Alternative spaces of urban sustainability: the case of Brescia, Italy

By Marco Tononi and Antonella Pietta, University of Brescia, and Sara Bonati, Universidade da Madeira

Untitled

Industrial buildings in Brescia – Francesco Bonati

Brescia is a medium-sized city in northern Italy. It is located in the country’s densely-populated industrial area, the Po valley. In the past, the economy of Brescia was based on the metallurgic and chemical industries. However, in recent decades Brescia has experienced, as in many European cities, a process of industrial change. This is evidenced in the number of disused industrial sites and quarries in the urban area. Some of these sites have been regenerated, while others have become objects of contention between institutions, private industry and communities due to ecological conflicts or divergent economic interests.

A wide area of Brescia has been affected by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination, PCDD-PCDF, arsenic and mercury, arising mainly a chemical plant which has produced chlorine derivatives since 1900, including PCB production from 1930 to 1984. The city also faces other environmental problems due to its highly-industrialized economic base. These include groundwater contamination and exploitation by open-air quarries and landfill waste sites. As a result of such pollution, Brescia has been designated a contaminated Site of National Interest (Siti di interesse nazionale or SIN), indicating that contamination poses a risk to human health.

Monitoring activities have underlined the severity Brescia’s pollution. Every year EU Member States, the European Environment Agency (EEA) member countries, and some EEA collaborating countries, contribute to the European air quality measurement database, AirBase. According to AirBase, Brescia, like many cities of the Po Valley, is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Likewise, all Italian municipalities report municipal solid waste data annually to the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), which develops the National Municipal Waste Report. Brescia has one of the highest per capita levels of municipal solid waste in Italy (ISPRA 2015).

Brescia is undergoing a transition towards becoming a post-industrial city. Accordingly, institutions and community are starting to reflect on possible directions for the city’s transformation. Environmental problems have prompted a response from civil society to promote a better urban environment and enhance the quality of life. Many associations and informal groups of citizens continue to struggle against the pollution that affects the city and its province. These struggles aim to influence the city administration and politics, and change how local human-nature interactions are conceived and lived.

The first step is recognising the need for a transition towards a new culture of sustainability based on environmental justice and the right to a green and sustainable city. Accordingly, in recent years, some parts of the city have experienced positive transformations thanks to integrative approaches between top-down and bottom-up actions. However, these encouraging signs should take shape through sustainable urban plans with a clear strategy; this means valorising the experiences and work of citizens, associations and researchers looking at the sustainability transition.

In our recent paper, entitled ‘Alternative spaces of urban sustainability: results of a first integrative approach in the Italian city of Brescia’,  we present a participatory process, called the Altrevie project, which took place in the San Polo and Sanpolino neighbourhoods. San Polo became the site of conflict between the town administration and its citizens over existing and defunct or delocalised industrial sites. Over the last decade, this led to the creation of environmental committees that lobby against industrial pollution, the creation of new waste disposal areas and for the development of a shared natural park.

The paper examines processes of socio-ecological change that characterise the city (Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw 2006), with a focus on citizen involvement and power relations (Cook and Swyngedouw 2012). The research group worked with the local community to build a project based on the participation of civic associations and citizens, with a democratic approach to alternative practices and policies of urban sustainability. The project’s objective was to create awareness about the unsustainability of many individual choices, and to show members of the local community how they could achieve a higher degree of sustainability by altering their behaviours in daily life and taking part in collective action. In particular, the idea was to make the community aware of how to create alternative spaces of urban sustainability in their neighbourhoods and to show people how they could extricate themselves from the predominant energy-hungry and hyper-productive consumer model.

The paper analyses the potential of local spaces of alternative consumption to promote alternatives to the traditional market system. Moreover, the research reshapes a space of alternative participation that could promote an integrative approach between top-down and bottom-up processes. The project provided the participants with ways to improve the sustainability of their lifestyle choices through a number of participatory processes, including: interviews, focus groups, an ecological footprint analysis, and the activation of sustainability laboratories.

