Qualitative Urban Analysis: An International Perspective: Volume 9

Cover of Qualitative Urban Analysis: An International Perspective

Table of contents

(13 chapters)

The end of the twentieth century was filled with an ironic mix of panic and fatalism; together with optimism and hope. ‘Digital armageddon’ in the form of the Y2K bug was reportedly on the horizon (Vulliamy, 2000), but as we know, never transpired. If, however, Y2K had materialised and affected technology as predicted, the consequences would have had profound macro and micro impacts – economically, politically, socially and spatially. Cities – with their super-concentration of technological infrastructure, hardware and software – would arguably have endured the brunt of this catastrophe. Had this disaster occurred, its reach would have been well beyond the city, spiralling out from the CBD to the suburbs, rural settlements, jumping national boundaries, and ultimately bringing economic, transport and communication systems to a near halt, rendering day-to-day living experiences unbearable, if not virtually impossible.

It is commonly accepted that the study of urban politics has become increasingly complex and fragmented, characterised by a shift away from formal local government structures to a diverse range of public, private and voluntary agencies. The analysis of ‘multi-level’ local governance (Stoker, 2004) in contemporary urban societies therefore requires a need to focus on informal relationships as well as formal institutions, acknowledging the role of a multiplicity of actors and their interactions within partnership and network structures. In this respect the limitations of a purely quantitative methodology have been well-documented, including a lack of depth, insufficient attention to power relationships and an inability to account for symbolic action (see, e.g. Silverman, 2001 and other chapters in this collection). Qualitative methodologies offer the opportunity to consider meaning, complexity and institutional fragmentation in urban policy through detailed empirical and theoretical analysis. However, it is less clear what kinds of theoretical tools are most appropriate to underpin effective qualitative research. The purpose of this chapter is not only to suggest a general approach (that of social constructionism), but also to demonstrate how recent developments can be applied effectively to overcome some of the criticisms of constructionist social theory. The chapter suggests a number of approaches that can provide a means by which contemporary urban processes can be systematically interpreted.

Understanding the intricate details and intertwined power plays and shifts in complex urban processes is a key to actually empowering change for the better. A longitudinal qualitative research approach can be particularly valuable to that endeavour. In this chapter, a ‘phronetic long-haul’ methodology is proposed, based on the authors’ ongoing research into certain practices that have been popularised in the name of urban sustainability. The motivation for articulating such an option derives from discontent with the predominance of perfunctory, snapshot studies of contemporary urban development projects. To offset that ascendancy, the authors have sought ways to facilitate a rich, deep, holistic and integrated understanding of contemporary urban change over time, underpinned by the concept of phronesis. Phronetic practice involves the exercise of situational knowledge, intuition and common sense derived from experience, values and judgement.1 Keeping attention on issues of power, using multiple narratives to show how power works, the approach seeks to comprehend urban planning situations in a practical way by maintaining a long-term, ethnographic and reflective connection with the practices under study.

Urban renewal through the regeneration and redevelopment of public housing estates has become a major policy initiative in most Australian state housing authorities since the mid-1990s. These policies have involved a mix of both physical renewal and community development in response to the problems that have emerged in the public housing sector over the past two decades. While the origins of these problems are well established and reflect the changes experienced by public housing sectors in other comparable countries (Hayward, 1996; Peel, 1995), the impact of policies to address these problems in the Australian context has attracted less attention in the academic literature (Arthurson, 1998; Randolph & Judd, 2000). While there is an emerging body of evaluation and research that has attempted to assess the outcomes of renewal programmes and policies, it can be argued that there is still a relatively poor level of general understanding of what aspects of renewal are effective or what outcomes have actually been achieved. At the same time, there has been little effective development of an exchange between researchers or evaluators on the effectiveness of the various evaluation methodologies – qualitative and quantitative – that have been used to assess renewal policies. This is particularly evident at the national level (Spiller Gibbin Swan, 2000).

This chapter explores and reflects on the utility and validity of case study research in urban environments, illustrated by a number of key methodological issues that arose during case study research in Ireland into the nature and extent of public participation in urban regeneration partnerships (Muir, 2003). The chapter begins by reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of a case study approach in urban studies. It is proposed that case studies are a particularly useful research design for analysing complex, spatially based subjects which may require some flexibility during the research process in order to respond to changing events. The more problematic issues of generalisability and validity are also addressed.

