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Centre for Culture and Everyday Life

Talks & Presentations Posted on 18 May, 2022 16:31:51

I am delighted to be able to announce that the Centre for Culture and Everyday Life (CCEL) has now been officially launched!

Michelle Henning and I are co-directors of the Centre. We had our launch event last week (10 May 2022). This took place in the School of the Arts Library in 19-23 Abercromby Square. We had a great turn out and a fantastic keynote from Joe Moran, Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. On top of all that it was a real joy being at an event where everyone was in the same room together once more (an actual room, that is, not a virtual one on Zoom).

We have a provisional website for the Centre as well. This will be developed and populated more extensively in due course:,groups/research-centres/centre-for-culture-and-everyday-life/

Book launch and talk on chapter

Talks & Presentations Posted on 06 May, 2022 12:53:44

As part of my contribution to the online book launch of Territories, Environments, Politics: Explorations in Territoriology, edited by Andrea Mubi Brighenti and Mattias Kärrholm (Routledge, 2022) I will be discussing my chapter ‘Territory Glimpsed Through Lache Eyes: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Excursions in Liminal Space’. The event takes place 10 May 2022, 1-3pm CEST (12-2pm BST):

Killing Space, Giving Life to Space – RAI talk 14 October 2021

Talks & Presentations Posted on 17 Mar, 2022 17:10:55

This is the first blog entry I’ve made since January 2020. Back then I had posted details about the talk on ‘Navigating Cinematic Geographies’ I was invited to give at the University of Mainz. That also happened to be the last time I travelled overseas. Just a few short weeks later the world would end up looking and feeling very different. And in just a few short weeks from now I will be travelling outside of the UK once more, the first time since the Great Interruption. I can’t wait.

This new post has been prompted by the Royal Anthropological Institute having just released the recordings of past events they have organised, including a talk I gave back in October 2021 titled ‘Killing Space, Giving Life to Space: Interdisciplinary Excursions in Spatial Anthropology’.

Details about the seminar, including the abstract of the paper I presented, can be accessed here:

The recording (which lasts 80 minutes) can be accessed here:

Navigating Cinematic Geographies – Mainz

Talks & Presentations Posted on 20 Jan, 2020 10:22:30

On 17 January 2020 I presented a paper at the Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The title of the presentation was ‘Navigating Cinematic Geographies: Reflections on Film as Spatial Practice’, which is also the title of a chapter I have in the forthcoming The Routledge Handbook of Place collection, edited by Tim Edensor, Ares Kalandides and Uma Kothari. Thank you to Elisabeth Sommerlad and Anton Escher for inviting me and to their students for their very interesting questions and discussion in response to the ideas (and, at times, provocations) I was putting forward.

Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance

Misc Posted on 23 Nov, 2019 17:14:17

A new, posthumous Leonard Cohen album arrived yesterday, Thanks for the Dance. It is quite something, especially this opening track, ‘Happens to the Heart’. The record carries a remarkable sense of presence, as if he never went away. In keeping with the music, the video is stark in its beauty and simplicity. It has echoes of Cohen’s years spent at Mount Baldy in the 1990s.

RAI 2020 – CFP: Embodying Liminality in Transitional Spaces

Conference CFPs Posted on 28 Sep, 2019 14:15:34

This is a call for papers for a panel we are organising at the Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future conference hosted by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), and jointly organised with the British Academy, British Museum, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), and SOAS University of London, 4-7 June 2020.

We are pleased to invite papers for the panel: ‘EMBODYING LIMINALITY IN TRANSITIONAL SPACES’ (Code B01), which is part of the ‘Borders and Places’ stream.

Convenors: Les Roberts (University of Liverpool) and Hazel Andrews (Liverpool John Moores University)

Please provide a 250 word abstract proposal by 8th January 2020. All proposals must be made via the online form that can be found here:

Papers should be around 15-20 minutes in length.

Further details about the conference can be found at:

Please see below for panel details:


Short abstract:

The aim of this panel is to explore new and emerging scholarship that seeks to draw together work that addresses the transformational potential of liminal spaces and the experiential, affective and embodied affordances that shape deeper understandings of the spatial phenomenology of liminality.

Long abstract:

The aim of this panel is to explore new and emerging scholarship that, while steered by foundational anthropological insights into liminality and liminal phenomena (Van Gennep 1960; Turner 1967; Shields 1991; Thomassen 2009, 2014), has sought to push these ideas into more rigorous dialogue with those that speak to questions of space and place. In this respect, building on recent work on liminal landscapes and spatial anthropology (Andrews and Roberts 2012, 2015; Roberts 2018), the panel invites contributors whose research engages with, and is informed by, the sociocultural practices and geographies that shape the experiential dynamics of liminal spaces. The psychosocial underpinnings that have remained a cornerstone of anthropological approaches to liminality (especially the work of Victor Turner) have found productive points of connection with strands of psychoanalytic theory and practice (Schwartz-Salant and Stein 1991), especially that developed by Donald Winnicott in his work on transitional objects and spaces, and the creative and performative possibilities of culture as ‘play’ (Winnicott 1971; Kuhn 2013). This, in turn, recalls Huizinga’s (1980 [1938]) writings on Homo Ludens which speak to the liberatory and creative potential that underwrites what he refers to as the ‘play element of culture’. Guided by these and related cross-currents of ideas on liminality as passage through ‘transitional spaces’, the panel seeks to draw together work that addresses the transformational potential of liminal spaces and the experiential, affective and embodied affordances that shape deeper understandings of the spatial phenomenology of liminality.

