Thursday 6th February, 3pm
Four skaters on a sunny day outside McEdward Hall. Casually chatting to each other, hanging out. Basic skateboarding back and fourth as they chat. A few tricks start happening, but mainly talking. They stop skating for a moment to sit down on the benches and roll cigarettes. I decide to go talk to them with one of my group members and ask if we can chat to them about the area. I ask if they feel there is a lot of authority here and if their skateboarding is often shut down. One of the skateboarders said, "Um not really… loads of undercover police in the summer but not much now”. Another joined and said, “this place was built by skateboarders”. He went on to say how they believe this place was established by a skateboarder and should still be for skateboarders today, like a symbolic area for skaters. They always know people are going to be here, which is why they come a lot. I ask a bit more about the skate experience here and the first skateboarder said, “depends when we’re working, today I had a half day but usually I skate at night like 7pm onwards”. The other said later, “there’s a little undercover spot before Appleton tower so when it rains, we skate there.” He says there’s a lot more authority in the undercover area than here. They also tell us about the indoor skate park at ocean terminal, but its £10 to enter, which is less enticing. As I walk away, I think about how they are all male - no female skateboarders here today.
20 minutes later, two policemen arrive and ask the skateboarders some questions. Tone looks sten. They stop skating, but still look quite casual. As soon as the police leave, they continue skating. One of the guys we spoke to earlier was skating near where we were sitting so we asked him what happened. He said the police were asking if they knew about a fight in the area. 5 minutes later, two different policemen arrive and also question the skateboarders. They soon walk away and the skateboarders continue skating as the police hang around for a bit. They stop skating to start chatting about what happened with the police. The policemen return and talk to the second pair in the middle of Burns. After some minutes, they go. The skaters smoke as they skate. 10 minutes later, more skaters arrive, leaving their bags on the steps.
Wednesday 12th February, 5:15pm
Was super snowy this morning and no one was skating, but the weather has majorly cleared up and now six skaters have arrived. Some of them are sitting on the steps smoking and others are skating by the benches in front of Potter tower. It is starting to get dark. Due to the slope, their boards sometimes roll down when they lose balance and they run after them. This happens a few times but no one looks embarrassed. Again, none of them are really wearing coats (must be used to it, I am very cold sitting here!). They start using the benches for tricks whilst also going between sitting down and skating. They continuously break to chat.
There are no girls here again. We go over and speak to them wanting to ask why. Me and one other group member start the conversation about public versus private space divide. They explain how they feel the renovation of the area was done as an attempt to make it less skater-friendly, less public more private. One of the guys says how the “old design was good for skateboarding and these things (referring to the metal clamps on the steps, he taps them as he says this) is pretty clear you know” - as in, implying the renovations were done to purposely make the space worse for skating. That was the general feeling amongst the three we were talking to. Slight tone of resentment but doesn’t stop them from coming here (relationship with authority maybe confusing). I ask how inclusive they feel Burns is, and they all kind of nod and say its pretty inclusive. They will stop you if there is an exam, and one of the guys says, “but that’s fair enough though”. Another says, “lately there’s been a lot more groups coming in… and there’s that group”, I ask if they mean Skateboobs, and the other guy says “yeah, that’s the one!”. The girls have seemingly integrated into the space. The first skater says that, “as long as you’re trying if you come to skate, no ones gonna cause any fuss”. Essentially how it doesn’t really matter if you’re a girl, but as long as you come to use the space for skating like everyone else, people aren’t going to bother you. They say that there are loads of girl skaters here, however there still aren’t any girls this evening.
I go back and sit down on the bench outside Tev, and send a message to the Skategirls Instagram (this is how I have been keeping in touch) asking if they were planning on skating tonight. They replied saying that they weren’t. Could be for several different reasons, I didn’t want to pry.
Sunday 16th February, 4:30pm
Very windy, quite sunny but the rain keeps stopping and starting. Four boys in the undercover area of Burns with all their bags on the side. No one is in the main Bristo circle, probably due to the weather. One is playing with the cones while he skates. They sit on the ledge sometimes to take a break or drink water. Again, no girls. The boys are different to the ones we have spoken to before. I remember how the girls told me that those boys go to the indoor skate park on Sundays so maybe they are there today and this is a different group of people.
IV. Works Cited
Miled, N., 2019. Muslim researcher researching Muslim youth: reflexive notes on critical ethnography, positionality and representation. Ethnography and Education, pp.1-15.
Me: “Why did you make this group, ‘Skategirls’? Why did you feel like you needed a female group skate group?”
B: “We literally started as pals. We didn’t plan to make it, it just kind of made itself, not for any interest of anyone else.”
