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A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe. There have been recurring issues lasting until the present: What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have,

Cities and Housing Issues – a bit of an exploration

In various European and North American cities visited in the last decade, housing has been a recurring theme, both as an everyday lived concern of residents and as a policy concern for city decision-makers. Whilst there seem to be universal issues, generic across all such cities, each city has its own particular set of housing concerns shaped by that city’s

Birmingham : a creative city?

This was written as part of a consideration of how developments might lead a city to think of itself as being a creative city. It started as thoughts linked to an online course run by the University of Toronto. In terms of population, Birmingham is the UK’s Second City. It is located in the centre of England. Road and rail

Contemporary Public Art and non-capital Cities (of NW Europe and N America) – A framework for exploration

What follows is seen as a set of lines for thinking along, routes of exploration, rather than chapter headings or specific research topics (although things may end up being both of those at some stage in the future). There are various crossovers between several the elements listed. It is not intended as a description of all the thinking that can

Some outline thoughts concerning everyday puzzles with understanding autism

This is a skate across some of the puzzles that arise for many people when trying to understand the common current thinking associated with autism. It is not written with any claim to expertise. It takes the view of the interested bystander. ??It does not seek to explain everything to do with autism. Nor does it seek to lessen the daily experiences of those living with lives influenced by autism.

It aims to understand how current ways of talking about autism might get in the way of society adapting sufficiently quickly. The aim is to explore rather than pin things down, and to look at things as a set of recurring puzzles. Some of these puzzles stem from there being a variety of descriptions of autism, which lead to a range of understandings and misunderstandings amongst the general population that, in turn, get in the way of society being structured in ways that support people with autism. The article is deliberately rather wordy but, again, that is all part of taking an exploratory approach.

The first part of what follows is an outline drawn from various documents and websites of people and organisations actively involved with autism. The second part lists the many detailed behaviours that organisations and individuals consider as recurringly observable in the range of autistic people. The third part tries to set out some of the difficulties that get in the way of everyday understanding of the issues around autism.

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Researcher in Residence

In the period April-July 2015 I acted as Researcher in Residence attached to an exhibition (‘Im Bau’ by Aideen Doran) at the Grand Union Gallery in Birmingham, UK.

What follows is an exploration of the researcher-in-residence model; a description of what was undertaken in relation to this specific exhibition; and a listing of some of the headline thoughts that were outcomes from this activity. Read more

Plan with your enemies not your friends

OK, maybe ‘enemy’ is the wrong word – just something to get a good headline. Maybe we are talking about a particular kind of opponent: opponents in ways of thinking; those who see the world from a totally different, diametrically-opposed viewpoint. Read more

Some thoughts on identity and place

‘There are places, just as there are people and objects, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery’ – Paul Nash

Introductions: some puzzles

The previous article on Identity focused on a personal exploration of the identity of individuals in a social context. This article explores some ideas around Identity and Place. This has two aspects: The possible impact of place on the identity of residents, and the potential for specific locations to have identities of their own.

On the first of these aspects it has been suggested that Place is one of a number of constituents of identity for residents of that location; and that there are interconnections between histories, geographies and social structures that play out as a form of identity.

This raises the puzzle: If place can be thought of as an influence on identities of the individuals who live there, that there are spatialised subjectivities, how does this happen?

On the second aspect (Can places have their own identities?), at a simple level, identity can be seen in terms of a set of place-related bureaucratic statistics. From this perspective, metrics and indicators might define the identity of a place. When a locality is allocated an identity in this way, there may be consequences for that place.

Beyond that, if (as suggested in the previous article) individual identity can be seen as constructed in on-going ways from fragments, coming into existence and being sustained through structured social practices of residents, can we see places in the same ways? Do localities develop and sustain identities that are whole entities constructed from kaleidoscopic aspects; and do places develop their identities through distinct stages?

The same puzzle arises, again: If this is so then how does it happen?

