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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A Student Describes Her Dissertation - by Klara Scheurenbrand

Klara further demonstrating her commitment to having "the freedom to express yourself the way you are"

Dissertation – To rebels and free minds

It’s been a very interesting, great and funny, though challenging and complex way to the clear picture of my dissertation. It was a fight and a pleasure. It made me happy and it made me sick. As Dickens (1812) already wrote: ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.’
If you wonder how to come up with a great topic, think about what most interests you. What are you doing in your free time? Maybe you are passionate about cooking, sports or art? Is there something you always wanted to know about? Are you a shopaholic? I am sure you will find a way to link it to Marketing and if not, your professors will be happy to have a chat that will push you into the right direction.
The most important thing however, is that you do your dissertation your way. Of course, there are some rules. But within these boundaries, you have the freedom to express yourself the way you are. Is there something you come across that bothers you? Say it. Do you have a creative idea for your dissertation? Do it. As long as you embed your idea in an academic context, be creative (read Stephen Brown!).

Cycling and discontinuities in Gran Canaria

 ‘The Street belongs to the car: Ethnographic insights into the practice of cycling and the lack of bicycle consumption in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.’
The starting point for my dissertation was a merger between my interest in social marketing and my curiosity about the lack of bicycle use in Gran Canaria. I lived in the Canary Islands for a couple of years and I always wondered about the little attention paid to bicycles as urban transport. In fact only 0.4% of urban transport is made by bike. Hence, in my dissertation, I examined the lack of consumption of bicycles in order to pioneer a strategy to promote the use of bicycles most effectively.
My research gap derived from three directions. Firstly, reading the cycling literature, I quickly found out that cycling is an under-researched topic that based its findings mostly on quantitative methods that support the view that infrastructure is the key to an improved and augmented use of bicycles. The counter position however, called for a more cultural qualitative research approach that would criticize the current literature for its shortcomings on consumer understanding. Secondly, there was a theoretical framework missing within consumption studies to analyse this lack of consumption. Thirdly, social marketing and community mobilization literature suggested that a close-up cultural examination of the targeted community is necessary for an effective behavioural change. Yes, it sounds complicated; and sometimes this huge wave of literature is about to sweep you off the right track on this dissertation journey. But with the great guidance of your supervisor (a big warm thank you at this point to Dr. Benedetta Cappellini), you will always keep your balance going straight.

Empyty bicycle stand

And what’s your core argument?
So basically, my dissertation challenge was to examine a non-existent form of consumption and to understand and analyse the wider cultural context in which this ‘lack of consumption as urban transport’ was taking place. Therefore my research question was not ‘why don’t they use bicycles as urban transport’ but ‘how they practice cycling in general’; trying to capture the materiality, symbolic meanings and cultural position of the bicycle within the big picture. I filtered the question ‘why not’ as an aim through my theoretical model. In contrast to other studies, that was my dissertation’s uniqueness.
The key to answering the research question effectively was firstly the methodological approach using an ethnographic research design and secondly, the concept of practice theory. Practice theory is a very recent model used in consumption studies, originating from cultural studies. Practice Theory understands consumption as embedded within practices including objects, agents and competences. Although the model enables an examination of these elements separately, they are interlinked and hence to be understood as a whole. The material culture model according to Daniel Miller makes the relationship between the three elements as transparent and explains how agents, subject and competence co-create each other (see Fig 1). Further, practices are taking place in a specific location and hence give insights into the cultural context as well as inherent ‘doings’ i.e. how people handle the object, but also people’s ‘sayings’; the symbolic meanings of the objects themselves. Therefore, ethnography was the most suitable way to capture all of these aspects especially as it is famous for its ability to examine ’habitus’, which gives hints regarding social norms and rules, traditions and rituals.
In the saddle
I loved doing ethnography for its dynamic character. Living in the environment enabled me to see everything and understand the investigated ‘world’ better. I talked to participants, I observed them, cycled with them. I observed and described everything going on around me in traffic and noticed behaviour that from different kind of perspectives became clear. At the end, all of the information gained came together and made sense.

Bicycle on the beach

 My theoretical model extended throughout the data collection process as you can see in Fig. 2. I had to understand that Agents, Objects and Competencies are culturally co-creating and are co-created by space and infrastructure, the existing car-culture and education. It was necessary to understand that only because the infrastructure is going to allow using bikes, people won’t automatically drive it. Habitants were educated that the way of moving by car is a symbol for higher social class while the bicycle is associated with lower social class. Therefore, the car is the dominant vehicle on the streets and is in conflict with the bicycle, which has to respect the unwritten hierarchy on Las Palmas’ streets. Further, the bicycle required physical effort resulting in sweating, which is socially accepted in gyms and sporty activities but not at work or in daily business. Hence, I found out that for habitants in Las Palmas the good look, including an acceptable fragrance, is very important as it stands for success and professional appearance.
My recommendation for a community mobilization strategy for Las Palmas has been to use a cultural branding strategy as devised by Holt, as the emerging practice of cycling embodies a tension within traffic, which could be resolved by a hip and fashionable bicycle brand to establish the social acceptance of the practice of cycling.

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