Dienstag, 21. März 2017

Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit

In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Berlin (forthcoming)

Von Flavia Alice Mameli, Josefine Londorf Sarkez und Anne Van Wetteren

Fotografie: Anne Van Wetteren, Flughafen Tempelhof 2015

„There is something sinister about the way up to hangar 1, walking in the dark”,  I think to myself as I head to the refugee camp located in the former Tempelhof airport-complex. There are not many people at this hour, only small groups of men standing in the dark corners having a smoke. I don’t know where to go and I feel uneasy. […] We are in the building now. I use the waiting time to take a look around. From the back of the canteen I can see the white tents through the window section. The penetrating smell of today’s menu reminds me of the canteens at hospitals or retirement homes. (Field diary, 02.11.2015) [1]

From Flughafen to Fluchthafen

The former airport Tempelhof, in the southern part of Germany’s capital Berlin, was once described by the architect Norman Foster as the „mother of all modern airports” (Lautenschläger 2014, 8). Not only as protected architectural landmark Tempelhof airport still plays a significant role in the perception of the city of Berlin (Lautenschläger 2014, 9). Yet, the ideas and images related to this site vary greatly. It is not only associated with a history of war and division, but is also perceived as an en vogue location for contemporary fashion, kite flyers and urban gardening. Moreover, today Tempelhof airport-complex is witnessing the effects of the biggest migration movement in European history since World War II. In 2015, more than one million refugees have come to Germany and more than 80,000 came to Berlin. On the 12th of November 2015 the city administration announced an emergency plan turning the former airport into a refugee shelter. Up to 7.000 people should be accommodated in the defunct hangars and in limited-period constructions, which should be positioned outside on the field. The hangars are used as transit camp, an emergency shelter for people waiting to get asylum papers and then moving on to a permanent accommodation. Yet, this is an awkward matter since a citywide referendum stopped the former government-housing plan for Tempelhof in 2014. Given the high numbers of refugees coming to the capital, Berlin’s state government suggested to leverage this construction ban in order to build more temporary housing for refugees. Supporters of the citizen initiative „100% Tempelhof”[2] see the undermining of direct democratic participation in this. Hence, „Volksentscheid retten”[3], a new initiative was founded to protest, which is until now supported by about 100 activist groups. Nonetheless, mayor Michael Müller demands a mentality change and „courage for uncomfortable solutions" in order to challenge and to master the present and the future. „It is an emergency solution and it is unavoidable" (Deutsche Welle, 27.08.2015).
Is Tempelhof airport inevitably turning into a powder keg of social inequalities, struggling with the high-density of cohabitation? Georg Classen of the Berlin refugees` advice says, he fears less aggression than „depression" in the hangars: „Two square meters per person, without privacy, without perspective. (…) Tempelhof is the biggest, the worst and probably the most expensive refugee shelter in Berlin“ (Tagesspiegel, 31.08.2015). In hangar 1, twelve men share one tent, in hangar 4 refugees are grouped in 25 squaremeters compartments. Makeshift partition walls are installed in order to create a bit of privacy. There are different day rooms like a dining room, a childcare and a language course room where daily German classes are offered. Moreover, there is the Kleiderkammer, a clothing depot, which supplies the refugees with second hand clothes and hygiene articles.
In the period of October to December 2015 we worked as volunteers in the Kleiderkammer. During our fieldwork, we faced many challenges, such as language barriers, prohibitions and taboos, which demanded our methodological creativity. Seemingly restricted to non-verbal communication and observations in this highly regulated field[4], we found the methods of sensorial ethnography most vigorous as research tools. We ground our approach on the work of the German ethnographer Regina Bendix who underlines the relevance of the senses in the research process and states that sensual sensations and emotions in general, are also a form of knowledge. Hence, doing sensorial participant observations means placing your body in the center of your research and consequently being exposed to not only what you see and hear, but also what you smell, taste or feel. This is what Bendix calls a „multisensory way of doing ethnography” (Bendix 2008, 13). Following Regina Bendix, the ethnological body is the key medium through which we encountered our field.

Doing Sensory Ethnography

Entering the Kleiderkammer at Tempelhof we quickly learned that this was a challenging and sensitive field to study. The participant observation, the ethnographical engagement in the field setting, represents the dual role of the ethnographer. To develop an understanding of what it is like to be a genuine part of the given setting, the researcher must become both, a participant and a distant observer, who describes experiences from a detached point of view. This is perhaps the most classical and primary source of ethnographic data. Even though we experienced how easy it was to access the Kleiderkammer as volunteers and though there were many people such as security staff, volunteers, refugees and translators running in and out we had difficulties getting in touch with the different actors. This challenged our ‘routines’ in participant observation, implying interviews or taking photographs and demanded new ways of approaching the field. We therefore expanded our research input as observing participants by accrediting the sensorial dimension of our experiences as valuable data. With the use of sensory ethnography we found an accessible way to adapt to the situation at the Kleiderkammer as well as giving space to a nuanced set of field notes[5].

