Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Sociological Inspiration: Part 1

By Carli Ria Rowell

Over the course of my doctoral degree I have engaged with myriad sociological texts relating to the theoretical, empirical and methodological and I have spent much time discussing with my doctoral peers those texts that have sparked a passion for, interest in and commitment to sociological research. On a theoretical and empirical level, for me, it is those sociological texts that explore, validate, and enlighten my own experiences and the experiences of those around me, and on a methodological level it is texts pertaining to various methodological and ethical problems and possibilities that have been of greatest guidance.

As an ethnographer, researching the experiences of working-class students at an elite UK university a core focus of my study sought to explore participant’s experiences of transitioning, spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Here, I was concerned with attending to social spatialisation and placed-images exploring the way(s) in which, if at all the physical, material and topographical site of the elite university and working-class locale worked to include or exclude participants; positing them as both in and out of place in both an actual, embodied, emotional and metaphorical sense. Recognising that “vision does not dominate the way we experience our environments” (Pink 2009:12) I adopted a somewhat visual approach to ‘data collection’. I conducted a number of photo elicitation interviews, walking and driving tours and it was through the utilisation of said research methods that I was introduced to participants’ home locales, often these locales were council estates. 

From the outset of my research a sub-set of participants shared with me their experiences of navigating their way through formal educational institutions that had rendered them, within the imaginaries of formal educators as ‘problem people’ from ‘problem places’. It was thus, in this vein that I compelled to explore the way in which the now educationally and spatially mobile working-class first-generation students experienced the constant transition from a vilified council estate to the geographical site of the elite UK University. However, questions pertaining to the practice and ethics of doing so pervaded. How am I to amble to sociologically explore such phenomenon? What methods might I draw upon? What are the ethical issues inherent in such line of enquiry? And how am I best able to manage these? Importantly, do I have the right to enter into such spaces for the purpose of my doctoral research and subsequent personal gain? These were the questions that the three Sociological Research Online articles discussed here helped me think through and what I discuss in this post. I attempt not to provide a comprehensive overview of said papers but instead discuss the way(s) in which they shaped my research theory and practice.

Welfare Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy by Tracey Jensen

At the time of conducting my fieldwork there had been the proliferation in the mainstream media of what Sociologist Tracey Jensen has termed ‘poverty porn’. Poverty porn typically ‘documents’ the experiences of the poor, exploring the lives of families and individuals as they attempt to get by on welfare. As Jensen notes:“It is through the explosion of 'poverty porn' television that welfare discourses of political elites have become translated into authoritarian vocabularies. Poverty porn television is not simply voyeurism, but performs an ideological function; it generates a new 'commonsense' around an unquestionable need for welfare reform; it makes a neoliberal welfare 'doxa'” (2.2).

Typically, such antagonistic programmes are set on 'sink council estates' with a stark visual imagery of architectural decay, vandalism and environmental degradation and are accompanied by a narrative of intergenerational worklessness, petty criminality and anti-social behaviour and a lack of aspiration. Jensen’s paper sensitised me to the new forms of 'commonsense' of welfare and some of the stigmatising stereotypes that a number of my participants were subject to as a result of the narrative of poverty porn that was (and is) circulating in lay, political and media commentary.

 A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Method and Walking by Kate Moles

The second article published by Sociological Research Online that has been central to the formation of my research methodology was the aforementioned paper by Moles. The paper foregrounds walking as a mobile methodological tool. In doing so, it engages with debates and discussions surrounding mobile methods, “methods employed that embrace and celebrate the different engagement with spaces that being mobile produces” (1.10). The purpose of the paper, as Moles herself writes, is “the demonstration of what Thirdspace methods might look like” (7.1). The paper draws upon the author’s experience of conducting in-depth research over three years in a park in Dublin. It begins by guiding the reader through spatial theory, engages with the concept of Thirdspace and argues for the inclusion of spatial practices within sociological research, before setting out the methodological act of gathering data through walking drawing upon anecdotes and vignettes from her fieldwork to illustrate the arguments being made.

