What (or who) has changed? Reflections on ‘revisiting’ an English Town

Seminar 3 of Trinity Term's Sociology Seminar Series

 With Professor Ian Loader, Oxford University

Please join either in person or online. For in-person attendees, the talk will be preceded by a light lunch at 12.15pm.

Please email comms@sociology.ox.ac.uk with any questions or to receive the Microsoft Teams link.

Two studies, a quarter of a century apart, explore societal changes and security concerns in the British town of Macclesfield. Researchers delve into daily troubles and responses of residents following the technological, socio-economic, and political shifts of the past 25 years. The paper reflects on theoretical and methodological questions raised by revisiting research sites, examining the impact of change on perceptions of harm, security, and place.

We have conducted two studies of the same research site – the town of Macclesfield in north-west England - a quarter of a century apart. Macclesfield is a town of some 53,000, about 20 miles south of the nearest large urban centre, Manchester. Our previous study of crime-talk in the town, conducted between 1994 and 1996, resulted in a book-length account of how worries about crime featured in local social relations in the mid-1990s (Girling et al. 2000, Crime and Social Change in Middle England). We returned in 2019, following a quarter of a century of technological, socio-economic, cultural and political change that included the digital revolution, austerity, migration, Brexit, greater climate consciousness, and – shortly after we commenced our research - the Covid-19 pandemic.

We returned with a view to using the town, a place of relative affluence and relative safety, but with its share of social problems, arguably a kind of English ‘Middletown’,  as a site for exploring what it means to be and feel secure in Britain today.  We were interested in finding out what troubles afflict the daily lives of differently situated people across the town and what actions they take, or demand from responsible authorities, to deal with the things that threaten them. How might we think about the relation between these two enquiries, and what are the dilemmas of returning? How does change – in the place, relevant socio-political contexts, the intellectual environment, the trajectories and outlooks of the research team – impinge on how we make sense of the relation between harm (rather than just crime), everyday security and place? In this paper, we consider some of the theoretical, methodological and substantive questions raised by our experience of these two studies and, in so doing, reflect on the value and limits of revisiting as a sociological practice.