Every minute of every day - an experiment in realtime ethnography - Yasmin Gunaratnam and Les Back

En route to the Hospice in March 2013

En route to the Hospice in March 2013

March 2013 - one of those miserably cold, grey months. A time in the academic year when teachers and students are low on energy, crawling their respective ways towards the end of term. 

It was around this time that tentative conversations that Yasmin had been having with Richard House Children’s hospice, began to gather pace. The hospice, in East London, wanted to find out more about its local communities. Rachel Power, Director of Human Resources, welcomed our suggestion of trying out ethnographic methods that Les had been developing in various workshops and projects.  

In this project, which came to be called “Every Minute of Every Day”  - a phrase that was used by a parent at Richard House to talk about making the most out of life when time is short - we saw opportunities to rethink the relationships between research participants and researchers and also the public circulation of knowledge and the fruits of our sociological curiosity. We had two main questions in mind: how to make sense of multicultural environments undergoing profound and rapid social change?; and, what are the opportunities afforded by the resources of digital culture to develop novel forms of research craft in the service of this challenge?

When we began the research, in the London borough of Newham, Les had already been using the digital platform Posterous for group-based multi-media ethnographies, using photography, film and sound recordings (see Back 2012). Posterous allows several researchers to post data simultaneously onto the site, using smartphones. As the data are streamed from the field into the site, the blog is updated in real time, so that the chronology of the posts is reversed, with the most recent posts appearing first.

What distinguished the Every Minute ethnography was the different sensory circuits and registers in play. These were produced by our research devices and platforms (which included the micro blogging platform Twitter), and emerged between variously dis/abled-bodies, namely those of the researchers and our research partners and audiences in the hospice. It wasn't until much later in the life of the project that we began to understand some of the ways in which disability and illness challenge key ethnographic ideas, such as those relating to mobility, the living of time and sensory experience (Gunaratnam and Back, 2015).

Getting started

We began the initial mapping of the geographical boundaries of the ethnography from the hospice. Richard House displayed posters asking young people, their families and staff members to identify their ‘special places’ in Newham. The final list included, West Ham football ground, the Royal Albert Docks and Stratford Shopping Centre. We devised a route marked-up on two-pages of an A-Z, which included as many of these ‘special places’ as we could realistically visit as a team in one day.

In brief, our rapid mapping of Newham was ‘oriented’, both spatially and emotionally, by the hospice. They became our ethnographic compass. At the same time, their own sense of space, time and everyday movements within the area was continually shifting, as their symptoms of illness progressed or were alleviated. In this sense there was always destined to be a lag in our ethnographic exploration of their special places. Yet, the purpose of our ethnography was not only to retrace the past but also to attune to new elements of the life of the local communities.

An A-Z marked with the route (in red) and quotations

An A-Z marked with the route (in red) and quotations

We managed to get a small budget, of £200, from our department to pay the expenses for those involved in the project. We used the postgraduate email list at Goldsmiths to recruit researchers and we provided a pre-fieldwork training workshop for the 12 volunteers who responded to the call. At the workshop, we explained the project and the methods that could be used, dividing people into pairs and giving each pair an A-Z. The researchers could decide what methods and devices to use and what places to go to in the general locality of the marked route.

We also decorated the route in the A-Zs with different and randomly allocated quotations from social theorists, such as Walter Benjamin and Sara Ahmed, printing out and pasting the quotes into the maps. We hoped the quotations would inspire the researchers to (re)visit places with special meaning to those at the hospice and to also wander/wonder and deviate away from the given route. We provided the researchers with small cards with the URL of the Posterous site and details of the project, which could be given out in the field, for those who wanted to know more about the research.

Methods

The ethnography included photographs, fieldwork notes, film, audio recorded interviews and multisensory maps of the sounds, sights and smells of Newham. For example, Bill Psarras and Sara Feinstein, produced a Youtube film and a multisensory map of the streets that they covered.

