Finding One's Place in the Field
In this blog post, I consider the process of finding one's place in the field. This process of placing of the researcher reveals a dialogic encounter between myself and the field - where the intimacies of the field remain locked, yet the physical, financial and social position of the researcher are exposed. Given the underpinning focus on inequality in my project, the crafting of a sense of home in the field is of central interest to the present and future concerns of this research.
Ethnographers are necessarily always already in the field. By this I mean that the boundaries - be they physical, metaphorical, cultural - between ourselves and what we study are compromised. There is no distinction that can be easily made or maintained between ethnographers as subjects, and the field as our object.
In their seminal 1994 paper on this topic, the geographer Cindi Katz refers to ethnographers as a kind of 'displaced persons.' We enter the field as a stranger (of sorts) - although our aim is to establish a familiarity. This seeming contradiction is driven by the position that being a supposed stranger affords a researcher - a status of apparently greater objectivity, distance and reflection.
But what does this mean for the kind of research underpinning this project - where a researcher not only seeks to study a place, but to live in it? Over the next four years, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea will not be a strange and distant land but will be 'home' (a term as open to debate as the idea of a ‘field’).
This concern is central to what I have elsewhere referred to as 'immersive ethnography' - research involving the deliberate placing of a researcher in the field not as outsider or stranger, but as someone striving for intimacy, closeness and a subjective understanding of the field (in the sense of being shaped by the forces of a place - as a subject made by a place).
However, at a smaller scale and at ground-level, this process of immersion is not organic or straightforward, but is instead a set of decisions taken but also attenuated by the position of the researcher themselves. In this sense, whilst an ethnographer strives to shine a light onto the field, at the same time, the characteristics of the field shine a light on the researcher themselves - specifically highlighting their own financial, social and physical position. In the remainder of this post, I want to consider these three factors through which a researcher strives to find their place in the field.
As noted in the preceding blog entry, Kensington and Chelsea is on average the most expensive borough in the country to live. As such, the spaces of the rich and affluent are barred from a postdoctoral researcher (on a salary lower than the national median, and much below that for the borough) as places for homemaking.
This geographical attenuation of the place of a fieldwork base has important implications for the kind of field that is constructed. More exclusive spaces become all the more distant, both physically and metaphorically, in the pricing-out of the researcher. However, this initial pricing-out continues further. The exclusiveness and price of rent often correlates with the cost of estate agent fees, deposits, reference checks, up-front costs, bills and insurance that combine with the actual face cost of rent. Illustratively, any tenant renting through an agent - even if this is in shared accommodation - must go through the process of financial checking. The income of the individual is here scrutinised, to the extent that the lower incomes afforded to postdoctoral researchers can become a further barrier when attempting to move to an 'exclusive' area.
To circumvent some of these issues, a researcher can draw on their social capital in order to lower these financial barriers. Here, I am thinking of social capital in the sense put forwards by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: it is an acknowledgement that our connections, qualifications, social networks, friends and family have a value.
Unfortunately (for myself at least), within my social network I have no connections who reside in the borough, nor who might provide me an 'in' to finding an easy route to 'placing' myself. What I do have, however, is a sense of privilege afforded to me in other ways.
The first is the general perception of my job as an academic researcher. Despite recent rounds of quite aggressive criticism of academics in the mainstream media (I'm thinking in particular of accusations levelled at universities as sites closing down free speech, indoctrinating students with Left-leaning ideologies, and so on), academics are still generally viewed as respectable and valuable members of society. More specifically, when thinking about potential tenants, under the scrutiny of landlords and/or estate agents, these groups would likely see academics as sensible, reasonable, hard-working, bookish, and so on - which affords, at the level of popular imagination at least, a better chance of being accepted.
The second layer of my social capital is afforded by my institution - namely, the University of Cambridge. The institution is world renowned, and membership thus affords me a sense of prestige by association. As a short-hand, Cambridge signals a lot of things – though, of course, these are not always of use (nor true, in my own case) to a researcher (I’m thinking here of the association of the University not only with intellectual excellence, but also its history of affluence and privilege).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is my social identity. As a white male, and the holder of a doctorate degree, I am in a position of inherent privilege. When it comes to finding one's place, as Appadurai notes, the problem of place and voice are ultimately problems of power. A researcher is always acting within these structures, even if the objective of their research is to work against them.
Mobility and home
A third key factor inherent to the placing of a researcher is their ability to move. Such forms of mobility attenuate the boundaries of a field-site, and can ultimately determine the kinds of encounters, questions and situations that unfold through any ethnography.
Mobility cannot be taken-for-granted - neither in a physical sense, nor in thinking about the social barriers that might influence one's ability to enter, traverse or observe certain spaces. In this context, the site that a researcher calls 'home' is important in that it influences boundaries around it. Home for a researcher acts as a gateway to other spaces, both intimate and other.
Home for an ethnographer thus occupies a seemingly contradictory space - as a site that is integral to the field, but also apart from it. Distinctions between public and private are key here: whilst this ethnography is immersive, there are (and must be) limits to what is taken as the site of observation. Home acts as a refuge, but also a space of reflection - where a researcher is able to pause, digest and process their observations away from the intensity of the ethnographic.
Whilst this process of finding a place in the field can at first seem incidental, it is a key moment that forever shapes the research that unfolds as a result. Whilst the placing of a researcher is important in shaping the parameters, shape and scale of the field that emerges, we can see that the field itself also shapes the researcher. This process of placing is thus dialogical, revealing insights into my own position as I attempt to delineate the field from my own everyday life.
Works cited above:
Appadurai, A. 1988. Introduction: Place and voice in anthropological theory. Cultural Anthropology 3, 16-20.
Katz, C. 1994. Playing the field: Questions of fieldwork in geography. The Professional Geographer 46(1), 67-72.
Putnam, R. 2000. Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community.
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