don’t be a stranger

Last week, Natalie brought home a book of academic geography (her background discipline) — Land of Strangers by Ash Amin.

I’ve only had the chance to glance at it so far. But it looks absolutely fascinating!

As far as I can work out, Amin’s case is that modern Western societies are deeply divided over the stranger.

On the one hand, we feel threatened by strangers.

Strangers evoke emotions from low-level anxiety all the way through to outright terror. In the globalised West, every stranger could be a serial killer or an identity thief — even a terrorist.

On the other hand, we desperately long to stay strangers.

We relish our anonymity. And are fiercely protective of our privacy. Note the public outcry every time Facebook changes its privacy settings — or is rumoured to be changing its settings.

(I still remember how offended I was when I went into the bank to perform some routine transaction only to have the teller wish me Happy Birthday. That is not the kind of relationship I want to have with my bank!)

And when we take steps to reclaim that sense of community we’re so nostalgic for (even if we’ve never actually experienced it), we simultaneously insulate ourselves from it.

So we leave the anonymity of the inner city for the imagined intimacy of a suburban neighbourhood. But then we ‘cocoon’ ourselves — gliding from our air-conditioned houses to our air-conditioned cars to our air- conditioned offices and back again without pausing to be neighbours to anyone.

But I’m not excited to read Land of Strangers primarily because of the light it promises to shed on many aspects of our society.

I’m excited to read it because I’m keen to know why I find it so hard to embrace what the Bible says about strangers.

Whether it’s the biblical insistence that God’s people are to welcome and care for the strangers in their midst — because we too have been/are strangers in a foreign land.

Or if it’s the summons to be true neighbours — not walking past someone in need as the priest and Levite did on the Jericho road but crossing boundaries of social acceptability at great personal cost (just as our Lord graciously did)…

on the way home

Have you ever been asked by a researcher to do a survey, or give an interview, or take a test but been left wondering what on earth they’re researching and where on earth the results have ended up? I have. In fact, I’ve been implicated in research projects that follow that pattern. I want my PhD research to be different!

I have just launched a new blog On The Way Home, that I hope will be an experiment in open-source research. For the next 6-12 months, I’ll be really open about what I’m reading, thinking and what kinds of questions I’m interested in trying to answer about how faith impacts the migration experience.

My hope is that it will provide an opportunity for anyone interested to help shape my project from its inception. Please stop by and help make make sure my research is relevant!

the difficult task of naming

nametag_smlNames are important. Naming the animals was one of the first jobs given to man. Naming a child is one of the first tasks of the new parent. In one of my favourite books, The Wizard of Earthsea, (and probably a few other fantasy novels besides) the true name of a person or thing is a source of great power.

So, the task here is not insignificant: I need help coming up with a name for my draft PhD project proposal. Here’s how the synopsis reads at the moment:

I will investigate the interplay between Christian identity and national identity in constructing a sense of place among migrants in a new host country. Specifically, I will conduct research among migrant Christians from Commonwealth countries living in Britain and examine their local, international and transnational  connections with people and places that have, for them, spiritual significance. I intend to conduct research with migrant churches focusing on how the way they think about nation, place and theology impact their faith communities and their interactions with other faith communities in a new host country.
The objective of this research is to better understand how to encourage uses of place that build on the strengths and commonalities we share in diverse communities to create a more inclusive society, and how to acknowledge and celebrate difference while remaining in community. That is, to understand how to live grounded lives that seek not to ignore difference (either by pretending it does not exist, or demanding that it be erased) but to acknowledge it and strive creatively towards shared community.

 I look forward to your suggestions in the comments section…

In praise of Hans Rosling

Don’t worry, you’re not expected to know who Hans Rosling is. In fact, I don’t know a great deal about him — but what I have seen is truly inspirational. This is a series about great storytellers (c.f. Intro, #1, #2, #3), so I imagine you will laugh when I say this: Hans Rosling is a statistician. 

I work with stats and geographic information systems (GIS, i.e. computerised mapping) and spend a lot of time figuring out how to communicate statistics meaningfully to a non-expert audience. I think a lot about data visualisation.  If I ever acquire the ability to turn statistics into the kinds of stories that Hans Rosling creates I will be a happy woman*. 

He is a miracle worker at using statistics to make sense of (and problematise) commonly articulated narratives about global development. If you have the time, I highly recommend watching the video below (or see another one here). And, thrillingly, you can play with his data visualisation engine here.

So … lies, damned lies, and beautiful stories.

*Note: Chris isn’t the only one who posts here. I do too.

TV science and GIS

I forgive a lot of bad science for the sake of a good story. But sometimes it gets frustrating — so, this offering from PhD Comics gave me a good chuckle.

However, working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), my personal bugbear is anything to do with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and mapping: How do the guys in Num3ers get access to basemaps instantaneously? And why do they never have to enter into conversations about licencing? And don’t get me started on GPS tracking…

If I could add a fifth frame to the comic linked to above, it would look something like this:


As an aside, and for the copyright conscious among you, the map image above is taken from the fabulous British site The People’s Map.  This is a seriously awesome use of crowdsourcing to create free map data for non-commercial use. While you can get map images from Google Maps, the data used to draw those images is still copyright and there’s lots of conditions about how you can use it. In contrast, The People’s Map (or OpenStreetMap) are aiming to generate copyright free layers of lat-long data that you can use on-line or in your own GIS engine and your derived data is copyright free too! Very cool.

I know medicos and lawyers regularly get frustrated by TV representations of their fields — but does anyone else have a TV science pet-hate?