"Walking the Streets": Rambling to and through Unequal Spaces
As a social researcher, I spend a lot of time walking the streets during qualitative fieldwork. And I’m not alone – many of us wander, wait and linger around public spaces in search of research sites and participants. These moments where we journey to and through spaces to undertake research present a number of analytical and methodological opportunities. In this post, I reflect on some of my own experiences of walking the streets and the ways it has informed my approach to researching inequality.
A few years ago, I started a project exploring the experiences and civic subjectivity of those living in relative deprivation and affluence. To do so, I set out to interview two groups: 1) unemployed individuals living in ‘deprived’ areas below the relative poverty line, and 2) employed individuals living in ‘affluent’ areas on an income well above the national average. Employment status, area deprivation/affluence and income were all used as compound selection criteria to identify individuals occupying radically different socio-material locations. For the most part, gatekeepers across my research sites in New Zealand and the UK fell through. At the time, this was incredibly disappointing and stressful but in hindsight it made it both necessary and possible to immerse myself in the divergent citizenship spaces of deprivation and affluence.
I ended up recruiting research participants by personally delivering leaflets to households encouraging residents to take part in my research if they satisfied the selection criteria. All of the households I leafleted were in areas that fell as far as possible in the top 30% of most deprived or most affluent areas according to administrative data available at the time of fieldwork. I couldn’t afford a car and public transport wasn’t reliable enough to efficiently get me from one place to another. As a result, I found myself wandering around and between some of the most affluent and deprived neighbourhoods of New Zealand and the UK over the course of 18 months.
I recently finished reading Stephen Crossley’s brilliant book In Their Place and some of the points made impelled me to return to my own field notes from this 18-month period. Amongst other things, Crossley critiques a tendency to exoticise ‘the poor’ and the geographies that condition their lives. Towards the end of his book, Crossley argues we need to ‘look up’ if we are to fully understand the structuration of disadvantage and the factors that give rise to poverty. In this way, Crossley advances a well-respected argument: that poverty and affluence should not only be understood as distinct ends of an accidental continuum, but as relational conditions that are sustained and reproduced through one another. Looking at my own field notes, this argument resonated really strongly in the built environments and geographies of the people I wanted to speak to.
To recruit participants and undertake interviews, I spent considerable amounts of time in so-called ‘problem’ neighbourhoods and ‘desirable’ suburbs. Whilst travelling to and from these areas, I sat in stairways and scribbled thoughts on the back of receipts or frantically made notes on my mobile just before or after interviews. My field notes from this time divulge a, perhaps embarrassing, fascination with the spaces, streets and practices of the areas that I visited. My notes detail thoughts on the smells, sounds, light and ‘feeling’ of the geographies shaping ‘deprived’ and ‘affluent’ areas. From buildings, parks and courtyards to never-ending driveways and ‘streets in the sky’, I wrote a lot about the physical and immaterial barriers that seemed to enclose or distinguish particular spaces and people from others.
Much of this was hard to articulate and formalise – I couldn’t quite express the ‘feeling’ and phenomenology of moving between areas of such extreme affluence and deprivation. Nonetheless, these non-linguistic cues contextualised the research process and framed my research encounters along the way, helping me to reflexively consider my own subject position during qualitative fieldwork. However, these experiences also helped inform my thinking on how to understand both the approach to and content of my research.
Whilst we should take heed of Crossley’s warning not to exoticise the disadvantaged ‘other’ through particular approaches to poverty research, I personally found a certain amount of voyeurism inevitable and productive when it came to exploring deprivation, affluence, or more specifically, the relations between them. For me, walking around and between neighbourhoods characterised by poverty and prosperity exoticised both spaces and the practices within them during fieldwork. I wanted to ask people in each of these areas about their experiences of and attitudes towards social citizenship – about their notions of and claims to equality of status, social rights and civic responsibilities. Inconsistencies between the high-level ideals and rhetoric of equal membership and the lived realities shaping deprived and affluent areas made both spaces and the conditions that characterised them incongruent and alien.
Whilst walking, I discovered that the asymmetries found within and across these unequal spaces were not cut off from everywhere else. Rather, these spaces were constructed in relation to and often against a perceived ‘other’. This ‘other’ was sometimes at the socio-economic or cultural margins (of the top and bottom) but often also the broader common collective. Despite (im-) material attempts to demarcate and enclose spaces off from one another, people occupying areas of deprivation and affluence appeared to practice similar strategies of social distinction and reproduction. At least in terms of how they sought to construct, conform to and defend their social location and the geographies that underpin them.
From this perspective it seems research on poverty, necessitates as much attention to quotidian affluence as it does to everyday penury. How ‘the rich’ AND ‘the poor’ (as heterogeneous but distinctive groups) produce and seek to protect the spatial practices that shape inequality demands greater attention in social research. In many respects, I arrived at this belief through the course of interviews and analysis undertaken ‘back in the office’. However, this was ultimately distilled and made visceral in those moments where I rambled to and through unequal spaces.
My thoughts on ‘walking the streets’ have never made it into peer-reviewed publications and it is great to be able to share some of them here. As many have argued though, it seems important to more formally integrate and account for these reflections in the methodologies and analysis of social research.