The concept of sensual ethnography leads to a sensitization for everyday experiences and scientific observations. For Bendix the use of the body of ethnographers is essential to the sensorial approach. Ethnographers have to reflect on their physical indications such as stress, nervousness or anticipation to do qualitative empirical sensory research (Bendix 2006, 79). A central task of sensory ethnography is to appreciate the performance of the senses as somatic, individual and culturally trained organs. Every conscious or unconscious confrontation with their own sensorium or the one of others, affects the researchers and expands their perception skills.

„Indeed, one of the tasks of the emplaced active participant ethnographer is to learn how to interpret her or his embodied sensory experiences through other people's cultural categories and discourses, and as such to participate not only in their emplaced practices but in their wider ways of knowing” (Pink 2009, 80).

Even more, the Australian anthropologist Sarah Pink sees sensory ethnography as a reaction to the textual representation forms in the empiric cultural sciences and argues that the senses should be moved to the front in fieldwork and scientific research (Pink 2015, 38). The sensorial approach is closely connected to the auto-ethnographic method where the researchers personal experiences and state of being plays a crucial part in the research (Pink 2009, 29). Pink describes the ethnographic sites of sensing as events, which provide access to other people’s experiences and animate the readership to reflect on their own observations and consequently calls the researcher to reflect their own physical nature and sensuality (Ibid, 29).
Furthermore ethnographic analysis involves making connections between on the one hand, complex phenomenological realities, i.e. the specificities of other people's ways of understanding these, and scholarly categories and debates on the other hand. This inevitably involves processes of condensing and translating as well as constructing a narrative and arguments (Ibid, 121f.).

Sensing Tempelhof

I go through an unknown amount of sweaters. ‘Citrus, lavender, dust and mold’, the nauseating smell of old scented washing powder, dust and mold mixes together, fills my nose, and reminds me of going to camp as a child and the smell of clammy basements. As I go through the piles of clothes, I feel my way around by paying attention to the texture of the sweaters. Polyester, cotton, acrylic. I want to find her a wool-sweater. I find a dark colored sweater. I read the text on the small white mark sewed into the left side of the sweater “30% polyester, 70% wool” it says. I can hear the supervisor calling us to end the session and I bring it to her. (Field diary, 21.11.2015)

Throughout our fieldwork we have been concentrating on what lies beyond the spoken word. With an increased focus on smell, touch, sound and gesticulation we have aimed at creating a landscape of the senses as our way of redistributing our experiences at Tempelhof, both as researchers and volunteers. Sensory ethnography is closely linked to auto-ethnography since the ethnographer not only observes and documents other people's sensorial categories and behaviors, but also seeks routes through which to develop experience-based empathetic understandings of what others might perceive (Pink 2015, 9).

She [refugee woman] points to the pictograms taped on the table, which stands between us, separating us from each other. I assume that she doesn’t speak English or German, and I pay attention to the things she points to and notice her rough hands and bare feet in flip-flops. She uses her fingers to show me what size she wants, “three fingers and then nine and then she draws the number in the air” like she want’s to make sure I have understood which size she needs. (Field diary, 30.11.2015)

The relentless nature of our field itself influenced the choice of our research methods, too. Bearing in mind the hectic and overwhelming times in the Kleiderkammer as described above, we needed to develop creativity to investigate most effectively. In the meantime this offered, to us, new ways of studying [inter]actions. Regina Bendix supports the creativity that arises when researchers do not pay attention to the spoken word and instead seek out new ethnographic methods such as sensual or emotional impressions, as compensation for what otherwise would be said with words (Bendix 2006, 72).

