LS meets on Tues. 2-4:00pm, BSQ room 1-03 (please, note that due to space constraints, attendance to LS is by invitation only)


4 October Catch Up Meeting

18 October Writing Nature                      Amy Cutler & Lucy Mercer

1 November Publishing Your PhD         Justin Spinney (Cardiff) & Amanda Rogers (Swansea)

15 November Performing Urban Archives       Cecilie Sachs-Olsen

29 November The Artificial Cave          Harriet Hawkins & Flora Parrot [1pm start]

10 January  Finding Natural Selection at the Ends of the Earth: the collecting                                             journeys of  Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace     Janet Owen

24 January Curating a Research Exhibition        Phil Hatfield (BL) et al.

7 February Visual Methods and Visual Communication Eric Laurier (Edinburgh)

21 February  Research Blogs and Social Media Stuart Elden & Mark Carrigan (Warwick)

7 March  AAG Dry Run

Outreach Days Alert The Young To The Excitement of Geography

The Faculty of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London regularly undertakes outreach work in order to alert the local community and secondary school students about the opportunities within our subject, most notably through the annual Science Festival.

However, over the past two years, there has been an event which is far less known about, but arguably just as important, and has come about due to fusing the two component parts of my own working week. As well as studying on the MA Cultural Geography course part-time, I also work as a primary school teacher two and a half days a week. I wanted to see if it was possible to arrange a relationship between our Geography department at Royal Holloway, and my own primary school within the Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.

Several discussions with department outreach officer Dr. Simon Blockley in the Autumn  of 2014 were held in order to decide the viability of the plan, and what a day involving the Year Three class of my school (aged 7-8) would look like. As 2015 dawned, the jigsaw puzzle came together and the red tape cleared, and I boarded a train at Richmond Station  complete with 27 children, three parents and a teaching colleague. Once the class got over the apparent hilarity of the name of the station at which they were disembarking (Egham – they’re only young, after all), they boarded the student bus (where conversation turned to how ‘grown up’ they suddenly felt). The initial high point for one and all was the first view of Founders Building. The children knew that I went to university on the days I was not with them, but they didn’t realise that university looked like this…

Upon arriving at the Queen’s Building, Simon Blockley had arranged to give the children a tour of the labs which involved meeting the incomparable Pierre who gave them the opportunity to examine incredible bones, skeletons and other objects which remained topics of constant conversation over the following months at school. One of the integral parts of the day for me (as a student of Geography and a teacher of children) was that the class should be able to spend an hour in a seminar room actually doing some Geography – so that they would get a taste of actually learning the subject at University. I devised a lesson relating to our class topic of Rivers, and with access to some of the department’s OS Maps, the children set about producing colour coded maps of land use around the River Thames in groups. By the end of our session we had produced maps which could then be joined together back at school to produce a huge display of the land use of the Thames from source to sea – it was an epic piece of work which was a major talking point for all who would see it in school over the coming weeks.

Packed lunch in the quadrangle of Founders followed, before we returned back to school. The value of this trip was absolutely immense – the parents made a point of thanking us for arranging this particular visit (something that had never happened before) and some seven months later when the children were composing their review of the year which would go in their end of year school reports, over three quarters of the children mentioned the ‘Royal Holloway Geography Trip’ as the best thing they had done in Year Three. They also referred to wanting to learn Geography at university in ten years time – but only if they could learn it at Royal Holloway!

When I discovered that I would remain in Year Three the following year (2015/16 academic year), I immediately wanted to see if we could reprise the day – and the Geography department were more than happy to oblige. In April 2016, my new batch of 26 seven and eight year olds made the journey to Royal Holloway. Initially they were keen if only “to see what you get up to when you’re not with us”. This time, the taught session focus that I delivered centred around the importance of the River Nile to Ancient Egyptians, and we covered areas such as flood defences, dams and land use once more. Pierre and Simon’s tour of the labs was another high point, and once more, the trip featured prominently in the children’s End of Year School Reports. Another year for me in Year Three in 2016/17 will provide hopes that I can expose a third group of children to the importance of Geography and give them the aspiration to love the subject and want to attend university when they become eighteen years-old – hopefully as Geographers!

Ben Gilby,

MA Cultural Geography (Part-Time)


SoCo Artists: Showcase

SoCo Artists: Showcase

This is news of an exhibition which might be of interest to people interested in dialogues between visual art and geography, place and space.

I am an artist-member of Landscape Surgery, with a practice based in drawing. I’m also a member of ‘SoCo’, or South Coast Artists, a professional Hastings-based group. The society has produced a ‘Showcase’ exhibition of selected members’ work in which I am happy to be included – see here for details.

