vrijdag 31 mei 2024

Walking seminar with Sophie Chao, 12 April 2024

“What nourishes our lives and our work? What does it mean to eat well in the Anthropocene?” were the questions that kicked-off our April walking seminar, a special addition with a very special guest: Sophie Chao. Following a beautiful seminar-lecture about Multispecies mourning by Sophie the day before, we went into the Dutch meadows to walk and talk.

Sometimes, at these walking seminars, the thematic questions are discussed. Sometimes, they are lived through. Our conversations loosely meandered, together with the river we walked along. We talked about nutritional microbes and placentas and living arrangements in rural towns. We exchanged elegies about attempts to finish articles that stick to us like thistles, and our eyes grew wide with newfound curiosity we hoped to nourish with new research projects.

All the while, we stopped talking every now and then, to feel the sun pleasantly heating the tops of our heads (or scolding ourselves for forgetting sunscreen) or to point out animals we crossed paths with. There were a lot of animals: swallows sweeping low to catch bugs, hares making startled eye contact before scurrying away, water birds tugging along in the river, goats grinding their jaws together in that sideways motion goats use to grind their jaws together. When squinting into the sun for a group picture, a herd of sheep stared right back at us. Cows urinated in the same fields that we’d come to urinate in ourselves, for lack of a public toilet.

One moment in particular stuck with me (Sam). At the end of the journey, we sat down at a cafe. As we drank our fermented beverages and nibbled on olives, a barn door opened in the adjacent farm. A swarm of brown cows stormed into the field. They looked childishly joyous, these gargantuan beasts. Every fiber of their muscles became visible as they jumped up and down, as if miming: “The sun is out, it’s really out! And at long last, winter is over, we find ourselves in the field again.” They paraded over the farm’s surface before settling down to graze. I felt so similar, being out in the sun again. Of course, the difference was that I was chewing on a piece of cheese as this thought went through my mind.

What does it mean to feed and be fed in multi-species worlds? While the question may have been discussed, it was mostly felt. Through a resonance across fleshy and furry bodies, roaming the same flat landscape under the burning sun, bodies bearing the scars from being squeezed through winter’s dark tube, but also the asymmetrical interdependence of bodies that feed on one another, that grant each other existence through relations both generous and fraught.

Walkers: Sophie, Andie, Rebeca, Ildikó, René, Roos, Kyana, Sam, Samar, Michelle, Butet, Shivani, Rebeca, Shahana, Moataz.

Photo Collage by Ildikó Plájás, text by Sam van der Lugt.

maandag 8 april 2024

Walking seminar 15 March 2024

Ode to the cherry and the differences that make differences

As ethnographers we go into the field, observe what happens there, talk, listen. We are taught to attune to relational determinants like ‘familiar’ and ‘strange’ to understand how normals are made and differences discerned. What we learn is not the same from one site or situation to the next. The objects of our research must be considered in context to distinguish what is stable and what is contingent in a subsequent moment or another setting. One informant says that all X are P and the other tells they are Q instead. How might this be a problem or a blessing for your research? How to deal with such differences?

In the social sciences some differences get a lot of attention: geographical ones (between places and across borders), socio-economic ones (between classes), functional ones (between professions, or fields, or systems). How do we relate to these differences and what kind of differences are relevant in our research? What literature do we use to help make sense of them? Are there differences that obfuscate rather than elucidate our objects of interest? And what can be done with them?

On this Friday afternoon, we started our journey towards the Amsterdamse Bos, to see the cherry blossoms, on two wheels. However, we did not ride our bicycles right away. First we boarded the Metro and only after a 15 minute journey we started to pedal. Riding the bikes all the way from the University would have stretched our traveling time by a good 20 minutes. Therefore, taking the metro with bikes seemed to be making a difference: in getting us to the Bos faster, in allowing us to use our bikes later on in the field, in saving us from having to cycle against the wind, etc. But given that we were heading to our walking seminar, taking one or the other means of transport made little difference in that we were not walking. Not yet.

Does the directionality of perceiving a difference matter? What does it do if we come to difference by unpacking an assumed similarity or begin with an apparent difference and arrive at what is shared? And how does all this relate to how our work changes over time- as we come to understand our field and objects differently; and to the difference that we hope to make with it?

