Phew, yes, the interviews are progressing well. I am talking to women activists as well as decision makers and more general movers and shakers. But a long story is preceding any interview that I have held. First, as an engineer, I had to entirely rewire, reconfigure, my thoughts about data – in short I had to engage with different research philosophies. Almost an entire Ctrl+ALT-DEL and reboot was required. Now that I have accosted my grey matter with sufficient background information about social science, qualitative data – ethnography in particular – was I able to graduate from the school of reflexivity in knowledge production. So, ready, set, start – interviews go.
There are checks and balances in my research design, so that I won’t go overboard with the self-reflection and go self-centred (an error in ethnography to beware). One of these check points is the comparative element – I am looking at two cities: Newcastle and Bremen. I recently had the chance to chat to two transport politicians in Newcastle and Bremen. I am grateful for their time. The differences coming out of these interviews are startlingly clear… and hold some worrying implications for the fertile ground of civic society in Newcastle.
Bremen has a politician with a relatively clear vision and actionable plans to boot. And I am aware that we must adjust for “selection” which is heavily filtered through the head of a politician – what is it that the political person can grasp, decides to make their focus and what projects are chosen (in reality, and during the interview too of course) also in view of always looming elections and the wish for re-election? What struck me most that in Bremen I clearly saw an active politician. A person of action. Shaping. Engaging civic society. A politician who had me convinced that they firstly have an eye on the plan and policy and are leading from the front. Secondly, active work was done by the politician to communicate the wider plan and picking out projects that need supporting too. The politician, firmly holding the vision, would build consensus around the project and subject supporting that vision of favouring sustainable transport solutions.
This is where Newcastle differs quite dramatically.
In Newcastle, I argue from analysing the interview and seven years of activism involvement, we see politicians who are spellbound by individual commentary (thick black line in figure), allowing debates to be thrown off centre, watered down or even derailed by a one-man-and-his-dog character. In Newcastle the politician talks about wanting to hear from the individual – giving an illusion of “every voice is heard”. I noted the politician I interviewed had a rather vague conception of organised civic society, of how interest groups and campaign groups function. To the Newcastle politician it even felt undemocratic to engage (with) groups: as everyone must be heard – the population is segementated into its smallest part: individuals. Whilst I do understand that there are forces within the council who want to curb against this individualism, the forces upholding business as usual are stronger as yet. A re-structure of political culture to embrace ambition, verve and some cheek and humour too would be needed to overcome this.
In the context of rudderless council this would make sense: where there is a lack of future vision (a direction of moral travel), all that officials can often do is fall back on the individual and then pander to little things. I saw similar practices when I worked in the public sector. To me these practices felt wholly uncomfortable (undemocratic) and I asked that we put together wider plans to make sure we act for a collective good. In the end I was frustrated and left the organisation.
To formulate these thoughts it was very helpful indeed to be able to compare Newcastle and Bremen. The comparative approach appears to be working!
As for my own cultural re-configuration I underwent last summer (value-free engineer to social scientist with an ethical standpoint) I do understand that these re-configurations require bravery and some bravado too. It is a leap of faith – but I overcame it by reading and talking about and listening to alternatives. So much so that the actual jump rather was a firm step onto a new, but terra, firma too.