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On the Fireline

Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters

In this rugged account of a rugged profession, Matthew Desmond explores the heart and soul of the wildland firefighter. Having joined a firecrew in Northern Arizona as a young man, Desmond relates his experiences with intimate knowledge and native ease, adroitly balancing emotion with analysis and action with insight. On the Fireline shows that these firefighters aren’t the adrenaline junkies or romantic heroes as they’re so often portrayed.

An immersion into a dangerous world, On the Fireline is also a sophisticated analysis of a high-risk profession—and a captivating read.

“Gripping . . . a masterful account of how young men are able to face down wildfire, and why they volunteer for such an enterprise in the first place.”—David Grazian, Sociological Forum

“Along with the risks and sorrow, Desmond also presents the humor and comaraderie of ordinary men performing extraordinary tasks. . . . A good complement to Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Recommended.”—Library Journal

Read an excerpt.

384 pages | 32 halftones, 1 line drawing | 5 11/16 x 8 11/16 | © 2007

Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work, Social Psychology--Small Groups, Urban and Rural Sociology


“Rich in gritty detail, Matthew Desmond’s sociological study of a firecrew is a welcome addition to the literature of wildfire. His four years on a backcountry Forest Service crew provide authentic material—sometimes startlingly so—for his observations. If you want a look behind the flames to see what drives these people to come back year after blistering year then read this book.”

John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain

On the Fireline is a riveting account of firemen of the U.S. Forest Service tackling wildland fires, as well as a detailed chronicle of the training, preparation, and bonhomie of depot life. By exploring how joining a firecrew matches, confirms, and extends the values of the rural culture within which the recruits grew up, Desmond offers a unique perspective on the social and psychological motivations for firefighting. The richness of the data he uncovers and his arresting style of presentation make this a distinctive and evocative work.”

Paul Willis, author of Learning to Labor

“In recent years, ethnographers have tried to face up to the Bourdieuian challenge of showing how aspects of culture are rooted in daily practices and bodies. In this beautifully written work of participant observation, Matthew Desmond takes us into the world of wildland firefighters to help us better understand the dynamics of dangerous organizations and the workers who hold the line. At the same time, he moves ethnography forward: rather than following the all too common procedure of asserting the existence of knowledges that ‘go without saying’ for his subjects, Desmond shows in detail how habitus actually operates in everyday life.”

Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk and Slim’s Table

"Along with the risks and sorrow, Desmond also presents the humor and comradery of ordinary men performing extraordinary tasks. . . . A good complement to Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Recommended."

Library Journal

"The book is beautifully written and theoretically sophisticated with truly surprising findings. . . . On the Fireline illustrates the unique questions, methods, and findings made possible by the sociological imagination and is, thus, an excellent text with which to solidify a semester’s worth of sociological training. Further, because Desmond interweaves compelling narratives, complex theory, and a discussion of methodological rigor, it solidifies students’ understanding of exactly how useful, and fascinating, the sociological lens can be."

Lisa Wade | Teaching Sociology

"This is an important book because it illustrates a set of practices that are sufficient to maintain social order in a dangerous world. . . . Desmond deploys this complex argument with persuasive grounding and enviable control. We are in a stronger position to think about risk because of his efforts."

Karl E. Wieck | Administrative Science Quarterly

"[The book is] a highly readable, at times funny, very insightful, Bourdieu-inspired ethnography of country masculinity, and as such very useful for courses on masculinity. It is a fine example of how to apply structuration theory and, therefore, a good resource for classes in social theory. It also offers a penetrating examination of the logic of bureaucratic organization and the way it creates a common sense world in which blame is always individualized. . . . A thick and rich take on a particular version of rural, masculine, working-class culture in the United States and how it fits with an institutional setting that requires young men to do dangerous work."

Thomas Dunk | Canadian Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

Part One  History and Place
1. Country Masculinity 
2. The Sanctuary of the Forest   
Part Two  Training and Discipline
3. A Joke between Brothers  
4. Real Firefighters Drive Green Engines  
5. Learning and Burning
6. Taking the "Wild" Out of Wildfire 
Part Three    Fire and Death
7. The Beaver Creek Fire    
8. The Incompetent Dead
Appendix: Between Native and Alien   


ASA Occupations & Organizations Section: Max Weber Award

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