Todmorden. A town with a scary name and social hierarchy

Every year after passing our annual reviews, my University friends and I have a trip to a town with a scary name of Todmorden. Todmorden is located in Northern England on the boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire. If you split this name into two words, you will get ‘tod’, evoking associations with a German word ‘Tod’ meaning ‘death’, and ‘mor’ resembling a French word ‘mort’, which also means ‘death’. In other words, or playing with words, you may easily get something like ‘deadly death’ or ‘death-death-something’. These associations create a particular aura of the place:D

Todmorden is full of legends about the origin of its name. One of the stories goes back to the 15th century and tells of the Wars of the Roses. Without going into detail, I just say that bloody conflicts occurred between two rival groups of the English elite belonging to the dynasty of Plantagenet, the branch of Lancaster, having a red rose as its symbol, and the branch of York with a symbol of a white rose.

IMG_1108.JPGThe Monument of the Roses, June 2018 © Photo by A. Vanke

Centuries passed, and today local cricket clubs use red and white roses as their emblems, rivalling on the cricket pitch only. Now, only the monument under the railway arc resembles the Wars of the Roses. However, there are no inscriptions on it. So, it is quite difficult to understand, whether stone roses refer to the past wars or to the present sports competitions. I am guessing to both of them;)

The town and surroundings of Todmorden are also noteworthy by its industrial past and its farming present. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this area was considered to be working-class, because of its residents who were labouring in heavy industry and cotton mills located in the same place. However, after the 1970s most of the industry was dismissed that changing the local economy, and everyday life of the working-class community as well.

So, now Todmorden is gentrified and has a mixed social composition. People belonging to different social classes are living there. But what is really interesting is that this social hierarchy is visible in the landscape of the town and its surroundings. My friends and I enjoy hiking in the hills and walking in the countryside around Todmorden. Every time, when we are going up the hills, I have a feeling that we are moving from the bottom to the top of social hierarchy. If you have not stopped reading yet, I invite you to climb the hills together and see, what we may find on the way.

At the bottom

In the valley, a deprived six-storey building of the Robinwood mill is still situated. This cotton mill was erected at the beginning of the 19th century. Its owners also built some housing around, more beautiful villas for managers and simpler housing for workers. The mill building looks brutal and substantial. It is made of stone bricks and was reconstructed several times. Its façade has burn marks. Locals say that somebody intentionally set fire to the mill, and now some parts of it are for sale.

IMG_2081.JPGThe Robinwood mill, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

And what about housing? In the valley, you may find some old housing, where mostly pensioners are dwelling, and some social housing for workers. Housing for pensioners, belonging to a local working-class community, is distinguished by low height, solid walls made of stone brick, cute chimneys indicating the existence of fireplaces inside, double-glazed windows, through which you may see pot plants, and tiny gardens with rare rosebushes in front courts. Sometimes people from these houses dry their clothes outside.

IMG_1121.JPGHousing in the valley, June 2018 © Photo by A. Vanke

Relatively ‘new’ social housing resembles the architectural planning of typical council estates in England. It is three-storey housing blocks with flat and gable roofs, simple façades, and windows of different size. If you glance through the window glass, you may see lace curtains and fresh roses in a vintage vase. Some dwellers adorn their windows with English cross flags, expressing their patriotic identity, and white-and-blue flags, which symbolic meaning I could hardly ever to get. Dwellers’ life here looks difficult.

IMG_2073Social housing at the bottom of the hill, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

In the middle

Let’s make an effort and walk up the hills. There are several routes leading to the top, so every time we try a new route that gives us a chance to explore the area better. The middle of the hill offers nice views of the town with the cotton mill and small houses scattered in the valley. There are more trees and shadow here. You may realize at some point that you are in the middle of nowhere. But soon you understand that the local middle class occupies this place on the hill.

IMG_2092.JPGHousing in the middle of the hill, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

This understanding comes quickly, when you see another type of housing and compact bright cars, red, yellow, etc., driving up and down the hill. I would say that houses in the middle are more diverse in design and style, but all of them have something in common. For example, middle-class houses are normally bigger than those we saw at the bottom. They may have larger space in front yards and more spacious gardens. If you come across local farms, you will see that farmers usually have a piece of land in addition to the house.

IMG_2108A smiling horse, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

This land needs to be cultivated by tractors. And we met one friendly tractor driver who cultivated pieces of land belonging to different farmers. As locals say, the life of farmers is not easy today. They produce meat, milk, cheese, eggs and other foodstuffs, and sell them in the town market. While we were wandering around the farms, we met nice animals:) smiling horses, sleepy cows, lazy sheep, curious ostriches, beautiful deer, cutie ponies, and funny buffalos. From the middle of the hill, life seems to be pastoral but still hardworking.

IMG_6538.JPGA picturesque pastoral view, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

On the top

We keep on moving to the top. And what we find there? From the top of the hill, you may see picturesque panoramic views of the countryside with its beautiful fields, farms, other hills, and windmills. If you look more carefully, you will see villas, hidden in the green areas. These villas are often surrounded by the fence and sometimes by the barbed wire. Yes, exactly like this *Х*Х*Х* So, it is quite difficult to glimpse of the housing on the top, because it is hidden from the public eye in contrast to houses found in the middle and at the bottom of the hill. However, you can feel pretty well what is happening on this level of local social hierarchy.

IMG_2138.JPGThe bonsai garden, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

Villas on the top looks spacious. In some cases, they resemble small castles, quite often surrounded by the piece of land, which is not cultivated but given for the golf course or beautiful gardens. Some villas’ owners have greenhouses on their territories and decorate their yards with elegance and style. When we were going down, I happened to notice a beautiful straw hat accurately resting on the garden armchair in one villa. In another one, I noticed a kind of bonsai garden with accurately cut evergreens. The people from the top of the hill drive Range Rover cars and keep dogs, which are barking at strangers when they are passing by.

IMG_2136.JPGRoofs of the houses, July 2019 © Photo by A. Vanke

I was thinking that life on the top might be aisé, but it was far from my suggestion. The barking dogs, fences and barbed wires are telling us that life is not easy there too.

Going down to earth

I should say that our way back was much easier. When you are coming back, you see different groups of the same houses in the distance. At that moment you may realize that social hierarchy is really visible in the landscape. So, we were going down, down and down to earth, and finished our trip in the Golden Lion pub, which is very popular among the locals.

2nd year of the PhD: facing new challenges

Some people say that the 2nd year is the most exciting and easiest stage of the full PhD process. On the one hand, I agree with this, because at this point you know what you should do exactly and it is still far to write the whole thesis. On the other hand, each PGR student has its own path depending on her/his research project, so you never know what challenges may arise at this stage. During my 2nd year of the PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester, I completed fieldwork, analyzed most of the empirical data, and gained teaching experience. I decided not to make these things all together and spent several months for each of these activities separately.

Teaching

In September 2018, I came back to Manchester from the 2nd field trip to Russia and as a teaching assistant joined two courses, Media, Culture & Society and Researching Culture & Society, given at the University of Manchester. Before the PhD I had already taught in Moscow Universities. However, as far as British and Russian systems of higher education differ, there was something new for me to learn. New teaching assistants have to take introductory courses explaining, for example, how to protect confidential information about students, how to solve a problem of cultural diversity in the classroom, how to assess students’ records and give feedback, etc. Only after the completion of these introductory courses you are allowed to start teaching.

IMG_2772The Whitworth Building of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

From October to December 2018, I gave seminars (called tutorials at the University of Manchester) in four groups, in two for each of the course. There were approx. 10 students in each group. It took me two-three days of preparation, and one day of teaching. Normally teaching assistants should read the required and additional literature for tutorials (up to 10 positions for one tutorial) and facilitate a discussion in the classroom. Lecturers prepare questions for the discussion beforehand. You may be creative and add something else but a seminar has already a structure though. The things you are required to do is to help students to get answers to the questions based on the reading and support them in critical debating the issues formulated by the lecturer.