A few minutes later the first group of refugees are let in and my thoughts are more or less put on pause. My hands are doing a lot of the communication. I use them to point to pictures or relevant body parts. Everything seems tight and concise. There is no time to really look at the people I meet or to absorb the atmosphere. I am slowly adapting to the fast pace and feeling a bit like a robot running between the refugees and the piles of clothes. As my shift comes to end I am exhausted and my head vibrates from the noise, odor and hectic in the room. (Field diary, 08.11.2015)

Sarah Pink argues for a focus on the emotional state of the researcher, and sees this as  „routes to knowledge and memories, that otherwise can be inaccessible, -a way of understanding other people’s biographical experiences” (Pink 2009, 65). Taking part in the different practices in the Kleiderkammer, we have discovered connections between our personal experiences and the everyday life at Tempelhof. Our subjective impressions of the field have been a highly important part of our research and redistribution (Behar 1997, 13). By paying attention to what we could sense meant almost constant impressions of smell, sound or touch. We experienced mixed feelings of drive, despair, frustration and relief - not knowing which feeling to give most credit to. During our research we have learned that going beyond words and visuals, challenges our own perception and feelings. Our field notes are in some cases marked by a somewhat confusing state of being, which is closely linked to an increased focus on our emotional state. However, Bendix points just to these emotions in doing sensory ethnography and highlights that they should not be reduced, but rather used as enhancement of the sensorial impressions and reflections (Bendix 2006, 78).

Fotografie: Anne Van Wetteren

Volunteering and Researching [in disguise]

At the same time, a subtle atmosphere of constant supervision is enforced on the volunteers. Being clearly instructed by the supervisor about do’s and don’ts and being automatically observed by the other volunteers about our morally good intentions there is not much space for hanging around, examining the structure of the social service or even asking critical questions! It seems like criticism would be an extra burden and much too time consuming for the supervisors and volunteers, not speaking of potential interviews [] (Field diary, 08.12.2015)

The German ethnologist Rolf Lindner argues that ethnographers at times struggle with their role as researchers when entering new fields. The process of establishing interpersonal relations can therefore act as an important source of data, since the subjects' primary definitions of the researcher come into play. On the other hand, by taking on a certain role (in our case as volunteers) the researcher is able to enter the field as an insider. During our fieldwork we were concentrated on balancing our aim as researchers without losing our roles as volunteers. Observing and participating in disguise led to a bipolar situation, where our concealment guaranteed us free access to the field, but also hindered us to fully immerse into it as researchers.

She comes a little closer to me, shyly trying to explain that she also needs some underwear and a set of sanitary pads. I have seen how other volunteers discretely hand over the sanitary pads. I imitate what I have seen, and I discreetly slide the sanitary pads into the hands of the woman. She looks at me, and smiles. (Field notes 30.11.2015)

When we put ourselves in the center of the field of study we „participate in other people's worlds [...] and try to do things similar to those that they do” (Pink 2009, 68). As volunteers we were a part of the everyday routines of the Kleiderkammer and had to get used to a range of procedures such as mapping out where the women sweaters or men’s shoes were to be found, or how to interact with the refugees and other volunteers. In order to learn the different codes of practice, paying attention to the interaction between other actors became crucial to us. This learning process demanded a lot of our time and energy. In some cases the process of handing out clothes made us forget why we were there in the first place, sometimes leaving us even with a feeling of neglecting our role as researchers.

Towards the end of my shift I overhear a student amongst the other volunteers who asks our supervisor if he could make an interview with him for his university project. Without looking up I felt tension arising and after a short silence Felix, the supervisor mumbles something like „ [...] only doing my job here.” (Field notes, 08.11. 2015)

It was not only the restriction of time and opportunities, but also the atmosphere of resistance against investigation that kept us in disguise, since we did not want to jeopardize our connection to the Kleiderkammer as our field of research. Indeed, one of us researchers made the attempt to reveal her "true" identity and was harshly repelled by a fellow volunteer. Hence our ‚unstructured’ and ‚unplanned’ feelings of confusion, affect and neglect became valid information in order to emphasize our sensorial experiences. Sarah Pink argues “being sensorially engaged through participation is not necessarily a planned or structured process of understanding” (Pink 2009, 68). As we have perceived; doing sensory ethnography demands that we sometimes need to adapt to unseen factors in the field e.g. being able to change the course of method when things do not turn out as planned. 

Sensing the „Other”

I am back in the Kleiderkammer. The little square between the glass doors and the tables are filled with people. A woman asks a young man what he needs, using her hands to point and communicate. She doesn’t know that he is one of the few translators that are available in the Kleiderkammer. Fortunately he does not seem offended by the mix-up and laughs about it instead. (Field notes 14.11.2015)