This approach helped us to clarify the sorts of motivations at play within power relations, enabling us to imagine where political points for intervention exist (Heynen 2014). It was the first study in Brescia to analyse both the dynamics of environmental policies and civic activism focusing on the socio-ecological relationships.

About the authors:  Marco Tononi is Fellow Researcher in Geography at the University of Brescia (DEM). Marco has a Ph.D. in Human and Physical Geography and his works are focused on the topics of urban political ecology, urban sustainability, cultural sustainability and GIScience.

Antonella Pietta is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the University of Brescia (DEM). Antonella’s researches explore political ecology, participatory processes, alternative economic geographies, environmental accounting systems and climate change.

Sara Bonati is associate researcher at Universidade da Madeira. She collaborates with the University of Brescia (DEM) and University of Florence (LaGeS). Sara has a Ph.D. in Human and Physical Geography and her main research interests are disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, risk and disaster governance, political ecology, participation and knowledge sharing, alternative economic geographies.

References

Cook I R and Swyngedouw E 2012 Cities, social cohesion and the environment: towards a future research agenda Urban Studies 49 1959–79

European Environment Agency 2017 Validated monitoring data and air quality maps, http://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-quality/map/airbase

Heynen N, Kaika M and Swyngedouw E 2006 In the nature of cities. Urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism Routledge, London and New York

Heynen N 2014 Urban political ecology I: the urban century, Progress in Human Geography 598–604

ISPRA 2016 Rapporto Rifiuti Urbani 2016.

Tononi M, Pietta A, and Bonati S 2017 Alternative spaces of urban sustainability: results of a first integrative approach in the Italian city of Brescia. Geogr J. doi:10.1111/geoj.12207

Written On The Body: Women, Migration and Borders

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

Morag Rose Geog Directions.jpg

Singapore Airport. Image credit: Flikr user Zsoolt CC-BY-NC 2.0

 

 

Much current popular discourse on immigration is often dominated by tabloid hysteria and dangerous political games. Concern about this has been voiced by many, including my former Sunday Times colleague, Liz Gerard, “The press and immigration: reporting the news or fanning the flames of hatred?” This polemic tends to dehumanise individuals and ignore the complex economic, political, social and emotional drivers behind the movement of people.  In her recent article in Area, Lucy Jackson seeks to explore the emotional impact of immigration and how it shapes real lives.

Jackson takes the body as the territory she explores, following the work of Longhurst (1994) who describes the body as the “geography closest in”. Jackson works with two different sets of women in Singapore; western expatriates and foreign domestic workers (even these commonly used words are loaded with assumptions). The two different groups of women have contrasting experiences of stigma and exclusion within Singapore and effectively live “separate but parallel lives”. However, despite their differences, the women share many commonalities and can all be described as economic migrants.

Singapore has actively encouraged temporary migrants but the participants were often discriminated against as outsiders. Their autonomy is limited by a range of social forces which range from comments in the street to being unable to open their own bank account or feeling restricted to certain areas. They create their own distinct personal territories which are both geographical and emotional. Food and clothing become very important as markers of identity, memory and community.  Both groups suffer ill-effects as a result of stigma and stereotyping, although their experiences are very different.  Borders operate and impact at many different scales and Jackson concludes “the border of the body is porous and migrant women actively practice and perform aspects of ‘border maintenance’ as a reaction to being excluded emotionally and physically from the social and cultural territory of the host society” (Jackson, 2016 p297).

Jackson’s work is attentive to individual, embodied experience and humanises the impact of social policies based on exclusion and othering. I fear this is a task that becomes ever more necessary for academics, activists and anyone concerned with civil liberties and freedom of movement.

