challenging methodologies and methods
Life of Russian deathscapes: A study of people’s uses and experiences of Vvedenskoe cemetery in Moscow
The fundamental for our societies ways in which we deal with death and the dead are spatially represented in deathscapes. The growing body of literature on deathscapes demonstrates a wide range of interpretations of this concept studied in different contexts. Among them, Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular, are underrepresented. Such omission is unfortunate, as Russian cities can provide rich settings characterized by hyper neo-liberalization, post-socialist urban development, a recent focus on physical improvement of public spaces, and fixation of the state populist ideology on the past and “traditional” values. In previous research Russian deathscapes have been often exotified by scholarly attention directed on spaces of war, terror, and trauma. Spaces of “ordinary” death such as contemporary urban cemeteries, however, lack appropriate academic analysis.
This paper brings forward empirical material from such an ordinary (to an extent how ordinary space with more than 200 years history can be) Russian deathscape – Vvedenskoe cemetery in Moscow. Being originally established as a burial ground for religious minorities (non-Orthodox Christians), in the 20th century the cemetery was municipalized and secularized but still keeps a part of its history in heritage tombs. While initially situated on the outskirts of the city, nowadays the cemetery is closely surrounded by housing areas. Like many other cemeteries in Russia, Vvedenskoe is packed with fenced graves of different types, unplanned vegetation, and a labyrinth of narrow poorly kept paths.
In order to investigate how people use and experience Vvedenskoe cemetery and thus explore the everyday life of a Russian ordinary deathscape, this paper employs an innovative combination of traditional and digital ethnographic methods. The study is based on observations of activities and semi-structured interviews with visitors conducted in June 2018 and supplemented with the analysis of photographs and text tagged to the cemetery on social media (Instagram, Facebook, VK). The combination of in situ and virtual methods allows to access richer and more diverse data than just one approach can offer.
Although visiting a grave was the most frequent reason for coming to the cemetery, people were also engaging with this space in other ways. The striking insight, revealed both in the observations and the analysis of social media, was the variety of ways how spirituality was embodied here: in graves of religious actors, legends associated with particular tombs, private prayers to God written on the walls of chapels. Being very secular and even janitorial from a planning point of view space, Vvedenskoe cemetery demonstrated how a Russian deathscape can accommodate different types of spirituality not limited to organized religion.
This paper aims to contribute to the existing debate by studying the everyday life of a cemetery in Russia – an unexplored area in international academic studies of deathscapes. Such empirical contribution corresponds to the recent call for a more global approach to understanding cities and urban phenomena. Deathscapes will also benefit from expanding the range of geographical settings which can develop this concept further.
Josefa Maria Stiegler
A digital urban ethnography? Methodological challanges
I would like to contribute to the workshop with a twofold dislocation regarding the where and how urban knowledge is produced. The research I conduct for my PhD project is (1) rooted in a place “off the map” and (2) dislocated to an online research environment. I analyze how security legacies of sports mega-events (re)produce gendered and racialized inequalities in Manguinhos, a favela cluster in Rio de Janeiro. Security legacies are security-related measures and practices that exceed the temporality of an event, e.g. technologies and urban development. Cities provide a fruitful ground for security studies because they serve as testing sites for security governance arrangements. Utilizing feminist and decolonial approaches, I aim to uncover how racialized and gendered hierarchies manifest in the everyday. They allow for capturing daily (in)securities of those who are usually constructed as threat. This methodology enables me to question what counts as valid knowledge in urban and security studies. In order to counteract hegemonic narratives, I emphasize in a bottom-up approach the perspectives of Manguinhos residents and activists and how they make sense of security legacies. I conduct a digital ethnographic research, i.a. using online narrative interviews, photo and video diaries and photo elicitation. Thereof results a twofold dislocation.
First, there is a historical imbalance between cities in Western countries, which have been traditionally perceived as the locus where urban theory is produced, and non-Western cities, which are seen rather within the realm of development studies. Taken-for-granted assumptions about how cities function cannot sufficiently explain the lived realities in cities of the Global South. Racism is deeply engraved in Rio’s urban fabric and restricts people’s right to the city. Black favela residents are painted as a main source of danger and violence in public security discourses. They are also the most frequent victims of (lethal) police violence, while experiences with urban violence of non-males, e.g. racialized women, are invisibilized. Favelas are quite literally places “off the map” (Robinson 2002), places that are not even considered urban. There is a state desire to modernize favelas and align them with the asfalto, the formal city. In this territorial fight, regaining control over the historically neglected favelas and installing permanent occupation by security forces is crucial. This wider urbanization strategy draws on historical colonial patterns of anti-blackness that is rooted in settler colonial logics and the segregation of racialized communities.
Second, ever since Covid-19 transferred the global research sector to spheres online, it is high time for us researchers to build on the rich online research literature and explore how the ubiquity of the digital plays out in our (urban) research environments. What if we were researching the urban, that is physical spaces we can feel, smell and experience bodily, with digital technologies? While “being there” is an unconditional requirement for ethnography, it is no longer worthwhile to tie it solely to offline life. Although online and offline worlds form the same reality, online environments still have their specificities that pose methodological challenges to our research.
