Flex in the City: A Creative Approach to Urban Ethnography in Rotterdam

The city of Rotterdam is characterized by the view of the Erasmus Bridge arched over the New Maas River.
Revealing how embracing uncertainties can unlock creative potential, Anastasia Hacopian highlights the significance of flexibility in urban research, using arts-based methods and Instagram to address ethnographic challenges in multicultural Rotterdam.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Creative Urban Methods.]

I was born near Los Angeles, California, in the United States, to immigrants of Japanese and Armenian descent. As an adult, I immigrated to the Netherlands, where I have been living in the city of Rotterdam since 2021. In Rotterdam, I am not viewed or treated as “Dutch.” This position gives me access to residents who share the same experience.

As a researcher at Utrecht University, I wanted to use my cultural positioning to conduct research on cultural pride among residents of Rotterdam with multiple cultural identities. This story is about my journey as a researcher and the obstacles that I faced after launching a research project.

During this journey, I learned that obstacles in the research process can be turned into moments of productivity. My story is an advocacy for creativity in academic research. I will share how creativity helped me in two ways. On the one hand, creativity in the form of a creative research methodology helped me to give the project an inclusive framework. On the other hand, a creative mindset helped me to respond flexibly to various forms of resistance to the project. In sharing my journey, I hope to demonstrate the benefits of creativity for all researchers. Obstacles are endemic to the research process, and creativity can turn research obstacles into opportunities.

Rotterdam

As a resident of Rotterdam, I regularly witness ways in which the cultural, racial, and ethnic communities of Rotterdam gather in public spaces to perform and demonstrate. Fifty-four percent of Rotterdam’s population has an immigrant background, placing it as the third most diverse city according to migration background in the Netherlands.1“Ranglijst van de migratieachtergrond van inwoners per gemeente in Nederland,” Alle Cijfers.nl, accessed June 19, 2023, https://allecijfers.nl/ranglijst/autochtoon-en-migratieachtergrond-per-gemeente-in-nederland/#:~:text=De%20gegevens%20gelden%20voor%202022,van%20alle%20gemeenten%20in%20Nederland. Public gatherings in the city center of Rotterdam’s cultural, racial, and ethnic groups are often spontaneous, such as the Dutch-Moroccan celebrations at Rotterdam’s Hofplein fountain after the FIFA win by the Moroccan national soccer team, or gatherings in the city center of Turkish-Dutch residents following the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Other events were organized, such as when Black residents, artists, and poets assembled near the sculpture Moments Contained by Thomas J Price to protest the ruling in the case of the Belgian student Sanda Dia. These events publicly affirm the multiplicity of identities among Rotterdam’s residents. Affirmation takes the form of organization, participation, and spectatorship and is linked to displays of collective pride.

Photo taken by Anastasia Hacopian of the statue “Moments Contained” by Thomas J Price at Rotterdam Central Station.

Despite this visibility, multicultural identities also form a source of conflict in the Netherlands. Attitudes regarding multicultural identities among Dutch individuals are different than the attitudes to which I was accustomed in my native California. In California, multicultural identities are celebrated both publicly and individually. Holidays to commemorate multicultural heritage are embedded in the American calendar. Individuals regularly share and demonstrate pride in their various cultural identities when talking with others. In contrast, multicultural identity among Dutch individuals is a source of stress. Dutch citizens indicate negative experiences attached to their multiple cultural identities, citing treatment as “the other,” as not being seen as “Dutch,” and not feeling “at home” in the Netherlands.2“Nieuwe girls,”Girls Girls Girls, 2Doc, aired August 7, 2023, https://www.2doc.nl/documentaires/2023/07/girls-girls-girls/6-nieuwe-girls.html. On an individual basis, Dutch citizens with multiple cultural identities are often hesitant to discuss their ethnic, racial, or cultural backgrounds. Questions like “Where are you from?” or “What is your ethnic background?” are experienced as invasive, threatening, and discriminatory.

