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Participatory Geographies and Militant Research at UCL

Posted by ucfaam0 at Sep 05, 2013 09:40 AM |

By Sam Halvorsen

When I started my PhD on the geographies of activism and social movements back in 2011 I was welcomed into a department that had little tradition in my area of interest. Not only has the department made me feel at home with my research, but it has enthusiastically embraced my methodology of (con)fusing activism with scholarship. At the same time, UCL Geography is increasingly becoming an important space within broader networks of participatory geographers. Before discussing some of the initiatives taking place at UCL, let me briefly introduce my research and methodology.

I initially started my PhD to investigate the emerging geographies of anti-cuts movements in austerity Britain. New social movements were developing and seemed to be moving away from the dominant model of creating global networks to confront and replace neoliberal globalisation towards a newfound emphasis on place-based activism. Soon after starting, however, the Occupy movement suddenly appeared outside St Paul's Cathedral in London (and in dozens of cities worldwide), taking space in order to practice already existing alternatives to capitalist crises. I went down on Day 1 and spent most of the following months with Occupy London.

Occupy London

Occupy London

Beyond my theoretical interest in the geographies of Occupy, which soon turned to a focus on territoriality, my positionality as someone who engages in the movement first as a committed activist, and later as a researcher, led me to take seriously the potentialities of a participatory and militant research. The practice of militant research has a long and rich history of activist-researchers who are committed to social change and seek to dissolve the boundaries between theory and practice. Inherently challenging, this methodology presents opportunities to re-imagine research as a weapon, and to move away from the idea of the university as a detached space of objective research.

During the initial months of my PhD I spent most of my time with activists, in meetings and actions, and helping the Occupy movement develop. My research was from the beginning both participatory and engaging beyond the academy. Along with other militant researchers I helped set up the Occupy Research Collective as a means of countering the dominance of institutions (such as the university) in researching Occupy. It also allowed me to explore the ethics of my research in a non-institutional setting, an urgent task given that the UCL ethical committee was placing significant barriers around my study (with particular concerns over my potential involvement in illegal behaviour). It was at this stage that I had one of my first experiences of feeling that my (militant) research had an important role in our department, which came through the understanding and helpful advice from my supervisor, Alan Ingram, who helped me navigate this hurdle.

Occupy Research Collective

Occupy Research Collective

It was around this time, half way into my first year, that I started to become aware of the existence of spaces for participatory research in the department. Participatory research has become a banner for an eclectic range of research methodologies across diverse disciplines. Geography has taken on a leading role pushing forward participatory practices, everything from including the voices of traditionally marginalised groups directly into the research process (e.g. Participatory Action Researchers), to developing technologies that democratise data-collection (e.g. video or photo), to the sort of militant research I have described here. Browsing the department's website, being taught by its staff, or connected to its research groups, participatory methodologies are not usually something that stand out. Having searched a little harder, and been involved in a few new initiatives, I'm glad to say that this approach to the discipline is alive and kicking at UCL.

First and foremost, there are the various staff and PhD students that are already involved in participatory research of their own. Much of this is linked to existing spaces such as the interdisciplinary Urban Lab and the PhD-led Stadtkolloquium, both of which hold regular seminars that often involve a participatory theme. In the second year of my PhD, I also had the pleasure of being involved in a module that was taught by Pushpa Arabindoo entitled Urban Practices, which put participatory methodologies at the heart of both its teaching and outputs. Moreover, through my engagement with undergraduates via tutorials, I have become aware of a growing interest in participatory and militant research methodologies.

Participatory Methodologies at UCL

Participatory Methodologies at UCL

During the past year I have also had the fortune of working with fellow PhD students, such as Myfanwy Taylor and Pooya Ghoddousi, who have been working towards the creation of more spaces for participatory geographies at UCL. In many ways this is not only about a research methodology, but a sense of commitment to open, democratic and campaigning methods in our daily lives as researches at UCL. Following the announcement that our university had decided to try and build a new mega-campus on the location of a vibrant working-class estate in east London (a plan that has since been scrapped) some of us got together and created the Participatory, Activist and Research Network, with the aim of being more able to intervene within our department and university, but also in order to create a network of mutual-aid and support amongst PhD students (and staff), entering an increasingly precarious and neoliberalised university market.

Researchers and activists protesting at UCL over proposed campus

Researchers and activists protesting at UCL over proposed campus

Over time, some of us have become more integrated with already existing participatory networks, the most notable of which is the Participatory Geographies Research Group of the Royal Geographic Society. Indeed, this year UCL hosted group's annual open space "Fuller Geographies". Perhaps of most significance is the department's decision to host a series of lunchtime seminars this year on the theme of participatory geographies, placing it at the centre of our research community. Confirmed speakers so far include Jane Wills and Gavin Brown.

This tide of participatory and militant research has already swept across departments around the country, such as QMUL and Leeds. For those of us engaged in it at UCL it has thus been a welcome development to see it grow at home, and I thank the department not only for their generosity in hosting my militant research, but embracing this growing tradition of radical geography.


Sam Halvorsen is a PhD candidate at UCL Geography investigating territorial practices and territoriality in the Occupy London movement. He is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. More details on his research can be found here:


Myfanwy says:
Sep 05, 2013 01:51 PM

Great blog post Sam! Particularly enjoyed reading about how your PhD research is related to the various participatory initiatives and networks you are involved in.

Good news! Kye Askins of Northumbria U has now also confirmed for the human geography lunchtime seminar series on participatory geographies ( :)

And in the spirit of sharing links to participatory networks, can I also mention the International Network of Urban Research and Action (INURA), of which several UCL Urban Lab and Geog staff and students are members (see

Sam says:
Sep 05, 2013 02:16 PM

That is great news Myfanwy! And thanks for those updates. I should stress that the above account is just based on my experiences, and it would be great to hear from others about all the participatory and militant research spaces they are involved in at UCL or indeed elsewhere...

Michael Edwards
Michael Edwards says:
Sep 05, 2013 02:32 PM

A very useful and reflexive/reflective statement. Hope things continue to unfold as productively this year: there is so much to be done.

I would add that the research and other support activity which UCL students (not only Geog but also Planning and Architecture) have given to activist groups in London has been truly valuable to those groups. You could put a link to for that. And please post the seminar series when it's ready.

Hilde Refstie
Hilde Refstie says:
Sep 05, 2013 05:17 PM

Hi Sam, it was nice meeting you at the Participatory Research Group meeting in London.

I am now in Rome and will spend tomorrow in the session: Geographies of TransformAction focusing on a variety of activist/action/participatory approaches:

Hilde (from elsewhere)

Sam says:
Sep 05, 2013 05:30 PM

Thanks for those links Michael, and for pointing out all the great work coming across from our friends in Planning and Architecture. Would be great to have a similar blog post from over there if anyone is up to the challenge? :)

And Hilde - was nice to meet you too. Sounds like a great session in Rome, would be interested in hearing a report back if you or someone else manages to do one, you could post the link here for all to see?

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