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A Conversation with Laura Norn



Q: Last year you co-edited a book for NYU Press with Harvey Molotch about toilets and public restrooms. What drew you to the study of toilets, and why do you feel it is important to discuss their place in culture? Harvey was responsible for turning me on to toilets. Im always interested in the relationship between the built world and social behavior and when we started talking about public bathrooms it was like I had found a little slice of analytical heaven. Think about it. The public bathroom is where we do private acts in public - already a kind of breaching experiment. The deep tensions around gender and exposure, germaphobia and environmentalism, safety and surveillance, float to the surface in the public bathroom. We got excited about looking into the bathroom both as a place that was ripe for intervention in itself, but also as a lens for figuring out why and how all those tensions are still present, if somewhat camouflaged by political correctness and the multiplicity of post-modernisms lingering hangover. The public restroom is a shared institution in which we learn to share and protect each others vulnerabilities we cannot escape the problem of learning to share by creating single-user bathrooms for everyone. That is not only impractical, its environmentally irresponsible and it robs us all of the lessons we learn from confronting humanity from a position of humility. Q: The chapter that you wrote in Toilet, Only Dogs Are Free to Pee: New York Cabbies Search for Civility, examines the difficulties that cab drivers face when seeking public restrooms, and the cultural paradoxes therein. What drew you to study cab drivers in particular, and what methods did you use in researching their toilet use habits? I actually came to the dogs before I arrived at the cabbies. When I was working on that chapter I was a poor grad student and very rarely allowed myself the luxury of taking a relaxi-taxi. I was so cheap I didnt even take the train if I could help it. So I spent a lot of time walking and I realized that Manhattan is awash in urine, dog urine below and adjacent to Central Park, human urine above it (more or less, this is not scientific). This is a disgusting situation, but not for the reasons that first come to mind. Urine is sterile so just having a lot of it around does not cause a public health problem (though it may present a quality of life concern). What was disgusting about this situation for me was that the collective we was letting dogs pee all over whereas people who did the exact same thing were subject not only to the collective disapproval of passersby, but also arrests and fines.Harvey says, peeing is political and the uneven legal landscape makes it clear that whats in violation is not the pee, its the people. Mitch Duneier wrote about the way the lack of public restrooms played out for the unhoused people he did ethnographic work with on 6thAvenue in Greenwich Village. I thought that by talking to taxi drivers I would be able to figure out how people work around difficult physical and regulatory environments. I started taking cabs everywhere and talked to cabbies who were interested in the bathroom question. I was expecting more joking around given the subject matter, but I ended up hearing frustration verging on defeat. There are very few truly public restrooms in Manhattan accessible directly from the street. None of them have dedicated parking. Cabbies cannot use the bathrooms in

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hotel lobbies while their cabs wait in the queue to pick up a fare. If they do park at a hydrant (one that a dog might be peeing on), they risk getting a ticket for 115. So a lot of them end up trying to cut back on how much water they drink during their shifts, they make friendships with small store owners at different spots around the city, and they might have to go to the last resort: peeing into a bottle. The important thing to mention is that their last resort was NOT peeing on the street.Even angry and desperate, cab drivers did not pee on the street. Peeing on the street has been coded as acceptable only for dogs and drunks. Cab drivers are often already in marginalized race and class positions - theres just no way they were willing to risk falling on the wrong side of their own imagined boundary between civilized and barbaric, not to mention the dirty looks and fines from the larger circle of street-policers. If only Saturday night drunks felt the same way, right? Q: In the final chapter of Toilet, On Not Making History: What NYU Did with the Toilet and What It Means for the World, you collaborated with Harvey Molotch to produce schematics of ideal public restrooms. What was the process of developing these schematics like, and what do you feel are the primary obstacles to their actual implementation? I was so excited to write a conclusion that was not so much a summary of where we had been in the book, but was a vision about where we could go in the world. In the introduction, Harvey did a mild finger wave at the architectural profession for relegating bathroom design to the lowest paid, greenest person on staff. In the conclusion, we took up our own implied challenge and set about imaging what a better public restroom would actually look like in plan. First, we took the leap and went unisex. Gender binaries are tired. We do not have good evidence that splitting men and women into separate rooms keeps the women (or the men) any safer there have been too many women attacked by men in the womens room. We do have mounting evidence that gender segregated bathrooms are dangerous for gender queer people. We also realized that we believe in the idea of encouraging people to share space while they are a little vulnerable. We get through it. Q: On your blog, Graphic Sociology, you analyze and critique infographics with regards to how and how wellthey communicate information (accurately or otherwise). Why do you feel it is important to examine infographics? What are your thoughts on how infographics are used? We tell our students not to believe everything they read; at graphic sociology I tell my readers not to believe everything they see. There has been an emphasis on visual communications in this moment of the information age and I think it is important to increase our visual literacy skills. As academics, we spend many classroom hours figuring out how to interrogate texts, how to pick them apart and see where there might be holes in the argument or elements of data that do not match up with the way the author is interpreting them. At Graphic Sociology, I try to give my readers the same set of skills for critiquing infographics. Secretly, I hope more social scientists will be inspired to start making graphic depictions of their findings because the process of making a single, cohesive, properly contextualized graphic is a great way to tighten up an argument and to reach wider audiences, even those who do not speak English. There are far fewer words to translate in an infographic. Q: How do you select what infographics to analyze? What has the reader response been like to your posts? I try to pick graphics that are either clearly about social science data that my readers will care about like, say, income and wealth inequality or I pick graphics that are put together in a way I rarely see, for better or for worse. By this point my readers know how I feel about line graphs for trend data (yay) and pie charts for any kind of data (nay). I try to focus on graphics that are not so complicated the average sociologist couldnt learn how to make something similar to communicate about their own data. I also try to post graphics that I have created not so much because I am an arrogant grandstander who wants to see my own work out on the interwebs, but because I know what went into the decision making process, I know what kind of data I had, how reliable it was, what message I hoped to communicate, and what the most technically difficult steps were in the process. I can also solicit opinions from my readers for improvements and then post the results of those opinions which helps further break down the notion that infographics are not subject to the same kind of editing process we use when we write.

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Molotch, Harvey and Norn, Laura. 2010. Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing. New York: NYU Press. Graphic Sociology, graphicsociology/

After 200+ posts its safe to divide my readers into two groups: the biggest is a group of about 2,000 academics who glance at all of my posts because they have Graphic Sociology in their google readers. A smaller (~200) but more vociferous group are people primarily interested in drugs, guns, and sex. My traffic always spikes when I write about drugs, guns, and sex. The post with the most total traffic is one about thechampagne glass distribution of wealth. The post that has the most comments is one aboutlegalizing marijuana. Go figure. This Interview has been condensed and edited.

LAURA NORN is a doctoral student in the department of sociology at New York University.

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