Going to Tempelhof airport-complex nowadays means going to the temporary homes of thousands of people fleeing from their home countries. Our interactions with refugees at the Kleiderkammer were limited to brief encounters across a folding table or a quick look inside the camp area when going to the restroom. We have seen hundreds of refugees during our fieldwork, but we have barely talked to anyone. So how do we prevent ourselves to perceive ‚the refugees’ as homogenous group when studying them from the other side of the folding tables? Edward Said’s work on Orientalism is a key to understanding the process of „othering” the refugee. Said argues that the Westerners way of shaping the Orient as the „Other” has become a way of creating the dichotomies „us versus them” (Said 2003, 22). In the Kleiderkammer we were each confronted with situations of othering regarding our own pre-assumptions about the camp-conditions and people there, often questioning the division between the different actors. Small structural arrangements in the Kleiderkammer like the folding tables created a physical line between the volunteers and refugees. This ‚boarder’ acted as a separation between „us” as volunteers managing the clothing-goods and the refugees as „those” who were not allowed to manage the selection of clothes for themselves. This structure of „us” and „them” functions as a way of creating collective identities and neglects the fact that we all are distinct people from distinct cultures. Instead it becomes a recitation of the relationship between the „strong” Europeans/volunteers and the „weak” Orientals/refugees (Ibid, 39-40).

I am wondering how frustrating it must be for these people to see these mountains of clothes, but still not finding what fits, what they like or is really needed.  I see the scramble at the door, the smile and joy when I call the next ticket in. Then first contact with the volunteer, “Hallo, was brauchen Sie, Pullover? Hose?” Some of the refugees try to imitate the volunteer, while others pluck at their clothes or point at the pictograms. Mostly it ends up in an English-Arabic-German language mixture and wild gesticulation scenarios were the volunteer and the refugee try desperately to make themselves understood. When we finally understand each other, there is a sort of an “Aha” effect and we laugh. That’s my favorite part of this job. Unfortunately, I often see the entering happy faces, leaving angry frustrated and I realize how chaotic the situation at the Kleiderkammer is. (Field notes 12.12.2015)

We quickly became aware of the fact that - despite their status as refugees - the people who came to the Kleiderkammer had a certain style and idea of what to wear, and sometimes did not accept what they were given. During our work as volunteers we have, even only briefly, been confronted with the refugees as individuals and have seen how the different roles in the camp were negotiated. By turning to Erving Goffman who argues that we act accordingly to the settings we are in, we can state that the intense chamber play of the Kleiderkammer confronts our „frontstage” and „backstage” roles as individuals by force (Goffmann 2004, 88). The biased roles of the refugees, the supervisors, security-men, volunteers and us as researchers in disguise are being carefully acted out among each other in a setting where each standing place determines how to act. We might ask the question of how our understanding of these roles are shaped and how we should deal with these biased understandings as ethnographers in order to reach a more neutral ground in our presentation of the field we study.

Generating Valid Results

It is almost impossible to be part of the hectic atmosphere at the Kleiderkammer without indulging yourself into the situation. Even if you would plan to go there only for scientific reasons, being there in the middle of your field, the situation would demand your participation in the form of volunteering. In this cramped chaos with the coming and going of people, between a multitudinous topography of clothes there is simply no space – psychologically and physically - for standing apart. In this sense the Kleiderkammer creates a binary situation that leaves hardly room for interpretation: Either you help or you go.

Our way of approaching the field has demanded an increased focus on our senses and emotional state. These elements are, in our case, seen as crucial, since the subjectivity of the observer has an influence on the research process (Behar quoting Devereux 1996, 6). At times we have felt uncertain about the great amount of personal experiences being too biased, and question whether these subjective reflections have any value in our academic work. However, there is naturally a dimension of subjectiveness in the narration of sensorial auto-ethnographic stories (Pink 2009, 67, Behar 1996, 5-6). Our goal as vulnerable researchers is therefore to reflect on our experiences in order to reach an unbiased ground (Behar 1996, 13-18) by combining as many views on the field as possible we avoid that individual assumptions turn into judgments. Instead we look at where our stories intersect and differentiate in order to create a more nuanced presentation that also challenges our own potential prejudices in our multiple roles as members of society. We argue that the intersection of our different perspectives and experiences as four individuals, i.e. the crossing of our sensorial torches in the Platonian cave of the Kleiderkammer, leads to a reliable picture of the ‚real’ situation in a specific realm of a refugee camp in Berlin.

