Troubling ‘bad scripts’: The Potential of Walking Methodologies and In-Situ Research in Northern Ireland

By Joseph S. Robinson and Andrew G. McClelland

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with an on-going, productive debate regarding the utility of interviews and oral histories for researching and writing the ‘Troubles.’ This debate evolved out of an exchange between Thomas Leahy and Martin McCleery. Patrick Finnegan’s response seems to us to be persuasive: the problem is not interviews per se, but how, and who, we interview. However, we suggest that the more fertile argument lurking just underneath this debate is not the role of any single method of writing the ‘Troubles’. Instead, we wish to interrogate the frustration McCleery reveals when he describes hearing the “same stories” reproduced over and over in interviews and ‘Troubles’-research more generally. He is hardly the only one to express such frustration in the pages of this blog.

Perhaps we can help put a name to these frustrations by employing the work of the feminist anthropologist Diana Taylor. [1] In her study of public performance after the fall of Argentina’s dictatorship, Taylor argues that women and artists challenging the legacy of violence found themselves ‘trapped in bad scripts’; ‘a coercive system of representation’ in which it was only possible to mobilise within narrow, masculinised national narratives. We argue here that McCleery’s frustration with interview-based research may be a desire to engineer means of breaking out of bad scripts in ‘Troubles’-based research; research with a tendency to reproduce authoritative (and masculinised) narratives of paramilitarism, reconciliation, and victimisation.

If the debate is confined to the question of interviews, the answer is fairly simple: broaden our collective respondent pool and ensure that our research programmes take seriously the insights of subaltern studies, specifically, the imperative to give voice to those usually rendered marginal or silent in authoritative accounts of the ‘Troubles’.[2] In this weblog, Eli Davies and Caroline Magennis expose the silencing of women; Adrian Grant decries the failure to see the urban working class as anything more than incubators of paramilitarism; and Jack Hepworth criticises the short shrift given to grassroots cross-community organisations, to name but a few examples. None of these excellent pieces confine the difficult questions of representation to merely who we interview. In our recent paper,[3] we called for methodological innovation capable of ‘troubling’ authorised narratives and ‘conceptualised space’ in Northern Ireland, or the abstract ‘space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers.'[4] Interviews are capable of this sort of troubling, even if they are conducted with the ‘usual suspects’. The method itself may be secondary to the critical lens we bring. In the remainder of this piece, we will discuss a family of methods we believe may be uniquely suited to troubling ‘bad scripts’ in Northern Ireland.

Walking to Trouble ‘bad scripts’

We became friends when we were both based at Maynooth University, but in spite of our shared interest in Northern Ireland, there was little direct overlap between the foci of our individual research programmes. It came as a surprise to us, therefore, to discover that we had both independently gravitated towards a family of methods we refer to as ‘walking methodologies’ because of a similar wish to seek out methodological innovations that had the potential to ‘trouble’ the sorts of stories, testimonies, and narratives we had become accustomed to hearing. We also discovered that we were not the first scholars researching Northern Ireland to look towards this innovative family of methods.

‘Walking’ is not the best adjective to describe this approach. In a helpful recent paper, Ronan Foley et al better refer to this family of methods as ‘in situ research.'[5] The family ranges from mobile ethnography, to movement-based interviewing, to studies of spatial practices frequently involving advanced GPS technology. What all these techniques share, however, is the belief that participatory movement through the spaces and places that shape our everyday life and mobility can expand narrative possibilities and transgress dominant discourses and spatial practices. Michel de Certeau, for example, famously argues that walking in the city undermines top-down systems of urban control and surveillance through a ‘multiplication’ of ‘urban possibilities’.[6].

We want to be careful not to suggest that walking methodologies or in-situ research is any sort of panacea. We have tried to represent the very real ethical and practical difficulties permeating their application, especially in Northern Ireland: variable weather conditions; differently abled bodies; the potential risks to personal security from participating in research in public space. Scholars must also carefully and ethically sift through the various means of applying in-situ research techniques and gauge their own comfort with different geospatial technologies. Mobile ethnographers, for example, may choose to employ nothing more complicated than pen, paper, and camera. Interviewers might employ wearable and/or directional microphones. GIS professionals interested in everyday mobilities may ask participants to download geotracking apps on their mobiles. Scholars employing mobile videography or participatory photography might shadow their participants or ask their participants to visually document their journeys through space.

