Passos and Celine, strove to represent the ongoing streams of inner dialogue and expression that mediate the city, the social sciences and humanities find themselves without a generally accepted theory of how interiority relates to public expression, nor an established methodology for accessing interior expression, and are thus at risk of only telling half the story of human life.

The Limits of Science

Manchester: Monday 12th December 2011

Here is a photograph I took this morning in Manchester and I have an extremely simple question about it that nevertheless places us far beyond the limits of science and other modes of understanding.

The question is what are these people thinking?

What for example is the man in the red coat thinking as he walks towards us? Or the man immediately to his right? Or the two women in red coats walking away from us? What is the empirical content of their thoughts? As with any crowded city street, people may be engaged in diverse, or even radically different, forms of inner speech and imagery, with one person trying to remember if they locked their front door while others are respectively fantasising about an actor, deciding where to go for lunch, communing with a dead spouse or negotiating a major life change, such as having lost their job. In Ethnography, Art and Death (Irving 2007) I try to enter into the consciousness of a man walking around a city looking for a place to commit suicide, while Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood, Alcohol Pills (2010) and Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue (2011) both concern persons who have received an HIV diagnosis and attempt to understand the experience of someone confronting the radical uncertainty of their own existence in public: a person who remains a social being and is required to act accordingly as they walk along the street, but whose inner dialogues and lifeworlds are not always made apparent to the wider world. The extent to which the people we see in streets, parks, cafes, bridges and vehicles are engaged in the same practice remains an open question but once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.

Random Encounters

What would it be like to enter into other people’s heads and find out what they are thinking: the person sitting next to you on the bus; the girl sitting in the corner of the café; the man staring at the pigeons in the park. What would it be like to be able to listen to the inner conversations, hopes, fantasies and worries of the people we see in the city? What daydreams, ideas and opinions would we uncover? What would we learn about human-beings?

For New York Stories, funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation (Grant No. 8046), I collected more than 100 interior dialogues of random strangers as they moved around the city. The method was very simple: I stood at different points in the city and asked people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey. I found it surprising not just the level of interest in the nature of the project but by the amount of people, from all walks of life, who said yes. Below are 3 short excerpts of people randomly encountered in the city taken from the full-length recordings that range from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Meredith: Soho


Thomas: Manhattan Bridge


Tony: Chelsea

The above videos can only offer the tiniest glimpse into those realms of experience that can be articulated and approximated through words and images within a public, narrative encounter, and thus cannot claim to provide a comprehensive approach to people’s lived experiences of the city. Not all thought processes take place in language and routinely incorporate various non-linguistic and non-symbolic modes of thinking and being that operate beyond or at the threshold of language. The narrations are necessarily subject to many layers of self-censorship and the act of recording would have substantially influenced the content and character of the material in indeterminate ways.

Nevertheless, as the person walked through the city narrating their thoughts it soon becomes apparent that there are as many ways of thinking as there are of speaking. Meredith’s thoughts stretch from the trivial to the tragic over a few short steps as she begins by looking for a Staples stationary store to buy CD covers, then shortly after is dwelling on a friend’s cancer diagnosis she learnt about the previous night. Meanwhile, she looks over the road and notices a cafe she likes to watch people in. Thomas is concerned with people’s prospects in the current social and economic climate and his thoughts are organised as a sustained social analysis and argument about the position of working people and the historical migration of black workers from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Tony, a writer and video artist, walking from his boyfriend’s house, his thoughts emerging in staccato bursts: as he walks quicker and his blood circulates faster he begins to get more argumentative with himself as he negotiates a significant life event and keeps returning to the same words suck it up or let it go.

Inner expression is a shared phylogenetic capacity that is constitutive of a broad range of experiences ranging from routine and mundane interactions to extraordinary moments of existential crisis. To strengthen our truth claims about human experience and action, I argue it is necessary to develop new ways of researching and understanding how the contents of people’s inner dialogues might relate to extrinsic, audible, and observable expressions, which accords with general processes of knowing and cognition. As there is no objective, independent access to another person’s consciousness or experience, this presents a deep-seated difficulty for evidence based disciplines first, because it is primarily a methodological and practical problem rather than a conceptual one, and, second, because conventional social scientific methods and measures are often too static to capture the unfinished, transitory, and ever-changing character of people’s interior experiences and expressions as they emerge in the present tense. Developing practical approaches to knowing, theorising and representing the interior dimensions of being and its relationship to social life and would provide empirical data for investigation rather than rely upon abstract theoretical debates and exegesis remote from people’s lives. Such approaches will necessarily involve establishing new criteria for what constitutes evidence and require a rethinking of the ontological status accorded to people’s experiential interior. And although such an imperiled anthropology may not ultimately succeed in getting beneath the surface, as Oscar Wilde and his fellow writers and artists know, failure is necessary to the creative process—to which anthropologists might add that failure is equally necessary to field research, entering new social worlds and learning about people’s lives.

