|(extract from unpublished paper, please do not cite without permission).
Our research aimed to provide alternative perspectives describing and understanding neighbourhoods based on the personal experiences of residents. Specifically, in addressing issues of migration and place attachment, we sought out people whose views of Burngreave was shaped by their previous lives living in very different social and cultural landscapes in non-European continents. In designing the methodology of the project we aimed to work to a number of principles:
The project was informed by qualitative, reflexive methodologies (Armstrong, 2004), and work in the cultural geography and anthropological field on experience and meaning of walking / journeying (Edensor, 2000; the projects 'Memoryscape', 2005, and 'Culture from the Ground', 2005; and the 'urban exploration' issue of 'Cultural Geographies' (12/4, 2005). Techniques of on-site research (such as Rishbeth and Finney, 2006, Burgess, 1995, Whyte, 1980) have tended to centre on 'staged visits' rather than 'normal practice', or have relied heavily on the researcher's observational position. We identified a need to combine a focus on 'everyday landscapes' with a research methodology that enabled understanding of the immediacy of multi-sensory, temporal, physical and emotional experience of place. This approach echos Sandercock's ideas that the creative tension between personal identity and experience of neighbourhood and city can be meaningfully explored as a multiplicity of stories (Sandercock, 1998, 2003). Rodman (2003: 214-215) uses the term 'multivocality' to describe how narratives of place cannot be simply expressed through the spoken word, for some experiences can only be conveyed through drawing attention to particular smells, tastes, colours and feelings.
The research was conducted in three stages. The first involved an immersive experience in the neighbourhood in which we took part in everyday formal and informal activities, including chair aerobics to lunch clubs, visiting community groups and places of worship, and simple actions of eating, travelling by bus and sitting with participants on local benches. Through observations, incidental conversations and interviews we gained an overview of the area and identified both our key participants and an informal network of people and organisations who could further inform our understanding of neighbourhood dynamics.
Our key participants were six men and five women, ages spanning their 20s to 60s, each with different employment status, family networks, physical abilities and access to transport. All had migrated to the UK, some recently and some decades ago. Their home countries were Jamaica, the Yemen, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Somalia. While the project did not seek to present these participants as representative of an ethnic group, it was hoped that the individual voices of each person might provide a better insight into the complexity of life in the study area. These participants were involved in the second stage of the project, and were asked to make 'on site' audio recordings of everyday walks or journeys that they made over a three month period (late summer to early winter 2006).
The participants were trained by BBC Radio Sheffield in the use of mini-disk recorders for this purpose, and it was clearly stated that the recordings (anonymised when appropriate) would be used both for the research project and agreed extracts broadcast on local radio. This element of media skills and community dissemination was integral to the 'shared benefit' objective of the research (Finney and Rishbeth, 2006) and was one of the motivating factors for participation. Participants were asked to make short recordings of journeys they were normally making (not trips made specially) on a weekly basis. In reality, they made recordings much less frequently, but tended to make longer commentaries. We gained over 50 recordings, many of which were over 30 minutes in length. These were all transcribed and coded using NVivo software.
The third stage of the research was shaped by a desire to check valid representation in the 'broader resonances' of the research. Though working with a small group of committed individuals allows for vital building of trust, ongoing reflection and exploration of nuances of experience, it also has potential limitations in the applicability of the findings to other situations. Therefore we interviewed individuals working at a range of environmental and community participation organisations with both local and national remits. Their broader experiences and perceptions have also informed the research.
In working on research concerned with people from ethnic community backgrounds it is important to acknowledge issues of the researchers own ethnicity and personal background. The research team comprised of one male, one female, both white British, both with experience of extended time lived abroad as adults (the Caribbean and Indian sub continent). While sharing an ethnic background with research participants can be considered a linguistic and cultural advantage (Divya-Tolia, 2004) there are also issues of an 'insider status' allied to cultural expectations and norms. Through emphasis of the 'free agency' of the participants about making choices about how they directed their involvement in the research, stressing the participant's role as experts, and of being able to fostering mutual respect over time we hoped to address some of the issues of power relations in traditional research methods (Skelton, 2001).
