On the Flip-Flop Trail: the Difficulties of Travelling Methods by Caroline Knowles


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Following a travelling object, allowing the object to draw the trail, demands travelling methods. The travelling methods I used, like the trail itself, were rigged together; an ad hoc patchwork of pragmatics reinvented to deal with problems that arose along the way. In my methods toolkit were techniques familiar to micro-sociologists and anthropologists – observation, conversation-based interviews, usually mobile as I followed people around, photography, sketches and mapping. Applying these methods on the move to explore a trail that constantly moved on was my biggest challenge.

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Trails pose a number of problems. I had to create vantage points in which to stop and investigate the people and objects that moved along it: viewing platforms. My choice of viewing platforms was pragmatic: they must provide a good vantage point onto the core activities I was chasing along the trail; and they had to be reachable by standard methods of transport, primarily air and road. Travelling with the flip-flops was impractical: I couldn’t fold myself into the regulated spaces of containers, ships and trucks. So on parallel trails I would have to catch up with the flip-flops at crucial platforms along the trail. Sometimes just finding the trail was difficult. International flights are inevitably routed through key cities and from them I would have to find the trail.

The cities on the trail were omnipresent and slippery and this posed another set of problems. Often the viewing platform I had selected looked from a distance as if it was in a city; but closer examination on arrival often proved otherwise. From trail cities I would end up in urban zones, exurbs, suburbs, and borders between nation-states: zones of unregulated activity. Whole cities are anyway un-researchable and so I chose small junction points where flip-flops passed through. In city neighbourhoods I found trails to distant rural villages by following the people who moved along them. Sometimes, in the centre of a city, I discovered that people referred to their neighbourhood as a village: exposing recent patterns of migration and urban expansion. The trail thus passed through villages that looked like urban neighbourhoods and villages that looked like industrial landscapes. This is disorienting to say the least: as an urban scholar recognising a city was the one thing I felt sure of.

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A further set of problems arose around the routes the trail created. At every point the trail splintered and moved off in many directions. I could only follow one. Even in following a single object there are uncountable potential trails in the operation of globalisation on the ground: flip-flop routes run all over the world. The trail I followed came from calculations of volume and significance – where do most things go? So I followed the biggest production sites for materials (oil and petrochemicals) and flip-flops and the biggest markets. Occasionally I had to bend the trail to take account for difficulties in access, dangerousness, propriety and feasibility.

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Because of these difficulties I ended up in places I could not have anticipated and I was forced to relinquish all presumption of expertise. The landscapes, situations and people I met were barely intelligible to me. With no expertise in the geographical areas of the trail – it passed through five countries – I had to learn from secondary sources. The trail demanded local knowledge and languages I don’t have. Interviews passed through the ears of interpreters and I have to accept that these filters, potentially amounting to a case of Chinese whispers, undermine the veracity of my data. Social researchers often write about the power geometries of expertise: but this type of trans-local research – following trails – is inevitably semi-skilled labour on account of its scope, its scale and the lack of control over the research process. Trail sociology is thus appropriately tackled with imagination and due humility as well as the stamina necessary to relentlessly follow the trail when the going gets tough.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.

For further information contact C.knowles@gold.ac.uk

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