For some time now one strand of my work has been the visual exploration of ideas of self and community through the metaphor of dwelling, thinking of walls, windows, doors, passages, stairs, as built suggestions of mental barriers, mental openings, flights, traps, spaces which connect and those which separate. In this work I’m using a variety of materials such as earth, wax, silk and paper to investigate how such materialities inflect meaning in unexpected ways.

If anyone can get to the show that would be great! However, I’ll also be showing related work in London later in the year in Chelsea and Westminster Reference Library and in The Stone Space, Leyton. More news on those exhibitions nearer the time.

Helen Scalway

The Dystopia of Sodor: Thomas the Tank Engine and Neoliberalism

Thomas - the perfect neoliberal subject

Thomas – the perfect neoliberal subject

Thomas the Tank Engine, the popular children’s book and TV series, has been with us for 70 years, and still captures the imagination of children around the world. As a father of two rapidly growing-up children, trains seem to have some sort of mystic fascination with the preschool demographic. So it is no surprise that Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the world’s most recognised toy brands.

Thomas lives on the Island of Sodor, a mythical, small countryside island in the Irish Sea, just off the coast from Barrow-in-Furness. The trains are colourful, largely happy and busy, while the people go about normal lives in school, on the farm or on the railways. The trouble is, though, this surface-level utopian English-countryside-mid-twentieth-century idyll belies a far more sinister neoliberal allegory that pervades the daily minutiae of Thomas and his friends. The more of Thomas I watch, the more its ideologies of subservience, self-interest, prejudice and the constant imprinting of capitalist relations on everyday life ooze through the veneer of cutesy anthropomorphic trains. I would like to explore, here, just three ways in which Thomas the Tank Engine is far from a utopian idyll, but, rather, is a nightmarish vision of a society dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideologies. Continue reading

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Upcoming Event: HERITAGE FIGHT — passengerfilms

Join us for an evening of film and discussion in an exploration of protest, conservation and environmental values in our screening of award-winning documentary HERITAGE FIGHT (2012). Directed by Eugénie Dumont, HERITAGE FIGHT follows the citizens and traditional owners (the Goolarabooloo) of lands in a small town in Australia’s last great wilderness. The film documents […]

via Upcoming Event: HERITAGE FIGHT — passengerfilms


Like every year, the last LS meeting of term featured presentations by first-year PhD Surgeons, after which we also had the chance to hear about Patrizia Casadei’s project on fashion cities (Patrizia is a PhD candidate based at the Universities of Trento and Florence and she has been visiting our Department this term). Thanks to all the presenters for sharing their exciting (and very diverse) projects and to all the attendees for their constructive feedback.

Brief abstracts of the presentations follow in chronological order.



Nolli Piranesi 1748 La topografia di Roma

From his ascension to the throne in 1760, until his death 60 years later, King George III unceasingly collected maps, increasing the size of the Royal Collection – dating back to 1660 – to over 50,000 items. In 1823, his son and heir George IV promised the entire King’s library to the nation. Having passed over time into the care of the British Library, the maps and views of the Italian section of what is now known as the King’s Topographical Collection form the rich basis of this project’s focus. The primary goal is to investigate how the mapped representation of Italy affected British travellers’ perception of the land, and to what extent these attitudes changed throughout the Grand Tour years. In light of recent debates about the subjectivity of maps, the project proceeds on the basis that the presences and silences of the maps were able to mould the imaginations of Tourists in certain ways, and as such, iconographic analysis of their visuality is central. Part of the research will look into the written representation of place, situating the position of maps in relation to the Italy expressed through journals, guidebooks and Classical Roman texts, which were so important in seventeenth and eighteenth century education. As well as investigating the geographies of production and collection of cartographic knowledge, the project will explore the material role of maps, both in the embodied interaction with users, and in the representation of maps in other contexts (i.e. in travel diaries, portraits and engravings).



Repton pavilion (2)This research project will examine the way in which colonial plant acquisitions circulated as commodities in Britain during the first half of the 19th century, and will seek to locate plants within the literature on imperial commodity flows, as well as thinking about the ways in which exotic plants transformed the practice and content of horticulture during the 19th century, creating a new audience for `useful science`. This project will examine the mechanisms by which plants were introduced and the professional, trade and personal networks through which plants circulated. The period between 1780 and 1870 saw the largest volume of plant introductions as well as the emergence of a gardening press and a large-scale nursery business with a national reach. This focus will permit an analysis of the evolving circulation of plants as commodities alongside the evolution of imperial connections and domestic demand for gardens and knowledge about botany and horticulture. The research project will explore how plants as imperial commodities became part of the `taken-for-granted` of the British landscape.




