Urban Ethnography blog, March 2018
Preparing the new SSPSSR UG Summer School in Urban Ethnography
Dawn Lyon, SSPSSR
We’d hoped for Paris in the spring but Paris in the snow was quite something. It’s March 2018 and we are on a preparatory trip for the new SSPSSR UG Summer School in Urban Ethnography we’re teaching here in July – and it is cold! There are three of us on the teaching team from the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent: me, Dawn Lyon, a sociologist interested in the rhythms of the city, work and everyday life, and convenor of the Summer School; David Garbin, also a sociologist interested in cultural and religious diversity, globalisation and development and the politics of identity and ethnicity; and Erin Sanders-McDonagh, a criminologist and feminist public scholar interested in sex work, sex tourism and the ‘moral geographies’ of sexual spaces.
It’s Monday morning and we head from the Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar train arrives from the UK, to Montmartre, the historic area on a hill in the north of Paris. We’ve deliberately chosen what is now largely a tourist attraction as a starting point for our trip and for the Summer School itself. We want students to confront the so-called ‘tourist gaze’, a term coined by the sociologist John Urry, with what we might describe as the ‘ethnographer’s eye’, following the visual anthropologist, Anna Grimshaw. The gaze refers to how tourists look and perceive what they see as well as what they do – or how they perform – in public spaces. In contrast, the ethnographer’s eye questions the relationship between what we see and what we can know – and, for our purposes, explores the practice of ethnography using vision as well as other senses.
We stop on the street as we exit the métro at Anvers and think about the different ways of approaching the basilica – the iconic Sacré Coeur – at the top of the hill. We make plans for students to work in groups arriving by bus, métro or on foot in order to perceive and discuss this place from different perspectives. We take the funicular up and find our eyes drawn to the beauty of the emerging view, snow sparking in the sunshine. But we make ourselves look at the street at different scales too, to notice the litter and cigarette ends on the ground and the graffiti on the walls. We feel the steady pace of the vehicle that carries us upwards as well as the slow movement of the crowd that then carries us along the street.
A seat in the window of a café on the Place du Tertre offers an opportunity to warm up and observe the different scenes unfolding here. A woman sits busking with a cello while several artists move around the square offering to paint portraits of passers-by. We settle on tasks to get students to think about boundaries in space, the different roles people play in such social settings and the norms and regulations that govern them. We decide to ask students to explore what they feel are central and marginal spaces in this area and to consider the social life of the city from singular vantage points as well as on the move.
Our plans for the Summer School are that it will be highly interactive with teaching and learning happening in the city as well as the classroom. We want students to gain first-hand experience of doing ethnography – and acquire important research skills which will be useful for final year dissertation research and other future study or work. This year’s Summer School will last for one week – from 8 to 15 July 2018. When we are in the classroom we’ll be in teaching spaces at Reid Hall (below left) or in small-group discussion in the courtyard alongside students on other programmes and from other international institutions. And student accommodation is brilliantly located in in the heart of the Left Bank at the Maison des Mines (below right).
One theme of this year’s Summer School is rhythm in the city. We’ll be discussing some of Henri Lefebvre’s writings on what he called Rhythmanalysis as an embodied methodology for grasping rhythm in everyday life. On our trip we practice an exercise we want to undertake together to document rhythm. We go to the Place de L’Etoile, the space that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. It is completely taken up with vehicles of different kinds, a relentless and mesmerizing pulse of traffic. We take photos towards the Arc and again looking back towards the streets that radiate away from it and reflect on the experience of looking with and without the camera, wondering: What did looking with the camera enable us to see, or to see differently? In the sequences of images on our phones, we start to discern different rhythms that permeate the space and think about how these might change across the course of the day.
Contrasting day and night and the sensory atmospheres that pervade urban space is the focus of another exercise related to the Summer School’s second theme of multisensory ethnography in contested spaces. Here we explore a section of the Boulevard de Clichy. We start out simply: What is going on here? What is this space for? How is it organised? What type of behaviour is normal – and normalised? How is it regulated? We practice what is known as ‘sensory mapping’ having identified sections of the street that offer interesting combinations. We see a ‘supermarché érotique’ selling a range of sex toys and clothes next to a café offering healthy lunches (salade de lentilles vertes is top of the menu), a newly refurbished boutique hotel, a sauna then a small food shop with fresh vegetables on display. We pay attention to the sounds and smells that spill onto the street and the shifting atmospheres they create.
Our final stop of the trip is at the Museum of Migration. We have come here to think again about the gaze, this time in relation to cultural and religious diversity within and beyond the city. The exhibitions invite viewers to think critically about the role of photography in constructing otherness as well as how images can ‘look back’ in powerful and challenging ways. We are all struck by Mathieu Pernot’s 20 year project on the Gorgon family which literally shows the photographer’s different ways of looking and different points of view over time. There is a lot the ethnographer can learn here about looking, seeing and understanding. In the permanent exhibition on the history of migration, we are equally struck by the objects that are both artefacts of personal biography and tell us about collective practices and social change – and in so doing, remind the ethnographer of the importance of material culture.
Our three themes and related lectures and discussion, visits and exercises will form the basis of the assessed group presentations students will do on the final day of the Summer School. Following on from this, participants who want to obtain credit for the Summer School will develop a topic and research question to explore using an ethnographic approach for their individual project work. Each student will be supervised in their work by one of the teaching team over the summer and we are already looking forward to seeing what you come up with!
More information: https://www.kent.ac.uk/summerschools/programmes/urbanethnography.html
Any questions? Email Dawn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow the activities of the Summer School on Twitter: #KentSSUE2018