Tag Archives: ethnography

Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

By Mark Griffiths, Northumbria University

j-_vermeer_-_el_geografo_museo_stadel_francfort_del_meno_1669

Johannes Vermeer The Geographer (1669). Available via United States Public Domain license.

Geographers have never been more acutely aware of the historical and contemporary cleavages of which we – or so many of us – are often both critics and beneficiaries. This year’s RGS-IBG Conference carries the theme of ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’, while the other large conference, the AAG Meeting, is currently reacting to the damage brought by President Trump’s recent anti-Islam Executive Orders. These are worrying times that lay bare the legacies of formal colonialism and the persistence of western privilege. Particularly worrying is that geographers from outside the publishing heartlands – whose work is invaluable if we are to know anything at all about diverse places and people – will, as always, feel the brunt of these neocolonial measures brought by the new Trump Administration.

There is then a renewed focus on the haves and have-nots of people across the globe, geographers very much included. In this heated moment it feels very new, but while it might be true that we have never seen anything like Donald Trump before, it is not novel to have privileges skewed across space. This is not at all to dismiss the deleterious acts we’ve seen recently (and the silent complicity of too many), but it does serve to recall that our discipline has grown out of a history of uneven power relations with post/colonial places and people. As I point out in my recently published paper in Area, part of the privilege of western geographers in terms of ‘mobilities, institutional prestige, access to publishing avenues and so forth’ is owed to the spoils of empire.

We can therefore understand the privilege of western academics and geographers as historically constituted, where, say, the ‘permission to narrate’ (as Edward Said put it) or the ability to cross borders is tied intimately with one’s ancestral position within colonial-era relations. Couple this with important feminist interventions on the situatedness of knowledge and positionality as relational, and the self-reflection (or ‘hyper-self-reflection’ as Gayatri Spivak calls for) incumbent on us all when we embark on fieldwork in a “postcolonial context” can reveal much about how the past bears on the present and the means to carry out research.

For me, a white, British man working at a UK institution, those means are great. I therefore must include myself in a loose category of ‘privileged western researcher’ that has – rightly – brought much introspection from that part of our research community involved in working towards a de- or post-colonial praxis for geography, a work that will continue at this year’s biggest conferences.

In my paper* I consider the label of ‘privileged western researcher’ from a postcolonial and historical perspective. I argue that if “our” (a collective term I seek to pick apart) positionality is historically contingent with colonial-era relations, then the attendant colonial histories within that might be (re)considered through their, following the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, heterogeneity. More specifically, I seek to bring the politics of class to disrupt the assumption of equivalence between Britishness (or western-ness) and unvariegated privilege.

To this end I turn to positionality as relational and personal and consider my own relationship with Empire, making what I consider an important point: ‘I’m a working class boy from the Industrial North of England, my parents’ parents … did not study at any of our great public schools or prestigious universities … my forebears did not order the passage of knowledge from Africa and the Orient to Kensington Gore and Oxbridge’. The argument I make therefore is that colonial-era relations across space were and are multivalent and histories of domination cannot draw so clearly the contours of researcher privilege in postcolonial settings.

From here I propose an empirical potential for more a more ethical praxis in the field, making the argument that in the business of talking about the unfairness of unequal opportunities, of assigned societal positions and trajectories, to know what it is to be sometimes outside, a working-class background (finally) becomes an academic resource that may just make solidarity with less-privileged Others come that bit more readily. In the article I give a brief example of how I believe this played out in fieldwork in India.

What this brings to these turbulent times is something of nuance to the idea that western geographers always already carry with them the histories of colonial exploration and expansion; just as gender and race can give the lie to this assumption, so can class. I look forward to discussing this further at the RGS-IBG Conference this coming August. As for what this might mean in the context of the ongoing debate around the AAG and travelling to the US, if little else a painstaking process of (communal) introspection might help us better negotiate the dissonant positions of critic and beneficiary of empire and its spoils.