Sven Daniel Wolfe
Research in a minor key: Working with the (extra)ordinary in authoritarian spaces
I sat in a chic café in Minsk, Belarus, waiting. For the moment I was alone – a rare occurrence in my time there, as for days I had been handed off to a string of colleagues and minders (sometimes perhaps with little difference between the two). The café smacked of gentrification, with tech wealth and class aspirations taking shape in faux vintage industrial lighting and intentionally rough-hewn tables. I was there to meet an old political science professor, a Belarusian man who had since left the academy and gone into consulting. We were in the middle of coffee when his phone buzzed and he excused himself to take the call. After a few moments of solitude, I saw him reenter the café, still on the phone, but now escorting a stranger and pointing to me. The new man sat down, introduced himself, and launched into a litany of complaints about Belarus. He criticized the spectacular redevelopments that improved the center but ignored the peripheries; the heavy-handedness of the authorities regarding political liberties; the stupidity of ordinary people in accepting the dictates of the state; and, overall, the inferiority of Belarus in relation to the West. His tirade provoked uneasy questions – was this a political trap or merely a friend-of-a-friend with a desire to connect with a foreigner who specialized in urban politics? Why did I feel cautious, frightened, exposed? At last my professor returned and we began a more normal conversation. I made a point to talk only about my life since our class together.
This vignette sheds light on some of the methodological challenges in doing research in authoritarian spaces, and reveals a few of the ways in which an attention to the minor or seemingly mundane can help reach the politics at stake from below and from within, without reifying the representations of those in power (Katz 1996; 2017). Starting from the minor, this paper takes seriously contextualized ethnographic encounters as a means to expand the established repertoire of methodological tools beyond the overreliance on texts and semi-structured interviews (Lancione 2017). It advances a micropolitical sensibility that focuses on the immediate and the individual, but interconnected with larger scales (Guattari 2009). Framed within an appreciation of a messy and experimental “ecology of practices” (Stengers 2005; Whatmore 2006), the paper proposes a loose framework to guide the analysis of these minoritarian moments and link them outside of the immediate: encounter, digestion, connection, and representation. In elaborating each of these elements in context with my work in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, the paper aspires to destabilize hegemonic knowledge (de Sousa Santos 2014) by grounding research in the particular and the seemingly mundane, before connecting to meaning at larger scales, and accomplished with awareness of the dangers in negotiating the shifting and invisible red line within authoritarian spaces (Glasius et al. 2018; Wolfe 2019). The paper offers a methodology that is all at once intimate, positional, and connected, contextualized within a counter-hegemonic politics.
Counter Geographies of Danger: Young Migrants and Urban Mobility in Argentina
Mapping has historically been the task of travelers, specialists and bureaucrats. Considered a science in charge of gathering, making and analyzing measurements and data from different regions to represent them graphically, cartography managed, over time, to “erase” the routes and activities that made it possible. Device of domination, production of knowledge and control, it is possible to trace in contemporary cartography vestiges, elements of continuity, of the ways in which colonialism materially drew the borders of modern geography “with a ruler and compass”. The concern for “the cartographic” in this paper exceeds the practice of mapping as a technique and is conceived as a true category of thought that introduces a specific relationship with signs, temporalities and subjects in urban spaces.
In this paper, we analyze the recent deployment of a series of mechanisms and control devices over urban displacement in a neighborhood located in Greater Buenos Aires (Argentina). The protagonists of this research are a group of young people, who are mostly part of families that have migrated, and with whom we have rebuilt their ways of living, touring and experiencing the neighborhood in which their school is located. Ways that are crossed by inequality. Through the production of narrative cartographies and ethnographic analysis, we managed to map what they identify as practices of institutional violence oriented to force or avoid urban displacement. At the same time, this inquiry allows us to explore and analyze the reasons why young people associate their experience of the city with danger and insecurity, deepening the senses that come into play there, which are involved with identification processes, but also processes of marking, stigmatization and border production. This analytical journey allows us to approach the ways in which young Latin-American migrants in Argentina “make” the city, contributing urban studies and to the field of studies on borders and their proliferation, heterogeneization and reinforcement in urban space.
The different forms that migrant mobility takes in the city give rise to the production of different modes of governance, which are integral to the liberal logic and which, in turn, produce and affect those same figures that constitute its starting point. Certain patterns of action of the security forces and of society regarding migrants can considered as a proliferation of subtle mechanisms of control and surveillance: This allows us to think of borders in the framework of broader logics of governmentality. The city thus emerges as a place in which certain state policies of surveillance and certain practices of identification and control of the population act in ways that bear similarities to the police function exercised on territorial borders. The production of other narrative cartographies and maps enabled the creation of spaces for dialogue and the production of collective knowledge about the experience of the city and promoted the elaboration of critical stories where reflection from a visual device allowed articulating processes of territorialization and narratives that dispute and challenge hegemonic ways of signifying the city.