Geographies of higher education: activism, philanthropy and marketisation

By Natalie Tebbett, Loughborough University

Picture-DearKitt1_wordpress-1140x600

Cecil Rhodes Building. Image Credit: Flickr user Jonathan/Flickr.com

Over the last month, many English newspapers have reported on the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford campaign (see also Shaw) – a protest movement petitioning for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the frontage of Oriel College, University of Oxford. Campaigners for the removal of the statue argue that its continued presence ‘is an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism’ (Petitioning Oriel College, Oxford University 2016). The original Rhodes Must Fall protest movement, which began 9 March 2015 at the University of Cape Town, describes itself as ‘a collective movement of students and staff members mobilising for direct action against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town’ (Rhodes Must Fall n.d).

At the University of Oxford, protesters have said ‘that the colonialism, racism and patriarchy this statue is seeped in has no place in our university – which for many of us is also our home. The removal of this statue would be a welcome first step in the University’s attempt to redress the ways in which it has been an active beneficiary of the empire’ (Petitioning Oriel College, the University of Oxford 2016). Despite the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford campaign, The Guardian reported this week that the statue is to remain after the governing body of Oriel College was warned that a proposed gift of £100m may be cancelled, with other expected donations also thought to be in jeopardy. In a statement, Oriel College said that it ‘does not share Cecil Rhodes’s values or condone his racist views or actions’ (Oriel College 2015).

The protest movement, though not successful in getting the statue removed, has raised concerns about black and minority ethnic ‘representation and experience’ of academics and students, which the University and Oriel College agree must improve. The number of recent news stories discussing the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford campaign highlights the complex geographies of the university as a space for free speech and activism, but also an oppressive environment that can incite institutional racism. The impact and strategic culture of philanthropic donations to higher education institutions is also explored (see Warren et al. 2014).

Two articles in Area reflect the increasing interest in the geographies of the university and higher education. In Sam Halvorsen’s paper, he discusses his own experience with Occupy London and the impact this had on his classroom teaching. For example, Halvorsen brought his ‘activism into the university by teaching and presenting seminars to students and staff…, gathering support in the process’ (p. 467). Sarah Hall (2015) also examines the geographies of higher education but from an economic geography perspective, with specific focus on the ‘spatiality of marketisation through the…introduction of undergraduate student fees’ (p. 451). Hall’s paper also contributes to wider debates in geography about the internationalisation of higher education. Both articles highlight the complex interplay of economic, political and social processes operating at institutional and much broader higher education scales.

The Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford campaign gives an important insight into some of the geographies of higher education spaces; for example: free speech, activism, institutional racism and black and minority ethnic under-representation. These debates, especially those that address race equality and diversity, will continue to unfold and be discussed particularly with the development of a higher education Race Equality Charter.

References

books_icon Hall, S. (2015) Geographies of marketisation in English higher education: territorial and relational markets and the case of undergraduate student fees. Area, 47(4), 451-458 (free to access).

books_icon Halvorsen, S. (2015) Militant research against-and-beyond itself: critical perspectives from the university and Occupy London. Area, 47(4), 466-472 (open access).

60-world2 Oriel College (2015) Statement by Oriel College about the issues raised by the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford petition. Available at: http://www.oriel.ox.ac.uk/content/statement-oriel-college-about-issues-raised-rhodes-must-fall-oxford-petition [Access date 02 February 2016].

60-world2 Petitioning Oriel College, Oxford University (2016) Petitioning Oriel College, Oxford University web-site. Available at: https://www.change.org/p/oriel-college-oxford-university-oriel-college-oxford-university-remove-the-cecil-rhodes-statue [Access date 02 February 2016].

60-world2 Rawlinson, K. (2016) Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford after ‘overwhelming support’. The Guardian 29 January 2016. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/28/cecil-rhodes-statue-will-not-be-removed–oxford-university [Access date 2 Feb 2016].