The past decades have seen the rapid transformation of social life in Britain. The post-war institutions of the working men’s club and the vernacular local have been supplanted by the emergence of vast corporate PubCos, whose reach has become so extensive it marks every significant settlement in Britain with giants like J D Wetherspoon holding over 950 establishments across the country. Yet this state of affairs has not gone without challenge since the financial crisis. Innovative craft companies like BrewDog have capitalised on broader shifts in the zeitgeist, challenging the monopolisation of the brewing industry and establishing their own competing outlets. Meanwhile, changes to licensing laws in 2003 laid the foundations for the explosion of ‘micro-pubs’ – one room, community centred spaces governed by an ethical creed venerating simplicity, conversation, co-creation and independently produced real ale. My research tracks these phenomena primarily through the politics of design, exploring how shifts at the molecular level of experience intersect with broader dimensions of political and social change. The work is consequently concerned with a return to questions posed by the British New Left in its attention to the cultural dimensions of political hegemony, and aims to make a contemporary contribution to its intellectual legacy.



hattieI trained as a sculptor and for more than 25 years I have explored the relationship of environment and everyday behavior through exhibitions, public art, community projects, urban design schemes. In recent years my focus has been play in public settings and in particular the ways in which children inhabit and create space through playing. My PhD is concerned with geographies of play and the methodological and analytical insights artist’s methods can bring to an understanding of the affective and ambiguous dimensions of playing. Building on my MA study of play in an urban square, in which a dancer, a writer and a painter acted as co-researchers, I plan to investigate play in different public settings, drawing on a variety of creative methods. The challenge is to find ways of opening up informative and reflective spaces for doing and thinking around the on-going, everydayness of play, giving attention to its more-than-representational geographies. The spatial concerns of geography and the work of human geographers interested in how life is lived and performed make this a fruitful source of ideas for thinking about play. I am especially interested in the theoretical areas opened up by non-representational theories, which give attention to the performative and affective nature of being in the world, and in ‘creative geographies’, which bring together multi-disciplinary approaches that challenge assumptions of conventional ways of knowing and representing everyday life.



Image -  Research project on Fashion Cities

The idea of the ‘fashion city’ has received increasing attention as an important element in the promotion of cultural and creative economy, as well as in the future of creative cities. The fashion city has the potential to contribute to the development, growth and regeneration of contemporary urban environments. Over the past few years, local governments, policy-makers and academics across a number of disciplines have been paying increasing attention to this phenomenon. This research project is aimed at contextualising the fashion city within the existing theories of the ‘creative city’, ‘cultural and creative industries’ and ‘cultural and creative economy’. Its main purpose is to contribute to the academic debate on the fashion city definition, in an attempt to identify different ideal types of fashion centres which have developed in the world via a ‘manufacturing’ and ‘symbolic’ perspective. The comparative analysis of the globally acclaimed ‘symbolic-oriented’ fashion capital of London with the ‘manufacturing-oriented’ fashion city of Florence could possibly lead to the definition of different ideal types of fashion centres. This may focus on  the physical manufacturing of garments, the symbolic production of fashion, or on a combination of both. Another goal of this project is to explore how the process of globalization has changed contemporary fashion centers and how the fashion city is likely to change in the future, particularly in terms of its impact on local economic development.


Geography in Review: Historical Perspectives, Practical Advice.

Governing our scholarly output, the peer review system is a much-discussed component of the academy’s publishing nexus. Following our Easter break, Surgeons reconvened to explore the history of peer review as it manifested itself in the Royal Geographical Society’s Journal, before benefiting greatly from some excellent advice given by staff emerging from their experience as reviewers, editors, and authors.

The historical emergence of peer review and the value of considering the system’s historical development has been demonstrated in some excellent accounts by historians of science. The disparities of peer review’s emergence have been evidenced in the work of Alex Csiszar and Melinda Baldwin. Although Csiszar has dismissed suggestions that peer review began as early as the seventeenth century in the pages of Henry Oldenburg’s Philosophical Transactions, he has evidenced peer review emerging in the nineteenth century throughout London’s burgeoning learned networks and societies. Baldwin complicates the trajectory of peer review’s emergence by demonstrating how the respected scientific journal Nature eschewed a systematic approach to peer review until 1973. As such, the history of peer review is long, contested, and particular to disciplines and publications.

NPG D34914; George Bellas Greenough by Maxim Gauci, printed by  Graf & Soret, after  Eden Upton Eddis

George Greenough by Maxim Gauci.

