James Simpson, University of Leeds
At the beginning of February Suzanne Hall visited Leeds to talk about her ethnographic work in English cities. Suzanne works in the Department of Sociology at the LSE in London, has a former career as an architect, and was introduced to us as a critical urban geographer. She talked to us about two related projects:
- Ordinary Streets – https://lsecities.net/objects/research-projects/ordinary-streets
- Super-diverse Streets – https://lsecities.net/objects/research-projects/super-diverse-streets
Central to both projects is a particular understanding of the superdiverse city. Commentators on the sociolinguistics of mobility are currently rather exercised over the validity and value of ‘superdiversity’ as a theoretical lens, and it is instructive to see how those in related fields – for example critical urban geography – understand the concept. Suzanne’s hugely well-informed seminar also afforded us the opportunity to consider how linguistic ethnography might enrich an ethnographically-oriented geographer’s understandings of the streets studied.
Suzanne has worked in the field of urban superdiversity for a number of years, but is nonetheless cautious about the term; in particular she is sensitive to the charge that ‘superdiversity’ romanticises diversity. For her, superdiversity has four dimensions:
- mobility and broader diversification;
- the intersection of regulation and incorporation;
- a recovery of locality;
- migration as a process of city-making: not simply something that happens to people, but concomitant with a reconfiguration of the city.
She describes her research approach as trans-ethnography (see also Hall 2015), asking both what ethnography can offer the study of urban superdiversity, but also ‘what forms of knowledge evade the ethnographic lens’. Drawing in particular upon the work of Glick Schiller and Çağlar (2009) she argues for reclaiming place and locality in migration studies, a stance that presents a challenge to the idea that allegiances and identities are formed outside of place. A focus on locality, on the grounded nature of practice, and of socio-spatial texture, addresses the methodological question of how a contemporary ethnography might (as she put it in her 2015 paper) ‘attend to the disconnect between the lived realities and official (mis)recognitions of the intense and evermore-varied differentiations of human association and stratification within a global city’ (2015: 24). Her approach also offers historic depth, enabling the incorporation of temporalities and long histories into the analysis.
The Ordinary Streets project focuses on Rye Lane in Peckham, London, while the Super-diverse Streets project examines Rookery Road (Birmingham); Stapleton Road (Bristol); Narborough Road (Leicester); and Cheetham Hill (Manchester). All the work shares an understanding of the city as having three intersecting urban dimensions: the symbolic city (e.g. London); the collective city (e.g. Rye Lane); and the intimate city: the actual shop interiors. A focus on the scale of the symbolic city enables questions about the structural context such as ‘Why is it that certain migrant groups come to live or work in certain parts of the city? (Hall 2015: 25), revealing also that the most ethnically diverse areas correlate strongly with social deprivation. Such understandings are complemented, in her work, with ideas of flow, interlocality (spatial webs of allegiances) and exchange (of economies and ideas). These perspectives can be gained through the examination of the collective city (at ‘street’ level) and the intimate city (at the scale of the individual shop or business).
The fine-grained street level study of the collective city in the Rye Lane project uncovered over 20 countries of origin amongst the proprietors of the 105 independent retail businesses in the street. It also revealed that the shopkeepers and entrepreneurs of Rye Lane contribute to vital albeit erratic economies, ones whose value remains largely invisible to the council planners charged with Rye Lane’s redevelopment. They thus find themselves forced to organise against a very familiar gentrification process. Migrants typically are important in the regeneration of an area, but unless they collectively organise they are pushed out when the land values rise and replanning ensues. Such organisation, such prima facie unpredictable strategic alliance, involves communication across cultures. But how precisely do people deploy their linguistic and semiotic repertoires as they collectively organise? To what end, and to whose benefit? Do they ‘voice to power’ successfully enough – are their voices audible enough – to enable them to hold on to their livelihoods? In the seminar we discussed how the transaction economies in the street favour those with competence in the bureaucratic language, those who know how to engage with the bureaucratic street, and how to navigate the regulatory regimes which are in play. This is very evident also in our own study of translingual practice in superdiverse Leeds. In the Business phase of the TLang project in Leeds we identified instances of interdiscursive translanguaging (Baynham et al 2015), translanguaging across discourses which occurs when there is an unfamiliar discourse that needs to be negotiated. This might be, for example, the discourse of the planning process. If you are not ‘inside the discourse’ of city planning you will find it incomprehensible. So interdiscursive translanguaging can be understood as mediating or interpreting a discourse to someone who is outside it.
The allegiances that spring up in superdiverse city spaces entail new kinds of citizenship and city-making, ones based on exchange, and on pragmatic partnerships with those who do not appear to be natural allies. Suzanne talks of a twenty-first century citizenship capacity, whereby there is a fundamental necessity to converse across lines of difference, across goods and ideas. The sociolinguistic study of translanguaging as superdiverse practice has something to offer here as well, enabling deeper insights into the nature of communication in contact zones such as the retail spaces of Rye Lane. The study of the actual language and other semiotic practices in which people engage can give us a closer, more textured and nuanced understanding of how people speak and communicate across cultures.
The Ordinary Streets project film can be viewed here:
What is happening in Rye Lane is also happening in Leeds, a global city which, like London, is a ‘space actively remade by global processes of migration’. Suzanne was the guest of the group of University of Leeds academics working on the initial stages of a project called Leeds Voices. Their work will be based in Leeds City Markets, an area of city centre Leeds which, like Rye Lane, is populated by small independent retailers from a wide variety of backgrounds engaging in shared urban practices. And like Rye Lane, it is subject to regeneration and gentrification, visible not least in the building of a huge John Lewis store right next door. The threat to the small market-stall holders in Leeds is obvious. The work of Suzanne and colleagues adds considerably to our understanding both of this threat and of what new alliances they might have to build to resist it.
Baynham, M., Bradley, J., Callaghan, J., Hanusova, J. and Simpson, J. (2015). Language, Business and Superdiversity in Leeds. Working Papers in Translanguaging and Translation (WP. 4). (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tlang/index.aspx)
Glick Schiller, N. and Çağlar, A. (2009). Towards a comparative theory of locality in migration studies: Migrant incorporation and city scale. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35/2, 177-202.
Hall, S. (2015). Super-diverse street: A ‘trans-ethnography’ across migrant localities. Ethnic and Racial Studies 38/1, 22-37.