Nailing it: A Multisensory Exploration of a Manicure by Louise Rondel

Louise Rondel nails

What can a sensuous exploration of urban space offer us as researchers? How can we use multisensory methods to attend to the ever-changing social world and produce better urban research?

As well as watching what unfolds, my research into hair and nail salons experiments with listening, smelling and touching as alternative ways of accessing urban life.  Influenced by Les Back and Dawn Lyon’s research into fishmongers on Deptford Market, which explores ‘the embodied and sensory dimensions of work’ (2012: 3.3), I engage my own senses to produce a ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973) of a recent visit to a nail salon.

Opening the door from the cold street and entering into the nail salon, the first thing you notice is the sweet and cloying, although not overly unpleasant, smell of the nail polishes and removers. Within a couple of minutes, however, this has disappeared into the background. It’s 3pm on a Wednesday, I am the only customer and the two manicurists are chatting behind their stations in Vietnamese. I am relieved I don’t have to wait and spend ten minutes flicking through five month old Hello! magazines. Above the quiet chat of the manicurists, the television in the corner playing Jessie J’s latest hit dominates. It is warm in the salon so I remove my coat and scarf and pile them rather unceremoniously on a chair and go to the display of an array of brightly coloured nail polishes to choose exactly which shade of red I want. Returning to the station, I sit down and face my manicurist, stretching my hands out as she begins to clip my nails; my palm resting on the towel, she supports my fingers in her hand and stretches each one towards her, the metal of the clippers presses against my fingertips. With each clip, a lifeless part of what was once me falls onto the towel.

Whilst she does this the phone rings and her colleague answers and explains the price of an airbrush design to a potential customer in a south London-Vietnamese accent, palatalising the consonants, turning Os into As. The next stage of the manicure is the filing, the manicurist dons a mask to cover her nose and mouth and the rough edge of the file rasps as it saws and shapes my nails. I then soak my fingertips in warm water before she uses two brutal looking instruments to scrape away and to trim my cuticles, the first applying pressure to my nails, the second snipping at the dead skin.

Finally, in preparation for the polish, she buffs my nails, rubbing the buffer backwards and forwards. All the while the hand being worked on is in her hand, we make small talk but never make eye contact, her focus is on my hands, her work. After washing the bits of nail dust off my hands I return to the station where she applies a synthetic fruit-smelling hand cream to my hands and lower arms: rubbing it into my wrists, she lifts one hand at a time and massages the palms and each finger. Then, she takes my right hand and applies a base coat, one deft stroke on each nail; replacing this hand on the counter she does the same with the left.

Next, with the same deftness and precision, she paints two coats of bright red on each nail, using her own nail to scrape away any polish that goes astray. Once this is complete, she ushers me to the driers where I am to sit for ten minutes facing the wall with my hands splayed. From this position I can hear the woman in the massage chair, her body vibrating, having her toenails clipped whilst recounting her day on the phone. I can also hear the sound of the file as another customer begins her manicure. After ten minutes my manicurist comes over, lifts one hand, touches a nail with her fingertip and says ‘two more minutes’. A few minutes later she does the same thing, this time announcing that I am done. I collect my belongings, pay at the counter and open the door back out into the cold. For the next half hour, I am conscious of how I use my hands as if any slight contact might chip the bright red talons…

Paying attention here to the various sensory engagements within this space, and in particular to the aural and to the tactile, ‘it is possible to hear and sense the body at work’ allowing us a way of accessing ‘the sensuous quality of labour as an embodied practice’ (Back and Lyon 2012: 5.15, 1.3). In the way the tools become an extension of the manicurist’s body and in the way that she uses her body as a tool, there is apparent a ‘corporeal comprehension’ (O’Connor 2007: 134). This skill and the rhythms of her work cannot be attended to by observation alone, rather, as researchers, by using our senses to consider the sensory practices of work we are more able to ‘flesh out the flesh of [the] world, its materiality’ (O’Connor 2007: 139).

Louise Rondel is an MPhil/PhD student in sociology at Goldsmiths. She is interested in urban space, everyday experiences of the city and hair and nail salons.    @LouiseRondel


Back, L. and Lyon, D. (2012) ‘Fishmongers in a global economy: Craft and social relations on a London market’, Sociological Research Online 17:2 available at

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

O’Connor, E. (2007) ‘Embodied knowledge in glassblowing: The experience of meaning and the struggle towards proficiency’ in Shilling, C. (ed.) Embodying Sociology: Retrospect, Progress and Prospects, Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Image by Louise Rondel.


