Witnessing Loss Together

By Katherine Robinson and Ruth Sheldon

Our article, ‘Witnessing Loss in the Everyday: Community Buildings in Austerity Britain’, an ethnographic account of the closure of a public library and a Jewish community centre, was recently published in The Sociological Review. For this blog post we have been thinking over the experience of writing our article together and start by describing a couple of moments that seem somehow significant.

Sitting at the round table in Ruth’s office I (Katherine) choked up as I tried to articulate a reply to her question about what libraries meant to me. We had both been really struggling with the concept of value and were trying to move beyond understandings which seemed too abstract and, in a way, meaningless. Ruth’s gentle but insistent question helped me to reconnect with my childhood experiences of using my local public library. Remembering this connection felt like an opening, both to these memories and also to the sense of openness that the memory invoked, which felt almost overwhelming in relation to a constrained and austere present.  Ruth’s question moved me away from describing the value of libraries in abstract, ‘sociological’ words, and I began to talk about my childhood experience of the library as a space of infinite possibility, and in this way, to connect with more experiential understandings of value.   

During another writing session, this time in Katherine’s office, Ruth remembers getting stuck. I (Ruth) felt myself pushing the language of ‘care’ onto the Brenner Centre, somehow wanting to make it fit into the argument that Bev Skeggs makes in her important article, ‘Values beyond Value’. My impulse to reach for this language of care was linked to wanting to idealise the everyday life of the Brenner Centre, and in this way, show its value. Yet I felt stuck because I somehow knew that this covered over my experiences as an ethnographer there: my sense, for example, of frustration with the banal atmosphere, which had stirred up uncomfortable feelings that seemed connected to my personal history of being excluded from this Anglo-Jewish culture.

In this blog post, we wanted to take the opportunity to ask a question: what motivated us to collaborate? Why did we (as ethnographers working on two different projects) end up writing an article together? And so, to begin to think about a potential role of this kind of collaborative writing for sociologists and ethnographers working on similar projects. These two behind-the-scenes moments feel important starting points in helping to explore how our article emerged through our collaboration. 

Recently we read Emma Jackson and Michaela Benson’s Sociological Review blog post on co-authorship. It struck such a chord of recognition with us. In this post we also reflect on how co-writing can help us as ethnographers, working with a method and within an academic culture that is highly individualising.  As Emma has discussed in another piece, in this context, collaboration is political, a ‘quiet form of rebellion’. One way we might develop Emma and Michaela’s account is to turn their discussion of a two-way relationship (the relationality of the researchers) formed around the practical processes of writing together, into an exploration of the triangular relationship between research, writing practices, and the ‘object’ of the research.

Taking this further: how did our collaboration work emotionally?  And how was this emotional work connected with the specific focus of our projects – the losses experienced by local communities in the context of austerity? Why did we struggle to work with loss?  What might it be to think of collaboration as ethical, in the sense of pushing us into pursuing the truth of our experience as ethnographers?

Researching amidst loss

Our collaboration on our article has been intuitive, and in some ways, came about through a chance conversation. We first started to talk about the parallels between our two field sites, a Jewish community centre, and a public library, over a lunch time conversation in late March 2017.  As we talked, we started to feel that, although very different buildings, used for different purposes, and in different parts of London, our two ethnographic contexts shared something significant: the loss of a community. In relating to this loss, we each carried our own losses into our fieldwork.  Our shared sense of loss, and the intensity of the feelings accompanying it became the point across which we could write together. 

In Death and the Migrant, Yasmin Gunaratnam describes how she initiated supervisions and conversations with people independent from her research, as a way of responding to the emotional demands she faced in working with dying and loss.  Her insights resonate for us as we think about the place of our collaboration in our respective work on loss. Yasmin makes the point that meaningful reflexivity, of the kind that engages with the researchers’ emotional limits and unconscious blind-spots, depends on conversations, forms of talking through which we can question ‘readymade meanings’ (2013: 156).

Those two moments in our offices seemed to highlight how we were both carrying losses into the fieldwork; Katherine’s childhood experience of the library as a kind of safe freedom and Ruth’s understanding of the Jewish community as a location of belonging. These losses motivated us but at the same time, made it difficult for us to attend to the more ambiguous or ambivalent reality of our fieldsites, which (as is often the case when struggling with loss) we wanted to idealise in some way (Leader 2008).

Conversations and truthfulness

In her beautiful essay, ‘Adjacent Thinking’ (written as a dialogue with a younger generation of anthropologists), Veena Das points towards a really important aspect of our own academic collaboration. She writes,

‘Dwelling together means that when someone who is within one’s conversational milieu takes the same concept or revisits a description, he or she awakens a different aspect of what was known. The movement I want to posit is not that of being able to name something that was implicit and available in practice but not conceptually articulated – but rather, that of taking a thought further by filling it up or making it blossom even in the articulation of difference or disagreement’

(2015: 378)

Talking together over and over again about our experiences, and revising descriptions as we wrote together, we each developed new perspectives on our ethnographic work, and deepened our understanding of our own relationships to, and our investments in our research projects. Our conversations somehow enabled what Das describes as the anthropologist’s ‘work on herself’, a form of meaningful reflexivity which is not about naming the researcher’s position, but about doing the difficult work of exploring who we are in relation to our research – the histories that we carry, which may simultaneously draw us in to a particular project, yet also block us from attending to difficult truths. 

Repeatedly talking over our ideas to each other helped us to be aware of when we were being ‘truthful’ or not, for instance, when we were reaching for a concept to work with, trying to make it fit, but realising as we talked that it wasn’t the right one.  We could also encourage each other to reveal what was emotionally significant, allowing each other to feel upset or angry.  These moments do not obviously appear in the article but, looking back now on this process of talking and listening together, of making a dialogic space in which we thought carefully and deeply, seems to have been essential to our working together.

Endings

When we met up in early November to discuss this post, we both talked about how we felt ambivalence in relation to our ethnographic ‘endings’, feelings perhaps heightened by our awareness that our article is now ‘out there’. Over coffee we admitted our ‘failings’ to each other; Ruth had not kept in touch with people from the Brenner Centre in their new location, and Katherine, having circulated her article among the library campaigners, felt slightly awkward at how this had re-positioned her as ‘the sociologist’ in the group. The afterlives of ethnographic and academic work are not included in the writing; they can’t be. But the places and relationships we are writing about don’t end neatly with the publication of our article (as much as we might want to pretend that they do, so we can chalk it all up as an ‘output’). How can we respond to this ethically?  How truthful are we about our roles as researchers, in spite of claims to be making a difference – what difference do we ‘actually’ make? We suggest that our collaboration enables us to hold that ambiguity in an ongoing way, and to continue to acknowledge it, for instance, in this blog post.  And as researchers working in a political climate which instrumentalises value, perhaps keeping open a dialogue with these difficult questions is a necessary gesture?

Katherine Robinson is a Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths.  Her ethnographic research explores urban public space and everyday life in organisations, and she has a particular interest in public libraries as spaces of everyday forms of participation.

Ruth Sheldon is a Research Fellow at Birkbeck. She is an ethnographer whose recent research projects have explored ethical, political and theological encounters within contemporary universities and between neighbours in Hackney, London.

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