Arriving to the Amsterdamse Bos we realized that the Blossom Park we wanted to visit is still a good 5 kilometers away, so walking there and back would give us little time to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Therefore, to stretch the time under the cherries, we decided, once again, to shorten the time of traveling by doing the first part of the journey by bike.

Does it make a difference in thinking and talking while cycling instead of walking? It certainly does. While pedalling we could at most pay attention to each other, cycling close enough so that we hear each other’s voices. The park got reduced, or rather got configured as a view, green scenery, winding cycling paths and amplified wind. Only when we parked our bikes and started to walk did we notice smells and shapes, minuscule living creatures that made us stop, squat and engage in a rescue operation.

A little caterpillar has found its way onto the bike path we also found our way onto. None of us are meant to be there, but we help each other. So much for reciprocity: while one of us picks the caterpillar up and directs (read: throws) it onto plants it may enjoy a little better, the caterpillar helps us think about differences. For differences abound, so which to foreground?

That between concrete and plant?

    (or perhaps rather between what either do for the caterpillar?)

That between the bike-lane-concrete and the footpath-concrete?

    (or perhaps rather the difference between biking and walking – and their different needs vis-a-vis the concrete ground?)

That between caterpillar and human?

    (or perhaps rather between what is at stake for either as we cross a bike path?)

That between the cherry blossom and the part of the forest where other trees stand?

And so on. Some of these differences may seem more obvious than others. The cherries are blossoming, the other trees are not

    (but then again, that is not the same difference for bumblebees looking for a snack versus humans yearning for spring).

Just before arriving at the blossoms the road leads us under the motorway. An instance of darkness that feels like trespassing through a chanted underworld. Listen to its sounds HERE. Does it make a difference to write about this strange location? To show you a photo of it? Or make you listen to what is audible to a little microphone built into our smartphones? How do different media and modalities layered in ethnographies (and this blogpost) speak of/do the differences that are made to matter?

Arriving at the Blossom Park we are struck by its scent, small size and the disproportionate amount of people visiting it on a Friday afternoon. Mind you, this photo is misleading to say the least. It took careful framing and editing, cropping the people out, or hiding them behind trees. The cherries, 400 in number, are planted in neat lines on a circular terrain. And at least 50 other visitors are marveling at the blossoms, taking pictures, walking up and down on this small partition.

However, the cherry blossom is calming, where there are the other trees you can hear the cars of the nearby motorway

    (but that is not inevitable either: “If you bend your mind enough, the cars sound like the sea”, says one of us).

Here, a point to make: Differences are not given – some force themselves into this or that situation, yet others may be pulled to the fore or pushed to the back. So what may be achieved in doing so?

    (and, no less relevant, which kind of difference to work out, on which terms, for what?)

The cherry trees are not happy, we learn. They suffer from a ground stamped by the hordes of visitors each year. But aren’t we part of this crowd now? Those who contribute to their suffering by stamping the ground? So shall we not just leave? What are the differences that we ourselves make through our bodily presence, weight, chit-chat while pondering about differences?

And as we leave the blossoms behind and make our way back under the motorway and through the meandering concrete bike path, we conclude – yet again – that differences do not exist outside of the “fields”, surrounded by earth and living creatures, noises and smells, bicycles and stamping feet. Differences that matter are made into differences, and are made to matter through practices that we, as ethnographers, engage in: gazing, touching, smelling, cycling, walking, talking, recording, and not least writing (this blogpost).

“If you bend your mind enough, the cars sound like the sea!” (René)

Walkers: Fenna, Ildikó, René, Myriam and Andie.

donderdag 8 februari 2024

Walking seminar January 2024

A group of people walking on a path

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On 19 January, on a beautiful crisp Friday we took the stories we collect, write and think with on a journey. For the first walking seminar organized after a long pause forced upon us by Covid we came back to the topic of stories and asked the seminar participants to think about their own research practices in relation to the question:

‘how to tell stories in ways that do good?’

– What makes a ‘good’ story—and what a ‘bad’ one? What are examples of storying that you particularly appreciate?