I understand the term ‘peer review’ itself to be a twentieth-century creature. During the nineteenth century, reviewing, refereeing, and referee were the commonplace terms. George Bellas Greenough—a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830—is the gentleman whom Csiszar credits with introducing the term ‘referee’ to the scientific community, having done around 1817. Whilst Greenough is known for his work as a geologist, it was in his earlier training as a law student where he had first encountered the term. Throughout the 1820s, learned societies—including the Astronomical Society and Geological Society—had begun to experiment with reports on papers they received.

Given the Royal Geographical Society’s close and intimate relationship with London’s learned societies it is not surprising that reviewing existed in the Society’s publications from its establishment in 1830. The practice of reviewing papers submitted for publication in the Society’s Journal can be conceptualised in two distinct periods: 1830–1850 and 1850–c.1900. Quite how reviewing took place in the first twenty years of the Journal’s history is difficult to establish. Reviewers typically wrote a letter to the editor conveying their thoughts on the manuscript, some reviewers were involved in direct correspondence with authors asking them to answer a series of questions about their manuscript, and, I suspect, other reviews were delivered orally at the Council’s meetings. In this early period having a paper published in the Journal was not simply the product of receiving a favourable review—some manuscripts passed into the pages of the Journal without being subjected to independent evaluation. Even when receiving a favourable review, publication was ultimately decided on by the Council who voted on each paper. Reviewing at this point was largely in the hands of those closest to the Society, often council members themselves.

The arrival of Norton Shaw as Secretary of the Society and Editor of the Journal in late 1849 brought a change to the Society’s reviewing practice. Shaw proposed a so-called ‘referee’s circular’ at the Council’s meeting on 14 January 1850. The minutes of the meeting record that with “some alteration” it was to be printed. Shaw’s circular asked reviewers to evaluate the paper on the basis of four predefined questions that related, variously, to the manuscript’s originality, its potential for publication, its possible abridgement, and whether it should be accompanied by any illustrations. Now each manuscript—whilst still being reviewed by a single fellow of the Society—was subject to the same evaluation criteria. Before sending the circular to the reviewer, Shaw would write the title of the paper and the name of the author on the sheet, and as such any notion of anonymity was largely lost in this closed network of geographers.

Shaw’s circular and the increasingly formalised networks of review at the Society continue into the twentieth century. Here, then, we begin to see the emergence of system which resembles our contemporary practice—this also extends to author’s and editor’s frustrations and anxieties. One referee, George Long, returned his circular complaining that the manuscript that had been sent to him was too long and “had taken up a great deal of his time”. Occasionally authors objected to suggestions or corrections. On return of his manuscript marked with reviewer’s corrections, Robert FitzRoy penned a letter to the editor stating:

Some of your suggestions I have more or less adopted with thanks—but others I not only cannot concur in but should entirely oppose if I thought anyone would interfere in matters of opinion or statement for which I alone am responsible. We look at things through various glasses—& I may have reason for my views which do not occur to another person.

Other referees complained of being overworked or that the refereeing practice was antiquated. In 1845 one anonymous contributor to Wade’s London Review launched an attack on the reviewing system of the Royal Society (a system similar to that of the RGS). The Review saterised the internal reviewing culture of the Royal Society and the process by which papers were communicated and accepted. The critique culminated with a description of the possible fate of a manuscript in the hands of a reviewer:

The paper is referred, of course, to some person of the same class of pursuits, a rival for fame in the same line of inquiry, carrying on a similar course of investigation, meeting perhaps with obstacles which the ‘referred paper’ itself may have successfully removed; possibly, too, intending to make these topics important elements in his own communication to the society. The referee may be a man of integrity in general matters; he may have no personal animosity, no ‘green dragon’ in his eye; he may even soar above all personal feelings, and with a noble disinterestedness give a fair and candid report…On the other hand, he may be a very different person; he may be full of ‘envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness;’ he may, in fact, wish to ‘Burke’ or ‘Bank’ the paper which is submitted to him, and what is there to prevent him? His enemy is in his hands, the darkness of night covers the deed, no record can exist of the part he takes in the matter, and he is overcome by the temptation!

Following on from the discussion of peer review’s historical emergence and its nineteenth-century frustrations (which appear remarkably contemporaneous) we received helpful advice from around the room. Some of the top tips for academic authors included:

  • Before you begin writing think about the focus of your article, where you want to publish, and how the two fit together.


  • Keep your submission well within the word limit as it is likely that a revise and resubmit will require you to add words.


  • Remember that you do not have to respond to every comment made by reviewers. When you are responding to comments, remember what the core of your paper is to avoid making so many alterations you receive another R & R.


  • When first receiving feedback it can be helpful to bullet point the report to unpack the comments. This way you can make notes on the points you have addressed.


