How is it that, in the course of everyday life, people are drawn away from greenspace experiences that are often good for them? By attending to the apparently idle talk of those who are living them out, this book shows us why we should attend to the processes involved.
* Develops an original perspective on how greenspace benefits are promoted
* Shows how greenspace experiences can unsettle the practices of everyday life
* Draws on several years of field research and over 180 interviews
* Makes new links between geographies of nature and the study of social practices
* Uses a focus on social practices to reimagine the research interview
* Offers a wealth of suggestions for future researchers in this field
Russell Hitchings is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at University College London, UK. He has studied everyday life in a variety of contexts around the world and has published widely on qualitative methods, energy consumption, climate adaptation and nature experience.
Taking an Interest in the Everyday Lives of Others
If we want to encourage people to live otherwise, we might start by attending to how they speak of the practices in which they are already involved. This is the second wager of this book. In exploring it, this chapter develops three suggestions about how to examine the relationship between speech patterns and social practices. My argument is that, though there are challenges involved in asking people to speak of things that they otherwise do as a matter of course, scrutinising how they respond to such requests offers a valuable window into how patterns of everyday life are socially ingrained and potentially redirected.
This second chapter tells the story of the how I went about exploring the processes that were introduced in the first. My ambition then was to make the case for an examination of how people can be pulled away from beneficial experiences with green environments - how, in different domains of everyday life, certain widespread practices may be serving to drive some increasingly sturdy wedges between us and them. My ambition now is to contribute to discussions about how everyday life is examined, and potentially influenced, by social researchers like myself. The central question that I explore in this chapter is about why I settled on the approach that I took in the four case studies discussed in this book. Boiled down to the most basic of terms, what I did was to speak with different groups of people about how certain parts of their lives went on and what that meant for how they did, and potentially might, respond to relevant outdoor environments. In one sense I was merely taking an interest in their everyday lives and, on one level, that is an unremarkable strategy. We might even imagine that people might enjoy talking in this way and be quite flattered to meet someone with such an interest in them. But, on another level, it goes against what some scholars have said about how we should put the 'social practice' concepts, with which I ended Chapter 1, effectively 'into practice'. With that in mind, the chapter starts with why there has sometimes been both suspicion and hostility about focusing too fully on the spoken word when exploring these topics. Then I offer a more hopeful account of how talking with people might feasibly work for us in this field before ending with an introduction to the four case studies.
For the purposes of this chapter, my own interest in the everyday outdoors could be seen as an arbitrary choice. In other words, though this was the topic that I was motivated to explore, the points that I make here could also inform projects that take a similar approach to others. Another aim of this chapter is therefore to identify some suggestions that could be of use both to me in my case studies and to others thinking about how everyday life is studied by social researchers like myself. They may also be of more general interest to those who wonder about how it is that we come to end up acting as we do. In terms of the material that I have collected to question these matters, this book draws on a great deal of talk: around two hundred hours of spoken exchange with various groups of people who were, at the time, reproducing the social practices that were of interest to me in my studies. We talked of challenges that ranged from thinking about how best to handle days when the air-conditioning system broke down at work, to deciding what should be done first after waking up in a festival field, to picking out the right things to put in your newly acquired garden, or considering whether, and crucially also where, your lunchtime run should take place. How people handle dilemmas such as these may strike you as rather banal. And indeed it is. But hopefully you will see by the end that this is precisely the point. After all, the power of the processes on which this book focuses stems from how certain actions can become unremarkably uninteresting, both to those involved and to the rest of us, since, once they have passed this point, they may be a whole lot harder to shake off.
In summary, my core question now is whether social researchers can learn useful things by speaking with people about the everyday practices that they are either already caught up in carrying out or some way towards a point when they are doing so unthinkingly. Without entirely giving the game away, my answer is that this question is most convincingly answered by trying, namely by attending to how relevant groups respond to such an exercise. In this way, my discussion sets the scene for the four following chapters that do exactly that.
