Tag Archives: positionality

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 I was interested to find out how they fared after the old law was revoked and to find out more about gender dynamics in the walled villages.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

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

Collecting the Archive: How eBay is Transforming Historical Geography

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a stereotypical historical geographer, waist deep in dusty old books and documents in the darkest depths of a library or museum. No food or drink is allowed within sniffing distance of the archive collection, no photography is permitted, and only pencils may be used. This common experience of archival research will be familiar to a lot of historical geographers, although DeLyser’s (2015) recent Transactions article suggests that a call for more creative approaches to archives is changing the ways in which geographers engage with historical research. DeLyser’s (2015) article considers the idea of collecting as a methodology, and identifies eBay as a tool for this. Such a modern approach to historical research transforms both the role of the researcher and the nature of the archive.

Collecting is a very popular pastime, and has long been the case. In the 16th Century, for instance, the wealthy aristocrats collected natural history, archaeological, and geological artefacts. These displays were called ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’, encyclopaedic collections designed to provide a microcosm of the world. Such collections expressed the status of their owners and reflected their wealth. Today, whether it’s Pokémon cards, football stickers, Star Wars memorabilia, stamps, or teddy bears, collecting is a practice to which most of us can relate. The process of collecting, and our passion for it, become part of our identity and can, at times, become almost an obsession. In short, the things we collect come to define us. In her article, DeLyser (2015) suggests that collecting can be a tool of nostalgia and a transformative practice. The idea, then, that geographers can use collecting as a tool for research, poses many interesting questions. This shift in methodology means archive collections are constantly growing, as researchers contribute more to them, but also creates some uncertainty about positionality.

DeLyser (2015) coins the term ‘autoethnography’ to refer to the process of geographers collecting and contributing to the archive themselves, creating an alternative archive. Any archive is already a ‘collection’, but the moment the researcher starts adding to it themselves, it is important that they critically reflect on their impact and positionality. Collecting involves passion and desire and, therefore, can never be separated from personal motivations. In DeLyser’s (2015) own research, for instance, she collected kitsch souvenirs of the novel Ramona. The items in her collection became embedded in her personal life; the collection lived in her house, she encountered it every day, and it reminded her of places, stories, people, and events.

Traditional archives are fixed, stored in an institution, and distinct from researchers’ personal lives. Access to them has to be requested, and there are often long lists of “dos” and “don’ts” policing researchers’ behaviour. The idea that researchers can collate their own archive through the process of collecting, and store it in their own home, starts to challenge and redefine the space of the archive. Oh how some archivists would shudder at the idea of researchers sat on their sofas reading items one hundred years old, coffee in hand! Heaven forbid that they should let their dog settle next to them! And don’t mention those chocolate biscuits…

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Internet has “transformed the spatialities of collecting” (DeLyser, 2015:212) and, indeed, researching, by providing us with new ways of accumulating items. Eradicating the need for human-to-human contact, the Internet proves a powerful tool for communication, and has the effect of compressing space. Previously unreachable people and unreachable items in unreachable places are all now accessible at the click of a button. Arguably the most influential website in this respect has been eBay, which recently celebrated its 20th birthday last month. Featured in a recent Telegraph article, eBay is now the best known online auction website in the world, and is available in more than 180 countries. As DeLyser (2015) states, eBay has become a useful tool for historical geographers in search of ‘one-of-a-kind’ items to add to their alternative archives.

The advent of online auction websites, such as eBay, has changed the ways in which people value items, and facilitated collecting. You can buy absolutely anything on eBay. Just last month, the Metro featured the story of a £5 note, chewed up by a 10-month old Labrador puppy, which was sold on the site for £3.70! Gaining 4,425 views, 111 watchers, and 10 bids, the item’s winning bidder claimed to have been interested in it because the accompanying photograph of the guilty dog had reminded him of his late dog. The new owner is hoping to submit the note for the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize in 2017, claiming that the story behind the item gave it added value. Thus, the biographies of items on eBay – their history of ownership and anecdotal stories associated with them – affect their value. For researchers, however, this can pose challenges, as competitive bidding by dealers, hobbyists, and other interested parties can place a lot of historical items out of their financial reach. ‘Value’, then, is very subjective and problematic for researchers using online auctions to accumulate ‘alternative’ archive collections.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The use of eBay creates a personal space of collecting, changing researchers’ interactions with research materials and broadening the definition of ‘archive’. Searching for, bidding on, and taking ownership of items redefines them and the ways in which they are used in research. Could it be that the traditional historical geographer in the archive is becoming as rare and fragile as the dusty documents they seek, soon to be replaced by an unlikely new character who spends their time on-line shopping?

