This section of the PolGRG website contains the postgraduate blog, which invites submissions of under 500 words that broadly relate to the post-graduate experience (e.g. conference reports, fieldwork reflections, surviving upgrading/APR/differentiation). Submissions should be sent by email to the current post-graduate representatives, who will assess their suitability before they are posted.
Embracing the unexpected in fieldwork
Leila Wilmers reflects on her fieldwork experiences in Russia. Leila is one of our postgraduate representatives and a PhD student at Loughborough University.
Towards the end of my first year I carried out pilot interviews in two Russian cities, Kazan and Moscow, as part of my PhD research, which looks at conceptions of the nation in Russia. Perhaps like many researchers starting out, my experience of the pilot was emotionally intense, both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Aware of the pressure to produce something useful from the trip, despite careful preparations, I felt uncertain of finding interviewees, or of how people locally would react to my research topic. I questioned everything, and fieldnotes some days came out as cathartic ramblings, seeking sense in a hard day’s experiences to lift crumbling spirits. Other days were so busy that I had not enough time to reflect on the possibilities emerging, and worried I would forget undocumented observations.
Encounters with the unexpected became the most memorable highlights. There is a special thrill in surviving a situation in which events ride right over your plans, and coming out the other side with a new perspective. One day I arrived at a school to meet a teacher who had agreed to an interview. This was my first experience of a Russian school, and I ran into difficulties almost immediately. I had failed to bring a pair of plastic shoe covers to protect the clean floors from my outdoor footwear, and was therefore prevented from entering the building. The security staff were hardly sympathetic, but after a stretch of pleading and phone calls to my interviewee for help, a lady leaving the building thankfully offered me her used shoe covers. After some further negotiations with security, I was escorted to my meeting. Entirely to my surprise, I was welcomed into a classroom full of teenaged students and invited to join the teacher at the front. The one-to-one interview I had been expecting was suddenly instead a highly participatory observation of an English lesson, structured around my questions.
Unprepared for this turn of events, I had to quickly put aside my embarrassment at the misunderstanding and work out how to proceed. Luckily, expectations of my role seemed open, so I asked the class some general questions, which the teacher used as discussion points, suggesting her own views and soliciting responses from the students, who answered in excellent English. After the lesson, it turned out that the teacher had set aside time for me to interview her individually. What had initially seemed like a failure of communication turned into a perfect opportunity. The chance to observe and interact with my interviewee in her professional role provided valuable additional data on the nation constructed in everyday practice, and the exchange on my research topic in an alternative format was in itself inspiring. Now, as I embark on my second research trip to Russia for the main stage of fieldwork, I think of the perspective that moments of the unexpected gave me the first time round and look forward to new encounters.
Fieldwork in Political Geography Workshop: Thoughts from an undergraduate
Richard Adams, an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, reflects on the PolGRG workshop.
On the 12th and 13th June 2017 the RGS Political Geography Research Group (PolGRG) met at Royal Holloway, University of London for a workshop focused on the ‘doing’ of political geography, an exploration of different experiences ‘in the field’, and discussions on the role of fieldwork in a sub-discipline whose field ‘sites’ and areas of research interest are expanding. I was somewhat of an outsider compared to others presenting papers, having just finished my undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews and presenting my dissertation on fieldwork experiences on refugee and asylum communities. From a personal perspective, it was great to have such a forum to share and develop my ideas with more experienced researchers. The number of postgraduates and early career researchers, especially during the roundtable discussion, also provided some interesting discussions and differing perspectives. Particularly memorable to me was the fantastic community and support network: from postgraduates to professors across both the PolGRG and the brilliant department at Royal Holloway. It gave me a great insight into the conversations and networks that form around postgraduate study and academic research.
As a very early career researcher, indeed one who has no concrete postgraduate plans, the workshop provided an insight into the cutting edge of political geography research. It provided me with a snapshot into different methodological approaches, such as Daniel Bos’ reinvention of the ‘armchair geographer’ in research on videogames and popular geopolitics, or Andreas Haggman’s creative methodology of using wargaming as research and the sites that this gives access to. It gave me inspiration for the different places and spaces that constitutes geographic research, such as the ‘virtual’ geographies of Google and the corporeality of drone conventions and the difficulties that researchers can have in gaining access.
On this point, it opened my eyes somewhat to just how varied these sites can be. From the everyday geopolitics of an American overseas military base, to the geopolitics of walking across certain spaces, to the difficulties in researching diasporic communities, to geographic data that can be extrapolated from banal situations, as illustrated by David Newman in the West Bank. The workshop was a brilliant experience for myself and gave me some ideas about where I can go post-graduation and the breadth of exciting research that is happening in political geography right now.
A theme that arose over the two days of the workshop was the critical engagement with, and commitment towards, fieldwork in political geography. The breadth of research shows that embodied fieldwork is still vitally important to political geography. Alasdair Pinkerton’s keynote lecture on rethinking the expedition provided a historical context to progression of fieldwork used by Geographers, who have generally been at the forefront of engaging with reflexivity in research. The papers presented during the workshop show that this tradition of critically engaging with the politics of being in the field and engaging in fieldwork is continuing – a tradition that makes me want to remain in this political geography ‘community’.
