This essay engages in an urban dialogue between two cities and two local research groups about doing ethnographic research in the mobile, mundane metro space. Understanding the metro as part of today’s digital media city and as a specific urban space with its own norms were the key perspectives, as the researchers stepped into the metro in Helsinki and St Petersburg. Researchers in both cities look at the challenges of locating themselves in the metro: not only as ordinary passengers but as researchers of this ordinariness.
TEXT Heta Mulari, Nadezhda (Nadya) Vasileva, Yana Krupets
Photographs: Patrik Rastenberger
Heta: My metro ethnography began on a warm and sunny afternoon in May 2016, as I walked to the University of Helsinki metro station close to the city centre. As I was riding down the escalator, I was thinking about how to place myself differently in the metro car in comparison to my everyday use of the metro, and how to become aware of my own role as a researcher.
The Helsinki metro was opened in 1984 and it consists of one simple, forked line that connects the eastern, suburban parts with the city centre. Since October 2017, it has been possible to reach the neighboring city of Espoo with the western extension of the metro, too. Visually, the Helsinki metro is characterized by its dominant orange colour, visible both on the metro walls and the plastic seats.*
Nadya: "In contrast to Helsinki, the trains in St. Petersburg are blue on the outside and white on the inside. I assume that the colors and visual components of the metro can be very important for how this urban site is perceived and can affect the emotions of passengers. Orange color, on the one hand, can be considered a signal for attention or danger, on the other hand, for me it also symbolizes fun, boldness and warmth. At the same time, blue and white remind me of calmness, relaxation, freedom and coldness."
For me, at the core of doing metro ethnography was trying to make everyday interaction, urban movements and encounters between people strange and visible. Theoretically, following feminist and queer theory, I was thinking of ‘queering’ the metro and reading it against the grain: trying to make normative interaction strange. This could mean, for example, trying to break my usual patterns of choosing a certain seat, or keeping my privacy with the help of my phone and headphones.*
Yana: "I did another experiment during my fieldwork. One day I chose one random young person from the crowd and followed him. My goal was to try to catch the everyday routes that metro passengers take. I thought that by this act I was breaking the person's privacy, but the complete anonymity of the passenger to me and the public place gave me the moral legitimacy to try this method of 'following'. And it yielded very interesting results, but not as much about the routes, as about the importance of rhythms and their individuality, the ways of detection of persons in the crowd, and the destinations that were clear for someone (so it was not a flaneur walk) but not for me (which somehow provoked in me a great sense of insecurity)."
It felt very strange indeed to observe people instead of keeping to myself. I noticed that observing on the metro as a researcher meant constant balancing between following the internalized norm of keeping one’s privacy and consciously challenging and breaking it by observing people – and travelling without going anywhere.
My question was how to study interaction in a context where the lack of interaction with other people is the norm? This approach demands constant reflection and a multisensory approach. The pages of my fieldwork diary were filled with observations of everyday movement and of staying still: people walking in and out, choosing a seat or remaining standing, doing push-ups, running in the aisle, looking out of the window, leaning closer to watch a YouTube video from a friend’s mobile phone. These observations turned into reflections on official control (such as signs, announcements or guards*), invisible, unspoken rules shared between passengers and various ways of twisting or challenging the rules. Indeed, the social codes for acceptable behaviour became visible only if somehow challenged.
Yana: "The St. Petersburg metro is full of signs and announcements - and all of them are in very 'official' language. I would try to imagine (analytical experiment) how the atmosphere on the metro would change, if these announcements would be made more informally (in everyday 'human' language), with humor and without long bureaucratic statements. It is almost impossible for me to imagine this style. The currently used language creates such a great distance between the technology/metro authorities and passengers, and also works to alienate metro users. Thus, the change of announcement style could become an indicator of structural transformation of the whole system."
Nadya: So, what can be interesting in everydayness? Routines make up most of our life, but we usually consider them as something insignificant or, even worse, as detrimental. As for me, the time I spent on the metro seemed wasted, stolen from me by the big city.* I used to live at one end of St. Petersburg and had to go to the university, located at another end. Every day I overcame this distance by metro during the rush hour. Every day I suffered physically and emotionally because the car was usually crowded and encounters with others were too frequent and too intensive.