I witnessed a local conflict regarding multicultural identity following the victory of the Moroccan national soccer team on December 6, 2022, in the semi-final match of the FIFA World Cup against Spain. In 2022, seven percent of Rotterdam’s residents registered a Moroccan background.3“Bevolking naar herkomst,” Thema’s > Bevolking, Gemeente Rotterdam, accessed June 19, 2023, https://onderzoek010.nl/dashboard/onderzoek010/bevolking. After the win, Dutch-Moroccan residents of Rotterdam took to the city streets; Moroccan flags were hung out on front porches and in windows.

Many of the residents in our street congratulated a Dutch-Moroccan family through the neighborhood WhatsApp chat. One neighbor, however, remarked that this family had failed to congratulate her when the Dutch had won. A heated exchange ensued about multicultural identity and the wearing of “two hats.” My Moroccan-Dutch neighbor insisted on the right to multiple loyalties, resenting the binary opposition of “us” versus “them.”

In Rotterdam, stigmatization of individual, multicultural identities takes place alongside public demonstrations and expressions of collective cultural pride, highlighting a discrepancy between collective performance and individual experience. The tension between diversity, public displays of pride, and negative experiences of multicultural individuals stimulated my curiosity and many questions: When, how, and with whom do residents of Rotterdam experience bi- and multicultural pride? What forms does that pride take? When is pride equated with a feeling of resistance? When is pride celebratory? How are expressions of pride in cultural identities linked to experiences of safety, or lack of safety? How do residents juxtapose feelings of pride for their different cultural identities?

Creative Research Methodology

I was eager to ask my neighbor about her sense of pride in the wearing of “two hats,” an experience that I share with her on various levels. I then had the idea to speak to more residents of Rotterdam who identify with multiple cultural identities. If I could conduct these conversations through the context of my research, then I could also publicize the stories of my fellow Rotterdam residents.

An urban ethnographer could research the questions I had about pride, resistance, and safety using a conventional ethnographical method: interviews. Yet interviews can lead to feelings of objectification in the research participant. Creative research methodology has been successfully implemented as an alternative, qualitative methodology to engage with communities, replacing traditional interviews.4Julie Spray, Hannah Fechtel, and Jean Hunleth, “What Do Arts-Based Methods Do? A Story of (What Is) Art and Online Research With Children During a Pandemic,” Sociological Research Online 27, no. 3 (2022): 574–586, https://doi-org.proxy.library.uu.nl/10.1177/1360780421105549.

Creative research methodology has also proven to be an effective means to share and exchange information that is sensitive, associated with high levels of emotion, and difficult to articulate with language.5Helen Kara, Creative Research Methods. A Practical Guide, second edition (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020), 30–31. Through arts-based research methods, participants of ethnographic research can share stories, trauma, and knowledge through a secondary, artistic medium and allow spectators to connect with them through their art.6Lydia Degarrod, “Making the Unfamiliar Personal: Arts-Based Ethnographies as Public-Engaged Ethnographies,” Qualitative Research 13 (2013), 402–413. Because arts-based methods are flexible, they can be adapted to meet the particular needs of the participant and the context.7Kara, Creative Research Methods, 30. Moreover, if the researcher and participant work together, co-creation of an artistic product can circumvent the “othering” of participants.

Logo of Anastasia Hacopian’s Instagram account #wijzijntrots.

I decided to use a creative methodology in Rotterdam to evade the obstacles that might arise through a traditional ethnographic methodology. By opting for an arts-based approach, I hoped to provide the participant with a secondary, artistic medium through which to communicate feelings and experiences regarding multicultural identities, which are often a source of tension and conflict for Dutch individuals. By using co-creation, I hoped to avoid objectification and “othering” of the participant.

I elected to use Instagram as a public platform for artistic co-creation. My encounter with each participant would result in a co-created product: an Instagram post profiling the pride of the resident on a page I created and managed, #wijzijntrots (this translates to “we are proud” in Dutch). The post would represent their answer to the question: “What parts of your cultural identities are you proud of?” Based on a conversation, the participant and I would co-design the textual and visual content for their post. The Instagram post would not be the goal of the research encounter, but a means with which to stimulate a conversation about multicultural pride and identity. The goal of the encounter would be to collect qualitative data through the co-creative process for the Instagram post.