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Seminar : Revisiting Segal. Learning from the Lewisham Self Build Schemes

Copyright ‘Walter’s Way’ by Brian Whittle is licensed under CC by 2.0

Date: Thursday 19th March 2015

Time: 7-9pm

Location: RHB Cinema, Goldsmiths, Lewisham Way SE14 6NW

In the 1970s and 1980s, Lewisham became the first council in London to fund a self build project using the Segal method of building. While today self build is often associated with ‘Grand Designs’, these projects focused on providing social housing through self build. Against the current backdrop of the housing crisis across London, it is timely that were visit what were quite groundbreaking, socially-motivated schemes.

This event showcases this innovative approach to supporting people to build their houses. It includes a showing of the BBC Open Door programme The House that Mum and Dad built (1982) that captures the experiences of families involved in the first project, Segal Close and a discussion led by people who were involved in the various Segal schemes rolled out in Lewisham at this time.

This event is part of the research project Selfbuilding: the production and consumption of new homes from the perspective of households.

For more information contact Dr Michaela Benson.

Copyright ‘Walter’s Way’ by Brian Whittle is licensed under CC by 2.0

190315 Poster JPG

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Seminar – Council Housing Estates in London: From Urban Marginality to State-Led Gentrification by Dr. Paul Watt (Birkbeck)


Date : Wednesday 11th March,

Time : 4pm

Location : Goldsmiths, University of London,  RHB142

This paper examines how processes of ‘state-led gentrification’ are occurring at London’s council housing estates via area-based regeneration programmes. These estates are currently disappearing from the city’s skyline in the name of regeneration and improving the lives and opportunities of their residents. New mixed-tenure developments are arising where the estates used to stand. These developments are dominated by gleaming private tower blocks, the 21st century distorted mirror image of their much-maligned modernist council housing antecedents. What long-term processes have brought this dramatic state of affairs about? How have London’s council housing residents (primarily multi-ethnic working class) responded to their estates’ demise or threatened demise? What political responses can be identified to state-led gentrification at this time of ever-deepening housing crisis in London? This paper examines these questions with reference to London-wide research on the changing nature of social housing provision, but with a focus on the outer London Borough of Barnet. 

Paul Watt is an urbanist whose research interests span geography, sociology and social policy. My over-arching research focus is the inter-relationship between social inequalities, space and place, especially in global cities and their hinterlands. This includes the following themes:

  • Social housing and urban regeneration.
  • Neighbourhoods and communities. 
  • The 2012 London Olympics and the regeneration of East London.
  • Suburbanisation and the suburbs

For more information contact Dr Michaela Benson

Image Copyright  by Andrew Mager is licensed under CC by 2.0

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Magna Carta Today? By Marjorie Mayo

2845315725_002Whilst the government was marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta with a lavish, £1,750-a-ticket jamboree of corporate lawyers in Westminster, justice campaigners were gathering outside Parliament. Magna Carta promised that ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny .. justice’, enshrining the principle of access to justice as a fundamental right – one law for the rich and for the poor alike. And this is precisely why protesters were gathering in Westminster – to protest at the government’s restrictions on access to justice, with particular impacts on the poorest and most disadvantaged, as a result of drastic cuts to legal aid.

CUCR’s latest publication, ‘Magna Carta today: What would a progressive government need to do, to ensure access to justice for social welfare in the twenty first century’ – produced in partnership with Unite the Union – sets out the arguments against the government’s so called ‘reforms’, together with proposals for a National Strategy to ensure access to justice for all, regardless of income. The pamphlet is being launched with Sadiq Khan, Shadow secretary of State for Justice, in the House of Commons on 11th March.

For more information and access to a copy of the pamphlet please contact: Marj Mayo:

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Marjorie Mayo is Emeritus Professor of Community Development at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her publications include ‘Access to Justice in Disadvantaged Communities’ with G. Koessl, I. Slater and M. Scott, 2014.