– How do you select which stories to elevate in your papers, presentations and talks? What work do they do? And what counts as a story anyway?

– How do you tell your stories? What techniques, styles, strategies and narrative devices do you use? What works for you, what doesn’t?

– Where do you get the stories you use from? Whose stories are they? Is there a difference between your own and others’ stories? These stories might not be coming from the field, but from other colleagues. They might relate to theory, they might be ethnographic descriptions or stories these authors bring from their own fields and retell in their articles. What gets lost in translation through language or by changing hands between narrators? How does the position of a storyteller change the story told?

- How can we narrate the dilemmas faced in our informants' practices in ways that foster their practices? In other words, storytelling is political, how do we practice the craft of the tale in ways that honor/acknowledge/uplift those whose knowledge we borrow in our weave?

And so we set out to conquer the dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland. We took the train to Santpoort Noord from where we headed to the beach.Our walking path, like the stories we tether, had an unpredictable nature. To proceed in our exploration creative interventions were– at times– required, pulling us off of the pre-ordained path or demanding the assistance of technical experts, who, besides us, were busy dealing with the Amerikaanse vogelker, an invasive species (side track: click to dive into a side story about multispecies work in the Kennemerduinen).

A single, linear story would often not be enough, we all agreed. We need multiple stories, layered stories, stories that have many side tracks. Even at a simple attempt to explain why our research topics matters we need contexts, and not one, but several. The stories that are layered into what we try to say in the end emerge in between the contrasting, sometimes even incommensurable side-stories that give substance to our empirical materials and anchor these stories in the life-worlds from which they emerged.

The sun was shining and we happily continued our walk and talk until the road under our feet has been swallowed by the waters. What now?

A group of people sitting on a path

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Are there stories that cannot be told? Or should not be told? For instance, what if, for instance, you are doing research on animal breeding and apart from the official stories you gather as part of your fieldwork you are struck and touched by the cruelty and the animal’s suffering encountered on farms. Are these stories then not the ones that should be told? Talking about this case, we started to wonder about stories that need to be told but perhaps not written down or published. Stories can also be latent, be told once in order to feed other stories that find their ways into published texts. Or perhaps acknowledged by the teller in other ways to help the lessons of the stories linger while the details fade into the background of the scene, sometimes determined to be liabilities for the narrative end goal of effective articulations of the practices at hand.

But we didn’t get discouraged. After a brief rest we decided to keep our feet dry but still continue our hike to the sea. And so we conquered the heights and hills and looked down to a mesmerizing Dutch winter landscape.

A group of people standing on a hill looking at the sun

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Another topic that emerged in our discussion related to the amount of complexities that stories can still hold. If singular stories do not suffice, we need to multiply our stories. But how far can we go with this? How much complexity can fit into one text, one abstract, one presentation. When the parameters of a story are strictly limited, how to reduce complexities? Time for instance can become an important factor in shaping our storytelling practices, we realized. What if you only have 5 minutes to make an intervention at a roundtable discussion. What is that 5 minutes enough for? How to put forward one intelligible and relatable storyline that raises the right amount of issues and complexities. And are there situations when we actually need the simple, linear narrative?

Like when finally arriving to Café Parnassia and having a well-deserved hot drink:

A person holding a glass of liquid

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As the sunset on our days work, we accepted the indeterminacies we had reached. The path had been wayward. Any discernible intentions to define or predict an outcome relented against the conditions of possibility. We were homebound, together, in good company, and it was enough to know that – at least– we now had a good story to tell.

A group of people walking on a beach

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Walkers: Fenna, Andie, Ildikó, Ulrike, Jenske, René, Sam, Sandra, Eline, Annelieke.

donderdag 4 april 2019

Walking Seminar March 2019

One of the first beautiful spring days brought us to the coast where we walked an around 14km walk from Overveen through the dunes, to the beach and over the beach to Zandvoort aan Zee. Our topic this time was “Big Words”: They tend to be called concepts. They can be helpful as when they give you some focus while you assemble materials. They can be helpful in writing as they link what you write to what others have written using the same concepts. But then again. Big words may also stand between you and surprising things in your field that you cannot smell out as the concepts cover them up. Or you may be using them in a different way than others using the ‘same’ concepts. You may try to present this as inventive and creative on your part, but it may as well increase confusion all round.

Concepts come from somewhere. They have heavy histories – often a few – in this or that discipline – they resonate fights from diverse pasts. How to not get caught up in that? Not so easy. You cannot, after all, re-invent language from scratch overnight. How then to deal with it otherwise?

And then your informants. They talk, too. They may be talking in the same big words that are in use in the literature. They attach similar or different meanings to them. They know what you are talking about already – ah, no, they don’t. But how to talk about something else, or in a new way? How to not just represent your field, but add to it?

Coining concepts may seem attractive as big words often get to travel between texts – and you would like your insights to travel. But then again. Terms often get stifled along the way. Or simplified. Or amputated. What about making stories travel instead, how to do that?

dinsdag 12 februari 2019

Our walking seminar on February 8th

Expected rain choreographed the circumstances in which this walking seminar took place: a small group of waterproofed and well prepared walkers started off Baarn, to then walk over mostly tree covered firm sand paths. Our conversations were productive and engaging. So much so that we even got lost a little bit 
towards the end of the route (for the first time as long as I remember the walking seminars). More kilometers to walk, more time to talk. When we arrived at our end destination Hollandsche Rading - tired and intellectually well nourished - it was already dark outside. 

This walking seminar we did not have one topic, but we had participants think about and then discuss their "most pressing problem". The blurb for this walking seminar was: 

Your Present Problem

Rather than presenting you in this blurb with a problem to share, we suggest, this time round, that we jointly tackle every person’s most pressing present problem. Workwise, that is. What in your research do you hit up against these days? What about your field-working, analysing, writing, presenting, dealing with comments, rewriting and rewriting again, are you fed up with, insecure about, exhausted by or otherwise struggling with? Don’t think you have to struggle alone! In talk-walking with others you will discover that they wrestle with, or have been wrestling with, similar problems, or rather interestingly different ones. Added to that, they may come up with inspiring ways of living with, or handling, or, who knows, even solving this, that or the other problem. And you, in your turn, will find yourself capable of supporting them. Yes, you will. Good luck!

maandag 29 oktober 2018

Our Walking Seminar on Questions on October 26th

Despite the rain we gathered with a group of 10 humans and one dog for an autumn walk from Baarn to Hollandse Rading. 

The question of this walking seminar was about “QUESTIONS”. 
In writing down ethnographic findings or in rendering interviews it is possible to work with the format of the description (‘There was a table in the middle of the room.’). But then again, it is also possible to go with the format of answering questions (‘What was in the room? A table!’ ‘Where did the inhabitants eat: on the couch or at the table?’). This is not just a matter of dropping rhetorical questions but affects the writing throughout. In which ways? What does it do to a text to go with one of these formats of the other? And how might questions be hidden within a description? (‘The inhabitants ate seated at a large table.’) 

Put in this way, the issues of questions seems to be a matter of style only. But it isn’t. Method is at stake as well. For which kind of questions to ask – small or large; pre-designed ones or question that emerge from the field; your own questions, those of your grant givers, or supervisors, or informants; or of others yet again? Simple questions? 

And then theory comes in: do you ask why questions or how questions? And which questions? Why? How?

More questions about questions came up during our (approximately) 13 km walk. The rain was absolutely bearable thanks to colorful autumn landscapes and interesting talks with lots of new and a few ‘old’ walk-talkers. 

maandag 23 juli 2018

Friday July 20th 2018

The topic of this walking seminar was “the issues at hand: whatever it is you are currently concerned with and/or facing in working on your research project”. With a smaller group than usual - due to conferences, vacations and possibly the hot weather we where no more than 10 people - we walked the dune paths of Overveen towards Sandpoort Noord, this being a route through the dunes that is slightly more covered by trees to at least keep away some sun from our hard thinking and talking heads. A Northern breeze caused some refreshments now and then which kept us from overheating and afforded for a productive afternoon. With enough issues at hand we once more had fruitful exchanges and talks: from practicing conference talks to discussing strategies of how to best manage academic life. The Walking Seminar being one of them.