Sensing Welcome Culture

Our experiences are so far limited to a handful of visits only lasting a couple of hours. Even though we have only been there in a short period of time of some weeks, we have seen a large number of migrants living very closely together, not having proper footwear or clothes. We have seen a lot of families, young males, a small amount of elderly and almost no young females or teenagers (both male and female). We have felt and folded an unknown amount of different textiles when working our way through stacks of clothes and shoes. We have seen underwear and sanitary pads discreetly being given to a female refugee. Men, women and children pointing to pictures of trousers, scarves or jackets, using their hands to explain what size they need. We have heard how it sounds when Farsi, Arabic, German, English and other unknown languages try to communicate in an emergency clothing depot. We have heard the voices of babies crying, children playing and screaming, mothers shouting and organizing leaders orchestrating the 15-minutes short clothes-hand-out sessions. Some of us have even dared to sneak around in the camp area in order to get a sense of the refugees living conditions. We have experienced a lice and scabies-epidemic among thousands of people, and seen the anxiety it creates in a small group of volunteers. In the great halls of the former airport Tempelhof we have experienced the smell of warm tea with sugar, food being cooked and children eating sweets, the smell of urine in dirty toilets, the smell of sweat from volunteers and migrants, the smell of handing out new and worn out clothes donated by people all over Berlin. It is hard to subsume the variety of impressions we made as individuals: Our time in the Kleiderkammer has been happy, heartbreaking, frustrating or even relieving and it has always been very intense.

Sensing Welcome Culture in our society

The camp is attacked by lice and scabies. The sign „attention; lice and scabies” makes me feel uneasy, but I decide to go in. As hygienic precaution the supervisors recommend that we all wear gloves. One of the supervisors says to me „We should give these people a piece of ‚Willkommenskultur’ and show them that we are an open society”. Eventually he decides not to wear the gloves. I watch how two volunteers go to the hand sanitizer every five minutes to disinfect their hands, while the nauseating smell of fumigant slowly fills the room. (Field notes 06.12.2015)

In a situation of uncertainty and linguistic barriers, our hands become an important device of communication. Indeed, the hand is the most frequently symbolized part of the human body, the „tool of tools” (Alpenfels 1955, 6). Hands are used as a utility, to complete tasks, and to express one’s self in a way that words often cannot.  They are expressive and symbolize strength, power and protection. Any human culture throughout history created rituals performed by manual gestures expressing generosity, hospitality and stability, as form of welcoming and friendship (Alpenfels 1955, 7). At the Kleiderkammer, we didn’t talk a lot to each other, neither to the refugees nor to other volunteers. We were there to help, in other words, ‚to lend a hand’. As our field notes portray above, we collected, sorted and grabbed in mountains of clothes. Although prehension is the major function of the hands, they are at the same time, one of our primary sense organs. Indeed, our hands became the main medium to interact with the actors of our field. With their hands people communicated their essential and aesthetic needs. Different hand signs, like ‚thumb up’, the painting of numbers in the air or waving somebody to come closer, we articulated our will to help, but also communicated the procedures of our service at the Kleiderkammer. Without touching anybody, moments of closeness and empathy rose in this regulated and controlled setting.

The irrational decision of volunteers not wanting to put on gloves in danger of lice and scabies, in order to avoid an atmosphere of othering is a key scene depicting how Welcome Culture is perceived in our western society. The glove is intuitively sensed as a ‚boarder’, separating volunteers and refugees, leading to emotional and rather unreasonable conclusions about how to perform ‚togetherness’. Volunteering barehanded is elevated as a moral obligation of expressing empathy and the willingness to help.  


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Josefine Løndorf Sarkez
Daring to trust the senses of oneself as a researcher has been an inspiring and eye-opening way of doing ethnography, which has led through unfamiliar ethnographic paths and towards new analytical insights. 

Flavia Alice Mameli
Coming from a design background and researching in the field of urban appropriation strategies it is the intersection of different disciplines, which I find most fruitful and productive during the process of knowledge production.

Anne van Wetteren
Curiosity, reading and writing are essential aspects of ethnography. This is more or less the case for all academic research. For me doing ethnography includes an important sensual component, which surfaces in researching. It's all about being tickled by first-hand experiences with the object in study and with one self.

Der Beitrag entstand im Rahmen des Master-Seminars "Ethnografische Methoden der Stadtforschung" bei Anja Schwanhäußer im Wintersemester 2015/16 am Institut für Europäische Ethnologie der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

[1] Berlin’s city marketing campaign established the brand „Tempelhofer Freiheit“
[3] https://www.rettetdenvolksentscheid.de
[5] „Eine die Sinne miteinbeziehende Feldforschungspraxis wird die emotionale Dimension (die sich bei manchen als Lust am Feld zeigt), nicht verringern, aber vielleicht doch einige Beobachtungs-und Reflektionswerkzeuge enthalten die den emotionalen Haushalt ergänzen“ (Bendix 2006, 78).