Me: “Do you feel like there’s specifically a need for a female group?”
C: “I think its definitely good for other girls and younger people to see so many girls skating, because before October I didn’t even know there was this many girls.”
B: “You don’t see young girls skating and you wouldn’t talk to them, like it totally would be a thing you saw once a month.”
A: “Didn’t specifically start for that reason, but thats just kind of what has come out of it, like it just so happens that its helpful for some people I suppose. Its like ‘encourage-able’, (laughs) you know what I mean.”
Me: “Is Bristo male dominated?”
A: “I feel like it’s not specifically Bristo, its in general.”
B: “Skating in general is dominated by males.”
A: “Not that spot though, thats just… its the same percentage there as it would be anywhere.”
B: “Its going up in trend though, inequalitys balanced out.”
C: “Do you think it is?”
B: “Yeah for sure, see the other skate girl groups, theres so many girl groups now.”
Me: “What are the attitudes towards you as a girl group in Bristo?”
A: “I think initially when people see a big group of girls skate boarding, I think they think its a bit weird…”
B: “You’ll pass folk outside before going home and they’ll be like ‘oh my god’, and they’re chatting to you like, this is so crazy!” (positive)
C: “Its not something you really see either like it’s not so much that you don’t see girls skating, it’s just now such a focused group."
Me: “Why Bristo?”
C: “Bristo squares always been the spot for skating like for like 20 years, its always been like a renowned spot for skating.”
B: “But then it obviously had been done up recently-ish. Proper massive thing about that.”
Me: “Did the fact that is was so renowned make you start skating there?”
A: “Yeah it’s just like a hub”
C: “There’s someone always there even if its just two people. Think its just a known spot.”
B: “Like if it didn’t have the stigma I suppose it wouldn’t be as popular.”
Me: “The stigma?”
B: “Like if it wasn’t so renowned, it have half the folk there.”
Me: “Has the group helped you join the community even more?
C: “Definitely, like there’s people that come up to us, I know that surrounds a bit up yourself, but they recognise it… like they praise it.”
A: “Yeah, they’ll say like I saw your page, ‘it’s sick’ and some of them aren’t even skateboarders and still think our page is cool.”
C: “It’s just nice to be able to walk around and to say hi to someone because whenever you’re in Bristo there’s always someone you know.”
A: “People are definitely more friendly towards us.”
Me: “If you didn’t have the group, it’d be less like that?”
C: “Hmmmm, it might be actually. I think although there’s such a big group of people at Bristo, they all kind of do their own individual thing, whereas we’re with each other a lot. I think it would be different because although all the guys are friendly at Bristo… they’re pretty quiet.”
B: “I would be less likely to approach them.”
Me: “What is your relationship with the boys who skate there?”
C: “Its different between us. I started skating with the boys before the girls.”
B: “Likewise with me, yeah.”
C: “I mean our relationship is good with all the guys. They’re so supportive and its great.”
B: “There’s no beef (ref. tension) unless its personal.”
C: “If anything the boys are actually more supportive of us.”
A: “More supportive than who?
C: “No instead of being like weird about it they’re like ‘oh yeah cool’. They actually love it.”
Me: “Do police intervene a lot?”
C: “Its more the university, especially the sheltered bit… but don’t want to be disrespectful to them.”
A: “Recently they just put signs up.”
C: “No skateboarding signs in the sheltered spot at Bristo, and they built bike racks all by our skate spot, and its like the only bit to go when its raining or winter. Police only come when there were like over 15 of us… flats across the road were complaining about noise.”
A: “Which is fair enough to be honest.”
C: “The other time I was with Sam and Tom, the University guys started being like basically ‘fuck off’ and they phoned the police for no reason.”
Me: “Because of noise?”
C: “No, because of damage… you’re skating as we normally do on the ledge thing.”
B: “The thing is like is it public space or private space.”
C: “Yeah like who really owns it. And a lot of people have like a disposable … judgement is it?”
A: “Kind of stereotyping all skaters, we know its noisy…”
C: “But thats what I hate the most, there are some guys that are really sound but some…
C: “They’ll be really negative from the get go. Its like a hate crime, I know thats a bit extreme but the best way to describe it is that its specifically because we’re skaters.”
Me: “So the skaters are never really involved in the crime thing at Bristo?”
C: “No its never the skaters.”
Me: “I guess you’re just there…”
C: “And it looks like…”
A: “Because you’re making noise.”
B: “It’s a destructive sport.”
C: “People just assume we’re doing it to cause havoc to damage buildings… I think it’ll change once its in the olympics… people don’t understand it, people still think we’re chavy and stuff… they’ll have more like respect for it.”
