It’s been quiet on the blog since I returned from Svalbard in February. I have been head down, trying to write chunks of thesis. However, at the moment I am employing the ‘change is as good as a rest’ strategy: The Wales DTC of the ESRC has kindly supported me in paying a visit to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Geography department...
I might be in danger of sounding like a broken record, but last month I returned from another great conference and am struck again by the importance of getting out there and presenting my research, but for different reasons. This time, I headed to the very North of Norway for the Barent’s Institute’s "Mining the Arctic: sustainable communities, economies, and governance? Thorvald Stoltenberg Conference.
As well as acting as another motivating period of intense analysis and synthesis, I learned a great deal. Given my focus on Svalbard, it was really useful to get a picture of
I've recently returned from a short trip to Kirkenes in Northern Norway. I have quite a bit to say about the conference I was attending, but I thought I'd first share some thoughts and stories about the town and area I visited, as it was quite fascinating and was the source of lots of 'firsts' for me...
This week I took part in a two day interdisciplinary, multi-modal research workshop, organised by the ESRC Wales DTC in Cardiff. The aim of the day was to explore the different modes we make meaning and observe with, the affordances of four key media with which we can record ethnographic observations, and the relationship between these modes and media. The event was a great mixture of discussion ad practical fieldwork. We started out discussing and fleshing out the distinctions and crossovers between the ideas of modes and media, building on the paper we had read . Then we discussed the four different media we would be concentrating on in the workshop with the four leaders: field notes (Bella Dicks), still images (Rachel Hurdley), audio (Brett Lashua) and video (Bambo Soyinka). After introducing the research question: How is Gorsedd Gardens made into a meaningful place through the social interactions of people, objects, materials, 'nature', sounds time within it? We were then let loose to explore the Gardens...
At the end of August I attended the Royal Geographic Society (with IBG)'s annual conference in London. In preparation for, during and after the event I did a fair amount of reflecting on what the purpose of taking part in conferences are. I think it's fair to say that academics put a fair amount of time into deciding which conferences to go to, which sessions to apply to contribute to, what we should actually say when we get there and then what to do with it afterwards, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts on that sort of thing before the moment passes.
As a parting gesture and small payback for all the help people in Svalbard have given me with my research, I thought it might be fun/interesting/fair to subject myself to the same questions I have been asking. As with all the interviews I have undertaken, I start with the general questions I ask everyone. I usually then move on to some more specific, context dependant ones - so, I'll do a couple of answers to common questions, then leave it open for you to ask whatever you want! Enjoy...
Svalbard life can seem a little bit bubble like at times, remote and a little world with quirks all of its own, but the bubble has a permeable surface for sure. There is a lot of talk about Svalbard being a future and indeed present hub of the Arctic, usually from a logistics point of view, but not exclusively. Over the last weeks I have witnessed some of this in a variety of ways. Near the beginning of the trip I remember someone finding the idea of a social science department at UNIS a bit silly as there aren't many people up here, what is there to study that you can't study elsewhere?
I've been following the dicussions in the local paper on the changes to the built environment in Barentsburg over the last few months. Having seen the stark contrasts between old and new last year, I could see where these debates were coming from and where the concerns and different view points on cultural heritage value, decent living conditions, and symbolic image projection met, physically on the streets of the town. I wasn't quite prepared for the level of change I saw between last year and this though. ...
This time I was ready! Last year I arrived the day before midsummer. Surprised and happy I was not finding it THAT cold in Svalbard, I headed down to the midsummer bonfire party on the beach in a normal set of layers. I retreated at 9pm. I have now learnt never to underestimate the chilling power of standing fairly still in cold wind! This time I made it through to midnight, thanks to wearing all the jumpers (literally). ...
It's started. The big cruise ships have arrived in Longyearbyen, bringing more visitors than the normal population here in one go, for a few hours. Yesterday there were over 3000 plus hundreds of crew, today over 2000 plus 800 crew. Everyone seems to know when they will arrive and how many people are coming. This is an entirely different type of tourism and tourist to those choosing to stay overnight here and engage in some daytrips and activities (which is still ongoing). It's quite exciting to see how a whole new set of logistics are set into action. Now I see why there are so many buses around town, usually not in use. It is interesting to observe the flows of people, what is being photographed and observed, how the local businesses react (one or two more stuffed polar bears have appeared on the streets, a few ad hoc stalls popped up...), what temporary services and labour markets evolve to cope with these numbers of people.... in other words, how value is constructed and flows differently.
'Pyramiden has captured a part of my heart - so many secrets, stories, such beauty... Diolch yn fawr!' Samantha Saville, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.
The guest book at The Tulip Hotel, Pyramiden, in which I attempted to sum up the impossible, has entries from 1987 up to 2000 (I guess some tourists found it after the settlement closed in 1998) and then resumes again in 2014.
Last year I visited the town as part of the fieldtrip visit to Petunia bay and discussed a key text on Pyramiden. For this trip, spending a couple of nights at the hotel and wandering the streets, hills and through the buildings of this Soviet-time settlement,sometimes alone, has been another quite magical experience. Perhaps that its history is so recent, yet seems so distant and another world away from the one I was growing up in is what makes it so very intriguing. That you can glimpse the different layers of development, inhabitants and activities in the peeling layers of the disintegrating structures and their contents at every turn had my imagination firing on overdrive.
We log in via the visitors book, pass the security guy, don hard hats with the Statsbygg logo (the state construction arm of the Norwegian government) and file into the dank corridor (which must be the bit outside the mountain) and through the second metal door that has been unlocked for us. We descend as we walk down the rounded tunnel, which feels like a pedestrianised version of road tunnels which go through mountains. Melt water steadily runs down the sides of the corrugations....
