Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference 2011

September 3, 2011

                                       +Some thoughts on ‘doing research’

This year’s theme was ‘the geographical imagination’.  I’m not sure how much these themes actually direct the conference, it being the annual conference for British geography, but there certainly seemed to be some interesting papers.  I approached the conference with an eye open to the ways in which geographical theory and practice could inform the work that I’m doing on the Adaptable suburbs project from within the UCL school of Anthropology.  In a way this is a natural thing for me to do as the project is very interested in the ways in which ‘space’ works in the emergence of a place in both the physical configurational sense and the social sense.  I also have my undergraduate and Masters education from schools of geography and naturally pull ideas from within the disipline.

In particular I have been interested in the methods used to get at the ways in which people relate to their built environment.  I was struck in new ways by the way that much social science research seems to concentrate on ‘events’, eruptions in the normal everyday practice of place.  I saw presentations on riots, urban at interventions and light festivals.  Through such presentations the ways in which place making works through social practice, a practice which works with and through space and the material objects of the built environment, was brought to the front of consciousness to highlight the politic of place.  However whilst enchanted by such insights I was wondering how such work could be relevant to the suburbs, a place of the everyday, the ordinary, dare I say it the banal.

Here David Bissell’s short presentation in a discussion panel called ‘politics, events and spaces of affect’ was useful.  Bissell wanted to re-direct attention from the politics of the ‘event’ to the politics of the habit, that is to say the everyday.  He claimed that it is here that the mimetic practices of everyday inscribe an understanding of politic, of meaning, of being in place.  He notes that small changes in the everyday allow a gentle flow of meaning, of politic of being.  It is when these gentle flows are not listened to, understood or addressed that they build into a potential that becomes in the event.  His argument was attractive and useful in the abstract sense but for me it lacked a certain pragmatism.  How does one here the murmur of the everyday, what is the new politic that can be heard?  In a sense I came back to my research question, how does place, everyday place work?

On a more practical level I enjoyed the presentation by Rachel Hill.  In her work she has attempted to understand the ways in which place becomes and maintains, particularly in places of population flux.  She carried out a number of research/art projects on the streets of Enfield and Whitechapel, places of immigration and emigration, to understand the social-spatial dynamic.  Namely this involved sitting on a street and asking people to have a cup of tea with her.  Over time she was invited in some homes.  She also noted how people’s route through the street changed with her presence.  It was a fun and useful way ‘in’ to the social dynamic of an area.  I may well be talking to her again on that one.

I was also impressed by the presentation by Tim Edensor who has a particular knack of using often abstract concepts, such as affect, more-than representation, performance in simple pragmatic ways.  His research, where he talked to people about the Blackpool illuminations, showed a simple and productive way to ‘get at’ emotional affect of place through informal and semi-structured interviews.  I was also struck by the understanding of place brought by Brian Rose whose work on light and trace in Wendover showed the potential for research to move into the realms of the poetic and artistic yet enable a pertinence in ways that sometimes the text restricts.  Finally the work of Kim Kullman on the spaces used by children on their walk to and from school really had a relevance to the ways in which the everyday space of suburbs is used.  His work pulled on Deluzian ideas of the fold and invoked moments of slippage where children find time and space to be alone, to look and listen to city, to feel their place within their environment.

Initially I had reservations about going to the conference as I feel I have pressures with my own work with impending upgrades, presentations and conferences however the step back was in many ways therapeutic.  Firstly in the sense that I could reflect through others what is was I was attempting to do and how current thought and practice might help.  Secondly it gave me a confidence in the stylistic quality and importance in delivering research, one that I should carry forward to allow a more nuanced understanding of just what it is I am doing.

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