Les Back's ethnographic hand as notebook

Les Back's ethnographic hand as notebook

Not all of our methods were high tech. This ethnographic moment was sent in by Les, from a cafe in Green Street market: "Tea is getting cold. On the pages of the annotated A-Z is a quotation from Italo Calvino: “The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows.” I suddenly realise that for the first hour of today’s fieldwork on Green Street I have been using the back of my hand like a page from a notebook."

One of the methods that Yasmin used was a blank piece of paper headed 'My World - My Map', inspired by the Mapping Manhattan project . The map asked people to draw in their special places in Newham. It was also emailed to Goldsmiths students and alumni who lived in the borough. Hard copies were given out on the streets and in cafés in East Ham during the fieldwork (stamp addressed envelopes were provided for those who could not fill them in at the time).

The first map of Newham that we received was from Sairah, who had graduated from Goldsmiths in 2010. It is a vibrant mapping of space and biographical time. At Forest Gate, Sairah writes, 'Priceless Memories of my late Grandma'. There is the caption 'Story books, Revision and Time Out' to mark the Town Hall and library; 'Prayer + reflection = Peace' is how Sairah captions her drawing of her local mosque. At Central Park, we find ourselves some twenty years away at a momentous occasion, 'My first swing on a swing and ride down a slide - Weee!'. Newham College is a place bursting with text 'No doubt college days were the best: Amazing teachers; Warren, Kate..., Day dreaming in the 'Link', Passing notes around the class on (wait for it...) STARBURST wrappers lol'

Sairah's map of Newham, made on an I-pad

Sairah's map of Newham, made on an I-pad

Most of the fieldwork was done on different days and times, within a one-week period, (our plan to do the research as a team on a Saturday was decimated by snow). Despite some glitches with uploading materials onto Posterous, the hospice was able to follow what we were doing in real time, with the longest ‘delays’ of uploaded information being days  - this was due to the more technical work that was being done with some of the data, such as the production of Bill and Sarah's films and sensory maps.

The live data stream could be ignored or dipped in and out of, according to the wants of each user. For example, hospice staffs were able to receive twitter updates of images and also short 3-minute AudioBoom sound files, as they went about their daily business. When asked, by Les, whether the experience of following the research as it unfolded had been different, Rachel Power responded, "Yes, it really was. It made it feel really like live and as it was small amounts I was busy telling people at the meetings what had happened."

Some thoughts

The Every Minute of Every Day project showed us new possibilities for how research might be re-designed in a digital age. More than this, the project was also inspiring for us as teachers, providing opportunities to work alongside students in the field and to learn from their expertise. The rapid gathering and archiving of ethnographic images, sensory maps and researcher stories from one place, meant that we were sometimes more able to 'see' and compare different, sometimes submerged, facets of the research process: how devices and methods both capture and invent a field;  the dynamics between subjective and material 'truths'; and how temporal rhythms and orientations structure and inflect place.

Garden of remembrance, West Ham FC

Garden of remembrance, West Ham FC

We 'found' some surprising places and resources that were previously unknown to the hospice, such as the remembrance garden in the grounds of West Ham football club, and a sports initiative in a local park aimed at helping young people to move away from gang violence. We also became aware of how the speeding up of research can undermine the quality of sociological thought and analysis, sometimes obscuring the diverse historical trajectories that can appear in the same moment.

Every Minute lifted us out of our comfort zones, revealing new layers of life - and death - in the communities surrounding our university.

And so, very quickly it seemed, March was transformed.

 

Notes

1. You can visit the reconstructed ethnography from the ruins of the Posterous site here.

2. Project volunteers included: Irma Allen, Margarita Aragon, Sarah Finestein, Sam Fisher, Julie Harpin, Miranda Iossifidis, Arooj Khan, Ya-Feng Mon, Bill Psarras, Ross Robinson, Kathia Sya May Yin and Philippa Thomas.

References

Back, L., 2012. Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60, pp.18–39.

Gunaratnam, Y. and Back, L. (2015) Every Minute of Every Day: Mobilities, Multiculture and Time. In G. Robson (ed) Digital Difference: Social Media and Intercultural Experience. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.