Event Date: 23 October 2014
Professor Phil Cohen (UEL/Birkbeck)
Our Kind of Town? Citizen Social Science, Participatory Mapping and the Struggle for a Just City
The emergence of Citizen Social Science (CSS) has challenged many of the claims staked by academic sociology to possess a methodology giving unique access to social reality. But under what conditions does the active participation of citizens in social research actually improve the quality of data and its interpretation, and how far does it exercise what C. Wright Mills called the ‘sociological imagination’?
The question has been posed with special clarity by projects which make use of participatory mapping techniques to elicit, record and analyse real and imagined communities of engagement with contemporary issues of urban policy. In this lecture I will explore the tension between the desire to validate locally situated structures of feeling and knowledge, and the need to construct a space of critical reflection or ‘deconstruction’, looking at a number of historical precedents of CSS, including Mass Observation, Bill Bunge’s ‘expeditionary geography’, and various attempts to construct public ethnographies in which informants have a material stake.
The lecture concludes by drawing on some recent work by Living Maps in East London, focussed on the legacy impact of the 2012 Olympics on local communities, to consider the limits and conditions of Citizen Social Science in supporting struggles against gentrification and the privatisation of public space and amenity.
Phil Cohen is Visiting Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies at Birkbeck and Emeritus Professor in Cultural Studies at the University of East London, where he was the first director of the London East Research Institute. He recently co-founded Living Maps, a network of academics, artists and activists interested in the theory and practice of critical cartography.
Since the 1980s Phil has carried out ethnographic research on issues of class, race and regeneration, much of this work having a focus on East London. Prior to this, his work on youth cultures established his international reputation. More recently he carried out a five year study into the local impact of the Olympics; On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics was published in May 2013 by Lawrence & Wishart. He is currently collaborating with Paul Watt on A Hollow Legacy? London 2012 and the Post Olympics, an edited book about the longer-term Olympic legacy. He is the author of Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working Class City (with Dave Robins); Rethinking the Youth Question; Finding the Way Home: Young People’s Narratives of Race, Place and Identity in London Docklands and Hamburg (with Nora Rathzel), and London’s Turning: The Making of Thames Gateway (with Mike Rustin). A collection of his academic work, Material Dreams: Maps and Territories in the Un/making of Modernity, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.