“Methods on the Move: Experiencing and Imagining Borders, Risk & Belonging” is the title of Professor Maggie O’Neill’s research project as part of her Leverhulme Research Fellowship with a specific focus on borders, risk and belonging. On the 22nd March, she was the presenter of BISR Methods Lunch to talk about her project and research methodology. Here is a reflection of the session penned by BISR intern Güneş Tavmen.
As far as social research methods are concerned, power asymmetry between the research participants and the researcher has always been a matter of critical discussion. This is particularly so when conducting a research on vulnerable and marginalised groups such as the ones Professor O’Neill focuses on. Hence, she proposes “walking methods” as a tool to open up a different space between the two parties rather than interviewing somebody face to face. As it allows the researcher and the participant walk side by side, while also experiencing what the space offers together, Professor O’Neill added that the sensory and the texture that walking provides were particularly useful for the biographical sociologists. Given that one of her major research subjects are sex workers; for her, this method also enables “right to visibility” and “respectful recognition”, with a reference to Drucilla Cornell and Chantal Mouffe. Besides, she also added that arts and space can help articulate the life of a homeless or a sex worker against the backdrop of austerity. In order to do so, Professor O’Neill combines her walking methods with drama techniques which are inspired by Misha Myers.
In order to take the audience to a similar journey even if for five minutes within the classroom, in the beginning of her workshop Professor O’Neill asked everyone to imagine a walk whereby they took someone into their everyday life on this route. She asked everyone to think about what they would point out and tell the person they walked with, to give a sense of their belonging; perhaps a route that connects their home and work… this little demonstration aimed at showing the audience how our experiences and perception of space relates to our sense of belonging and identity construction.
Following that, Professor O’Neill talked about her research with the residents of ‘Direct Access Hostel’ in Manchester where she worked with in and out sex workers and drug abusers. One of the walks she conducted within this research was with Faye who took Professor O’Neill to her special place that was a park situated on her way to work where the café inside served “posh coffee”. With the storytelling images and photos of the route they took, Professor O’Neill shared the biography of Faye and her experiences as someone living on the fringe in Manchester. Experiencing Faye’s search for belonging while walking together in the backstreets of “red light district”, this method also provided an insight to the borders and margins of the city. Therefore according to Professor O’Neill, this method could be very useful for the welfare workers; not only to understand these lives better but also to make timely interventions.
She finished her workshop by another example where she used walking methods named “Feminists Walking in the City” together with Professor Jan Haaken and Nelli Stavropoulou. The aim of this walk was revisiting the sites of resistance both in London and Portland. A short film produced at the end of this project “Walk of the Heroines” was screened at The London Independent Film Festival in April 2017. This walk aimed at tracking the statues of women in central London starting from Tavistock Square with the Virgina Woolf statue and ending with the suffragettes Emmeline Punkhurst and her daughter Christabel in Victoria.
Anyone finding inspiration in C. Wright Mill’s call for “sociological imagination” and conduct their research by trying to relate to other people’s private troubles, would most certainly be inspired with Professor O’Neill’s walking methodology.