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Taking turns blogs

This page is updated regularly with blog posts from event participants, in which they reflect on issues raised in the talks for their own research ambitions and intellectual explorations.

May 2017: Camilla Lewis and Vanessa May, Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives, “The sit-down interview as a sensory method” 

Claremont Court housing
Claremont Court housing

Since the 1990s, there has been a growing interest among sociologists in studying embodied connections with the surrounding world, and new methods have been devised in order to do so, many of which attend to the meanings that people attach to their sensory experiences.

The sensory is often defined as ‘seen but unnoticed’ and difficult to verbalise, therefore requiring a range of sensory methods to tap into. In some of the literature on sensory methods, a dichotomy has been created between these ‘new’ sensory methods, such as walk-along interviews, and the traditional sit-down interview. The assumption in some writing in this area seems to be that the traditional interview is not as good as ‘sensory’ methods in capturing the dynamic sensory elements of everyday life (see for example, Sandelowski, 2002; Kusenbach, 2003; Carpiano, 2009).

However, in our AHRC funded research project, Place and belonging: What can we learn from Claremont Housing Scheme? we found that sensory experiences came to the fore unprompted in both sit-down interviews and walk-along interviews. The broad aims of the project were to explore the ways that residents build a sense of home, belonging and atmosphere.

Even though we were not specifically asking about sensory experiences, in the sit-down interviews as well as in the walk-along interviews, participants brought up the sensory. Most of our participants spoke at length about their various sensory experiences at the Court: the way it looked, felt, sounded and smelt in relation to atmosphere, the design of the communal areas and flats, and their sense of belonging there. They described how Claremont Court is imbued with multiple sensorial qualities.

This led us to consider why this might be? Why were our traditional interviews just as good at accessing the sensory as the walk-along interviews?

Since belonging was a key topic of our interviews and is in itself a sensory process, we found that it was not possible for our participants to talk about home making without addressing sensory experiences. It is also important to remember, as Sarah Pink (2009) points out, that the interview is a social encounter – an event – that is inevitably both emplaced and productive of place. It has material and sensorial components. In discussions of what interviewing involves, an emphasis on ‘talk’ and dependency on conversation analysis as a means of understanding the sorts of interactions that occur during interviews limits the ways interviews can be understood. Pink goes on to observe that sitting is no less a sensory embodied experience (for the interviewer and interviewee) than walking. In our study, therefore, it is important to note that the majority of the sit-down interviews took place in people’s homes, the topic of discussion, and were thus situated in a particular way. Pink concludes that interviews can thus ‘invite ethnographers to participate in multiple sensory ways of knowing by incorporating a whole range of different embodied experiences and emotions into the narratives which are audio-recorded and taken away’ (Pink 2009: 86).

Our research has shown that in some cases, depending on the topic and the situatedness of interviews, we do not need particularly ’sensory’ methods to research the sensory realm. While not wishing to detract from the importance of various forms of sensory research, we also wish to re-habilitate the traditional interview. We feel that it is not as hopeless at engaging people’s sensory imaginations as is sometimes depicted. We would therefore urge researchers to also be attentive to the ways in which people’s experiences are sensory (and to how well they can talk about this) and to read all their data through a sensory lens.

References

  • Carpiano, Richard M. (2009) ‘Come take a walk with me: The “Go-Along” interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and well-being’, Health & Place, 15: 263– 272
  • Kusenbach, Margarethe. (2003) ‘Street phenomenology: The go-along as ethnographic research tool’, Ethnography 4(3): 455–85
  • Pink, Sarah. (2009) Visual interventions: Applied visual anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books
  • Sandelowski, Margarete. (2002) ‘Reembodying qualitative inquiry’, Qualitative Health Research, 12(1): 104–115. 

 

March 2017: Robert Meckin

Robert Meckin, Research Associate, Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives on “Making Sense of Menthol”

Old-fashioned sweets, mouthwash at the dentists, aromatic chewing gums, muscle rubs, medicinal vapour rubs, toothpastes. These products are linked by a particular compound - menthol. Conventionally, menthol is produced in two main ways: via purification of corn mint (mentha arvensis) plants or via chemical synthesis. I recently joined a project at the University of Manchester’s SYNBIOCHEM centre where bioscientists are hoping to develop a novel synthetic route using genetically altered microorganisms. Although genetically engineered microorganisms are already used in the production of therapeutic products, like insulin, this new connection to mundane, everyday products may alter how people make sense of menthol, and biotechnology more broadly.

