On a hot Austin night last summer, 60 natives convened for a social rite involving stick-on mustaches, paella, and a healthy flow of spirits. Young lesbians formed the core of the crowd. The two organizers, who had been lovers for a couple months, were celebrating their birthdays with a Spanish-themed party, decorated in bullfighting chic. It was a classic hipster affair, and everyone was loose and at ease, except for one black-haired interloper with a digital camera and a tiny notepad.
This interloper was Min Lieskovsky, a 31-year-old straight New Yorker who mingled freely and occasionally ducked into a bathroom to scribble notes. She’d left a Ph.D. program in sociocultural anthropology at Yale two years earlier, impatient with academia but still eager to use the ethnographic skills she’d mastered. Tonight, that meant she partied gamely and watched her subjects with a practiced eye, noting everything: when the party got started and when it reached its peak, who stuck mustaches on whom—and above all, what, when, and how people drank.
For Lieskovsky, it was all about the booze. The consulting firm she worked for, ReD Associates, is at the forefront of a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients. The vodka giant Absolut had contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report back on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.” This corrida de lesbianas was the latest in a series of home parties that Lieskovsky and her colleagues had joined in order to write an extended ethnographic survey of drinking practices, attempting to figure out the rules and rituals—spoken and unspoken—that govern Americans’ drinking lives, and by extension their vodka-buying habits.