The field work experience

In 2013, we completed a study on Sant’Elia that was included in a broader research project that investigated urban marginality and socio-spatial justice in the Mediterranean basin titled "Giustizia spaziale e sistemi territoriali mediterranei. Politiche urbane, pratiche sociali, mobilità". This project focused on the investigation of (self)representations and narrations of the inhabitants in marginalized and stigmatized districts of some Mediterranean cities. In addition, the project sought to promote a process of empowerment and collaboration that could help researchers and dwellers to create new narrative forms aimed at telling what these districts and spaces mean to the people living there. These new narrative forms are the result of our fieldwork, which was carried out over a three-year period, and based on a series of researching tools, including the visual and multimodal instruments. Along with traditional semi-structured questionnaires administered to a pool of informants from Sant’Elia (March-June 2014), we also employed a set of experimental methodologies. The latter were used in particular during a photography workshop (July-October 2014) and another workshop called “Urban Narratives” (April-July 2015), which culminated in the creation of this web-documentary.

The methodology

The decision to adopt a set of different investigating methodologies was inspired by Thrift’s (2008) non-representational theory. This approach to geography does not aim to provide a universal representation of reality that is coded and subsumed under limited and stable categories (i.e. in term of spaces, places and practices); it rather seeks to offer a series of multifaceted points of view and perspectives, as well as to explore strategies that focused in particular on the emotional and affection-driven bound that connects people and places (Bochet, Racine, 2002). The use of visual methodologies allowed us to increase the possibilities offered by more traditional empirical research. As a result, we managed to obtain data that is substantially different from what usually derives from the application of conventional investigating procedures (Harper 2002). The use of photography helped the dwellers who took part in our study to capture and represent their reality in a more immediate way, which is often difficult to do through language (Becker, 2002; Wang, 2006). These visual and multimedia tools also helped the participants’ emotions to emerge more clearly; consequently, as researchers, we developed a special relationship with the people and the districts under scrutiny (Miles, Kaplan, 2005). This study firstly offers a brief theoretical discussion of the issues at hand (Sections 2-3), which are followed by an explanation of the step-by-step research process we carried out in Sant’Elia (Section 4). It concludes by proposing some reflections on the relationship that researchers develop with their informants due to constant contact during their fieldwork.

Field work, Part I

During the first part of the project (March-June 2014), we walked through the streets of the district and administered a semi-structured questionnaire to the residents willing to participate in our project. Our main objective was twofold. On the one hand, using a questionnaire served as a way to justify our widespread and relatively constant presence in the district in case of the residents’ resistance to it; also, it helped us to establish and maintain contacts with those residents that could be involved in the following parts of our project. On the other hand, the questions included in our questionnaire sought to understand some aspects of the residents’ life in the district. Their answers resulted in useful quantitative data and, most importantly, they offered some evocative concepts that allowed us to draft an interesting picture of the emotional bond that these residents have with their district. This was made possible by the residents’ expression of what it means living in the different parts and areas of the district, how they perceive their living space, including both positive and, most importantly, negative aspects (as clearly demonstrated by the answers to the section titled “survey”. In total, 127 residents took part in our survey. Although we are aware that this sample cannot fully represent the district as it is not statistically and socially significant, we can safely say that it provided us with a pattern of self-representation that was subsequently used during the other parts of the project.

Field work, Part II

During the second part of our study (July- October 2014), we organized a photography workshop in collaboration with Prospekt Photographers, an agency of documentary photography based in Milan and Gisella Congia, a freelance photographer. Drawing on the answers provided through the questionnaires, we organized a photography workshop with six female participants, most of whom are members of a district association called Sant’Elia Viva. We asked all participants to take some pictures of Sant’Elia and subsequently discuss how such photos could convey their perception of the district. This process involved exposing individual idiosyncrasies and personalities, desires and fears. Through their pictures, we asked the participants to try and grasp the real nature of Sant’Elia, what they mostly like or dislike about it. Since our project aimed to open Sant’Elia to the rest of the city, we organized two photography exhibitions of selected pictures in collaboration with the Municipality of Cagliari. One of these exhibitions was held in the Lazzaretto area during the Art and Community Festival called “Landing Places” (October 2014); the other took place during a larger event called Monumenti Aperti (Open Monuments, May 2015). On that occasion, many of the selected pictures were glued to the ground to form a working path through the streets of Borgo Vecchio.

