This post was written by Chris Schimkowsky, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield in August 2019.
For their recent event on the 21st of June, the Everyday Life and Critical Diversities research cluster tried out something a little different: a sociological walk around Kelham Island. Organised by Lauren White and Dr Katherine Davies, the event sought to introduce walking as a research method and explore its value in sociological understandings. Once an important manufacturing site, Kelham Island is closely connected to Sheffield’s history and identity as a ‘steel city’. Recent years have seen the transformation of the area into a hip urban neighbourhood full of new apartments, microbreweries and trendy cafés. These have received national media attention and have been discussed as a symbol of the changing face of Sheffield. Kelham Island’s industrial history and ongoing cosmopolitan transformation ideally positions the area for sociological exploration on foot.
The research excursion started with participants walking togetherfrom the department down through to Kelham Island. From Elmfield building, participants passed through trimmed Weston Park before heading downhill to Kelham Island through local neighbourhoods. Passing through multiple areas with different atmospheres in a mere thirty minutes sensitised participants to viewing their everyday environment through a sociological lens and understanding urban space as patchy and fragmented.
Upon arrival in Kelham Island, Lauren White and Dr Katherine Davies provided an introductory talk to the walk, sharing with participants their expertise of ethnographic techniques and rich local knowledge. The organisers prompted participants to think about the role of place for belonging, architecture, and ecological connections. This facilitated participants’ conscious sociological exploration of the area. These include reflections on the uncertainties of urban appearance and the different modes of walking and urban perception: as local, tourist and researcher.
The walk started at the black steel crucible in the heart of Kelham Island, passing the Five Weirs Walk, Yellow Arch Music, and Sheffield Artist Pete McKee’s ‘Frank the Dog’ painting. The walk finished at The Fat Cat Pub, where participants told stories of the Sheffield Floods prompted by the wall painting of the water levels. As a comprehensive circular tour of Kelham Island, the walk allowed participants to observe the processual and uneven nature of urban renovation and transformation. While new building facades greeted participants on both sides in some streets, in others new apartment blocks face abandoned warehouses – and many side streets are still undisturbed by renovation efforts. Remnants of Kelham Island’s industrial past such as fading manufactory signs intermix with contemporary references to the area’s history in form of designer streetlamps made of steel.
Similar to the walk from Elmfield building to Kelham Island, this intermingling of old and new allowed participants to understand urban space as heterogenous, multi-layered and ambiguous. As a dedicated research exercise, the walk enabled participants to perceive familiar environments anew and connect them to larger sociological concerns such as urban change, transformation and peoples’ bonds to the spaces they inhabit. A visit to a Kelham Island pub after the walk gave participants the opportunity to discuss how to integrate walking as a method into their own research interests. Finally, we discussed where our feet could take us next.