books_iconDeLyser, D. (2015). “Collecting, kitsch and the intimate geographies of social memory: a story of archival autoethnography”, Transactions of the                Institute of British Geographers. 40:  209-222. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12070

60-world2Bhatia S 2015 The History of Ebay The Telegraph 

60-world2Willis A 2015 Half eaten £5 note sold on ebay ‘to be entered for Turner Prize’ by new owner The Metro

 

Sochi and the spatialities of contentious politics

By Helen Pallett

2013_WSDC_Sochi_-_Zbigniew_Brodka_2

Image credit: Sacha Krotov

With the Winter Olympics drawing to a close at the weekend, global attention has moved away from Sochi, at least until March 7th when the Winter Paralympics begins. The Sochi Winter Olympics have been notable, not only for the achievements of the athletes involved, but for their politics. The site itself was heavily monitored and policed to curb the activities of ‘extremists’ out to disrupt and injure, and many activists were arrested or forcibly moved from the location. But Sochi itself also took on a broader political symbolism as an emblem of the struggle for LGBT rights. Some states such as the US deliberately sent prominent gay sports people to Sochi to head-up their delegations, whilst many news outlets, such as The Guardian, The New Statesman and Channel 4 in the UK, took the opportunity to highlight their support for the cause of equal rights, particularly through the use of the symbolic rainbow flag. President Putin meanwhile notoriously told gay people that they were very welcome in Sochi but that they should leave children alone.

The Sochi Winter Olympics then was a moment of contentious politics, created by the increasingly draconian laws being passed recently in Russia regarding LGBT rights, and the releasing of several prominent activists from prison, in the run up to when the world’s eyes would be on Sochi for the games. But there is also a complex spatiality to this contentious politics. In a study of the contentious politics of immigrant workers’ rights in the United States Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard and Kristin Sziarto argued that it was important to understand the role of scale, place, networks, positionality and mobility in shaping and forming part of this politics.

Scale is important to understanding the contested politics of Sochi, as movements and debates occurred at multiple overlapping and interrelating scales. From the policing or transgression of the micro-spaces around the Olympic site, to the scale of Sochi as a city which became an emblem of the LGBT rights struggle, to the scale of Russia as a country and legal and political context of the Winter Olympics, to the global scale of the Olympics itself with the world’s attention on developments in Sochi. These different scales interacted with one another, influencing  other processes and producing new political effects, which in this case served to magnify the issue of LGBT rights beyond this one city.

The politics of place are also clearly at play in Sochi, with the city becoming so much of an emblem of broader struggles for LGBT rights, linked to its fleeting importance at a site for a major sporting event. Sochi’s reputation as a resort for Russia’s wealthy and extravagant elite only served to increase the controversy around the games. Like with many other social movements and instances of contentious politics the topology of networks was important to the visibility of the LGBT rights struggle around Sochi, connecting Russian and Sochi-based activists to other LGBT activists globally, and importantly, being passed through high profile media networks from Twitter to the international news outlets. The struggle for LGBT rights was also passed through significant sporting networks, reaching far beyond the pool of athletes involved in this Winter Olympics to the delegations sent by other countries to the games, or to other sportsmen and sportswomen who chose this particular moment to be open about their own sexuality or to affirm their support of LGBT rights.

The mobility of many members of these networks was also a significant factor in their success in making LGBT rights into such a significant issue around the games, whilst attempts to curb the mobility of activists’ and other individuals’ bodies around the Sochi site was an important way in which Russian authorities attempted to resist and undermine the struggle.

Finally, Leitner and colleagues assert that socio-spatial positionality is also an important component of such politics, bringing into focus difference and inequality. In this case, the difference in Russia’s stance on LGBT rights was an important vector of difference in comparison to significant moves towards the fulfillment of LGBT rights, such as gay marriage, in much of Western Europe and North America, which had important implications for how the political struggle played out and was resisted by the Russian Government. But equally the struggle for LGBT rights around the Sochi Winter Olympics was very successful at forging alliances between different groups of activists, different national LGBT rights movements, and between activists and sports people or sports fans. That prominent news outlets also felt the need to show their support to the cause shows the strength of such alliances.

