Qualitative Housing Analysis: An International Perspective: Volume 10

Cover of Qualitative Housing Analysis: An International Perspective

Table of contents

(16 chapters)

This chapter, together with those that follow, builds upon the ideas presented in the previous volume in this series (Maginn, Thompson, & Tonts, 2008). There we outlined our vision for a ‘pragmatic renaissance’ in contemporary qualitative research in urban studies. We argued that to survive as an effective and frequently used tool for policy development, a more systematic approach is needed in the way that qualitative-informed applied urban research is conceptualised and undertaken. In opening this volume we build on these initial ideas using housing as a meta-case study to progress the case for a systematic approach to qualitative research methods. We do this to both stimulate broad debate about the ways, in which qualitative research in urban/housing scholarship might be of greater use to policymakers and practitioners, as well as to suggest a way forward in realising the ‘pragmatic renaissance’.

The social scientific and humanities literature on house and home continues to grow (Perkins, Thorns, & Winstanley, 2002a; Perkins, Thorns, Winstanley, & Newton, 2002b; King, 2004; Mallett, 2004; Blunt & Dowling, 2006; Gorman-Murray & Dowling, 2007). Researchers have interpreted home in a number of ways. For some, it represents a centre, a place in which possessions and display represent identity. For others it is the existential space of being where the nature and limits of centre and universe, sacred and profane, are created and maintained. Home can also be a material place in which the production and organisation of housing and neighbourhoods necessarily entails certain kinds of social interaction and relations. The recognition here that housing has both a use and exchange value is crucially important. Depending on one's cultural group, home is imbued with greater or lesser degrees of privatism and home-centredness. Some writers see the growth of technologies that permit the development of home-based work and individualised leisure practices as factors likely to strengthen home as the centre of future activity. Homes are also important in the creation of privacy, tranquillity, stability, conventional behaviour, meaning and transformation.

Homelessness research is identified as one example of sensitive social research that engages ‘vulnerable’ (Liamputtong, 2007, p. 4) participants as well as an area of difficult research practice. This chapter explores how using qualitative research methodologies have led us to reinterpret aspects of our research practice and to develop an inclusive approach in our work on homelessness. In articulating our approach, we explore influences shaping the context of our research practice and ideas that are effective in researching homelessness. We present these as key principles informing our approach, alongside strategies we have developed for enacting inclusive research practice.

In the context of what may be understood as an ‘emotional retreat’ in homelessness research and service provision (Chamberlayne, 2004, p. 347), this chapter canvasses the valuable role of qualitative research in continuing to diversify understandings and evidences of homelessness made available across the field. I work to make sense of the ways, in which the emotional and physical messiness of ‘in situ’ research (Malins, Fitzgerald, & Threadgold, 2006, p. 514) can give rise to new understandings of homelessness that both intervene in and compliment existing research and policy knowledges. While my key focus here will be on the difficult task of actually articulating how it is that particular forms of qualitative research knowledge may provide epistemological leverage to the field of homelessness, it should also be clear that the impetus for this chapter, and indeed for my broader research engagement in homelessness (see for example, Robinson 2002b, 2003, 2005) stems from my concern with the ways in which felt-experience is particularly backgrounded in this field. As I have discussed elsewhere, the ramifications of making relatively silent corporeal and emotional dimensions of homelessness have troublingly included the entrenchment of conceptualisations of, and responses to, homelessness that cannot account for the multidimensional ways in which trajectories of homelessness can unfold and become reinforced. In particular, my focus has been on the ways in which the lack of attention paid within social research to the bodily impacts of cumulative trauma and grief in the lives of homeless people, has in turn been mirrored in the limited framing of social policy and welfare service delivery.

For policymakers and academics alike, gentrification – the renovation of socially and economically marginal inner-city areas by higher status social groups – has become an issue of rising importance in the changing social structures of developed-world cities (Smith, 1979; Rose, 1984; Hamnett, 1991). In the regeneration of deprived inner-urban areas, it is seen as a double-edged sword, its potential to reinvigorate local property markets and provide much-needed investments of social capital matched by its tendency towards displacement of ‘less desirable’ extant populations and social division between middle-class newcomers and incumbent working-class residents (Smith, 1992; Blokland, 2002; Butler, 2003).

The term, ‘mixed methods’ is, of course, very broad. In general, though, it is used to describe an approach which combines more than one type of data or more than one type of analysis and, more often than not, refers to research which draws on both qualitative and quantitative data and analyses. This chapter analyses the methods adopted in a two-year study of Sri Lanka's post-tsunami housing policy, showing how quantitative and qualitative data can be triangulated in a variety of ways, and demonstrating the value of qualitative methods in contributing to understanding of different aspects of policy process and impact.

