Seeing Sociologically Competition 2016

Sick of reading and writing? Here’s a chance to communicate in images instead!

Submit a single image capturing what Sociology means to you with a short caption (about 150 words) and you could win an iPad or a cash prize.

The competition is open to all three undergraduate year groups of students on the Sociology and Criminology & Sociology degree programmes at Northumbria University (Crim/Soc students can apply to either the Sociology or Criminology competitions.

Submission deadline: Friday 12th February 2016.

Winning entries will be announced on Wednesday 9th March at an exhibition of entries. All staff and students are welcome!

More info: Please see your programme Blackboard site for full details.

Research Grant Success for Dr Katy Jenkins & Dr Hugo Romero-Toledo

Congratuatlions to Dr Katy Jenkins and Dr Hugo Romero-Toledo (COES, Chile) who have been awarded a British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Grant for £29,886!

Developing a participatory approach to understanding socio-environmental transformations and conflicts in the Atacama Desert, Chile: Gender, indigenous communities and large scale mining.

This project brings together UK and Chilean academics researching diverse aspects of social and environmental conflicts in relation to large scale mining. The project aims to develop innovative participatory methodologies for capturing processes of change within rural and urban communities affected by large scale mining developments in the Atacama Desert region of Northern Chile. The interdisciplinary collaboration will involve a combination of networking activities, workshops, teaching, and new collaborative research. It is structured around two key cross-cutting themes – gender and processes of re-ethnification – and understanding how these in turn intersect with broader social, political, environmental and economic transformations brought by the significant expansion and intensification of mining activities in the region. Research will involve the development of community workshops and pilot projects in three communities in the Atacama Desert, in order to trial the participatory methodologies developed in the course of the project.

The project brings together academics from Northumbria, Durham and Newcastle Universities, with academics from 5 Chilean institutions, and is planned to begin in January 2016.

A rooftop farm – revitalising urban life in NYC

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This is a new post by Dr Abigail Schoneboom who joined the department as a part time member of staff in September 2015. Here Abigail reflects on her research in New York City.

On a suffocatingly hot day this August, I ascended from the polluted dusty air of New York City’s Northern Boulevard to a rooftop farm that has transformed a grim, industrial section of the city into an earthly paradise. Located on a one-acre rooftop space in Western Queens, seven stories above the railway yards, factories and big box superstores below, the Flagship Farm is an inspiring use of urban space that is improving local air quality, providing a source of locally-grown fruit, vegetables and honey.

As a sociologist, I am interested in how community gardens and allotments function in our society to provide communities with an alternative means of production that simultaneously improves the health and vitality of a neighbourhood’s ecosystem. The farm initially struck me as an impressive type of green activism – which at its best embodies the goals of critical theory in moving us from accepting what is to imagining and realising what could be. However, while I remain dazzled by the impact of the space on the surrounding neighbourhood, on looking into the ownership model and philosophy of the organisation behind it, I have some critical reservations about its impact and radical scope.

The contrast between the farm and its surroundings is remarkable and offers visitors an urban eco-adventure that rewards all the senses. I entered the farm from the polluted street below via a café on the ground floor and took the elevator up to the rooftop level which opens directly out onto a field of leafy vegetables – kale, courgettes, spring onions – bordered with tall sunflowers that stand proud against the distant backdrop of the midtown skyline. At one end, workers with wheelbarrows busily tended the crops, adding to the already impressive mound of compost. At the other end a farm worker showed us how to make cheese from goat’s milk and, as we munched on samples, told us about the rooftop bees that thrive on the farm’s abundant flowers.

The farm is open at different times to visitors, offering children’s activity days as well as engaging with local schools and a range of non-profit organisations such as the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and the Queens-based Refugee and Immigrant Fund. The organic produce is also offered for sale on open days from a stall on the rooftop.

In this part of New York City, which seems on the one hand irretrievably blighted by late capitalism’s dehumanising and ecologically destructive impulses, a rooftop farm symbolises the creative possibilities that emerge when we start planting seeds. Breathing in the clean air generated by the surrounding greenery, smelling the scent of wild flowers, and hearing the buzz of the resident rooftop bees is literally refreshing, awakening visitors to what a different kind of society might look smell and feel like. The engagement with local community groups and food distribution networks is a promising step towards rethinking how food is produced and consumed.

However, at the same time it is worth noting that this particular farm is run as a business and is in many ways intertwined with the gentrification process that is taking place at an alarming rate in New York City, which threatens – as has already been shown in neighbourhoods such as Harlem and Williamsburg — to increase income polarisation and social exclusion. The Flagship Farm operates under the umbrella of Brooklyn Grange, a for-profit organisation that also runs another rooftop farm in Brooklyn Navy Yard, covering a total of 2.5 acres and producing more than 50,000 lbs of organic produce per year. As the world’s largest rooftop farming complex, the company’s vision is aligned with a ‘sustainable’ business philosophy that, from a critical sociological perspective, presents an alternative, benign and even beautiful – as this 7-month time-lapse film shows — face of capitalism but arguably does not sufficiently problematize the destructive dynamics of capital that are at work in our cities.