Place, itself, can be thought of in varied ways. A place can be bounded by lines on maps, even if the map is not the place. Birmingham (UK) has its mapped boundaries and divisions but can also be represented as a set of populations; a set of institutions with the City Council holding centre-place; a set of relationships and networks; and as one relative in the regional West Midlands family of places; or as a brand image.

An urban entity can also be, for some, more than a population, or a geographical size, or a collection of buildings, or a centre of production – it can be viewed as a place where various aspects of capitalism intersect in space. From this perspective, it is the process of gathering and dispersal of information and goods and people centred on some specific locus.

Whatever view one takes, a place like Birmingham can be referred to as a single, unique identity. It can also be characterised more as blocs of internal conflicts, or can just as easily be perceived as a complex set of fragmented sites of social-contested meanings.

Sometimes places may even be thought of as having multiple identities.

Much has been written about the ways global influences may be changing the nature of places, with trends towards globalisation threatening local identities and cultures, and threatening to eradicate differences between places.

Places might once have been identified largely in terms of single-communities but are increasingly being analysed in terms of superdiversities of population as higher volumes of people are increasingly mobile in very different ways and for very different purposes. Is this expanding the range of ways by which people locate themselves as members of place-based communities; and the ways the places promote their particular identity?

The identity of a place can become something narrowly-restricted as city-brand or, at the other extreme, can be open to so many interpretations as to be almost useless as an idea.

Within such complexities there will be those who seek to simplify: to create (and promote) a particular normalised identity associated with the place. This can be particularly true at the national level when, in the face of large-scale movements of peoples and cultures, there are calls for a fixed sense of national identity. Place-identity, then, becomes open to exploitation for political purposes

These aspects of identity and place are explored, predominantly in a UK context, in more detail below. Read more

Contemporary Identity of Individuals: a personal exploration

Why is the idea of identity worth exploring? Is contemporary identity any different from any past or common-sense understandings of identity?

What follows is a summary gained from reflecting on my own experiences and studies, up to and including the transition to retirement.

Identity is a complex and strategic notion that sits at the centre of many current events and discussions. Identity appears to be crucial, yet is contentious. Identity defines, differentiates and distinguishes. It is central to our individual being yet, for many people, identity is seen as structured by social processes beyond the individual.

In recent decades, it appears that identity has become more central, as accounts seek to explain events as culturally rooted in individual concerns. Identities, and processes of identifications, have become important again.

Contemporary views of identity sustain a number of puzzles that are worth exploring.

This is the first of a pair of linked articles on identity. It focuses on identity and people, whilst the next article focuses on identity and place. Read more


Bureaucracy has got a bad name. It is seen as a relatively recent disease in society, yet it has had a long history. Based on rationality and fixed procedures, it can be seen as having stemmed from very positive attempts to deal with variability, unpredictability and patronage – injecting transparency and fairness into social processes.

Bureaucracy has changed as society has changed. With the advent of mechanised mass production and the search for ever more efficiency, it became variously associated with totalitarian regimes, rule-based systems and a lack of humanity. As society continues to change new forms of bureaucracy are emerging. These can be viewed positively as adaptations to flexibility and creativity, or can be viewed more critically as the permeating of all social interaction by procedures and attitudes that are relatively meaningless yet which operate as a means of control. Read more

Expert Observation: More to it than meets the eye?

Studying people is fundamental to changing society for the better. It is important to understand how and why different people behave as they do; getting a sense of human patterns and motivations. Within social studies this is often approached using questionnaires or interviews. Rather than attempting to get at beliefs, values, attitudes via self-reporting, with all its issues of truthfulness etc, another method is the direct observation of people’s actions and behaviours and to use these to work back towards imputed attitudes and beliefs.

Observation, here, is more than the spontaneous, passive observing of things (although there is a useful role for that). It is, rather, the active, deliberate observation of those things that are the focus of enquiry at the time.