 “Between thought and expression lies a life time”

Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground


Irving Andrew, 2011 “Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior

Dialogue”. in Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Vol 25: 1

——– 2010     “Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood,

Alcohol, Pills” in Visual Studies. Vol 25: No. 1

——— 2007. “Ethnography, Art and Death” Journal of the Royal

            Anthropological Institute n.s.13(1), pages 185-208

Wilde, Oscar. 1992. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Wordsworth Classics.

11 thoughts on “New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens

  1. John Roseveare

    Erv – hope your well.

    I was generally entertained by this. A few things struck me:
    On language: a) why is it academics “would argue” while others simply argue? b) People walking down the street are not engaged in a ‘practice’, they are walking down the street; c) people don’t’ have inner lifeworlds, they have lives.
    Science can’t get inside peoples heads, thankfully. Beyond that, don’t we all imagine what other people are thinking? Privileging this as an academic occupation for which people get paid by the state (or foundations etc) strikes me as strange. A lot of people spend their lives trying to get inside other peoples heads including politicians, marketeers, criminal detectives and psychotherapists. And artists. Who maybe should be left to sift through the debris, since, as you say, it’s inherently inaccessible to methods based on accumulated evidence. Its not really surprising you began with Wilde rather than Weber.
    I maybe wrong, but do I hear a sub-text here, along the lines of “people think good thoughts that don’t get heard, while the world outside focuses only on their narrow economic life.”? Reflecting on my early life of political correctness, my take on this is that people thinking good thoughts are doing so to make themselves feel they are better people, even if these thoughts make no material difference to the lives of the people they imagine the big bad world conspires against. This ‘inner dialogue’ becomes reflexive, providing an internal rationalisaiton of their actual behaviour, which is more often than not no less narrow, no less self-concerned, no ‘better’, than folk who don’t think the good thoughts. If you get my drift.
    The man in the red coat? He’s more likely to be thinking about the girl in accounts breasts, improving his computer gaming scores, how clever his online gambling alter ego is and how annoying his brother can be than about the social inequities arising from economic migration. I wonder how much we really want to spend on knowing what the man in the red coat thinks.

    Pip pip.

    John Roseveare

  2. Jessica Symons

    This is really good. The 3 chosen are clearly self-reflective ppl – maybe that’s why they agreed to participate, as they are working through stuff.

    I wonder if some people would say no to the request because they consider their thoughts are not worth recording… If you’re preoccupied with what outfit you are going to wear to work tomorrow, would you agree to be recorded, or would you think it is too frivolous?

    Or maybe people were recorded with these reflections but were not selected in the final cut for public viewing!

  3. Manchester LAB

    Genuinely the best thing I’ve read all week! Very thought provoking Cities. Thank you for the follow. I was wondering if you’ve read Sam Harris’s latest book “The moral Landscape” – ( or seen his conversation with Richard Dawkin’s about Morality. Here’s the link to the talk “What science has to say about Morality?” – ( Thanks again. MLab

  4. Beatrice

    Last year I interviewed a number of older people who had experienced the big February earthquake in Christchurch NZ. They lived in different residential care facilities and were moved to Dunedin when it was clear that the facilties were damaged beyond repair, and that the shocks were continuing. And still are, I may say. Reflections ranged from fear, terror for families in their homes in Christchurch, reminiscence ‘I survived the war, I can survive this’, shock and huge pain as the quake lifted one woman up and dashed her on to the concrete, grief as they saw one manager run outside to help someone, and be killed by a large chunk of falling concrete; need to get clothes out of rooms too badly damaged to enter, sleeping on mattresses on the floor with the other residents and feeling angry about the noise of the talking and sometimes shouting of some other residents, worry about staff and their families – and staff members, by the way, walked miles to get to work to care for these older people. I have a report ready to be published and am almost ready to start writing articles. All these thoughts, sometimes at the same time, sometimes sequential, but always present. So interiority, thank you, Andrew, will help very nicely in the writing.

  5. Carmen Teixidor

    The dark (unknown) energy of a city is made up of all the millions thoughts and feelings constantly oozing out of people’s bodies and making them behave a certain way. You realize it when you visit a ghost town totally deserted by its inhabitants: the underlying energy that held everything together is gone.
    Good luck for the building project!

  6. tmn1963


    As you yourself recognise, there’s a kind of impossibility about this project that squats at its (epi)centre like a toad … one that COHERES around a concern with audience … leading to the “many layers of self-censorship” and inherent in the influence of the “act of recording” … because, while not without interest, it does seem to me that a common characteristic in each of these short films was that what they documented was, in fact(tm) much more a series of dramatic monologues than interior dialogues … and that, consequently, what you have captured is too far removed from the authentic experience of ‘talking to oneself’ to offer much (or any) more insight than might the work of a skilled novelist pulling off a similar trick in ‘fictional’ form (cf. de Montherlant in Chaos & Night, which I happen to have been reading). Sure, we gain here a sense of how other people narrativise their lives when encouraged to do so (by a microphone, by a man in brown trousers following them with a movie camera, by NYC being transformed into a film set), but not, perhaps, much of a window on what CS Peirce termed musement, which I take it was your original prey …

    Nice try though!

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