Culture, Space & Memory event: ‘In the Light of Memory’ film screening

Memory & Heritage Posted on 28 Sep, 2019 11:09:04

Memory in Motion: Filming Bucharest’s Pasts/Presents

Film Screening and discussion organised by the Culture, Space and Memory and Screen and Film Studies Research Groups, Department of Communication and Media

In the Light of Memory (Alyssa Grossman, 2010, 39 mins)

School of the Arts Library

Monday 30 September 2019 5-7pm

As a visual anthropologist, I have been working with film in my research on everyday sites and practices of remembrance work in post-communist Bucharest, Romania. Engaging with the filmmaking process has also made me increasingly curious about the relationship between memory and the visual/multi-sensory medium of film itself. How can memory be invoked through the moving photographic image, when memory’s very existence implies an absence of the object of recollection? What experimental or alternative filmmaking techniques could be mobilised to capture internal, affective aspects of memory that cannot be directly manifested through traditional visual documentary means? In this presentation I will screen my film, In the Light of Memory, which aims to convey the frameworks and contents of individual and cultural memories in the contemporary Romanian post-communist context. I will also discuss my somewhat unorthodox usage of the ‘traveling shot’ in the film, as an attempt to communicate something of memory’s own textures and tones, experiences that are more visceral, fragmented, and multi-layered than the narratives often conveyed by conventional (textual and visual) ethnographies. Alyssa Grossman.

Film synopsis:
In the Light of Memory
(39 min.) explores everyday sites and practices of memory in Bucharest, twenty years after the fall of Romanian communism. Shot in Cișmigiu Gardens, one of the oldest public parks in Bucharest, the film interweaves individuals’ recollections of the past with present-day scenes from the park, creating a montage of images and voices, stillness and motion, landscapes and people.

A Day in Liverpool – Film screening with live score

Film, Space & Place, Talks & Presentations Posted on 15 Sep, 2019 11:06:32

On Saturday 14 September I attended a screening of two archive film projects that were performed with a live score at the Bluecoat in Liverpool.

The first, Tracks by the composer Luke Moore, featured footage shot of and from the Liverpool Overhead Railway that included the first ever moving images of Liverpool, filmed by the Lumière cameraman Alexander Promio. The film also included some stunning 3D animation of the railway and surrounding urban landscape by the artist Steven Wheeler (

The main feature, Anson Dyer’s 1929 ‘city symphony’, A Day in Liverpool, was screened with a live score performed by composer and songwriter Aidan Smith. I had seen this film many times before, but seeing it for the first time, on a big screen, with a much-needed score transformed the film and brought it alive in ways that a mute viewing on a laptop simply cannot match.

I was invited by Anselm Burke to take part in a post-screening discussion along with Luke, Steven, and Aidan. Interesting chat afterwards with people sharing their memories of the Overhead Railway.

Below is a short piece about A Day in Liverpool that I was asked to write by way of background to the film for those attending:

A Day in Liverpool

As a ‘city symphony’, although it is not quite in the same league as such classics as A Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929), A Day in Liverpool undoubtedly qualifies inasmuch as it showcases some of the genre’s key features and motifs. Like Man With a Movie Camera (which, not coincidentally, was also made in 1929), A Day in Liverpool goes out of its way to give a sense of the city’s rhythms as orchestrated by the director and editor (or should this be ‘conductor’?). It does this by drawing on the dynamism and seemingly inexhaustible energy of a city at work (and, to a lesser extent, at play). Structured around the working day, the film ebbs and flows with the activities of office workers (their hurried footsteps streaming up the steps of the Port of Liverpool Building), dock workers, merchants, traders, construction workers, commuters, shoppers, street hawkers, leisure-seekers and others caught up with, and contributing to, the rhythms of everyday life in what was a bustling, frenetic and above all industrious city. What the film also depicts in all its soot-choked splendour is the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR), known affectionately as the ‘Dockers’ Umbrella’ in tribute to the lively urban scenes that unfold beneath as much as along the elevated sections of track. One particular shot of the LOR, filmed from the top of the Liver Building, offers what is nothing short of an iconic view of Liverpool’s urban landscape as it was in the late 1920s, a gloriously cinematic cityscape which would not look out of place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made two years earlier in 1927. If these images seem familiar, this is on account of their appearance in Terence Davies’s celebrated documentary or ‘cine-poem’ from 2008, Of Time and the City (although it should be noted that the images are historically out of sync with the diegetic time-line of Davies’ film, which covers the years from the director’s birth in 1945 to his eventual departure from Liverpool in the 1970s). Footage from A Day in Liverpool also appears in a documentary produced by British Pathé in 1957, called This in Our Time (now available for purchase on DVD). A film that has been little seen in a theatrical setting, and which has only ever existed in mute or silent form, A Day in Liverpool is itself deserving of a wider audience and commercial DVD release. And if there ever was a film from Liverpool’s rich archival film heritage that has been crying out for a much needed score, then A Day in Liverpool, the city’s first and only city symphony, is most certainly it.

Les Roberts, September 2019

Triangulation exhibition: VG&M

Maps & Mapping Posted on 17 Jul, 2019 11:22:45


An exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum Liverpool by the photographers Stephanie Wynne and Stephen McCoy as part of LOOK Liverpool Photographic Festival.