On the history of scientific peer review, see: Alex Csiszar, “Peer Review: Troubled from the Start,” Nature 532, no. 7599 (2016): 306–8.!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/532306a.pdf

On the history of peer review in the journal Nature: Melinda Baldwin, “Credibility, Peer Review, and Nature 1945–1990,” Notes and Records 69, no.1 (2015): 337–352.

On contemporary frustrations of peer review as an editor, see: Stuart Elden, “Editorial: The Exchange Economy of Peer Review,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 6 (2008): 951–3.

On the popular press and peer review, see: Elaine Devine, “Why Peer Review Needs a Good Going Over,” The Guardian (UK), October 28, 2015.

Industrial Photography Performed: The Struggle for Energy from Modernism to the Cold War


Our joint presentation drew upon photographic materials produced in the context of the industrial development of energy production in the United States and the GDR. While the photographs discussed in our presentations were produced in distinct political systems, at different points in time—Modernism in the early 20th century and towards the end of the Cold War in the 1970s—from different perspectives and for different audiences, the common ground between both papers is the analysis of the uses of photography and how they performed in the struggle for energy. Therefore, both case studies present different views on how photography was used as a medium through which the exploitation of natural resources for energy production was visually represented and commercially and socially understood.

Using the Ralph Arnold photographic album collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the first study outlined the use of photography as a key element in the formation of the emerging oil industry in the Western United States in the early twentieth century. Ralph Arnold (1875-1961) was an American geologist and petroleum engineer whose photographs taken during several geological surveys in California, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas were part of a collective scientific and financial effort to lobby for appropriate oil taxation and the recognition of the role of the petroleum engineer in oil exploration.

The second study discussed the visual dialogue between Nguyen The Thuc’s Kohle unter Magdeborn (Coal beneath Magdeborn) (1976), a photographic album documenting an open cast coal mining site and the devastation of its inhabitant community in the GDR, and Christiane Eisler’s series of commissioned photographs of the revisited mining site and contemporary Leipzig, produced in the period 2012 to 2014. The album and the new series of works were shown together in the 2014 exhibition Freundschaftsantiqua in Leipzig (Germany). The bodies of work reflect the changes in the industrialised environment through expanding and contracting resource extraction and the effects on its inhabitants. They are also documents of an international cultural production and GDR culture politics. The medium of photography was selected as exhibition focus due to its propensity to visually communicate across different cultures.

wood fossil_Magdeborn

Fossilised tree fragment, entrance area at Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, 2015, photograph: Bergit Arends

Freundschaftsantiqua_installation detail

Freundschaftsantiqua 2014, Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst Leipzig (Germany), exhibition detail, photography: Sebastian Schroeder


Jointly we explored the performativity and fluidity of meaning of photographic images. How is meaning shaped by institutional discourses, disciplinary perspectives, and expertise. How were photographs taken by petroleum engineers used to shape the oil industry in terms of scientific exploration, commercial capabilities and policy reforms in the American West? How did the project from the GDR contribute to, or contravene, a political and environmental discourse in documenting how humans were affected by a visibly polluting energy production? Or did the images in both case studies contribute to a discourse of personal sacrifice towards a collective ‘greater good’ and moral duty for the nation?

Bergit Arends and Noeme Santana



+ contextual reading on the international circulation and audiences of photographs of American West taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during the Clarence King Surveys between 1867 and 1872:

Brunet, F., (2012) ‘Showing American Geography Abroad in the Victorian Era: The International Reception of the King Survey Work’, in: Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, Davis, K. and Aspinwall,J. (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 185-195

+ for some insights into GDR photography by a GDR/Germany-based curator. Exhibition catalogue of the first survey exhibition of GDR photography in the UK, curated by Matthew Shaul:

Immisch, T. O. (2007), ‘Appearance and Being: GDR Photography of the 1970s and 1980s’, in: Do Not Refreeze: Photography behind the Berlin Wall, exh. cat., Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, pp. 24-27

+ one history on the subject of energy in the USA and Germany

Radkau, J., (1996), ‘Energy: Genie or Genius? – How steam, electricity and oil heralded global change’, History Today, vol 46; MNTH 11, pp. 14-19

+ photography theory from 1983 for social and economic discourses on images at the example of images (1948-1968) by a commercial photographer in the coal-mining region of Cape Breton:

Sekula, A. (2003) ‘Reading an Archive. Photography between Labour and Capital’, in: The Photography Reader, Wells, L. (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 443-452

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MY LIFE AT THE AIRPORT – An Unprepared Ethnographer



If you opened any cookbook on how to do ethnography, the first advice you would probably find there would be that a researcher should carefully prepare for their fieldwork, in part also by familiarizing themselves with the culture and the history of the place they intend to study, by visiting it a few times beforehand, and ideally by undergoing some trials before the actual fieldwork really happens. In this sense, my preparation for the life at the airport was very minimal. In fact, I had almost no preparation at all, in terms of engaging in any conscious activity or attempts to get ready for all the possible situations that I could encounter while being there. I’ve never been at the LHR before, I’ve never actually slept at any airport before, I haven’t checked out the place before nor haven’t I even tried to look up any information about it online or in other words…I haven’t really given it much thought. When the time came, I simply packed all of my possessions into one huge suitcase, two bags and a purse and moved directly to Terminal 1 Arrivals.

