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FRINGE Centre blog series: S for Statistics

By Blog Admin, on 22 January 2016

In the latest entry on the FRINGE Centre blog, Tomáš Cvrček of UCL SSEES considers statistics and their shortcomings. 

Breaking somewhat with the run of blog posts on big intellectual words, here is an entry about statistics, a mundane yawn of a word that starts with S. Where does the letter “S” come in the word “FRINGE”? It does not, although it could perhaps be appended at the end, making it plural. There are many ways in which things can stand on the fringe and one of them is the frontier of measurability. In line with the other themes in the acronym – such as invisibility, elusiveness and grey zones – the letter S can then stand for things that are somewhat in the statistical shadow, out of the gaze of the data collector.

tomas stats

 

To open with a confession, I think that data, numbers and statistics are a wonderful thing. They can tell us a great deal about lots of things that people are doing. When used properly, they can help one distinguish what is random and what is systematic. At the same time, as primary sources on various social phenomena, data have their limitations but that does not make them useless – rather, the limitations themselves are interesting.

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FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘E’ for Elusiveness

By Blog Admin, on 7 January 2016

In the sixth of our series of blogs celebrating the launch of the UCL SSEES FRINGE Centre, Uilleam Blacker considers the elusive pasts hidden in the fabric of many east-central European cities.

There are cities in East-Central Europe – like Wrocław, L’viv or Kaliningrad – which were transferred from one state to another after World War II. As a result of the decisions to redraw borders that fell at Yalta, these cities had their populations deported, and new inhabitants forcefully resettled to them. Thus, German cities became Polish or Russian/Soviet, and predominantly Polish ones became Ukrainian, Belarusian or Lithuanian. The Holocaust also played its part in this drastic and violent urban reconfiguration, destroying the large Jewish communities of cities across the region.

Lviv inscriptions

Photo by Uilleam Blacker

Cities are living records of those who build them and live in them. In literature, from urban cultural theory to popular fiction, they are endlessly compared to archives, libraries, or palimpsests: cities are treated by those who represent and study them as memory texts that retain a chaotic, often fragmented record of the past, a record that is constantly reinvigorated, edited and refined. Yet what happens when the previous writers, librarians, and archivists of this urban text are dead or deported, and replaced by new custodians who may not know the language in which the text is written, or who may, indeed, fear and resent what is written in that language? Read the rest of this entry »

FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘G’ for Grey Zones

By Blog Admin, on 4 January 2016

In the fifth of our series of blogs celebrating the launch of the UCL SSEES FRINGE centre, Udo Grashoff considers the letter G – for grey zones.

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Photo by Cornelia Ogilvie, used with author’s permission.

Today, after the criminalisation of illegal housing in Western European ‘heartlands’ of squatting such as the Netherlands and Great Britain, there is not much squatting or illegal housing left. In England, for example, squatting in residential properties is now a criminal, rather than civil, offence. In recent years, the troublemakers and mucky pups have been shooed away from many European metropolises. Is squatting now merely a historical quirk? And does it hold any interest for the present? If the answer is yes, this is perhaps due to two reasons.

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FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘N’ for Neutrality

By Blog Admin, on 4 January 2016

 

In the fourth of our blogs to mark the launch of the UCL SSEES FRINGE centre, Tim Beasley-Murray considers the concept of neutrality.

The story of Icarus, his father Daedalus, and their fateful escape from the labyrinth that Daedalus himself had designed for the cruel King Minos is well-known. Father and son fashion wings from feathers and wax and take flight, leaving Crete behind and the sea far below. Thrilled with the sensation of flight, Icarus soars ever higher. Deaf to the warning cries of his father below that he is flying too high, he climbs closer and closer to the sun. The heat of its rays melts the wax that holds his wings together and Icarus, who had wished to rise to the height of the Gods, falls, only too mortal, to his death in the sea below.

The Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1558 (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

This story, like all myths, is structured by a series of complementary oppositions that give it meaning: father versus son; the wisdom of age versus the foolishness of youth; the Gods on high versus mortals below; the warmth of the sun versus the icy waters of the sea; hubris versus nemesis; life versus death. ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, painted in the 1560s and traditionally attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, tells us this story. But this story is not at the centre of the painting. Read the rest of this entry »

FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘I’ for Invisibility

By Blog Admin, on 22 December 2015

In our third Fringe Centre blog, Alena Ledeneva of UCL SSEES discusses invisibility and informality.

In the beginning was … blat. The colloquial Russian word blat, best remembered as Bacon, Lettuce And Tomato, and just as common as BLT, refers to practices of getting things done through personal contacts. It was the knowhow of survival in the Soviet Union, totally invisible for outsiders but vital. The idiom ‘po blatu’ (‘through acquaintances’) was colloquially widely used but banned from official discourse. It certainly does not feature in any of the editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. As Joseph Berliner, the pioneer of the Harvard Interviewing Project, observed: ‘If we were totally reliant on the written sources of the Soviet society, we might hardly have guessed the importance of blat’ (Berliner 1957: 184). Just like most economies of favours – guanxi in China, jeitinho in Brazil, kombinacja in Poland, pituto in Chile, veze and vruzki in South Europe, wasta in the Middle East and torpil in Turkey, invisible for outsiders but common in their own societies – blat practices are associated with sociability, i.e. the use of personal contacts or networks, but also serve the instrumental purpose of gaining influence or accessing limited resources.

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The Global Informality Project, led by the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and the UCL IAS FRINGE Centre, provides the first multimedia online resource that explores such informal practices and local knowledge in a global perspective. Quite literally, we put local ‘ways of getting things done’, understood by insiders but invisible for outsiders, on the map, and develop a global collection of authored contributions, including ethnographic investigations, socio-economic analyses, historical expositions etc, and also provide visual images that are representative of informal practices. We also aim to establish informal patterns that elude discipline-based method and area studies focus. The project plan includes the online version of the Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, the World Map of Informality, open access publications and FRINGE workshops.

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FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘R’ for Resistance

By Blog Admin, on 21 December 2015

In the second of our series of blog celebrating the launch of the UCL SSEES FRINGE centre, Peter Zusi considers the letter R – for resistance.

Orderly resistors

Image: wisegeek.org.

The adjacent picture shows electrical resistors. This might seem a lame joke, a crass way of illustrating a concept so abstract and politically portentous as ‘resistance’. But behind this lies something more serious: In Poland in the early 1980s, under Martial Law, these miniature, multi-coloured electrical components were often worn, pinned to a sweater or the lapel of a jacket, as a small symbol of resistance to the governing authorities.

Two facts stand out in the present context. First, this disarmingly humble gesture reveals that resistance has a tendency to seek out symbolic forms. Even in situations where the luxury exists of expressing resistance openly and explicitly (and historically such luxury has been rare) resistance cannot resist redoubling its message through simple symbols: the peace sign, the jingling of keys, the improvised shantytown put up in the sight of the privileged. And often the events associated with resistance movements assume, almost despite themselves, shocking or triumphant symbolic significance, such as when a peaceful march crossing a bridge is halted through violence, or an ugly concrete wall is torn down. In short, while resistance appears in the first instance a social or political category, it is drawn inexorably into semiotic systems that bring it into traffic with cultural expression. It is no coincidence that resistance movements so often produce iconic music, rhetorical performances, and literature.