Menthol provides an interesting way to turn to the senses in relation to science and technology. In his Taking Turns presentation, David Howes (2014) argued that culture is a "sense-making activity" in that we learn what sensations mean to us: sensing is about "both feeling and meaning". Although menthol is known for producing a cooling sensation on contact with our skin and for its minty smell and taste, these sensations are produced with and through other activities and interactions. Currently, we are conducting a range of object-elicitation interviews, home tour interviews, tradeshow-style stalls and focus groups to gain an understanding of how menthol is implicated in different practices, and the importance of menthol’s particular sensory and material qualities.

From early analysis of our data we are finding that menthol is implicated in some obvious and some not-so-obvious practices. People often describe menthol as a "strong" smell, and "cold" and "tingly" on the skin. They associate menthol with particular people - grandparents, parents, dentists, and describe using it at particular times, like when they are ill.

What might be predicted from much of the product branding is that menthol is connected to hygiene and health practices. But the emerging picture is nuanced. Borrowing from Schatzki's (2002) categories, a "dispersed practice" is a type of activity found in other, more complex practices.The act of recollecting, for example, features in many different practices. Some people, when smelling menthol, recalled their grandparents and how their homes used to smell of it, or how they would drop Olbas oil in a pan of hot water and inhale the vapour under a towel. Other participants remembered being ill and how their parents rubbed menthol into their chests and feet.

Menthol also emerges in complex practices of care. A parent described how they chose to use menthol if their children were ill because it was not a medical product and could be rubbed liberally onto their children’s chests, and sometimes feet. Using menthol in this way involves bodily contact, physically connecting parent and child. It is also a way to care for their children without using regulated drugs, to be active yet less invasive, to use a ‘natural’ remedy. It was a way for some to enact the role of a ‘good parent’.

Menthol appears to play an important role in non-medical, familial caring that is passed from parents to their children and to their children’s children. These complex practices - care, hygiene - are what Schatzki (2002) calls "integrative practices". They are complexes of many different components in terms of emotions, aims, activities and so on. People understand menthol through these everyday sensory and material experiences. Some scientists imagine a wholesale ‘public rejection’ of genetic engineering technologies and products. We hope, through this study, to be able to understand how a change of menthol production methods may raise awareness of where menthol comes from and how such a change may affect how menthol is enrolled in, adapted to or rejected from, various practices.

  • Howes. David. 2014. David Howes’ presentationAvailable online
  • Schatzki, Theodore R. 2002. The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

December 2016: Anja Schwanhäusser

Anja Schwanhäusser on her recently published book Sensing the City: A Companion to Urban Anthropology (Bauwelt Fundamente, Birkhäuser Verlag)

"There is a smell of London. There is a Russian smell… There is a smell of Central Europe… There are scents of the Mediterranean and the Orient… There is the subtlety of the odours of India… There are the odours of China… There is the smell of America", writes Mirko Zardini (director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture) in reference to writer André Siegfried. The process of globalization and the diffusion of now-common odours notwithstanding, every city and every place still has its own smellscape, which encapsulates not least all the exotic fantasies that come along with it. Is it true, then, that every city has a unique sensual geography? Or, to put it another way: why is it that each urban landscape feels differently?

Cities are more than architecture, infrastructure and agglomeration, they are "a state of mind", as urban anthropologist Rolf Lindner puts it (p. 115), echoing Chicago School sociologist Robert E. Park. This ‘imaginary of the city’ is the sum of all the myths, legends, symbols images, sounds and smells that the city produces and that quite often can be found as land- and sound-marks of the cityscape: historical monuments, street signs, advertising, bell-strikes, alarm sirens, street music, etcetera. Economic and other forces shape the imaginary of the city and are themselves shaped by it. In Lindner's examples (from sociologist Gerald Suttles), the economic history of a city is inseparably intertwined with its imaginary: the merchant families of Boston; the financial empires of New York; the joint-stock companies of Chicago; the ‘dream factories’ of Los Angeles; and the oil companies and space exploration enterprises of Houston are the economic base of each city and part of the founding myths. The imaginary of the city as a set of images and sensations that are weaved into the urban landscape are the subjects of an ‘anthropology of the city’. This anthropological approach seeks to unravel the shared experience of city life.

