In this study we are taking an ethnographic approach and using an array of methodological tactics to access children’s everyday lives and social worlds in order to ask questions about when and how personal and social ethics emerge in childhood which in turn may or may not lead to a child, or children, reaching out to broader circuits of social action. This is leading us to explore childhood and public life in each of our study cities, as one way of approaching the topic, and our method for doing this is geographical mapping of public spaces -near and far- that hold meaning for the children we will work with.
None of us have used mapping techniques before and, while a very attractive and relevant idea on paper, we thought it prudent to try out mapping in practice.
For me personally maps have always been a source of fascination. I can pour over a map or Atlas for hours transfixed by the endless possibilities for mind wandering that such pieces of paper afford. Spaces for imaginative walkabouts, for unlimited speculation of what this or that terrain might hold.
There is a plethora of maps and visualisations about many aspects of London life thanks to projects such as Mapping London and seminar series like Living Maps. It was in using these resources (or more like getting lost in them), to prepare for our first advisory group meeting last month that I experienced the uncanniness of knowing and not knowing the city that has become my home over the last 14 years. Sucked in by the many different representations of London I found online (maps of surnames, of amenities, of life expectancy, of child poverty, maps by profession, by second language spoken, by mode of commuting, the list goes on) made me wonder what city I thought I had been living in all these years?
It is true, of course, that maps are not territories and so the connections made between the two, of which there are as many as there are people, are as exciting as they are illuminating.
These connections between maps and territories were surfaced during my methods recce when two 10-year-olds I know took me around their neighbourhood. I live 10 minutes away. I frequent their area often and, prior to the recce, I would have pronounced with some confidence to know it well. Turns out I know nothing. Or more precisely what I knew was a series of routes: from my place to the supermarket, to the local swimming pool, to the children’s centre, to my son’s childminder’s flat, and to the cultural centre, all amenities I access as a local resident. My two 10-year-old tour guides put me in my place and reminded me of the limits of my knowledge and experience, a good thing to be reminded of especially as a researcher.
In The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau likens stories to the public transport system from the Greek ‘metaphora’, stories cross, organise, select and connect places. In less than 30 minutes, through a series of anecdotes and snippets of stories the routes I thought I knew so well, came to life inhabited with very different experiences.
I heard about favourite and safe play areas and about a riotous (in the ‘very exciting, fun and full of energy’ meaning of the word) game of daytime zombies (a sort of tag game) that resulted in neighbours calling the police, the police arriving only to find a bunch of 10-year-olds playing zombies. I heard about the man who loitered around while the children played, and about the recent decision to no longer allow the boys to have their names on their football shirts. We walked into estates, and their playgrounds, I had walked by a million times and never realised were there. I heard about how when, the hugely anticipated, good summer weather finally makes an appearance, children in the area loose the grass, their football pitch, to sun worshiping adults. Some of these experiences were not as clearly articulated as I have described above; there was a lot of ellipsis, some filled in later by the boys’ mothers, and some still left as ‘…’
When we got home the boys drew a map of the places we had just visited. It was an impressionist map; you wouldn’t be able to find your way to the supermarket but you would know exactly where was a good spot to play football locally.
I find the elliptical nature of these children’s stories and the impressionist nature of their map engaging and powerful: I want to know more and what I did get to know certainly disrupted and rearranged my perception and experience of a known-unknown space.
The method also made me think about what childhood publics might look like. Located as we are in an interdisciplinary space of childhood and youth studies makes me conscious of the moral landscapes of childhood and the micro-references to anti-social behaviour policies on the one hand and child protection policies on the other in these two children’s experiences. We are very much interested in understand ‘participation in childhood’ as it cuts across biography and history, the private and the public, and the insights that emerged from this first tentative foray into the field make me look forward to fieldwork and analysis laying ahead, as well as getting to know London anew, through fresh eyes.