An ethnography of the Metro on the journey from Whitley Bay to Newcastle over 5 consecutive days.
People enter this contained, constrained and fixed physical space without visibly paying attention to the people or things around them – perhaps subconsciously identifying a seat or a place to stand. People in conversation when they enter may continue that conversation, but often this stops shortly afterwards. Otherwise, there is no verbal interaction beyond an occasional request to sit in an empty seat or to exit when this involves traversing other people’s personal space (and the corresponding acknowledgement). A small sign indicates that the wheelchair area is also reserved for bicycles and prams. When 2 couples with prams block a door side-by-side, their presence is not acknowledged by those sitting next to the door in the designated pram area and the couples don’t ask them to move.
In the morning, many people read the Metro newspaper. Some read physical books or e-reader devices. Many people look at a mobile phone at some point in the journey, approximately half the passengers look at their mobile for most of the journey. Otherwise, people stare blankly ahead or out of the windows. Occasionally, people doze. Some people wear headphones. The headphones, mobiles and reading materials are barriers to communication. There is very little communication between passengers.
There is a concentrated and claustrophobic sense of isolation. One passenger finds this isolation oppressive and intimidating and wishes people “would just talk”. Another jokes: “Talking is a social behaviour. If anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated, does that mean people have to talk to each other on trains? They should enforce this!”. He shows me a photo (fig. 1).
As I commute on the Metro between Whitley Bay and Newcastle, this ethnographic study made me more aware of the people around me and their interactions with things and each other within this space. There was a tension in my participation in that I was consciously trying to avoid drawing attention to my observation. I made notes intermittently on a folded piece of paper and typed them up into a diary-style narrative of my internal thoughts and feelings and my sensory observations after the journey.
Being in a confined and quiet space I was reluctant to talk to people about the people and things around them and interactions between them. I didn’t want to risk offending people I share a space with on an on-going daily basis. I joined conversations as conversations rather than formal interviews and didn’t take notes during the interview or record names or descriptions of my interviewees.
In Newcastle there is a pervasive sense of loneliness. It is something that was raised by the two people I interviewed outside the Urban Sciences Building for the ethnography seminar and a consistent theme of my informal conversations with people in Newcastle. The confined space of a Metro carriage would be an interesting setting to explore this further through interviews and further observations. I would want to record and transcribe interviews and to negotiate the ethics around anonymity and participation with participants themselves in a more formal study.
Author: Matthew Snape