By the mid-autumn, each student had to submit a written work on one of the topics proposed by the lecturer and based on the recommended reading. For me, the assessment of students’ essays was the most time-consuming part of teaching. It was absolutely different from the assessment process I used to do in Russian Unis. At the University of Manchester, you should estimate an essay on a 100-point scale and explain in detail (i.e. to write feedback), why you gave a particular mark to a student. In addition, you should assess different elements of each essay on a 10-point scale, e.g. creativity, methodology, originality, critical reflection, arguments, etc.

IMG_2780.JPGThe campus of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the time of teaching, I spent one-two days in the working week for my PhD research and sometimes weekends. In spite of new challenges, it was really great for me to change the activity: to switch from fieldwork to teaching. In addition, I got to know some new approaches from the course Media, Culture & Society, which I may use in PhD, and broadened knowledge in qualitative research methods thanks to the course Researching Culture & Society. At the beginning of December 2018, I went to Boston to present PhD research at the Annual Conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. After coming back to Manchester I gave the final class and in the next couple of days headed to Moscow to undertake the final phase of fieldwork.

Fieldwork

The research design of my PhD project ‘Working-class life and struggle in post-Soviet Russia’ is based on the approach of multi-sited ethnography and involved collecting ethnographic data in two localities. Fieldwork took place in two field sites and was split into three phases. By the end of the 1st year of the PhD (read more: here), I had two field trips to Yekaterinburg and Moscow and collected most of the empirical data in two industrial neighbourhoods located in these two cities. After the 2nd field trip, I formulated some new suggestions, which needed to be supported by additional empirical data.

To check the provisional arguments, I decided to undertake the 3rd phase of fieldwork in Moscow between December 2018 and January 2019. During this final field trip, I came back to the examined Moscow neighbourhood and conducted some more interviews with its residents. However, this phase aimed at researching the experiences of workers who took part in trade union activity. As far as this winter field trip coincided with long New Year celebrations in Russia, it was quite problematic to arrange meetings with potential participants. If people agreed for the interviews, our talks were long and occurred in a warm and relaxing atmosphere, sometimes over tea at the participant’s place.

Sociology PGR Colloquium

An announcement of my presentation at the colloquium. Made by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In February 2019, I finished collecting data and came back to Manchester being ready to move onto the next stage of data analysis. Finally, my database consisted of 53 ethnographic interviews, 155 pages of field notes, more than 550 photographs and other visual data. I was invited to present the PhD project at the PGR colloquium organized by my peers from Sociology. The process of preparation for the colloquium allowed me to build a more or less coherent visual narrative with sociological ethnography and to see that I had enough empirics for putting a puzzle together.

Data analysis

The spring semester of the 2nd year was fully dedicated to work with empirical data. First of all, interview transcripts needed anonymization and creation of an anonymization log with records about places data, which was removed or replaced by pseudonyms. I changed the names of research participants, and the names of their relatives and friends mentioned in interviews, the names of neighbourhoods, streets, and other recognizable spots, numbers of schools and house buildings, etc.

IMG_5238.JPGMy desk in the office of the Department of Sociology. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the next stage, from March to July 2019, I coded all anonymized interview transcripts in NVivo 12 software. Before coding my supervisors advised me to choose three absolutely different interviews from the data set – I chose one interview from each of three fieldwork phases – and to create the initial codes, which changed slightly in the following process of coding. At the beginning, the codes looked a bit unstructured, but later I restructured them and generated child codes related to the key categories. On the one hand, the process of coding was routine and monotonous. On the other hand, coding in NVivo helped me to structure ethnographic data and create a detailed hierarchy of codes, which consists of more than 670 items now.