Attention to the complex spatialities of social movements and contentious politics, such as the LGBT rights struggle, can illuminate the  interactions of different tactics, arenas, allegiances and oppositions in the movement, as well as highlighting the multiple locations or levers of the political struggle ‘on the ground’.

books_icon Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard & Kristin Sziarto 2008 The spatialities of contentious politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): 157-172

60-world2 Pussy Riot members among group of activists arrested in Sochi The Guardian, February 18

60-world2 5 reasons why Sochi’s Olympics may be the most controversial games yet The Guardian, January 31

60-world2 Channel 4 goes rainbow to wish “good luck to those out in sochi” Channel 4, February 6

60-world2 Putin cautions gay visitors to Sochi BBC News, January 17

Implications of the unexpected:changes in a research environment to the conduct of fieldwork

by Fiona Ferbrache

Among your family and friends, I am sure there are people you know who have been implicated by the recent snow and ice that has fallen on the UK, as well as much of northern Europe, and the US (BBC News, 2010).  Changes to travel arrangements and festive plans seem to have characterised the end of 2010, just as they did for many parts of the UK at the start of 2010 (The Guardian, 2010).  Of course, the media is often filled with news about the implications of the (relatively) unexpected; political crisis, economic crisis, and natural disaster, for instance.  While these topics often provide the focus of geographic research, they also implicate changes in the research environment for those already working there when incidents occur.

Dealing with the impact of change on the conduct of fieldwork is the topic of Veit Bachmann’s (forthcoming) Area article.  This very readable piece draws upon Bachmann’s own fieldwork experiences in Nairobi, as the Kenyan post-electoral crisis unfolded in 2008.  The article deals with issues of positionality, researcher/researched relations and ethics, but from the perspective of changes to the research environment.  It is shown how events shaped the thematic focus of Bachmann’s work, as well as the geography of his research.  This article provides essential reading for any geographer preparing for fieldwork in a potential crisis zone, as well as reminding the reader that all fieldwork is conducted in dynamic environments.

This article is not designed to put you off conducting fieldwork at the first sign of disruption, for as Bachmann illustrates, and reassures, about change to the research environment: “This is, however, not always to the negative” (p.6)

Bachmann, V. (forthcoming) Participating and observing: positionality and fieldwork relations during Kenya’s post-election crisis. Area.

BBC News (2010) North-east US struggles for normality after blizzards. BBC News Online. 28 December, 2010

The Guardian (2010b) More travel disruption as heavy snow moves south. Guardian.co.uk. 05 January, 2010

Just get on with it: interviewing without hyper-reflexivity

By Jenny Lunn

Earlier this month, the BBC held its fourth School Report News Day, in which 50,000 children from more than 700 schools took part. The project aims to get youngsters interested in shaping the news and consider careers in journalism. Students from across the country were involved in researching, writing and broadcasting stories on the BBC’s television channels, radio services and website.

Many of the young reporters carried out interviews with high profile personalities and celebrities. Some of the more serious interviewers asked tough questions to the leaders of the main political parties and government ministers. Other reports focused on issues at a local level, including interviews with local MPs, the head of a county council, members of the fire service and police, and a soldier who has served in Iraq. The topic of some news items was commercial issues, featuring interviews with leading business people. Interviews with stars from the world of entertainment were the scoop for other schools, including two Eastenders actors, someone from Strictly Come Dancing and a top Radio 1 DJ. Others focused on sport, featuring interviews with England footballers training for the World Cup and British Olympians training for London 2010. In addition, there were interviews with student peers in Afghanistan and Haiti.

Two recent articles – Gareth Rice in Area and William Harvey in Geography Compass – have discussed the matter of interviewing elites. Perhaps academic researchers can learn something from the young people who so confidently and articulately interviewed famous and influential people. Scholars are now hyper-sensitive to issues of positionality and are expected to engage in ever-increasing levels of self-reflexivity. I feel that this extreme navel-gazing can detract from the data collection and research process. Perhaps it is time to stop engaging in deep introspection and just get on with interviewing, just like the gung-ho students have done.

Link to the BBC News School Report website

Read about how young reporters questioned political leaders

Read Gareth Rice’s article in Area

Read William Harvey’s article in Geography Compass