‘Anthropology in the city’, on the other hand, shares an equally ‘holistic’ and sensual approach, but is dedicated to the study of smaller, territorially bound cultural entities. "We are in the world through our body", states sociologist Les Back (p. 51). Back, among others like Ruth Behar, Moritz Ege, and Paul Willis, advocate a sensuous understanding of ethnographic field research. In one of his studies, Back became immersed in the supposedly barbarian world of South London football hooliganism and working class tattooing. Naturally, these tattoos revealed their stories quite differently from spoken words. To understand them as languages of love means not only to decipher, but to sense them. A sensuous approach ‘tells society’ in a way that is inspired by lyrical sensibility, art, literature and comics - which is also one of the reasons why Sensing the City uses comics as a way of field research storytelling.

Sensing the City thus means to study urban cultures as wholes, not ‘from above’ but from below and within, taking the (marginalised and supressed) sensual realm as the point of departure. Sensing is not just an add-on to a close reading of urban culture, but a guide through the maze of city life by touch, taste, sight and smell.

The above field-research comic and quoted essays by Mirko Zardini, Rolf Lindner, Les Back, Ruth Behar, Moritz Ege are assembled in Sensing the City: A Companion to Urban Anthropology. 

September 2016: Tuula Juvonen

Academy of Finland Research Fellow in Gender Studies, University of Tampere, ‘Exploring affective inequalities’

There is a romanticized tendency to idealize couple relationships simply as sites of love, companionship and comfort. Instead of assuming that the existing relationship problems are simply an individual aberration of a general bliss, in our Academy of Finland funded research project Just the two of us? Affective inequalities in intimate relationships we develop the perspective that couple relationships provide ample room for expressing and sustaining inequalities between partners.

In turning our attention to affects we hope to shed new light on the ways in which inequalities are both produced and maintained in various kinds of intimate relationships. In our project Raisa Jurva is studying relationships in which women are significantly older than their male partners. When analyzing the women’s interviews Jurva is interested in the question of whether an unconventional age difference between partners might affect heterosexual power dynamics in these relationships. A heterosexual relationship is a context saturated with gendered conventions and Jurva analyzes the affective attachments to such conventions in women’s narration.  

Annukka Lahti, for her part, is focusing on bisexual women’s relationships with variously gendered partners. The study draws on a longitudinal set of interviews conducted in 2005 and 2014-2015. While partnered and in a relationship, participants tended to see themselves living in a monogamous, enduring relationship (Lahti 2015). Yet the presence of a woman’s bisexuality, culturally associated with wavering between two opposite poles, initiated rather complex negotiations around the interviewees’ multifaceted desires that exceeded the boundaries of a dyadic relationship (Lahti, under review). Many of the bisexual women also discuss affective experiences of sexual excess beyond cultural relationship and gender norms that complicated their monogamous relationship narratives.

Tuula Juvonen, the PI of the project, is interested in the affectivity and materiality of the emerging lesbian community in Tampere, Finland. Focusing on the decades after the decriminalization of homosexual deeds (also between women) in 1971, Juvonen explores the community’s role in shaping women’s intimate relationships. Her analysis of interviews with differently aged women reveals how temporality, spatiality and materiality all shape not only the affective background against which the relationships take place, but also the affectively shaped relationships themselves. The narrations about beginning and ending lesbian relationships also clearly indicate that the affective inequalities travel along more axes than just a gendered one.

Marjo Kolehmainen takes the idea of affective-material formations further in her ethnographic work on relationship and sex counselling practices. In addition to the gendered processes of advice seeking and giving, she is interested both in the relationship work the participants are advised to do in the relationship enhancement courses, seminars and lectures, as well as in the labour the organizers and instructors invest in those events. She is especially intrigued by the question of atmosphere. She has also previously examined therapeutic culture in her exploration of the sexual norms of various agony columns (Kolehmainen 2010; 2012).

While being excited about the perspectives our turn to affect studies has offered our work, we invite others to think with us about affective inequalities in intimate relationships. Juvonen and Kolehmainen are editing a book on the topic, to be published in 2018. (Please see the Call for Papers.)

