Contact zones: Participation, materiality, and the messiness of interaction

Askins, K. & Pain, R.

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Askins, K., & Pain, R. (2011). Contact zones: Participation, materiality, and the messiness of interaction. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29(5), 803–821.

England , Interaction , Materialities Of Participation , PAR , Refugees , Segregated Groups , Transformative Space , Youth

Recent debates around urban encounter, integration cosmopolitanism, and renewed engagement with contact theory have raised questions about the spaces of interaction that may enable meaningful encounters between different social groups. Reflecting on a participatory art project with young people of African and British heritage in northeast England, we argue that discussion and practice around participatory action research, including the deployment of contact zones as theory and method, can cast some light on what fosters transformative spaces. Through analysis of two different approaches to community art used in the project, we show how elements of each enabled and disabled meaningful interaction between young people. We draw attention to the materiality of art (the tools) within participatory practices (the doing of it) in contributing to a space where interactions might take place, emphasising a complex interplay across/between actors, materials, and space that frames encounters as emergent, transitory, fragile, and yet hopeful. We examine the potential of a focus on the material in thinking beyond moments of encounter to how transformative social relations may be `scaled up' before considering the implications for research and policy.

Main finding
The authors identified three main contributions to academic and policy literature which include: 1) the linking of spatiality, encounter and contact zones as a method and theory, 2) the role of physical nature of encounters in fostering or foreclosing interactions; and 3) 'geographies of matter' that can help in thinking about issues of translating positive encounters across wider social and spatial contexts. These findings are tentative, in terms of how the effects of classroom contact may be scaled up to urban spaces, but materialities of participation (shared items of use) are seen as one resource that engages the new social encounters that are remembered both discursively and through the body.

Description of method used in the article
The authors analyzed an art project in the second stage of a larger PAR project which sought to "[explore] social emotional topographies in light of a series of broader geopolitical issues" (p. 808). The second stage art project was conducted with 21 African refugees and asylum seekers and British born young people between the ages of five and 15. The goal was to explore emergent issues around key concerns the youth had identified in the first stage regarding interaction in what was a highly segregated society.

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Participatory Research
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