For the sake of a peaceful first night though, I have made an unconfirmed reservation for a morning flight to Munich…just in case anyone would try to check my travel documents during the night. No one did. Ever! Although there were great attempts to prevent the homelessness at the LHR at that time, and other fellow homeless overnight dwellers were controlled and kicked out quite regularly, no one was ever troubled with me sleeping there. Being a white, well-dressed, young woman with a laptop, a smartphone, a Lufthansa suitcase and a EU passport, there was nothing about me that could possibly raise any unwanted attention. Later on, I was thinking about how different it could have been if I were a male, if my skin was of another colour, if I for instance had a few dreadlocks, or a different fashion style slightly distinct from what is commonly perceived as ‘normal’ in a modern society. As John Urry (2007) once pointed out, the airports are the sites where the social hierarchy of today becomes visible in the greatest extend. And with the intensification of security checks at the airports following the terrorist attacks of 09/11, any sign of abnormality becomes automatically suspicious. Thus, although completely unprepared, thanks to my ‘normal’ appearance and the fact, that I could ‘speak their language’ not only in terms of English itself, but more importantly because I’ve learnt the airline jargon as well as I had a detailed knowledge of all the processes and logic of airports and passenger air traffic from the years I spent working for an airline, my starting position couldn’t, in fact, have been any better.

On the other hand, what I did in advance immediately after I’ve decided to conduct this experiment as an (auto)ethnographic sort of research was the formulation of my initial research questions. In a qualitative research it is recommended to formulate the research question(s) as both specific, to prevent the researcher from being overwhelmed by everything that is going on in the field and allow them to stay focused on a particular issue instead, and broad enough, to enable them to cope with the unexpected turns the ethnographic research can often take (Cloke et al. 2004). Following the advice, I came up with two research questions that would cover both issues I was mainly interested in. The first one stemmed from my curiosity about how the life at the airport is going to look like. Thus, it was aimed more at capturing the autoethnographic experience of me building a home at a site that is seen as sterile, impersonal, unfriendly, extremely dynamic and extremely under surveillance. I intentionally didn’t propose this question in terms of if it is possible to have a home at the airport, because although this was never addressed in a scientific research in any detail, there is still a good evidence of people calling airports their homes (see for instance an article ‘Heathrow is my home’ on Therefore I rather asked: How, if at all, can the London Heathrow Airport become a home for me ?

With my second research question I wanted to connect this unplanned fieldwork-to-be with the topic of my PhD research on frequent flyers and places in their mobile networks. Therefore, the issue of placeness of airports in general and the LHR in particular came forth. As Fuller and Harley say: “What the airport is, depends on where you are in it, and how and why you are travelling through it” (2004:17). This diversity of meanings, which they mention while using the perspective of a passenger, can of course be even wider considering the meanings the (LHR) airport can be given by, for instance, airline crew members, airport employees, taxi drivers, family members and friends of the ones that depart or arrive, numerous homeless people staying there, or members of the neighbour communities having to deal with the noise and pollution from the airport operations in their everyday lives. Therefore, in order to narrow down the issue of placeness of the LHR to something that is more manageable, I’ve decided to solely focus on the arriving passengers. Why? First of all, the arrivals are still a topic that is quite understudied in the geographic research, and that not only when it comes to air transportation. More importantly though, I strongly agree with Fuller and Harley’s statement cited above, that an airport is experienced very differently when one departs, transits or arrives there. During departures or transits the attention of the passenger is focused rather on what comes next, they are getting mentally ready for the destination they are heading to. Whereas in the case of arrivals the situation is quite unique, I believe, because the passenger is instantly confronted with the locality of the airport site as they have to deal with what is here and now. Being it local climate, local time, local currency, language or accent of the airport staff, local habits, smells and noises, local souvenirs, or billboards promoting the city and country one has just arrived in, the passenger has a very little chance to escape it. Thus in the case or arrivals, they would probably deal with the question of where they are much more intensively. My research question therefore tried to capture the nuances of what does it mean to land at the LHR. Where do passengers believe they are when they arrive at the LHR? Is this London, or just a node before reaching London? Or perhaps something else? Are there any signs of the LHR representing some kind of a meaningful place for its arriving passengers?

