June Blog Crossing the Borderline : the dialectics of trespass in ethnographic fieldwork


Trespass is a very complicated, tricky, and sometimes dangerous concept. It occupies an ambiguous  semantic space somewhere  between a model and a metaphor, that is, it operates within both a normative and poetic  discourse of transgression.  For example a work  of graffiti sprayed on the side of a house can be treated as both an act of  cr5iminal damage or trespass, ‘the intermeddling  of the property of another’ as the legal statute puts  it, and as an act of creative vandalism,  one which, if it happens to be by Banksy,  may greatly enhance the value of the property in question.   It might also serve a social function in marking out  a gang territory and convey the implicit message ‘ this is our manor, keep out. Trespassers will be  given a good kicking’.

The polysemic aspectof trespass is its special attraction for ethnographers in seeking to define the peculiarity  of their profession,  which, after all, does not fit neatly into conventional academic  pigeon holes; it can  provide a useful and even glamorous alibi for what the guardians of  political correctness  might regard as rather dubious ethical practice of operating on both sides of the line : running  with the foxes ( the robbers ) and hunting  with the hounds ( the cops). The ethnographer as trickster or shape shifter has had a long, if somewhat chequered career. Ethnography has been very good at impinging  on, traversing  and going beyond  the institutional boundaries drawn by variously cognate disciplines in the human sciences : linguistics, sociology, psychology and even its matrix disciple of anthropology.   It attaches its  suffix    to all manner of fields: ethno-science, ethno-musicology, ethno -biography and of course ethno-methodology,  sometimes leading to accusations of poaching.  In any case boundary wars break out and charges of intellectual trespass  fly around whenever  a terra incognita is discovered, and rights of exploration  or  knowledge claims  have to be staked….

These three root meanings  (impinging, traversing and going beyond) emphasise the intimate relation of trespass  to liminality,  to spaces and times where the distinction  between self and other, mine and thine, public and private  are put in question;  it is these  social and cultural edgelands where ethnography has often made itself at home.  Here trespass becomes a way of describing the  disorientation experienced by the fieldworker in the more immersive forms of observation and also the unease which arises when intruding into informants’ intimate lives. To call it ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ is a nice way of endorsing  the ethnographer’s position  as an initiate into  the culture or subculture under observation but as recent cases have shown  ‘only observing ‘  can be a difficult  legal defence to sustain. At the same time, techniques of de-familiarisation,  suspending taken for granted cultural assumptions, beliefs  and norms, rendering the familiar strange- an important element in the ethnographer’s toolkit- these procedures open up access to what Freud called the  ‘other scenes’ of everyday life, and  the emotional hinterlands of social relations,  in a way that disconcerts traditional counsel about  adopting  a dispassionate standpoint.  Today  the classical form of ‘verfremdung’ has been supplemented, even supplanted,  by   chemically induced forms  of ‘alienation effect’. Brecht and the Russian formalists  would have turned  in their grave at the  antics of  the  early ethno-methodologists:   young west coast sociologists, influenced by 1960’s  hippy counter culture  and armed with Howards Becker’s ‘Outsiders’ with its  impeccably observed instructions on how to get stoned, wandered out into the streets  and supermarkets of San Francisco, to discover just how complicated walking or shopping was as ’ a co-managed  social  activity’ or ‘ an exercise in practical  reason’ when you were high.


Interpretive Communities

Ethnographers  were and some  still are a pretty weird  bunch and used to taking a walk on the wilder side of town. We are interested in the fact that  people have bodies and feelings,  speak in a way that is often closer to poetry than prose,  like to gossip, tell stories, jokes and sometimes lie,  while   working and making things, and generally taking care of business, worshipping all manner of gods including Mammon,  cooking,  eating, drinking, singing, dancing,  laughing, partying, having  sex  and engaging in various forms  of social intercourse,  all of which manifold activities  in their inter-connectedness  are  fundamentally what  their cultures are about. In contrast the sociology I grew up with was more interested in norms, structures, institutions and ideologies, and  the social was seen  as a kind of cement that bonded people together while at the same time  reproducing divisions and inequalities of every kind.

