Meet the IPM: Interview with Maarja Kaaristo

© Mike Poloway/+44(0)1618503338 / Canal and River Trust. Rochdale Canal, Manchester City Centre, around Lock 89. 17 April 2016. Volunteer, Maarja Kaaristo.
© Mike Poloway/+44(0)1618503338 / Canal and River Trust. Rochdale Canal, Manchester City Centre, around Lock 89. 17 April 2016. Volunteer, Maarja Kaaristo.

Maarja Kaaristo is a PhD Researcher and an Associate Lecturer at the School of Tourism, Events and Hospitality Management, Manchester Metropolitan University. She is currently researching embodied experiences and everyday life of the leisure boaters on the canals of north-west England. She holds a MA in ethnology from University of Tartu, Estonia and has taught Anthropology of Tourism and Ethnographic Research Methods there. Her main research interests include mobilities, materialites and sensory experiences in (rural) tourism, ethnographic methods and history of European Ethnology. Her most recent publication deals with mundane aspects of water tourism mobilities. When not boating or writing about boating, she is volunteering for Inland Waterways Association and Canal and River Trust.

Maarja Kaaristo, you are currently a PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. What are you working on?

Maarja Kaaristo: I am currently writing up my PhD thesis on holiday and leisure boating on the canals of northern England. It is interesting that while the history of canals in the UK is relatively well researched, especially from the economic and engineering perspective, there are only a few studies on the contemporary use of canals, especially tourism and leisure – which is why I am studying holiday boating on the canals of northern England. I am especially interested in the embodied tourist experiences of the canalscapes – how do the people experience and perceive them in various sensory ways? I am also studying the processes via which various human-material systems and assemblages are formed and practiced: that is, how do the canal boaters engage with their boats as well as the wider environment? What practices and skills need to be enacted in order to be a holiday boater? How does the mobile space of a boat come into being?

How have the canals changed during the course of their history?

Maarja Kaaristo: The canals were extremely important transport links during the Industrial Revolution. However, after the introduction of railways in the Nineteenth Century, they declined in importance until they were mostly abandoned and left in an almost derelict state. Then in the 1960s activists, conservationists and local councils began to take an interest in reviving and restoring the canals, in order to both reclaim the lost heritage they represented, as well as to encourage people to utilise them for leisure purposes. These policies have led to today’s situation, where canals, managed mostly by the Canal and River Trust, are a hive of activity providing an established environment for recreational activities, and a home for many people living on canal boats. You can see the changes in how the public feel about canals in the ever increasing publicity surrounding them. For example, there have been many canal programmes on the television in recent years, which have attracted great number of viewers. Numerous canal travelogues, as well as travel guides, have been published over the last twenty years. And last but by no means least, this process of renewed interest in the canals is also reflected in urban redevelopment, as well as the increased value of canal side properties. For me as a researcher it is very interesting to look at how the canals have been turned from this essentially obsolete transport infrastructure into a public space utilised by a vast number of people, such as boaters, walkers, runners, anglers, cyclists and others. The canals are also spaces where various volunteer groups come together and work to improve this environment even further, which is why I enjoy being on and near the canals not only as a researcher and sometimes holiday boater, but also as a volunteer for Inland Waterways Association and Friends of the Rochdale 9.

You have published on sensescapes in tourism and on aural environments in particular. What is this about?

Maarja Kaaristo: Well, a sensescape is what it suggests: being close to, and appreciating your environment via all of your senses. When thinking about the tourist experience, we often focus upon the visual. But research into the embodied aspects of the tourist experience, the multi-sensoriality of these experiences, is what I aim for. Researching the embodied and sensory in tourism gained momentum after John Urry’s influential idea of the “tourist gaze”, and Soile Veijola’s and Eeva Jokinen’s response to it that brought the tourist body into focus. The sensory in tourist experience can thus be looked at as forming various sensescapes, where the surrounding environment is perceived in multi-sensory ways, something I have studied with Ester Bardone in the Estonian context. At the same time, various senses of course come to the foreground in different situations and can become dominant in each particular situation. For example, sound can become a very important part in a tourism experience, but there is very little research done on it. In rural and farm tourism for example, the aural environment, that tourists often describe as ‘peace and quiet’ can be a critical aspect of the tourist experience. This perceived ‘silence’ (by which people actually often mean the absence of urban sounds) could be regarded as one of the most valuable qualities of environment. My research showed that the tourism entrepreneur is an active agent in the creation of value via mediating particular aural environments to their guests. It is very interesting to see how intangible and atmospheric resources such as sounds can take on economic value.

What is the ‘mundane’ in canal travels and how do tourism and everyday life relate to each other?

Maarja Kaaristo: My interest in the mundane in tourism comes from the fact that for a long time, tourism has been studied as something diametrically opposite to everyday (and work) life. There is a great body of studies that have argued for a fundamental contrast between work and tourism. This is of course true to a certain extent – when travelling, we experience something different from our regular everyday environment and this is obviously one of the motivations for tourism. However, in our contemporary world it is often not as easy to distinguish work from leisure anymore. The fast advancement of ICT for example has made it possible to work remotely, or to engage in practices of virtual tourism while physically at workplace. In addition, one has to keep in mind that there is more to tourism than just extraordinary moments of joy and self-discovery. While we travel, we also sit on the train for hours, wait for a bus, prepare food, take care of children, wait in the queues, etc. Following works by Tim Edensor and Orvar Löfgren, I am interested exactly in those mundane activities that happen between the exciting tourist moments – you know, the ones you tend to see on Facebook and Instagram! In tourism management and hospitality studies, the supporting experiences such as accommodation, food and transport, are all well researched of course; however, we lack more phenomenological studies on the individual experience of mundane tourist activities. Based on my fieldwork on holiday and leisure boating in Northern England, I am exploring how mundanity comes into being in tourist spaces, which is the focus of my and Steven Rhoden’s recent paper. I see these mundane activities as both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and as integral elements of the co-production of the tourist boatspace.

You are a member of the Institute of Place Management. How do you think the IPM support your work?

Maarja Kaaristo: I really enjoy being a member of the IPM since this gives me an opportunity to engage in discussions with colleagues from various disciplines. It is always good to come out of your comfort zone a bit and engage in multidisciplinary conversations of looking at similar empirical topics from very diverse theoretical perspectives. I also really like and appreciate the fact that the institute’s work is both theoretically driven as well as having a very strong applied perspective. I really enjoyed the last IPM Research seminar in May 2016, both for the impressive variety of the presentations and great topics as well as the short and sharp presentation format. We are also now starting an IPM space and place reading group for both PhD and early-career researchers. There are some very interesting texts in store that I cannot wait to (re)read, so I am really looking forward to that!