Kolehmainen, Marjo (2012) Tracing ambivalent norms of sexuality: Agony columns, audience responses and parody. Sexualities 15(8), 978–994. DOI: 10.1177/1363460712436822

Kolehmainen, Marjo (2010) Gendering and normalizing affects? How the relation to porn is constructed in young women’s magazines. Feminist Media Studies 10(2), 179–194. DOI: 10.1080/14680771003672288

Lahti, Annukka (2015) Similar and equal relationships? Negotiating bisexuality in an enduring relationship. Feminism & Psychology 25 (4), 431–448. DOI: 10.1177/0959353515574786

July 2016: Ruth Webber

Museum Studies, University of Leicester, ‘Sensing home – using sensory participatory methods to understand ideas of migration and home’

Ruth Webber's webpage

The senses are an integral part of the ways in which we negotiate newness and make sense of the unfamiliar places we find ourselves in as a result of migration. In my PhD, I am using photo-elicitation interviews to work with migrant, refugee and asylum seeking women in Glasgow. By bringing these women together to talk about images they have made in one-to-one interviews, I aim to understand the ways in which they make the city their home through their everyday practices and participations. As Harper writes, “when two or more people discuss the meaning of photographs they try to figure out something together. This is, I believe, an ideal model for research” (2002:23).

"Makes me like, think of open spaces, which we had in my, my hometown, and I guess seeing them makes me feel more familiar with a place." (Judith)

By drawing on participatory methods, I am encouraging a process of self-reflection away from the participant-researcher relationship. However, I am simultaneously hopeful and wary of these methods. This wariness is born of an understanding that participatory, sensory methods are not in and of themselves emancipatory and it is important that we do not claim this to be the case when adopting these tools in research. The hope springs from a belief that, if executed with care and reflection, they can help to empower us and those we work with to undertake research which is collaborative and which can closely explore the textured, affective layers of everyday experiences. In these everyday experiences, larger issues are at stake and manifest themselves, such as culture, nationalism, heritage and identity. These operate on multiple scales - collective and individual - but are all embroiled in embodied and emplaced everyday practices. 

In my work, photo-elicitation interviews have helped participants to explore and explain the ways in which they navigate multiple identities, heritages and homes which are at play in their everyday lives in Glasgow. By using photographs to illustrate places, people and things specific to the city, participants are able to make visible some of the less tangible elements of home-making practices, for example: memories might be evoked through the preparation and cooking of particular meals; a feeling of ‘at-homeness’ may be catalysed by a sunset or an open space near where they live. Tentative findings include the importance of locating the familiar in the unfamiliar; be that through connecting different times and places as new places and things imbue old memories, or through people becoming familiar with newness as a result of repeated interactions with it. Early analysis reveals that the combination of image, text and dialogue that emerges from this combination is both powerful and fascinating. The methodological framework of sensory methods is helping to shed light on elements of home-making practices which would otherwise remain in the shadows. 

Harper, D. (2002) ‘Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation’ in Visual studies, vol. 17, No. 1, pp.13-26 [online source] (21/3/15)

May 2016: Dr Sophie Woodward

Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester, on the material turn as a personal turn

Sophie Woodward's webpage

The material turn is often framed in terms of a shift within sociology, and the social sciences more broadly, towards recognising the importance of the material in the social world and challenging subject/object dichotomies which position the latter as inert.  It is conceived of as a ‘turn’ in terms of indicating a movement within academia, as a significant number of academics turn their attention to thinking through the implications of the vitality of materials or the agency of things.

The material turn was also, for me as I suspect for many others, a personal academic shift; in the final year of my undergraduate degree I encountered theories of material culture  (such as Miller, 1987) which changed the way I thought about the world. Thinking about the material turn as a personal shift matters in that it indicates the ways in which many fields of social scientific thought are still dominated by an understanding of social relations as purely social. A personal ‘turn’ can allow the transference of ideas of material culture to different fields of study. Within my own research I started in the field of fashion and clothing consumption, which is a field that was dominated by understandings of the semiotic and symbolic meanings of clothing. By taking ideas from the field of material culture studies, I was able to think instead about the everyday and ordinary relationships that people had with their clothing – the ways in which clothing externalised memories and relationships to others, as well as the habitual ways in which clothing could be understood to externalise the self (see Woodward, 2007).   