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FRINGE Centre blog series: ‘F’ for Fluidity

By Blog Admin, on 16 December 2015

At the launch of the FRINGE Centre on 3 December 2015, each of our core academics took possession of one letter within the FRINGE acronym, deploying the letter itself – its possible meanings and associations – as a point of departure for explaining how their own research (mis)fits within and (mis)interprets the broader FRINGE agenda. The letter F was Michał Murawski’s, whose research will result in the first core FRINGE project of the 2016-2017 academic year.

letter f

 

 

 

Formally, I think, the F in the FRINGE acronym stands for fluidity or flexibility. And, indeed, there is an unmistakable centrifugal sort of dynamic driving FRINGE: it’s all about the breaking down and casting asunder of disciplinary boundaries, as well as of imploding and reconfiguring tired old notions of which areas the world is divided into, and how these areas work. But F also stands for fluidity’s antonym, for firmness, for a terra firma – boundaries and borders are real: in order to break them down you need a solid, well-funded operating centre from which to launch your frontier-smashing insurgency. And I think this is what FRINGE tries to provide, a fortress for the fluxification, reconfiguration and setting on fire of frontiers. FRINGE is a fortress for fermenting, in other words, an agenda for what might be called Critical Area Studies.

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Launch of the FRINGE centre

By Blog Admin, on 8 December 2015

On Thursday 3 December, UCL SSEES launched an exciting new project: the FRINGE centre, an interdisciplinary collective of scholars dedicated to exploring all that is Fluid, Resistant, Invisible, Neutral, Grey and Elusive. The launch was held at the Common Ground space in the UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and featured 8 mini-presentations from SSEES academics on how their projects relate to the concerns of the FRINGE centre. To mark the launch, SSEES blog will be publishing a series of blogs based on these presentations, but we begin with a re-post of a recent interview given by FRINGE director Alena Ledeneva which outlines the centre’s aims.

The interview was originally published on the UCL website. For more see the FRINGE website.

Members of the FRINGE team: Michał Murawski, Peter Zusi, Alena Ledeneva, Udo Grasshoff, Jan Kubik, Uilleam Blacker, Tim Beasley-Murray, Filipa Figueira, Titus Hjelm, Tomáš Cvrček. Photo: Akosua Bonsu

You have just started your role as Director of FRINGE Centre, an initiative founded and funded by the UCL SSEES and housed at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies. Tell us more.

The FRINGE Centre has been a result of a constellation of factors. Intellectually, it emerged as a cross-disciplinary, cross-area platform for those intrigued by the social and cultural complexity, especially where it resists clear-cut categorisation, visibility or measurability.

Tensions and paradoxes constituting social and cultural complexity have been duly reflected in the oxymoron The Fringe Centre. The diversity of the Centre’s intellectuals became the founding principle of consensus. Last but not least, the support of SSEES and its Director Professor Jan Kubik have been vital.

The name of the Centre was inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe festival, but evolved into a novel research agenda on seemingly opposed notions such as centrality and marginality, clarity and ambiguity, measurability and elusiveness. Our interest lies in the hidden complexity of all embedded practices, taken-for-granted and otherwise invisible subjects. Illuminating the ‘fringe’ – by highlighting subjects that are Fluid, Resistant, Invisible, Neutral, Grey and Elusive – sheds a new light on the ‘centre.’

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Belarus Votes: It Actually Matters for Once

By Blog Admin, on 23 October 2015

Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies at UCL SSEES, analyses the recent elections in Belarus.

There were no real surprises in the presidential election held in Belarus on Sunday 11 October, with Alyaksandr Lukashenka claiming his fifth term since first assuming the presidency in 1994. Lukashenka’s official vote was a record 84 percent (compared to his modest 79.6 percent at the last election in 2010). Though according to the only real Belarusian poll agency IISEPS, only 46 percent of planned voters indicated that they would definitely vote for Lukashenka in September. As always, the elections were fixed in advance in three ways: mass early voting by ‘controlled populations’ like students, who are under strong pressure to vote a certain way (36 percent voted early); by a non-transparent counting process; and by controlling who can actually stand (see below).  

Belarusian_presidential_election_banner_2015_p4

Belarusian presidential election banner. Wikimedia commons/Homoatrox.

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Round table on the refugee crisis in Europe at UCL SSEES

By Blog Admin, on 23 October 2015

On September 22 2015, SSEES hosted an event on the European refugee crisis. A report can be read on the UCL website here:

https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2015/09/22/roundtable-on-the-refugee-crisis-in-europe-at-ucl-ssees/