The question of what techniques and technologies to employ are generally contextual, based on a scholar’s chosen research design, however, they also entail ethical considerations inherent in doing research in public space, in space where respondents often possess deep-rooted memories of unwanted tracking and surveillance. [7] However, in spite of these ethical and logistical considerations, scholars are increasingly recognising the potential of walking methods and in-situ research in Northern Ireland. [8]

We will close with a couple of suggestions of how in-situ research might help us break out of bad scripts. First, the ‘Troubles’ are not simply written in texts: they are inscribed into the landscape through countless acts of conservation and erasure, memorialisation and public art. They are contained in innumerable acts of embodied memory and official and unofficial appropriations of public space. We might be able to access the multiple mnemonic qualities of this trace material through experiencing them together with our research partners.

Second, in-situ research can subtly alter the power-dynamics inherent in sedentary interviewing. When we work with people who lack or have less social and political power, allowing them to lead us through familiar space can recast them as experts and us as the followers or the learners, lending a more egalitarian feel to the encounter. Conversely, asking powerful actors to step outside of their typical environments to join us in a walk or a drive can mean they temporarily yield ‘some of their authority’, perhaps opening up in ways that might not otherwise be afforded.[9]

Finally, in-situ research facilitates multi-sensory engagement with our surrounding environments. Sights and sounds, rhythms, haptic sensations, even passing or unexpected social interactions, can all trigger new perspectives or deepen and flesh out stories we have already heard. For instance, echoic memories of military helicopters and their absence-presence was raised by numerous participants during Andrew’s walking interviews through the former Ebrington Barracks site in Derry/Londonderry.

We need to point out the irony of promoting in-situ research during a global pandemic. This methodology is dependent upon movement in public space and (in its participatory variety) face-to-face encounters. What this disruptive hiatus means in the medium- to long-term for in-situ research is unclear.

Yet we do not think walking methodologies or in-situ research is the only type of innovation capable of “troubling bad scripts.” What we suggest, rather, is that early-career researchers like us should continue to explore approaches that can open up new lines of critical inquiry. We like to walk and talk with our respondents in, through, and with reference to troubled places: it is how we try to escape the type of ‘bad scripts’ that frustrate McCleery. And one of the things we enjoy so much about Writing the Troubles is that we regularly encounter the work of other early-career researchers who are also trying to harness new ways of doing research in order to write the ‘Troubles’ differently.

(Image: Andrew G. McClelland)

[1] Diana Taylor, Disappearing acts: spectacles of gender and nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1997), 186.

[2] For example: Joanne Sharp, ‘Subaltern geopolitics: introduction,’ Geoforum 42 (2011), 271-273.

[3] Joseph S. Robinson and Andrew G. McClelland, ‘Troubling places: walking the “troubled remnants” of post-conflict space,’ Area (Early View) (2020), 1-9.

[4] Henri Lefebvre, The production of space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 38-39. See also Michel de Certeau’s discussion of the “concept-city” in Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, part III: spatial practices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 95-96).

[5] Ronan Foley et al., ‘“Disciplined research in undisciplined settings,:” Critical explorations of in-situ and mobile methodologies in geographies of health and wellbeing,’ Area (Early View) (2019), 1-9.

[6] de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, 104.

[7] Bree T. Hocking et al., ‘Negotiating the ground: “mobilizing” a divided field site in the “post-conflict” city,’ Mobilities, 13 (2018), 876-893.

[8] For example: Audra Mitchell and Liam Kelly, ‘Peaceful Spaces? “Walking” through the New Liminal Spaces of Peacebuilding and Development in North Belfast,’ Alternatives 36 (2011), 307–325; Hocking et al., ‘Negotiating the ground, Joanne Murphy and Sara McDowell, ‘Transitional optics: Exploring liminal spaces after conflict,’ Urban Studies 56 (2019), 2499–2514.

[9] Helena Holgersson, ‘Keep walking: notes on how to research urban pasts and futures,’ in Walking through Social Reseach, Bates C and Rhys-Taylor A [eds.], (London: Routledge, 2017), 74.

Joseph Robinson is a final year doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, Maynooth University. His research interests lie in memory studies, the spatial legacies of violence, contested space, and transitional justice with particular emphasis on post-conflict contexts. He is the author of Transitional Justice and the Politics of Inscription: Memory, Space, and Narrative in Northern Ireland, published in 2018 with Routledge Press. He tweets @realjosefkevins.

Dr Andrew McClelland is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Liverpool. His specialist research interests include the contested and reconciliatory nature of cultural heritage, with emphasis on post-conflict contexts and concerning cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland. He tweets @AMcClelly.

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