Back to Back: Revisiting Ethnographies, Past and Present

by Teresa Piacentini and Alistair Fraser

In New Ethnicities and Urban Culture (1996), Les Back begins by discussing the partial nature of the stories told by ethnographers. Quoting James Clifford, Back notes that ‘even the best ethnographic texts … are systems, or economies, of truth. Power and history work through them, in ways their authors cannot fully control’ (Clifford 1986: 7, cited in Back 1996: 5). This conference, in some ways, will revisit and reflect on Back’s contribution in precisely this way. Through modesty and reflexivity, Back sought to render explicit the partialities of his ethnographic story-telling. Yet, as the quote from Clifford attests, broader social forces will undoubtedly have worked through the text in ways that were not visible at the time. In our paper, titled ‘Friendly City, Violent City’, we aim to contribute to this discussion of ethnographic practice, and the revisiting of ethnographic texts, through reflection on our own studies in the city of Glasgow.

Alistair’s study was carried out in the years 2006-2010, and consisted of a community-based ethnography examining young people’s understandings and experiences of youth ‘gangs’. The study was carried out in Langview, a deindustrialised working-class community in Glasgow, and focused on a group of ‘likely lads’ in the community, a group of white, Scottish males aged 14-16. Teresa’s study (2007 – 2010) explored the associational experiences of mainly Francophone African asylum seeker and refugee-led groups in dispersal sites cross Glasgow. The research studied processes of community, identity and belonging in a number of predominantly white, working-class neighbourhoods. A few years ago, we wrote a chapter for a book called New Directions in Race, Ethnicity and Crime (Phillips and Webster 2013) in which we tried to bring these two projects into dialogue. In brief, we argued that there were notable points of intersection between these disparate groups: both street-based youth and precarious migrants are often co-located in spaces of urban marginality; receive censure through societal labelling as ‘gangs’ and ‘asylum-seekers’; experience territorial immobility and stigma; and seek out strategies for creating belonging and security within these confines. In particular, we engaged with Soja’s concept of ‘thirdspace’ and Back’s notion of ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ to work through these ideas.

Since the publication of this chapter, the spaces of encounter we charted in our respective research sites have changed, as has the city of Glasgow and our own research interests; we thought it might be interesting to bring these into dialogue once again. In the paper, we re-evaluate the concepts of ‘thirdspace’ and ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ against this backdrop.


Back, L. (1996) New ethnicities and urban culture: racisms and multiculture in young lives. London : UCL Press

Phillips, C. and Webster, C. (eds.) (2013) New Directions in Race, Ethnicity and Crime (Routledge).

Teresa Piacentini and Alistair Fraser will be presenting their paper ‘Friendly City, Violent City: Youth Gangs, Precarious Migrants and ‘Neighbourhood Nationalism’ in the panel Multiculture in public spaces and neighbourhoods in PSH316 10.30-11.45.

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