Apparently, I am now a Doctor: thoughts on straddling, changing and staying the same

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As followers of this blog may have noticed, or guessed, I’ve been working my way towards a PhD by Publication. The journey has been seven long years of juggling this alongside my ‘daytime’ teaching and course management commitments. But – subject to some minor amendments to my synopsis – I’ve now reached the end of the road, having successfully defended my portfolio by viva yesterday before a panel of three examiners: Hilary Geoghegan (University of Reading – cultural geography), Paul Chynoweth (University of Salford – built environment law) and Angel Maye-Banbury (SHU – urban studies).

I’d anticipated that the biggest challenge would be persuading each of the examiners that the eight presented articles represented a coherent, singular programme. The articles ranged across ruminations on bunker-hunting, first-person psychogeography and law & policy analysis of certain place related safety anxieties. All – I argued – were concerned with eliciting the idea/thing relational logics of being in the built environment. That aspect went ok, and what actually proved to be the trickiest was being pressed to say which domain I was claiming my body of work to be anchored in. In short, was I claiming to be a legal scholar or a geographer? I didn’t really have a straight answer for that. My examiners squared the circle by foregrounding my eight step journey’s autoethnographic dimension: rationalising that across my eight article journey (2010 to 2013) I’d started out doing law-in-society type research, but by the end was doing cultural geography.

I was urged to say how I’d changed across that journey – how I stopped being a legal scholar and started being a cultural geographer, but I felt the need to resist that fix. I haven’t changed, I’ve just become a little more confident at being playful and candid about what makes me tick as a researcher. I’ve learned to make a virtue of being stuck on the fence with a foot in two quite different worlds. Yes, the published articles, appearing first in law and then in geography journals, show quite an extreme arc – from law-in-context analyst in 2010 through to landscape writer in 2013, and maybe I’d not fully grasped how wide that direction of travel would appear to someone (anyone) looking in.

But it always made sense to me – because I was living it, iteratively, in each small step adjusting from my former professional life to that of an academic. But we’re never just one thing – as my forthcoming chapter in Tina Richardson’s edited collection on contemporary British psychogeography will argue, professionals (engineers, lawyers, whoever) experience moments of reverie during their sober tasks and – conversely – funky urban explorers have their moments of taxonomic orderliness. We code switch as daily tasks require, and a fullsome account of either a lawyer or a landscape poet looking purposively at a place or its physical structures will be a sophisticated, action-oriented, blending of many different itensities and logics. But what, when and where you choose to reveal these multi-thoughts, realms and reasons is the key issue. My journey has been about infecting law with a sense of affect and affect with a sense of law, and I’ve become more explicit about that as the journey has progressed.

Anyway, I’ve been urged to put more of my ‘journey’ aspect into my synopsis and to boost the claim to disciplinary affiliation. The irony in all of this – of course – is that the case studies were all about delineating the internal practice-logics of particular communities. It’s fitting then that the journey closes with adjustments to enhance disciplinary fit.

When the synopsis has been revised I will make a copy available here. For now, here’s my abstract and a list of the publications that comprised my portfolio:

Interpretive communities at work and play in the built environment

Via a series of case study investigations this programme of studies applies the related concepts of ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish, 1980) and ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) to the contemplation of, and interaction with, a variety of seemingly mundane places and structures within the built environment (principally cemetery gravestones, trees, abandoned military bunkers and an industrial hillside). It takes from these and other related theorists a broadly social constructivist concern to show how discursive practices render phenomena known or noticed but also inflects these seemingly idealist notions with a materialist (and pragmatist) sensibility, namely that ideas give significance to matter, but that matter exists anyway, shapes human agency and can act back upon meaning-making. The programme explores and asserts the importance of this co-production, this matter/meaning entanglement (Barad 2007; Hodder 2012) by exploring the ‘as practiced’ imprint of law and hobbies upon the built environment. The concern is to show both the multiplicity and the robustness of particular ways of engaging with such structures and places amongst certain professional and recreational communities – and also of some of the structural similarities in their meaning-making. Thus we strangely find seemingly counter-cultural ‘urban explorers’ performing building surveying as a hobby, we find land managers projecting wild ‘learned’ anxieties onto nondescript (and perfectly safe) assets, and we find local communities excavating rich meaning – in play and reminiscence – in the detritus of a landfill site. The programme thus provides both a practical and theoretical contribution towards understanding how places and structures become feared (as liabilities) or loved (as treasures) and of the logics and processes by which this occurs.  It thus contributes to studies of the geographies of law, enthusiasm, exploration and heritage and to the sociologies of lay knowledge, law, organisation and also to material culture studies.

In closing I’d like to thank you, anonymous reader, for your encouragement along the way. Whilst not directly featured in any of my eight articles the lukebennett13 blog and my exploratory, confessional ruminations here have been a key part of the journey. I know you only as a Twitter handle or a Blog name. For all I know you may not be the gender, age or otherwise the person or collective that you claim to be. But your interest, support and/or critique has all helped me along the way.

Thank you.