Watching, Waiting and Listening: Sociological Conversations on Norwood Ridge

By Paul Jones

Led by David Kendall (@D_S_Kendall), a photographer and researcher with a background in visual storytelling to explore urban spatialities, the general idea of the session was to move around some sites near to the city, and to focus on our audio environments where and if possible. In general, we tend to pay scant attention to the sounds of our spaces, which are of course themselves divided by social inequalities and differences of all kinds. Qualitative research addressing sound can open up knowledges of lots of important social matters. In his brief to us on the session, David encouraged us to think about, amongst other things: where’s noisy? Where’s quiet? Which sounds are where and why? And who gets to control the audio context?  

We started off from Goldsmiths’ campus, and caught – just about caught in fact – a train from New Cross. The very act of being briefed on the overground train about the aims of the session created a bit of camaraderie for us conference delegates. I think we must have totally looked like a group of academics, with all that that implies, and quite possibly as if David was our teacher and we were on a school trip. In fact, one passenger on the train asked me what we were all doing, and when I told her we were at a conference called Thinking on the Move, she asked ‘at Goldsmiths is it?’. That made me laugh (we had got on at New Cross, but still…).

As I really don’t know the geography of London very well, I was surprised at how quickly we ended up in pretty open green space. When we left the train at Crystal Palace, and walked to our first impromptu stop, it was hard to avoid the contrast with the highly dense urban area we’d just left. We walked to the site of the – reconstructed – Crystal Palace, which by all accounts was an amazing site (of colonial state power, as I have said elsewhere).

Where we ended up had that kind of windy, elevated feel; I could just about hear some of the sounds of the city – the road traffic mainly – and the occasional plane overhead. Actually, it’s probably wrong to emphasize the traffic noise, as there was a fair bit of ambient sound going on all around us, with the wind in the nearby trees, and buzzing around pylons, remenants of the building, and other material elements. In fact, looking at the photos from our visit, I am left with the memory of a feeling more than a sound actually; it felt really windy up there, even though it was a reasonably still day.

A lot of sociological thinking and talking happened when we were on our way across the site of the Crystal Palace, through surrounding streets, and a pretty densely wooded area nearby. Usually unprompted by David, we stopped all together in spots someone found interesting for some reason or other. Often these spots were in front of things – something slightly incongruous or something a bit breachy. As we moved around  the ruins of The Crystal Palace. A sign. A disused electricity point. A really expensive-looking modernist house in a posh neighbourhood. A post box embedded in a wall.  

In the briefing, and throughout the session, David had opened up the possibility of not talking; this is possibly difficult for academics in general, and it was particularly so for me. As much as stopping at visually-arresting sites and objects, we also mustered  if there was something in the audio environment that prompted someone’s discussion and reflection. Again, some elements seemed to invite discussion: the sound of a ‘non-native, invasive’ flock of parakeets, a very loud – but quite slow – motorbike, dance music coming from someone’s bedroom.

Occasionally, typically less tangible, structural things – consolidations of wealth and power – could be heard (or not heard somehow). For example, the really exclusive streets we walked through were quiet; well, if not completely quiet, at least devoid of certain noises/traces of particular types of activities.

Different ways of seeing and thinking and listening and moving through space were happening here too. The ‘thinking aloud’ atmosphere of the session was really a great thing, and felt like an affordance of moving around together. Still, as Morag Rose said in her superb keynote, ‘walking to wasteground is not necessarily a revolutionary act’.

This excellent event really made me think. Is walking a sociological practice per se, or is what we were doing more akin to a group of sociologists walking around, talking sociology? If the latter – as I guess is what I think – then as we take our sociological imaginations with us when we move around the place, we are making sociology. Certainly, being mobile beyond the site of the lecture room affords us the opportunity to talk and think in a way that is less encumbered by the sets of arrangements that are usually so taken for granted at conferences.

Paul Jones is a sociologist at University of Liverpool, and is Digital Editor of The Sociological Review. He tweets from @jones01_P

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