* Mark’s paper inaugurates Area‘s new regular feature, ‘Ethics in/of geographical research’. The Area Editors welcome submissions from across the geographical community that consider diverse, contemporary concerns that fall under the broad remit of ethics.

About the author: Mark Griffiths is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. His research is split between two sites: in Palestine he focuses on the political affects of the occupation in West Bank, tracking the embodied aspects of Palestinian activism and resistance. In India his work has focused on NGO and volunteer work on livelihood and sanitation projects in both urban and rural areas.

60-world2 AAG Council 2017 AAG Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/ 

books_icon Chakrabarty D 2007 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference  Princeton University Press

60-world2 Fenton S 2017 Theresa May ‘very happy’ to host Donald Trump on state visit, despite petition reaching 1m signatures The Independent 30 January 2017 

books_icon Griffiths M 2017 From heterogeneous worlds: western privilege, class and positionality in the South. Area, 49: 2–8. doi:10.1111/area.12277 (free to access)

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective Feminist Studies 14, 575-99

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics Progress in Human Geography 21, 305-320

books_icon Said E 1984 Permission to Narrate Journal of Palestine Studies 13, 27-48

books_icon Spivak G C 1999 A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present Harvard University Press

Understanding the impact of austerity

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

Closed_all_hours_-_geograph_org_uk_-_530913

Closed all hours This shop, now disused, located in the small village of Ballyroan: Image credit: (c) Liam Murphy Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

David Cameron recently announced plans to introduce  parenting classes, in part as way to combat poverty. Aside from valid criticisms of heteronormativity, troubling assumptions about what makes a “good” family, and a disregard for established support networks, this ignores the complex causes of poverty and impact of austerity.

Sarah M Hall has been conducting long term ethnographic research on families living with, and in, austerity. Much research focuses on large scale economic impacts but Hall works at the level of personal and intimate geographies. This reveals the complexity and diversity of individual lives; there is no one-size-fits-all austerity family experience. Hall is influenced by moral and Feminist geographies and has a deep concern for the ethical impact of her work. The ethnographer is necessarily entangled with the subject of her research and becomes part of their lives for the projects duration. Ethical research acknowledges power dynamics and is constantly aware of researcher positionality but this does not preclude empathy. Indeed Hall suggests research has a caring dimension as “by listening to and empathising with participants, or in providing companionship or intimacy one can provide a caring role” (2016:3).

Decisions on whether to offer financial compensation to research participants take on added weight in times of austerity. Hall did not pay her participants but offered small tokens of gratitude, which often made her part of an extended support network.  The impact of austerity on families can be devastating and Hall describes conversations which she found deeply affecting. However she stresses there is a distance in the research relationship, and differences of experience, which means the researcher must be mindful not to speak for, or steal the voice of, her participants.

Hall confirms JRF (2015) research that states welfare cuts disproportionately harm people already in difficult, precarious and marginalised positions. She also witnesses the unintended consequences of closing services such as libraries and the threat to community groups suffering grant cuts or loss of volunteers who need to find work. Hall treats her participants with the dignity they deserve, and implicitly challenges glib demonization.  It is hard to imagine how parenting classes will help tackle structural inequality or mitigate the very real impact austerity has on families.

References

books_icon Hall, S.M. (2016) Personal, relational and intimate geographies of austerity: ethical and empiral considerations Area 2015 DOI: 10.1111/area.12251 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/area.12251/abstract  (online accessed 15.1.16)

60-world2 JRF  (2015) The Cost of The Cuts: the Impact on Local Government and Poorer Communities Joseph Rowntree Foundation https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/cost-cuts-impact-local-government-and-poorer-communities (Online accessed 15.1.16)

60-world2 The Independent (2016) David Cameron Plans to Make Parenting Classes Normal http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-cameron-plans-to-make-parenting-classes-normal-a6804381.html (online accessed 15.1.16)

If only plants could talk

By Hannah Pitt, University of the West of England

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

Plant scientists at Virginia Tech recently reported their discovery of communication between a parasitic plant and its host. By exchanging genetic material the parasite seemed to be urging the host to lower defences to its invasion. The researchers described it as a form of dialogue between the two, with one communicating new information to the other. This revelation adds a further form of plant conversation to others previously recognised in which plants exchange messages in the form of chemicals or electrical signals.

