Ethnographic practice itself requires crossing thresholds. Leaving one’s own world behind and entering that of another, even within the same city. The fieldnote excerpt below comes from a first visit to one of the London families. I met the family through a community centre I had previously worked with and Corine, Ella and Marcus’s mother, was very keen for the children to be part of the study. A single mother, with a chronic health condition, Corine grew up in the Caribbean and has lived in London for over 15 years. Ella and Marcus were six when joining the study.
I’m sharing my fieldnotes encouraged by the responses of participants at our ‘Making Connections’ workshops held in London in November 2017 and March 2018. Participants told me that it was rare to see someone else’s fieldnotes, and useful, and found the fieldnotes to be brutally honest. It was a difficult piece of writing for someone who prides herself on being open minded, sensitive to issues of race, ethnicity and class and someone who regularly confronts and challenges social injustice, and who has lived in London long enough to be very aware of the multiple stereotypes that serve to ‘Other’ fellow Londoners.
But I’ve also learnt that I’m not as immune to such stereotypes as I would like to think I am, and that the strangest things might unwittingly trigger irrational responses. I partly locate my reaction in the institutional context in which I was working at the time: a university Department of Social Work, a predominantly white and middle-class environment, as might be said of the profession as a whole, and as am I, and a profession increasingly, and to the chagrin of many in it, almost exclusively preoccupied with the social management of risk. It’s hard to be immune to such social anxieties of social risk management. Of course, the reaction is entirely mine.
Overtime, I have also come to view this experience in more ethnographic terms, as emblematic of the boundary work, the crossing of thresholds, that characterises ethnographic research epistemologically. It is a visceral representation of that crossing, and an illustration of what ethnography does best: to enter into and make sense of what, from the outside, appears absurd and at times, perhaps, threatening. It is also a testament to the sort of knowledge that ethnography can produce with its prolonged engagement and longue durée temporalities. The sarongs draped on the windows, that were the cause of my momentary undoing, were there because the family had newly moved in and had not yet got around to putting up curtains meaning that the south facing room, which was also at a busy street level and that Corine occupied for most of the day, was awash with sunlight and with little privacy. The sarongs were a makeshift solution until a more permanent one could be implemented, which it eventually was.
I arrived at the local station at 12.45 and set off to find the Clarke’s flat which according to Google maps was a short walk from the station. I don’t know this area at all. It has what I’ve come to associate as a south west London feel to – affluent in parts, deprived in others and with people who I associate as having lived or wanted to live in Fulham or South Kensington […] The Wikipedia entry describes the area as ‘low key’ and ‘Nappy Valley’ because it’s cheaper than more established neighbouring areas (Clapham, Balham and Battersea) and is attracting young families. It also describes the area as a former ‘working class suburb’ of Wandsworth and so homes are medium sized terraced housing.
I got a little disorientated coming out of the station and it took me a minute to get myself walking in the right direction, after that I found the place easily.
The Clarkes live in what is clearly, from its appearance, a council run block. It’s a low storey (maybe three floors but not more) grey brick building with an entry phone and a communal lobby and stairs going up to the rest of the floors. It has a bit of a 1970s architectural feel to it, with the glass fronted entrance area and the mix of wood and brick. It is nice as a far as council flats in the area go, I’m thinking here of some of the high-rises on the train ride down from Waterloo that look like unloved shipping containers. But it is also quite out of character with the rest of the terraced housing I’ve just walked past.
As I approach the building, seeing the number and knowing that this is the right place, I notice one flat on the ground floor its windows covered with draped sarongs and other material. From the outside it looks really shabby, and to my shame, makes me imagine a drug den, a squat, a real squalor within the flat. I catch myself thinking, wonder if this is the Clarke’s place and hoping it’s not. I ring the doorbell and as I’m buzzed in and see the letter on the door, realise that this is the Clarke flat. I take a breath and knock on the door wondering what the flat is going to look like on the inside and if this is going to be my one research visit where I will need to quickly resettle all my prejudices and judgements, leave them at the door and put on my best poker face and then leave crying disgusted with both what I’ve seen and with myself.
This is all completely irrational of me as there is nothing from the discussions I’ve had with Corine on the telephone that provides me with even the slightest evidence that this might even remotely be the case. But there is something about the sarong draped windows that is very evocative for me, perhaps of social abjection (Tyler 2013). The door is opened for me and as I cross the threshold I’m abruptly yanked out of this ‘disgusted’ reverie. The flat I walk into is unremarkable and quite ordinary, and very clean. I’m relieved that there’s ‘nothing to see here’ and bowled over by the dynamics of social abjection I’ve just been caught up in quite unexpectedly and quite powerfully.
The door seems to have opened as if automatically. I’m expecting either Marcus or Ella hiding behind the door and peer behind it to find no one. The TV is on in the living room, children’s programming. Marcus and Ella are sitting on the couch watching. I don’t get a chance to say hello as Corine’s voice greets me from her bedroom ‘Melissa, I’m here’ she says gently.