By Alexandra Crosby and Ilaria Vanni
How can place-based methodologies be integrated into transdisciplinary research?
Locating research in a real physical place is vital in building culture and making important insights more visible to diverse audiences. But for many researchers and community members, place is more than location. People have important attachments to place that change and influence the outcomes of transdisciplinary research, which is one reason to integrate some place-based methodologies into your projects. Our research studio ‘Mapping Edges’, for example, employs place-based methodologies to identify, analyse and amplify civic ecologies and to propose more sustainable ways to design and live in cities.
Place-based research engages with multiple methodological debates, reflecting humanities and social sciences’ increasing interest in space and place. Because of these debates there are multiple definitions of place and multiple ways to study place.
What is Place?
Place can have different meanings for different disciplines and cultures. The late feminist geographer Doreen Massey wrote about ‘a global sense of place’ meaning that place is not simply made by the local, bounded and static geographical aspects, histories, material cultures, but also by the flow of people, things, and ideas coming from other parts of the world, and by multiple relations among these elements. Massey explains that these flows, and access to them, are determined by power relations and are unevenly distributed. For instance, the type of mobility that an international student may enjoy in our city of Sydney is radically different from the enforced mobility experienced by a refugee.
Massey gives us a number of helpful concepts to make sense of the complexity of place. Trajectories are the ongoing processes of change that create place, and thrown-togetherness is the way different elements, social, cultural, material, human, non-human, come together and define a here and now. Place for Massey is the ‘coexistence of multiple stories-so-far’ (Massey 2005, p. 12).
To create your own example, try thinking about your own transdisciplinary project, lab or studio as a place – Which elements define it now? Where do they come from? What are their stories and trajectories? Will it be the same in one month, two months, one year, ten years? Think about the relations you have established every day with others through your research and how these relations shape the place where you work.
One of the ways to understand and study how place is constituted in a particular location is through ethnography, a range of qualitative methods characterised by periods of research ‘in the field’ (in a location or community). These methods can include interviews, participant observation, walking, documenting, mapping, and various types of analysis.
Our current research project, The Green Square Atlas of Civic Ecologies (Mapping Edges, 2021), takes place at the location of one of the largest urban renewal projects in Australian history. This place is also unceded Aboriginal land, shared D’harawal and Gadigal Country, and it is also a place rich in civic ecologies. Our work engages ethnographic methods to amplify stewardship practices that are obscured by urban renewal. Place is an important lens to be able to see into Green Square through the top down Placemaking (capital P) that comes with the creation of a new urban precinct.
Including critical concepts of place and integrating place-based methodologies into the design of projects can improve research on complex societal and environmental problems by ensuring that proposed solutions are fit for the intended context.
Considering place in your research: Practical tips
- In Australia, place always relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Country. When working in a colonized place, find out whose Country you are on before beginning any place-based research, and familiarise yourself with principles of working on Country, as laid out by Jan Chapman and colleagues in their blog post Good practice in community-based participatory processes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research.
- Wherever you are, consider which people have lived on the land you are now on. Who did this land belong to? Who cared for it? Who made it a place?
- Employ a place-based researcher in your team. This could be a geographer, a design researcher, an architect, an anthropologist, or someone from another discipline with training in place-based methodologies.
- Do your preliminary research using archival and other forms of published materials, including for instance available videos, newspaper and magazine articles, local histories and local media to formulate your questions and to understand the place you are working in.
- What maps are available to you of this place? What can these map teach you, aside from helping you find a destination? What do they make visible and amplify? What do they obscure and erase?
- What are the current relationships of people to this place? How are these relationships connected to histories and futures of this place?
- What terms do people use to describe this place: site, field, home, habitat, a neighbourhood, a landscape (as described by Brunckhorst and colleagues in their blog post The integrative role of landscape)? What is the significance of these words?
- Can the place provide somewhere to meet and experiment, as occurs for real-world labs described by Niko Schäpke and colleagues in their blog post Eleven success factors for transdisciplinary real-world labs?
- What/who are the non-human actors in this place (water, soil, other species, weather, etc)?
- Be mindful of what is around you. Pay attention to smells, or flavours, or sounds and so on. Give yourself plenty of time, place-based methodologies can slow things down.
What role does place play in your research? Do you have other practical tips to share for considering place in research?
To find out more:
Mapping Edges. (n.d). Place-based Methodologies: Overview. (Online): https://www.mappingedges.org/place-based-methodologies-overview/
Mapping Edges. (2021). The Green Square Atlas of Civic Ecology (2021). (Online): . https://www.mappingedges.org/projects/the-green-square-atlas-of-civic-ecologies/
Vanni, I. and Crosby, A. (2020). Recombinant ecologies in the city. Visual Communication, 19, 3: 323-330.
Vanni Accarigi, I. and Crosby, A. (2019). Remapping heritage and the garden suburb: Haberfield’s civic ecologies. Australian Geographer, 50, 4: 511-530.
Massey, D. (2005). For Space. Sage: London, United Kingdom.
Biography: Alexandra Crosby PhD is a design researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on emerging forms of environmentalism and the role of creative practices in local forms of activism.
Biography: Ilaria Vanni PhD is a writer, researcher and educator and an Associate Professor in International Studies and Global Societies at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Her work combines feminist, creative and place-based methods and theories from social sciences, humanities and design studies, to research the social, political and cultural dimensions of design and material culture.