These quite capable forms of floral communication come as a surprise to many because plants have long been seen as the least active or intelligent living beings. In a hierarchy with humans at the pinnacle, plants sit well beneath them and other animals. But human geographers are increasingly recognising that this portrayal is misguided. The more we know about what plants do, the harder it is to see them as unintelligent. And there is an ethical imperative pushing us to recognise plants’ abilities for the habit of regarding flora as passive and insentient has allowed humans to dominate and neglect it, with serious ecological repercussions.

This is a topic ripe for geographic investigation because plants are everywhere and make a significant difference to places. Human geographers have made interesting progress with research into human-plant interactions. In my contribution to Area I explore how they tackle this, and examine some of the ways social scientists like me learn what plants are doing. I invited gardeners to act as guides and encouraged them to show me what they do with plants. Their expertise taught me much about plants’ actions and capabilities because good gardeners have to understand how they grow. Techniques such as time-lapse photography helped to show plants growing and moving. By speeding up and zooming in on processes which are otherwise difficult to perceive it was possible to see plants as active and mobile.

These methods, guided by the intention of paying close attention to plants were helpful, and ensured that plants ‘showed up’ in the research. But, unlike the team at Virginia Tech I’m not very skilled in understanding what plants have to say. In the paper I conclude that the techniques I used were limited because plants speak a language social scientists don’t understand. To really research plants as independent active beings, human geographers will need to become skilled in communicating with them or look to experts such as botanists to act as interpreters. Because plants can talk, we just need to know how to listen.

About the author: Dr Hannah Pitt is a Research Associate within the Department of Health and Social Science at the University of the West of England. Hannah is currently working on research projects which evaluate programmes related to food, public health and sustainability. 

 Pitt, H. (2014), On showing and being shown plants – a guide to methods for more-than-human geography. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12145

60-world2 Maynard, G. (2014) Prince Charles was right all along: Plants really can talk to each other Express

Opening Spatial Secrets and Closed Spaces: Urban Exploration

by Fiona Ferbrache

Urban exploration 0001Robert Macfarlane (author of The Old Ways and other adventures on foot) focused his attention on Urban Exploration last month with an article in The Guardian.  Macfarlane’s piece opens as “a guide for the uninitiated”; a little like a job application with a list of essential criteria for those wishing to pepper pot manoeuvre the architecture and materiality of urban spaces.  Following Macfarlane through a “strange world of urban exploration”, the reader is introduced to a land of porous infrastructure where spaces deemed to be closed off, secret and securitised are opened up by the urban explorer.

Geographers reading Macfarlane’s article may decipher urban exploration as a critical engagement with space.  For example, he writes that “the usual constraints of urban motion, whether enforced by physical barriers or legal convention” do not necessarily restrict the urban explorer.  In another way, street level is interpreted as “a  median altitude” in urban exploration, as accessible spaces penetrate downwards through sewers, bunkers and tunnels, and upwards via skyscrapers and cranes.  Perhaps this is proper space exploration as well as urban exploration?

Macfarlane is guided through his urban initiation by experienced explorer (and geographer) Bradley Garrett.  From Macfarlane’s conversational introduction to urban exploration, readers can gain a more theoretical perspective from Garrett (2013) in an early view TIBG paper.  Here, Garrett refers to urban exploration as “recreational trespass” and explores explicitly some of the challenges to spatial engagements that are implied by Macfarlane: “urban exploration as a practice that speaks directly to past and present debates around space, place, subversion, surveillance, community and urban life within geography” (p.2).

The two articles are written for different audiences, thus offering young geographers useful insights to purposeful writing.  For the more experienced geographer, Garrett’s paper sets up urban exploration in the context of political action, and will be of further interest to those concerned with deep ethnographies.  For explorers, it may be the physical infrastructure of the local town that seems the most intriguing.

