Session 9

SMUSI_09- Ethnographic Methods: Constructing Public Space

Today, public space in urban as well as rural environments is more important than ever. With the pandemic, it has become more and more clear: public spaces are places of encounter, social contact and participation in social life. The proposed session is about ethnographic research of public spaces such as streets, bridges, squares, etc. Using a practice-theoretical approach, the aim is no longer to focus exclusively on human interactions in public space (e.g. Erving Goffman),  but to understand public space as a product of socio-material practices of diverse actors. The session will show what ethnography can contribute to such as understanding of public space and how research can be conducted with and within it.  

The session addresses the methodological question of how to gain knowledge about space as a public space. Situations of construction or reconstruction, interventions and installations, etc. seem particularly suitable for tracing this, they can be taken as an occasion to outline the gateways for problematizing public space. This is also the ‘constructive moment’ of the ethnographic approach. Since researchers are the central research instrument, research practice and object of knowledge are closely interwoven and both are public. The session aims to highlight these peculiarities of ethnographic methods in public space and to work out the potential for focussing the public sphere as a collection of different human and non-human actors, milieus, socio-material practices and forms of life. For this purpose, for example, the distinction between the body and the corporeal can be given even greater epistemological attention. This is shown by recent reflections on affective ethnography (Gherardi 2019), or concepts of theorizing that operate on a flat hierarchical level and that locate theoretical ideas emerging from doing or feeling as material theorizing (Schmidt 2017; Swedberg 2016). In terms of questions like how social practices can be observed, and how data can be collected in the field and ‘be pocketed’  (Neubert/Trischler 2020), the perceivable publicity of one’s own ethnographic activity plays a central role. Additionally, conflicts around construction projects, interventions, etc., as well as participatory processes of involvement, are largely played out in public. As discursive practices, they are part of the public space that we are researching on the ground.

In order to discuss this, I invite papers that 1) present ethnographic studies on public space and reflect on ethnographic data collection and analysis and/or papers that 2) fundamentally discuss and critically question ethnography as a methodological approach to spatial research. I am particularly excited about proposals for presentations that pursue a multi-species approach and explicitly include non-human actors ‘voices’ (such as those from animals, bacteria, plants, etc.) in their concept of public space.