Messiness is something that most of us are brought up to avoid, and certainly as a quality not particularly revered. At some point I realised that, for the most part, I am a 'messy' kind of person: messy room/office/desk; messy thoughts/ideas/approaches; messy hair.... Whilst I enjoy a good clean up of all these things occasionally, at some point I've come to accept that fighting it constantly will be exhausting and counter-productive.
So, when I read John Law's 'After Method: Mess in social science research' , it was not revolutionary, to me research has never really been about 'non-mess'/ strict, linear, objective methods, and I can thank some forward thinking lecturers, teachers and colleagues for their patience/ encouragement for that, but it was an important reminder which also nudged me towards being open to a broader range of research encounters. I readily adopted his notion of 'gathering' bundles of relations: coherent and incoherent in a 'methods assemblage'. Though perhaps this was becoming a convenient excuse for messy thinking, I was perplexed that all the complicated thoughts and 'head mess', when straightened out and tidied up, boiled down to a simple list of the normal: interviews, focus groups, field diary. Of course, such 'simple' sounding methods hide far more complicated processes, logistics, subjectivities, values, decisions; but I have also been trying to cultivate a more observant and open attitude to the other, less formal, research encounters and my own role in all of this 'data collection' I am doing.
Where am I going with this? Well, today I feel like some form of synchroncity stepped into the research arena and resurrected an element of the project I had almost put to bed. On the flip side there have been times when shear bad timing or luck has prevented research encounters. This led me to wonder whether others had written about luck, chance, spontineity and research before (I didn't turn much up there, but I am sure something is out there). I did come across this excellent paper from Billo and Hiemstra  on, guess what, messiness and PhD fieldwork! For any PhD students out there (or researchers in general), I urge you to read it. Very useful advice and is a really positive example of how far things have come since Law's call, in terms of being more open, honest and reflexive about the processes of research: from planning, through fieldwork and afterwards. Both Billo and Hiemstra were faced with difficult challenges in 'the field' which meant a reassessment of carefully made plans. They expand on the notion of flexibility, embodiment and reflexivity in research based on those experiences. Music to my ears!
Realistically, I may be comfortable with mess, flexibility, reflexivity, subjectivity etc etc, but it doesn't stop me worrying about whether the choices I am making, all the time, are the 'right' ones, for the PhD, for the research participants, for Svalbard, for the world, for my 'career'.... but rest assured I am at least thinking about it!
 Law, J. (2004) After Method: mess in social science research, London: Routledge.
 Billo, E. & Hiemstra, N. (2013) 'Mediating messiness: expanding ideas of flexibility, reflexivity, and embodiment in fieldwork', Gender, Place & and Culture, 20(3), pp.313–328. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0966369X.2012.674929#.U5ioW3b4Lwo
Bit of an extended post today since I have skipped a couple....
Staying here in Longyearbyen for any length of time, people start to become concerned that you manage to find your way out of town and experience some of 'the nature' here. Though Longyearbyen has just about everything one needs, after a few weeks, a kind of 'cabin fever' can take over, knowing what a small urban area you are confined to compared to the vast expanse 'out there'. Getting out into the wilds is now made more difficult by the lack of snow and ice around to get about by snow-scooter and skis (that's key value of ice and snow number 1 of this blog post!) One way around this is ingenius use of quad bikes that dog teams can pull, giving them essential exercise and fun during the summer and being pretty fun to tag along with (lucky me got a lift from an acquaintence who needed another pair of hands to deal with some extra dogs!). There is still snow on the glaciers though, and it was that snow and the process of it melting that I set out to help investigate yesterday with a fellow PhD student, Krystyna Koziol. Not only was it a great day out of town in some glorious weather, but I also got some more first hand experience of what field science in Svalbard can be like, which has sparked some interesting reflections.
Despite all the preparations necessary for the fieldwork to happen in the first place, there are still a lot of factors that can leave data collection hanging in the balance: weather conditions, equipment failure, snow not behaving itself, field assistant availability...We had some interesting moments on Foxfonna glacier yesterday, with some quick thinking solutions from Krystyna saving the day of sampling. I hadn't thought too much about what the actual data collection might involve, but I was probably thinking more high-tech than plastic sledges and rope equipment transport, digging snow pits, good old-fashioned note taking and the all-important plastic food/ sample bags to transport them back to base. What was clear though that the most essential ingredients to collect the best quality data are persistance, motivation and committment to the project. Perhaps these are not so dissimilar to characteristics needed on this 'side' of the discipline, just with very different ramifications! It seemed a lot more obvious out on this kind of fieldwork, that you only get one shot to collect this particular thing - another day the conditions might be different, and more broadly, the trip itself has so much planning and resources involved to make it happen that the whole thing is not going to happen again. This leads me to reflect that though there might not always be such finality with a more human geography based approach, each story I listen to is told in a very specific context, one that is not repeatable and with all kinds of 'external' factors in the background, which perhaps I need to hold in mind...
I also learnt quite a bit about different types of snow and ice and how to observe them, and what snow can tell us about (value number 2) interesting stuff. Thanks Krystyna for a thought-provoking and fun day's hard work in the snow!
I have a proper update in process, but in the meantime, I thought I would share some of the sounds of yesterday up on Foxfonna glacier....but my trusty phone that has been a very reliable tool so far in all my audio recordings didn't pick it up. It was too much to ask perhaps, given we had to stand absolutely still to hear it ourselves. So I'm stuck with words again! It was a little un-nerving from my perspective as a glacier-newbie to hear running water coming from a significant body of snow/ice/rock not far away and hearing the odd small tumble of snow and general gentle 'puffs' of it shifting about. The shapes and sounds the wind and snow make are mesmerising sometimes and certainly awe-inspiring! [Fear not we were being careful in all the right ways, avalanche beacons strapped on and keeping our distance...]