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren: 
Flavia Alice Mameli / Josefine Londorf Sarkez / Anne Van Wetteren (2016): Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic, Serhat Karakayali (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog), https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=863130166696833325#editor/target=post;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link

Epilogue: The City as Laboratory

The city of Berlin has experienced a critical moment last year. It has witnessed the "Long Summer of Migration", where tens of thousands of refugees have arrived. It was interesting for us, professors und students alike, to experience the ways in which Berlin reacted to this new situation. We all know that the institutions failed in handeling the challenge properly, but Berlin also witnessed an unexpected openness and willingness to help on the part of the citizens. The amount of self-organized initiatives has been unprecedented and lead to a new word in the German discourse on refugees and migrants, Willkommenskultur, welcome-culture. This refers to the term culture, a way of life, a set of norms and values that structure our acting, thinking and living – and a practice in which such ways are invented, challenged and re-enacted.

For everyone who wants to know more about what was going on in the city culturally, the precedent essays of this E-book provide a point of departure. These works of undergraduate and PhD-students explain some of the ways in which the city has been lived by its citizens at that very moment, how the situation has been handled, issues expressed and problems solved. We do not focus on the big events that have been broadcasted on television under the umbrella term of the so-called refugee crisis, but, moreover, on the little crises that could be witnessed on the street-level of everyday life, mostly in Berlin, but also beyond, in diverse places that the contributors chose for their explorations. Living together side by side is always a challenge, a melodrama of fear, anxiety, hate and love (Raban 1998, 11) and our challenge was to meet these melodramas and their specific political framing in a reflexive way in order to come to an understanding.

Many of the students who have contributed as authors to this book were (and are) personally and politically engaged in civic debates and activism concerning the arrival and presence of refugees. For others, these events and involvements were strongly connected to their ongoing research in which they are studying and analysing issues in the fields of (critical) migration and border studies, these fields being a major concern of all academic contexts – broadly Social Sciences and Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology - in which the contributors of this book are located. All of us, whether actively involved personally, politically and/or scientifically, were deeply impressed by what we observed in our very neighbourhood.

Hence, in this situation we were confronted anew with questions of how social research is related to political involvement in society, and how we – as researchers – can reflexively position ourselves and our work in politically sensitive fields:  questions that are specifically virulent in (self-)critical debates in European Ethnology. Here, the perspective and the pitfalls of possible forms of “collaboration” are discussed in the context of a longer debate on whether critique and intervention are themselves essential parts of social and, specifically, ethnographic research (Fontanari et al. 2014; Binder et al. 2013).  

All these experiences and reflections oscillating between personal, political and scientific receptions of the refugee movement in Berlin and beyond are together constituting what this book calls “witnessing”. The initiators aimed at providing a possibility to capture these first-hand and first-moment impressions of a situation that would deeply change the social worlds of Berlin, Germany, Europe, and the entangled world. At the same time, we initiators wanted to support the students by helping them individually and in the context of seminars to reflect their witnesses and to express them adequately in their written texts. We did so in a range of academic contexts, e.g. a Bachelor course titled “Migration Matters”, a Master course on “Urban Ethnography”, diverse meetings with PhD students, and with a broader public in the Research Laboratory Migration, as well as several team discussions with the future authors of the E-book during their writing process. In all these contexts, we aimed at providing support for re-thinking ethical, academic, and rhetoric questions and problems the contributors saw themselves confronted with.

In response to these discussions, the individual authors and teams developed diverse ways of addressing and reflecting their subjects. Some contributors do directly thematize their personal entanglements and the forms of commitment and collaboration that they came to experiment with.  As he describes it in his contribution “Mia san ned nur mia” (We are not only we), Michael Westrich has been drawn away from his PhD research field in the South of Spain and back to his hometown in Lower Bavaria, next to the Czech border, by the long summer of migration which had rendered that German “periphery” into a hot spot of border-crossings and media coverage. Back home, Michael discovered that the regional self-image of “Mia san mia” (We are we) which he knows since childhood, is not only the self-limiting, parochial label of exclusion as which it appears on first sight but also a position derived from long-standing experiences of being a marginalized, (cross-)border region. Michael Westrich finds that such experiences open space for moments of cosmopolitan solidarity that, surprisingly, connect his Bavarian home to his Spanish field site where he respectively explores cosmoplitical dimensions in the encounters and social networks between African migrants and local supporters.