18 July – 24 August 2019

Location: Gallery 7, first floor, VG&M


Below is a short written piece I produced to accompany the exhibition:


Triangulation. The word has an air of precision about it. From the careful placing of the theodolite on the trig pillar, to the no less careful eye of the surveyor scanning a point in the distance, through to the geometric delineation of a landscape rendered in two dimensions, it is important to be precise. The rationalising and abstraction of space that defines the process of map-making – a mediation of the world that we are at once immersed within and standing back from – is analogous to that routinely invested in the work of the landscape photographer. Does a photograph map the topographic features being gazed upon by the photographer? Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends on how you are defining ‘map’. But what both forms of media do nevertheless impart is their ‘propositional character’, as Denis Wood suggests in his book Rethinking the Power of Maps. Both map and photographic image throw us something we then take it upon ourselves to do something with by way of response.

In the hands of photographers Stephanie Wynne and Stephen McCoy, Triangulation (the project) invites us to rethink the practice of triangulation and to enter into – or at least be more attentive to – a compelling dialogue unfolding between cartography and photography; between map-making and image-making. The way it does this is by offering us another form of triangulation, one that draws a tentative but discernible line between three discreet fields of knowledge; or, to borrow from cultural theorist Michel De Certeau, between three spatial stories.

The first of these is the story of how the British Ordnance Survey map came into being. Triangulation conjures a history of triangulation that speaks as much to the technological leaps and bounds that helped shaped innovations in cartography since the founding of the Ordnance Survey in 1791, as it does the geographical particularities of Great Britain as an island-nation and as a landmass set apart from continental Europe. Set against the backdrop of a nation grappling with the uncertainties of Brexit, Triangulation helps incite reflection on the extent to which the points we choose to triangulate necessarily need to fall within the political boundaries of the nation-state.

The second spatial story has a much deeper provenance, one that trails its way through cultural histories of landscape, where the process of ‘putting a frame’ (literally and metaphorically) around a part of the world – a cityscape here, an affecting rural prospect there, a Shangri-La beyond the horizon (somewhere over the rainbow) – is a part of how people down the ages have gone about the task of making that world. The aesthetics of landscape can be as rigorously disciplined or as messily chaotic as circumstances and artistic dispositions demand. In Triangulation we are privy to both the exactingly precise and the serendipitous workings of chance. As with the surveyor who has hauled his or her theodolite across a field or up a rocky incline, McCoy and Wynne, having found where X marks the spot, carefully erect their camera and tripod atop the triangulation pillars. What follows is a 360° panoramic scan that is enacted with the same degree of care as that expected of the Ordnance Survey cartographer. But in other respects, aesthetic considerations are obviated by the necessity to frame the view as they find it, whatever the weather and the challenges posed by the relentless buffeting of wind. Happenstance, and the simple need to get the job done, removes much of the burden of agency.

The third spatial story provides a tantalising glimpse into the trials and travails of the getting there. This is a story whose telling takes place outside the frame. It describes the coalescence of ideas and inspiration, of entwined creative ambitions, the gradual emergence of a realisable project, the aesthetic conviction and ‘mapping impulse’ that drives the process through to fruition. It describes a quest or an odyssey of sorts, a tale that is only fleshed out in its telling. It may even be suggested that Triangulation is the enactment of a form of pilgrimage inasmuch as any sacred journey is destined to reap a reward, something that is brought back to the mundane world. If we accept such a conceit, then each of these images may be looked upon as talisman or souvenir whose function is to prompt enunciation, whether this be the telling of the spatial story inscribed in the making of the image, or the calling out of what are otherwise neglected markers of cultural and industrial heritage. We might also consider whether each of these images is perhaps a stepping stone in a pilgrimage that can only be fully realised when all of the primary trig pillars still standing (310 at the last count) have been photographically mapped. But that would be to sketch the contours of a spatial story as yet untold.

Les Roberts, July 2019.

Digital Memories Symposium, London

Talks & Presentations Posted on 19 Jun, 2019 15:45:10

I visited the University of Liverpool in London campus for the first time this week. I remember when the building it occupies was the Bank of Nova Scotia. This was back in the 1990s when I was working in the area for a period (the bus stopped right outside). The building still has the feel and corporate ambience of an investment bank, which I suppose seems appropriate given the ‘trading’ of knowledge that is now expected to take place in the brave new marketised world of the neoliberal university.

Anyway, the reason I was there was to attend the Digital Memories symposium that I nominally co-organised (the bulk of the heavy lifting was done by Jordana Blejmar and Silvana Mandolessi). On the second day (18 June) the Culture, Space and Memory research group (myself, Alyssa, Wallis, and Jordana) presented some current work in progress. This was in a session held in a space called the ‘Executive Room’ (they could have at least given it a different name, one more befitting the kind of activity one would expect to be taking place at an academic conference or a university seminar room). My paper was a slightly revised version of the presentation I gave at the Geomedia Conference in May: ‘Homing in to Dwellspace: Inhabiting The Presentness of Memory’.

Geomedia 2019 recordings – plenary + podcast

Talks & Presentations Posted on 19 Jun, 2019 14:32:54

Following on from the previous post about the 2019 Geomedia conference, John Lynch has made available links to recordings of the plenary talk he organised and chaired (in which I participated) along with a podcast interview I recorded with John. These can be accessed below:

1. Plenary Session: Dreaming of Home: Film and Imaginary Territories of the Real, video recording of session chaired by John Lynch, Wednesday 8 May 2019. Access here.