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Having my research questions written down and a basic idea of how I would like to get closer to the answers in my mind, I jumped into this adventurous fieldwork legs first. Quite naively, I assumed that after a few days of my adaptation process, I would be able to start with the ‘proper’ observations of passengers in the arrival halls, and later on with interviewing them. It is only now that I know how useful it might have been at that point to read through some of the ‘warts and all’ reports on how ethnography can actually look like in practice. This ‘baptism by fire’ is strongly discouraged in the ethnographic research of these days (Cloke et al. 2004), mostly because there are now quite a lot of great cookbooks and reports from experienced ethnographers available for studying. However, their ability to truly prepare a novice researcher for the reality of what the actual fieldwork can bring up is only limited. And if nothing else, I like saying that at least it was a great practice for me – a sort of transformative learning of how to do ethnography – because I believe there are still a few things one can only learn by practising them.

One of the first things I have learnt very quickly was that the adaptation to a new environment can be really VERY exhausting. I remember the frustration of the first 9 days at the LHR, when all of my energy was drained by only trying to perform the ‘simplest’, or rather the most essential parts of living – sleeping, washing, eating and moving around. How could anyone, I thought, even think of performing some kind of intellectual activity while being in the same condition as I was in? My eyes were red and stinging from the lack of quality sleep, my back hurt from the benches I slept on as well as from all the bags I had to carry with me ALL THE TIME, and my stomach protested against the pre-packed food. Andre Novoa (2015) made a good point in his methodological paper on mobile ethnographies, saying that a researcher should have a few exit points in order to step away from his field and recalibrate his work as well as to recharge their own batteries. I haven’t planned this ahead either, and accordingly, it stroke me shortly after I started – only 9 days after my arrival at the LHR I ended up in a hospital (well, actually in a few of them) due to severe digestion problems and exhaustion. Interestingly, and in compliance with what Andre Novoa was describing, this forced exit gave me a whole new analytical perspective as it has made me reconsider my strategies and again, come up with some new innovative solutions. When I returned to the LHR after almost a month spent in hospitals, it was a return with a fully flexible business class ticket in my hand – later on I ended up having 5 of them, each from a different terminal. That not only provided me with the repeated and free-of-charge access to the marvellous business class lounges, where one can truly rest for a while, but also opened me a door to the complete trajectories of arriving passengers along the airport corridors. There is the beauty of ethnography! Precisely in these unexpected turns that are so difficult to predict… and for which even the methodological opportunism is a good way to go (Cloke et al. 2004).

An unplanned exit point

An unplanned exit point



Cloke, P., I. Cook, P. Crang, M.Goodwin, J. Painter and C. Philo (2004). Practising Human Gepgraphy. London: SAGE Publications. 416 p. ISBN 0-7619-7325-7.

Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.

Novoa, A. (2015). Mobile ethnography: emergence, techniques and its importance to geography. Human Geographies – Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography 9 (1): 97-107. ISSN-online: 2067-2284.

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press. 335 p. ISBN-13: 978-07456-3418-0.



MY LIFE AT THE AIRPORT – When The Things Go Wrong



When the things go wrong people start to be really creative. I don’t know if there already exists a saying such as this one, but if not, it should. I’ve noticed that on myself so many times. As if there was an emergency switch that turns on every time the situation looks desperate and it forces one to come up with solutions that they would otherwise never think of.

Let me tell you a story of how I ended up living at the London Heathrow Airport for precisely 31 days and how this turned up to be the most valuable experience of my PhD ‘career’ so far. Let me tell you about the strategies I’ve deployed in order to not only survive at the airport but to eventually live quite a comfortable life, about building a home in a place with a complete lack of privacy, about how to stay invisible, about how to become a frequent flyer without a single departure. Let me invite you to the world of homeless people sleeping on the benches as well as to the parallel universe hidden behind the secret doors of the VIP business class lounges. Let’s walk together along the airport corridors following the paths of arriving passengers … and by doing all of that, let me tell you about my observations of what kind of place an airport can be.

WELCOME TO THE LONDON HEATHROW AIRPORT! This is a first piece from the series of blog posts about my life at the airport – a sort of introduction, which I devoted to the evolution of the idea to pack my things and move to the airport as well as to the reason of writing a blog about it. So…sit back and enjoy the journey of a novice ethnographer!


