Grace Fforde, Alex Luck, Henry Johnstone and Karina Ferdi (BA Geography Undergraduate students, Durham University) write:

As undergraduate students studying human geography, we could not have anticipated the areas of research that our module ‘Geographies of Difference and Identity’ may have led us to. Tasked with a project focused around people’s points of difference and the ways in which identities are thus implicated, we followed our interests in mental health geographies, and progressively developed a project that considered people within the hearing voices community. With few confines for our research, we combined our fascination with medical humanities with an underexplored spatial element. Our central question was how voice hearing was influenced by specific spaces and places.  Our core research method was to invite people who identified as hearing voices to take part in participatory ‘sound-walks’ around the city of Newcastle – that is, guided group walks in which participants and researchers are encouraged to attend to the interactions between the ‘sounds of the city’ and the sounds of one’s internal thoughts and dialogue.  Such methodology emerges from an underrepresentation of creative methods within health geographies, as well as inspiration from the Hearing the Voice collaboration with StepAway Magazine that produced ‘Voicewalks’-  a special issue dedicated to the creative exploration of inner speech and voice-hearing experiences within the context of walking in the city. What materialized was in fact a very intimate research process, in which all those involved grew closer as a result of collectively walking in silence through the streets of Newcastle town centre (North East England), whilst conducting our sound-walks. The following post is auto-ethnographic in nature, and traces the route of our walk as well as our experiences as researchers of using creative methods, and working with participants that were both unfamiliar to us.
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Four geographers and three people who hear voices go walking through Newcastle:

Walking map

Unabating and unremitting, the sound of her heeled boots striking the harsh concrete ground, provided the only constant to our unpredictable journey through Newcastle.

“What is he thinking?”… “How is this space affecting them?”… “Should I walk slower?”…

Our own internal consciousness making itself heard amidst the ebb and flow of daily rhythms – its traffic, its people, its narration.

Underpass
Walking into the underpass, our footsteps echoed ominously, reverberating through the enclosed boundaries. This claustrophobic and unfamiliar space instantly reflected our apprehension as researchers, hesitantly moving into the unknown. At this point we were just as inexperienced with this research method as the three voice hearers accompanying us. With this heightened sense of awareness for our surroundings, the walls turned in on us, closer and closer…

Stepping out as strangers negotiating unfamiliar spaces, we became a cohesive unit amidst the unsettling atmosphere of the underpass.

Grey’s Monument – central square of Newcastle city
Wandering amongst the hustling and bustling city traffic, we were collectively met by the mellow sounds of steel-drums as we wandered up past Monument. With our thoughts drifting away towards a refreshing Pina Colada on a peaceful Caribbean shoreline, it was only the echoey and unsettling sound of bus crankshafts and gear changes that clawed us back into reality and the everyday space of Monument city square. Exposed for the first time to glaring and judging eyes within the open spaces of the city square, we seemed to all self-consciously seek refuge within the safety of our formation as we headed hastily for the shopping centre.

Shopping mall
Now it became clear we were out of place, now it seemed like this project had pushed us and ‘them’ (i.e. our participants) too far. The questioning stares as we walked in single file in silence unsettling the unspoken bond we now shared. For it was here, walking around Boots Pharmacist in a silent procession, weaving between the everyday necessities that lined the aisles that a strange sense of delight fell over us. We weren’t beholden to the duties of the city, but free to roam without the obligation to buy, perceiving a uniquely different Newcastle. Privileged to share this experience with each other there was a strange sense of safety in knowing we were not alone in that space – we were somehow unified despite our differing internal monologues. Together we shared this journey, beginning as strangers and ending as so much more than that.

Starbucks
When we first embarked upon this journey, our identities as researchers and participants were distinct and visible. However, whether it was the shared action of walking or the fact that we were all armed with notebooks, this binary soon broke down. Coming to a head in Starbucks, this space offered an opportunity to collaboratively discuss our experiences freely with one another. We are hugely grateful for the openness and honesty of the participants.

Instantly, whether voice hearer or not there was a strikingly similar understanding of our bodies within each space. Reacting to external stimuli, our internal consciousness – a voice, or thought – battled to be heard. In this way, researching difference using creative methods has the potential to narrow the gap between researcher and participant through the sharing of experience.

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Our experience was certainly not one to be forgotten and it would not have been possible without the help of Angela Woods, Roz Oates and Ben Alderson-Day of the Hearing the Voice research group of Durham University, and equally Alisdair Cameron of Launchpad who put us in contact with our participants. Most importantly, we would like to formally thank the participants who so generously agreed to work with us; they offered us more powerful insights than we ever could have anticipated going into our research.  

 From our sound-walk, the most notable theme that emerged was the way in which different spaces encourage distinctly different experiences and feelings with regard to voice-hearing and internal dialogue – both negative and positive. Moreover, it was precisely this heightened awareness of external noises and spaces that we gained through our sound-walks that made it possible to understand the tensions between everyday spaces of the city and the self.

These simple findings have a lot of scope for future research, and we would gratefully invite any comments on perhaps other ways that certain spaces can stimulate particular internal feelings, or alternatively any conflicts between external sounds and internal voices. 

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