2. Homing in Through Film, podcast discussion, Thursday 9 May 2019. Access here.


Talks & Presentations Posted on 11 May, 2019 18:10:52

Arrived back last night from this year’s Geomedia Conference in Karlstad. Three plane journeys and nearly 12 hours from door to door made the return journey quite a slog. Next time I’ll make sure to explore other travel options.

Anyway, the conference theme was ‘Revisiting the Home’ and my contribution was as part of a plenary panel (‘Dreaming of Home: Film and Imaginary Territories of the Real’) organised by John Lynch. The other contributors were Nilgun Bayraktar (California College of the Arts) and the filmmaker Christine Molloy (Desparate Optimists).

The plenary session was filmed and will shortly be available via the conference website (, along with a podcast that I recorded with John which will be available here.

The plenary paper I presented was called ‘Homing in Through Film: Movement, Embodiment, Dwellspace‘. Below is the abstract:

In this paper I set out to explore a phenomenology of ‘home’ that proceeds from contemplative reflection on three scenes from three very different films. In their own particular way, each of these scenes provide an oblique framing on ideas and affects that I am putting under the conceptual umbrella of ‘dwellspace’. Firstly, via Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1971), we consider home as an ‘island of memory’. In this reckoning, home serves as a transcendental u-topos of memory which corresponds with Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) idea of ‘absolute space’. That is, it marks out a sacred zone of authentic being which is phenomenologically rent from the embodied self situated in the here and now of social space-time. It is a ‘heterotopia’ (Foucault 1986) of home that can only exist outside of space and time, but which, like the cinematic image itself, can be accessed through our stepping in to virtual worlds. Secondly, taking as its example the euthanasia scene from Richard Fleischer’s dystopian thriller, Soylent Green (US, 1973), we consider home ‘as a journey to the other shore’, a metaphor, commonly associated with Buddhism, which refers to the journey of transition between life and death (or the afterlife). In this example, home is a place to ‘go back to’ in the sense of securing a locus of eternal dwelling where the transcendence of nature absorbs the soon-to-be-deceased back into its nurturing (or not-so-nurturing) fold. As with Solaris’s home as an island of memory, home in this example is a place that can only be embraced by correspondingly stepping away from the world: home as stasis and death as opposed to an affect of dwelling from where life and movement continue to flow. Lastly, drawing on Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life (Japan, 1998), I sketch out the contours of a phenomenologically different affect of home: home as a ‘good place’ (eu-topia) of memory. Paradoxically, although the film centres on the activities of the recently deceased (who are being processed through a transitional space – a kind of metaphysical holding area or celestial or purgatorial waystation – en route to an eternity in the afterlife), the idea – or dwellspace – of home that is crafted for those passing through is curiously life-affirming. The paper ends by extending this idea to consider what home might look and feel like as part of a creative spatial praxis: a creative ‘at-homeness’ which connotes not so much a stepping away from the space-time of everyday life, but rather a deep and poetic immersion within it.

Agnes Varda 1928-2019

Misc Posted on 30 Mar, 2019 17:35:28

Very sad indeed to hear the news of Agnes Varda’s passing. A truly inspirational figure and up there with the greats. I first became acquainted with her films when working on my PhD in the early 2000s and have been smitten ever since. The Gleaners and I remains one of my favourite films of any director. It never ceases to enchant and inspire. Other stand out films for me include Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7, Daguerreotypes, The Beaches of Agnes, and the recent Faces/Places. But for me all of her work stands up to repeated viewings. I was very fortunate to see her in conversation at FACT in Liverpool last year as part of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial. The photograph above was taken afterwards outside FACT. I will miss her playfulness, creativity and indefatigable energy.

I-Media-Cities Keynote

Talks & Presentations Posted on 30 Mar, 2019 12:55:28

I-Media-Cities Conference Brussels

March 27, 2019 at Cinematek Brussels, Rue Ravenstein 3, 1000 Brussels

Conference programme here.

I was invited to give a keynote talk at this one-day conference which was held on 27 March 2019 at the Cinematek (Royal Film Archive of Belgium) in Brussels. The conference was linked to the research activities of the Horizon 2020 I-Media-Cities project.

My presentation was titled: ‘Spatial Anthropology and the Archive City: Locating Urban Cultural Memory‘. Presentation slides can be accessed here.


Misc Posted on 20 Feb, 2019 22:39:10

It has been a while since I’ve uploaded anything to the ‘Words‘ page on I am not sure why this is other than the fish just not biting. Not that I’ve really been fishing as far as I am aware. What tends to happen with poetry writing is not so much that I go looking for words, it is rather that they come looking for me. At least, that is how it seems with the poem ‘Gif’. Something snags and refuses to be dislodged. Because of this thing – an idea, feeling, disposition, whatever – making demands on my attention I am inexorably drawn in. Some sort of resolution then becomes necessary. As I started to work through whatever it was the image of a gif called on me to address it became apparent that it was a structure of feeling instilled by the nightmare that is the Brexit ‘process’ (if that doesn’t over-dignify what is otherwise better described as a horrowshow) that was slowly beginning to reveal itself. I don’t think the poem exclusively speaks to this, but the overwhelming feeling of ‘stuckness’ that seems to hang in the air is very much in tune with a national mood that is encapsulated by whatever it is that ‘Brexit’ has come to signify. It is not really a liminal condition as such because there is no obvious sense of an in-between state that is being traversed and negotiated. It seems more like a stutter, a tourettes-like spasm of time stuck on repeat.