60-world2 Rhods Must Fall (2016) Rhods Must Fall. Available at: http://rhodesmustfall.co.za/ [Access date 02 February 2016].

books_icon Warren, A. P., Hoyler, M., and Bell, M. (2014) Strategic cultures of philanthropy: English universities and the changing geographies of giving. Geoforum, 55, 133-142

High-flying research: Geographies of air transportation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This weekend marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, so what better time than to take a look at some of the work being done by human geographers into the social and cultural dimensions of air space and air transportation. February 6th 1958 was the darkest day in Manchester United F.C.’s history. Following their European Cup quarter final win in Belgrade, the ‘Busby Babes’ – so-called after their illustrious manager Matt Busby – were involved in one of the most documented plane crashes in history, in which twenty-three of the forty-four passengers were killed, including eight of the players, when their plane crashed after trying to take-off amidst a devastating snow storm in Munich. Memories of the victims are still today as poignant as ever, in an age when air transportation has been completely transformed, and has come to signify the complex networks of social, political, and economic relationships in our contemporary mobile world.

‘Aeromobilities’, as Adey (2008) calls it, started to become the subject of geographical enquiry in the twenty-first century, with geographers looking to trace the economic and political links that air transport creates between places. Adey’s (2008) paper provides a useful summary of some of the work within geography about air transportation, research which has drawn on the ‘mobile turn’, a shift towards investigating how spaces are travelled through.

‘Identity’ being a key theme in geography due to the influence of feminism, the airport and the airplane have themselves been unravelled as sites of identity creation and performance. Adey (2008) explains how both airports and airplanes have become important geographical sites for the formation and suppression of identities. For some, airports are sites of alienation and inequality, whilst for others they are happy, homely places, a stepping stone between important places in their lives. Nowhere better is this evidenced than the film ‘Terminal’, in which Tom Hanks plays an eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America. Forced to stay in the airport for weeks, he feels the brunt of the airport’s hostility and exclusive power, but starts to enjoy and embrace his time there, making many friends, as well as enemies. Today, Adey (2008) argues, borders are shifting even further, spatially and temporally, with your entry into a country being variously permitted or denied from a distance, before you have left your airport of departure. Thus, the ways in which we imagine our place in relation to the rest of the world have changed, air transportation building notions of national identity and citizenship, and variously connecting and disconnecting people and places.

Modern spaces of air travel, as spaces for international border-crossing as well as state and terrorist violence, have triggered increasing regulation of societies. As Adey (2008) states, air-travel has become one of the most closely-monitored and highly-segregated spaces in modern society. Security screening in airports today has reached very intense levels, which redefine both bodies and belongings as ‘threats’. Full-body searches and X-ray machines mean that it is not only international boundaries that are crossed at airports, but also, as Adey (2008) claims, our personal boundaries. All this is part of a new culture of ‘anticipation’, in which our vision has become so accelerated that it has overtaken time (Adey, 2008). The threat of terrorism is, today, pre-empted, an imaginative geography of disaster created before it has even happened, evoking fear and panic.

Air transportation has also had more fatal effects on societies, playing a major part in wars since the turn of the twentieth century. Aerial warfare has come a long way since the air raids of World War Two, with new unmanned aircraft causing terror and destruction to contemporary society. The aerial view – or as Adey (2008) calls it the ‘cosmic view’ – has, since the early days of landscape surveys and the invention of aerial photography, been associated with a powerful total gaze of the world, with limitless capacity for knowledge and control. This total observation is seen, for example, in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used for aerial surveillance of military and civilian targets (Adey, 2008).