Yana: "It is interesting how differently the metro can be experienced. For me it was never 'stolen' time, but actually 'free' time when I could read or just relax after work."
My personal perception of the metro provides me with the methodology. My observations and diaries look like self-ethnography because I describe myself in my ‘habitat’. I followed the logic of ‘reflexive sociology’, implying an analysis of values and attitudes of the researcher as a member of society. I tried to experience the metro as an ordinary passenger and analyse this experience as a stranger. So, I wanted to understand why I feel the way I feel on the metro.
However, some time ago I was an actual stranger on the metro because I moved to St. Petersburg from another city. I captured my first metro experience in my diary, and it is amazing how much it differed from my current emotions:
I like to study people on the metro, it seems that St. Peterburgers are much more interesting than city dwellers in my hometown. The metro is a place where, when it is moving, no one is in a hurry. This makes it possible to observe the passengers in detail, but without being noticed, of course. Trips on the metro allow you to learn the peculiarities of the "Petersburg way of life", to socialize, to adopt the habits of the inhabitants. I think that I perceive the metro as an element of metropolitan life, and my practices of using the metro are for me a way to overcome my provinciality.*
Passage from researcher’s diary, St. Petersburg
Yana: "This was also the case for me - I thought I could feel like a local, when I knew how to use the metro 'fluently': knowing stations, routes, the 'right' places in the metro cars, etc."
Rereading this diary passage, I understand how the everydayness of the metro was important for me at the time when I was a stranger, dreaming of becoming an ordinary passenger. The social values and norms are embodied in metro life, so studying the mundane experience creates an opportunity for revealing them.
Yana: I will begin my answer with the last part of the question: why is it worth for the researcher to become a stranger on the metro? To tell the truth, it was not so obvious to me at the beginning of my fieldwork. I thought I was quite professional at doing observation, so I could ‘see’ the everyday interactions of metro users without any special preparation or tools to do it. I entered the St. Petersburg metro one morning with a clear research plan in my mind, notebook in my bag, my smart phone’s camera ready. And… I failed completely: I watched the people around me and tried to catch something worth writing in my notes. But I could not understand what I should write. Everything seemed so obvious, banal, well-known and not worthy of mentioning. At that moment, I felt so clearly, how difficult it would be to break through the everydayness, which is like silicone and a swamp at the same time. And I understood that I would need to figure something out, otherwise I would not be able to complete my data collection.
The first thing on this mission was to try to remember how I was feeling myself when I visited the St. Petersburg metro for the first time – being a newcomer and a stranger.* It was over 10 years ago, so my memory had clouded lots of details: I remember being surprised by how deep it was, by how I liked the smell, and how I had problems with orientation in the St. Petersburg metro compared to the Moscow metro, which seemed to be more familiar to me at that time. I put these memories in my field diary and added a comment: ‘ask young people to compare the St. Petersburg metro with other metros from other cities’.
Heta: "I think this is a very important point. For me, the metro has never been a part of everyday commuting, and several metro stations in Helsinki were indeed new and strange locations, as I started doing ethnography. In one of my field diary entries, I had written about my first impressions of the Helsinki metro which I got from the music video Freestyler by Bomfunk MC's (1999), while I was still a teenager and living in Western Finland. This multisensory memory shows how the metro space is deeply mediated and how popular conceptions can have a powerful effect on how people place themselves into the space. This is also where our metros differ so much (thinking about the long history of the St. Petersburg metro)."
Now I can see that these notes already provide some material for thinking: about the materiality and technological structure – the depth of the metro, the rhythm of the escalator, the signs and maps – that influence the ways of using the metro and patterns of movement in it. The signs and instructions that should help with the orientation in the metro space sometimes just confuse newcomers and become unnoticed for locals. There is also the ‘sensory’ dimension - smell, sound and temperature - that produces (dis)comfort for passengers and boundaries for communication. However, I was not very happy with these observations I made ‘from memory’. It seemed to me that I had not observed the empirical reality but the image of the metro that I myself have. And this is the trap that everydayness prepares for the researcher: it looks so familiar that you are tempted to analyse it without observing.
