A while back, I was inspired by #phdchat (a community of postgraduates on Twitter) to write a post about my postgraduate research in plain English! I have just written two chapters of my thesis and can see that I have slipped back into academic speak quite a bit, and that’s not good. Also, @SirChaddy recently pointed out that it is time for an update…so here goes!
The places where we live, work and play are part of who we are. They say something about us to others and are important for our identities. When we meet a new person, once we know their name, the next question is often ‘Where are you from?’ Their reply will reflect their audience – who you are - and the social context you are in. We build our identities and create who we are through our social interactions with other people. Identity does not exist inside us but outside of us in the language we use and what we say in our everyday conversations. Identity is a social phenomenon that we actively construct for ourselves within our talk.
Places are more than the backdrop to life. Many of us live in places where we were ‘born and bred’ and are connected to the places we live through our relatives, culture and traditions. Others have moved around, perhaps for work or for study reasons, and negotiate new identities that take these new places into account. Some researchers argue that, in today’s society, we have much more choice about where we live and are not tied to places like we used to be. However other researchers argue that we are not as free to do as we please. We might talk as if we have a choice and have chosen to live in the places we do, but often we are constrained by finances, family connections, and work commitments.
In other words, we can’t always live where we want to live. Sometimes, we can’t afford to buy a property in the area we want and have to live in the more affordable area a few miles down the road. Sometimes, we have no choice at all about where we live and have to make the most of what we’ve got. And sometimes, we have to make compromises and live near things we wouldn’t necessarily want to live near such as airports, main roads, rubbish dumps, and industrial works.
My research has explored how people make sense of living near railways and what ‘railway place’ means for identities. I interviewed twelve participants living alongside the West Coast Main Line in the UK. I transcribed the interviews and analysed the interview data using an approach known as Discursive Psychology. Within Discursive Psychology, researchers look at the language people use to see what version of events it constructs. We also explore the language we use within interviews and the influence it has had on what participants say – this process is known as reflexivity.
Within their interviews, participants recognised the railway as an unwanted and undesirable feature of a ‘decent’ place to live. The railway was never talked about as a positive aspect of their residential environments. The participants’ talk worked to construct the railway as a compromise for finding a decent place to live that met their needs, was affordable, provided facilities such as supermarkets and bus routes nearby, and enabled them to lead an ‘easy’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘quiet’ life. Despite the railway’s presence, participants were able to construct positive accounts of their places which, in turn, enabled them to construct positive identities for themselves.
Despite their different circumstances, residential histories and life stories, I found common patterns (known as interpretative repertoires) within the participants’ talk about their ‘railway places’. Participants who hadn’t lived near the railway for long talked about ‘learning to cope’ with the railway’s effects – mainly vibration and noise from passing trains and night time disturbance from railway maintenance work. Those who had lived there longer talked about how ‘you just get used to it’ and how they ‘don’t notice’ the railway anymore. These interpretative repertoires represent our shared social understandings about places and living with disruption such as railways.
As I am currently writing up my analysis of the data, I am still interpreting what all this means. I am linking the data to previous research that found disruptive aspects of residential environments threaten our identities of place. We defend and justify our ‘choices’ to live with disruption by drawing upon the common understandings and expectations of living with negative conditions and living in disruptive places. Although, people aren’t just saying what they do so they can maintain positive identities. For example, ‘you just get used to it’ is a very common phrase within our language – I bet you hear someone say it soon, or you might even say it yourself. Because we can say it, we can think it, and therefore we can experience it and live it. So I am currently looking at psychological theories and research on adapting to our environments and the places we live in too. Wish me luck 🙂