Blog No. 7: Post-Workshop 3 and the challenge of method/ologies

Photo Credit: Ceren Gamze Yasar

By Will LaFleur

Helsinki, Fi—Many thanks to all who joined us last week—presenters, discussants, chairs and thoughtful audience members—to explore and challenge the means by which we make sense of the world and how we try to make the world make sense.

As expected, several themes concerning methods and methodologies surfaced throughout the two days. Within these themes, a term that did not escape (at least my) notice was the word ‘slow(ness)’, invoked here and there as an intimation—following perhaps the philosopher Isabelle Stengers—of a more deliberate or reflective research process that constantly questions the purposes to which science is put, in which “science could discover it’s own demands”, rather than the demands of, for example, the corporate good (see also, Stengers, 2018). Yet, the contemporary landscapes of academia in which the number of papers published seems to determine ‘success’ is a clear challenge to the very idea of slowness. Add to this the attack on critical and post/decolonial movements in (especially) the social sciences—astutely remarked upon by discussant Ola Söderström in his keynote—and we find what appears to be a fairly hostile environment to both slow and critical social science research.

It is against this broad socio-political backdrop nonetheless, that much boundary pushing methodological innovation—often in correspondence with decolonial scholarship—appears to be playing out. Indeed, much of which has been on display by presenters throughout the Dislocating Urban Studies workshops. Despite this contemporary (industrial, neoliberal, etc.) academic research environment, it is heartening (hopefully for you, too!) to participate in events of research-sharing that inspire, and are seemingly able to transcend, at least momentarily, the contemporary pressures and constraints on the scientific work we do, and hope to do. Moving on from last week’s workshops, that momentary transcendence faded, we once again face the realities of our contemporary research environs, but, hopefully, with a renewed spirit to continue pushing to the fore the narratives, movements, communities, things, spaces and places that matter for a more just world.

To aid us in our move onward, I shall revisit here some (but not all) of the pertinent topics that came up last week. In the continued push for theoretical and methodological innovation we were treated to a smorgasbord of interventions that shone some light on crucial processes of research that we hold in common. Below are a series of interactions from last week’s workshops that raise relevant questions for urban studies scholars and beyond.

Take a look, have a think, click the ‘comment’ button and put some (metaphorical) ink to paper to share your thoughts. Or, simply read and think/reflect about the issues in relation to your own work.

Workshop 3: Follow-up Queries

The question of Slowness

In the very first presentation of Workshop 3, Pavel Grabalov introduced us to the notion of ‘deathscapes’. In the ensuing discussion, Elena Trubina reacted to the ‘spontaneous’ interview methods used in Grabalov’s study, saying

“People’s reactions to death need more time elaboration, and more participant observation would help that.”

Thus, we can find here a suggestion of slowness in dealing with the issue of death—an issue that self-evidently takes time to process, and perhaps is always, ongoingly being processed. Turning to this question of slowness, it seems worthwhile to think about and reflect:

-What aspects of our own research demand slowness in order to be comprehended, analysed, or otherwise engaged with in ethical ways?

-In a world that often seems to move so quickly, is slowness always the right strategy? What challenges does slow research pose for scholar-activists who may feel the need to act sooner, rather than later?


Narrative cartographies/ethnographic analysis

Veronica Hendel presented work on narrative cartographies and ethnographic analysis, through which she found the presence of subtle forms of everyday violence, though the research was not initially focused on violence. Hendel showed how research collaborators drew out maps referring to particular instances of violence, and how using methods like walking through neighbourhoods with participants helped to disentangle the complexities and invisibilities of these young people’s experience.

In response to the question: “To what extent do these methods/theories have the potential to dislocate urban studies?”, Hendel replied: These methods give a chance to these young people to become part of the agenda of urban studies, and the agenda of the state and colleagues through subversion.

To you, reader:

-Have you yourself experimented with similar methods to narrative cartographies? In your view, what aspects of experience do they have the potential to make visible, and in what ways? Are there limitations to these methods?


Authoritarianism(s), scalarities, gentrifications and a plea for going ‘beyond’

Authoritarianism was one theme that arose multiple times in reference to how we conceptualise what is happening with the urban, and also no doubt due to it current geopolitical spectre. Sven Daniel Wolfe was asked about these together and replied: “The intention of theorising from the East here is to trouble the notion of authoritarianism, which exists not in the manifestation of a state like Belarus, but in the West as well: Portland or London, for example.” The implication of course is that authoritarianism is heterogenous, messy and anything but straight-forward. Which raises the question of the applicability of many standby concepts today. Maybe one way to approach this is to “think form the East”, or perhaps the South.

But taking a cue from Jennifer Robinson’s repeated insistence to go beyond our tried and true concepts:

-Is there an opportunity here to think from beyond conceptualisations of East, South, North, or West? What openings are there for re-assesing and re-making our conceptualisations of how we understand and research e.g. authoritarianism, gentrification, scalarity?

-How do these concepts change depending on where we think ‘from’? And might the places we think from render some of these concepts unfit for purpose?