Throughout the article Moles recognises the importance of pertaining to issues of place and space in a way that accounts for and encompasses its mobility. Moles foregrounds the importance of “recognizing the affinity between personal narratives and the movement through place" (Hall et al. 2006) and attends to a thirdspace of epistemology (1.5). It was through reading ‘A Walk in Thirdspace: Place, Methods and Walking’ that I was introduced to the cultural concept of bimbling, the act of wondering aimlessly through “a co-ingredient environment, which can be harnessed to prompt theretofore unstated or unrecalled knowledge of the life-world” (4.3). Blimbling became a central component within the numerous walking tours that I conducted with and alongside participants and the act of blimbling brought with it numerous methodological gains. Just at Moles notes, blimbling provided space by which dialogue between both the body and mind and the individual and the place can emerged (Anderson 2004). This enabled me to explore the way in which the place, the personal and the cultural interlinked and combined to shape participants' subjective experience of transitioning spatially, affectively and metaphorically between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale. Spaces and places mean different things to different peoples in different epochs. Thus the experience of moving within and between is dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of a particular participant and mediated by the social, cultural, political and historical. Familiarising myself with the concept of blimbling and executing said cultural practice within the various walking tours I conducted thereby enabled me to explore the way in which the special practices of participants contributed to their experience of being a working-class student in an elite British university.

Furthermore, through the method of blimbling I was able to translate my pledge to feminist research ethics into practice, most notably the commitment to dismantling hierarchical research relationships insofar as possible. As Hall et al. (2006 cited in Moles 2008) acknowledged, mobile interviews shift the balance of control away from the researcher. Finally, through the method of blimbling, the way in which participants experienced their working-class locale per se was uncovered. This enabled me to access meanings that seldom exist in dominant discourses surrounding working-class localities, council estates and council housing.

The Dereliction Tourist: Ethical Issues of Conducting Research in Areas of Industrial Ruination by Alice Mah

Mah’s ethnographic research was focused upon illuminating the way in which individuals live in and among sites of industrial ruination. Specifically, the research focus “was on places that were caught between being left behind and moving forward” (1.4) in relation to the unequal geography of capitalist development. The research was conducted in areas of industrial ruination in Russia, the UK and North America. In each case study location Mah undertook approximately 20-30 interviews, driving and walking tours of neighbourhoods with research participants, and informal visits with residents in their homes, at community centres, and at various meeting places in their communities. The average time spent in each field site was two months and it is in this vein that Mah noted that the relatively short period of time in each field site “contributed to the sense of being not only an outsider but 'just' a tourist, passing through” (1.5). This, coupled with the fact that the original inspiration for the research derived from Mah’s experience of a cross-country road trip through Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, in addition to her personal fascination with industrial ruins and the subsequent enjoyment of research, led Mah to feel as if she were a “dereliction tourist traipsing around the globe chasing the aesthetics thrills of ‘ruins porn’” (Mah 1.5) as opposed to a sociological ethnographer committed to, and conducting, social justice research. This led Mad to interrogate the role of the 'dereliction tourist' as a way of reflecting critically about the various ethical issues inherent in 'outsider' research. In doing so, the article explored the ethics of “voyeurism, romanticization, and the reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places” (Mah abstract) and discussed critically the role of an outsider researcher. 

Throughout the article there is the critical engagement with the notion of 'ruins porn' (Clemens 2011, Mullins 2012), which Mah summarises to be “a metaphor for the aesthetic, sensory and self-satisfied pleasure of dereliction tourism” (1.1). However, Mah argues, “industrial ruins are only fascinating for some people, typically outsiders, passing by, snapping photos” (1.1). It was at this point that the parallels between the ethical and moral dilemmas inherent in Mah’s fieldwork and that of my own became apparent. I could not help but call into question the ‘enjoyment’ that I had for my doctoral thesis. Here I was especially concerned with interrogating my fascination with my doctoral participants' experiences of transitioning between the elite sphere of the university and their working-class locale, and the moral and ethical implications that were inherent and Mah’s article provided me with the sociological thinking to do so. 

One of the seminal luxuries of doctoral research, I am frequently told by those more senior than myself, is the luxury of time and the subsequent opportunity of endlessly immersing oneself in sociological texts. However, as a doctoral researcher near to submission, I have since reached the point where I am encouraged (or rather told) to read only that which is central to my thesis. My supervisors and peers are often hesitant to recommended readings for fear that I will ‘read the entire thing’. Whilst the skill of instrumental reading is nonetheless one that I am yet to master, for those who possess the luxury of time, I urge you to immerse yourself in wide-ranging sociological texts and when doing so I encourage you to take note of the lessons learned and guidance gleamed…

Carli Ria Rowell is currently a final year ESRC doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and a full time teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sussex.

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