The poem ‘Gif’ can be read here.

Spatial Anthropology – acknowledgements

Publication News Posted on 02 Jul, 2018 10:34:01

Spatial Anthropology is now published in hardback and e-book formats (paperback is due in 2019). Great to see it in print finally. Unfortunately, due to some shoddy production work on the part of publishers Rowman & Littlefield, the book is missing the acknowledgements section I submitted. I am informed that this will be rectified for the paperback version and future print copies of the hardback (and the e-book). But for the time-being, the acknowledgements that would have been included in the book had R&L done their job properly are as follows:


In reworked form, parts of this book have been reproduced from articles published previously. ‘Castaway’ (Chapter 3) appeared first as ‘The Rhythm of Non-places: Marooning the Embodied Self in Depthless Space’, in Humanities, Volume 4 (2015). ‘Stalker’ (Chapter 4) is based on the article ‘The Bulger Case: a Spatial Story’, in The Cartographic Journal, Volume 51 (2014). ‘Necrogeography’ (Chapter 7) was published as ‘The Cestrian Book of the Dead: a Necrogeographic Survey of the Dee Estuary’, in Literary Mapping in the Digital Age, edited by David Cooper, Christopher Donaldson and Patricia Murrieta-Flores (Routledge 2016). I am grateful to the publishers of these articles and to the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

The ideas developed throughout the book and the research projects around which much of the discussion is based stretch back over a decade or more, pretty much spanning the period that I have been living and working in the North West (although, living as I do in North Wales – and Anglocentrism aside – this regional descriptor has necessarily blurred edges). Accordingly, the people who have in some way or another had a hand in the shaping of the book’s contents – whether as interlocutors, colleagues, discussants, students, informants, sceptics, detractors, fellow travellers, sounding boards – are far too numerous to mention. However, I would especially like to thank Sara Cohen and Julia Hallam, colleagues in the Institute of Popular Music (School of Music) and Department of Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool, with whom I worked closely on a series of research projects between 2006 and 2013. Many of the exploratory and formative incursions into what would only later acquire the name ‘spatial anthropology’ came about as a result of opportunities, and the intellectual freedoms they helped nurture, that were afforded me during this period of immensely collaborative research activity. Also, in addition to those who helped me secure permission to reproduce images (and to Rob Wright
for his captivating photograph of Stanlow Refinery included in Chapter 9), I am grateful to Andy McCluskey and BMG for generously allowing me to reproduce lyrics from the song ‘Stanlow’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a big thank you too to Paul Gallagher from the Museum of Liverpool for his help with this).

As the bulk of Spatial Anthropology was written during a period of research leave (February to September 2017) it would be remiss of me not to extend thanks to the School of the Arts and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Liverpool for granting me the requisite space and time to bring this project into fruition. I am grateful to series editors Neil Campbell and Christine Berberich for accepting Spatial Anthropology for publication as part of their excellent Place, Memory, Affect series. Lastly, I am, as ever, indebted to Hazel Andrews for helping me sharpen and refine my anthropological sensibilities, and for sharing the road (and the load) as we ramble and rove through this world of our making.

Les Roberts, March 2018.

‘Covert autoethnography’ and other research ethics anomalies: making the case for ethics-in-practice

Spatial Humanities Posted on 27 Apr, 2018 00:22:39

In this blog I wish to sound off about – or provide some considered critical reflections on, you decide which it is – the process of obtaining research ethics approval for projects that employ what may broadly be understood as autoethnographic methods. The subject matter for this blog entry has come about as a result both of observing (in ways that, I guess, qualify as autoethnographic reflection) how research ethics considerations are being administered procedurally, and as part of a process of broader critical engagement with questions of method as these apply to debates and practices in the spatial humanities. In respect of the latter, these thoughts have been developed in more expansive form in two publications that I have been working on for the past year or so, a monograph Spatial Anthropology: Excursions in Liminal Space (Roberts 2018a), and a special issue of the online open-access journal Humanities, which I guest edited under the title of: Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of ‘Making Do’ (Roberts 2017-18).

But first of all let me address the titular reference to ‘covert autoethnography’. To date, the only occasion that I have been confronted with this most intriguing of methodological strategies is at a procedural level (i.e. as raised in the course of trying to secure institutional ethics approval for a research project). My initial response when presented with the idea of ‘covert autoethnography’ was one of bemusement. Covert ethnography clearly makes sense and is entirely legitimate to raise in relation to research ethics considerations. But covert autoethnography made about as much sense to me as the idea of covert masturbation (try it, see if you can go all the way without noticing). Then I pondered it some more and, while I would maintain that it is unquestionably a meaningless term and entirely unworkable as a concern premised on the delivery of a practical response, it does nevertheless raise interesting questions as to the where a line may be unambiguously drawn between autoethnography and ethnography in terms of the ‘visibility’ of the researcher (as distinct from a ‘regular’ individual going about his or her everyday business). This is where the masturbation analogy doesn’t hold up so well. If I am autoethnographically attuned to the world of phenomena to which my attention is turned, then, in the first instance at least, it is myself to whom I am accountable. For it not to be so would be to abrogate any sense of my being able to authoritatively reflect on matters based on what I myself have directly observed and understood from what is going on in the world around me. As with the art of sexual self-service, this does not pose too great a problem when the activity is confined to the individual in his or her capacity as a lone operator. The minute the autoethnographer and/or onanist then plies their trade in public we are confronted with an altogether different ethical scenario. One of these figures will end up being bundled into the back of a police car and driven briskly away, and few would see this as any major infringement on basic human rights. The other – the autoethnographer – is saddled with a less conspicuous sense of social responsibility whereby any potential ethical transgression is less (nakedly) transparent. Its realisation can only ever be deferred if, indeed, it is ever made manifest at all. Any ethical concerns will only be revealed as such to the extent that any other parties that are drawn in to the orbit of the working autoethnographer feel they have been misled or taken advantage of in some way. The autoethnographer clearly does not operate in a social vacuum, and in that respect, unless making their researcher ‘identity’ a matter of very evident disclosure (perhaps by wearing some sort of hat with the words ‘autoethnographer at work’ emblazoned on the peak, or by requesting written consent before engaging in any and every form of social interaction), s/he is by definition acting ‘covertly’. And therein lies the rub.