Digital methods

Due to the global pandemic, several of our presenters were forced to reimagine their methods for fieldwork and the way they teach. It perhaps goes without saying that ‘in-person’ social research is ‘more preferable’ to digital, but perhaps it is more helpful to instead think of digital research as one other type of social research, simply a different approach that can provide different insights, and that’s OK, too. Luckily, several presenters in last week’s workshops demonstrated this exceedingly well.

In response to Aparna Parikh, Karen Paiva Henrique and their students’ digital visual methods for research and pedagogy, discussant Carina Listerborn commented:

“I think this method is really an interesting way to go around reproducing stigmatised social categories. As well, pedagogically it was very inspiring as a teacher myself thinking about what we all can do.”

As well, Josefa Maria Stiegler suggested that “research design cannot simply be transferred to the online sphere”, and indicated that digital ethnography is not as something that replaces urban ethnography, but something that is itself a different kind of ethnography where, like any research—ethnographic or otherwise—one must remain aware of who/what is being included/excluded. Thus, digital ethnography might be described as understanding one or another instantiation of the realities of involved participants, just as more traditional (urban) ethnographic work (I would argue!) aims to understand not a single reality, but certain instantiations of plural realities.

Finally, Dalia Milián Bernal introduced us to an example of how digital research can substantially widen the scope of what is being studied. Bernal’s work on ‘spaces of temporary use in Latin America’ showed simultaneously the openness and limits of online work, and, as Listerborn commented, one of the keys to such high quality research lie in Bernal’s openness of the process: “Your honesty about the process and research is rich and detailed and I think would be very useful insight about how research actually unfolds

Thus, from the above we can find some prime examples of how high quality digital research might be pursued, that it is not a replacement, but is yet another type of research, as well as its limits and potentials. Turning now to you, reader:

-Moving on from this work, how could digital methods and pedagogical strategies be rethought and reimplemented in your own work?

-What can digital methods tell us that more traditional methods cannot? And visa-versa?

-What are your own experiences with digital research and pedagogical methods that you would like to share, or think would be useful for others to know?


Feminist methodologies

In a presentation titled Revisiting Gentrification- Social Reproduction Nexus: A Feminist Ethnography of Gendered Dispossessions in Gentrifying Tarlabasi, Istanbul, Bahar Sakizlioglu drew from her project to assert:

One of the things that has happened is that as women have entered the labour market, they take on double work: both formal and informal work for women that increases burdens disproportionately

Indeed, this statement connects to one of the (many) key insights that feminist social theory have pointed out over the years. Sakizlioglu moreover brings our attention to a particular key insight in feminist theory, namely the entanglements of scale: of the intimate, sensing body with global, macro processes (see Mountz and Hyman, 2006; Katz, 2002, 2011; also, Hayes-Conroy and Hayes Conroy, 2008, 2015; and Pink, 2015, to name only a few).

Taking such key insights as only a sampling of example, the questions seem to be begged:

-Is neglecting or excluding such insights even possible? Ever justifiable?

-Are feminist theoretical and methodological insights to be used only when it seems to befit the research and researcher, or are they actually inextricable parts of any contemporarily-relevant theoretical, methodological or analytical insight?


Comparison

To the question of comparison, it became apparent, for example in Frances Brill’s presentation when a colleague said to Brill regarding a research proposal:

The selection of case studies need clearer justification. Whilst this type of in-depth work has value, it still needs a stronger justification in terms of the sampling framework and approach used“,

Thus, a clear justification of comparison seems to be a requirement that holds more weight than “in-depth work”, or else focusing on places that are of interest, as another commenter told Brill: “My advice, stick to London. People always want to know about London”. While several questions arise from this, it is clear that comparison is never straight forward but can appear so, as long as it is justified to those with power to decide, and thus contingent on the positionalities of funders and other researchers in complex ways.

The questions for you:

-According to your experience, in what ways are ‘traditional’ approaches to comparison still useful, and in what ways have they become useless? What are the benefits of comparing seemingly incomparable urbans? What are the insights to be gained from doing so?

-Does a well-justified comparative approach deserve more import than a thorough, in-depth research about understudied or novel phenomenon that may or may not ultimately make fruitful comparative work? In your experience, how have the politics of comparison affected you and your work?

Reflect and/or Discuss!

Share your thoughts in the comments: what is your experience? Do you have strong feelings about the ideas above? Perhaps you have problems with the way the questions are even posed?! Let the world know! And/or just take these questions to think with as you move on.

References

Hayes-Conroy, A., & Hayes-Conroy, J. (2008). Taking back taste: Feminism, food and visceral politics. Gender, Place & Culture15(5), 461–473. https://doi.org/10.1080/09663690802300803

Hayes-Conroy, A., & Hayes-Conroy, J. (2015). Political ecology of the body: A visceral approach. In R. Bryant (Ed.),  The International Handbook of Political Ecology (pp. 659–672). Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9780857936172

Katz, C. (2011) ‘Accumulation, excess, childhood: toward a counter topography of risk and waste’. Documents d’Anàlisi Geográfica 57: 47–60.

Mountz, A., & Hyndman, J. (2006). Feminist Approaches to the Global Intimate. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 34(1/2), 446–463. JSTOR.

Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography (2nd edition). Sage Publications.

Stengers, I., & Muecke, S. (2018). Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science (English edition). Polity.

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