As the processes of globalisation continue and social networks evolve, the communities in which we live are becoming increasingly complex places. The ongoing processes associated with globalisation indicate that an unprecedented number of people are increasingly drawn economically, socially and culturally towards countries and areas that are perceived to offer the greatest opportunities for them and their families.

Measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and nuisance to residents, particularly in urban areas, have been a major focus of UK Government policies over recent years. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and subsequent legislation such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 introduced stricter powers, particularly through the use of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), as a means of addressing problems in residential neighbourhoods. While there is clearly a need to tackle problem behaviour that impacts seriously on the quality of life of community members, evidence also suggests that behaviour previously tolerated by many is now targeted through enforcement measures, leading to increased polarisation and stigmatisation of some groups (Rowlands, 2005). At the same time, national agendas around Neighbourhood and Civic Renewal1 aim to minimise conflicts in neighbourhood renewal areas through fostering understanding and building bridges between different groups within diverse communities. There is thus some tension between the different agendas which impacts on how such issues are addressed within localities.

In 1995, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched the quantitative Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) in its Human Development Report (1999). The GEM has been a feature of this report ever since. In 2004/05, a group of researchers from Edith Cowan University (Perth, Australia) intended to rely on the GEM to study the experiences of factory women in two of Sri Lanka's Export Processing Zones (EPZs). The experience of this team – at the heart of this chapter – is that the quantitative measures of the GEM, particularly the specific ways in which it causes researchers to conceptualise gender and empowerment, are not adequate to understand the nuanced and complex processes of women's experiences in regards to empowerment. The team's experience caused it to question the relevance and utility of the GEM, and in turn, its sole reliance on a quantitative methodology. As a result, the researchers from Edith Cowan changed their original methodological approach and adopted a stronger qualitative emphasis. In turn, this provided a far more realistic insight into the concepts of gender and empowerment, and indeed the lived experiences of the women it sought to represent.

With the so-called greying of many nations, ageing is becoming a critical issue for social and urban policy (Polivka & Longino, 2004). While populations may be ageing chronologically in many countries, notions of ageing and ‘the elderly’ are shifting – influenced by economic, political and cultural changes. People are living longer, and are living more diverse and flexible lives. The shape of their lives is changing in relation to factors such as government policy, the economy, leisure and work practice, and the giving and receiving of care (OECD, 1996). Such changes pose challenges for policy makers as these societal shifts have both social and spatial consequences. ‘Ageing’ is consequently a concept which needs unpacking in order to make informed decisions about planning and public policy – to understand how the concept of age is shaped, negotiated and experienced differentially in place (Williams & Ylanne-McEwen, 2000). This chapter shows how the personal stories and experiences of older individuals form narratives which can both shape and challenge policy makers’ views of ageing and place relationships.

Participatory action research (PAR) is a qualitative research methodology with a dynamic and powerful potential in both rural and urban contexts. PAR can account for social forces and macro systems of injustice which affect the lives of people within a community and thus achieve what Prilleltensky (2003) termed ‘psychopolitical validity’. This chapter explores its efficacy in research with Australian Aboriginal groups. It is contended that PAR is an invaluable approach in conducting research with such communities. PAR has the potential to empower Indigenous communities in ways that quantitative designs simply cannot.

The city is a complex entity and comprehending that complexity has long challenged and extended the methodological repertoire of social scientists, artists, and other commentators. The complexity and scale of urban life, and the managerial interventions that this demands in terms of planning and maintenance logistics, has meant that urban scholarship has had a strong, and at times dominant, tradition of quantitative research. Within this methodological hegemony, qualitative methods were a tolerable adjunct, subsidizing (often by way of the exceptionally-framed ‘case study’) the more real and relevant knowledge generated by large-scale quantitative surveys and data sets. This bifurcated rendition of quantitative and qualitative approaches is difficult to by-pass and has, in my view, a range of unfortunate effects. Not least it implies that one type of approach and one style of knowledge is more important and relevant than the other. But of course whether a particular style of urban knowledge is better or more relevant than another depends always on the destination of that knowledge. Is it, for example, acquired to account for the presence of cities through explanatory frameworks of urbanization (why cities)? Or is it to render more accurately the complexity of life, processes, and systems that are in the urban context (how cities)? The importance of these different explanatory styles (and the methodological approaches that attend them) is inevitably contingent rather than absolute. In this essay I want to chart (in a very partial way) aspects of that contingency and revisit the shifting fortunes of qualitative approaches to the city.

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