The first last time: Lessons for uncertain times
By Aisha F Aminu, on 26 August 2020
Part of the MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Insights from Practice blog series.
On June 8, 2020 I got off a call with my research group for the last time after successfully completing our fieldwork. We acknowledged that we had just experienced a remarkable moment in history. Yet our goodbyes were tearful, knowing that the uncertainty we had come to thrive in was about to end. Just two months earlier, still certain of the future, we were cementing plans for our field trip to Sierra Leone. Then our world paused its physical existence and turned virtual.
Rapidly changing plans were met with a sense of disbelief and helplessness. It would have been easy to give up. Instead, we drew closer together. However, for me this turned out to be a battle between maintaining my privacy and gaining a new level of intimacy with the group. As one who tires easily from prolonged social interaction, I thought a virtual field trip would be great. Yet, all of a sudden, even though physically distanced from my group, I was inviting them into the depths of my home for long hours every day and they were doing the same for me. This virtual invitation extended to my tutors, other classmates, acquaintances and strangers. We saw parts of each other’s homes visitors usually did not get to see. I was overwhelmed and wanted to shut everyone out.
Contrary to Lefebvre’s argument that it is difficult to reconcile the analysis of experiences in an ideological space with everyday lived realities, discussing housing issues in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic meant analysing the very thing I was experiencing. I realised my sense of social discomfort was not peculiar to me when the group talked about the strangeness of seeing each other first thing in the morning, even before members of our households. We were all in different parts of the world with different living conditions, interacting through computer screens. This brought to fore a new awareness of our daily realities. Despite the reduced privacy, we had the privilege of choosing to be physically separated while remaining mentally and socially connected. In contrast, the primary focus of our research – renters in dense informal settlements whose neighbourhoods also serve as their home – mostly lack this privilege and are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s response measures which exacerbate existing inequalities.
Acknowledging an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ intensified my dismay at the injustices informal settlement renters face daily. But it also sparked an inquisition into their resilience against socio-economic hardship and environmental risks. Nevertheless, just like Lefebvre argued, where a physical field trip would have fostered an immersive experience of diverse renter dynamics, virtual learning fell short. I wondered if we could truly examine intersecting complexities by merely hearing about them and whether we ran the risk of homogenising renters. However, interacting outside the physical confines of an informal settlement forced us to rely on one another’s past and present experiences to put forward our research questions. It also opened up opportunities to craft new experiences and ways of learning based on heightened awareness and mutual understanding.
‘Us’ versus ‘them’ morphed into a bigger ‘us’ as we broadened the scope of our research to multiple contexts. Though unable to conduct participatory activities like focus group discussions, interviewing our social contacts across the globe gave us access to forums that amplified the voices and opinions of multiple actors and renter groups, we would otherwise not have connected with. These forums facilitated communication between renters and landlords, informal settlements and local governments, and local governments and external development actors. We witnessed hierarchic positions being renegotiated on multiple scales ranging from community to national scales.
My fear of homogenising renters was tackled by the similarities and differences I observed between them within the same context and across different contexts. In some contexts they were playing a part in holding local government accountable for injustices, while in others formal legal renting agreements were adopting informal principles of solidarity. Having a bird’s eye view of simultaneous transformative renegotiations across different contexts, would have made it easy to make suggestions that promote cross-learning between multiple actors. However, remembering Lefebvre, we revisited our verbal information chains and observations to critically analyse their implicit biases and propose practical solutions grounded in context-specific everyday realities.
I realise now that my research group had subconsciously adopted the solidarity practices we were examining. We subtly renegotiated our in-group roles to address our strengths and weaknesses. The group’s collective self-efficacy, sense of hope and motivation infected me. I became less afraid of taking risks and less doubtful of my abilities. Collectively, we learned how to create animations rather than rely on out-of-context video footage in order to ethically present our research findings. Learning a new skill remotely meant watching multiple tutorials and knowing when to ask for help. Answering each other’s questions was difficult, especially when we had different software versions or could not simply reach out and click a command on someone else’s computer. I learned to exercise patience and show empathy until we had mastered this skill to a satisfactory level. We ate together, laughed together and celebrated achievements outside of this as well.
My new-found pro-social behaviour replaced my privacy concerns and my eagerness to interact with the group quickly became a habit. However, this carried certain risks. Being around each other for prolonged hours every day, albeit virtually, meant we needed to adjust to our different personalities. I noticed myself recognising non-verbal nuances of communication even when filtered by a screen and adjusting my responses accordingly. Kindness and collective emotional intelligence dominated our interactions. We started having one-word check-ins to measure how we felt and discussed ways we could support one another. Again, contrary to Lefebvre’s arguments about not recognising what you are experiencing while experiencing it, on our last call, the group joked about becoming addicted to our virtual support circle and made plans to interact outside of it.
It has been a week since that last call. I find myself asking if the lessons I learned from this period of uncertainty will stand the test of time, not just for me but for them. Will the intimacy of a wider ‘us’ group prevail during more certain times? Have I been able to analyse all of my lived experiences or are the obvious lessons limited to the moment, only to be re-activated during the next wave of uncertainty? I hope I can look back at this first ‘last time’ when that happens and be able to say, “last time…”
Bandura, A. (1971) Social learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813251-7.00057-2.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Edited by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell. doi: 10.2307/378107.
McLeod, S. (2016) Bandura – Social Learning Theory, Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html.
Pierce, J. and Martin, D. G. (2015) ‘Placing Lefebvre’, Antipode, 47(5), pp. 1279–1299. doi: 10.1111/anti.12155.
 Henri Lefebvre was a Marxist theorist, philosopher and sociologist famous for his books The Production of Space and The Critique of Everyday Life.