 

Seeing Sociologically … COMPETITION

In February we launched our Seeing Sociologically competition – an opportunity for our Sociology students in the Department of Social Sciences and Languages at Northumbria University to capture their Sociological view of the world in up to 5 photos, with the first prize of an iPad! Staff in the Department also took up the challenge and contributed their Seeing Sociologically images, capturing how Sociology has changed the way they see the world around them. In advance of the prize-giving for the student entries, you can see the staff images below

Sensing (and finding room for) the emotional in policy-relevant research: The case of homelessness

Adele Irving and Oliver Moss introduce their research into homelessness in NewcastleImaging Homelessness in a City of Care was an ESRC-funded participatory mapping initiative, undertaken in the summer of 2014. It was led by Northumbria University and supported by Newcastle City Council, five homelessness charities and 30 members of the Newcastle’s homeless community. The aims of the initiative were as follows:

  • to challenge essentialist readings of the “universal homeless subject” (DeVerteuil, 2009, p. 650)
  • to improve understanding of the homeless experience, through a focus on the spaces and places of homelessness and the mobilities that co-produce them (Cresswell and Merriman, 2010); and
  • to afford a wide range of homeless people greater input into local decision-making about homelessness provision.

Six workshops were held; each structured around a simple lo-fi – map-making exercise, whereby participants were asked to identify spaces and places within the city of particular material or symbolic importance. These mappings were later shared with the artist Lovely JoJo, who in turn produced a composite map. This, together with the participant maps and selected images from a related auto-photography exercise, were unveiled at an opening event held at Newcastle Central Library in November 2014, as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. The event was attended by over 60 local policymakers, practitioners and academics. The exhibition then toured around hostels and day centres, public spaces and homelessness conferences. To date, the project blog (www.esrcimaginghomelessness.wordpress.com) has received more than 4,000 hits from 40 different countries, and prompted enquiries from government departments and homelessness charities from within the UK and overseas. The project also secured first prize in the ‘Most Engaging Presentation of Research Data’ category at the 2015 Local Area Research + Intelligence Association (LARIA) awards (www.laria.org.uk/2015/03/laria-research-impact-awards-2015/).

Map of Newcastle and Gateshead prepared for Imaging Homelessness Project
Map by LovelyJoJo

The maps revealed five key insights of relevance to those engaged in the management of homelessness.

Firstly, they demonstrated the diversity of participants’ life experiences and pathways into homelessness. While some participants had experienced a lifetime of exclusion such that their pathway into homelessness was almost inevitable, others appeared to have led relatively normal lives until adulthood, when a significant life event triggered a sudden pathway into homelessness (Harding et al, 2012).

For us, the maps confirmed that the ‘emotional’ matters (Davidson and Milligan, 2004). Emotions, such as “pain, bereavement, elation, anger [and] love” (p. 7) are filters through which we come to know and experience the world, shaping both what we know and how we know it.

Secondly, the maps documented everyday activities such as eating, sleeping and socialising. Participants thus sought to emphasise that they were in many ways no different to the housed public. They did not typically conform to widespread stereotypes that the homeless population is primarily comprised of anti-social vagrants. In highlighting their personal experiences – of joy, hope, sadness and pain, for example – they presented themselves not only as ‘thinking, acting’ others, but fully emotional subjects with needs, desires and a sense of themselves which extended beyond a homeless subjectivity (May and Cloke, 2014).

Thirdly, one quickly gained the impression of a homeless community forever in motion (Kawash, 1998; Jocoy et al, 2010). Most of the homeless individuals encountered were found to spend their days circulating through a complex – but ultimately limited – spatial geography. On the one hand, this mobility was key to the fulfilment of basic human needs – such as food, shelter and healthcare (DeVerteuil, 2003). On the other, it could frequently be characterised as coerced behaviour – with mobility an indicator of both power and

Fourthly, though sometimes conceived as passive recipients of policy, there were countless instances of individuals cleverly “deploying their creativity, competence and cultural knowledge to survive” (Duneier, 1999, p. 312). Doorways provided shelter; pipes and ducts offered warmth; and walls, ledges and steps served as resting and meeting places. As many writers have shown, “the urban environment both shapes and is shaped by all those who inhabit it” (Cloke et al, 2008, p. 241).

Finally, while bringing into stark reality the plight of the homeless experience, the maps also made references to the value of support that the participants had received and how their lives had begun to change since their engagement with services. In most cases, accommodation was identified as the most critical factor in ‘move on’. However, tenancies were frequently temporary and insecure. Though no longer ‘roofless’, individuals invariably remained ‘placeless’ (May, 2000); with ‘’the experience of being ‘housed’ and homeless…[being] blurred” (May, 2003, p. 40).

For us, the maps confirmed that the ‘emotional’ matters (Davidson and Milligan, 2004). Emotions, such as “pain, bereavement, elation, anger [and] love” (p. 7) are filters through which we come to know and experience the world, shaping both what we know and how we know it. They influence what we choose to research, as well as our methodological, analytical and interpretive choices thereafter. And they do so in a complexity of pre-cognitive and pre-conscious ways. One way of reconciling the ‘emotional’ and ‘subjective’ with the ‘logical’ and ‘objective’ is to adopt a posture of reflexivity. This entails critical reflection on the ways we affect and are affected by the research process. However, too often, we suggest, the importance of such reflection is downplayed, with reflexivity considered synonymous with self-conscious reflection, rather than with that which is instinctual – the consequence of a reflex (Matless, 2009).

This in turn suggested that those staple methods of social science – the semi-structured interview, the focus group and the questionnaire – fail to engage with those many aspects of everyday life lying outside of the “narrowly discursive” (Hitchings, 2010, p. 61). There are on occasions, thoughts, feelings and experiences that are simply ‘unspeakable’. In this context, the value of the homelessness map lies less in its capacity to engage an audience through its channelling of oral testimony, but in its capacity to engage an audience instinctively, emotionally and viscerally.

Our final reflection is that while particular aspects of everyday life elude straightforward attempts at representation, creative approaches to writing, mapping and image-making are just some of the ways by which local area researchers may seek to access this unconscious knowledge.

Adele Irving is a Research Fellow in the Department of Social Sciences and Languages, Northumbria University

Oliver Moss is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social Sciences and Languages, Northumbria University