Beyond homelessness studies: a keynote at the ERCH

I was recently generously invited by FEANTSA and the European Observatory on Homelessness to deliver one of the keynotes at the 12th European Research Conference on Homelessness, under the theme ‘Changing Profiles of Homelessness: Implications for Services’. The conference took place at the University of Barcelona, on the 22nd of September 2017.

My intervention was entitled ‘Beyond Homelessness Studies: Thoughts and Actions‘. Expanding upon a paper written for the 10th year anniversary of the European Journal of Homelessness (click here to download it), in the keynote I proposed a reflection around the epistemology of homelessness research, asking if and how what we do is relevant and for whom. After illustrating some of the limitations of contemporary scholarship, I made a case for a more radical approach to homelessness studies based on five tenets: interdisciplinarity; ethnography; activism; creativity; and autonomy. Each one of these points was illustrated with examples taken from the current international literature as well as from my researches around homelessness in Italy, Romania and the UK. The aim of this keynote is to inspire a new radical scholarship that encompasses the regiments of what we currently know as ‘homelessness studies’, to meaningfully respond to – and engage with – homelessness in Europe and elsewhere.

Below you can find the Prezi of the keynote and here you can download the PDF of the presentation.

New special issue and paper on ethnography and the margins

Together with my good friends and colleagues Tatiana Thieme (UCL) and Elisabetta Rosa (Université Catholique de Louvain) we have just published a very exciting special issue in City: Analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. The special issue is about the challenges of ethnographic research at the urban margins and contains contributions from Silvia Aru, Maurizio Memoli & Matteo Puttilli; Tung-Yi Kho; William Monteith; Yimin Zhao; Kavita Ramakrishnan; Tatiana Thieme; and also a paper co-written by myself and Elisabetta (abstract below).

Download the introduction to the special issue here. The same goes for the paper I wrote with Elisabetta, which is available here.

Going in, out, through. A dialogue around long skirts, fried chips, frozen shacks and the makeshifts of ethnography 

In this paper, we shift from conventional academic writing toward something similar to a dialogue, an encounter, a few hours spent in a virtual cafe´where we chat and systematically try to excavate our respective ethnographic endeavours. Such experimentation in format is needed, we argue, in order to re-approach the questions characterising in-depth ethnographic work from a different, possibly fresher, perspective, and to communicate those more directly and freely. Rather than embedding our doubts, fears and wishful thinking in academic formalism, we spell those out aloud, as a composite and unfinished flow that touches upon relevant literature but is still raw and grounded in our current and respective fieldwork. Relying on our differentiated works with Roma people in Italy, France and Romania (2004– ongoing), in our dialogue we talk about the challenges of positioning; the construction of new (self)identities; the building of relationships of trust, care and affect, and their break; the role of ethnographic knowledge in activist work; the risk and the certainty of failure; the difficulties associated with entering and leaving the field. The aim of our dialogue is not to offer answers to questions that have been at the centre of the ethnographic discipline since the start, but to open a space of incremental and reciprocal learning that may serve as an inspiration for other young ethnographers like us.

New contribution to a forum on minor politics in EPD

I am very happy to be part of this exciting forum around micro politics and the minor, which builds on Cindi Katz’s 1996 ‘Towards Minor Theory‘ published in EPD: Society and Space. The forum was organised by two friends at Oxford, Thomas Jellis and Joe Gerlach, with contributions from Anna Secor and Jess Linz; Cristina Temenos; Caroline Faria; Andrew Barry; Ben Anderson and an inspiring conclusion by Cindi Katz.

My intervention is a short reflection around the (un)making of ethics at the intersection of ethnography and activism at the urban margins. It is related to my work in Romania with evicted people, of which I published here (and made a documentary called ‘A inceput ploaia/It started raining‘).

You can download my paper on this website, at academia.edu or at the EPD: Society and Space webpage.

A inceput ploaia, ‘my’ first documentary. Why, when, and how.

For updates, please visit the film website at www.ainceputploaia.com (or simply click on the poster)

A început ploaia is the first documentary about forced evictions in Bucharest, which I written, researched and directed after two years of ethnographic fieldwork, activism and engagement with evicted people in the city.

The film follows the story of the Vulturilor 50 community (100 individuals), whom dwelt on the street of Bucharest from September 2014 to June 2016 in order to fight against the eviction from their home, enacting the longest and most visible protest for housing right in the history of contemporary Romania. The vicissitudes of this community are interpolated with a number of interviews with activists, scholars and politicians, composing a picture that speaks of racial discrimination, homelessness, evictions, but also of grassroots practices of resistance and social change. A început ploaia is the touching testament to the everyday revolution of Roma people fighting forced evictions from the centre of Bucharest, an endeavour made of fragile dwellings, provisional makeshifts and tenuous – but fierce – occupancy of public space.

The story behind the makings of the movie is long and complex. You can read about it here.

If you would like to know more about the movie, including release date and screenings, please proceed to www.ainceputploaia.com. You can follow my brand new production house – A Community Productions – @acommprod or check its website at www.acommunityproductions.com

Here is the trailer of A început ploaia. Share it wherever you’d like!

EURA 2016 in Turin – Committed Positioning and Urban Ethnography

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Please find below a CFP for the forthcoming EURA conference ‘City lights. ​Cities and citizens within/beyond/notwithstanding the crisis’, Turin (Italy), 16-18 June 2016 (http://www.eura2016.org/).

500-word abstracts should include title, keywords, name of the author(s), affiliation and full contact details, and should be sent to both Michele Lancione (ml710@cam.ac.uk) and Elisabetta Rosa (elisabetta.rosa@mmsh.univ-aix.fr) no later than Thursday, 26 November.

A PDF of this CfP can be downloaded here.

Committed Positioning. Politics, activism and ethnographic encounters in the contemporary city.

Michele Lancione, University of Cambridge (ml710@cam.ac.uk)
Elisabetta Rosa, Aix-Marseille University (elisabetta.rosa@mmsh.univ-aix.fr)

We enter the field and have not a clue about the people standing in front of us. We have read about them – the people and spaces we have decided to ‘study’ –, and perhaps we have met them previously, but now things have changed. Set down in the mists of the field, we are now faced with the possibility of encounter: things can go wrong; people may not understand us and we may not understand them, and ethnography may suddenly  cease to be an exciting exploration and turn into a painful and stressful endeavour. In its most basic form, positioning might be understood as the negotiation of this encounter: a fragile process characterised by unbalanced power, criss-crossed by all sorts of ethical implications. But at another, deeper level, positioning is first and foremost about questioning the meaning and relevance of that encounter. Namely: why have we decided to enter the field in the first place? Why have we done it here, with these people and spaces? Why, in other worlds, do we do ethnography and what do we aim to achieve with it?
These questions are anything but a novelty. In geography, they have been discussed for decades by scholars interested in bringing to light the responsibilities, meaning and potential associated with the ethnographic encounter (Caldeira 2009; Cloke et al. 2000; Herbert 2000). Positioning has thus been understood as matter of announcing oneself in the field (McDowell 1992); as a form of reflexivity (Cloke et al. 2000); as a matter of objectivity about the scope and limit of knowledge (Haraway 1988); as aiming to establish ‘constitutive negotiations’ (Rose 1997), and as a way to fictive distinction between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ (Butz and Besio 2009). Expanding these lines of thinking, scholars have advocated in favour of an action-oriented form of ethnography (Katz 1994), where the boundaries between activism and academia blur (Routledge 1996), and in favour of a research approach oriented towards the production of radical actions and outputs, through the use of creative methodologies as well (Eshun and Madge, 2012). Our Call for Papers sets out to explore the role of positioning in making ethnography more relevant to the people and spaces it studies. We argue that radical, engaged, meaningful ethnography does not come naturally, but arises out of what we might call a ‘committed’ form of positioning: a relational oeuvre that requires time, involvement and adaptation; that involves stress, joy and a psycho-emotional burden, but that most of all calls for a strong political ethos to fuel the action/research process (Lancione, forthcoming).
We are interested in exploring the link between positionality and urban ethnographic research/activism. We are looking for papers that freely and openly discuss the limits on and opportunities for pursuing political agendas through ethnographic work, questioning the role of positioning in doing so, and recounting (on the basis of first-hand experience as well) the personal difficulties encountered in making urban ethnography matter. We welcome in particular interdisciplinary, creative and non-academic contributions, as well as contributions from under-represented groups. Abstracts should cover one or more of the following points:

  • The intersection between positioning and urban politics
  • The intersection between positioning and activism/research
  • Theory of positionality in – and from – the urban South
  • Theory of positionality in – and from – gender studies
  • Radical urban ethnography – and radical urban ethnographers – today
  • What kind of methodology for what kind of positioning?
  • The physical, emotional and psychological burden of committed positioning
  • Case studies showing details (limits and achievements) of committed positioning

500-word abstracts should include title, keywords, name of the author(s), affiliation and full contact details, and should be sent to both Michele (ml710@cam.ac.uk) and Elisabetta (elisabetta.rosa@mmsh.univ-aix.fr) no later than Thursday, 26 November.

 

RGS-IBG 15: Ethnography and Underground Bucharest

Screenshot from 2015-09-01 09:54:55

The RGS-IBG 2015 is about to start in Exeter. It’s a long time I haven’t took part to one RGS-IBG and I am very much looking forward to it: this year program looks great.

At the conference I’ve co-organised two sessions with Tatiana Thieme and Elisabetta Rosa, called The city and the margins: Ethnographic challenges across makeshift urbanismThe sessions are about doing ethnography at the margins today, in the mist of relevant theoretical changes and methodological challenges. We have a great line-up of 8 papers, starting from 9:00 on Wednesday 02 September (Newman Building – Lecture Theatre A/Blue). The program for the two sessions can be found here and here.

Moreover, on Friday 04 September at 9:00 (Peter Chalk – Room 2.5) I’ll be presenting in Lizzie Richardson, Robert Shaw and Jonathan Silver’s session on Producing Urban Life: Fragility and Socio-Cultural Infrastructures (here is the program)My paper is entitled The infra-structure of injectable drugs in underground Bucharest. The presentation contains some provisional thoughts around my 2003 and 2014/15 research about the underground canals of Bucharest. You can read the abstract below.

The infra-structure of injectable drugs in underground Bucharest

From outdoor consumption taking place in liminal street spaces to indoor practices of injection in marginalised and neglected neighbourhoods, Bucharest presents a variegated cartography of drug-related activities. This is a map made up of subjects, objects, urban atmospheres, discourses and practices that take different forms and paths accordingly to the relative urban infrastructure involved. The paper focuses on one of the latter, namely the teleheating network (known also as ‘district heating’). The network consists of an vast web of undergrounds pipes connecting a centralised heating system to Bucharest’s flats and offices, which are consequentially warmed up by this provision of hot water. In one of the canals hosting the teleheating pipes, which passes right in front of Bucharest’s main train station, a community of drug users has established its home. There, in four connected underground chambers each measuring roughly 8 meters in length, 2 meters at the maximum height and 1.50 meters wide, the aforementioned community sleep, eat and performs the everyday practices of drug consumption. Relying on extensive ethnographic observations, photo-taking, and interviews undertaken within the premises of the canal, the paper traces and illustrates the socio-material infrastructures characterising this space. This is an assemblage of bodies, veins, syringes, substances, and various relationships of power and affect, which speaks of drug addiction and extreme marginalisation but also of sense of belonging, reciprocal trustiness, and care. The conclusions of the paper highlight the political relevance of investigating this community from its own contextual complexity in order to build a non-normative understanding around drug consumption in contemporary Bucharest.

 

CFP – The city and the margins: Ethnographic challenges across makeshift urbanism

rgs ibgI am co-organising, with Tatiana Thieme (Cambridge) and Elisabetta Rosa (Aix-Marseille), the following CFP for the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015. Please take it into consideration and feel free to forward it to your contacts. Thanks!

The city and the margins: Ethnographic challenges across makeshift urbanism

Session convenors:
Michele Lancione, University of Cambridge (ml710@cam.ac.uk)
Tatiana Thieme, University of Cambridge (tat27@cam.ac.uk)
Elisabetta Rosa, Aix-Marseille University (elisabetta.rosa@mmsh.univ-aix.fr)

In recent years urban geographical literature has paid increasing attention to the study of marginality in cities across the globe. In particular, informal settlements, urban peripheries, liminal spaces and those inhabiting these precarious urban contexts are increasingly under scrutiny, showing a growing interest amongst urban scholars in investigating life at the margins (both in the Global North and South). Recognising that macro analyses and desk-studies obscure and essentialise the messy realities on the ground and at the margins, many urban scholars aim to engage in grounded research, and in the process are faced with considerable methodological questions about how the 21st city aught to be studied, let alone the makeshift city in contexts of uncertainty and precarity. ‘The city’ and its protagonists living on the margins are being depicted in relation to everyday modes of incremental encroachments, experimentation, and assemblage urbanism, as reflected in recent developments in urban and geographical scholarship hinging on critical academic reflection, politically engaged research, and granular portraiture of the city’s interstices. This recent urban scholarship invites us to unfold contextual dynamics of the “field” in their performative, affective, and more-than-human articulations. Studying ‘the city’ and the ‘marginal wo/men’ as separate entities, from the standpoint of pre-established theorisation, is thus no longer tenable: urban geographers can only grasp the dynamics of the city and explore the urban margins from the bottom-up.

Ethnographic methods of enquiry seem to have become obligatory passage-points to documenting and analysing the city and its margins. Participant and non-participant observations, semi-structured interviews, diary-taking, and visual methods are just few of the heterogeneous approaches deployed by current urban geographers. Yet, while the literature is rich of fine-grained accounts of how to theorise the contemporary city and its margins, not enough has been said about the empirical context shaping urban ethnographic investigations. Often, locked up between ontological constructivism and epistemological realism, these methodologies are taken-for-granted, leaving out the messy but increasingly valuable vacillations concerning how to define the ‘field’, or how the urban ethnographer should announce his/her presence as a researcher, as opposed to fellow urbanite, pedestrian, or by-stander. Urban ethnographer, put simply, is rarely fully discussed in terms of its implementation, the complex ethical dilemmas concerning positionality, and it is therefore often under-theorised as a contemporary methodology for studying the difficult, invisible, ‘no-go’ and in-between zones of cities. This raises a series of questions:

What does it mean to ethnographically investigate the city today, building on the latest developments in urban and geographical thinking? Are traditional ethnographic methods enough, or do they need to be re-thought alongside theories of ‘cityness’? What does it mean to undertake such ethnographic works at the urban margins? How can one investigate marginality on the ground without diminishing the richness of theory, and how can such investigation open up new scope for theorising life at the margin?

This session will focus on the issue of ethnographic thinking and methods in relation to the investigation of life at the margins, including research related to performances, more-than-human agencies, assemblages, atmospheres and events. We are less interested in discussing the value of ethnography in itself, and instead aim to address some of the following points:

  • Theorising ethnography, the margins and the vitalist city;
  • New ethnographic methods for new urban theory;
  • Re-thinking the margins through ethnography;
  • Following and tracing the action at the margin: empirical challenges;
  • Being-in-process and being-assembled: positionality at the margins;
  • The politics of researching life at the margin today (academia, activism, political relevance);
  • Issues of comparison in multi-sited ethnographies
  • The challenge of representation in ethnographic research
  • Writing ethnography in academy papers: the space of methodological account
  • Doing ethnography at the margins: the Global North and South
  • Navigating the ‘field’ in urban ethnography, and negotiating your place within in

Abstracts of no more than 200 words should be sent to all convenors – Michele Lancione (ml710@cam.ac.uk), Tatiana Thieme (tat27@cam.ac.uk) and Elisabetta Rosa (elisabetta.rosa@mmsh.univ-aix.fr) – by Monday 9th February 2015. We will notify the authors of selected papers by Friday 13th February 2015.

Context, subject, space. Some reflections on ethnography

I have been taking part to an ethnography panel with Barbara Czarniawska at UTS, on the 12th of November. The panel was good fun, providing some interesting reflections upon ethnographic practice and thought. Here there is my presentation – just some draft, and brief, notes – which can be also downloaded at this link.

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CMOS, UTS

Ethnography panel with Barbara Czarniawska

Hi everybody and thanks Nick and CMOS for having organized this, and Barbara for being here. This is my last gig at UTS so I hope to make it right. Before starting, I just want to add a special thank to Stewart, Liisa and all my colleagues, who have tolerated me in the last two years – well done to you.

Now, ethnography. In the 5 minutes I have I would like to say something about three concepts, or words, that are really important to me, for the way I do research – CONTEXT, SUBJECT, SPACE.

I will say something about these words trying to address two of the questions proposed by Nick:

  • How do we cope with blurred boundaries between real and virtual, the mundane and the cyber, the subject and the object of research?
  •  What does this mean for how we conceive the research ‘site’, how we conduct ourselves in the field, and the kind of stories we can tell as ethnographers?

The first question is about coping – how do we cope with the real and the unreal? This question is particularly relevant to me these days. The pictures show my flat yesterday afternoon. My flat could have been a CONTEXT of research, populated by SUBJECTS that are both humans (my partner, the movers, and I) and non-humans – hundreds of books on the floor, clothes inside plastic bags, furniture, rain, daylight, and the OSS’ boxes all around the place. My flat yesterday afternoon changed, it wasn’t my flat anymore, it was a different SPACE thanks to the different alignments of things taking place in there. It was different, yet repeated (in a sense, it still was my flat), yet different and repeated again by mean of flows, movements, organization, and things that can’t be predicted at all – which you can imagine by yourself if you have ever done an international shipment. So, how do we cope? How do we COPE with the intensity of SPACE? With its richness? With its history, its changes, and with the SPACE that is not yet here but is coming?

When I do ethnography the way I cope with this is to look for DIAGRAMS – for relations that can tell me something about how things assemble, get together, and disassemble, falling apart. Diagrams are not pre-constituted. They are not given. They change accordingly to the kind of subjects and contexts that one look at. Moreover, DIAGRAMS are fluid: they can’t be hold still – one needs to be ready to change idea and to let things go, to follow them rather than holding them, to explore, rather than to examine.

My research topics are cities. But I don’t like to represent cities – to put them in categories, to divide their parts and describe them as functional elements depending upon a clear structure. Rather, cities are matters of flows, as much as my flat. One cannot represent a city – one can only non-represent it: describing the momentarily diagrams that hold things together. Cities are mess of passions, politics, agencies – the way I COPE with them is to come at peace with the fact that I will never be able to find the overall key, but only partial points of view.

The other question is about “what does this mean”, how “we conduct ourselves in the field”, and what we can “tell”. I’ll be brief. These are two pictures taken from the contexts I am going to explore pretty soon: Ferentari, the Roma neighbourhood of Bucharest in Romania, and provisional settlements of political refugees in Rome.

These SPACES – with their contextual practices and materialities and their subjects – MEAN to me only one thing: POLITICS. The reason why I want to look within them is political: I want to let them express, to give them a non-judgmental voice, and to engage with the political stakeholders that bear responsibilities upon them. The meaning then is to find the non-evident diagrams of urban marginality in order to challenge both the canonical notions of urban marginality itself, and the policies built upon those canonical framings.

CONDUCT. There are three important things I will not do: I will not pretend to be one of the people I am about to investigate, although I will be living close to them; I will try to do not substitute their voice with mine; and I will not expose people and contexts without knowing that is politically right to do so. In the field I will essentially observe, take stuff, listen, and follow. I will let the field bringing me around: that’s how I will conduct. Perhaps naively, but openly.

TELL: This is the most relevant point to me. I am moving to the UK because I want to tell relevant stories. Both in the form of academic publishing and not – narrative writing and photography are other ways I will do so. This is part of the political meaning of doing ethnographic research. And if you ask me who decides what is relevant and what is not – well, it is me who decides so. All stories are relevant – one needs to find the one relevant to her or him. I feel I belong to those spaces, the marginal ones, or – better said – I feel I have a connection to them. That’s why is relevant to research them and speak about them.

CONTEXT, SUBJECT and SPACE are the three fluids that aliment my ethnographic research. I like to conclude with the following quote from Guattari, where he is referring to the relation between the self (who could be the researcher) and the social context (which is the field we choose to research about):

“The different components conserve their heterogeneity, but are nevertheless captured by a refrain which couples them to the existential Territory of my self”

(Guattari, 1995:17)

Ethnography for me is a way to do not reduce the heterogeneity of life, and to capture bits and pieces of those refrains, those diagrams, that somehow hold things together. It is not easy, but it’s good fun. Thanks.