Photo taken by Iris van der Tuin of the words “Wees Trots” on a building in West Rotterdam, which translates to “Be proud.”
Curveball: Spontaneity and Ethics Regulations

When talking about unpleasant surprises, Americans sometimes use the metaphor of the “curve ball.” This refers to the American context of baseball, when a pitcher throws a ball whose trajectory curves downward at the last moment, making it difficult for the batter to score a hit. Curve balls are unanticipated obstacles.

After I drew up my plan for this research project, I thought that I had anticipated the potential research obstacles. In choosing a creative methodology, I even assumed that I had eliminated them. My plan, however, was thrown multiple “curve balls.” A creative mindset helped me to hit these “curve balls” by redirecting my plan into other, fruitful trajectories.

The first curve ball was the tension between the spontaneity of the urban context and the institutional timeline of the Ethics Assessment Committee. Like the surge of Moroccan pride in the city following the FIFA win, collective displays of cultural pride are often spontaneous. The behavior of people who exhibit collective pride is dependent on the momentum of the collective. Momentum, however, is temporary.

I wanted to use the momentum after the FIFA win to speak to Dutch-Moroccans in Rotterdam for my project. As a researcher employed by Utrecht University, I first needed to receive approval from the Ethics Assessment Committee of the Humanities Faculty of Utrecht University. This approval was particularly relevant for the processing of “data revealing racial or ethnic origin,” which can only be obtained through approved safeguards and documented consent.8“Art.9 GDPR Processing of special categories of personal data,” General Data Protection Regulation, Intersoft Consulting, accessed June 19, 2023, https://gdpr-info.eu/art-9-gdpr/; “Regulations,” Faculty Ethics Assessment Committee Humanities, Utrecht University, last updated June 15, 2023. https://fetc-gw.wp.hum.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/sites/336/2022/10/Regulations-FEtC-H-EN-20230615.pdf. An application to the Ethics Assessment Committee takes weeks to process. I found myself in a frustrating situation: the momentum following the win was live and actual, but I had no institutional permission to speak to any residents.

The instability of urban dynamics presents a procedural challenge for researchers. Cities are continuously being invented and reinvented by the people who live in them, affecting “the conditions in which they operate.”9Michael Batty, “Unpredictability,” Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science 47, no. 5 (June 2020): 742, https://doi.org/10.1177/2399808320934308. The postmodern city aligns with the contemporary “algorithmic” condition, where “change is the new stability.”10Nanna Verhoeff and Iris van der Tuin, “Failure is a project,” in Failurists: When Things Go Awry, ed. Sybille Lammes, Kat Jungnickel, Larisse Hjorth, and Jen Rae (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2023), 128. Cities are the natural context of the spontaneous, the unplanned, and the unexpected.

Creative methodologies are viable for research in an unstable urban context. It acknowledges that research is “suffused with uncertainty” and treats the research project as a working draft.11Kara, 2020, 16. It acknowledges the non-linearity of the creative process, using lateral thinking to solve problems as they occur. In this way, creative methodologies allow for obstacles as a standard part of the creative process: “Creative tasks and projects produce complex, ambiguous situations and, occasionally, ‘mini-crises’ that may require sense-making.”12Robert Drazin, Mary Ann Glynn, and Robert K Kazanjian, “Multilevel Theorizing about Creativity in Organizations: A Sensemaking Perspective,” The Academy of Management Review 24, no. 2 (April 1999): 292, https://doi.org/10.2307/259083. A research mindset, when framed as a creative process, enables the researcher to adjust, redefine, and re-create, when necessary.

As anticipated, approval was not administered in time for my first appointment with a participant. Instead of cancelling, I adjusted the content of the conversation. As an alternative to discussing Instagram post-content, I asked my first young Dutch-Moroccan participant to give me feedback on the project plan. This feedback proved valuable for my understanding of youth and social safety.