Looking at clothing not from the perspective of what it symbolises or of public display, I rooted around in women’s wardrobes. This excited my interest in my current research into Dormant Things (Woodward, 2015) – things we keep in the home but are not currently using. There is often a temptation, even when looking at material culture, to think about what things mean. This may be done by accessing people’s stories and to consequently understanding things through people’s personal narratives - seeing them as overflowing with meaning. Yet this often fails to get to what matters most about everyday stuff. Dormant things may have been festering in a draw for months or an attic for years. Some of these are loved heirlooms that are replete with personal and relational histories.  Even for these items, the relationship between meanings and the objects themselves is never straightforward, as an object may evoke powerful memories of a former time or person, and yet we still may now know when we used it, where we got it from or when we stopped using it. Other items that accumulate in drawers or cupboards we may not even know why we still have them, yet by virtue of them having ‘survived’ this long we continue to keep them; the object’s continued life propels us to keep the thing, rather than any associated meaning. These are a few examples of many types of objects that people keep within their homes even if they are stashed away and never used, and they challenge us to think about the relationships we have with things, their vitalities and the relationships things have with each other.

Daniel Miller. 1987. Material culture and mass consumption (Oxford: Blackwell)

Sophie Woodward. 2015. The Hidden Lives of Domestic Things: accumulations in Cupboards, Lofts and Shelves. In Casey, E. (Ed.), & Taylor, Y. (Ed.) Intimacies, Critical Consumption and Diverse Economies. (pp. 216-232). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Sophie Woodward. 2007. Why Women Wear what they Wear. (Oxford: Berg). 

February 2016: Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read

Senior Lecturer, Coventry University, on  ‘Drinking Atmospheres, Loud and Quiet’

Thomas Thurnell-Read's webpage 

My interest in the sensory and affective aspects of drinking and drunkenness have emerged from two research projects which themselves arose out of my concern with the ways in which leisure and consumption practices are used to perform, sustain and, on occasions, contest specific notions of masculine identity. In two papers at University of Manchester conferences I have explored, first, at the Vital Signs conference in September 2010, the sensory elements of the hedonistic excesses of Eastern European Stag Tourism and, more recently, at the Atmospheres conference in July 2015, the creation of atmospheres of conviviality and merriment at Real Ale festivals. In both cases, I’ve conducted participant-observation research and been fascinated by the particular sensory landscapes of drinking settings that often influence and modify the behaviour taking place in such spaces. The sounds of laugher and cheering, the circulation (and smell) of bodies and of drinks, and the interplay of lights and music are an irrevocable and undetectable part of the experiencing of that particular space, be it the dance floor of a Polish nightclub or the cavernous iron vaults of London’s Olympia exhibition hall, setting for the Great British Beer Festival I attended as both a customer and volunteer staff during research.  As such, when Nigel Thrift describes affect as ‘a sense of push in the world’ (Thrift, 1996: 6) it is the ‘buzz’, ‘vibrancy’ and ‘kinetic energy’ of the night time economy identified by Jayne et al (2010: 547) as being so alluring to many participants in their research that I think of as a ready and vivid example.

One thing to emerge from my research with Real Ale drinkers, both those closely aligned to the Campaign Group the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and to a local university student ale appreciation society, was the apparent gap in our understandings of drinking spaces that deviate from the more spectacular and manifestly affective aspects of the night time economy. Adam Eldridge and Marion Roberts (2008) have discussed the use of such terms as ‘merry’ and ‘relaxed’ amongst drinkers who distinguish between a ‘big night out’ and ‘quieter’ nights in smaller more socially intimate venues such as local pubs. Similarly, one student ale society member, Peter, who I cite in a forthcoming paper in The Sociological Review explained during an interview how he valued ‘sitting chatting with people and it’s not too much noise in the background so it doesn’t get too annoying…And just sitting in a pub and talk to people, you know, you don’t tend to get much of that with other social groups at university.’

Comments such as these, plus participation in many rather sedate gatherings in pubs and local beer festivals across the West Midlands and beyond, made me realise that I had, as many others working in the field of drinking studies no doubt have, been rather seduced by the immediacy and ‘effervescence’ (as Tutenges terms it, drawing on Durkheim’s use of the word in respect to crowds and collective behaviour) of the noise and bustle of the louder forms of drinking and drunkenness that also, it is worth remembering, monopolises the attentions of the media, the public and policy makers.