Even in casual everyday observing, not everything can be noticed all the time. The brain continuously selects, isolates, focuses, overlooks. With deliberate observation, much of that sifting and sorting of what is important has already been done through some pre-observation thinking and decision-making. By having a clear observation framework perception is sharpened in particular ways. The researcher is attuned to notice the specific features under observation so that what might be of particular interest stands out within the wider mass of things seen.

This article looks at some of the features of this ‘expert’ observation and describes one very simple practice exercise where observation was used to explore the various uses of park areas. Read more

Children in Distress: Responding to known and unknown needs.

There is a, quite correct, intense focus on the needs of children variously categorised as being at risk, in need of care, or in distress because of neglect or abuse. The numbers of such children varies and has recently been rising. What are the factors within families that are most likely to lead to children being abused or neglected? What is the threshold for statutory intervention? What is the current and likely future scale of the issue? Are there new kinds of abuse emerging, or unrecognised forms that are not yet on the radar of those watching out for such things? How prepared are we, as a society, to respond rapidly to any new sources of distress to vulnerable children?

It is clear that the neglect and abuse of children is far from a new phenomenon. My own first academic contact with the issue was Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson’s book ‘Children in Distress’ in 1968 and the UK White Paper ‘Children in Trouble’ which led up to the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act.

Children’s everyday experience of distressful lives did not start with their public accounting in such documents. This is an old and extensive problem that continues to take new forms and occur over fluctuating scales – always demanding new attentions and expecting new responses.

Currently the focus is on the expectation that something should be done, immediately and robustly, whenever abuse or neglect is suspected; that preventative mechanisms should be in place for early detection of such risks in order to head things off before they become more serious; that being alert to such situations is the responsibility of everyone and not to be left to particular individuals; and that new forms of neglect and abuse are constantly emerging so that vigilance and foresight are required more than ever.

The threshold between the rigours of childrearing and the spill-over into abuse or neglect is not crisp. The extremes are obvious. Just as healthy contexts for childrearing will ‘make’ children – so there are a number of risky contexts that, if not addressed, can ‘break’ children. Around the boundary between these two are family contexts which may, or may not, turn into something risky – but things cannot always be assumed to be problematic. Family behaviours may simply be transient, may sort themselves out, especially if early help is on offer. Read more

Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships? How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic? Read more

Thinking about ‘Contemporary’ : a hesitant exploration

As with so many useful terms, there is no simple single understanding of ‘contemporary’. It is still being explored and in some ways may never be fully settled on. At the same time, there are some clear lines of sight that help people see a way through.

Contemporary, by its roots, is about time and belonging together. That apparent clarity is immediately one source of difficulty. Its common-sense understanding has contemporary relating to particular things coexisting within this current time period (Contemporary = of the present) but (a) there is a different sense in which anything in the past was contemporary with other things in that same past period. (Everything is contemporary in its own time – so there is nothing especially contemporary about today); and (b) not everything that exists together in the here and now might be judged to be contemporary in its values.

Maybe one answer is to declare that the currently contemporary relates to the now of today and simply ‘is’, as something that cannot be generalised beyond its very fragmented existence. This sees the contemporary as being a highly diverse set of outlooks (more so than things have been in the past with diversity in cultural production, exchange, consumption, materials, meanings. and with little expectation of being able to neatly draw boundaries to contain it. That, in turn, leads back to contemporary being able to encompass everything and anything, so long as it is thought of as contemporary.

This contemporary-as-diversity arises from an understanding that we currently live in a very different kind of world, and that any socially-constructed activity will reflect things that are shaped by a unique set of stronger, broader, different forces. This brings some paradoxes and puzzles: The world (physically and socially) is more connected than ever before but, at the same time, feels more fragmented. There are widespread, almost universal, influences but these play out differently everywhere: Think global; Think local.

This was also true, in its own way, of past eras of expanding trade and industrialisation. There is something particularly new and different in the nature of those same influences, making the contemporary what it is today. What is so specific about the shaping forces of now? What is it within anything contemporary that clearly marks it out as such: as being characteristic of twenty-first century existence rather than of any previous age? Read more