Curveball: Vulnerability of Youth

Despite its diversity, Rotterdam reflects the highest number of voters for political parties with anti-immigration platforms.13Diana van Dijk and Saeed Jarrous, “Thuis in Rotterdam? Het verhaal van Saeed en andere nieuwe Rotterdammers,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 74. People of color experience discussions regarding immigration and diversity as negative and polarized, while tolerance between ethnic communities is viewed as a “sham.”14Caro Van der Pluijm, “Strijd om de ruimte. Een brief aan mijn achterkleinkind,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 141. In an essay on Rotterdam’s hip hop culture, Derek Otte writes of “small mindedness in the big city,” where the effects of Dutch colonialism and slavery are still prevalent.15Manu van Kersbergen et al., “De kracht van de meest onderschatte,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, eds. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 223. Another resident, Charissa Granger, recognizes the tension between the city as a performative setting and a location of failed emancipation:

Marginalized residents of Rotterdam can express themselves, sing, dance, and make music, but without an infrastructure where they can be heard when it’s not about pleasure, no real emancipation can take place.16Charissa Granger, “Scénes van plezier, herinneringen aan onderwerping,” Trans. Dastan Abdali, in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 267, translated from Dutch by the author.

Lack of social safety forms a barrier for individual expressions of pride. This renders participants of my research project vulnerable, which was confirmed by two preliminary conversations regarding potential participants.

Photo taken by Anastasia Hacopian of a public performance during Rotterdam Street Culture Week (2022) of youth breakdancing and performing on steel drums.

As mentioned above, I asked a Dutch-Moroccan teenager for feedback on the project. She said she had never been trolled or harassed online and would not be bothered by potential hate responses to a post profiling her pride. Her lack of experience seemed to generate an uninformed decision to participate. Consent, in this case, could render the minor especially vulnerable. This concern was also expressed by a parent of another teenager, who refused consent for her daughter to be published on a public Instagram site.

Accordingly, I decided to adjust my Instagram plan. Instead of co-creating posts based on conversations with minors, I have opted for an arts-based classroom assignment which will be carried out in cooperation with participating high schools. Students will contribute posts through a photography, collage, or haiku assignment. The spectrum of ‘arts-based’ research allows for a versatile definition of co-creation and, accordingly, the flexible use of the Instagram platform to render minors less vulnerable.

Curveball: Institutional Legitimacy

Arts-based approaches are not bound to traditional research methods associated with academic disciplines. Being a faculty member in an interdisciplinary bachelor program, my research is likewise unattached to a particular discipline. Liberation from “disciplinary confines” through a creative methodology can provide a flexible framework for research.17Kara, Creative Research Methods, 6. Creative methodologies use an open pedagogy, substituting prescribed, fixed, and disciplinary practices with problem-solving knowledge and the practice of “taking things that already exist and making new combinations.”18Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 17; Kara, Creative Research Methods, 17.

While liberating, this departure from traditional and established canons can result in a lack of legitimacy within an institutional framework. Instead of viewing creative research as a dynamic form of science in the making,19Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). institutions that are unfamiliar with creative methodologies might dismiss it.

A faculty adviser who reviewed my application for the Ethics Assessment Committee questioned the utility of Instagram for research purposes and classified the project as journalistic and activist.20Privacy officer of Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University, personal message to the author, December 13, 2022. I responded by meeting the adviser for a conversation, where I explained my intention to use Instagram a medium of co-creation within a creative research methodology. When I cited other creative researchers, this colleague acknowledged creative methodology as a “newer” research approach.

Conclusion

Like community-engaged learning before it, female academics are the driving force behind creative research methodology, promoting and employing it for trans-, multi-, and interdisciplinary scholarship. Helen Kara has been instrumental in establishing creative methodology as a legitimate scientific approach. Female scholars such as Noortje van Amsterdam, Amanda Ptolemy, Elizabeth Nelson, Katherine Townsend, and Lydia Degarrod have published research using poetic inquiry, auto-ethnographic writing, arts-based ethnography, crafts sciences, and creative visual methods. A digital platform for qualitative research edited by urban scholars Nanna Verhoeff and Sigrid Merx places a creative methodology in the city.21Nanna Verhoeff and Sigrid Merx, “Creative Urban Methods: Introduction,” Kwalon, Platform voor kwalitatief onderzoek, June 30, 2021, https://www.kwalon.nl/en/2021/06/30/creative-urban-methods-introduction-nanna-verhoeff-sigrid-merx/.

