Dr Robin Finlay

School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Please describe your current research interests/projects.   

 My field is social and cultural urban geography. I’m primarily interested in experiences of minority and marginalised groups and to date my research falls boradly into three core areas – migration, diaspora and urbanisation; everyday multiculturalism, racism and Islamophobia;  and then urban and political geographies of marginalised youths. The latter particularly around refugee young people and their experience of the city and public space. 

How did you get into research in the first place?  

A lot of these issues were things I was generally interested in, such as the marginalisation of migrants and migration. I’ve always been interested in politics and peoples experience within political systems. So I applied to do a MA and then began to look at these interests in a more academic way. So really it was from personal interests that evolved through studying and then it eventually became my job.  

Why did you choose this field?  

I was interested in inequality, the workings of it and how it impacts on different people and takes shape differently in different places. So a lot of my research seeks to draw attention to certain inequalities and discriminations, such as the rise in xenophobia, islamophobia, hate crimes etc. So my research is motivated by  a personal interests but also I believe there is a pressing political need to understand these processes and experiences better.  

What are the main methods you use, how and why?  

 So they would all fall under the banner of qualitative. The first core strand I’m really interested in is ethnography. The way I interpret that is spending time in the everyday places of your participants and actually seeing the way that people live by spending time with them. Being in place, seeing phenomena and how it plays out. On top of that I also very much use interviews and focus groups. I’m interested in hearing people’s personal experiences and how they narrate their lives. One method I’ve found very useful is walking interviews, which mixes ethnography with eliciting narratives as well. A lot of the research I do in urban geographies which looks at people’s relationship with place, walking interviews unpack that and allows you to see their interactions and relationships with place. 

Which methods excite you?  

Recently I’ve found walking interviews so useful and it’s because of the kind of questions I’m asking. With young refugees the questions are about their personal geographies and where they spend time and a walking interview you get them to show you the places and they talk about what they like, what they don’t like etc. It allows you to ask questions that really respond to the research questions you’re asking. There are obviously critiques regarding power dynamics of these interviews but if you have a really geographically specific project then walking interviews are really good. 

Would you be interested in attending training on how you could use Big Data? 

Yes definitely. Learning how to use the data that’s available would be really good. 

Are there any methods you’d like to explore?  

I’ve also worked on some projects that gather data sets, and what I’ve found is that  having some numbers and stats can create some interesting ways to display findings, such as infographics, maps and animations. You can do this with qualitative data but having some numbers can be really useful in how you display data. So I am becoming more interested in mixed methods stuff. When I worked at the Home Office I came to realise that policy-wise, you often need some numbers to get the attention of policy makers . So for impact, I think utilising mixed methods can be very useful. 

Who inspires you methodologically?  

Suzanne Hall at LSE. I’ve worked with Suzanne and read a lot of her work. I’ve found her work really inspiring, especially around street ethnographies and the sort of things you can look at to understand migration, multi-culturalism and the city making of migrants. She combines traditional ethnography with surveys and creates very interesting infographics and drawings from the ethnographies she does. She comes with a very mixed disciplinary background, coming from architecture and is now in sociology and she’s managed to mix the skills of architectural drawings with sociological theory and it’s really interesting! 

What, about methods, did you wish your younger self had known?  

When I first started doing research I was always worried about what really good data looked like. I struggled to understand that good data could come from more informal approaches like hanging out with people, and i thought it had to always be more  formal and you had to follow a list of questions etc. Whereas some of the best data comes from natural settings, just having conversations. Even when I first started my fieldwork in Granada I was worried I wasn’t getting good data by chatting and taking notes. But when I did do formal interviews they didn’t always work that well. So even if it feels informal and you are just hanging out with people it can be really insightful!

Have you had any memorable methodological blunders?  

I’m sure there’s been loads of stuff! I’ve had some cross-cultural misunderstandings around me not understanding the etiquette in certain contexts. If you’re doing research with communities that you’re ostensibly not part of there can be misunderstandings, you have to pick up things quickly and learn things quite quickly! Things around greeting people and communicating. 

Which upcoming ECR or PgR should we look out for?    

Dr Maddy Thompson in Geography. She looks at transnational approaches on nurses and is doing some really interesting stuff around teaching methods and pedagogies too.

If you could recommend students read just one text on methods (book or journal article), what would it be?  

Street Phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool by Margarethe Kusenbach. It’s quite old, was published in 2003, but she explores the notion of the go-along approach and how it relates to urban streets and neighbourhoods. It’s really good for those wanting to learn more about more mobile methods, walking interviews etc. and I found it really useful.