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.
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 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/17/2/23.html
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.