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New Developments in London: Selling More Than Buildings? by Stefanie Lai

Coming from Hong Kong, advertising and publicity for property developments generically emphasizes the quality and luxuriousness of their buildings. However in London lately I have observed some hoardings and billboards that are a little left-field. In the past year I have collected a number of photos that are amusing, thought-provoking or even disturbing.

photo 1

The ‘White Collar Factory’ being built just off Silicone Roundabout at Old Street conjures Orwellian nightmare images of young men in beards, skinny trousers and narrow ties sitting at rows of desks in an open-plan office.

photo 2

Located on Bishopsgate between Liverpool Street Station and Shoreditch High Street, the entire hoarding reads ‘The Un-Square Mile’, referencing both the expansion of the City, and the hip-ness of Shoreditch, which is just around the corner. The idea that a building can be creative and flexible is again buying into the trend for open-plan working and other flexible strategies such as hot-desking and sharing works spaces.

photo 3

The design and name of Spark Apartments on New Cross Road suggests affordability and ‘budget’, which makes sense in the current debates around the lack of affordable housing London, and criticism that new developments target rich investors and price out new property owners. However, it may be step too far to visually associate what will be the single most expensive purchase most people will make with toys, plastic, bright colours and mass-production.

photo 5

The blurb reads: ‘The Crown Estate and Oxford Properties are reinstating St James’s Market as a defining part of the area. With over 280,000 square feet of office, shops and restaurants centred around a new public square, soon global businesses and flagship retail will begin to define this part of St James’.

This is perhaps the most generic of developers’ messages in this review, making no pretence that the development is targeted at the most affluent businesses and individuals. It is regrettable however that the mention of a ‘public square’ immediately raises questions about how public this will truly be. And while Piccadilly Circus and Regent’s Street have already been colonised completely by global brands and chain stores, it is sad to think that this development that claims to be a ‘defining part of the area’ will house stores that already exist in one iteration or the other elsewhere , representing another nail in the coffin of high streets that are becoming increasingly homogenous, and a Central London that only caters to tourists and well-heeled locals.

It is unsurprising that developers are trying to adopt and use the language of societal trend and issues. However I find it disturbing that seemingly innocent advertising so squarely puts its finger on and seeks to profit from issues that are damaging to our society.

The type of work alluded to in the first two pictures might often be thought of as ‘bullshit jobs’i—work that is perceived as ultimately pointless in a wider context, most notably roles in consultancy services where neither concrete goods are produced nor are services provided seen as benefitting people or society. There is also research that open plan offices, far from encouraging communication and collaborative working, were actually negatively impacting creativity, productivity and satisfactionii. Flexible work also means freelancing and zero-hour contracts, which leaves workers with very little protection or stability.

High property prices make both the residents and businesses in London more generic as increasing numbers of people and businesses are priced out.

If property developers are able to put a positive spin on these messages, making them seem like everyday facts of life that one might be able to make a profit from, then they are not just changing the city’s physical environment, they are also changing the way that we perceive and think about spaces and issues in the city.

Stefanie Lai is currently a student in the MA World Cities and Urban Life. She has lived in Hong Kong and London, is interested in mobilities, especially cycling and walking in the city, and has recently been experimenting with photography.

i ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’,

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Book Launch. Video Methods : Social Science Research in Motion edited by Charlotte Bates


To celebrate the launch of Video Methods: Social Science Research in Motion edited by Charlotte Bates (Routledge 2015), Phillip Vannini will be talking about making Life Off Grid, a film about people who have chosen to build their lives around renewable energy, with beautiful, inspiring, and often challenging results.

Date : Wednesday 25 March,4-6pm

Place : LG01, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths, University of London

Phillip Vannini is Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography and Professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada. He is author/editor of ten books, including Off the Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life (Routledge 2014), Ferry Tales: Mobility, Place, and Time on Canada’s West Coast (Routledge 2012), and Popularizing Research: Engaging New Media, New Genres, New Audiences (Peter Lang 2012).

For further information contact Dr Charlotte Bates

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The Transformation of Urban Dynamics – A Conversation

Professor Caroline Knowles and Angelo Martins Junior hosted a conversation with Thais Brito at CUCR, Goldsmiths London.


Thais is the Co-ordinador at the MESCLAS Research Group – (Memória, Espaço e Culturas) and at the Heritage Educational Program at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB -Brazil), where she is Professor at the department of Culture, Arts and Technologies.

She as a researcher at Coletivo ASA research group (Arts, Knowleges and Anthropology- university of São Paulo) and holds a Doctorate in Social Anthropology at the State University of São Paulo  (USP – Brazil).


She has worked on different projects related to sociability, aesthetic experiences, material culture, heritage and traditional artisans ‘work and currently researches the transformations of urban dynamics connected to heritage, communitarian spaces and immaterial culture.

For more information :

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