References

60-world2 Gerard, L“The press and immigration: reporting the news or fanning the flames of hatred?” Subscribe Online

books_icon Jackson, L 2016  Experiencing Exclusion and Reacting to Stereotypes? Navigating Borders of the Migrant Body Area 2016 48.3 pp292-299 doi:10.1111/area.12146

books_icon Longhurst R 1994 The geography closest in – the body … the politics of pregnability Australian Geographical Studies 32214–223

Behaviour Mapping and Design of Small Urban Spaces

By Ensiyeh Ghavampour, AECOM Auckland, Mark Del Aguila, TAFE, SA and Brenda Vale, Victoria University of Wellington

DSC_0641.JPG

Behaviour mapping (c) Ensiyeh Ghavampour

In inner urban areas, where land values are high and city governments have limited budgets, designing successful public spaces and using resources wisely is essential. With the increasing need for more quality public spaces in cities, planning authorities usually prepare design guidelines based on international research to help ensure quality will be achieved. However, with design guidelines failing to create quality spaces with enduring success, placeless spaces continually need to be redeveloped. There are many successful public spaces around the world, however, the application of guidelines developed from observations and surveys of these spaces creates visionary spaces without connections to their context. With spaces lacking character and failing to fit with local use, there is an increasing demand for a rethinking of design methodology in public open space.

Our paper, ‘A GIS Mapping & Analysis of Behaviour in Small Urban Public Spaces’, recently published in Area, investigates links between behaviour and design in context. Using time interval still photography, activity in four small public spaces in Wellington CBD (New Zealand) was recorded and mapped with GIS. Comprehensive and detailed analyses of activity, age, gender, group size, and length of stay indicated that:

  •  Design elements can be successful in one space, yet under-utilised in a different context.
  • Functionality of a design is a result of the configuration of elements within the site with respect to the site’s location and orientation.
  • Guidelines should direct designers toward creation of spaces that afford opportunities for users rather than focusing on checklists of specific design elements
  • The process of defining and setting design guidelines for the physical environment should be re-conceptualised with an emphasis on planning for anticipated activities.

About the authors: Ensiyeh Ghavampour is an Urban Designer at AECOM, she has a PhD in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture from Victoria University of Wellington. Mark Del Aguila, Advanced Building Studies, TAFE SA, and Brenda Vale is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington. 

References

60-world2 Bliss, L. 2017 The High Line’s Next Balancing Act Citylab Online 7 Feb 7 2017

60-world2 Cathcart-Keays, A. 2015 Guardian ‘mayors for a day’ demand more public spaces in their cities The Guardian Online 29 January 2015

60-world2 Carrington, D. 2013 England’s parks and open spaces have lost £75m in cuts since 2010 The Guardian Online 19 November 2016

books_icon Ghavampour, E., Del Aguila, M. and Vale, B. (2017), GIS mapping and analysis of behaviour in small urban public spaces. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12323

60-world2 Hemmelgarn, S. 2017 Milk Plaza Redesign gets $500 K Bay Area Reporter Online Volume 7/ No. 7/ 16 February 2017

60-world2 Johnson C, 2016 Can Design Quality Be Regulated? Sourceable Online 18 October 2016

60-world2 Mccrary, L. 2016 Modernism, Food, and Public Space New Urbs Online 15 September 2016

60-world2 Persico, A. 2016 Rethinking Park Space Yorkregion Online 16 June 2016

60-world2 Waxmann, L. 2016 Troubled Public Plaza Will Be Fenced Off To Divert Homeless Mission Local Online 27 July 2016

Power (Solar Power) in Paradise

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Island

Island of Kaua’i. (c) Jillian Smith

Popular culture portrays island living as a bucolic dream. For most, however, it is a dream fulfilled only during fleeting vacations. Island destinations often appeal to eco-tourists, and many islands are in a race to become desirable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral destinations. Nevertheless, Grydehoj and Kelman (2017) state that conspicuous sustainability as a development strategy, while strengthening ecotourism, can detract from islands’ more pressing environmental issues. The pair assert that it is not difficult to find ‘eco-islands’ that have invested in inefficient renewable energy projects. Hawai’i, however, and the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i in particular, is making headlines about the new future of renewables in island energy.

The state of Hawai’i plans to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 – the most aggressive target in the United States (HEI, 2016). Kaua’i – Hawai’i’s fourth largest island with a population of 67,000 – has an even more aggressive energy policy. The Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) has the goal to reach 50 percent clean energy by 2023; it is well on its way (Fehrenbacher, 2017). Tesla recently completed a solar-plus-battery storage system on the island. Storage has always been the challenge with renewables – the niggling question of how to keep the lights on when the sun does not shine or when the wind does not blow. Tesla’s battery packs solve this conundrum and will assuredly keep Kauai’s lights on after dark.