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2010 Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning. Geography Compass 4,10 pp.1448-61

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2013 Undertaking recreational trespass: urban exploration and infiltration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographer. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12001

60-world2  Macfarlane, R. 2013 The Strange World of Urban Exploration. The Guardian

Area Content Alert: Volume 43, Issue 3 (September 2011)

The latest issue of Area is available on Wiley Online Library

Articles

From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste (pages 242–249)
Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather

Public perceptions of jaguars Panthera onca, pumas Puma concolor and coyotes Canis latrans in El Salvador (pages 250–256)
Michael O’Neal Campbell and Maria Elena Torres Alvarado

The value of single-site ethnography in the global era: studying transnational experiences in the migrant house (pages 257–263)
Ruben Gielis

Anthropogenic soils in the Central Amazon: from categories to a continuum (pages 264–273)
James Fraser, Wenceslau Teixeira, Newton Falcão, William Woods, Johannes Lehmann and André Braga Junqueira

On Actor-Network Theory and landscape (pages 274–280)
Casey D Allen

Sinking the radio ‘pirates’: exploring British strategies of governance in the North Sea, 1964–1991 (pages 281–287)
Kimberley Peters

Changing meanings of Kyrgyzstan’s nut forests from colonial to post-Soviet times (pages 288–296)
Matthias Schmidt and Andrei Doerre

Being Angelica? Exploring individual animal geographies (pages 297–304)
Christopher Bear

The role of French, German and Spanish journals in scientific communication in international geography (pages 305–313)
Artur Bajerski

Gardens and birdwatching: recreation, environmental management and human–nature interaction in an everyday location (pages 314–319)
Paul J Cammack, Ian Convery and Heather Prince

Where music and knowledge meet: a comparison of temporary events in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio (pages 320–326)
Robert R Klein

Local nuances in the perception of nature protection and place attachment: a tale of two parks (pages 327–335)
Saska Petrova, Martin Čihař and Stefan Bouzarovski

Actor-network theory as a reflexive tool: (inter)personal relations and relationships in the research process (pages 336–342)
Rebecca Sheehan

‘So, as you can see . . .’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices (pages 343–352)
Paul Simpson

Greening the campus without grass: using visual methods to understand and integrate student perspectives in campus landscape development and water sustainability planning (pages 353–361)
Lee Johnson and Heather Castleden

Participating and observing: positionality and fieldwork relations during Kenya’s post-election crisis (pages 362–368)
Veit Bachmann

Continue reading

Street Performance and Video Methodology

Sarah Mills

The Edinburgh ‘Fringe’ Festival will soon be opening (5th-29th August) and host a range of acts including comedians, dancers, artists and musicians.  Alongside the ‘official’ shows and ticketed events will be a variety of street performers – each becoming part of the largest arts festival in the world that has been held in Scotland’s capital since 1947 (with the Festival Fringe Society established in 1959).  Their official website states that “In 2010 we enjoyed a record-breaking 2,453 different shows staging 40,254 performances in 259 venues by 21,148 performers.”  The Fringe prides itself on being an ‘open access’ arts festival, meaning that street performers in particular can put on a show as part of Fringe with no selection process and be part of a programme that is not curated.  This creates a unique environment and arena for ‘performance’, as well as a particular type of engagement with the audience(s).

In his recent article published in Area (currently on earlyview), Paul Simpson discusses the geographies of street performance and “the acts of audiencing that members undertake in relation to this” (2011: 1).  He uses street performance as an example through which to explore the role of video methodologies in contemporary geographic research.  The paper reflects on his research – during which he played guitar in Bath, UK and videoed the street performances – and focuses specifically on the giving and receiving of donations, linking these practices to debates on affect, embodiment and ethnography.  Whilst ultimately a paper that critically reflects on using video as a research method, Simpson’s research on street performance highlights debates on everyday and artistic practices, many of which can be seen at the Fringe Festival.

Read P. Simpson (2011) ‘So, as you can see . . .’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices Area [currently early view] 

Visit the Official Site of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe