Reflections from the field – Brighton

”If, very broadly speaking, we think of anthropology as the discipline of explaining the behavior and thoughts of people bounded within a culture in terms that are intelligible to people outside that culture, then fieldwork is that part of the process which takes place when the anthropologist is in the field dwelling among the people she hopes to describe.” (Watson, C.W., 1999)

In September 2018, I packed my bags and moved to a different country to do Sensotra’s ethnographic fieldwork in Brighton, UK. This meant settling to a country with a culture that is foreign to me. I am still very much in the sphere of western culture and British culture has been present in my life in Finland through music, TV series and media, but even so, the British way of life, the mindset and the surroundings were still unfamiliar to me.

It is now been over four months since I moved here and I must say, it is compelling to get to know a place, a city, by listening to locals sharing their views of what this place is like and what makes Brighton the city that it is. On our sensobiographic walks, I have got to hear what Coldean and Falmer were like in the 60s, what it is like to be on a boat on a sea rescue mission under the Brighton Pier, what locals think about the thousands of tourists coming to Brighton and how it feels to walk around Preston Manor at night time (it is said to be the most haunted building in the UK). Just to name a few things our participants have been willing to share with us.

Listening to these experiences, it does not take very long to notice the things that make Brighton what it is – the things that almost everyone seems to mention and agree on, even though every participant is an individual with their own opinions and experiences. So far, we’ve done 14 walks around Brighton and I’m fairly confident to claim that the sea and the presence of the sea is a vital part of how it feels to live in urban Brighton. It is not difficult understand why that is. I have stood there at the seashore many times mesmerized by the environment. Behind you, you have the city center with buses and taxis, Churchill Square bustling with people and North Laine’s streets filled with quirky boutiques. And in front of you, the sea. A light blue vast openness, completely contrary to the city life behind you.

What a treat that we have this”, one of our participants sighed looking at the sea. A treat for all senses, I would add. The sound of the cobble stones when you walk along the beach. The smell of salt. The pastel colors on the sky when the sun is setting. A murmuration of starlings dancing and sweeping in the sky doing an art work of nature – an installation that is gone in an hour and tomorrow, finds a new form. All this can have a remarkable impact on how it feels to live here. “It kind of makes you feel very free, being able to come to the sea”, described one 15-year-old participant.

When I have stopped in the middle of organizing fieldwork, scheduling interviews and writing emails, and reflected on what I am actually experiencing as a researcher, as an anthropologist in the field, I have realized how remarkable it is to get to know a place in a way like this – through stories and memories by the locals. I am not just standing there at the beach sensing it, but also seeing it from the locals perspective, which adds more layers to the experience. Moreover, as a researcher, I definitely would not be able to grasp the richness of these stories without being there – seeing, hearing, experiencing what the locals have to say.

Having said that, working here as a foreigner has not only made me go through the basic reflections of an anthropologist on the field, but it has also made me question my position. What justifies me, a researcher from Finland, to be the one who is dwelling among the locals here in the UK? Why not a native speaker, a British PhD student who would not have had to go through the same challenges of starting fieldwork in a foreign language or to travel here by plane doing his/her bit in climate change?

I could rationalize it by gaining international experience, but for me, that is not enough reason, because research is not about gaining personal merits. It is about producing new knowledge and a local researcher would have been able to do this fieldwork as equally as I am. So far, the ponderings on my position have given me only one answer. As a foreigner, who is new to this city and to this culture, I might be able to seize things on our walks differently than locals. In a way, it is more acceptable for me to ask questions that coming from a local, might sound naïve or strange. I can ask our participants to explain to me the simplest things that for them are very mundane, but I am not that familiar with. This might result in them expressing things on our walks that might be left unsaid if they walked with a researcher who shares their culture. It is not always easy to ask these “stupid” questions, but asking them might just pay off.

It is an ongoing  process to understand one’s own position and location in relation to what happens in the field. There is a popular quote from Margaret Mead that reminds of what it requires from the researcher: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” Hopefully, my position here as a foreigner, enables me in staying more open-minded and in not taking things for granted.

On a sensobiographic walk at the seashore.

Watson, CW (ed.) 1999, Being There: Fieldwork in Anthropology, Pluto Press, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [23 January 2019].

Text, picture and video: Eeva Pärjälä

Eeva Pärjälä is a Junior Researcher in Sensotra and a PhD student at the University of Eastern Finland.