By Boukje Cnossen, Stefan Haefliger and François-Xavier de Vaujany
Numerous research have transformed the street and public spaces into research objects (see e.g. Bundy, 1987; Voyce, 2006; Weisburd et al, 2004), but what about making them (again?) a research practice?
Researchers and intellectuals are part of a seated, closed, indoor, covered world. Most academic events, in particular in social sciences and humanities, take place in hotels, conference centers or seminar rooms of universities. For academic gatherings such as conferences or workshops, public spaces are just week-end stories (after a Thursday and Friday focused on the event itself), part of a short walk for a social event or a touristic exploration of the city before coming back at home.
Research practices of social scientists, e.g. management and organization studies scholars, remain focused on well-defined organizational phenomena, and are communicated in well-defined contexts (conferences) and in established media (scientific journals) after the research, once it is stabilized. Indoor environments thus pervade research practices in social sciences and humanities. Numerous reasons can be invoked for this: protection against capricious weather, search for serenity, conference fees (we then pay to ‘access’ or even ‘possess’ something), concern for participants’ security, logic of insurance, need for facilities (e.g. using a videoprojector, a microphone, being seated…)… And presenting research in public spaces is not at all an obvious thing. What could be meant by that? What would it change or add to traditional ways of producing, sharing and communicating research?
Since the beginning of the learning expeditions and collective walks organized by the Research Group on Collaborative Spaces (RGCS), we have had the opportunity numerous times to walk our research, to chat ‘outside’ and ‘on’ our research objects. Walking in new work places such as coworking spaces, makerspaces, biohackerspaces, fablabs… generate different kinds of discussions. Walking between the place of each visit also generate numerous opportunities to feel the context, districts, areas, connectivity of the place. It is a way to feel the narrative around it and to comment it together. Sometimes, we have also improvised breaks in gardens, public squares, public spaces… This created a particular atmosphere far from traditional academics or practitioners’ meetings. We could be interrupted, entertained, disrupted by many things around us. This fragility changed the narrative we produced for ourselves and those following us from far on social media. Obviously, we were ‘in’ the world we were commenting, connected to it. The performativity of such an experience was different from the context of the traditional controlled, seated world of the meeting room, the convention center, the seminar room.
Gestures, walk, movements, speech, take another dimension in public spaces. They can be seen and heard by people beyond the interaction. They can be interrupted by people and things beyond the immediate stage of the presentation or discussion. People can move from one place to another, which means the explicit emergence of a new context in the flow of the discussion. As they are ‘out’, they can be located in places other people know, could join, have been… Diffused on social media, such places are thus likely to involve other people. These virtual participants have been, will be or could be there. Public spaces can thus be powerful contexts for different practices of sharing and communication of knowledge. If the experience of the public space combines a variety of people (academics, entrepreneurs, journalists, activists, students…), it can then foster fluid mixed conversations and collaborations. These possibilities can be leveraged and activated by specific community management techniques (see Open Walked Event-Based Experimentations, OWEE).
Nonetheless, public spaces are also and obviously the context of class struggles, economic and property fights. The history of jaywalking in the US and in many other countries clearly epitomizes this. If till the early 20th century, streets have often been common places, everybody’s places, the car manufacturing lobby has made it partly ways for cars and car drivers. Likewise, public spaces (e.g. streets but also squares, beaches, public gardens…) can be controlled and dominated by various groups: men, gangs, marketing corporations, bourgeois… But public spaces open the possibility for shared experience of these dominations and violences. The performativity of the place can be shown obviously, visibly, and in an embodied way. Walking in the Haussmannian parts of Paris can make obvious the bourgeois stage they are. Walking close to the façade, on the large pavements, in the second empire decorum, can be shared and pushed forward by a collective experience. The “Dérive” described by Guy Debord (1956) is a way among others to feel and comments the different areas and atmospheres of a city.
What about including more the street and the experience of the street in researchers experience and collaborations? Likewise, what about including urban walks in managers, entrepreneurs, activists, artists, students’ experience of the city? Maybe it is time to open science literally, physically, to the atmosphere and movements of the city. Maybe it is time to transform the all city, its actors, flows, spaces, places, times, into partners of our research.
Bundy, C. (1987). Street sociology and pavement politics: aspects of youth and student resistance in Cape Town, 1985. Journal of Southern African Studies, 13(3), 303-330.
Debord, G. (1956). « Théorie de la dérive ». Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956), reproduit en dans l’Internationale Situationniste, n°2 en octobre 1958.
Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)
Voyce, M. (2006). Shopping malls in Australia: The end of public space and the rise of ‘consumerist citizenship’?. Journal of sociology, 42(3), 269-286.
Weisburd, D., Bushway, S., Lum, C., & Yang, S. M. (2004). Trajectories of crime at places: A longitudinal study of street segments in the city of Seattle. Criminology, 42(2), 283-322.