‘In practice,’ argues American communications scholar Arthur Bochner, ‘autoethnography is not so much a methodology as a way of life. It is a way of life that acknowledges contingency, finitude, embeddedness in storied being, encounters with Otherness, an appraisal of ethical and moral commitments, and a desire to keep conversation going’ (2013: 53). If we accept that autoethnography is a way of life, or that, in practice, it is indivisible from how we might routinely engage with others as part and parcel of everyday social discourse, then clearly it is not a ‘method’ that can (or should be) rigorously policed through the imposition of a standardised code of institutional research ethics. The regrettable connotation that the term ‘covert autoethnography’ undoubtedly helps reinforce is the idea that the practice of autoethnography can be neatly assigned to a specific social arena or period of time. This does, of course, depend as to what (or where) constitutes the ‘field’ of research practice in any given instance. But more often than not the researcher does not find themselves in a position where they might purposely declare ‘OK, I’m ready – now I am going into the field, putting my autoethnographer’s hat on and getting down to business’. It generally doesn’t work that way. Autoethnography may not necessarily be thought of as autoethnography at the time and place from whence narrative observations have been reflexively drawn; it is entirely conceivable that their significance may only be registered as noteworthy retrospectively (i.e. in the form of autoethnographic memory).

In ‘Spatial bricolage: the art of poetically making do’ (Roberts 2018b), I address these and related concerns with specific reference to the idea of the ‘researcher-as-bricoleur’ (Denzin and Lincoln 2011) and to an interdisciplinary understanding of space and its practice as a form of bricolage: of methodologically ‘making do’. As I note in that article, the eclecticism of bricolage methods can invite accusations of superficiality and lack of rigour. In such circumstances the researcher-as-bricoleur comes across as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ (and, by implication, master of none), someone who plays fast-and-loose with established research methods and paradigms. By way of illustration, critical pedagogist Joe Kincheloe describes problems he and his students encountered at university committee meetings and job interviews when advancing the merits of bricolage (and by extension interdisciplinary) approaches to their work as academics. ‘Implicit in the critique of interdisciplinarity’, he writes, ‘and thus of bricolage as its manifestation in research is the assumption that interdisciplinarity is by nature superficial’ (2001: 680-1). A commitment to research eclecticism – of ‘allowing circumstance to shape methods employed’ (Kincheloe et al 2011: 168-9) – can thus be seen, by some, as inherently problematic and something that shouldn’t really be encouraged. Putting what Norman Denzin refers to as the ‘Performative-I on stage’ or seeking to get recognition of autoethnography as a ‘disruptive practice’ (Denzin 2014: 11, 23) are not the easiest of propositions to sell to the average ethics review committee or institutional review board:

The IRB [institutional review board] framework assumes that one model of research fits all forms of inquiry, but that is not the case. This model requires that researchers fill out forms concerning subjects’ informed consent, the risks and benefits of the research for subjects, confidentiality, and voluntary participation. The model also presumes a static, monolithic view of the human subject. Performance autoethnography, for example, falls outside this model… Participation is entirely voluntary, hence there is no need for subjects to sign forms indicating that their consent is ‘informed.’ The activities that makes up the research are participatory; that is, they are performative, collaborative, and action and praxis based. (Denzin 2003: 249-250)

In a similar vein, bringing a performative and autoethnographic sensibility to the sociocultural study of space is to take it as read that our understanding and experience of space is itself action and praxis based. To question a space by the simple act of stepping into it is, by definition, already a breach of boundaries. We cannot roam wherever we like whenever we like but where lines are ‘legitimately’ drawn in any given scenario is fuzzy at best. However much (or little) truck a university ethics committee might have with the argument that researchers themselves should be at liberty to exercise some degree of ethical circumspection, the fact remains that, within the framework of what is deemed possible (if not necessarily defensible), the responsibility for action lies with the actor. As Marilys Guillemin and Lynn Gillam point out, procedural ethics and ‘ethics in practice’ are not the same thing; the latter – the day-to-day ethical issues that arise during the course of research activity – are subject to the reflexive considerations that the researcher is faced with as s/he responds to events and experiences as they present themselves in practice. Reflexivity thus ‘comes into play in the field, where research ethics committees are not accessible’ (2004: 274), making it, from a procedural point of view (i.e. that of a research ethics committee or institutional review board), a concept that is not even afforded any ethical significance (as if the ethical ‘work’ can be got out of the way at committee stage and any subsequent reflexivity on the part of the researcher restricted to matters solely practical, not ethical).