The island’s new solar plant is comprised of 54,978 solar panels, 13 megawatts of solar generation capacity, alongside Tesla’s large commercial 52 MWh Powerpack batteries (KIUC, 2017). Tesla is contracted to sell the energy to KIUC for 13.9 cents a kilowatt-hour over the next 20 years (KIUC, 2017). Importantly, this price is below the island’s current energy cost, which tends to be very high due to reliance of fossil fuels shipped and stored from the mainland. This dependence has also kept the island vulnerable to outages during shipping interruptions.

While Tesla’s solar plant will reduce fossil fuel use on the island (thereby reducing carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions) greenhouse gases emitted in transporting eco-tourists to and from these destinations may preclude them from ever becoming true ‘eco-destinations’. Nevertheless, residents are excited about no longer paying the highest utility prices in the nation, and visitors and residents alike have one less concern – secure energy. Though island destinations may still form an elusive dream in our collective psyche, renewable island energy is swiftly catapulting from dream to reality.

References

60-world2 Fahrenbacher, K. (2016). An exclusive look at Tesla & SolarCity’s battery solar farm in paradise. Fortune. Retrieved March, 2017, from http://fortune.com/tesla-solarcity-battery-solar-farm/

books_icon Grydehøj, A. and Kelman, I. (2017), The eco-island trap: climate change mitigation and conspicuous sustainability. Area, 49: 106–113. doi:10.1111/area.12300

60-world2 Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI). (2017). Our Vision. Retrieved March, 2017, from https://www.hawaiianelectric.com/about-us/our-vision/100-percent-renewable-energy

60-world2 Kaua’i Island Utilities Cooperative (KIUC). (2017). Hawai’i’s first utility scale solar-plus-battery storgage system is energized on Kaui’i. Retrieved March, 2017, from http://kiuc.coopwebbuilder2.com/sites/kiuc/files/PDF/pr/pr2017-0308-KIUC%20Tesla%20plant%20energized.pdf

 

 

Occupy and the dilemmas of social movements

By Sam Halvorsen, University of Cambridge

occupy.jpg

Occupy London, 16 October 2011, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Crispin Semmens (Flickr: assembly time) CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

You don’t have to look far in 2017 to see people taking to the streets. The election of Donald Trump led to global protests, with January’s “Women’s March” reported as the biggest day of protest in the history of the USA. In March, International Women’s Day saw marches and strikes around the world. While it is too early to say how these protests will unfold and what spatial forms they will take it is likely that they will come up against many of the challenges faced by activists in the past. Learning from the lessons of previous social movements is a useful task.

My recently published paper seeks to draw attention to and understand some of the more challenging and problematic aspects of social movements. It does so not with the intention of undermining them, but in the belief that it is important not to romanticise social movements as inherently good things and to directly confront the internal dilemmas they face.

From my research with Occupy London, part of a global wave of protests that spread across hundreds of cities worldwide in 2011 (see here for a report 5 years on), I argue that decisions that activists make about where to mobilise (e.g. in what places or at which scales) present particular dilemmas that can, at worst, lead to demobilisation. The research was based on my own active involvement and commitment to Occupy London, something I have written about elsewhere (Halvorsen, 2015) and has been explored in a previous blog post on this page.

As geographers have demonstrated for some years now (see Routledge, 1993), social movements don’t just appear ‘on the head of a pin’ (Miller and Martin, 2000) but mobilise in and across space. In this paper I aim to add to recent conversations about how and why geography matters to social movements (e.g. Nicholls et al, 2013) by focusing on the dilemmas and contradictions that arise when mobilising particular spatial strategies: decisions to prioritise spatialities such as the place of the protest camp or a global network of solidarity.

