Revisiting nowhere in particular?

This tiny toy hippo was given to my son one Sunday afternoon by an elderly lady who came out of her house to say 'hello' to us as we made our way back from the playground. I've walked down this side street a million times but had never spoken anyone from that row of houses until then.

This tiny toy hippo was given to my son one Sunday afternoon by an elderly woman who came out of her house to say ‘hello’ to us as we made our way back from the playground. I’ve walked down this side street a million times but had never spoken to anyone from that row of houses until then.

At our team meeting yesterday the subject of blogging came up again – it is a permanent fixture on our agenda. What do we blog about? How often? A lot or a little?

The use of blogs in social science research is a recurrent theme in the academic blogosphere. My vision for Connectors is that we blog our way through the next 4 years as a way of making the study more accessible and open to those who are interested – and who knows maybe create some new interest along the way too. I see this all as one of many ways to generate a public discussion on our research topic of children’s participation.

But building up a readership -even a small one- requires us to blog on a slightly more regular basis. But then not so much that the first thought that comes into your head on seeing an email alert from us is: ‘oof, not them again!’ So in discussing the Goldie Locks of blogging yesterday we came up with a couple of strategies, one of which I’m trying out here: to blog not just about what we are doing but also what we are reading. This brings me to the title of this post.

In an earlier post I wrote about a feeling of knowing and, at the same time, not knowing London, a city I’ve lived in for close to 15 years but now also a ‘field site’. In an effort to get to know the city anew and as a research site I have been doing a fair bit of reading about London.

At the same time, like blogging, sampling has also been a permanent research agenda item since March. So in my reading I have tried to combine these two issues and my reading strategies are partly an effort to respond to the question: ‘how is London portrayed in research texts, how have researchers selected a locale in which to focus their research and how have they approached people – families in particular- to participate in their study?’

In this process I came across Danny Miller’s ethnographies of consumption and loss each of which are set in a north and south London street respectively. The latter especially, as well as being a truly wonderful and moving read, introduced me to the idea that Miller calls ‘radical empiricism’. He makes the persuasive point that sampling in London requires a different tact. London is no longer organised along the geographical lines of difference it once was (e.g. Cypriot community in Green Lanes, Greek community in Bayswater, Trinidadians in Ladbroke Grove etc etc). Migration lines no longer follow England’s colonial past and populations are scattered.

This stopped me in my tracks because, as well as often thinking about London and other cities in this way, many of the mapping representations of London I have been looking at like to suggest concentrations of communities in particular areas. Miller is saying that the terrain is far from neat and tidy and that London is far more heterogeneous than that. This definitely rings true if I think of my own little neighbourhood. From a research perspective, I read his radical empiricism as a caution against using predefined demographic categories on which to construct a sample. Instead what Miller went in search of was a way of achieving  heterogeneity by other means and he did this by locating most of his sample in a single road that he describes as being ‘nowhere in particular‘.

This is a risky strategy but his ethnographies demonstrate that you indeed achieve heterogeneity in sampling; it is a heterogeneity that is more faithful to diversity in people’s lived experience as opposed to demographic categories (e.g. White British, gay etc) and avoids assuming similarity within these categories (e.g. he mentions that there were a number of gay men on the street in south London and in his sample but who beyond being gay seemed to him to have nothing else in common).  Miller argues that his approach avoids tokens (‘man’, ‘Asian’ or ‘working class’) and takes people as you find them engaging with generalisations and categories as they emerge: ‘it just may be that the generalisations emerge best, not from place of origin or gender, but around an orientation to science or celebrity, gardening or church’ (CoT, p. 120/5060 kindle).

These are really exciting ideas that resonated with me as I have really struggled with the question of ‘which children’ will be involved in the study. It suggests that my original question was perhaps misplaced and rather than asking ‘which children’ we should be asking ‘which practices’.  But here we hit a problem in that at this point in time we just don’t know what practices of social action look like in childhood and so can’t base a sample on them. But we do have some idea of what these practices look like in adulthood (protesting, petitioning, boycotts, membership to various organisations etc etc). We know from biographies and anecdotal evidence that the family context is an important one, and we can ask parents if they consider themselves to be political or activists and sample some of the children in this way.

But what about this really seductive idea of locating the study on a ‘nowhere-in-particular’ street?

I am slightly less convinced about this being a suitable strategy for Connectors then I was to begin with for three reasons. Miller’s south London ethnography are all households of various constitutions but none with children of the age group we are interested in. I think I would need quite a few streets to make up my sample. I also started to think about whether ‘nowhere in particular’ still exists in London these days. Miller’s fieldwork took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While that is not such a long time ago much has happened since and London has changed a good deal.  In a post-Olympics 2012 world, ‘non-descript’ parts of London are slowly vanishing as each inch of the city becomes apprehended for business purposes. I’m thinking here of instances such as the ridiculous re-naming of the area between Holborn, St Giles and Tottenham Court Road, a previously commercial no-man’s-land, as ‘Midtown’ or the emergence of the ‘Silicone roundabout’ (aka Old Street roundabout). These developments make it  hard to sustain the notion of  ‘nowhere in particular’ (much as I love the idea!)

My final reservation with ‘nowhere in particular’ as a sampling strategy for Connectors has to do with activism and childhood. In the south London ethnography Miller observes that many of the households on the street did not know each other – he and his PhD student ended up knowing the household better than each knew each other. This is quite a familiar observation about London life and other big cities, its the one about not knowing your neighbours. It is a real experience but I think it’s also an experience that is disrupted when children arrive and if you are engaged in local activism. You can’t set up a community garden or a residents association without getting to know your neighbours, and having a child connects you in unexpected and wonderful ways to those city strangers, ones both with and without children.

The other blogging strategy we discussed was ‘less is more’. I’ve clearly failed on that one with this post, and if you’ve got this far thank you for your perseverance!

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One response to “Revisiting nowhere in particular?

  1. Pingback: Research Encounters with Activism and Solidarity Movements in Athens | Connectors Study·

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