Space / Place

For readers of this blog (Hi Mum!) you may be interested in a new inter-disciplinary workshop occurring at SHU next week (8th May). The Space/Place  get together is  a bit of an experiment / social gathering to see how people across faculties and departments and research centres use space and place as concepts in their work. A new blog has been set up to manage everyone’s input. You can read my intial contribution here:

My contribution to the blog is an extract from my thesis where I discuss the importance of logistical and practical issues when thinking about delivering social policy. You can have the best policy and practice in the world, delivering fantastic volunteering workshops, but if your building is miles out-of-the-way and has no parking then there will be problems. Trying to apply national solutions to incredibly localised issues is again shown to be a fallacy (a blog for another day).

What is perhaps more interesting about next week’s workshop is that as a communal piece of work we will be devoting four hours in the afternoon to analyse the Southbourne building, the place on campus where my office sits, alongside that of my colleagues in sociology, politics, psychology, law, criminology, and criminal justice. The building is being sold to developers, while we move into the Panopticon, chicken coops, a call-centre, a new interactional and modernistic integrated workspace/hellhole/disaster waiting to happen in 2014.

So we are all going to apply various methods to understanding this building that has housed staff and teaching of students for over twenty years, and has all the history and shit that you’d expect of a uni building. I have decided, perhaps against my better judgement, to try and apply some methodological approaches discussed at #brticsoc13 from Les Back, Alex Rhys-Taylor, and Karla Berrens on the possibilities of opening up to the sensory in the social sciences (page 335 here). Drawing on a sociology which “remarks on what is ignored” (Back), seeks to understand how “other senses affect social processes” (Rhys-Taylor), and moves beyond the current “constraint of exisiting methods” (Berrens), this panel sought to address sociology’s obsession with the verbal and the written, and address the smells and sounds of life. Back brought up Anita Wilson’s study of prison, where prisoners would do anything to avoid the smell of prison, including covering their cells in toothpaste – a world where you can tell where a letter has come from becuase of its individual prison smell. And Rhys-Taylor played out a gorgeous soundscapr as he took us down Radley Road market in East London, exploring the smells of spice and society. The audience were wowed by this session, and I see this Space/Place event as an opportunity to test out some ideas in a relatively controlled setting.

As Back says in his 2009 article on multiculturalism and community:

‘I have argued that social research needs to reduce its over-reliance on interviews and embrace the opportunities to re-think its modes of observation and analysis…Such a cosmopolitan method reworks the relationship between technology, art and critical social science in order to use new media to recalibrate the relationship between observers and observed. It also means the research imagination has to be supple enough to attend to the interplay between local and global levels in order to find new ways of describing how people live in and across the histories and futures that they make in the present. This also means research practice will not be limited by what is said or counted. Challenging the dominance of word and figure also invites the possibility of thinking research within the social relations of sound, small, touch and taste. The ultimate aspiration of this sensuous and multimodal agenda for researching community is to create vital forms of research that can be faithful to the conflicts and the opportunities that arise in multicultural everyday life.’ (Back, 2009: 213)

I’m gonna try and do this. Merge the smells and the sounds of Southbourne over one day – the 7th May. I have chosen this day because it’s the day most students will be in the building. In my pre-written exposition (I have to present on this research the day after), I write:

It was not a typical day. I had approached Andy, leader of our warm and welcoming Helpdesk, and asked if he knew when most students would be queuing up to hand in essays physically, a beautiful university tradition which appears to be dying alongside the building. He instantly, because Andy is nothing if not omniscient, told me it would be the 7th May, when over 600 essays were due to be handed in in-person. While some would get extensions, and some would post them in, I figured this would be the day when the building was at its emotional peak. Those emotions would be a complicated cocktail – the dullness and boredom of queuing, mixed with the anticipation of relief and release of getting it in, with the promise of partaking, partying, pill-popping, pulling, and puking to come.  ‘That’s my day’, I thought, to listen to the sounds of the building, and to see how people experience the space, whether they rebel against it, or treat it with care and respect. To wander the halls all day and to hear the noises that make up this place which doesn’t have long to live.

So we will see. I’ll attempt to get to the building when it opens and stay until it’s locked up at night. I will keep you updated and try to upload the sound clips (can computers do smell as well?) and see what happens. Are most students aware of the building that they are standing in? Do they care (either physically or emotionally)? And what of the noises and emotions of standing in line about to be free from the stench of essays? Exciting and exhausting times.

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