While female academics have been in the vanguard, creative research methodology will continue to gain institutional legitimacy through the work of any scientists who use it. All scientists stand to benefit from a creative approach to research. Creativity, creative mindsets, and creative qualities can help researchers approach obstacles with flexibility, transforming them into productive opportunities.

Notes

Notes
1 “Ranglijst van de migratieachtergrond van inwoners per gemeente in Nederland,” Alle Cijfers.nl, accessed June 19, 2023, https://allecijfers.nl/ranglijst/autochtoon-en-migratieachtergrond-per-gemeente-in-nederland/#:~:text=De%20gegevens%20gelden%20voor%202022,van%20alle%20gemeenten%20in%20Nederland.
2 “Nieuwe girls,”Girls Girls Girls, 2Doc, aired August 7, 2023, https://www.2doc.nl/documentaires/2023/07/girls-girls-girls/6-nieuwe-girls.html.
3 “Bevolking naar herkomst,” Thema’s > Bevolking, Gemeente Rotterdam, accessed June 19, 2023, https://onderzoek010.nl/dashboard/onderzoek010/bevolking.
4 Julie Spray, Hannah Fechtel, and Jean Hunleth, “What Do Arts-Based Methods Do? A Story of (What Is) Art and Online Research With Children During a Pandemic,” Sociological Research Online 27, no. 3 (2022): 574–586, https://doi-org.proxy.library.uu.nl/10.1177/1360780421105549.
5 Helen Kara, Creative Research Methods. A Practical Guide, second edition (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020), 30–31.
6 Lydia Degarrod, “Making the Unfamiliar Personal: Arts-Based Ethnographies as Public-Engaged Ethnographies,” Qualitative Research 13 (2013), 402–413.
7 Kara, Creative Research Methods, 30.
8 “Art.9 GDPR Processing of special categories of personal data,” General Data Protection Regulation, Intersoft Consulting, accessed June 19, 2023, https://gdpr-info.eu/art-9-gdpr/; “Regulations,” Faculty Ethics Assessment Committee Humanities, Utrecht University, last updated June 15, 2023. https://fetc-gw.wp.hum.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/sites/336/2022/10/Regulations-FEtC-H-EN-20230615.pdf.
9 Michael Batty, “Unpredictability,” Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science 47, no. 5 (June 2020): 742, https://doi.org/10.1177/2399808320934308.
10 Nanna Verhoeff and Iris van der Tuin, “Failure is a project,” in Failurists: When Things Go Awry, ed. Sybille Lammes, Kat Jungnickel, Larisse Hjorth, and Jen Rae (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2023), 128.
11 Kara, 2020, 16.
12 Robert Drazin, Mary Ann Glynn, and Robert K Kazanjian, “Multilevel Theorizing about Creativity in Organizations: A Sensemaking Perspective,” The Academy of Management Review 24, no. 2 (April 1999): 292, https://doi.org/10.2307/259083.
13 Diana van Dijk and Saeed Jarrous, “Thuis in Rotterdam? Het verhaal van Saeed en andere nieuwe Rotterdammers,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 74.
14 Caro Van der Pluijm, “Strijd om de ruimte. Een brief aan mijn achterkleinkind,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 141.
15 Manu van Kersbergen et al., “De kracht van de meest onderschatte,” in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, eds. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 223.
16 Charissa Granger, “Scénes van plezier, herinneringen aan onderwerping,” Trans. Dastan Abdali, in Rotterdam, een post-koloniale stad in beweging, ed. Francio Guadeloupe, Paul van der Laar and Liane van der Linden (Amsterdam: Boom, 2020), 267, translated from Dutch by the author.
17 Kara, Creative Research Methods, 6.
18 Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 17; Kara, Creative Research Methods, 17.
19 Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).
20 Privacy officer of Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University, personal message to the author, December 13, 2022.
21 Nanna Verhoeff and Sigrid Merx, “Creative Urban Methods: Introduction,” Kwalon, Platform voor kwalitatief onderzoek, June 30, 2021, https://www.kwalon.nl/en/2021/06/30/creative-urban-methods-introduction-nanna-verhoeff-sigrid-merx/.
Hacopian, Anastasia. "Flex in the City: a Creative Approach to Urban Ethnography in Rotterdam”. Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023).
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