RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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289 Researching the contested city: Developing creative methodologies and negotiating ethical dilemmas
Affiliation Postgraduate Forum
Convenor(s) Hannah Sender (University College London, UK)
Raktim Ray (Open University, UK)
Chair(s) Hannah Sender (University College London, UK)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Sir Alexander Fleming Building, Room 120
Session abstract Contested cities are particularly challenging contexts to conduct research in, due to their complex spatial identities, multi-scaler politics and ‘live’ nature of the contestation. The challenges also exist as ‘field’ is often represented as a discursive space of social relations and negotiation of power dynamics (Katz, 1994; Silva and Gandhi, 2018). Doing ethical research in the context of contested cities requires practices of reflexivity and continuous negotiations between different power relations (Sultana, 2015).

This workshop encourages postgraduate researchers to present and discuss their methodological approaches to conducting research in contested cities. Individual participants will be encouraged to reflect on their own methodological choices in brief presentations and group discussions. As a group, the workshop participants will propose and critique methodological approaches across varied contexts and scales to co-develop shared principles for researching contested cities.

The session will be divided into four parts:

Part 1 (10 minutes): Welcome and briefing. Participants are divided into small groups of 5-6 people

Part 2 (30 minutes): Participants will bring an image/object/diagram which evokes the ‘contested’ research site and suggest how it could be used as an entry point into understanding the site. Participants leave the object in the middle of the table

Part 3 (40 minutes): As a group, participants select one of the objects from the table as a discussion point. They say what they thought about the proposed methodology in terms of 1) ethical practice; 2) self-care; 3) data affordances and limitations; 4) opportunities for improvements

Part 4 (20 minutes): As a group, participants propose 5 key principles for conducting research in contested cities and present these to the rest of the room

This session is designed for intimate conversation which can stimulate creative and sensitive thoughts about methodology. Whilst the group sizes and session size are limited (likely no more than 30 participants), we will share our process and principles in an illustrated working paper for wider dissemination.

This session is intended to be a drop-in session. We have included the presentation submissions of those researchers who have applied in advance. These indicate the geographical and disciplinary range of the conversations we will have.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Creative methodologies for researching the socio-spatial impact of augmented urban futures
Tabea Bork-Huffer (University of Innsbruck, Austria)
Martin Rutzinger (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria)
Katja Kaufmann (Austrian Academy of Sciences / Alpen-Adria-University Klagenfurt, Austria)
Niklas Gudowsky (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria)
How does augmented reality change the way we use urban public parks, feel about security, interact with others and how does it ultimately affect the cohesion of society? As part of the Young Researchers’ project DigitAS – The Digital, Affects and Space (https://digitas.mountainresearch.at) –, we test, triangulate and compare the potential of mobile non-representational (digital and bio-sensing) methodologies and representational methodologies (narrative-biographical and problem-centred interviews) for answering these questions. In line with, e.g., Laurier & Philo (2006), Lorimer (2010), Hitchings (2012) and Merriman (2014), we postulate that non-representational and representational research methods offer different data and insights. When applied together they complement each other, which enables a deeper understanding of complex socio-spatial settings. Integrating both methodological avenues also helps to bridge the binary between research on subconscious affects and conscious emotions that has lately been increasingly criticised (e.g., by Schurr 2014; Schurr & Strüver 2016). We have selected highly debated and controversial public places in Austrian cities as research settings to gain insights into the production of place through the increasingly interwoven digital and offline spheres. Our paper introduces our methodological design and discusses ethical challenges related to a mixed methods experimental research design.
Researching the Materialisation of Revolution in Tunis
Dena Qaddumi (University of Cambridge, UK)
This presentation will introduce the methodological approach to my research of the materialisation of revolution in Tunis. The decision to study Tunis emerged from associating the Arab Spring with the Arab city. The contentious nature of both these terms, the ongoing revolution in Tunisia, and their relationality, have compounded ethical concerns already associated with field research.

Being new to the object of Tunis was a source for anxiety which nonetheless compelled me to develop a methodology that not only accounts for but embraces my subjectivity. As a student of Arab cities more broadly, I was conscious from the outset of how to both overcome and exploit my own limitations.