The performance of gender relations within the space of the plane has also, Adey (2008) claims, captured the imaginations of geographers; cockpit and cabin gender roles being fascinating examples of gender relations. A recent paper by Lin (2015) has explored this in relation to air hostesses on a Singapore airline. Feminisation and sexualisation of air hostesses’ bodies on planes has been long been practised by most airlines. In Lin’s (2015) example in Singapore, the design of air hostesses’ uniforms was evocative yet graceful and traditional, whilst interview candidates were carefully screened for flaws or disfigurement, their body shape, beauty, and complexion being important. Even successful candidates underwent various aesthetic ‘corrections’, such as speech therapy, and were prescribed precise shades of make-up to make them appear uniformly ‘beautiful’. Lin (2015) frames the cabin – a ‘mobile atmosphere’, as she calls it – as an important social space, in which geographers have explored the multi-sensorial interactions between passengers and their environment. The plane and its crew provide a ‘service’, passengers’ bodies forming active consumers during their flight. Air hostesses create a comfortable and professional environment for passengers. These women perform a version of femininity whereby they are a friendly, affectionate, reassuring, approachable, helpful, polite, and glamorous aid to passengers’ journeys.

A lot has changed, therefore, in the fifty-eight years since the Munich Air Disaster. There is a vast range of research being done by geographers into the spaces of air travel, research which can help us better understand the social, cultural, and political experiences of airports and air transportation. The looming threat of terrorism means that geographers have a lot to contribute to understanding ways in which different nations engage with air space. However, it is a testament to the continual improvements to passenger safety being made that today geographers are talking about passenger ‘comfort’ rather threats to their ‘safety’.

 

books_icon Adey, P. (2008). “Aeromobilities: Geographies, Subjects and Vision”, Geography Compass, 2(5):1318-1336.

books_iconLin, W. (2015). “’Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40:287-299.

60-world2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/11394795/Manchester-United-Munich-Air-Disaster-anniversary-emphasises-the-magnitude-of-footballs-loss.html

60-world2http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/manchester-united-players-fans-remember-10826494

Colonial Memories Re-Ignited: In Producing the Streets and Rhodes, One Stone Remains Unturned

By Julian Shaw, King’s College London

Oriel College bird’s eye view from University church. Image Credit: Arnaud Malon

Every day people walking past Oriel College on High Street in Oxford are confronted with a statue of Cecil Rhodes; a man heavily involved in the creation of enforced racial segregation in South Africa. As part of a global protest movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, which began in South Africa in March 2015, a group of students at Oxford University have mobilised, calling for the statue to be removed. Toppling the stone Rhodes, they feel, would indicate that the seeds of progress are being sown in a battle against continuing racial inequality at Oxford university (The Guardian, 2015). However, despite this cause, on 29th January 2016 it was announced by Oxford University that the statue shall remain (The Guardian, 2016).

Benwell (2016), in his recent article for Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, turned his attention on how everyday memories form geopolitical subjectivity. His specific empirical case was young people living on the Falkland Islands, and their engagement with memories etched into the social and physical landscape. Using this discourse when looking at Oriel college, one is able to ponder the presence of the Cecil Rhodes statue and consider how it plays a continually evolving role in the geopolitical memories of those who encounter it.

The statue in Oriel College is not new; it was erected with the construction of the Rhodes Building in 1911 from funds left to the college by Cecil Rhodes himself. Therefore we can assume that in the past the statue was probably missed or completely ignored by the majority of people who passed it – indeed no one is claiming that until last year all people walking along High Street silently condoned the statue’s existence. However the success of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, bringing the issues of an ongoing racist colonial history to international consciousness, has meant that the presence of the statue has been elevated. This elevation has enabled the revival of memories of a horrific colonial past to be found; engaging new geopolitical subjectivities. But now that the University has made its decision to keep the statue, what does this mean for the Rhodes Must Fall movement?

Arguing about whether it was right or wrong for the University to keep the statue will not help develop this narrative. Instead we should consider; what is revealed by the decision of the University to keep it? Lefebvre (1991) indicated in his work The Production of Space that all spaces are always actively produced by those who either perceive, conceive, or live the space. Here we have, on one side, a University controlling the space through its decision to keep the statue – creating the representation of space – and on the other side a movement of students who are occupying this space on High Street – making it representational space. The inability of the Rhodes Must Fall movement to remove the statue, indicates that despite appearing in the space they are fundamentally alienated from the construction of this space. Those controlling the space on the other hand, are able to impose upon these users their own representations of the space. Lefebvre warns that such impositions, by the controlling force of the University, will make “permanent transgression inevitable” (Lefebvre, 1991: 23) if the lived enactment of the space continues to be occupied by those alienated from its control.