Trying to escape this trap, I went to the metro again, and again, and pushed myself to continue observation: I walked around, changed stations, lines, metro cars, I observed passengers, guards, musicians. I allowed myself to add anything banal to my notes hoping that during analysis I would be able to get something from this ‘bunch of banalities’. During one observation, already desperate, I was tired and sat on a bench and spent 20–30 minutes without going anywhere. After some time just ‘sitting’, I felt that I am separated from the people around me – I became ‘immobile’ compared to moving passengers. At that moment I felt that everyday life became less mundane for me, and I could observe it from a distance. This allowed me to discover the importance of rhythm for metro users and the constant mobility that constitutes the passenger.
For me, the most effective way to become a stranger on the metro was to do something that I don’t normally do as an ordinary participant of the observed setting.*
Heta: In addition to doing observations, writing field diaries and recording sound, we interviewed 16–17-year-old young people on their experiences of using the metro. The responses became lively narrations of everyday life on the Helsinki metro, filled with descriptions of friendships and youth cultures, intergenerational control by adult passengers and guards, having a moment just for oneself (and one’s earphones), pleasant and unpleasant encounters between fellow passengers.
“But is it somehow different to travel on the metro as a young person?* How is it for adults?” pondered one of our informants, thus perceptively challenging our key idea of focusing on young people’s experiences of the metro space.
Nadya: "In my opinion, this is a very important question. Moreover, it is also a question of how we define who is a young person and who is an adult. In St. Petersburg we initially tried to distinguish two groups of young people, based on their age. The first group were 18–23-year-olds, the second were 24–30-year-olds. We assumed that the experiences of these two groups would be different. However, during research, we found that age is not the factor which defines the experience. Gender, ethnicity, subcultural capital, as well as the duration and intensity of use of the metro (for example, someone can only start using the metro because he/she moved to St. Petersburg from another city) determine the travel on the metro. So, I think that, in general, there are no massive differences between young people and adults on the metro, but by focusing on young people, we can identify other factors that determine the experience of metro users."
Heta: “This is, indeed, a very important point. In Helsinki, all our informants were 16–18-year-olds, so they were younger than your informants in St. Petersburg. Most of them recognized the different forms of formal and informal control directed at them because of their age on the metro and on other public transport. Thus, the metro very often became a space of intergenerational control and distrust. However, I do agree with you, Nadya, that we shouldn't only look at age but also analyse age in the intersections of class, gender and ethnicity, for example. The experiences of getting unwanted attention from adults, for instance, were highly gendered. On a more positive note, the metro car was also a space that allowed young people to hang out and spend time freely without any pressures to do something productive. Our informants mentioned that in public spaces they felt constant pressure not to appear to just be hanging out, since adults saw this as unwanted and meaningless.”
According to our interviews and observations, I would say that, yes, age and other social categories, such as gender and ethnicity, affect how people are approached and how they situate themselves in the metro.
Stepping into an urban space with its own hierarchies meant for many of our informants a pressure to monitor their behaviour, even appearance, to avoid unwanted contact or unwanted remarks. One of our informants in Helsinki who identified as gender fluid, described their experience of encountering strangers on the metro:
I try to avoid eye contact because people are scary and I can’t, I don’t know how to be with people and I feel very uncomfortable if someone comes to talk to me. I don’t know, what I’ve noticed is that I get quite a lot of, like, people look at me somewhat strange, just because of what I look like, but well, you learn to live with that.
The Helsinki metro was, however, also an urban arena for claiming one’s own space.* This could mean, for example, occupying one’s own compartment in the busy metro car with friends or creating your own digital bubble with your smartphone. Young people also talked about challenging the norms and rules in creative ways, such as listening to music, dancing - and even inviting a metro guard to join them to dance!
Yana: "This is a very important point. Our project is about young people’s right to the city. And the examples of such youth creativity and courage to change and redefine such structures as the metro system are very valuable when we are thinking about different types of social changes and innovation."
Heta: “Definitely. In our interviews, young people voiced the need for loose spaces for hanging out in the city: spaces without predefined purposes or age limits. Occasionally, the metro car turned into a mobile, in-between space that allowed creativity, hanging out and being social, both physically and digitally.”
