Reflections from the Postgraduate Midterm Conference 2018 by Hibba Mazhary

University of London’s Royal Holloway Campus, Egham

Hibba Mazhary was awarded a bursary from our research group to attend this year’s Royal Geographical Society Mid-term conference at the University of London’s Royal Holloway campus back in April 2018. As part of her award, we asked her to provide us with a blog post, recounting her experiences and thoughts of the postgraduate conference event.

Ideas and Provocations

By Hibba Mazhary

It was a sunny week in mid-April, during the first (and what we naïvely thought was the last) real heatwave of 2018, when a group of postgraduates and some senior academics gathered in Royal Holloway’s leafy Egham campus for the 2018 RGS-IBG Mid-Term Conference.

We had the pleasure of listening to a variety of keynote speakers with diverse geographical approaches. After the initial welcome and registration, we were addressed by Professor Katherine Brickell from Royal Holloway’s geography department. Her talk wove together two fieldwork projects, linked funnily enough by the common topic of ‘bricks’. She acknowledged the link between her chosen research topic and her last name, as fated, or at the very least, serendipitous. Professor Brickell traced the mundane engagements of people with bricks in Cambodia and Ireland, and how the politics of grievability and vulnerability became inscribed on bodies through the medium of bricks. In Cambodia, she described the phenomenon of ‘Blood Bricks’, where the booming building development market created an insatiable demand for bricks in the country. Modern-day slavery is prevalent in Cambodian brick kilns and multi-generational families are trapped in debt bondage. In this case, bricks represented exploitation. Bricks were embodied, quite literally, by the limbs and bodies of workers, as workers often suffer serious injuries in the kilns. In contrast, bricks represented something quite different in the Irish case. Residents of a modular housing development for the homeless in Dublin were concerned that the buildings were not traditional ‘bricks and mortar’. They feared that their homes would be conspicuously unlike normal housing and would further marginalise the homeless.  The emotional resonance that residents had with bricks in this case, and what bricks symbolised in the Cambodian context, showed that building materials are affective infrastructures.

The next keynote speaker presented his thoughts from quite a different angle, as a journalist rather than as an academic. Jamie Bartlett, who works for a leading think-tank, spoke to us about his experience with fringe communities, otherwise known as ‘radical movements’. His work involved in-depth ethnographic research, following radical groups such as the Transhumanist Party and Tommy Robinson attempting to set up Pegida UK. Although he made a point of not identifying himself as an academic, but rather as a journalist, much of what he mentioned resonated with us as an academic audience: the ethical struggles of participant observation, the difficulties of writing critically about people with whom you have built rapport, and research participants being unhappy with your write-up all felt like familiar issues. The most fascinating and disconcerting part of his address was the observation that what is deemed ‘radical’ by society can change quite drastically over decades. To demonstrate this, he gave the example of Neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski’s ‘Unabomber Manifesto’; whilst Ted’s violent methods still seem extreme today, the fears about technology expressed in this manifesto resonate much more strongly in today’s world than when it was written in the 1990s.

The third keynote speech by David Gilbert, again from Royal Holloway’s geography department, deconstructed the idea of the suburban and problematised the idea of the suburban being subordinate to the urban. The suburban was traditionally theorised as a place of mundanity and lack of creativity. He referenced the new critical studies, which are more celebratory about the suburbs, and which recognise that they are not ethnically and racially homogenous. We were therefore encouraged to think about the suburbs in a more critical and nuanced manner.

There was also a range of very useful workshops where we, as postgraduates, tried to absorb as much information as we could. The first workshop I attended was on publishing, given by the co-editor of Area, the journal of the Royal Geographical Society. She imparted some very valuable advice such as the significance of titles, abstracts and keywords, which are often overlooked, in shaping the discoverability of your article in search engines. She also gave us a valuable insight into the peer review process, demystifying the stages before, after and during the dreaded “Reviewer 1” and “Reviewer 2”.

The second workshop on access was similarly valuable. The workshop conveners encouraged us to think of access beyond just the idea of the gatekeeper. Usually, access is confined only to the methodology section and never mentioned again, but in fact a deeper approach is needed to acknowledge its emotional labour and challenges. Access is something to consider at all stages of the research process. In order to illustrate these points, one of the workshop conveners spoke about her access to an arms fair. There were a range of negotiations to secure access including multiple emails months in advance. There was also the matter of performing ‘insider’ status once in the arms fair by using jargon in order to maintain access.

Overall, the conference presented an assortment of ideas and provocations for all attendees to mull over. It provided a supportive atmosphere that was a good forum for first-time postgraduate presenters such as myself. The range of topics was immense and there was an action-packed schedule with multiple parallel sessions, meaning that we were spoilt for choice about which sessions to attend. This regular conference continues to deliver a valuable and constructive site for postgraduates to gather.