I argue that in the pursuit of particular spatial strategies activists tend to create tensions that, at times, undermine the original aims and goals of a movement. For example, decisions by Occupy London activists to prioritise the building and maintenance of a protest camp meant that less energy was available for building international alliances or solidarity campaigns, creating tensions with Occupy London’s stated aims of building a global movement. This led both to the demobilisation of some activists, concerned with the “fetishisation” of camp, and later to new spatial strategies following eviction.

In making this argument I develop a dialectical analytical framework, an approach that understands change as the result of constantly resolving contradictions, which I integrate with a spatial analysis of social movements. Specifically, I outline spatial dialectics as a means of grappling with the unfolding of contradictions both historically, over time, and geographically, across different moments of space (what Henri Lefebvre referred to as the moments of perceived, conceived and lived space).

Social movements have great potential for social change as history has taught us. Yet social movements, like any other part of society, are not free from contradictions and internal tensions and it is important to both acknowledge and make sense of why this is the case.

This is important because the work of doing activism is unevenly experienced by differently placed people. In Occupy London, for example, I demonstrate divisions of labour based around class and gender, features that are all too common in seemingly “radical” movements.

Grappling with contractions is also important, crucial in fact, for supporting and pushing social movements forward. Exposing and explaining why geography is central to the unfolding of contradictions is thus an important task.

About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. 

References

60-world2 Broomfield M 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists The Independent Online 23 January 2017

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2015 Creating space for militant research within- against-and-beyond the university: reflections from Occupy London Area 47 466–72

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2017 Spatial dialectics and the geography of social movements: the case of Occupy London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12179

60-world2 Jamieson A 2016 Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: ‘I never ended for most of us’ The Guardian Online 18 September 2016

books_icon  Miller BA and Martin BG 2000 ‘Missing Geography’ In Miller BA 2000 Geography and Social Movements: Comparing Antinuclear Activism in the Boston Area University of Minnesota Press, London

books_icon  Nicholls W, Miller B and Beaumont J eds 2013. Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements Farnham, Ashgate

60-world2 Rose M 2016 Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest protest Geography Directions

books_icon  Routledge P 1993. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent social movements and the contestation of place in India Praeger, Westport CT

60-world2 Topping A and Redden M 2017 ‘We are international, we are everywhere’: women unite in global strike The Guardian Online  7 March 2017

 

Beyond facilitator? The state in global value chains and global production networks

 Rory Horner, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

trump

Donald Trump, quoted in The Financial Times (2017). Image available via Pixabay.

Not so long ago, proposed policies to “repatriate international supply chains” as part of national-oriented initiatives openly marketed as protectionist, would have been quite difficult to imagine. Yet, like in many issue areas, Donald Trump’s approach to trade policy is unconventional. His planned trade policies, including import taxes, have been met with widespread condemnation, with many questioning how they may work in an era of global value chains (GVCs).

The irony of Trump advocating protectionism to support American manufacturing while visiting Boeing, which reportedly draws on parts manufactured in over 60 countries, has been pointed to. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has tweeted that: “If Trump wants to close down global value chains he will close down Boeing as well. Among others”.

Meanwhile, in relation to the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, questions have been raised about how the UK’s new proposed trade policies might work in the context of global value chains. Theresa May has advocated sector by sector deals, yet there is scepticism as to the practicalities of how this might work. The automobile industry in the UK, for example, is dependent on products crossing back and forth across borders many times. The effects of any trade barriers are thus magnified.

Such political developments in both the UK and USA are dramatic examples of the increasing empirical relevance of state roles beyond facilitating GVCs (or related global production networks – GPNs). Not so long ago, the dominant emphasis in research on GVCs and GPNs was arguably on how state’s played a facilitator role – whether through choice or seemingly facing little other option – assisting firms (either major global corporations or their suppliers) in relation to the challenges of the global economy.

Indeed, the global organisation of production accelerated greatly over the last two decades during the neoliberal era of market-promotion, falling trade barriers and the belief in limiting state intervention. In this context, research on global value chains and production networks has valuably highlighted the uneven power dynamics in global industries, moving beyond dominant state-centric approaches to understanding economic development.

Yet, increasingly a variety of other state roles beyond facilitator are of increasing prominence, including as regulator, producer (state-owned enterprises) and buyer (public procurement). In a new article in Geography Compass which synthesises a variety of recent research on the role of the state in GVCs and GPNs, I highlight four different such state roles, as indicated in the table below:

Table 1. Typology of state roles within global production networks

Role Definition Examples
Facilitator Assisting firms in GPNs in relation to the challenges of the global economy Tax incentives, subsidies, export processing zones, incentives for R&D, implementing and negotiating favourable trade policies, inter-state lobbying
Regulator Measures that limit and restrict the activities of firms within GPNs State marketing boards, price controls, restrictions on foreign investment, trade policy (tariffs, quotas), patent laws, labour regulation, quality controls, standards implementation
Producer State-owned firms, which compete for market share with other firms within GPNs State-owned companies e.g. in oil, mining.
Buyer State purchases output of a firm Public procurement e.g. of military equipment, pharmaceuticals.

Source: Author’s construction.

While the relevance of roles beyond facilitator is highlighted by, and may get increasing attention with, Donald Trump’s suggested policies and the UK’s planned exit from the European Union and, their relevance is longer-standing. The Economist (2013) highlighted a growth in protectionist measures in 2013, to provide just one example of the relevance of a regulatory role. Meanwhile, state-owned companies are significant actors in the global economy – involving a producer role. Moreover, a buyer role is highlighted through public procurement which has been estimated to comprise an average of between 13% and 20% of GDP worldwide (OECD, 2013).

Future research attention is needed to the influence and viability of the regulator, buyer and producer roles and how they are manifest in a context of a potential retreat from, or even reformulation of, economic globalisation.

Significantly for any current move towards “protectionism”, the location of states within a world of GVCs and GPNs means both that current policy initiatives are likely to vary and to have different implications from earlier eras where states intervened to promote national interests. The implications of growing neo-nationalism for GVCs and GPNs, and vice-versa, are uncertain, but clearly something to watch!

About the author: Rory Horner is a Lecturer in Globalisation and Political Economic, ESRC Future Research Leade,r and Hallworth Research Fellow at the Global Development Institute , University of Manchester.  

books_icon Horner, R. (2017) Beyond facilitator? State roles in global value chains and global production networks, Geography Compass 11(2)

60-world2 OECD (2013). Leading practitioners on public procurement, [Online], Accessed from: http://www.oecd.org/governance/meetingofleadingpractitionersonpublicprocurement.htm (Last accessed 22nd February 2017).

60-world2 The Economist (2013). The gated globe. October 12th. Available from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587785-gated-globe

60-world2 The Financial Times (2017) Trump’s top trade adviser accuses Germany of currency exploitation, January 31 2017. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/57f104d2-e742-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539.

Only connect – the linked lives of the researcher and the researched in a walled village in Hong Kong

By Isabella Ng, The Education University of Hong Kong

In a village in the southernmost province of Hainan, China, women were not compensated when the government decided to remove some of the houses for tourism development; only the men were compensated for the loss. What is more, a new law passed in China in 2011 allowed no split in properties during divorce, but rather the property would be awarded to the person named within the deeds. In another part of China, Hong Kong the former British colony which was returned to China two decades ago, walled village women who lived in the territory were treated unfairly until 2004 when a law was passed that allowed women to have equal inheritance rights as their male counterparts. I was interested to find out how they fared after the old law was revoked and to find out more about gender dynamics in the walled villages. When I entered the field to conduct fieldwork, I soon discovered that studying a group intensively as a researcher is a journey that I needed to walk with the researched in order to produce ethical and fruitful research.

As a nascent ethnographer venturing into the field during my second year of PhD study, I felt anxious but thrilled about my initial pursuit in fieldwork. It seemed ‘cool’ to be an ethnographer—at least that’s what I thought initially—and I liked introducing myself to informants as an ethnographer. That feeling of excitement ended when one of my supervisors reminded me about my field notes, and how I should go about writing them. My notes should not just contain factual accounts and observations, but also my reflections and my state of mind. I should reflect upon the day’s event(s) and how I felt at the time. One important aspect that I failed to consider at that time was my role as an ethnographer. I had the naivety to believe that my work (research) and my personal life were, and could, remain completely separated. I thought that as long as I stayed away from personal involvement (meaning, keeping my private life to myself when conducting my fieldwork), then I could remain professional and avoid being too subjective.