Others further challenge the distinction between personal, political, and scientific relationshiphs in their reflections on fieldwork engagement during the long summer of migration. Like Michael Westrich, Kristine Wolf’s ethnographic field experience and her involvement do not stop in the European border zone of Morocco and Spain (her PhD site of exploring local political collaborations in the field of migration) but rather extend towards Germany, and her immediate neighbourhood. “Kris, nous voilà à Eisen`” is the title of her reflection on how her Cameroonian research partners, who became friends as she notes, arrive at “Eisen’” (the “initial reception centre” for asylum seekers at Eisenhüttenstadt, Brandenburg) after having made their way there from the south of Europe. In her personally engaged contact, Kristine learns from her friends what it means to provisionally end up in “Eisen’” and what this experience can tell us about the ongoing struggles with the inner borders of Europe.

Still others have dealt with ethical questions of doing fieldwork – or being simply interested in personal encounters – with refugees under the current conditions of the public obsession with dramatizing the “crisis”. The authors of “Einfach mal gucken, darf man das?” (Lou Klappenbach, Fabian Bovens) have directly addressed that question of whether it is “allowed to just go and watch”. In a very sensitive, reflexive turn to their own discontent their contribution points to hotly debated issues of the fine line between open, honest attention and exploitive reproduction of “Otherness”.

Here, we have come to implicitly and explicitly address this ongoing debate that tends to – according to one position – proclaim to stay away from direct research contact in order to protect the interlocutors from being addressed and used as mere “objects” of research(er’s) interests. However, it seems that this tackles questions of ethical reflection, commitment and responsibility on the side of the researcher that cannot be solved by just staying away from the personal encounter and turn to more distanced modes of research, e.g. discourse analysis. Such strategies do not solve any problem of representation by themselves. Seen from a self-reflexive ethnographic view, we even miss important dimensions of taking into account otherwise neglected agency when staying away from micro-politics and interaction in everyday life. And, moreover, it is not only a decision of the researcher to get involved personally or not, but also a decision that can and should be made by the people whom we approach.
Alejandra Parra in her essay "A research about an odd place" comprehensively summarizes the discussions we had on that topic:

"It was the first time I was being confronted with that kind of ethical considerations in
an academic context and somehow it seemed I was missing a piece of the puzzle (…): it would be insensitive to ask people to talk about their experience; it would be frivolous to show interest in a traumatic experience only in order to do a short research; it would be invasive to hang around where people lived, specially taking into account they already had little privacy; we were not trained to deal with their fragile state and could end up making it worse; we could not just watch."

Alejandra, being raised in Columbia, felt that displaced people were omnipresent, images of "desplacados" were more or less part of everyday life in the country where she came from. She argues convincingly that avoiding acquaintances with people from Syria and other countries means to exotisize refugees, whereas we should consider the encounter as part of our everyday lives in a globalized nomadic world.

