Walking through the city, we aimed to capture its hidden symbolic logic, cultural, social and spatial codes in the research exercise during our KOSMOS Workshop “Beyond Urban Transformation”. What we capture is strongly influenced by our own attitudes, perceptions and attributions of meaning: the way we are socialized influences how we sense the city and collect and produce urban ethnographic data. How can we uncover both the knowledge people already incorporate as well as their perceptions of the city?

One approach detecting the blind spots and culturally meaningful spaces and places in an urban context is to engage tools that structure and materialize our own sensing and allow for creative ways of visualization.

Urban ethnographic data needs to be written and visualized for us to be able to uncover spatial knowledge and share it with others. One can write dense and reflective field notes, following the example of Geertz’ “Thick Description” (1973). For some spatial experiences and to convey our individual perceptions, however, words might not be sufficient. Current Urban Ethnography offers a variety of possibilities and tools to capture a set of data by writing field notes, recording, or mapping. The data we gathered became “thick” through its documentation, interpretation and representation by interlacing three methods: Mapping as drawing spatial observations. Writing in the form of structured field notes and words to describe the scenes one was observing and drawing on a map. Narrating, that is, using the language of ethnographic moments to explain the collected data.

Methods Approach & Fieldwork

Together with the participants, we entered the urban field searching for things to wonder about, for surprises and for possibilities of promising observations. The workshop participants were asked to go outside, to sense the city and to map and write what they experience and imagine in urban space. They were asked to focus on their perceptions and use their bodies as a research tool, through which they capture spatial practices as well as notions of commoning or resilience.

 The “research booklet” provided to participants can be useful for processual mapmaking and qualitative data collection. The booklet can be filled with urban ethnographic data. As the booklet is tangible at the same time, one can see and touch the data through the material, aiming to encourage the production of meanings through sensuous, haptic and empirical techniques. The material, chosen for the booklet, therefore, helps to capture the acquired urban data creatively and to achieve tangible visualization. As part of the workshop, we wanted to initiate a collective experience of data collection and mapmaking. By bringing together various interdisciplinary perspectives of over twenty observers and researchers who all attended to one field site, we aimed to achieve a “thicker” outcome and to widen angles of observation through a single, collective mapping of one part of “Leipziger Straße” in Berlin-Mitte.

As part of our skill-building approach, we integrated into our workshop material and tools for urban ethnographic research. The invited speakers provided insights for our methodological questions, while collaboration with local artists and writers creatively enhanced our approaches to urban ethnographic methods. How to capture the invisible, the unspeakable of everyday urban practices? With a hand-made “research booklet” for exercises, to find access to the complexities of the “urban field”, we focussed on two ethnographic research methods: field notes and mapping.

“You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats. This is called “getting your hands dirty in real research.” Those who counsel you are wise and honorable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter burlesque. In short, [ladies and] gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research.” – An unpublished 1920s quote by Robert E. Park, recorded by Howard Becker.

Together with mapping artist Diana Lucas-Drogan and writer Sebastian Bührig, the participants were looking out for first impressions, things to wonder about and surprises, searching for possibilities of promising observations.

Sebastian Bührig: Two Tower Block

Diana-Lucas Drogan: Counter-Mappings in Art and Architecture

Author: Carolin Genz

Posted by:Carolin Genz

Carolin Genz holds a master degree in European Ethnology and Urban Cultures from Humboldt-University of Berlin (2009-2013) and is currently doing research at the Department for Cultural and Social Geography at the Humboldt-University since 2015. Her Ph.D. topic is: "Urban Resistance: Upheaval of Civil Society? Ethnographical perspectives on the transformation of urban everyday life“. Specifically, her research focuses on practices of production and appropriation of space, urban governance and digital tools of urban resistance and network practices. Furthermore, she is an academic consultant and member of the advisory board for Gender Mainstreaming and Diversity for the Senate Department of Housing and Urban Development in Berlin.

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