In the weeks and months following Britain’s referendum on their future membership of the European Union, and the slow move towards Brexit, I started to question what this might mean for the diverse British populations who have made other European towns, cities and villages their homes—including those Britons living in the Lot that I had worked with originally, whose lives were captured in the pages of my first book, The British in Rural France (MUP, 2011). Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through their UK in a Changing EU initiative, I have since revisited the Lot. In the first of my posts for Streetsigns, I consider this return through the consideration of shifting scales and scapes.
‘How do you feel about going back to study in the rural after working in London?’
It is an unusually hot and sunny day in London, and I am sitting with my colleague and co-author, Emma Jackson outside a café bar in Copeland Park, the ex-industrial space around the Bussey Building just behind Rye Lane, a bustling, multi-ethnic shopping street in south London. Building on our earlier research in the area, for the past year, we have been doing research on how the ongoing changes—particularly those happening in the spaces Above Street Level—interplay with social and economic transformation in the area. It is here and now that she poses this question … a good question: how did I feel?
I’ll be honest, I never thought I would be back in rural France. I’ve done too good a job of keeping away. Taking to heart the rhetoric that you need distance to write up ethnographic research, I had not returned to the Lot—a department in the southwest of France—since the final phase of my PhD research in 2005. The decision to move away from working with this British population in the Lot, one of the most sparsely populated departments in France—33 people per km2 to be precise—was in part by design and in part by the direction that my job search earlier on in my career had taken me. My research trajectory took me first to Panama, working with North Americans who had decided to make the small mountain town of Boquete their home; the conditions and contexts of their migration suitably similar but different to those of the Britons resident in rural France. But it was my expertise on the middle classes (and perhaps my working knowledge of French) that secured my next role on the Middle Classes and the City, a comparative project, in a team with eight other academics, examining how the middle classes in London and Paris understand their cities and neighbourhoods. Indeed, it was through this project that I had first come to Peckham. With a population density of 99.9 people per hectare—or to put Peckham into direct comparison with the Lot, over 300 times more people at 9990 people per km2—this had represented a significant shift in scale with attendant considerations over how to navigate the field and ethnographic sensibilities in response. When I first arrived in France in the early 2000s, I had only ever lived in towns or city suburbs; similarly, I arrived to do research in Peckham having never lived in a city.
Shifting Scapes: The view from Frank’s Bar, Peckham (2016) & an afternoon walk in Prayssac, Southwest France (2017) © Michaela Benson.
Approaching the British in rural France anew and with Brexit as central to the research, the shift in the conditions and contexts of British migration, changes to local economies and how these interplay with demographics—in the case of the Lot, a concern over the increasingly ageing population—come to the fore. But I am also approaching my research in the Lot from a different place, coming from London, rather than Hull, and with significantly more research experience than in the past. And it is from the position that I start this new relationship to the Lot and to the British people who have made it their home, my lens onto the lives of these migrants in productive tension with my experiences of research at other scales and vantage points.
In both my research in urban and rural settings, I have been fascinated with the relationship between people and place; I have questioned how people understand where they live, their imaginings and representations of place, and the ways they are involved in making the places they live fit for their living. Shifting vantage point from the Lot to Peckham, from Peckham to the Lot, offers the possibility of revealing the similarities in how these people understand and value the place they live, as it does the differences. It would be easy to conclude that the urban and the rural were somehow incontrovertibly different, that differences of scale and scape give rise to different ways of living. But it might be better to approach this question from the perspective of what structures give rise to and maintain these different landscapes, the questions we can ask that cut across these different geographies and landscapes, and to think about what sensibilities might be required to explore these.
Michaela Benson is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Her research among Britons resident in the Lot is part of the broader project BrExpats: freedom of movement, citizenship and Brexit in the lives of Britons resident in the European Union.
To read more from Micheala see her follow up post here.