Let me begin by introducing myself: I am a PhD student based in Czech Republic where I am doing my research on frequent flyers focusing on how they perceive and give meanings to the places they visit by air. These frequent flyers became a subject of my interest while I was working for Lufthansa and talking to them over the phone every day. It was there when I’ve noticed for the first time that a meaning of what is near and what is far, and how a particular city/place is experienced is very much connected to the way one moves around in space. Building upon the ideas of the mobility turn (Sheller and Urry, 2006) and the aeromobilities literature, I’ve started to research the place perception of frequent flyers, which directly addresses the question of what is the role that airports play in all this. The representation of an airport as it is depicted in academic literature (as well as in novels, movies and commercials) has one common and very interesting feature – the fascination. Weather it is in positive or negative way, airports are often being seen as unique, extraordinary, (super)modern, emblematic, sometimes as new urban forms, cities of the future, non-places…there are many of these metaphors to be found. When thinking about where does this fascination come from, the issue of interpretation came to my mind as the first – one always tends to base the interpretation of things on their own experience. Therefore, the experience of an occasional passenger or even a more experienced passenger, as was I, naturally leads to the fascination with spaces and logic of the airports where everything is so different from the ‘normal’ everyday life, and herein it even enhances the excitement arising from the journey. But how to get closer to an experience of a frequent flyer for whom an airport could be a very familiar place, this “home-away-from-home” (2004:39) that Fuller and Harley describe? Being inspired by ethnography as a research method and paraphrasing Geertz (1973) claiming that every big concept becomes surprisingly simple once learned in homely circumstances, I’ve decided to gain this ‘other’ experience by inhabiting an airport for a period of time.

When I speak about my experience of living at the airport with my senior colleagues, or when I present it in front of an academic audience, I’m being very often given credit for an extremely courageous and ambitious student project. Well, to be completely honest, the origin of the idea of moving to the airport was far more pragmatic – I had no money to pay the rent. I came to London as a visiting PhD researcher and at the end of my stay, by the fault of my own, I got cut off of my funding. Thus I had to consider whether to return back home earlier than I planned or to somehow find another way to stay. The homelessness at the airports is not uncommon. Tim Cresswell (2006) mentions it very nicely in his book On The Move by pointing out the tendencies of homeless people to stay at the airport because it is a relatively warm and safe place also offering facilities such as free-of-charge toilets, and above all, at many major airports one can easily disappear in the masses of travellers. According to one of the articles in DailyMail magazine, which I came across once I travelled by the London Tube, at the London Heathrow Airport in particular there are about 100 homeless people currently calling it their home, which until recently also included a middle-aged couple that had been staying there for almost a year. So I thought that if they can do it, I can certainly do it too. And since I already had many years of experience in punk-style backpack travelling while sleeping under bridges, in parks and who knows where, I thought it would be just fine, and eventually even a source of fun. … Well, it wasn’t really. In fact, it was much more mentally challenging than I expected, but we’ll get to that later. So on the 1st of May 2015 I packed my things, I cancelled the rental contract for my room and moved to the LHR airport. Let the ethnographic adventure begin!

2015-05-02 05.16.39

Becoming an inhabitant – the very first morning at LHR

Before I go on with the story, I think I need to explain why I’ve decided to blog about it now. When I came back from the LHR airport I thought it was an interesting experiment as well as a valuable experience for me in terms of changing my viewpoint as a researcher. I started abandoning this fascinated image of an airport as being something extraordinary, and instead I got the homey sort of feeling of understanding how the life at the (LHR) airport looks like from the everyday perspective. Only after talking to some of my senior colleagues and advisors I realized how rich the empirical material I possess actually is. But still, as much as I have problems explaining why on earth did I do that and what kind of research and science is that to my family and friends; similarly I struggled to present my initial observations to the well-established academic audience at the recent AAG conference in San Francisco. One of the reasons is that I realized that I am not quite there yet and thus my interpretations still tend to be very simple. Interestingly, later on after talking to other fellow PhD students in the pub, some of them novice ethnographers themselves, I realized I could talk for hours and people were still amazed. That brought me to the idea of writing a blog in order to capture the flow of everything I have to say and I would very much like to say. Not being bonded by the academic style of writing that is required for papers, yet still writing for geographers and ethnographers, I believe this could maybe shed some light not only on how the life at the airport looks like and what kind of place an airport can be but also on the struggles of an ethnographer in process. After all, I do this because I strongly believe that writing is an essential part of ethnography and that the act of writing my thoughts down just as they are in my mind at this moment will help me analyse the data I have in my diary, field notes, photos, videos, and above all the fascinating, adventurous and life-changing experience of my life at the LHR airport.



Cresswell, T. (2006). On The Move. Mobility in the Modern Western World. London: Routledge. 327 p. ISBN 0-415-95256-5.

Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 480 p.

Sheller, M. and J. Urry (2006). “The new mobilities paradigm”. Environment and Planning A 38 (2): 207-226. doi:10.1068/a37268.