Liverpool –
It's all academic

Bluecoat Arts appoints sociologist-in-residence

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“A sociologist walks into an arts centre….” laughed Paul Jones, a senior lecturer in sociology at Liverpool University and newly appointed sociologist-in-residence at Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool. “It may sound like the opening line of a joke, but really it’s an exploration of our shared urban environment and how the buildings, streets and architecture of the city centre change and shape our lives and patterns of behaviour in the process.”

The residency is part of Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary celebrations, and Litherland-born Jones is running a series of public events, including free lectures on cities, with a particular focus on Liverpool, looking at how cities work and change from a sociological perspective.

“It’s pretty much a complete university module that’s free and open to everyone,” said Jones. “But without the stress of writing essays.”

Structural and social change

As Liverpool’s oldest city centre building, Bluecoat has undergone many structural changes but also changes of use, from its opening in 1717 as a charity school to its transformation into the UK’s first arts centre in 1907. “So it’s the perfect location for this kind of experiment,” said Jones. “Bluecoat is a very dynamic, open space right in the heart of the city, but also a stable presence around which Liverpool One has evolved.”

Liverpool has always had a wealthy elite, said Jones, and the lectures explore how the wealthy are able to shape cities, and what constitutes public and private space.

“We are in the midst of a massive experiment with the privatisation of space, and Liverpool has many examples of this with Liverpool One, Liverpool Waters and Albert Dock. For example, the property group Grosvenor has a 250-year lease on Liverpool One and I want to look at the implications of that for the users of those spaces and its buildings.

“I’m trying to explain why and how these changes are happening, and how public space as we understand it not only literally but also metaphorically shrinks. Change can creep up on us and that’s where sociologists come in – we are looking at the way people’s behaviour and attitudes to their environment change as a consequence.

“Many of these changes happen without public scrutiny and we are left with the often unwanted and undemocratic results of those changes. Land can be locked down for a century or more. We need to work hard to defend our public spaces, and there needs to be a political appetite to explore alternatives.”

Jones pointed to community initiatives and co-operatives where space is being collectivised instead of privatised  – such as co-op bakery and community land trust Homebaked, in Anfield – as reasons to be cheerful, however.

The lectures are free and accessible to all who are interested in cities and ways of understanding them. Jones’s residency includes reading groups that explore sociological writings about cities, architectural tours and a blog. In April, a collaboration with Look/17 (Liverpool International Photography Festival) will explore the effects of the rapid growth of Hong Kong and Chinese cities.

A “sociology for kids” day is also planned for the summer, when children and their parents and carers will be involved in helping study the city. “Children don’t come with preconceived ideas,” said Jones. “They see the city with fresh eyes and this day will be a fun way of asking questions about people’s perceptions of their environment.”

The residency will also explore the public role and civic value of an arts centre such as Bluecoat. “The arts – because of their very special nature – create an atmosphere or environment which allows us all to think differently about the world,” said Mary Cloake, chief executive of the Bluecoat. “And at Bluecoat we are constantly seeking new ways to enable people to open up new perspectives.

“The important role of the artist in society is often forgotten, and one of the key questions we will be asking during this residency is how artists can influence the life of cities.”

Cities: A Course in Urban Sociology runs until May – email

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