This distinction of interests and perspectives  was also carried  over into life styles. In the 1960s and 70’s   budding sociologists wore suits  ( even the women),  were very earnest and quite left  wing in a  Labour Party sort of way, formed reading groups where  they  talked a lot about class conflict, social change, and structural reform  and   spent a lot of time arguing about  whether  Marx’s Grundrisse was a throwback to Hegelian idealism or a prophetic vision of a post- Industrial society.  The budding ethnographer was  altogether scruffier and  more bohemian. ’Liminality’ and  ’Communitas’ were the watchwords, Victor Turner  and Carlos Castaneda our heroes, the latter an archetypal ethnographer/trickster,  encouraging us to  look around for shamans,  experiment with alternative life styles and various mind enhancing drugs. And  for the politically inclined  there was  anarchism and situationism.

My rite of initiation into the sacred  mysteries of fieldwork occurred in the company of an American anthropologist who was studying witches’ covens  of which, it seemed, there were quite a few flourishing in London’s suburbia at the time. We visited one in Eltham whose leader turned out to be  a computer programmer, thus  confirming an early intuition that  belief in magic and technology were not incompatible. The session consisted in everyone getting stoned, listening to  Black Sabbath, taking all their clothes off and prancing  about. My mentor  informed me that this was to get into an ecstatic trance- like state, and  might possibly  lead to group sex. I decided I had better observe  rather than participate.   I had an ally  in an African lady,  who was the only other  person who did not take an active part in the proceedings  and who, it turned out, was married to  another anthropologist in residence, who had brought her  back from his last field trip  to the Congo,  possibly as an  addition  to his collection of ethnographic trophies.  She sat through the entire  session  without moving, hands primly folded in her lap and declining all invitations to smoke a joint or remove her very expensive Jaeger twin set to lead the dance.  Perhaps, I speculated,  she’d had enough ‘communitas’ to last a life time and was not about to lend her ethnic credibility to this pseudo tribal cavorting.  It was my first lesson in being surprised which, as I later learnt, is  what  doing ethnography is all about. It also taught me that the line between  what might be regarded as  legitimately ‘doing fieldwork’ and engaging in more or less illicit and pleasurable activities could   be a very fine one, drawn in pretty shifting sands.

The Law and  Order of Desire

The law, of course, is all about  making such  distinctions and making them stick through various sanctions. As a legal category, trespass is a tort, which covers violations to the person, including the right to privacy,  to chattels, or personal possessions, and most significantly, to the private ownership of land. So it’s a pretty broad definition of infringement which conflates personal liberty with property ownership  and  includes   physical threats, false imprisonment, the posting of unsolicited  email, IDF theft   and  political acts like the famous Kinder Scout Trespass, which challenged the prerogatives of private landlords over the countryside  in the name of public amenity and the collective right to roam.  The history of trespass is intricately connected to that of  the commons, to common law and to struggles over access  to public space  and amenity. The term itself  came into being in  the long and uneven transition from Feudalism, specifically in  relation to the enclosure of forests, and  the expropriation of customary rights of peasants over its usage as a source of food or other provision,( assarting,  scavanging of timber and fruits,  hunting of hares and rabbits etc). Yet even here the legal concept of trespass often blurs the distinction between civil and criminal law.

It seems to me that the notion of transgression and the illicit which is evoked metaphorically by trespass  has deeper, more unconscious, roots  than those  admitted by legal notions,  bound as they are to a  narrow model of human intentionality. Here is how  Margaret Drabble in her short story ‘Trespass’ describes the obsession of her heroine, who, might just be herself:

‘ She was attracted to “keep out” notices and enjoyed breaching boundaries and exploring forbidden ground. She dated this tendency to the early thrill of breaking into the abandoned garden of a large derelict house which she and her two friends passed every day on their way home from school. The front gate to the drive was chained and padlocked, but it was easy to squeeze through the fence and set up a little camp in the overgrown shrubbery. They called their camp the Wilderness, a word that delighted them. They would crouch there and eat the lurid little shop tartlets of scarlet jam and glaringly white artificial piped cream that they had bought with the money they had saved from their bus fares. Their mothers would have disapproved, both of the trespass and of the tartlets, but the sense of the illicit added to the pleasure.

In later years, she encouraged a succession of admirers to scramble after her over barbed wire and through hedge bottoms to find picnic places and hidden bowers and dells and burrows. She discovered overgrown public footpaths and pursued long-lost rights of way and opened up new tracks of her own. She wasn’t dogmatic about it. She wasn’t a rights of way ideologue. She just wanted to go over the stile or through the gap to see what was on the other side. Not all her followers were as keen as she, and some dropped by the wayside, complaining of barked shins, of stings and insect bites, of mud and thorns. By middle age, when her husband and her children had flown the nest, she found she preferred solitary forays, with no one to act as a clamp or a clog. She took her own risks, happily. Occasionally she took a companion, but the timidity of others made her nervous. It wasn’t as though she was very bold herself: she was a cautious trespasser. And as she grew older, she found she needed all her courage for herself. ‘

The story  nicely captures the furtive  aspect of trespass, the word itself is  a whisper,  its very utterance evokes the secret thrill of being in the wrong place at the wrong time  possibly with the wrong people. Yet if it can be a game of seduction, based on the lure of the interdict  it is one that   leads us well off the beaten track of critical ethnographic reflection.


The Primal Scene

I want to argue that the primal scene  of trespass links it to the origins of curiosity and the desire to know and thence to the hidden foundations of ethnographic observation.  It concerns the phantasy which the child entertains about the parents coupling as a singular and  potentially narratable event. The phantasy may or may not refer to  a real  incident in which the child watches  the actual act of coitus, usually from some secret vantage point in the parental bedroom, without being seen or disturbing the performance. It may be an imaginary keyhole or a real one, but in either case the child is placed in the position of being an observer who cannot  actually  join in, unless to interrupt the show, but who can participate vicariously, as a voyeur, from a safe distance provided nothing is said or done to give the game away. The child trespasses on the field parental desire, which is out of bounds, but  remains unobserved in doing so[1].

Let us also remind ourselves that the mother’s body is the first territory  the child explores, the first landscape that is mapped, with its hills and valleys , its  zones of thrill   and no go areas . The mother’s lap is our first prospect on the world and also our first refuge from its  impingement- and as such is the model for the building of dens  and   the assertion of gang turf.  Michael  Balint  has shown us that  how we hold the mother’s body unconsciously in mind has  a lot to do with how we negotiate  the environment  as a source of  excitement or threat, and hence over-determines the navigational practices that we adopt in our daily traffic   with the city. Jay Appleton has also suggested how this  underpins  a standpoint aesthetics, and shapes our  depiction and  appreciation  of particular kinds of landscape.[2]

Now what has this to do with the ethnographic gaze and its implications as an act of trespass? I suggest that it provides  a genealogical model  for   a method of observation which does not give the game away, which seeks to  know everything about what the Other is up to, but at a safe distance, without disturbing the performance, a method which notes every last physical detail, stores it in a precise inventory, so that the phenomenon itself becomes fixed and controllable in memory, and thus creates  a  defensive organisation of the real completely dissociated from any sense of identification or  participatory desire. It mandates a  phantasmagoric view of ethnography as form of social espionage,  the ethnographer as under cover  investigator, playing  fly on the wall or spook that sits by the door, bringing  the  inside story  about  what life is really like on the other side of the tracks to a more or less  voyeuristic audience. In the era of auto-ethnography, when the ethnographer takes centre stage as the hero of his  (and less often her)  own research story,  this paradigm has become a new warrant of authenticity.


Rogue Sociology

Take for instance   a book published a few years ago by  Penguin  which is  an account of a  piece of ethnographic fieldwork  about black street gangs in Chicago,  and  turned out to be a best seller. Entitled ‘ Gang Leader for a day : a rogue sociologist takes to the streets’,  its author, Sudhir  Venkatash  sought to follow in the footsteps of Thrasher ,Whyte et al  and produce another classic reading of  the life of the urban underclass. The book  is a blow-by-blow account of his adventures with The Black Kings, a well known  drug dealing gang located in the immediate neighbourhood of the university.    In the opening chapter, called ‘How does it feel to be black and poor’  he writes:

‘ In orientation classes, during my first weeks at the university we were handed detailed maps that outlined where the small enclave of Hyde Park in which the campus was situated ,began and ended: this was the safe area. Even the lovely parks across the border were off limits, we were told, unless you were travelling in a large group or attending a formal event… It turned out the ivory tower was an Ivory fortress. On one side of the divide lay a beautifully manicured Gothic campus, with priviledged students, most of them white, walking to class and playing sports. On the other side were down and out African –Americans offering cheap labour and services ( changing oil, washing windows, selling drugs or sex, or panhandling on street corners.’

Whether or not it was because he was Indian (he doesn’t say),  young Sudhir felt alienated from his  fellow students and began to hang out in the nearby black neighbourhood. The fact that the area  was placed officially out of bounds, was clearly one its attractions for him. Such informal ‘beatings of the bounds ‘ are an open invitation to trespass[3]. Sudhir  gets to know one of the gang leaders well and gets adopted as a kind of honorary ‘nigger’. At the same time he becomes interested in the work of the  Chicago School of urban sociology, and decides to turn his recently acquired  social capital as a familiar face in the hood, into intellectual capital  as a PHD student doing a street ethnography. He is very impressed by the social, entrepreneurial and management skills which his friend  displays   in keeping  his own people in line, and ensuring that potential friction with other gangs is kept in check.   Then, as a result of a chance remark, he has the opportunity to cross the line and become a stand- in for the gang  leader.  Despite all the warnings from his professors and fieldwork mentors  with their cautionary tales from the field about ‘over identification’ and  the danger of‘ ‘going native’, not to mention the personal risk involved, he  seizes the time, and much to his own and the gang members amazement proves  that he can do the business.

The book belong to a well established   genre of ‘trading places’ accounts, where   for example  investigators   adopt the clothes, lifestyle  and even the skin colour of the urban poor  to ‘pass ‘ as one of them, but in this case,  of course, the ethnographer  metaphorically  ‘blacks up’ by  assuming the actual  position  of gang leader. In some senses it is an everyday story of race, class and imagined community  conveyed in an ethnographic idiom, but one which self consciously and without irony  celebrates its own  double act of trespass: crossing  the line which separates privileged middle class students from  the boys in the hood, en route  breaking the tabu on literally taking the role of the Other , and intruding importunately  on the personal life of his main informant.


The Racist Imaginary

Race and its discourse is a particularly interesting scene of trespass, and for two reasons. It constitutes a strong, often  physically marked,  cultural and social  barrier between ethnic groups, some of whom, on other dimensions, might have much in common. Crossing that divide from either side can be a hazardous business  leading to accusations of  treachery  or worse.  Secondly it constitutes a highly contested space of representation, in which signifiers of  difference  become racialised, and where accusations of racism  fly  about in all directions. In some contexts a slip of the tongue is  enough to get you labelled  a quasi-Nazi ,  harbouring genocidal impulses towards Jews or Blacks. Partly as  a result, race is subject to massive denial and disavowal, from ‘passing’  to  the ritual disclaimer ‘I’m  not racist but’ and ‘some of my best friends are Romanians’.

Just who, or what is racist has become a major bone of contention, both in the Academy and in the wider society. Is the whole society or its key institutions like the police, institutionally racist? Are white people intrinsically or unconsciously racist, given their structural implication in the  legacy of slavery and  Empire ? Can black people be racist? What is the difference between racism and xenophobia or ethnic prejudice. All these topics continue to be  debated, covertly or overtly, in the media and have assumed  new salience with the rise of UKIP.

These questions, and the public discourse  around multiculturalism and anti-racist education   which addresses  them, has formed the backdrop to much of my ethnographic research   in East London  schools and communities over the past 20 years. During this time  the area  has undergone a dramatic demographic change  which for the first time has brought a large middle class professional population  as residents, and also   new immigrant communities  from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and most recently Eastern Europe.

The focus  of much of this work was to understand the springs of the popular racist imagination and its relation to the  transformations taking place in white working class youth cultures and communities. The work  also provided an opportunity to reflect on the strategies and ethics of conducting dialogic research in front line conflict situations  where issues of class and race  are paramount  and  community relations are polarised. What methodologies were required  or justified to create a  space of representation in which young people could voice their feelings and beliefs about race when this was likely  to be heavily populated by  negative, and often  racist attitudes  subject to censorship or punitive sanction in the school, but  with a widespread and even normative presence in peer cultures. Was this  an open invitation to go beyond the legal limits of  public debate   or did it provide an opportunity to work through to a  more  tolerant position?

In one  piece of field work I organised  a discussion with a group of ten- and eleven-year-old white boys attending a primary school in an area of Docklands  that had a predominantly white intake, drawn largely from ex-dockers’ families. The school was deliberately trying to keep alive a sense of working-class community even as its real infrastructures were collapsing. Its curriculum and ethos were as deliberately old-fashioned as the building itself. Parents and grandparents who had gone to the same school could be sure that their children would be singing many of the same hymns, taking part in the same historical pageants, and learning the same English lessons as they had done. The rationale was that it was necessary to provide this  stability and historical roots for children who needed the sense of security that traditional forms of learning and discipline provided at a time when so many of the familiar landmarks of their childhood were being bulldozed around them.

Some of the children who attended the school had been actively involved in a series of attacks against Black and Asian families who had been moved into one of the most run-down estates in the area. The head was concerned that something should be done. The school had a policy of disciplining any child found guilty of making racist remarks, and claimed to have silenced even the most vociferous offenders. At the same time he permitted the expression of racialist views in a mock election, since that was an education in the workings of democracy. Standing against its red (Labour), blue (Tory) and purple (Lib-Dem) rivals, the white (racialist) party won easily on a programme of voluntary repatriation for black immigrants. So at one level the local culture of racism was explicitly outlawed while at another level it was being given a legitimate space of representation.

Nevertheless the head thought that an outsider, a supposed expert in this kind of thing, might have a useful role to play. As he put it, it was a question of letting these kids get it off their chest. ‘Lance the boil, Mr Cohen, lance the boil.’ The medical metaphor should perhaps have warned me of what was to come when I took a group containing some of the hard-core racists out of school for a preliminary discussion, which, with their permission, I taped. It was clear that they had been waiting a long time for this opportunity to ‘say what we really feel about blacks’, as one of them put it.

Over the years since it was made I have worked with this transcript in many different contexts, with teachers and youth workers, policy makers and young people themselves. A psychoanalyst criticised me for  talking too much and possibly being provocative, whereas I should simply have listened  and  remained  non committal.  A narratologist thought I should have prompted more stories. Everyone has their  own take.  One of the most interesting comments was made by a  18 year old Bangladeshi youth worker  who  said he thought that John was a nutter,  and that the thing to  do was to work  with the group to shift the balance of power  away from him and towards Darren.

One of my difficulties in responding to these boys was to  avoid  falling back on the denunciatory  discourse of moral, symbolic and doctrinaire anti- racism, on one hand, or simply collusively endorsing the racism sentiments  by not commenting on them at all: silence in this context being taken as approval.  I was aware of attempting to ‘reason’ with John, the main peer group spokesperson,  although I had already published a long critique of  rationalist / enlightenment pedagogies as a means of getting to grips  with the myths and phantasies of the racist imaginary. I was also aware of the need to protect Darren  from their taunts, yet  to do so too overtly  ran the risk of getting him labelled a teacher’s pet and further isolating him.    

There is one point in the discussion where one of the boys (John)  turns to me and asks rather aggressively whether I am against whites. It is only in this moment of confrontation that the word itself is used. For the rest of the time the references are coded and oblique. It did not seem at the time that the boys were much concerned about my own position. But I should have known better. If ideology always works behind the backs of its subjects, then it always strikes when and where and in ways you least expect it.

On our return to school after this session, John suddenly got very anxious about what would happen to the tape. He was worried that I might show it to the head or someone else in authority and get them all into trouble. I explained that it would be transcribed, and the names and other details would be changed so no-one could identify either the school or them. This seemed to reassure him and I thought no more about it. Next week when I went into the school the head called me into his office. He looked angry and upset. There had been a complaint from one of the children in the group that I had used bad language. This could not of course be tolerated. Teachers had to set a good example in terms of self-restraint.  The boy’s mother had been in to complain. If it happened again the project would be stopped. He did not seem particularly impressed by my denial of the charge. And indeed I did begin to feel as if I must have been guilty of some indiscretion – some of the things the boys had said had made me very angry. The only way to find out was to listen to the tape. At this suggestion the head got even more agitated. Where was the tape? It should not have been made. What was going to be done with it? It should be erased. Even though we had explained at the outset that we would be making tape recordings as part of the research and had given the usual guarantees of confidentiality, this did not satisfy him now. No more taping!

Now, what had happened here? Clearly my reassurances of confidentiality the previous week had not been believed. I had apparently broken the ethnographic contract. John still thought that I would use the tape behind his back to expose his racist beliefs and activities and, as he admitted later, ‘have him taken away and put in prison’.  So rather than have his bad language –his racist discourse – taken down and used as evidence against him, he had gone behind my back to the head and accused me of bad language. Perhaps he also secretly hoped that I would be taken away and put somewhere where I would be incommunicado. He had thus neatly turned the tables on me, put me in the position of a naughty boy, while he, using the head as a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy, tried to shut me up. It was thus a case of double trespass –  he imagined that  I had  intruded on his personal space and made it public, exposing him to censure, and.in his eyes subject to  false imprisonment, so he repaid the compliment.    

It was not in fact difficult to feel that people in this school were ganging up and doing what they could to undermine the project. Support from other staff had been minimal. I got a sense of a closing of the ranks against an unwelcome intruder. My work threatened to undermine theirs. I was in effect a trespasser who didn’t belong in this community of practice. My position within it may have been peripheral, but its legitimacy was in question. In other words I was being given the same treatment as was being daily meted out to the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi communities, just as earlier it had been experienced by the Jews. As for the tape, this had ceased to be a medium of mechanical reproduction – it now directly stood for the racist discourse it had recorded. The racism was no longer in the school or in the community, or in even the children’s acts or and words, it was in the tape. And so it could be simply erased, the record wiped clean, by the press of a button.

John and his henchmen  were  ‘out’ racists,  who  apparently did not suffer pangs of guilt  about their attitudes to black people, let along their actions, although as we have seen this  spoke to   a  lot underlying anxiety about their own sense of identity. Many people are of course are much more circumspect and evasive  about the subject. In working with what  hallway and Jefferson  call ‘defended subject’ it is necessary to adopt a much more indirect approach .  In other research in similar contexts  I used guided phantasy and mapping exercises to explore  the places – and by association – the people, whe were  felt to be dangerous or self.  It could be argued that this involved an element of deceit with informants- the purpose of the research was presented as being about the issue of public safety and danger- which was at best a half truth, although of  course  the fear or threat of racial attacks or harassment  is very much   part of that agenda.  I also attended a number of local ‘rights for whites’ meetings,  to observe and notate , but this involved no element of participation. A number of   journalists and anti racist campaigners have successfully infiltrated racialist and white supremacist organisations like the National Front , the BNP ,Combat 18, Aryan Strike Force  or Blood and Honour- in some cases adopting the Trotskyist tactic of deep entrism , in order to expose their activities. Although there is a place for investigative journalism, and a case to be made for adopting such tactics as being in the public interest,  I do not think that this kind of  muckraking sociology  adds much to our understanding of  the roots of racism  or how to combat it. Indeed  in  its  obsessive concern  with  conspiracy theories  and undercover activity , its  perspectives and practices  often mirror  those of the  extreme  right.         



It seems to me that that the spaces and modalities of trespass are  proliferating. As globalisation hollows out the cultural and social resources which hitherto  enabled working class communities to be resilient in the face of rapid demographic and structural change, the local is made to carry a burden of representation for which it is not equipped. Nimbyism and nationalisms of the neighbourhood, what Freud somewhat ironically called the’ narcissism of minor difference’  rules OK.  The feeling of being immobilised in the midst of accelerated flows of capital, labour, goods and services, strengthens the rules and rituals of territoriality – and hence of trespass – through which  young people especially  cling on to a precarious sense of identity and status. These rules and rituals frequently become racialised, as the sense of invasiveness becomes more pervasive .

Meanwhile for an older generation, it can seem as if the chaotic synchronicity  and multitasking which characterises everyday life and labour  under advanced capitalism is just too overwhelming and so they retreat into nostalgic invocations of  insular  worlds that have been lost or which may have never even existed  but which underscore the notion that a once- upon- a- time  way of life has been  intruded upon, infiltrated  by  trespassers.  This principle of trespass has now  become naturalised in moral panics about  alien species  invading and destroying the  ecology of the British countryside, driving out  home grown plants from their ancient niches,  and transforming the native habitats of heath and home into a wilderness  where only Japanese Knotweed  has the right to roam.

This is not the only response. At the end of Margaret Drabble’s short story, her heroine, who has decided to take on the forces of globalisation, as  represented by EDF, goes on one of her off the beaten track  expeditions to a decommissioned nuclear power station:

‘She made her way through a gate on the path and encountered a large board saying: THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY AND IF YOU PROCEED BEYOND THIS POINT YOU MAY BE REGARDED AS A TRESPASSER.

That word “may” was interesting, and it was not at all clear to her what point it was that she should not pass. Perhaps she had already passed it. A little further on she could see a white notice tacked on to the weathered wooden board. “Nature trail closed,” it declared in large print, and in smaller print it said it was closed until further notice because of engineering works. Further notice, she knew, would mean forever. An inexpressible and overwhelming sadness entered her. It was all over, nobody would stop her in her trespassing, but nobody would stop this process of appropriation either. It would continue, the digging and grubbing and excavating, until all this land was gone. There would be little flickers of protest, a few sparrow people gathered together peacefully on street corners with banners, a small headline in the local press. But protest and trespass were hopeless and pointless, and everyone knew it.’

I think she is being unduly pessimistic, perhaps  because optimism of the will is more difficult  to sustain  as you get older.  In fact  the right to roam or  trespass, is continually being reasserted  if not always in easily recognisable forms. While home boys and hoodies remain stuck on the front lines of their  imaginary  barricades,  taggers  and urban explorers  claim  the right of full access to the city; through their presence and their practice they   contest  the continual encroachment of private property and profit on the enjoyment of public amenity. While many academics hide in their  intellectual silos, terrified of making the wrong career move, and the political class  dig in for the duration in their parliamentary bunkers, scholar activists  are venturing across disciplinary divides, and connecting up with  communities and social movements  that are creating new forms of democratic politics. As the  surveillance society  institutionalises  digital trespass  to support ever more intrusive form of policing  and social regulation, so the Occupy movement stakes out a new terrain of engagement in terms of what David Graeber  has mischievously called ‘actually existing  communism’, the cultures of mutual aid which cut across and go beyond the social hierarchies based  on concentrations of  wealth and power and  the monopolies of knowledge and expertise which underpin them. So let us  carry on encroaching on  each others disciplines, let ethnography impinge on  geography, and cartography traverse  demography to yield  ever more graphic accounts   ; let us rejoice and make the most of the fact  that the map is not the territory, and never will be, recognising  that in that tension  or gap, which opens up and becomes apparent in the act of trespass, there is still a whole world to be won. Or lost.


Jay Appleton  The Experience of Landscape  Wiley 1996

Michael and Enid Balint   Thrills and Regressions   Hogarth Press 1957

Shane Blackman ‘Hidden Ethnography: crossing emotional borders in qualitative accounts of young peoples lives  Sociology 2007

Howard Becker  Outsiders:studies in the sociology of deviance  Free Press 1966

Carlos Casteneda The teachings of Don Juan: a Yacqui Way of Knowledge  1969

Phil Cohen  On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics  Lawrence and Wishart 2013

‘Racism’s Other Scenes’ in   J Solomos and D Goldberg (eds) Blackwell Companion to Race Oxford  University  Press

Margaret Drabble  Trespass  Guardian Short Story 2012

Sigmund Freud  Civilisation and its Discontents  penguin Edition 2002

‘On the sexual theories of children’ in SE (1908)

David  Graeber  Fragments of an anarchist anthropology  University of Chicago press 2004

Wendy Hollway and Tony Jefferson  Doing Qualitative Research Differently  Sage 2000

Tim Ingold  Redrawing Anthropology Ashgate 2011

Geraldine Lee-Teweed and Stepanie Lincogle (eds) Danger in the field :ethics and risk in social research  Routledge 2000

Gary T Marx (ed) Muckraking Sociology:research as social criticism Transaction Books 1972

Benny Rothman The battle for Kinder Scout Timperley 2012

Frederick Thrasher The Gang : a study of 1313 gangs in Chicago  University of Chicago press 2013 c 1936

Victor Turner  The Ritual Process: structure and anti-structure Penguin 1969

Sudhir  Venkatash  Gang Leader for a day: a rogue sociologist takes to the streets  Penguin 2008

William Whyte Street Corner Society  University of Chicago 1947

[1] Freud notes that in some versions of the phantasy it appears as a screen memory of some real  act of violence witnessed between the parents, in a way which  both conceals and evokes a sadistic rendition of sexual intercourse.

[2] This is discussed in a forthcoming book :Material Dreams  and the Un/making of Modernity  forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Somers Town near Kings Cross had the same appeal for me when I was growing up in what my parents insisted I call Bloomsbury and was warned that ‘people like us’ just did’nt go there. This is discussed in my memoir Reading Room Only:Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile Five Leaves  2013