What then of the comfortable, relaxed, slow drinking environments often overlooked in drinking studies and in alcohol policy makers thinking? The quiet after work drink in the snug of a well-loved local is just as much an example of affect in its almost ceremonial ‘unwinding’ at the end of the working day. Likewise, we could know more about home drinking and the uses of alcohol in shaping the affective and embodied experience of domestic spaces and social interactions and intimacies within the home. I would therefore like to suggest that we need to keep the ‘quite’ as well as the ‘loud’ in mind when we go looking for the sensory and the affective in our research.

Eldridge, A. and Roberts, M. (2008), ‘A Comfortable Night Out? Alcohol, drunkenness and inclusive town centres’, Area, 40(3), 365-374.

Jayne, M., Valentine, G. and Holloway, S. L. (2010). Emotional, embodied and affective geographies of alcohol, drinking and drunkenness. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers35(4), 540-554.

Thrift, N. (1996). Spatial Formations. London: Sage.

Thurnell-Read, T. In Press. ‘‘Did you ever hear of police being called to a beer festival?!’: Discourses of Merriment, Moderation and Responsibility Amongst Real Ale Enthusiasts’, The Sociological Review.

Tutenges, S. (2013). Stirring up effervescence: An ethnographic study of youth at a nightlife resort. Leisure Studies32(3), 233-248.

November 2015: Dr Andrew Balmer

Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester, on ‘Affect and bvFTD’

Andrew Balmer's staff profile

Some definitions of ‘affect’ hold it to be pre-linguistic, something fundamentally ‘non-representational’ (Massumi, 1995), like the sensation of anxiety conjured by a particular urban environment. Affect in this guise is automatic. It is something the world conveys upon us as if by magic. The brain and wider nervous system are often crucial to such arguments, since they react to stimuli so rapidly it is easy to see how unconscious some of our responses can appear.

In contrast, Margaret Wetherell (2012) understands affect to be entangled with all the rest of the mess of the world. Something that can happen in the blink of an eye, something embodied and habitual, yes, but also something that we designate to ourselves and others as part of situated everyday life. Affect is something that we reflect on, foster or discourage. It is structured and also specific.

In my own work I have been musing on affect as part of studying a very messy situation: what it is like to be caring for someone with dementia. Primarily I have been interested in how we deal with change in this context. No matter which kind of dementia a person is living with, there will be a lot of change involved, not least in their behaviour, but also in their relationships and in their capacities.

One form of dementia is particularly pertinent to understanding affect and emotion. Behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) involves a range of symptoms, but central to its manifestation are changes to a person’s affective disposition. People can become disinhibited and lack shame, empathy and insight. They might cry or laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes their tastes change, particularly as regards their appetite for sweet and sugary foods. They can also become obsessional, repeating routines and behaviours without relent.

For example, arranged around the living room of a carer I interviewed, Mike, there were several electronic drum kits. However, Mike told me as I we walked in that he doesn’t play the drums. They were for his wife, Lucy, who was living with bvFTD. Lucy would repeatedly bash and drum on anything she could find. Mike had bought the drums because at least they made familiar sounds, had a volume control and weren’t easily demolished. This led me to ponder on whether Lucy drums things because of a change in her brain. Certainly there is a neurological problem causing a disruption in her everyday life. But why drums? This was a question Mike regularly posed to himself and doctors. Some answers he received were that it might stop some unpleasant sensation that Lucy feels, or that she might derive some pleasure from the physical activity, from the sound or from the effect it has on others. Mike wonders if she’s angry, and says that she doesn’t show any empathy for him as he struggles to tolerate the endless cacophony. And Mike struggles to manage his own anger as he soldiers on. But why do the drums bother him, exactly? It seems that there’s certainly an element of automation here. The drums make an unpleasant noise, which makes him feel angry even against his will.

But how do we judge a pleasant noise versus an unpleasant noise? There are physical factors. Some noises hurt our ears. But cultural ones too, having to do with the way in which rhythm and melody has been structured in the West. These physical and cultural factors also inform each other. And surely Mike is also angry because of the sense of injustice he feels. That dementia has affected Lucy in this way and that she does the things that she does. And that he is losing her. He is still angry with her even though he knows this, which makes him angry with himself, and further angry with the disease and that he can’t do anything about it.

Clearly there are multiple forces shaping the manifestation of anger in Mike and Lucy’s relationship, each time situated, specific and multiple, but also part of a broader story of changing embodiment, capacity and everyday life, one that is at least partly shared with others living with bvFTD and their carers.