Reflexivity lies at the core of how and why the autoethnographer does what s/he does. Attention is thrown back on to the researcher in the field, not as an exercise in self-indulgence, but to recognise that the process of ‘making do’ requires the researcher to step in to any given space in ways that her presence – her creativity and performance; her intersubjectivity; her body; her experience – becomes constitutive of that space. In this respect, the spatial bricoleur is as autoethnographically invested in the space or spaces he immerses himself in as he is in any other that are routinely encountered in everyday life. For the autoethnographer ‘in the field’ it is no more possible to maintain a non-dialogical distinction between procedural ethics and ethics-in-practice as it is in any other socio-spatial context. This does not mean that ethical considerations made ‘in practice’ automatically trump those made procedurally, or that they extend licence, by default, to the reflexively aware researcher. What it does point to is the pedagogic presumption of what Denzin calls a ‘communitarian dialogical ethic of care and responsibility. It presumes that performances occur in sacred aesthetic spaces where research does not operate as a dirty word’ (2014: 80, emphasis in original). On the part of the institution, it may not be that the risks themselves are considered high or of any immediate concern in terms of the research outline being proposed. It may instead simply be that the very idea of academic research as ‘bricolage’ or that methods may be applied in an ‘eclectic’ fashion (or, indeed, that the merits of chance, provocation or performativity are being earnestly promoted) is enough to raise the alarm bells (not to mention the eyebrows of administrators and the legions of bureaucrats who have secured a well-established foothold in the neoliberal academy). On that basis alone, the case for making autoethnography and the researcher-as-bricoleur as a focus of critical discussion is, I am suggesting, persuasive and cogent.

In seeking to cast a much-needed critical spotlight on the regime of qualitative research ethics scrutiny it is important to stress that my intention is not in any way to play down the seriousness of ethical matters as they relate to academic research practices and methods. Nor is it to suggest that research ethics should be wrested free from all forms of procedural governance and administration. My aim is not even to make the rather obvious point that the current system of research ethics scrutiny is demonstrably out of step with the practical realities faced by many academics and their students working in research environments where eclecticism, interdisciplinarity, some degree of bricolage, or of creativity and performativity, has long been the norm. Rather than making a case against the imposition of research ethics frameworks, my intention, if anything, is the opposite. It is to make the case for research ethics to be thought about differently; to persuade those that need persuading that procedural ethics and ethics-in-practice are, or should be, a conversation: an open, flexible, and above all dialogical ethic of care and responsibility. Procedural ethics should not be just an instrumental mechanism to dictate what ethics-in-practice unbendingly need to comply with, with all the inflexibility and standardisation that such a one-way discourse helps cement. A procedural ethics that understands and respects the idea of experiential ethics-in-practice is one that recognises that qualitative researchers, as with any other academic, whatever their methodological orientation, are qualified professionals whose skill-set, by definition, extends to their having to make ethical judgements and reflexive decisions ‘on the go’ (that is to say: in practice). They do not park their ethical responsibilities once they’ve been given institutional approval and set out for the field with the knowledge that they’ve been ‘cleared’ for ethically appropriate action. They bring ethics to their practice as critically reflexive and socially engaged researchers whose responsibility, as they see it, also extends to the provision and sustainability of productive research environments for their students. A procedural ethics that understands and respects this ethos is one that recognises that students also need to be given the space to work through ethics-in-practice as part of their own journey towards becoming critically reflexive and socially engaged citizens, wherever their professional careers may take them. From a critical pedagogical standpoint, talk of ‘covert autoethnography’, with its Orwellian overtones (the implication that critical reflection should be held in check lest the very act of thinking infringes on the rights of others) thus more than justifies a committed ethical response. In making the case for ethics-in-practice, this blog provides a small, but hopefully not too insignificant contribution to this unfolding conversation.

Les Roberts, April 2018


Bochner, Arthur P. 2013. ‘Putting Meanings into Motion: Autoethnography’s Existential Calling’, in Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, Carolyn Ellis (eds.), Handbook of Autoethnography. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, pp. 50-56.

Denzin, Norman K. 2003. Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture. London: SAGE.

Denzin, Norman K. 2014. Interpretive Autoethnography. 2nd Edition. London: SAGE.

Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln. 2011. ‘Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research’, in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 4th Edition. London: SAGE, pp. 1-19.

Guillemin, Marilys and Lynn Gillam. 2004. ‘Ethics, Reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in Research’, in Qualitative Inquiry 10 (2): 261-280.

Kincheloe, Joe, Peter McLaren and Shirley R. Steinberg. 2011. ‘Critical Pedagogy and Qualitative Research: Moving to the Bricolage’, in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 4th Edition. London: SAGE, pp. 163-177.

Kincheloe, Joe. 2001. ‘Describing the Bricolage: Conceptualizing a New Rigor in Qualitative Research’, in Qualitative Inquiry 7 (6): 679-692.

Les Roberts. 2017-18. Special Issue on ‘Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of “Making Do”‘, Humanities, 7.

Roberts, Les. 2018a. Spatial Anthropology: Excursions in Liminal Space. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Les Roberts. 2018b. ‘Spatial bricolage: the art of poetically making do’, in Les Roberts (ed.), Special Issue on ‘Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of “Making Do”‘, Humanities, 7.

