Fieldwork, Theory and Layers in the Black Country

Sophie Wootton

After spending many hours in Dudley, learning about the local area’s pivotal role in the industrial revolution, getting to know more about Black Country heritage and customs and spending hours sitting in and wandering through public spaces, I began to develop a sense of the town imbued with layers that go beyond its geological foundations. From this has emerged a conceptual framework I have provisionally entitled, ‘Social Geology,’ a layering of space and place that has developed out of the fieldwork itself. Dudley is a town defined by layers. Situated just over 10 miles to the north-west of Birmingham in the West Midlands, it’s an area of international geological importance and a major site of the industrial revolution. The very ground on which the town is sited rises up through layer on layer of ash, clay and limestone. This geological structure offers a springboard into a way of understanding the town and the wider implications this may have for interrogating class in lesser urban spaces and places. As part of my ethnographic study engaging with social class in space and place, I have developed a conceptual framework that has grown out of these physical layers, coming directly from the landscape of the town and the fieldwork I have undertaken there.

I think about Social Geology as a way to see how places seem to have a character, atmosphere, material structure and historical identity of their own. In a reimagining of the geological layers that underpin Dudley itself, I have constructed a layered framework that includes the physical, social, sensory and psychic aspects of space and place. My aim in developing a conceptual framework that is linked to the physical foundations of the place of study is to demonstrate the sociological potential to be found in the physical landscape of the field itself. Through such a view, the field not only provides a richness of empirical data but the inspiration for potentially new and unexpected ways of integrating conceptual study with physical space. By extending the metaphor of ‘layers’ found in Dudley’s geological and industrial legacies, I am creating a conceptual framework that allows for the analysis of contemporary empirical data across the past and present. Foregrounding the geological and industrial importance of Dudley opens up connections to contemporary themes such as deindustrialisation, the changing nature of work and the heritage industry, and points to the lived experience of the people that these changes affect. Layering demonstrates how place-based identity is formed from a mutli-layered structure that exists across time and space. To develop a theory of layers, I have utilised the ideas of Manuel DeLanda and Ben Anderson. DeLanda’s ‘assemblages’ offer a way of understanding how a mutli-layered framework can meet the challenge of finding a way to engage with both micro and macro level concerns, arguing that, “unlike organic totalities, the parts of an assemblage do not form a seamless whole” (DeLanda, 2006, 4). Anderson’s ‘atmospheres’ offer another point of conceptual inspiration. Anderson suggests that as there are a multiplicity of ways of conceptualising atmospheres we should, “learn to offer concepts that are equal to the ambiguity of affective and emotive life” (2009, 78). This ambiguity is useful for developing a theory of layers that is attentive to lived experience as individual realities and is engaged reflexively with the idea of the researcher’s gaze in interpretation, central to any ethnographic study.

When faced with a rich catalogue of empirical data derived from ethnographic fieldwork, the options for analysis often seem endless and daunting. I believe Social Geology can meet three central challenges. Firstly, layers centre the spatial elements of a place-based study.Layering allows for themes to be explored ‘spatially,’ with physical, social, sensory and psychic connections drawn across and between spaces. Layers allow for a thorough exploration and interrogation of any particular space whilst also allowing for the foregrounding of themes such as class. The ‘deep’ nature of layers encompassing the physical, social, sensory and psychic makes possible an analysis of class that does not stray away from the spatial context of the study and the lived reality of class as a sited phenomenon.

A second challenge that can be met by Social Geology is how to engage with the minutiae of life that arises from detailed ethnographic research, whilst drawing outwards to broader theoretical, political and intellectual concerns. Imogen Tyler has argued that in much ethnographic work there is often an, “absence of any sustained attempt to link the personal troubles of the people it studies to broader structures of government” (Tyler, 2020, 238). Tyler puts eloquently and succinctly a problem that haunts much ethnographic work in the social sciences; how to make work relevant beyond the bounds of the project itself? Social Geology is one way of contending with this dilemma, as it offers both breadth and depth in its engagement with ethnographic data. For example, in an analysis of a specific geographical location, such as a market square, a theory of layers compels the researcher to delve into the various physical, social, sensory and psychic elements that make up this one space, each of these layers pointing outwards to deeper understandings that instigate further investigation. A layered approach encourages the researcher to look beyond the spatiality-bound interactions and iterations of the field as an ethnographic site, forging both deeper into and further out of the empirical observations recorded in fieldnotes.

Lastly, a layered approach to data analysis streamlines and organises otherwise excessive and messy ethnography. In projects that aim to combine deep ethnographic data with theoretical arguments about the ways in which broader political, social and intellectual narratives act in conversation with this data, engagement with a wide range of theory is a necessity. However, alongside this necessity runs the possibility of producing a messy and incoherent project that attempts to do too much and fails to successfully engage with either micro or macro concerns. Social Geology enables a coherent organisation of this overload of theory, channelling it into conceptual streams that allow the researcher to develop broad arguments that are simultaneously theoretically-engaged and derived from empirical data, whilst keeping faithful to the nature of the project as spatially-grounded.

Sitting in Dudley’s Market Place one summer afternoon, I listened to the call of the greengrocer, “English strawberries pound a box” and watched a little girl pass his stall, the temptation to reach out and touch the fruit proving too much. I sat at the feet of a local legend, the footballer Duncan Edwards. His statue appeared to act as an informal meeting place, with people stopping to talk, rest and watch the world go by. Directly in front of me, two Jehovah’s Witnesses stood with their stall, their small stand of flyers contrasting with the uniform blue and yellow stripes of the market awnings. I ate my lunch, a pastry from one of the several bakeries around the square and thought about how each aspect of this moment built upon the others. Layer upon layer, of noise, taste, paving, benches, streetlights, awnings, shops, people, histories, memories and legacies build to create the whole. Social Geology is a holistic approach to these moments in the field, revealing each layer without privilege to create complex and revelatory studies of place and space that create new conceptual frameworks derived from the empirical realities of the field.

Sophie Wootton is a PhD researcher in Sociology at University of Warwick.

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