Encounters like these with changes in affect lead me to believe that we need to better understand its entanglement with the body and the brain, certainly, but that such an investigation has to be conducted from within the relational world in which these changes take place.

Massumi, B. (1995) 'The Autonomy of Affect', Cultural Critique, 31, 83-109. Wetherell, M. (2012) Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage Publications).

October 2015: Kate Smith

Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History, University of Birmingham,  'taking turns to think historically about loss'

Kate Smith's webpage

The ‘Taking Turns: Material, Affective and Sensory Turns in the Academy’ event, hosted by Sociology at the University of Manchester in July 2014, prompted participants to think. It asked them not only to confront the ways in which three separate developments (the material, affective and sensory) have shaped research ongoing in a range of disciplines in recent years, but also how these different interventions overlap and inform each other. The dynamic relationship that exists between the material, affective and sensory is important to a new project I am currently working on. I am an historian and I am in the early stages of a project which tracks the emergence of lost property offices in London. It is particularly focused on the changing ways in which urban denizens came to ‘possess’ and reclaim property in spaces densely packed with people, animals and things.

Absent Objects: Lost Property and the Making of a Modern Metropolis looks first to the eighteenth century and the use of newspaper notices, which described where and how the possession was lost, what the possession was and to whom and to where it could be returned. The ways in which descriptions were written and the information given changed over the eighteenth century, but notice writers continued to use the language of loss. In fact, these possessions were rarely passively lost and were often actively stolen, but the language of loss allowed victims to avoid the costly processes of pursuing prosecution and retrieve their possessions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the possibility of actually losing goods, leaving them behind and forgetting, increased as transport systems created a wider range of regulated spaces. In 1869 the Public Carriage Office set up the ‘Lost Property Office’ to create a central repository for the multitude of lost objects it handled. What then, this project asks do such changing strategies tell us about the emergence of modern cities? What do they tell us about people’s changing relationships to property and possessions? What role did the affective economy of possession play in the development of urban social relationships?

Lost property is a phenomenon in which the material, affective and sensory meet. Absence, it argues, propels the material and sensory nature of objects to the forefront. Similarly, when lost the affective nature of possession is also highlighted, as longing and desire are actively articulated. My project asks then, how did the material, affective and sensory meet and shape how eighteenth and nineteenth century city dwellers came to mark possession and seek reclamation? How did their relationships to things shape the human and physical geographies of urban life? How did loss change what the modern metropolis was and could be? These are the questions I will be tackling over the next few years and they are decisively shaped by the material, affective and sensory turns discussed at length in July 2014 with an engaged and energetic group of cross disciplinary researchers.

July 2015: Richie Nimmo

Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester reflects on ‘Living Things and the Material Turn’

Richie Nimmo's webpage

If it is to amount to more than a new term for some fairly well established trends, then the material turn must be more than just a turn to artefactual objects or material ‘things’. Far from being neglected, artefacts have been taken seriously as objects embedded in social relations and practices throughout much of the history of social thought, from Marx’s theorisation of commodities and commodity-fetishism to the material culture studies of the 1980s and after, notwithstanding the decades of determined immaterialism precipitated by the cultural and linguistic turns. Though often misrepresented as a reductive materialist, Marx anticipated contemporary practice-based conceptions of materiality with his critique of Cartesian materialism and its abstraction of materiality from ‘sensuous activity’, that is, from human social activity and corporeal life. In many ways today’s material turn treads similar ground in its attempt not just to reassert the importance of material things, but to reconceive materiality in a manner that dispenses with the subject/object dualism that so often still underpins modern thinking, hence to de-reify materiality itself. This involves decentring the inert and hypostatised object as the paradigmatic model of materiality and turning to the processual, relational and vital textures of material-corporeal worlds. But I want to suggest that this should also mean taking ‘living things’ far more seriously in our conceptions of materiality.