The question is therefore; what future transgressions will we witness in the ongoing narrative of this statue? And importantly, will these transgressions establish a spatial legacy for the Rhodes Must Fall movement? A legacy memorialised with a permanence equivalent to a statue maybe? Removing the statue was never seen as an end to the discussion by any side in the debate. The story of this space is not finished.

References

books_icon Benwell, M. C., (2016) Encountering geopolitical pasts in the present: young people’s everyday engagements with memory in the Falkland Islands, Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, Early View, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12109

books_icon Lefebvre, H., (1991) The Production of Space, London: Wiley-Blackwell

60-world2 The Guardian (2015) Oxford students step up campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes statue, Online Article (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)

60-world2 The Guardian (2016) Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford after ‘overwhelming support’, Online Article (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)

 

 

Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

 

Occupy_London_-_Finsbury_Square

Banners at the moved Occupy London protest in Finsbury Square in the City of London: Image credit: Alan Denney 

This month sees the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Battle of Newbury’ when protesters were evicted from their camp to make way for a bypass. The BBC takes the opportunity to reflect on the long term impact of the anti-road campaign. Journalist Paul Clifton reported on events in 1996, suggesting that

“the protesters lost the battle. But perhaps they won the war. There is no doubt the tree climbers swayed public opinion and, later, political policy changed too. It virtually halted the construction of major new roads for a generation.”

In a recent article for Area, Sam Halvorsen discusses the challenges faced when trying to study social movements when the researcher has an involvement with the cause. He focuses specifically on the role of ‘militant research’ in his work with, and on, The Occupy Movement. Like Newbury, Occupy had a distinct geographical element to its fight against much bigger issues and it fought to physically claim space. Halverson states the ‘starting point for militant research is not an academic researcher seeking to further a particular strand of knowledge, but the context of political struggle’ (2015:467). He acknowledges many within those struggles are already engaged in theorising, but may have an antagonistic relationship with academic institutions.

Having a dual role as a scholar and activist is not new, but it remains problematic. Universities are labyrinthine structures, constantly reshaped by the students and staff within them. They can provide opportunities to support research, engage in discussion and offer practical help such as meeting spaces. They also have strict ethical codes which may, for example, complicate relationships with direct action campaigns. The militant researcher cannot claim to be neutral – indeed the rich understanding they offer springs directly from their commitment to the ethics and aims of the cause they are engaged in. Halvorsen also discusses his experience with ORC (The Occupy Research Collective) an attempt to re-imagine research and create opportunities outside the university. This became a valuable space for discussion but encountered its own problems.

Halvorsen concludes that militant research needs to constantly be ‘pushing against any form it takes, as it is only through negation (and simultaneous creation) that change becomes a reality’ (2015:469). He draws on Holloway (2002) and the idea of a dialectical relationship between protest and its wider context. This accounts for both the contradictory relationship between both universities and militant researchers and the researchers themselves who may criticise the movements they are studying. Social movements, and their struggles for justice, are key components of society. It would be disingenuous to claim researchers are, or can be, passive, objective onlookers. Taking a critical view of such movements, whilst remaining involved, is necessarily complicated but very worthwhile. Passion and an ethical commitment to a cause should not be a barrier to research, as surely scholarship should be aiming to make a positive difference to the wider world.

References:

60-world2 The BBC (2016) Did The Newbury Bypass Change Anything? Online article accessed 13.1.2016

books_icon Halvorsen, S.  (2015) Militant research against-and-beyond itself: critical perspectives from the university and Occupy London Area, 47:4 466-472 (open access)

books_icon Holloway, J (2002) Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today. Pluto Press: London

 

 

Climate change and human health: how COP21 has helped

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

The potential adverse impacts of climate change on natural and human environments are prominent in the media, but impacts on human health are seemingly discussed less often. In The Geographical Journal, Papworth et al. (2015) write about the multifaceted nature of climate change in relation to human health. Examples of health impacts include: heatstroke, injuries from disasters, infectious diseases (water-borne and vector-borne), malnutrition, food poisoning, lung diseases, and allergies (see their figure 3, which also lists required adaptations; p. 415). A key impact also listed therein is that of mental health, which reduces resilience of individuals and societies to the aforementioned health problems and environmental change. For example, links between mental health and climate change have been recently reported in Australian farmers.

