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Qualitative Research on How We Know the City

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How do we come to know the city?


A city can be defined in a number of ways (Parr, 2007): firstly, in a physical sense of the territory it occupies (Smart, 1974); secondly, by its population size (Newling, 1996; Eeckhout, 2004); or alternatively, by the area dedicated to urban activities (Hall & Hay, 1980). All of these interpretations of the meaning of a city have come about from different perceptions of certain cities, which can be researched using various qualitative methods. The qualitative methods that will be discussed in this essay include ethnography, participant observation, interviewing, and focus groups, arguing that a combination of approaches should be taken to reflect the dynamism of cities. Thus, this essay will examine how we come to "know" a city, taking a particular focus on Newcastle, located in North East England (Miles, 2005).

The city is a taken-for-granted concept, frequently used unthinkingly in everyday life (Cloke et al., 2005). We live in an increasingly urbanised world (Hamnett, 2005), with 60% of the global population expected to be housed in cities by 2030 (United Nations (UN), 2016). However, trends of rapid suburbanisation and counter urbanisation have been witnessed since the 1980s, particularly in developed countries such as the UK, in which the city of Newcastle is located (Champion, 1989; Cheshire, 1995). In some cities, this suburbanisation is coupled with inner-city decline, subsequently followed by gentrification and city centre regeneration (Ley, 1996; Peach, 1996; Smith, 1996). Thus, contemporary cities are often characterised by growing inequalities, social segregation and socio-spatial unevenness (Hamnett, 2003; Knox & Pinch, 2010). As Geographers, it is important to know how these cities are changing, both in terms of their economic foundation and social structure (Hamnett, 2005). This can be done using qualitative research methods, which examine the ways in which different social groups visualise, feel and know the city, through a multitude of senses, rather than merely sight (Cloke et al., 2005). Therefore, a multiple-method approach is most desirable in order to know that there is more to a city than its physical existence and material construction (Elwood, 2010).

Unlike quantitative research methods, qualitative methodologies do not begin with the presumption that there is a pre-existing world that can be known; instead, we see the world socially, as a construct that is constantly changing (Limb & Dwyer, 2001). The emphasis, therefore, is to understand the meanings of everyday experiences of the cities (Limb & Dwyer, 2001). Ethnographies are one of these such methods, which are characterised by in-depth approaches (Watson & Till, 2010), rather than aiming to necessarily produce statistical data. This method involves living and working within a community to understand how people experience their everyday lives, and thus the city (Cook, 2010).

Participant observation is a research method heavily emphasised by ethnography. It enables investigation into behaviours and socio-spatial interactions (Cloke et al., 2004) in a more natural setting, therefore producing more reliable responses as participants feel at ease (Western, 1992). Although this method does provide the researcher with a greater depth of understanding as they come to know the participants on a personal level, the research is based upon a very small sample size, which raises questions over to what extent reliable conclusions can be drawn (Limb & Dwyer, 2001). Thus, it is important to use other methods, such as interviewing different groups of people, in order to overcome the temptation of generalising. Furthermore, it can be difficult for the researcher to detach themselves and remain an outside observer, as one becomes an intimate member of the group, often over a prolonged period (Chrisman, 1976). Overall, participant observation as a part of ethnographic research produces tacit knowledge of people's interactions with the city (Stake, 2005), thus aiding in explanation of how we come to know the city.

Defined as a 'conversation with a purpose' (Bingham & Moore, 1966), semi-structured interviews are one of the most commonly used qualitative methods in social science research, and Human Geography in particular (Crang, 2002; Longhurst, 2003; Kvale, 2007). Despite often mistakenly being criticised for not being representative or scientific, as Valentine (2005) outlines, an interview enables the researcher to understand the mental world of individual people (McCracken, 1988), and how they experience and make sense of their own everyday lives, and thus, how they come to know the city. Interviewers tend to loosely base their questions on an interview schedule, which consists of memory prompts and key topics of discussion (Keats, 2000; Bryman 2004), however, this is often deviated from due to the fluid nature of this methodology (Limb & Dwyer, 2001). Time consuming. Cultural and historical knowledge.

Another qualitative research method that can be used to investigate how we come to know the city is focus groups. These usually consist of a one-off meeting among five to eight individuals (Limb & Dwyer, 2001) where they are often presented with a set of small tasks, such as watching a short video (Goss, 1996). For the researcher, this is an efficient way of gaining an insight into the ways in which people come to know the city (Krueger & Casey, 2015), by getting participants to share their personal experiences and argue for different points of view (Barbour & Kitzinger, 1999). Rather than interviewing on an individual basis, which can create disproportional power relations (Smith, 2006), the focus group context shows the researcher how certain individuals interact with each other, allowing conversations to develop in arguably a more common social situation (Lunt & Livingstone, 1996). However, if the group are not interested in the topic, it can be very difficult for the researcher to get the conversation to flow (Agar & MacDonald, 1995). Furthermore, it is important to be aware of high dropout rates, and factor this in when planning research using this method (Limb & Dwyer, 2001). For this reason, focus groups tend to be used in conjunction with other methodologies, such as interviewing, rather than as a stand-alone approach (Frey & Fontana, 1993). Produces practical, context-dependent knowledge (Starman, 2013).

Knowledge. Several misconceptions, such as that knowledge is only gained through observation of the world (Sayer, 1992). (Law, 2005). According to Sayer (1992), knowledge is in fact gained through a common language, interaction with other people, and the use of shared resources. Different types of knowledge are appropriate to different functions and contexts (Sayer, 1992). The city looks and feels different, depending on the perspectives of those inhabiting the space (Law, 2005). Dominant 'way of looking' in Geography normalised as white, heterosexual male. (Rose, 1993; Rose, 1997). Excludes viewpoints of people from different races, sexualities, genders, and abilities (Law, 2005). Marginalisation of deaf and blind people, etc. in the city until the turn of the century (see Kitchen et al., 1997). These people are likely to have different experiences of the place. In terms of gender, women can find streets lined with trees intimidating at night as they reduce the visibility of being seen (Valentine, 1989). To others, it feels natural and seems aesthetically pleasing, particularly during the day. The city looks and feels, and is therefore known as, being different, depending on the perspectives of those inhabiting the urban space (Law, 2005). Mixed methods.

Historically, Geography has been understood as a visual discipline. However, as Rodaway (1994) highlights, we come to know a city through a variety of senses: smell (Porteous, 1985), sound (Ingham, 1999; Smith, 2000), touch (Podock, 1993), taste. Cosgrove (1998) further recognises this in our association between the visual world and the production of reliable knowledge, with little consideration of other sense. If we rely only on vision as the best way of knowing a city, we, as Human Geographers, consequently only research the remarkable and elite landscapes (rather than the everyday) that are often theoretically only seen from above, rather than below (Law, 2005). If we mimic the position of urban planners in only seeing the city from above, we risk fixing its meaning, and thus denying its complexity (Law, 2005). Thus, it is important to take a multiple-methods approach in order to come to know the city through all of our senses

In conclusion, this essay has argued that the city can become best known through a multiple-method qualitative research approach, incorporating a combination of ethnographies, participant observation, interviews and focus groups. It is important not to over-emphasis on visual sight, but also consider other, less-appreciated senses that contribute to our overall knowing of the city.

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