However, it was not until I began my fieldwork that I realised that conducting fieldwork is more complicated than I had thought. Over time, I discovered that field experience is reciprocal, and that the lives of researchers are linked with the lives of the researched. I realised that my multiple positionality, the nuances in my life, and my personal experiences affected my day-to-day interactions with my informants. The way that things evolved in my life during my fieldwork, the way that prolonged interactions and connections with people and the environment intertwined with my personal life, and all the knowledge I acquired through this, could enrich my research and make it multi-dimensional.

In my recent paper, ‘When [Inter-]Personal is Transformational: [Re]examining Life Course Emotion in PhD Research’, recently published in Area, I explore the ways in which different life events I experienced between 2008 and 2013 affected my research as a PhD student. By examining the relationship between these events and my development as a researcher, I consider how the complexity of emotions and affect helped me understand my research participants and helped me produce multi-dimensional, ethical research.

Drawing upon a series of life events that happened to me during the research period—such as my divorce and then a new romance—I examine how these events affected not only my research perspective when looking into gender dynamics in the indigenous villages in Hong Kong, but how they also affected my interactions and connections with my research subjects. I discovered how research is an interactive and dynamic activity. The researchers and the researched are walking through a journey to mutual understanding. The lives of the researcher and those researched are connected, and they affect each other. In this auto-ethnographic account of my fieldwork, I demonstrate how life events happening to the researcher during the research period can affect the researcher’s emotional and affectual state, and how this in turn can enrich a researcher’s study of the subject.

Emotion and affect here play a critical part in my research. As Rose (1997) points out, emotions of researchers are affected by events preceding the fieldwork and during the research process. This alters the researcher’s positionality—defined in terms of gender, age, race, social status, economic status, and marital status. In geography, studies on emotions and affect have examined conscious and expressive factors. These factors are generally understood as emotion—as well as non-cognitive, non-linguistic, and non-representational factors—involving affect (Pile 2010; Thrift 2004). During the research process the discursive, conscious, and cognitive parts work in coordination with the non-cognitive, non-discursive aspects that affect how subjects and objects perceive the world and their relations with the world (Bondi 2005; Narvaro-Yashin 2009; Thrift 2004). In my case, these aspects affected how we saw each other.

In this paper, I argue that as researchers, we need to realise that research is an ongoing, interactive, ever-changing process. Also, we need to recognise the reciprocal relationship between researchers and the researched subjects during the research process in order to create a better understanding of one’s own work and the ways in which the research itself fits within one’s broader life goals.

About the author: Isabella Ng received her doctorate from SOAS, University of London. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.

books_icon Bondi L 2005 Making connections and thinking through emotions: between geography
and psychotherapy Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 433-48

60-world2 Branigan T 2015 For richer, for poorer: how China’s laws put women second The Guardian Online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/chinese-women-equality-laws-land-housing 24 February 2015

books_icon Burton L M and Bengtson V L 1985 Black grandmothers: issues of timing and
continuity of roles in Bengtson V L and Robertson J F eds Grandparenthood Sage, Beverly Hills CA 61-77

books_icon Elder Jr. G H, Johnson M K and Crosnoe R 2004 The emergence and development
of life course theory in Mortimer J T and Shanahan M J eds Handbook of the life course Springer Science + Business Media, New York 3-19

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the
privilege of partial perspective Feminist studies 14 575-599

books_icon Navaro-Yashin Y 2009 Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the
production of anthropological knowledge Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 1-18

books_icon Ng, I. (2017), When [inter]personal becomes transformational: [re-]examining life course-related emotions in PhD research. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12325

books_icon Pile S 2010 Intimate distance: the unconscious dimensions of the rapport between
researcher and researched The Professional Geographer 62 483-95

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics
Progress in Human Geography 21 305-20

books_icon Thrift N 2004 Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect Geografiska
Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 57-78