Drought and flooding can have huge impacts on agricultural landscapes and, consequently, human health. Western Madagascar, author’s own (© Joseph J. Bailey).

Drought and flooding can have huge impacts on agricultural landscapes and, consequently, human health. Western Madagascar, author’s own (© Joseph J. Bailey).

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December 2015, which, amongst much else, miraculously forged an emissions agreement between 187 countries, has helped to more prominently bring some of these issues surrounding human health to the public eye. The decisions made at COP21 may help us to mitigate, and adapt to, future impacts of climate change on human health. Indeed, a central aspect of the agreement is “the right to health” and the director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Maria Neira, said that the Paris agreement “pushes countries to develop adaptation plans that will protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change”. More broadly, WHO referred to COP21 as “a historic win for human health”.

The success of COP21 in relation to human health will not be measurable for some time, but it has hopefully put in place the infrastructure required to encourage adaptive approaches to climate change from local to international scales that will ultimately benefit human health, and the health of the wider environment. Some people are cynical of us actually preventing a temperature rise more than 2°C this century. However, I would argue that the fact that so many countries came together, spoke, and made a range of legally binding commitments is highly encouraging. It represents progress on a path towards greater use of renewable energy and more sustainable policies and practices, which can only be a good thing for human, and indeed the planet’s, health as we move forwards, even if the specific targets are not met.

– – – – –

books_icon Papworth, A., Maslin, M. & Randalls, S. (2015) Is climate change the greatest threat to human health? The Geographical Journal, 181, 413–422. (View online).

60-world2 WHO report: “New climate change agreement a historic win for human health”. (Online, last accessed 15th Jan 2016)

Whatever takes your fancy: pigeon shows as geographical inquiry

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

The British Homing World Show of the Year, 2015 Source: own photo

The main hall of pigeons at the British Homing World Show of the Year, 2015
Source: Own photo

The British Homing World Show of the Year; not heard of it? I’ll forgive you. This little-known affair is, for pigeon fanciers across the country, the event of the year. Taking place over the second weekend of January in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, it is the largest annual gathering of pigeon fanciers in the UK; on average, around 20,000 people flock from all over the world – as far away as China – to exhibit, buy, sell, and admire pigeons. The Show, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary (BBC News, 2012a [online]), is also becoming increasingly popular with the media, making the BBC News in past years and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch just yesterday morning. Last year, it even made the news in America (NY Post, 2015 [online])! The weekend of the Show, during the bleak English winter, sees thousands of visitors descend upon Blackpool, contributing an estimated £10 million to Blackpool’s economy (BBC News, 2012b [online]).

‘But where’s the geography?’, I hear you say. Pigeon racing, with its careful calculations of distance, and vigilant observation of weather conditions may seem to lend itself more explicitly to the discipline. However, as an animal geographer, I want to bring to light a paper that, whilst over a decade old, is key in revealing how animal showing is inherently geographical. Having visited this and other pigeon shows – not as a fancier but as a researcher – I aim to highlight some of the striking similarities between the British Homing World Show and Anderson’s (2003) paper on Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show.