In emphasising the active, agential and sometimes disruptive capacities of material entities, Jane Bennett speaks of ‘vital materialities’. It is worth noting that this suggestive formulation depends for its effectiveness upon invoking the agential properties we associate with biological organisms. Yet in our increasing efforts to recover the vitality of material objects we often tend to overlook or sideline the materiality of living things themselves, as though they properly belong to another kind of enquiry. But insofar as the defining problems of our age are climate change, over-production and unsustainable consumption, resource depletion, mass extinction and ecological exhaustion, these are problems of socio-material worlds that are emphatically techno-ecological, since they are centrally about the complex interface of industrial and biological material orders. Indeed our heterogeneous practices are pervaded every bit as much by organisms, ecologies and biological processes as by produced objects, and it is time we stopped holding these artificially apart in a separation of life from materiality that amounts to another enactment of the subject/object divide. In my recent work on the phenomenon of rapidly declining honeybee populations known as Colony Collapse Disorder, I attempt this by exploring the escalating material friction between the capitalist technoculture manifest in chemical-intensive industrial farming and the complex rhythms and processes of honeybee colonies as bio-social systems. 

The Bio-Politics of Bees: Industrial Farming and Colony Collapse Disorder’, in Humanimalia: Journal of Human/Animal Interface Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2. 

 

May 2015: Rachael Scicluna

Research Associate at the University of Manchester’s Morgan Centre reflects on ‘The Paradox of the Table’

Rachael Scicluna's webpage

On Wednesday 13 May I had the exciting opportunity of organising The Poetics and Politics of the Table event with visiting scholar, Veronica Policarpo. The objective was to question the status quo of the ‘table’ in order to unravel the various social and cultural relationships attached to it. As the vast literature from material culture has shown, objects are not ‘aesthetically banal’ but come with an inbuilt script. Objects are political, intimate, sacred and profane. So is the ‘table’. It is a multi-faceted object with multiple meanings which often blurs dichotomies between the sacred and the profane; the symbolic and the real; and the animate and inanimate. Through the table it is possible to reflect on the way human beings relate to their material environment, making it possible to reveal the subtle ways by which humans relate to each other through space, form and culture.

David Morgan’s paper evocatively described various scenarios ranging from his own intimate space of the home to more public rituals such as, dinner parties. He brilliantly used the table to bring out how social relations are enacted through moral order. For instance, the spontaneous act of ‘dancing on the table’ is about the shedding of moral constraints, reminding us that shoes on the table are ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1966). While, the expression ‘putting the cards on the table’ moves towards honest behaviour. In my own work with older lesbian feminists living in London, the ‘kitchen table’ emerged as a feminist and democratic symbol. Some of the women I spent time with likened the kitchen table to that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In this context, the kitchen table became a theme of women owning domestic space. For many, it represented a grass roots self-made politics symbol where feminists sat around kitchen tables theorising and fantasising about politics while having interactions and conversations long into the night. In fact, the first feminist cookbook titled, ‘Turning the Tables’ appeared in 1987 which asked women to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible.

Moreover, by taking the table as our object of inquiry, we invoked ‘sight’ and ‘seeing’, which are common Euro-American metaphors of knowledge. This ‘ethnographic sense’ can perhaps be theorised through what Marilyn Strathern (2013) calls ‘peripheral vision’. It is when the ethnographer learns to ‘see’ through things which are half-glimpsed or perhaps half-grasped. A peripheral vision that takes the obvious and the mundane as central, and offers us powerful possibilities for new knowledge and exploration, in order to develop a relatively coherent account of a society, and generating a whole through a totality of experience. Here, there is the potential in illustrating the exotic in the familiar.

At first glance, the table as object may be placed under the ‘material turn’, but through the papers presented by David Morgan and Sophie Woodward, followed by an animated discussion, it became obvious that the table is a transgressive object. What became quite clear is that the table cuts across all the ‘turns’ by being simultaneously ‘material’ as object; ‘affective’ as it emerges as that space where stories can be exchanged safely but also where fights happen; and ‘sensory’ as it is tactile, but also triggers narration and memory telling (Jefferson and Reyes 2002, Behar 1993).

Behar, Ruth. 1993. Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story. Boston: Beacon Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Jefferson, Robert and Reyes, Angelita. 2002. ‘History Telling at the Kitchen Table: Private Joseph Shields, World War II, and Mother-Centred Memory in the Late Twentieth Century.’ Journal of Family History 27:430-458.

O’Sullivan, Sue. (ed). 1987. Turning the Tables: Recipes and Reflections from Women. Sheba Feminist Publishers.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2013. ‘Learning to see in Melanesia’. Manchester: HAU Society for Ethnographic Theory. Masterclass Series 2: 21-53.