Playing with participation (at the RGS-IGB Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference 2018)

The sun was set to shine for each of the three days of the 2018 RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference and it did not disappoint. Bearing in mind what David Gilbert argued in his excellent lecture advocating for a more nuanced and enriched sub-urban imaginary, our experience of Royal Holloway came into its own with fresh cherry blossoming, hanging basket blooming, door knocker sparkling weather…

Listen and experience the atmosphere

The tone of the conference was set up well the first evening with an uplifting welcome talk from Dr. Sarah Evans – in which she reminded us all that a PhD is a collective effort; even if it only has one name on the front – and two fascinating keynotes. The first from Katherine Brickell about her work on “the humble brick” and the stories it tells of flesh, blood and skin, drawing on two contrasting pieces of work she’s done in Cambodia and Ireland – we were both excited that two bricks took active part in the keynote, in addition to those in the walls. The second from Jamie Bartlett who talked about – and occasionally acted out! – his infiltration of a range of radical groups.

On Thursday morning we cycled in the sunshine from Egham station, our research collaborators tucked into our backpacks, ready for their participation in the first paper session of the conference. Alongside police officer bodies, night time sensing in Swansea and prisoner free flow, our mud and concrete participated in an eclectic and engaging array of presentations on the theme Embodiment and Politics. The only co-presentation at the conference, we attracted some attention – people asking us how we’d found the process and whether we would recommend it.

Our answer?

Yes, we would absolutely recommend it! It’s so easy to become myopic during a PhD, spending time engaging deeply with another colleague’s project is hugely enriching. We took two one-day ‘mini-retreats’ – to the exotic location of…each other’s living rooms! – to brainstorm ideas and share thinking; we also worked independently on sections and passed them between us as they developed.

We spend a decent amount of time talking about our respective PhD projects with each other on a casual overcoffee-and biscuits-basis, but don’t often get the chance to engage in detail together about our thinking, concepts, methods and how we are articulating them. It was great to make that time to do this! And the feedback we got on our presentation would indicate that our sentiment was shared.

Thursday afternoon of the conference was workshop time and there was a diverse range on offer. A chance to try things out, get first-hand tips and participate in lively discussions. Sasha Engelmann’s Geographies of Listening was a highlight for us – weaving around campus with a home-made radio in hand, attending to electromagnetic atmospheres and their noises – white and otherwise. An inspiring and creative session that got participants thinking about ethics, others and what it means to be sense-able.

In between sessions we spent some time speaking to other conference attendees, asking: what does participatory geography mean to you? And how does it relate to you research?

Listen to some perspectives on participatory research

We got a variety of responses from: “I don’t really know what participatory geography is” to comments on how digital geography is transforming what it means to do participatory research. And many fellow doctoral students were also interested in learning more about what it might mean.

Participatory approaches to research vary widely. For us, community groups as well as mud and concrete are all collaborators in our research. For others, colleagues, or pets and their owners. Crucially, we feel, participatory geography is not just about thinking about who we include and how in our research, but also how we are active(ists) as scholars, recognising that doing so might involve questioning who participates and how in our own institutions and networks.

E.K. Moover (aka Elona Hoover and Kate Monson)

Doctoral candidates, Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton

With thanks to the Participatory Geographies Research Group for their help in getting us to the conference.