Another concern was the question of how to adress and represent our topic of research. Students were experimenting with a variety of ethnographic methods that each reacted to a specific problem or situation, thus allowing different perspectives on topics we thought we were allready familiar with. For example, in "Smartphones and Sonnenblumenkerne. Die Rolle der digitalen Medien in der Freiwilligenarbeit vor dem LaGeSo in Berlin", the authors Elisa Hänel, Stefanie Kofnyt and Charlotte Seiler are reporting on a change of the "Geschmackslandschaft" (urban landscape) around the "Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales" (LaGeSo) by doing perception walks, taking fotographs and just hanging around this public arena where refugees lined up in order to become registered. This method allows them to document on the ways in which the local economy and the public reacted to this new situation and how it became tangible in the urban landscape. In "Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit", Flavia Alice Mameli, Josefine Londorf Sarkez and Anne Van Wetteren found that participant sensation was the most feasible method on researching the standardized but intimate relationship between refugees and volunteers.  They took up a job at the "Kleiderkammer" and handed out the clothes to the refugees to the ones that were in need of them. By registering touch and smell they highlight the sensual peculiarities of Willkommenskultur. It becomes clear that far from sensual pleasure, the control of the sensual realm for the sake of hygiene (by using gloves when handing out the cloth) was a mean to execute and express a hierarchical relationship, a rule of the Notunterkunft that the students ashamedly complied to. In her study on the "Die Notunterkunft in Karlshorst", Meret Eikenroth explored the peripheral location of the Notunterkunft by fotographic documentation. The refugees, she argues, are marginalized not only symbolically but physically by pushing them out of the city, which, again, is something that is experienced and suffered with all the senses. She registered shifts and changes on the border between city, country and industrial suburbia, that shows what it means to be dwelling in a place on the margin. Dženeta Hodžić in "Auf den Spuren eines Aktivisten" researches the traces on the urban landscape that poltical activism and protest in Kreuzberg left behind. Last but not least, in "The Fame of Syrians: (Facebook) Archives as Traps", Persefoni Myrtsou shows how archives become symbols and sites of political struggle. The archive that the historian Omar has collected is a precious treasure in the heart of Damascus that the war threatens to destroy. The barbarism of war can hardly be more accurately represented than in this Walter-Benjamin-like image of the vulnerable archive.
In workshops and seminars, we were discussing the problems and pitfalls that occurred along doing field research. For any researcher, particularly novices, field research is a time of crisis, because the outcome is never predictable. Since the researcher initially is bound to his or her original social world, he or she is not capable of classifying certain events or comments within the group under study and to understand the meaning that it has for the group. In contrast to the final report, which is rich with stories (if it is good), the everyday live does not take the shape of a story. It does not contain a beginning, climax and ending. What the field researcher experiences is not a story, like one reads it in a book, but a series of loose situations that only gradually reveal the larger picture. The field researcher is exposed to the ordinariness of live how it is lived. The answers are hidden rather than manifest. It needs time to trace them down. Most of the time, nothing strikingly relevant happens. The researcher has to detour, accept distractions, in order to understand something in the end (Ehn and Lofland 2016). It is part of the process of learning to appreciate the relevance of field research data. Understanding these actions means to engage into the live of these groups through participant observation.
With the refugees flocking into Berlin, the students witnessed the emergence of new social worlds and encountering "strangers". As the students started out to do their research in this very particular time and explore other social words, we had discussions about the definition of "strange" and "exotic". Talking about the stranger means to draw a distinction between "us" and "them". Through engaging with urban theory and the "city as laboratory" (Park 1967), we realized that the stranger here is not necessarily an ethnic(ized) category. In a most general way, the "world of strangers" (Lofland 1968) means the community of individuals in the big city who are strangers to one another, encountering each other anonymously everyday in the streets, the cafés, the station, the waiting room, the park. This is how we got interested in the social world of the volunteers that for some of us was just as exotic and strange than the social world of the refugees and migrants. Some students experienced for the first time what it means to be engaged in the "Willkommenskultur", physically, socially and symbolically (in contrast to that, for others, who have been personally and politically engaged in activism for a long time, as described above, this world has been familiar, which lead them to other questions). For example, they experienced the social world of the "Notunterkunft" as a field where behaviour is symbolically coded and socially controlled. In preparing the student's research, we talked about the challenge to establish a role as a researcher: Will we be allowed to do research in a highly coded field like the refugee camp, the train station where the refugees arrive or the public space around the LaGeSo? Participant observation means to participate in the lives of a social group, becoming part of this group, socialize into this group. In general, the observer is at first not familiar with the group under study; through participation, he or she learns something about this group. He or she spends much time, sometimes years with this group (like Kristine Wolf), experiencing changes and witnessing conflicts, becoming part of this processes and being drawn into conflicts, thus changing oneself, one's own personality. Field research novices quite often tend to hide their scientific identity because they fear to be rejected as trespasser or voyeur. Will it be possible to reveal our request? The students realized that being open to one's ethnographic intentions is the basis for dialogue: Just as the researcher expects to encounter the entire personality of the research subject, the researcher him/herself should present all aspects of his or her personality, including his or her ethnographic intentions.
This book documents the benefits of "Forschendes lernen" (learning by doing research), an approach that has been successfully practiced since many years at Humboldt-University. For example, each Master-student at the department of European Ethnology participates in a "Studienprojekt" (graduate research project) that spans several semesters. Through workshops, students develop collectively a research question. They run through all phases of a proper research project and gather first-hand-experiences in doing ethnographic research, from finding the subject matter, searching literature, collecting and interpreting data to presenting this material. The final results often take the shape of a collection of essays assembled in a book. In doing so, abstract theories are applied and tested.

We think that the texts of this book, indeed, show how personal and social scientific, ethnographic encounters can lead to collaboratively gained, inspiring and critical insights into the new realities of a German “Willkommenskultur” and its counterpart – the aggravated, increasing politics of exclusion and borders in everyday urban life. Beyond our personal and political engagement in this matter, it is all the more necessary and productive for a critical understanding of our shared divided world to relate to these issues with the resources provided by our scientific research approaches. In this way, we, as students and scholars, can contribute to imagining and practicing new cosmopolitical modes and conditions for urban conviviality.


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Ehn, Billy, Orvar Löfgren (2016): Doing an Ethnography of 'non-events'. In: Anja Schwanhäußer (ed.): Sensing the City. A Companion to Urban Anthropology. Basel

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