In studying everyday activities in the local neighbourhood, we focus on much which is habitual and sub-conscious, and by hearing directly our participants' voices, we had the opportunity to 'eavesdrop' on their underlying senses of fitting in or standing out: their self-defined invisibility or visibility. Through mostly absenting ourselves as researchers from the production of the research material we aimed to reduce the 'observer effect', though we must acknowledge that awareness of the recordings end uses will have shaped participants accounts to differing degrees.
Notes on research practicalities
We briefed the participants to use the recorders when out and about in the course of their normal activities. They were asked to describe where they were walking, and also their opinions and feelings about it. They were not specifically asked to make comparisons about their home country, though in the various discussions that we had with them about the project they would have become aware that aspects of migration and connection between places was an interest of ours. They were asked to make recordings about once a week over a period of a few months. In reality a few made this many, but most made significantly less. However, the recordings made were much longer than anticipated. Rather than being 5-10 minutes long they were on average 30 minutes, and sometimes up to one hour. We employed an administrative assistant to transcribe or us four days a week over the main period of fieldwork. Even so, we had difficulty keeping up with transcription, and some more had to be commissioned later. We were very pleased with the variety and level of detail of the recordings, the unpredictability of being outdoors prompting fresh accounts, multi-sensory details, and shifts between observation and reflective discourse.
Minidisk players were used as at the time we were making the grant application they were standard equipment used by our BBC partners. They also have the advantage over MP3 players that the recordings are made onto removable disks which could be returned to us in the post by participants. By the time we started the grant and were purchasing the equipment Minidisks had become almost obsolete and it was difficult to source them in the quantities required. It may be entirely impossible now as MP3 players seem to have cornered the market.
The participants varied with regard to their confidence with the equipment and making the recordings while walking round Burngreave. The male participants were generally more self-conscious about being seen to be doing something strange. We resolved this by Mark (RA) meeting up with these participants to walk around with them. Mark tried to maintain a ‘background’ presence, a listening companion rather than an interviewer. Some of the participants who originally walked around with Mark then went on to make completely independent recordings.
One of the original proposals was for the participants to meet as a group occasionally to compare experiences of being on the project, and also to offer the chance to be involved in preparing audio clips and website design. However, we realised during the project that the participants had a range of responsibilities and interests, and just finding time to make the recordings was already a large commitment on their part. Though some of the participants took part in radio interviews, and there was a level of consultation about the content of the website, there was no demand for more specialist involvement, or for maintaining a group dynamic beyond the initial training.
Another idea that might have happened but didn’t make any sense once the fieldwork actually started was the ability to plot actual walks. For obvious reasons of privacy and human rights, we couldn’t ‘tag’ the participants in any way or make GPS recordings of their routes. We wondered whether it would be possible to identify on a map where they had been from mentions of streets and landmarks, but the reality was that, though we got the occasional street name, it wasn’t possible to identify routes in any greater detail. This was interesting when we were compiling the website and linking the recordings to photos. The photos were all taken by Clare or Mark (participant photography, though interesting in itself, was not part of the project and would have overloaded the requirements of involvement). Though we tried to be accurate where possible when a clip mentioned a specific place, in general we used some poetic license in trying to make a visual representation of the character of place and mood conveyed in the clip. Given more time, I would have liked to have been more considered about the photography… not just snatched shots in often gloomy weather.
Anonymity is a complex issue when combining creative
media production with research outputs. Most of our participants wished
to be credited for their recordings. Some chose to remain anonymous, as
the freedom to articulate problematic issues was more important than being
identified with their work. We discussed consent with participants at
a number of stages during the project, with a range of possible resolutions
with regard to the different media used (radio programme, website, academic