This ethical reflection has led to a few key methodological decisions in my research, which include: positioning myself, as an Arab, regarding the contestation; choosing the contested sites and actors as a testament to the plurality of revolution; engaging with both Arabic and French social and academic circles in the city (despite not being fluent in either); residing in a variety of neighbourhoods; and establishing a local network of individuals to test the explanatory narrative of my research.
“So, you must be a spy? We can have you locked up.”
Asa Roast (University of Leeds, UK)
During my fieldwork I spent twenty months living in the city of Chongqing, Southwest China. My research looked at several aspects of urban restructuring, but in particular came to focus on public housing estates on the edge of the city. The head of the local Communist Party who had constructed these housing estates was imprisoned after a national political scandal several years prior and was considered an extremely sensitive topic. During my research I was subject to some low-level monitoring and questioning by the local state but came to reflect more deeply on my own positionality as a researcher. What did I have to offer my interviewees as a researcher—were they not right to be suspicious of me? What practical good could my research do for them in the context of an autocratic state? The temporary solution I found to this impasse was to work with a local documentary maker, whose research methodologies I adopted but who ultimately became a target for further state harassment.
Borders and liminality in Beirut
Helene Marie Abiraad (University of Brighton, UK)
My PhD thesis is at the crossroads between memory studies, urban studies and social movement/activism studies. I look at place-related activists’ narratives of memory and place and how they influence their activism and claims over the contested city of Beirut, Lebanon. In this five-minute presentation, I will focus on one pivotal element of my research and fieldwork on and in Beirut, where politics around space and place have been contested since the 1970s: the real and imaginary borders that physically – or intellectually – limited my movements as a researcher in the city, and more specifically the liminality and subjectivity of my position as an insider and outsider to the field, what Abu-Lughod calls a ‘halfie’: someone ‘whose national or cultural identity is mixed by virtue of migration, overseas education, or parentage’ (1991: 466; 476). I was always very aware of my shifting identity as neither fully Lebanese nor fully alien to the place. My presentation will thus tackle the question: what consequences did the combination of my own subjectivity and the contextual elements surrounding me (political, physical, social, etc.) have on my methodological choices, involving going (or not) to certain places?'
The Architecture of Violence: How the Struggle Against Apartheid Shaped the Urban Spaces of Johannesburg
Jente Marit Althuis (King's College London, UK)
Drawing on the conceptual framework and methodology of the Chicago School of Sociology, this PhD thesis investigates how the South African government policy of Apartheid, as communicated through the built environment, was received, interpreted and resisted by the residents of Johannesburg’s townships during the 1970s and 1980s. By physically capturing the stories of our lives, urban spaces can enable us to imagine the transformation of society, capable of disrupting the ordered management of the city by governing bodies. This research focuses on these disruptions, aiming to reveal how the meaning of township spaces was rewritten and if, how, and by whom they have been used to deliver the narrative of struggle to the Apartheid government. Using the qualitative method of semi-structured interviews common in urban sociology, the research collects narrative data on specific case studies of contested spaces in Johannesburg’s townships. The researcher uses photographs of built form in semi-structured interviews to prompt conversation and collect stories on the use of and events surrounding those spaces. These interviews aim at revealing how the interviewee’s perception of the meaning of township spaces has influenced lived experience and the understanding of the broader environment, subsequently informing decision-making and behaviour.
Anti-racist methodological approaches to studying racialised geographies of urban austerity
Sawyer Phinney (University of Manchester, UK)
Austerity has become a key consideration for studying on-going state restructuring of the urban since the economic crisis of 2008. However, academic debates have yet to fully interrogate the role of race in this process. This article reviews geographic literature on race and austerity. It outlines the emergence of austerity urbanism, and the geographic, sociological, and political science literatures from which it draws its origins from. Focusing on the interplay between race and austerity, this article engages with racial capitalism to better understand the “raced” nature of austerity, and how these processes shape cities. My project looks to compare austerity urbanism and its impacts on the funding and affordability of water and sewerage services in three contested U.S cities (Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis), and the consequences of federal, state, and local budget cuts to its service provisioning on low-income, Black households by conducting a policy analysis and interviewing communities impacted, activists organizing within these communities, and policy-makers. In this presentation, I would like to discuss the methodological challenges of conducting research of predominately Black, low-income communities in ‘austere cites’ in the U.S, and what it means to utilize a reflexive, anti-racist and decolonial methodological approach.