Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Interview

"If We’re Not Out in Public, Then We’re Not Negotiating Difference": Interview with Sophie Watson

Anya Pearson


Forest Simon

| 7 mins read

Sophie Watson is Professor of Sociology at the Open University. Her research tackles feminist theory, cities and the politics of public space. Her book City Publics: the (dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters uses photographs, drawings and field research to explores the boundaries of the public realm and re-imagine public space as a site of encounter and difference. Anya Pearson talks to Watson about water as a site of struggle, touching on her latest book City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements of Urban Water. Reflecting on Watson's analysis in City Publics in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, they then explore the detrimental effects of social distancing on civic life and equality of access to city spaces during Covid-19.

Anya Pearson: What made you decide to study water as a cultural object? 

Sophie Watson: There’s a lot work done on water from the geographical or technological perspective, but having worked on public space, I started noticing how important water was. I guess it really started through living in North London and going to the women's pond in Hampstead Heath. It always struck me that the diversity of women who used that pond was fascinating – there are women from many different minority groups. How does water make it possible for people to be in public space in different kinds of ways? Nobody has really written about that.  

AP: ‘City Water Matters’ is purposefully a very fluid book and isn't meant to be read in a linear way. What was the process for writing it? 

SW: I’ve always written fairly serendipitously, a fairly odd way! I see myself as an urban ethnographer, and the city is my text. It's been an iterative process. I started thinking about the ponds, and a huge campaign to prevent one of them from being dammed. I found it interesting that a piece of water could mobilise political action, and found that what laid behind this mobilisation was affect; the way people passionately relate to water. 

I then started doing a lot of historical work on the Thames, thinking about how the meanings of the Thames, and our connections with it, have changed over time. For example, mud-larking used to be an activity that mainly poor women did to get the odd coin from the river, but it's now become a leisure activity. There are different sorts of meanings attached to different bodies of water. Similarly, there is a chapter about the religious uses of water. Once you start thinking about it, water's everywhere. 

AP: You write that water is "deeply political, implicated in relations of power". Thinking about Roger Deakin's book Waterlog, what place does wild, or urban outdoor, swimming have in this framework?

SW: In a way, it's about individual rights – who can use water in what way. Water should be free; it’s a public good. But then the state starts to intervene and says 'winter swimming isn’t safe" or "wild urban swimming isn’t safe because people will drown". So it raises really interesting questions about risk, and how risk is managed by the state. Water can be seen as dangerous. For others, it’s freeing! Who gets to define risk? 

An awful lot of politics is about the conflict between bodies claiming space. Everybody occupies space, but the person occupying space displaces the person not occupying it. Water has become a vehicle for that struggle. 

AP: In your book City Publics, you write that "Living with difference is probably the defining feature of urban life. Public space allows us to mix with others who are different from ourselves, and gives space for the ongoing debates, arguments, resolutions and shifts that will inevitably ensue". But right now, with the global Covid-19 pandemic, mixing in public is now seen as a threat to the health of the city. What are the consequences that you predict for city life? 

SW: The individualisation that this has produced is super worrying. As I argue in all my work, differences are part of life, implicated in relations of power, and negotiated with some sort of 'unsettled settlement'. It’s never going to be fixed. Sometimes it's agonistic and sometimes it’s not, but it's only when power is abused to eradicate difference that it becomes a problem. 

If we’re not out in public, then we’re not negotiating difference. We are just closing ourselves down in spaces where we don’t have to deal with difference at all. We’re all getting a bit used to it – turning on a screen and turning it off. When you're not in the same space, you don't have to deal with difference.

Social distancing feels very uncomfortable. Partly why we live in cities is the pleasure of mixing with other people. I love the diversity of cities. But I'm now completely cut off from that.

AP: Your writing on older people is very poignant. You say: “The perception of danger – real or imagined – can trap older people into the private sphere, reinforcing their isolation and the sense of public space as a space belonging to others – and most particularly youth”. Are you concerned about the disempowering effect of lockdown – again driven by danger and risk management – on older people’s civic life?

SW: The inequality in public space is really worrying. Young people have little chance of getting Covid-19 that badly, so already public spaces are being occupied by younger people. It's not that comfortable for older people to socialise outside, for example. Will we get to a future where there are only young people in public space? It's the same with online spaces, which some people find intimidating. 

AP: Coronavirus presents a huge city planning challenge for the future: what principles would you like to see put at the heart of the state’s approach?

SW: If you really are starting to restrict people, the only solution will mean a restricting of resources. For example, with Lidos open, they aren't able to have the same number of people there. But if you’re going to restrict access then you need to share those restrictions across the different groups in society. It's also going to be important to think about how different types of people, for example those who are frail or are disabled, are being marginalised.