The historical relationship between the state and Gypsy/Travellers in the UK and Europe has been a difficult one. Cultural differences, particularly in relation to nomadism and sedentarism lie at the centre of this fraught relationship (Acton, 1997; Liégeois, 2005; McVeigh, 1997; Molloy, 1998). Some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that policies directed at Gypsy/Travellers amount to a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Hawes & Perez, 1996). This is not only a matter of history but refers to current legislation, policy and the experience of hostile responses from the settled community and the media (Clark & Greenfields, 2006; Richardson, 2006). Clark (2008) argues that in Britain and Ireland these tensions are shaped by ‘core dichotomies’ and in the context of social policy one such dichotomy is that between ‘care’ and ‘control’. While the current housing and planning policy agenda seeks to improve safety and security in the provision of appropriate accommodation, addressing the needs of Gypsy/Travellers, the tendency to control through monitoring and regulation is also evident (Clark & Greenfields, 2006; Richardson, 2006). It is, therefore, unsurprising that, in the midst of such enduring hostility from the state, authorities and the settled community and tensions and confusion in policy, there may be some reluctance to engage with researchers, especially but not just when they are commissioned to undertake the research on behalf of national and local government.

This chapter considers the role and potential of sensory urbanism as an approach to exploring people's sensorial experiences and understandings of their local environments. Such an approach is warranted given the influential role of the senses in developing and affecting experience of the urban environment. Debate about the role of the senses in shaping urban experience has progressed in recent years and increasingly is taking place across disciplines (Adams & Guy, 2007). Pallasmaa (2005, p. 40) describes this sensory urban engagement when he says:I confront the city with my body … I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.

Increasing concern about rising crime rates, high levels of unemployment and the anti-social behaviour of youth gangs that are concentrated within particular regions and neighbourhoods of cities has prompted renewed interest in governments to frame policies to create socially mixed cities. Recent riots experienced on social housing estates, including in France (St Denis, Poissy, Clichy-sous-bois), Australia (Macquarie Fields, Redfern in New South Wales) and Britain (Bestwood, Nottingham) have reinvigorated public and community debate into just what makes a functional neighbourhood. The nub of the debate about dysfunctional neighbourhoods is whether part of the problem is to be found in the lack of social mix of residents, that is, the homogeneity of the neighbourhoods in aspects such as housing tenure, ethnicity and socioeconomic characteristics of residents.

In Western liberal democracies over the last decade or so, community development, housing policy and neighbourhood renewal have been increasingly underscored by a philosophy of participatory decision-making (see Imre & Raco, 2003; Lo Piccolo & Thomas, 2003; Maginn, 2004). At one level, it appears that central and local governments have experienced a policy and democratic epiphany. This is reflected in a ‘new’ acknowledgment that ‘when citizens themselves are the key to the quality of neighbourhoods, a new avenue of policy intervention is opened up’ (Lelieveldt, 2004, p. 534; see also Crenson, 1983). In this context, participatory models of decision-making are seen as having the potential to ‘empower’ local residents who were previously the subject of ‘top-down’ or command and control forms of planning (Healey, 1999; Meredyth, Ewing, & Thomas, 2004; Barry, Osborne, & Rose, 1996; Rose, 1996; Dean, 2002). On another level, however, there is caution, suspicion even, about this paradigm shift. A perception exists that governments are essentially displacing, redistributing and/or retreating from their historical welfare responsibilities (Chaskin, 2003, 2001; Fraser, Lepofsky, Lick, & Williams, 2003; Pierre, 1999).

Housing researchers often seek to investigate the needs of the populations they study so that they may evaluate the policies targeted at ‘fixing’ the problems faced by the residents of public housing communities. Traditionally, researchers base these recommendations on the statistical exploration of primary and secondary quantitative data. However, some researchers contend that these traditional research tools fail to capture the meaning and significance of housing for its inhabitants and offer little insight into larger related issues of politics and economy (Jacobs, 2003). From the perspective of this group of researchers, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to craft a survey instrument or any other measurement tool, for that matter, which could capture the divergent human experience of families living in public housing across the nation given the diversity of factors that shape the lives of residents.

I would like to be able to report that the film Salmer fra kjokkenet (Kitchen Stories) (dir. Bente Hamer, 2003) was a direct consequence of the powerful arguments I made for the use of ethnography in housing studies almost 20 years ago (Franklin, 1990). Sadly, I cannot! In this touching comedy drama from Norway, a team of Swedish ethnographers working from the Swedish Home Research Institute descend on a remote rural locality in Norway during the 1950s in order to study the kitchen habits and cultures of single living men. It is an improbable quest, until one learns that the same team discovered how Swedish housewives needlessly walk the equivalent distance between Stockholm and the Congo every year as they go about their routine kitchen business; a finding that successfully paved the way for more efficient kitchen design and culture. So it was that the team descended on the very perplexed and uncooperative Norwegian bachelors (the last sub-group in their programme) in order to map out their domestic inefficiencies. Comic tension is built both through their ethnographic props (the researchers were to sit on giant stools in the kitchens, giving them panoptic vision), rules (they were not to talk to respondents, although that proves awkward when lights are turned out by thrifty Norwegians) and living spaces (they were to live in specially designed, round caravans parked outside their respondent's homes). The film would have been a vindication of my arguments not so much because it demonstrates the truth that practical housing outcomes can arise from spending sufficient periods of time studying cultural milleux, but because it also demonstrates that the relationship between researchers and respondents become more productive over time, resulting in more reliable data, better understandings of that millieux and what their problems (and therefore often ‘ours’) actually consist of.

Cover of Qualitative Housing Analysis: An International Perspective
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Studies in Qualitative Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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