For many of those who either see social life as an arena for competing practices or focus on the ways in which particular practices come to capture people, the logical extension of the argument for the approach is that we should aim to observe these practices in action. We should look especially closely at what people are doing and analyse why. Potentially, we should take part in the practice ourselves, but the objective should be to get as close as possible to how it is practically done. After all, if we are most interested in how people are drawn into particular ways of routinely acting, surely the obvious thing to do would be to watch how that happens. Especially if we are sometimes encouraged to see people are mere pawns in the process (simple creatures who are passively swept up in the rise and fall of practices), it might initially strike us as a misguided undertaking to speak with them about it. They'll probably attempt to tell us 'why' they do certain things. But, in so doing, they'll likely feel compelled to position themselves as in charge of their actions (because people often like to see themselves as such) when we've already decided that it doesn't really work like that. We might go so far as to think that it's cruel to ask them to explain themselves because they won't be able to provide a full account. And that is a fair argument if the whole point of thinking about social life in this way is to recognise that people are often carried through life in a way that can be enjoyably automatic. If that is the case, they'll surely be embarrassed about publicly discovering their powerlessness. This, at least, is the kind of argument that runs through a good amount of work. Certainly, there has been some hesitancy about the idea of testing out these ideas through talk. In line with this thinking, 'observation' has become, as Halkier nicely puts it (2017), something of a 'gold standard' method for a field whose proper aim should be to examine how things are done.
This argument is often traced back to a study in which some fairly strong statements are made about how foolhardy it is to focus too fully on talk in this field. This is the examination of his time at an inner-city Chicago gym provided by the anthropologist Wacquant (2004). In this long-term project, he set out to understand the process of being drawn into the world of boxing by becoming a boxer himself. And, drawing on this exercise, he makes some quite powerful arguments about how the successful mastery of particular modes of physical comportment are often all about the situational disappearance of talk. One of his central contentions is, for example, that the best boxers are those who cannot really tell you a great deal about what they are doing when they box. Why? Because they have trained themselves to reach a point when they are no longer really thinking about these matters. And so it is at the stage when their actions are no longer available to them through thought (and therefore no longer easily accessible to them through speech) that the boxer is ready for the fight. By then, boxing has become 'second nature', and they'll be much more likely to win because, for at least some of the fight, they'll effectively be on autopilot.
In other words, it is precisely because these sportspeople have become 'silent' (Bourdieu 1990) on certain aspects of what they do that they are more likely to succeed. Viewed in this way, the whole aim is to let the practice subsume you and not to question it since, were you to do so, all the hard work that you've put into making a series of physical responses relatively automatic would be undone. So, whilst we may be nervous of the implications of seeing practices as powerful agents that maraud through our societies 'capturing' people who are thereafter mere 'hosts' as they go, now we find some potential hosts working hard to achieve such a state. As one of the trainers told Wacquant in no uncertain terms whilst he slowly honed the craft himself, it's not good to talk too much about being 'mentally ready' for a fight. Why? Because to do so would be to overplay the mental aspects of 'readiness', when that, for these boxers, is at least as much a bodily matter. As the trainer, DeeDee, emphasises, if you are ready, you are ready, 'all the rest is bullshit, it's for the birds' (2004, p. 96). It is the alignment of mental and physical states that allows the experienced boxer to continue after being knocked out, for example. In such situations, the body effectively continues boxing on its own until the person regains consciousness. And this reticence about spoken analysis has been taken to apply to practices more generally since this study has become one of the classic statements on why we should eschew talk.
Yet what has always struck me about his study is how much Wacquant does draw on talk,...
'In this perceptive, original and timely intervention, Russell Hitchings shows that the potential benefits of greenspace use will not be realised without consideration of how it interacts with the practices of everyday life. Distinguished by its crystal-clear prose, The Unsettling Outdoors also provides a passionate defence of the interview method in the social sciences.'
Lesley Head, Professor of Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia
'Russell Hitchings' revealing interviews with office workers, recreational runners, garden owners, and festival campers show how distinctions between controlled indoor environments and 'the great outdoors' are enacted in practice. The result is a book that promises to transform long-standing debates about relations between people and the plants, trees and microbes with which they live.'
Elizabeth Shove, Professor of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK