methodological issues in studying elites

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  • Methodological Issues in Studying ElitesAuthor(s): Liisa Cormode and Alex HughesSource: Area, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 281-283Published by: The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)Stable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 19:22

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  • RGS-IBG Annual Conference 281

    month's temperature. Interestingly, the latter effect was more considerable, and was ascribed to a lagged effect associated with food processing. It was estimated that an additional 179,000 cases of food poisoning may arise by the year 2050. Sadly, Ian's paper was

    misrepresented in The Guardian (6 January 1995, p. 7) under the headline: 'Food poisoning linked to farms'.

    The paper by Joanna Briggs (Lancaster) and colleagues entitled ' Childhood respiratory morbidity and its relation to pollen exposure in the Wirral ' also attracted pressure coverage. Using a series of primary schools as study areas in differing socioeconomic and environmental locations, pollen data and a parent-completed questionnaire were collected and compared.

    Although sleep disturbance and night cough significantly increased in the most deprived area, the evidence did not suggest that pollen levels and the incidence of childhood asthma were linked. Joanna concluded that the next logical step would be to investigate the prevalence of dust mites and the incidence of asthma.

    The penultimate paper by Susan Elliot (MacMaster) described a preliminary ethnographic study conducted in Vancouver Island, Canada. Susan documented the plight of individuals afflicted by what can be loosely termed as ' environmental illnesses '. Despite the apparent lack of a bio-medical definition for the condition, those affected suffer reactions to a host of environmental pathogens including household chemicals, exhaust fumes and electric fields. From a series of in-depth interviews, Susan acknowledged that health care systems continue to rebuff the claims of sufferers, despite the enormous strain the condition places upon individual lifestyles. To conclude a thoroughly compelling paper, Susan suggested that in the absence of a medical solution to the condition, definitions of space, place and illness all play a

    major part in coping with the illness. To conclude the submitted paper session, Robin Haynes (UEA) provoked a lively debate

    with his paper on using ' Unemployment rate as an updatable health needs indicator for small areas '. The main thrust of the paper centred around a comparative study of the efficacy of unemployment rates compared to composite deprivation indices (Townsend, Carstairs and Jarman) for census wards in East Anglia. Three measures of unemployment were used-namely the male unemployment rate from the 1991 census, and an unemployment index calculated from dividing the unemployment level in April 1991 by both the OPCS

    mid-year population figure and FHSA patient registers. The results showed a broad correlation between the three measures of unemployment and the composite deprivation indices. Robin suggested that updatable unemployment indicators were at least wholly suitable for calculating health needs during a census year, and are arguably superior in the intercensal period.

    Both sessions at the Annual Conference were notable for high quality and excellent sessions. Thanks are due to the conveners, Kelvyn Jones (Portsmouth) and Anne Ellaway (MRC Medical Sociology Unit, University Glasgow) for ' Health and Deprivation in Cities ' and Sheena Asthana (Plymouth) for ' Submitted papers'. We look forward to successful and enjoyable future sessions of the newly named Health Geography Study Group.

    Myles Gould and Lee Redpath University of Portsmouth

    Methodological Issues in Studying Elites Studying elite groups or individuals is substantially different from' studying down '. Although many geographers interact with elites as part of their research, the methodological issues associated with studying elites had previously received little attention within the discipline. Important questions of access, positionality, power, ethics, politics and the interpretation and (re)presentation of data had remained largely unexplored. This pathbreaking international session, jointly sponsored by the Economic Geography. Political Geography, and Urban

    Geography Study Groups, was organized to highlight the importance of these issues. It brought together researchers with a range of research experiences and methodologies to discuss their insights.

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  • 282 RGS-IBG Annual Conference

    The first module focused on issues of positionality. Pamela Shurmer-Smith (Portsmouth) began the session by discussing her experiences of participant observation at India's National Academy of Administration, which trains the Indian Administrative Service. She highlighted her experiences of obtaining access, and the ethical questions associated with the use of participant observation. Andrew Herod's (Georgia) presentation discussed his experiences of interviewing trade union officials in Czechslovakia, Cuba, and the United States in light of his positionality as a British person living in the US. He noted some of the practical challenges of access, interpretation and differing expectations on the part of interviewees. Andy suggested that treating interviews as an interactive text created as part of a dialogue means that the issue of whether being an ' insider ' or ' outsider ' produces better results is less important. Linda

    McDowell (Cambridge) followed with a discussion of her experiences of interviewing merchant bankers in the City of London. She noted that in much academic writing the research process is given relatively little attention, and presented as being tidy and straightforward, although it is not. She stressed that researchers studying elites were supplicants. Effective self-preservation, creative approaches and persistence are extremely important. These presentations sparked a lively debate on the differences between studying elites and non-elites, gaining access to elite subjects, and the advantages and disadvantages of presenting oneself as an ' expert ' to interviewees and gatekeepers.

    The second module addressed the methodological challenges of cross-cultural elite research. This is a particularly important issue for geographers, as globalization leads to

    more and more transnational elite groups. Liisa Cormode (Manchester) discussed her experiences of interviewing Japanese expatriate and Canadian employees of Japanese affilitated companies in Canada. Her paper stressed the importance of her own multi-faceted positionality and that of the people she interviewed, in structuring every stage of the research process. Timothy Forsyth (LSE) reflected on his experiences of studying grass roots and non-governmental organisations in Thailand that were dominated by elite groups.

    He noted the difficult ethical and practical issues involved in gaining and evaluating information from elite persons and the possibilities for local elites to exploit foreign researchers. Emmanuele Sabot (St.-Etienne) outlined her experiences of interviewing local government officials in Glasgow, Motherwell and her hometown of St.-Etienne in France. She noted how open and helpful the Scottish officials she interviewed were, in contrast to those in St.-Etienne. To her surprise a visiting American scholar researching the same topic

    was given documents and information she had previously been denied as a local researcher. She attributed this to the different structures of French and Scottish local government, the courtesy and interest paid to foreigners, and a perception that local researchers were a potential threat. These papers were followed by a very stimulating discussion on the benefits of collaborative work with foreign researchers as a means of accessing information, to what extent one should present one's positionality to potential interviewees, and on academic research as itself being an elite activity.

    The third module brought together researchers with experience of studying local elites in the UK. Michael Woods (Bristol) began by revisiting classical elite theory and proposing a critical definition of elites. He stressed the need to incorporate ' space ' into elite theory by considering the geographies of elite membership and their meeting places, the territorial limits to their power, and the use of place-based discourses in the reproduction of elite structures. Allan Cochrane (OU) reflected on his extensive experience of studying local elites. His paper gave a thought-provoking analysis of