Of maps and dead cats: New directions in the study of East Asian cities

By Dorothy Finan and Chris Schimkowsky
PhD students at the University of Sheffield

The complexity of urban environments forces researchers to make use of more practical, experiential techniques. How, then, can we, as researchers apply such techniques to better explore urban spaces in contemporary East Asia? A recent workshop by the East Asian Text and Culture research cluster at the School of East sought answers to this question. Organized by SEAS PhD researcher Carolin Becke, and held on January 25th, 2019, at the University of Sheffield’s Bartolomé House, the workshop comprised of presentations on sound recording, map-making, and film-making as innovative research methods that scholars of East Asia can draw on to analyse contemporary cities in the region.

The workshop started off with a presentation by University of the Arts London researcher and award-winning sound artist Kate Carr on sound as participating in the constitution of urban spaces, and field recording as a research method. Cluster members learned about theories of soundscapes, and were encouraged to think critically about how power manifests itself in the aural environment of the city. Who gets to make noise? Whose voices are the loudest? What sounds are being lost or masked? Participants also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with a selection of sound recording equipment Kate had brought up from London, such as various microphones and a wind-shield – called, as per the technical term, a “dead cat”!

Next, Dr. Peter Matanle introduced the scholarly possibilities provided by digital map-making technologies such as Geographic Information System (GIS) platforms and Google Earth. Drawing on a forthcoming publication in an online journal, Peter demonstrated how satellite data can be combined with screen-capture technology or ground-level photography to give readers a visual understanding of research content. As explanatory vehicle and means of verification, visual presentation is of particular value when addressing audiences unfamiliar with the East Asian region. Attendees were surprised to learn just how many of these tools were freely available for use in their own research.

Last up, Dr. Jamie Coates drew on his fieldwork with Chinese young people in the Ikebukuro area of Tokyo and the experience of making the anthropological film Tokyo Pengyou, in a presentation about using film-making as part of research. Jamie discussed some of the challenges of visual anthropology: rather than just gathering data, visual anthropologists must find a film with characters and a story. Furthermore, film-making differs from writing academic articles, as both research participants and audiences have strong expectations what a ‘film’ should look like. Jamie ended his talk by providing some practical tips and giving cluster members the opportunity to try out some of his film-making equipment.

With presentations on sound recording, map-making and film-making, this workshop introduced three media-based approaches for the analysis of urban space in East Asia; and highlighted the diversity of contemporary research on East Asian texts and cultures. Many thanks to the organizer and the presenters – we’re looking forward to the next cluster meeting!