The Creativity of Contemporary Geographic Research: Reflections on the 2017 RGS-IBG Conference (Dominic Obeng) 12/06/17
The PolGRG occasionally sponsors post-graduates to attend conferences such as the RGS mid-term. Dominic Obeng reflects on his experiences at this year’s mid-term in Cardiff.
“The landscape of geographic enquiry is a snapshot of the problematic habitat or unstable ecosystem which suffers from disharmony. It presents the intervention-minded with an endless stream of problems and challenges. Indeed, geographic research never ceases to fascinate and excite, irrespective of whether one is dealing with fundamental concepts or grappling with abstract philosophical constructs.” These observations are my own personal reflections after a recent conference.
Researchers from across the UK recently converged at Cardiff University for the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference in April 2017. I made the long drive from Leicester to Cardiff, motivated by the prospects of interacting with participants who share similar interests in the field of diaspora, migration and digital media, as my research draws on these concepts. Most participants presented their work to an enthusiastic audience, who then posed questions or offered suggestions on theory, methodology, technique of analysis, among others. I sat and listened to a few of these presentations, shuffling between rooms to glean ideas from those that share some similarities with my own research.
Most of the presenters either employed novel methodological approaches or some inventive angle of focus. One of these creative enquiries involved an empirical analysis of the navigation and negotiation strategies of recreational runners in the UK. Another presenter was investigating the impact of tree-cover loss on migratory birds (wood warblers) in my native country of Ghana. I felt humbled by the genuineness of her drive and the innocence of her optimism, hoping that the results might help shape local conservation efforts, and thereby assist with new knowledge to safeguard the region’s fragile biodiversity. Thereafter, a young enthusiastic researcher expounded on advocacy efforts which have become central to the conservation of surfing hotspots in the South Pacific. I also listened intently to two nearly identical studies which explore Estonia’s remarkable accomplishments in IT development and network expansion, through the bold and ambitious Tiigrihüpe (Tiger’s Leap) initiative.
One particular presentation however stands out in my memory. Simply because it challenged my view of geographic research, and gave rise to the reflections that I allude to above. At a point in the programme, I found myself at the “wrong venue”, just prior to the start of a presentation which I had not consciously selected as part of my itinerary. The initial urge was to exit silently without drawing attention to myself. My hesitation to beat a hasty retreat was however hampered when the presenter proceeded to introduce herself and her research topic, beaming with a smile and exuding a visible sense of enthusiasm. The excitement in the tone of her voice felt rather vibrant and compelling. So I sat down to listen, but with some measure of reluctance and trepidation.
Katy, as I recall her name, wants to analyse paintings and interior decorations which harness the power of contemporary art to conceptualise boredom. Her motivation for pursuing this scholarly enterprise is the expectation that her research, which draws on workplace geographies and management theory, might reveal the subtleties which are consciously embedded within a renowned artist’s work. According to Katy, the work is relevant to discourses on administrative labour because the artist seeks to problematise the linkages between the concepts of interest and boredom, which are symptomatic of everyday working environments. Naturally, I questioned how the work could be classified as geographic enquiry, exasperated with myself for exposing my thoughts to this crafty intellectual ambush. My immediate reaction was to resist Katy’s radical attempt to redefine my own traditional conceptions of geographic thought.
Notwithstanding these reservations, Katy’s proposition prompted me to pause and reflect on this rather sombre experience and its wider significance for geographic research. It became apparent that geography has managed to somehow colonise virtually every social process which is spatially constituted. These exploratory incursions often extend deep into the territories of seemingly dissimilar disciplines and unknown realms, where geographic approaches occasionally undergo dramatic reconfigurations, in order to remain authentic and relevant. Yet, the tantalising possibilities for new knowledge and discoveries always make these scientific pursuits interesting and worthwhile.
On the long return journey to Leicester, I concluded that geographers have a responsibility to articulate and find solutions to problems which are of interest to diverse sets of actors and stakeholders. Whatever the purpose or intent of these intellectual pursuits, the results will always be useful to actors who feel passionate about the subjects of their focus. Perhaps geography’s universal appeal lies in its ability to draw on a seemingly endless variety of interrelated disciplines – from the trivial to the profound – to problematise discourses which appeal to our consciousness and our sense of responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, I returned from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose and direction for my own research. The variation of ideas that I gleaned from Katy’s work and that of other researchers, gave me the impetus to refocus my own research. Equally, I considered the new friendships formed as an invaluable asset which could prove crucial at various stages of my PhD journey. For now, I can confidently declare that I received my first pep talk about how to harness the power of mundane artefacts to remedy workplace boredom at the 2017 RGS-IBG conference. Far from being dreary, the encounter turned out to be exciting and transforming. It deconstructed my own pre-existing notions of geographic research, and shed new light on the variations of creative perspectives and approaches which can yield interesting new discoveries. More importantly, it has heightened my consciousness about the need to harmonise the spatial boundaries within which the material processes of my own life and work are constituted.
