Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science
Sophie Oldfield is a human geographer and an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on urban social and political change, community and social movement politics, and state restructuring. She teaches development and urban geography.
Everyday struggles: research praxis, politics and the production of urban knowledge
Immersed in challenges that call for research, we are impelled as researchers in the South African context to engage outwards beyond academia and our immediate university context. In consequence, our research is defined and produced in multiple conversations and in a range of sites that include conventional academic groups and traditional university spaces, but critically extend beyond these realms, engaging with policy and politics, as well as the shifting discourses that socially and spatially frame the complexities of our transition. Yet, in much discussion about academic research, the assumed point of departure is theoretical. My work considers carefully the traveling we do between theory and the field, and within the field, as messy, iterative, and demanding practice (Nagar, 2002) central to the theoretical work we produce. This sort of theorizing demands that we consider the complex, often contradictory, contingent and relational ways in which research is negotiated, and made meaningful. As important as the material and political process, the contingencies within processes and between actors shape the paths that we travel, and those relationships that then implicitly and explicitly track the ways in which we make sense of everyday struggles and urban politics. In conceptualizing the heart of our research practice as relational, contextual, and necessarily, contingent, a critical question arises: How do we negotiate and engage the relational nature of our research? Implicit and explicit in it are the politics and practices of the actors that our research engages with and draws from, as well as the local and regional, and transnational debates, that frame the academic conversations in which we engage (Nagar 2002; Sangtin Writers and Nagar 2006, Appadurai 2000). In this complicated context and within these multiple audiences, we face the challenge and imperative to reflect carefully on our research process and the politics of our knowledge production.
In this work, I highlight the ways in which engaged research is produced relationally; it is not thus the purview of solitary researchers, university based academics, or social theorists. Rather the notion of engaged research challenges us to think carefully about the relationships in which and through which research is sustained, to take seriously their architecture, and most importantly, the ways in which they shape and shift the theoretical terrain, the substance of our analyses, the ways in which we know and speak to urban challenges; in other words, our epistemologies, and their politics. In these processes, method acts as an analytical and political key between theory and the field, between the construction of our conceptual architecture and the messiness of the field and our research praxis. The ‘field’ is thus an iterative site in which we construct theory, a complex terrain itself, in which we engage, and negotiate power and politics, and our identities and political economies. In doing so, politics and power is not only an object of our analysis, on which we comment on theoretically, but central to our analysis, and part and parcel of our research praxis.
In making this argument and proposing these questions, in framing an architecture that links intimately field and theory, method and politics, and narratives and agency, I aim to substantiate carefully the development of an analytical and methodological conversation that tries to do justice to the complexities of our southern contexts, to theorize from multiple bases, to build a richer, thicker, more contextual and relational conversation about neighborhoods, activism, and everyday struggles in our harshly unequal cities and societies. In doing so I hope to generate a conversation that negotiates and appreciates disciplinary structures and debates, but also holds in tension the imperatives of our context, that prioritizes research that is political and engaged, and that contributes to a wider, deeper conversation. The politics of research are central to how we know, who knows, and how we can work together to know better; thus, this project focuses on research and its praxis, its method, politics, and its engagement in everyday struggle. The project thus builds a story about research as a collaborative process, as a shared and engaged, relational way to know the city, and in the process to give substance and to embody the many people who are central to the research process, and in the process. In other words, the project builds critical urban knowledge that is rigorous, rich and thick, engrained in the everyday, the meanings and agency nurtured, at times wrought, from the challenges that families and communities meet in making and sustaining themselves as city dwellers. In exploring everyday struggles, I weave together the narratives and their making, the research process and its collaborations and motivations. In doing so, we can re-imagine and embody the research process, highlighting everyday struggles and the politics of knowledge production they inspire and demand.