Change of plan

As I hinted at a couple of weeks ago, my direction has now been gladly (re)set. I am certain this is what’s needed and what needs investigating for the wider public and political good. The new working title of my research project herewith and without further ado is this:

Democracy, politics and activism: women’s voices for cycleways in the cities of Bremen and Newcastle

In the following five paragraphs I will take this new title apart, word by word, and hopefully by so doing provide a reasonably coherent argument why investigating this is a very worthwhile thing indeed.

Democracy: I have observed democratic processes being undermined by looking (together with @sallyonbike) at council policy, attending numerous “big-society” meetings and observing council procedures.  There is something ailing with democratic process in Newcastle, and perhaps the UK.

Politics: my local Councillors have kept telling me for years that what they are doing is simply to enact the will of the people, but when challenged failed to describe how they do that. Councillors also seem to be quite disconnected from their main democratic mechanism: policy – party and city policies. I had one senior Councillor tell me that they simply “don’t do policy at that council”. Which left me totally baffled as to how they would actually conceptualise democracy, or maybe it’s been washed away and eroded? There is something ailing with local politics in Newcastle.

Activism: change will come by people expressing their will. Naturally we express our will at the ballot box, but in a vastly neoliberalised local democracy (see two points above) this is not enough. Top-down politics will give us the momentum of step change (confer with stories from New York City, Sevilla and London, and work in progress Leicester and Bristol, and so on) but we need strong and informed civic society and activism to prop up this top-down action (and we would need to keep fighting for it at any rate as otherwise we are sliding back again, confer with ripping out of cycleways). Yes, it is uncomfortable, but we are campaigning to break a vicious circle: and top-down action by decision makers will ultimately provide that. Fiddling on with incrementals won’t break automobility.

Women: women have much to gain from a more diverse transport system, ie including cycleways. Women also generally have a more cooperative way of working, and can perhaps better break some stalemates we currently find ourselves in. We must grow a voice for a better future, and women are at the heart of this. There also has been much talk about cycling and cycle campaigning being a masculine pursuit. In order to more fully represent society, women’s voices will be necessary. Newcycling, Newcastle’s cycling campaign, is founded and led by women. I want to find out how this compares to activism in Bremen, Germany.

Cycleways: specifically it is about the “Space Wars”, contested city space aka reapportionment of roads and public realm, and how this relates back to politics and democracy. It’s cycleways we need to build in Newcastle in order for people (women and all!) to cycle comfortably and safely. And Newcastle’s policy recognises that. Yet building best-quality bike lanes (protected please on main roads) is sparsely undertaken. Bremen is different to Newcastle in that it has a cycling social norm and the city does sport cycleways. In a twist Bremen’s recent history seems to show that the city has started removing cycleways under the ideology of “cyclists belong on the road”. I want to dive into these spatial and social developments and make sense of what’s happened and is happening.

————–

So how will I go about this? As so many things – sigh, patience – this is work in progress, but here’s the current state of affairs hot off the press as far as I can make it out. My head hurts a little.

Position

I am now happy to take up an “immersed position” towards my object (subject) of study. I tried to stay away from having to acknowledge my rather intimate involvement in Newcastle and UK cycle campaigning, but now realise that would have been a convoluted way to go about this. My active position is the reality. In addition, it gives me an informed (and hopefully clued-up) point of view. I hence take up the role of a researcher who is active in shaping local circumstances (what some would call ‘action research’ I suppose). Being totally open about this will give me much more freedom. I really haven’t got anything to hide. Moreover, I am actually quite proud of our fab activism work in Newcastle! By laying this bare, it’ll also help the transparency of the research and accountability of the researcher. Overall, I am edging towards taking an autoethnographic viewpoint but I am still feeling uneasy about that label. To be continued.

Philosophy

The philosophical stance, if it can be described at all, is one of seeking justice and change, and translates into this: investigate local democracy through the lens of women activists. Bent Flyvbjerg’s phronetic sciences (explained in his book Social Science Matters) rings true as it puts outcomes first. It’s not carrying out research for research’s sake and perpetuation; instead it is oriented to investigate power in order to better it, aid it and make it work more effectively for all.

Conceptual frameworks

Based on Ole Jensen's model.
Edge of power and activism. Based on Ole Jensen’s model.

Ole Jensen’s Staging Mobilities framework describes how space is made (and used). It helps me to visualise where in that creative process my investigation fits in. This is where activism takes place and interacts (rubs) with power on the full spectrum to alter, disrupt, subvert and collaborate, support and assist it.

Methods

This research uses mixed methods, and with a comparative element too. There will be a discourse analysis of the policy texts to illuminate aspects of power, politics and the state of technical practice. The analysis, probably narrative analysis, will be used to find the sticky points. It’ll look for instances of unease, contradiction and omissions, as well as objective plans. This will inform questions for the cities. Talking to activists, and perhaps using Borgner’s ‘expert interview’ method where I can take up a co-expert role for the interview, I want to find out about activists’ concept of activism, power, change process and barriers to these. So, a little bit of ethnography will be involved too to conceptualise the activism scene (in relation to the power they are addressing). I’d be delighted to speak to a couple of politicians too, about these subjects of democracy, politics and activism – however this will entirely depend on their willingness to participate. What’s in it for them? They’d be getting closer to civic society in action, the very thing a sound forward-looking politician may like to nurture and invest in.

Overall my hypotheses and questions are these:

SEM_KL15b_neolibVersion
Neoliberalised! Based on Ole Jensen’s model.
  1. There are plenty of free services and advice that activism provides on a voluntary and free basis, they are there for the taking
  2. UK’s neoliberalised politics has made it much less straightforward and less predictable to get voices heard. It will be interesting to see how this compares to Bremen where, I posit, democracy is more intact
  3. Cycle campaigning in Newcastle, despite the out-group status of cycling, has more confidence, as the “outlier status” makes the campaigning position clearer: in Newcastle we are campaigning from the outside. In comparison, Bremen may do more “inside campaigning”, but there is a risk that by doing so the edge is lost over their message, focus and position and reason(ing) for campaigning
  4. How do the activism styles relate to the different social norms in the cities? What’s the conflict potential? And how is it dealt with? Early talks with Germans indicate to me that cyclists and cycle campaigners still feel an outlier status (despite cycling’s acceptance in social norm)
  5. Is the fight for cycleways a feminine fight?

Outcome / impact

If my thesis managed to raise awareness of the importance of civic society and activism in democracy and politics, I would be well chuffed.

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