RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015
The city and the margins: Ethnographic challenges across makeshift urbanism
Michele Lancione, University of Cambridge (email@example.com)
Tatiana Thieme, University of Cambridge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Elisabetta Rosa, Aix-Marseille University (email@example.com)
In recent years urban geographical literature has paid increasing attention to the study of marginality in cities across the globe. In particular, informal settlements, urban peripheries, liminal spaces and those inhabiting these precarious urban contexts are increasingly under scrutiny, showing a growing interest amongst urban scholars in investigating life at the margins (both in the Global North and South). Recognising that macro analyses and desk-studies obscure and essentialise the messy realities on the ground and at the margins, many urban scholars aim to engage in grounded research, and in the process are faced with considerable methodological questions about how the 21st city aught to be studied, let alone the makeshift city in contexts of uncertainty and precarity. ‘The city’ and its protagonists living on the margins are being depicted in relation to everyday modes of incremental encroachments, experimentation, and assemblage urbanism, as reflected in recent developments in urban and geographical scholarship hinging on critical academic reflection, politically engaged research, and granular portraiture of the city’s interstices. This recent urban scholarship invites us to unfold contextual dynamics of the “field” in their performative, affective, and more-than-human articulations. Studying ‘the city’ and the ‘marginal wo/men’ as separate entities, from the standpoint of pre-established theorisation, is thus no longer tenable: urban geographers can only grasp the dynamics of the city and explore the urban margins from the bottom-up.
Ethnographic methods of enquiry seem to have become obligatory passage-points to documenting and analysing the city and its margins. Participant and non-participant observations, semi-structured interviews, diary-taking, and visual methods are just few of the heterogeneous approaches deployed by current urban geographers. Yet, while the literature is rich of fine-grained accounts of how to theorise the contemporary city and its margins, not enough has been said about the empirical context shaping urban ethnographic investigations. Often, locked up between ontological constructivism and epistemological realism, these methodologies are taken-for-granted, leaving out the messy but increasingly valuable vacillations concerning how to define the ‘field’, or how the urban ethnographer should announce his/her presence as a researcher, as opposed to fellow urbanite, pedestrian, or by-stander. Urban ethnographer, put simply, is rarely fully discussed in terms of its implementation, the complex ethical dilemmas concerning positionality, and it is therefore often under-theorised as a contemporary methodology for studying the difficult, invisible, ‘no-go’ and in-between zones of cities. This raises a series of questions:
What does it mean to ethnographically investigate the city today, building on the latest developments in urban and geographical thinking? Are traditional ethnographic methods enough, or do they need to be re-thought alongside theories of ‘cityness’? What does it mean to undertake such ethnographic works at the urban margins? How can one investigate marginality on the ground without diminishing the richness of theory, and how can such investigation open up new scope for theorising life at the margin?
This session will focus on the issue of ethnographic thinking and methods in relation to the investigation of life at the margins, including research related to performances, more-than-human agencies, assemblages, atmospheres and events. We are less interested in discussing the value of ethnography in itself, and instead aim to address some of the following points:
- Theorising ethnography, the margins and the vitalist city;
- New ethnographic methods for new urban theory;
- Re-thinking the margins through ethnography;
- Following and tracing the action at the margin: empirical challenges;
- Being-in-process and being-assembled: positionality at the margins;
- The politics of researching life at the margin today (academia, activism, political relevance);
- Issues of comparison in multi-sited ethnographies
- The challenge of representation in ethnographic research
- Writing ethnography in academy papers: the space of methodological account
- Doing ethnography at the margins: the Global North and South
- Navigating the ‘field’ in urban ethnography, and negotiating your place within in
Abstracts of no more than 200 words should be sent to all convenors – Michele Lancione (firstname.lastname@example.org), Tatiana Thieme (email@example.com) and Elisabetta Rosa (firstname.lastname@example.org) – by Monday 9th February 2015. We will notify the authors of selected papers by Friday 13th February 2015.
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