Field work, Part III

At the end of the photography workshop, all six participants proposed to extend our research project, which led to the third and final part of our study that entailed audio-visual experimentation. We organized a “creative storytelling” workshop, which was coordinated by Claudio Jampaglia, Bruno Chiaravalloti and Silvia Aru, and supervised by Maurizio Memoli. It ran from April to June 2015 and was based on ten half-a-day afternoon meetings that lasted four hours each. We asked seven women (three had already taken part in the photography workshop) to tell us about their lives. We recorded all the workshop meetings, which included narratives and conversations. This fostered further discussion and led to another stage during which the district was filmed (June-August 2014). The six partecipants were actively involved in the following editing process, which resulted in this web-documentary.

From the left: Pinella, Cenza, Rita, Rosy, Rosa and Debora.

During the meetings, we asked the participants to tell their stories in relation to a theme all participants had previously agreed upon. These themes were broad in nature as they were conceived as a sort of starting point from which the participants could be free to depart during their narration. The first suggested theme was “The others and me” while the others were agreed upon by the coordinators according to what the previous discussion had brought about; the topics debated during these meetings were “Stories of others”, “I went outside and saw (other places)”; “A changing district”; “A theme or story of your choice”. In order to provide a well-structured recording of each discussion that also guaranteed an active involvement of all the participants, we asked one participant at a time to take minutes of each discussion. In turn, each participant had to rewrite the stories they recorded in a narrative text. Each meeting started by listening to the reflections expressed by one of the participants regarding the topic at hand and this triggered a group discussion that highlighted the issues all the participants considered as most important.

Me and you…
Blending positionalities in urban margins

“There is a question that I always ask myself: why should people be interested in our district? Why are people like you interested in Sant’Elia? Why are you doing this? What drives you?” (Rosa)

One of the first sessions of our field work in Sant’Elia took place on a Sunday in 2013. We walked on one of the streets of Borgo Vecchio during the weekly outdoor market. Although the five or six of us tried to dissimulate our intents by purchasing some vegetables, we were clearly unusual customers and soon became the centre of some attention. This may have depended on the way we looked around, the fact that we did not carry bags, our outfit or accent (most of us are not Sardinian), or all these factors together. Be as it may, one of the stall owners asked us loudly so as to make sure we and the rest of people could hear him if we were there because we wanted to shoot a film, thus implying we clearly looked outsiders. Nowadays, we hardly walk by Borgo without meeting a familiar face or being greeted by someone. Over these last two years, our relationship with the residents has become more solid and interdependent. This resulted in a project that is still underway and increasingly open. Findings are by now more predictable and this is due to a long standing and mutual interaction with the residents who repeatedly asked for our participation in life in Sant’Elia. As the relevant ethnographic literature explains, this experience of progressive encounter becomes essential for the correct understanding of our work: “fieldwork is a discursive process in which the research encounter is structured by the researcher and the researched” (England, in Crang, 2003, p. 494). Spending time together was extremely important not only to define how to enter and stay in Sant’Elia, but also to establish our methodology.

As we started integrating into the district’s life, our place in it changed. Moreover, our ability to develop new instruments improved thanks to the work with our informants. These tools are therefore more adequate to our investigation and better meet our female informants’ expectations, needs and problems. The first step of the project was more abstract and distant in terms of relations, mainly because we used a questionnaire. This approach raised the typical problems of a sociological investigation based on quantitative data (e.g. selection and quantification of the sample, administration to female informants and data analysis). Some residents were also sceptical as they felt they were “Guinea pigs” that had to be tested:

“We are used to people coming here. It is not just you. They come here because they want to understand and be guided, they want to photograph the district […] Once they take pictures, they have what they want, “Thank you, bye”, and disappear […] This thing has been going on for years, so now I’m fed up because I am not a sample to analyze, I’m not an extraterrestrial creature, I feel I’m part of the city and being treated like this annoys me!” (Rita).