Nadya: When speaking about young people on the metro, it is important to mention the special characteristics of the metro system in St. Petersburg. The metro was built in the period of the Soviet Union, and in addition to its pragmatic function, it also had an ideological one. The stations were constructed as underground palaces, which aimed to demonstrate the power and glory of the state. Today we see the museification of the metro – this space is represented as cultural heritage, as well as a unique part of the Soviet era that is preserved. Moreover, the metro is of strategic importance and protected in a special way. The control and security system is designed to oversee the large flow of people and their contacts with technology, and to prevent possible terrorist attacks. This system also defines what or who is “dangerous” and what or who is not.
The metro appears to be a highly formalized system, in which the behavior of passengers is regulated quite strictly, like in a museum or at a military facility. Especially young people are under informal control of other metro users, who have specific expectations about their behavior. An example: young people are expected to give their seats to elderly people or to those who may need them more. This rule supports a “moral order” on the metro that is articulated not only verbally, but also physically. One of our informants in St. Petersburg said:
And then there are the types of passengers, like the "babushka" who stands but cannot ask – she will kick you there – or somehow constantly try to touch you with her knee or her cart, in order to get your attention and awaken your conscience.
However, young people are not submissive passengers who follow ‘metro norms’ which embody existing power hierarchies and social inequalities. This subordination is probably more visible to young people on the metro than in other urban spaces, because of intensive control, abundance of informal rules and formal instructions, which expose and highlight the unequal distribution of power. Thus, young people negotiate their position in the metro through their ways of using it, through reinterpretation of this space, not only in terms of utility, but also as a place for fun, creativity, friendship, love, education and support.
Yana: I was quite shocked when I discovered during observation that the St. Petersburg metro is a space that routinely categorizes metro users in terms of gender, age and ethnicity.* When you enter the metro, you are immediately ‘scanned’ and ‘classified’ - by guards, by the police, and by other passengers. I didn’t notice this performative power before these encounters happened underground: passengers are constantly ’singled out’ by metro authorities and by other passengers: ‘young man, please, give up your seat’, ‘you, go for an inspection’ (which means: “you look like an immigrant”).
Heta: "I definitely agree here. The situation was very similar in Helsinki: young people talked about various forms of informal urban control, based on age, gender and ethnicity – also discrimination, harassment and racism. However, I do feel that the question of guards and other authorities differs between these two cities. Many of our informants felt that guards were seldom visible on the metro, and they even wished to have more official control in the form of friendly and easily approachable guards, especially in the evenings."
In this context, being a young metro user means, on the one hand, being repeatedly produced as ‘young’ and as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ by official and unofficial control. Maybe even more often than above ground. On the other hand, the metro can be a space of creativity for a young passenger: they can glue stickers, play on the metro by taking funny pictures, listen to music, become competent metro users who know how to adapt the metro to their needs by choosing the best routes and the right place to sit, and use different methods to maintain a distance from others or to communicate with others in the noisy metro car.
During our ethnographic fieldwork in both cities, we discovered that studying everydayness and routine actions can tell a lot about our society: about its norms, rules, power relations, identities, inequalities. In Helsinki and St. Petersburg, we found out that gender, ethnicity, age and other social characteristics are produced, contested and problematized in the metro space. By travelling on the metro, young people do not just move from one point in physical space to another, they also learn how to be a part of the society in which they are living. They are spontaneous ethnographers, who study themselves and others around them, observe and interact with people and technology, negotiate their identities.
Studying routine actions is a tricky task. Different characteristics of society are ‘hiding’ in the light of everyday life, but it is possible to discover them, if the ethnographer has the courage and patience to break through routine, draw from their own metro experiences, perceptions and attitudes, and analyse them as products of existing social order. In this case, a ride on the metro can give you valuable insight into life in contemporary cities.
Field work took place in Helsinki in May 2016–June 2017 and in St. Petersburg in May–October 2017. In addition to the authors, field research in Helsinki was also carried out by Arseniy Svynarenko, Päivi Honkatukia and Olli Haanpää.
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