More than 3,000 domestic pigeons will be on display at the British Homing World Show this coming weekend, which has been described as the ‘Crufts of the pigeon world’. The main attraction is the exhibition of racing pigeons. To the untrained eye they all look the same – well-groomed city-centre pigeons – but it is the subtleties of this hobby that make it so fascinating. The birds are judged on their aesthetic qualities denoting their ability to win races. The whole of the bird is scrutinised, from its wing feathers to its eye colouring. Also on display will be the perhaps lesser-known fancy pigeons. Whilst racing pigeons are athletes bred for functional reasons, fancy pigeons are bred for their aesthetics, many unable to fly long distances. These wonderful birds are all the same species, differing in appearance due to selective breeding and reinforcement of mutations (similar to different pedigree dog breeds). There are over 350 breeds of fancy pigeons, varying in characteristics such as beak, feathering, tail, and body. Is it any wonder that Charles Darwin chose this incredibly diverse bird to aid him in his study of inheritance and variation in The Origin of Species? Like animals on display at a zoo, or specimens in a museum, pigeons are displayed in rows of cages to be objectified, admired, and judged. Some are even removed from their cages, poked and prodded, or made to walk about in their cages, like models in a feathered catwalk.

A fancy pigeon Source: own photo

A successful fancy pigeon at last year’s Show
Source: own photo

In Anderson’s (2003) historical study of Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show, she argues that the animals on display reflected human ingenuity and control over nature. The Show – which was deeply underpinned by colonialist thinking – was a celebration of human superiority and performance of civilisation and domestication, which reinforced the nature-culture and human-animal binaries. The same could be said of pigeon shows; the pigeons on display are products of careful selective breeding by fanciers. They emphasise the distinction between man and nature, but, they simultaneously blur it. Animal exhibits – in this case pigeons – become hybrids of human skill, scientific knowledge and ‘nature’. Such displays, Anderson (2003) argues, should be read as texts, in which a subject-object relationship is developed through an anthropocentric gaze. They also, she argues, can be seen as embodied performances. The pigeons on display at this weekend’s British Homing World Show will be both text and performance. The birds are cultural constructions, products of human intervention, but develop into much more than mere objects. Successful pigeon fanciers at this prestigious show win not only a rosettes, trophies, and money, but also prestige. For fanciers, their birds are a ticket to a better social standing among their peers, a reputation dependent on the aesthetic performances of their feathered co-workers.

A fancy pigeon Source: own photo

A successful fancy pigeon at last year’s Show
Source: Own photo

Of course, exhibitions and sales of machinery are also prominent features at agricultural shows. Anderson (2003) argues that those at the Sydney Agricultural Show reflected strong notions of modernity and advancement, further stressing human mastery over nature. The British Homing World Show of the Year also features exhibitions of pigeon appliances and trade stands. There are stands selling everything from £20,000 pigeon lofts and high-tech race timing technology, to nest boxes, food, and vitamin supplements. Birds are also on sale, transported rather indignantly in cardboard boxes marked ‘LIVE BIRDS’. Whilst there are stands selling birds at ‘affordable’ prices (maybe as much as £40 per bird), at the auction birds are sold for thousands of pounds! Both academic and activist would have a field day with the ethical and moral issues raised by such judgements of animal value.

Stalls at the British Homing World Show, 2015 Source: own photo

Stalls at the British Homing World Show, 2015
Source: Own photo

So that’s the British Homing World Show of the Year and a snapshot into the subculture of pigeon fancying. Yet more proof that geography is lurking in everything. If only more people knew about this fascinating pastime, it would surely go a long way towards alleviating that tiresome ‘rats with wings’ metaphor that burdens the domestic pigeon’s feral cousins.

 

books_iconAnderson, K. (2003). “White Natures: Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show in Post-Humanist Perspective” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28(4): 422-441.

60-world2BBC News (2012a) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-16665137

60-world2BBC News (2012b) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-16751398

60-world2NY Post (2015) http://nypost.com/2015/01/21/pigeon-enthusiasts-flock-to-england-for-international-homing-show/

60-world2http://www.rpra.org/bhw-show-of-the-year-2016/

Arsonists, Booing, and Blaming the Weather: Diversity and Revealing Everyday Behaviour

By Julian Shaw, King’s College London

A sign for Gek Poh Ville in Yunnan, Jurong West, Singapore

A sign for Gek Poh Ville in Yunnan, Jurong West, Singapore: Photo Credit: Allkayloh.