Hiking as method: a day on the Jordan Trail (Olivia Mason) 27/04/17
This blog post follows one day on a long-distance hiking trail in Jordan and how walking might help us better understand landscape, politics, and culture.
We wake up as the sun is rising, I scrunch my sleeping bag into my rucksack, I take down my tent almost automatically – perhaps three minutes in total. Breakfast is always a kingly affair, sitting against the rising sun: hummus, strawberry jam fresh from the spring harvest, eggs from a nearby farm, local salty cheese, a Middle Eastern yoghurt – labneh. All washed down with cups of warm, sugary chai.
My group gets up from breakfast, full but satisfied. We put our bags on our backs and start to walk, one foot in front of the other – slowly propelling ourselves through the landscape. We’re making use of the sun still low, the cooler temperature it grants. Early morning. The best time to walk – a cool breeze and dewy air. As the sun rises overhead, sweat drops appear on our foreheads, we take shade underneath an old oak tree. The afternoon sun dies a little and we set off again. Now we are walking up a steep hillside – following goat and sheep tracks Bedouins have been using for years to navigate the tough landscape. For them to grant access to higher, more fertile ground; for us both a physical challenge and entry to breath-taking views of this Dead Sea landscape.
Other times our footsteps cross pilgrimage routes, Mt Nebo where Moses saw the promised land or caves where Jesus was said to have slept. We walk following these traces but as modern day pilgrims; carving our own journeys. Or else as traders following ancient trade routes, crossing Roman roads, sometimes passing Ottoman, Nabatean, or Moabite ruins: reminders of a previous history. Our footsteps always following the steps of many before us.
We stop at a Bedouin tent and some women sit outside making shrak – a traditional pancake type bread cooked over a rounded metal pan. Bedouin children ask what we’re doing ‘we’re walking the Jordan Trail, all the way to Aqaba.’ They laugh, not quite sure whether to believe us. But we are and now we have to keep walking, we have tents to put up, dinner to eat before it gets dark – before the sun sets. We can see our campsite now but a ravine traps us on the other side. If only we could fly. But we can’t. We have to walk down one side and up the other. We are vulnerable to the geography of this land, to its weather, its climate, its rugged yet beautiful landscape. We must submit ourselves to it and use our feet to navigate it.
I lie down at night and from the camp’s position I can see over to the lights of Jerusalem – glimmering in the distance, blinking at us. So near yet so far. Reminding me that it’s a political landscape too I am navigating. But tomorrow I must keep walking, battle against the geography, make sense of the politics, understand the history, and experience the culture through my feet.
Reflections on the Political Geography of the fieldtrip (Jonathan Harris) 11/04/17
As postgraduate students, we often have an ambivalent relationship with teaching – sometimes given far too much and never finding time for the thesis, sometimes desperate for those precious hours of experience and (hopefully) payment. Recently, I hit on what I consider to be the holy grail of postgraduate teaching opportunities: the fieldtrip. I was taken to Morocco for a week to help two lecturers run the fieldtrip with around twenty students. It turns out that this is a popular destination for fieldtrips; not too far away by Ryanair, and far enough away to be culturally ‘different’ and still in parts a ‘developing country’. The experience got me thinking about the politics of such fieldtrips, and about the kinds of research politics our students were being taught through them.
We took our students to a hotel-cum-fieldwork-centre popular with UK schools and universities in the rural High Atlas Mountains, a base from which they were to conduct a short research project. The hope was that they would gain some experience in an unfamiliar, rural, developing world context, where they would need to find effective ways to communicate and to work as a team. The fieldtrip was in many ways an ‘expedition’, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research, or war”. The politics of the trip, then, seemed quite colonial. There we were, miles from ‘home’, having the privileged mobility to have been able to travel and penetrate that distant place, our students out to gather ‘knowledge’ in ‘the field’ that they would take away and use to write their now ‘knowledgeable’ essay on the subject. A mere few days would suffice to teach these new geographers that by ‘applying’ certain methods they could ‘achieve results’ quickly and get some ‘answers’ to their research questions, leaving little of use for the people they had ‘studied’. I wondered if this was a helpful way to teach geography.
Thankfully, the students’ experiences of research actually led them to question their assumptions, the applicability of their methods, and the ethics of their engagements (to different degrees of course). They found that they had great difficulty in understanding others and in making themselves understood, and that this was partly due to a language barrier but also due to a deeper incommensurability of differing ontologies that would take months if not years of diligent ethnographic work to competently understand. For example; we were near/in a national park, the boundaries of which our students were keen to discern and to mark on their maps. Such cartographical inscriptions are classic examples of epistemological tools of colonial power. But the responses of local people resisted such a mapping: the boundary was here, it was there, it existed and it didn’t exist. The students had to learn to approach their research differently, more humbly.
Fieldtrips (particularly those of the week-long, international variety) remain the privilege of students from comparatively wealthy and powerful societies, but my experience tagging along with this group was that they can be effective tools for new geographers to learn good practice in navigating the politics of their future research, if they are encouraged to question their assumptions and not to expect quick results.