B: “I hope so.”
C: “Its just ignorance.”
A: “Like Boris Johnson, hide all the homeless people.”
C: “None of the skater guys are ever dicky towards the security, no ones horrible.”
B: “Its almost too understanding.”
Doing ethnographic fieldwork in Bristo Square was an interesting experience. Initial observation was intriguing, but I was apprehensive to involve myself with the people who occupy this space, notably the skateboarders. However through speaking to them, my attitudes towards this space started to change with their openness and also their understanding towards public disruption and female inclusiveness. Public disruption was understood by all the people I spoke to. The skaters know their sport is loud and they understand that sometimes this gives off the impression that they are purposely trying to cause chaos. They are understanding towards this public attitude and accept that they have to remove themselves in specific situations (exams, larger group size, drinking, weed, etc.). However, there is clear resentment for rudeness and lack of respect towards them, leaving them feeling misunderstood. Female inclusiveness was also massively recognised by both the male and female skateboarders in the community. The male skaters recognised the girls group, enjoyed their presence in the space and were supportive of them. The skateboarders believe the real divide between male and female groups is quite heavily based on friendship more than it is on gender divide.
During this participant observation, there were also specific circumstances that would inevitably impact the research. Bristo Square is both an outdoor and a public space. The Square being outside means that the study was massively weather contingent. Whenever it was raining or lightly snowing, the skaters would not be in the area, posing challenges to our research. Sometimes it was hard to collect evidence because it was difficult to determine when they would be in the area. This also links to the aspect of public space. Skateboarding times run on unofficial hours, which also made research times inconsistent and disjointed. When field study was conducted, public space as a circumstance also created room for awkwardness that is inevitably part of ethnographic work. Public space contrasted with the skateboarders’ personal ownership of the area built an interesting power dynamic that we as researchers had to involve ourselves in. These circumstances created an aura of apprehension in approaching the skateboarders.
The circumstances of my interview were different. I chose to interview members of a female skateboarding group, ’Skateboobs’ that my group and I found on social media. We discovered that they skate in Bristo and became interested in the way this group may occupy the space differently. I set up an interview after messaging the group on Instagram, however if it weren’t for this social media platform, I would not have known about them. Through my participant observation, I did not see any female skateboarders and only knew about their experience through Instagram and the interview conducted. Furthermore, the circumstances of conducting an interview with people I had never met would also change the nature of conversation. A sense of formality was present during the interview, which had both positive and negative effects. The girls wanted to express information they felt was important for research and may have disclosed other information as a result of this circumstantial interview formality.
In doing research, positionality was another major point of consideration throughout. Neila Miled’s work considers both the importance of positionality when researching and also how the specific situation of interlocutors must always be considered in fieldwork. Miled is a Muslim woman who explored how school experiences impact Muslim youth identity negotiations and sense of belonging. Her Muslim positionality changes the entire narrative of her study, as there is a sense of closeness between her and her interlocutors. There is also an element of removal from the 'white saviour complex’. In reading this, I started to consider my own positionality in studying the skateboarders. One major aspect of my social and political context is that I am a woman. I understand that as a woman, I may have some bias towards supporting and understanding better the female side of the story. Also from a female outsider going in, I did sometimes feel slightly threatened by the male dominance of the area. There are feelings of getting in the way that surround their symbolic claim over a public area, which was intimidating at times. I felt more comfortable with the female skateboarders and this consequentially changed the focus of the research I collected.
However, our ethnography group did share a similar age range with our interlocutors, and I feel this slightly took away the ‘outsider’ power dynamics of us as researchers. The skateboarders were open to expressing how they felt misunderstood by peripheral perspective. This misunderstanding is due to both university security as well as the lack of free and available skate areas in Edinburgh. Their expression was perhaps more open because of our similar ages, that would change our research.
Something Miled also discusses in her text is how despite the fact that some parts of identity are shared with research subjects, there is never going to be one experience. As ethnographers, we are still outsiders with our own influencing narratives that we must be considerate of during the entire research process. My upbringing was one aspect of positionality during research that I did not want to share. Growing up in Singapore has many class and wealth implications that I was afraid would remove me from the skateboarders and them feeling able to share information with me. I understood that some of the skateboarders had not gone to university and an aspect of personal ‘privilege’ may have been brought up, creating a bigger divide between us. I am also removed from skateboarding, as this was not something I grew up with or a community I had ever been part of. These aspects of upbringing do slightly change the research because of interview formality, lack of closeness and class stereotypes that I was not ready to bring to my research just yet.