I generated some codes ‘bottom-up’ from empirical data and some codes ‘top-down’ by keeping in mind theory. Now it is clear that coding in NVivo was the first step toward bridging empirical data with theory, theory with empirical data in my PhD research. Emotions were also there. While rereading interviews, I was sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing. Well, the everyday life of workers in Russia is really hard, but there is also a place for humour and resilience.

IMG_5698Presenting PhD research at the BSA conference. Photo by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In April I presented the intermediated results of data analysis at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association which took place in Glasgow. May and June were fully spent on preparing a field report and other research documents for the annual review. In the field report, I tried to write a sociological ethnography – which was not easy for me – and figured out how the empirical chapters of the thesis may look like. At the end of the 2nd year of the PhD I presented the field report at the annual review. The reviewer gave me insightful feedback on empirical research and helpful advice on the theoretical framework. Inspired by the stimulating discussion at the annual review, I am looking forward to moving onto the next stage and starting writing the thesis.

Первый год PhD. Как это было?

Первый год моего обучения на программе PhD по социологии в Манчестерском университете подошел к концу. Каким он был для меня? И как проходит обучение в английской аспирантуре? Постараюсь рассказать об этом.

Первое, с чем сталкивается PhD студент, приезжающий на учебу из другой страны, – это поиск жилья, улаживание бытовых проблем и знакомство с локальной инфраструктурой. На решение этих вопросов может потребоваться немало времени. Одним словом, первые месяцы уходят на адаптацию к жизни в новой среде. Лично у меня этот процесс занял два месяца. Параллельно с этим начинается посещение обязательных занятий в университете и взаимодействие с научными руководителями.

В первые два месяца мои научные руководители давали мне задания на написание коротких текстов, которые мы вместе разбирали на консультациях. Они заключались в том, чтобы прописать возможные стратегии исследования, сформулировать проблему, наметить теоретическую рамку. Однажды я получила задание нарисовать план-карту моего проекта с темой, ключевыми понятиями, исследовательскими вопросами, возможными вариантами мест сбора данных.

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Whitworth Hall Манчестерского университета

Наряду с выполнением заданий моих научных руководителей, я посещала занятия по академическому письму, развивая навыки написания научных текстов на английском. На первый взгляд может показаться, что писать по-английски просто, но когда сталкиваешься с созданием научного текста, то понимаешь, что это определенный жанр, требующий специфических навыков. Эти навыки заключаются в умении четко обосновывать свою позицию, распознавать аргументы других авторов и полемизировать с ними. Английское академическое письмо строится на силе аргумента.

Приобретению навыков строить аргументы способствует и обязательное для PhD студентов чтение научной литературы, которую условно можно разделить на три вида: классическая, новейшая, методологическая. При работе с научной литературой мне помогло составление конспекта и выписывание основных тезисов разных авторов, работающих в моей области.

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Кампус Манчестерского университета

После того, как мне удалось изучить необходимую литературу, я приступила к написанию литературного обзора, разработке исследовательского инструментария и составлению заявки на этическую комиссию. Этический комитет факультета или университета дает разрешение на проведение полевых работ. Последующие месяцы были посвящены более плотной работе над обзором литературы, обсуждению исследовательского дизайна с научными руководителями, созданию плана полевых работ, доработке текста обзора и укреплению аргументов.

В последних числах апреля у меня состоялась защита проекта, после чего начался этап полевых работ. 1-я фаза сбора данных проходила в Екатеринбурге, а 2-я фаза – в Москве. За год мне удалось развить навыки академического письма, расширить знания по современной литературе, познакомиться с рядом исследовательских методик, узнать, как устроен университет в Англии, и составить представление о ландшафте британской социологии. В целом, мой опыт прохождения первого года аспирантуры убедил меня в том, что PhD – это сложно, но в то же время интересно. Второй год обещает быть не менее насыщенным.