Serendipity and the field

Professor Jenny Phillimore
Professor Jenny Phillimore

By Professor Jenny Phillimore, who recently stepped down as Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS), and is still very actively involved in the Institute and its reasearch. 

 "A new stage of my academic career is in the making as I step down from a decade of work setting up and developing the Institute for Research into Superdiversity and begin to focus more on my research and policy work.  There are decisions to be made about what to do in what will be the last decade of my career.  Looking ahead to the new year prompted me to reflect on the last with my mind inevitably recalling both highlights and lowlights.  Given that I am trying to plan what I do next it is perhaps ironic that some of the highlights were entirely serendipitous moments.

One particular experience stands out.  As a co-investigator on the Swedish Research Council funded Localities project I spent a pleasant few days in June 2019 showing the Project lead, Gabriella Elgenius, around superdiverse neighbourhoods in Birmingham, as we looked for candidates to become case study summaries for the project.  As a largely desk bound director I was delighted to be escaping to the field although rather concerned about the size of the inbox that would await my return.  Before I departed, I caught a group e-mail sent out by a local Methodist priest who works closely on Community Sponsorship, one of my other research projects.  This invited all-comers to a meeting with a BBC4 producer about Birmingham’s tradition of sanctuary and it happened to be held in one of the potential case study areas.

Gabriella and I walked the streets of this neighbourhood making a note of the different civil society resources available to local people, taking and geotagging photos and chatting to people.  These first steps in ethnographic fieldwork are very important to us enabling us to orientate ourselves and to think about how fieldwork might proceed.

When the time came we both entered the church where the meeting was in full swing and listened to the stories of two elderly Jewish women who had come to the UK as refugees talking about their experiences both of reception and how they had made their lives in Birmingham.  They recalled losing friends and family but despite this both had made huge contributions to society as nurses but also as active citizens.  The philosophy that “we are put on this earth to help others” was a driving force for both and had translated into voluntary work that they were still engaged in helping to support refugees now arriving from Syria.  The astonishing bravery of the woman, their determination to make lives better for others as well as the declaration of having had a good life despite their losses was truly an inspiration.  Their words pretty much reduced the whole room to tears.

The producer captured this moment well in what it turned out to be his very first documentary.  But Gabriella and I walked out of the room feeling inspired.  Sharing that moment led to my decision to grow the Community Sponsorship evaluation work that I am doing on a voluntary basis (with the support of my University) to help make it the best possible scheme for supporting refugees to resettle in the UK.  But it also made a difference to Localities.  The church that hosted the meeting became an important focal point for our study and some of the people attending the meeting important informants.  We selected this neighbourhood to be one of our two UK case studies in Localities.  Subsequently Gabriella has spent many hours walking the neighbourhood and interviewing people uncovering civil society actions aimed at making the lives of others better.  We hope that our findings will reveal the value of these often-invisible actions to the everyday lives of those living in superdiverse places.

So this meeting generated a number of unexpected effects influencing our choice of neighbourhood and my other research work.  Fieldwork is full of these serendipitous moments which can be profound or almost mundane.  My brief return to the field reminded me of this and why its important for me to get out into the real world instead of directing research projects from the ivory tower."

Read more about the SEREDA Project in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).