From this point view, our contact with the female members of Sant’Elia Viva was a real turning point. They felt that their collaboration with researchers from the University gave them the opportunity to reflect on their district and made their bond to it stronger. Most importantly, this has further confirmed and legitimated their activities and their role inside and outside the district. The most obvious example has been the photographic exhibition organized in collaboration with the Municipality of Cagliari, which attracted many people from other districts of Cagliari. Deconstructing the stigma that was imposed on the dwellers in Sant’Elia has probably been one of the most important results for the participants. This stigma was integrated with (if not replaced by) other images and new perspectives from which to see the district. All participants agreed that they gain a lot from their participation in the workshops, as well as any other activity that can help to open up to the outside. They also agreed on shared expectations regarding the fact:

“What we talked about is communicated not inside the district but outside it, so that people can learn about what happens here” (Rita).

As researchers, this open-minded attitude allowed us to enter Sant’Elia little by little, being welcomed and having the chance to discuss using a different perspective and unusual strategies (at least for us). This helped us to describe its space and what happens in it, produce counter-narratives about the places, identify values and symbolic and identitarian meanings, to understand the several definitions and experiences regarding marginality. In such situations, we found mixed feelings of abandonment, belonging and redemption, along with other issues that we were unable to discuss here, e.g. hope, disappointment, friendship, injustice, fighting, conflict, etc.

* This text resumes the considerations of the following publications:  1) Aru S., Memoli M., Puttilli M., (2017), “The margins “in-between”. A case of multimodal ethnography”, City. vol. 21, issues 3, (in press). 2) Memoli M., Cattedra R. (2014), “Un contre-lieu d'urbanité marginale. L'exemple du quartier de Sant'Elia (Cagliari)", in Semmoud N., et alii, Marges urbaines et néolibéralisme en Méditerranée, Tours, PUFR, pp. 125-144.


Aru S., Memoli M., Puttilli M. (2015), “Metodi visuali e ricerca geografica. Il caso di Sant'Elia a Cagliari”, Semestrale di Studi e Ricerche di Geografia, II, pp. 161-166.
Aru S., Memoli M., Puttilli M. (2016), “Fotografando Sant'Elia. Sperimentazioni visuali della marginalità urbana”, Rivista Geografica Italiana, 4, 2016, pp. 383- 400.
Aru S., Memoli M., Puttilli M. (2015), Fotografando Sant’Elia. Sperimentazioni visuali della marginalità urbana, Verona, Ombre Corte, in corso di pubblicazione.
Aru S., Puttilli M. (2016), “The right to the city and the right to housing in Sant'Elia, Cagliari”, B. Schönig, S. Schipper (eds.), Urban Austerity: Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis on Cities in Europe, Berlin, Theater der Zeit, pp. 271-285.
Becker H. S. (2002), “Visual Evidence: A Seventh Man, the specified generalization, and the work of the reader”, Visual studies, 17, 2002, pp. 3-11.
Cullen B. T., Pretes M., “The Meaning of Marginality: Interpretations and Perceptions in Social Science”, The Social Science Journal, 2, pp. 215–229.
Harper D. (2002), “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation”, in Visual Studies, 17, pp. 13- 26.
Miles S., Kaplan I.(2005), “Using images to promote reflection: an action research study in Zambia and Tanzania”, in Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 5, pp. 77–83.
Thrift N. (2008), Non Representational Theory, London, Routledge.
Wang C. (2006), "Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change", in Journal of Community Practice, 14, pp. 147-161.
Cullen B. T., Pretes M., “The Meaning of Marginality: Interpretations and Perceptions in Social Science”, The Social Science Journal, 2, pp. 215–229.
Harper D. (2002), “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation”, in Visual Studies, 17, pp. 13- 26.
Miles S., Kaplan I.(2005), “Using images to promote reflection: an action research study in Zambia and Tanzania”, in Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 5, pp. 77–83.
Thrift N. (2008), Non Representational Theory, London, Routledge.
Wang C. (2006), "Youth participation in photovoice as a strategy for community change", in Journal of Community Practice, 14, pp. 147-161.