The Independent recently published a story about a Christmas Eve arson attack on a hotel for asylum seekers in the German town of Schwäbisch Gmünd. The author implies that this attack highlights how the positive attitude of the German government to the ‘refugee crisis’, does not necessarily reflect the everyday reality of intolerance in many German suburbs. This violent legacy adds fuel to the continuing academic engagement with diverse communities and everyday multiculturalism.

Ye (2015) expands on such a discussion in her recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Turning her attention to the Jurong West neighbourhood of Singapore Ye explores “how everyday encounters in public reproduce spatialised principles of coexisting with diversity.” (Ye, 2015: 94). Ye focusses her engagement to the notion of ‘gui ju’, a kind of social code familiar to established citizens of Singapore. This code, Ye explains, is a behavioural and attitudinal norm promoted in part by state infrastructure and reinforced through everyday action (and inaction) in public spaces.

By turning to everyday interactions between people appropriating public spaces in Jurong West, Ye has created a narrative of the ‘gui ju’ social code in action. She uses extracts from interviews and her own observations to understand different behaviours of individuals familiar with the code – such as people’s silence when they are on public transport or their decorum when playing cards in the street. Uncovering such unwritten norms she is able to add clarity to the “messiness inherent in shared spaces” (ibid.: 91).

Furthermore, Ye elaborates how it is through adherence to ‘gui ju’ that locals in Jurong West can identify insiders and outsiders to the community. She explains that in Singapore, where a legacy of diverse ethnic communities are the norm, tropes like ethnicity or nationality cannot be used to define belonging. As such behaviours and attitudes in everyday interactions can be used instead to identify belonging.

However, to add complexity to her narrative Ye also states that “There are constant tensions, struggles and disquiet over how things ought to be in [public] spaces.” (ibid.: 96). In other words, the unwritten code of conduct applying to everyday life are not fixed, but are contingent and malleable: belonging requires active living in these spaces.

This compelling notion of a “social organising principle that prescribes proper codes of conduct” in public spaces (ibid.: 92), could also be applied to the UK. A quick glance at the national media following the start of the New Year can provide us with some examples. The Guardian has an article about the cultural valence of ‘booing’ in the UK during live performances of art and sport. Similarly The Telegraph discusses difficulties for British people returning to work after the winter break, including the author stating that she will “do what we Brits always do in times of low-level despond: blame the weather”. Additionally both The Guardian and The Independent imply a range of acceptable responses to the ‘artistic’ New Years Eve photograph of drunken and disorderly behaviour in Manchester. These examples highlight a complex and contradictory ‘gui ju’ of British everyday attitudes and behaviour; to boo or not, to condone or to condemn drunken disorder, and when in doubt: refer to the weather.

However, I feel it is necessary to exercise caution with Ye’s thoughts on social codes of conduct. While there may be some dominant codes and norms, such as ‘gui ju’, this does not negate the existence of multiple behavioural codes that remain hidden to each and every one of us. These can include behavioural and attitudinal codes associated with class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and all other tropes of identity. Maybe to help find these hidden codes we should adopt the approach of Mr Arnold, an inhabitant of the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd: we should invite outsiders into our private lives – the “Gmünder Weg” (The Independent). This could enable both insider and outsider to learn their different social codes, and mould them into new shared codes.

References

Ye, J., (2015) Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规 矩) in Singapore, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41: 91–103 doi: 10.1111/tran.12107

The Independent (2016) “Refugees in Germany: Arsonists destroy refugee hotel in ‘model’ migrant town Schwabisch Gmund” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)

The Independent (2016) “The story behind the Manchester New Year’s Eve photograph likened to a Renaissance painting” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)

The Guardian (2016) “I used to think booing was healthy. Now it’s out of control” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)

The Telegraph (2016) “The January blues are bad enough without giving up booze too” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)

The Guardian (2016) “’Like a beautiful painting’: image of New Year’s mayhem in Manchester goes viral” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)