Posthuman Buddhism

Selfhood & Body Posted on 26 Mar, 2018 15:36:29

The manuscript for Spatial Anthropology: Excursions in Liminal Space is now well into the production stage. The book is due to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in June 2018.

In the meantime, I have started work on the next monograph, a provisional outline of which is as follows:

Posthuman Buddhism is a new book project currently in development. Ideas for the monograph have their root in a number of different theoretical domains but share common ground insofar as they variously confront questions of selfhood and embodiment in the digital age. The book approaches these questions by framing its discussion around philosophical and anthropological perspectives that span two very different fields of study. Firstly, addressing debates in communication studies that explore phenomenological and non-media-centric approaches to digital media practices, Posthuman Buddhism provides insights into the embodied materialities of posthuman media cultures, where digital communications serve as much an ontological as instrumental function (provoking the question ‘what does it mean to be posthuman in the digital media age?’). Secondly, grappling with some of the spatial and temporal implications of posthuman media materialities, Posthuman Buddhism draws on ideas that speak to, and are illuminated by, strands of Buddhist thought and practice (provoking the question ‘what does it mean to be “mindful” in the digital media age?’).

The motivation for writing the book stems from a desire to explore more fully a number of interrelated themes, some of which have started to feed into content covered on a course I teach at the University of Liverpool called Media, Self and Society (which, from 2018-19, will be re-named Posthuman Culture and Society and co-taught with my colleague David Hill). The introductory lecture on the course was written in the days following the death of David Bowie in January 2016. Responding to that event, the lecture sought to examine concepts of the ‘postmodern self’ by reflecting, in part, on the shape-shifting and fluid identities that were a hallmark of Bowie’s cultural persona. It did so by bringing the idea of creative changefulness, exemplified by Bowie, into dialogue with Buddhist notions of impermanence and non-self (and by briefly touching on Bowie’s own long-standing flirtation with Buddhism). Posthuman Buddhism builds on these introductory reflections on culture, media and the postmodern self to consider broader issues that draw together posthuman media materialities and Buddhist praxis. These include the use of digital devices and mindfulness apps as tools to aid meditation practice; the rhythmanalytical and experiential affects of ‘slow media’ on embodied understandings of time; and the production and consumption of mediated ‘spaciousness’ and its impacts on everyday phenomenologies of the self.

CFP: The Production of Location

Conference CFPs Posted on 18 Dec, 2017 21:23:09

The Eighth International Tourism and Media (ITAM) Conference

5-7th July, 2018 Liverpool, UK

The Production of Location

The eighth ITAM conference aim is to continue the network’s exploration of new ideas and debates sprung from the intersection between tourism industries and practices and those that broadly relate to the fields of media and communication. In this vein, the conference will aim to provide a forum where, taking their lead from Rodanthi Tzanelli’s concept of ‘global sign industries’ (2007), interdisciplinary research conversations gather pace around what are increasingly convergent fields of study and practice. While trends in scholarship on tourism and media are often reflective of discreet disciplinary dispositions, particularly those linked to perspectives in marketing and business, the necessarily open and ‘undisciplined’ terrain that defines the critical landscapes of media and tourism today demands a similarly open and undisciplined approach to keep pace with what is an ever-shifting and multi-stranded field of study.

The overarching theme of this conference is The Production of Location and we invite contributions that critically address questions of cultural brokerage in media tourism whilst continuing to welcome submissions from the inter- and cross-disciplinary traffic that informs the research on media and tourism and addresses a range of topics pertinent to both areas.

Dates: 5-7th July 2018

Location: School of the Arts, University of Liverpool, UK.

Keynote: Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli, Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology, University of Leeds (

Abstracts of 250 words should be submitted by 30th March 2018 to:

For enquiries please contact:

Dr Maria Månsson University of Lund, Sweden :

Dr Hazel Andrews, Liverpool John Moores University, UK :

Dr Les Roberts, University of Liverpool, UK :

The conference fee is £175 (conference meal and excursion optional extras TBC)

Further information will be posted on the conference website in due course:

Cities and Memory – sound mapping

Maps & Mapping Posted on 13 Feb, 2017 10:59:02

Details about the Cities and Memory project(s), from

What is Cities & Memory?

Cities and Memory is a global field recording & sound art work that presents both the present reality of a place, but also its imagined, alternative counterpart – remixing the world, one sound at at time.

Every faithful field recording document on the sound map is accompanied by a reimagination or an interpretation that imagines that place and time as somewhere else, somewhere new.

The listener can choose to explore locations through their actual sounds, to explore reimagined interpretations of what those places could be – or to flip between the two different sound worlds at leisure.

There are currently over 1,400 sounds featured on the sound map, spread over more than 55 countries.

The sounds cover parts of the world as diverse as the hubbub of San Francisco’s main station, traditional fishing songs on Lake Turkana, the sound of computer data centres in Birmingham, spiritual temple chanting in New Taipei City or the hum of the vaporetto engines in Venice.

The sonic reimaginings or reinterpretations can take any form, and include musical versions, slabs of ambient music, rhythm-driven electronica tracks, vocal cut-ups, abstract noise pieces, subtle EQing and effects, layering of different location sounds and much more.

The project is completely open to submissions from field recordists, sound artists, musicians or anyone with an interest in exploring sound worldwide – more than 350 contributors have got involved so far.

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