Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Learning to Understand Sense of Place in a World of Mobility: An Educational-Ethnographic Approach *

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Learning to Understand Sense of Place in a World of Mobility: An Educational-Ethnographic Approach *

Article excerpt

The Study: Background and Method

In this paper we explore the linkage between identity and place, reflecting upon the extent to which people derive meaning from their situatedness in a place. In a time of mobility, preoccupation with this issue becomes all the more acute. People move around: some migrate to improve quality of life; others, for political reasons, professionals travel to long distances for the ideal job, yet others for higher education on a temporary or permanent basis. As a result of all of these movements, whether from one area of large nation-states to another, with considerable differences in cultural styles, or from one country to another, and the consequent exposure to multiple viewpoints they entail, people learn to appreciate the synergistic potential of cross-borrowing of knowledge and of reliance on a variety of knowledge bases. This exchange is valued because it increases appreciation for comparatively oriented, context-derived approaches to knowledge. Our imagination is expanded by novel styles of conducting business in a global economy.

While physical boundaries become permeable, cultural boundaries seem to stay all the more guarded. People talk about their need to include, in their definitions of self, parameters that express their connection to a geographic entity, as well as group others, as a function of their ties to a locality. People voice an urge to belong to local groups and report a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives when they feel this dimension is missing. Though such "talk" usually occurs in the context of change in one's place-relatedness, when questions concerning an individual's spatial definitions naturally come up. To understand climates of interpersonal relations in depth, we need to explore this nexus.

However, sense of place is a topic so intimately close to people that it is very hard to study directly. This is the rationale underlying the approach we developed to allow our graduate students to acquire this knowledge indirectly, yet experientially, through the following joint research endeavor which includes mechanisms for self-reflective application of this sensitive lore.

The context in which we designed it were our two graduate research seminars in Anthropology and Education, one conducted by Rivka Eisikovits at the University of Vermont and the other by Kathy Borman at the University of Southern Florida (1)--two states with widely different profiles as to their inhabitants' sense of locality. Vermont is known for its population's rootedness and celebrative approach to its natural beauty, whereas Florida is regarded as a state of fast opportunities, attractive for its warm climate to people from all over the U.S. and for its dynamic population, much of which maintains a transitional attitude towards it as a place.

These courses seemed natural choices for the exploration of this approach due to their general subject matter and also because they specifically dealt with issues of migration, culture and identity change. We entitled the topic of our investigation broadly as: "Mutual perceptions of 'natives' and 'newcomers.'" The term native was used literally, to refer to those who were born in Vermont or Florida, whereas newcomers was applied to U.S. citizens who migrated to these states from other parts of the country. (2) Additionally, this focus on sense of place offered a meaningful bridging context for instructors and students in both cases. As an Israeli educational anthropologist who was a long-term repeat visitor to Vermont--for a sabbatical year and two extended summer visits between 1993 and 1996--Eisikovits became sensitized to the Vermonters' pronounced pride of place. It came up naturally in interactions with locals as they were introducing her to their state. Borman was also a relative newcomer to Florida. Both instructors found themselves in the position of stranger-as-teacher, which they attempted to balance, among other ways, by adopting a teacher-as-fellow-student stance through this joint educational-research endeavor. …

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