Merlijn Michon & Feye van Olden: 'Community Calculus: making neighbourhoods add up'
Merlijn Michon graduated in Cultural Anthropology in 2003 Feye van Olden graduated in Cultural Anthropology in 2005
Feye van Olden and Merlijn Michon both studied Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Having graduated in different years, the two met during a freelance engagement for ING Bank and enjoyed collaborating so much that they started their own consultancy: Bureau Wijkwiskunde.
Merlijn: ‘I started out studying art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, but though the programme was great, it lacked the philosophical dimension I wanted. So I switched to Anthropology, thinking to build a more reflective knowledge of society. It wasn't what I'd expected, even a bit dull at first. But after the first year it got more interesting, especially once I realised that I could do anthropology right here in the Netherlands too, just around my own – multicultural – corner.
There's plenty of fieldwork you can do in here, studying asylum seekers' centres, for example, or the identity of a neighbourhood.’
Feye: ‘In Rotterdam, where I grew up, I dropped out of the elitist, white secondary school I was attending and ended up at the “day and night school”, where I encountered other cultures. That was amazing.
In Geography we had to read an introduction to Anthropology and that interested me so much that I decided to major in anthropology. I looked at the programmes in Utrecht, Leiden and Amsterdam, but as soon as I visited Amsterdam and the Spinhuis, where the study was based then, I was sold. It was just the right fit.’
Merlijn: ‘After graduating I assumed I'd get a job as an anthropologist at a company or institution in the Netherlands. But that turned out to be easier said than done. The places I applied to tended to want candidates with a more concrete degree. That's when I decided to start freelancing.
One of my projects was for the ING Bank and the Design Academy Eindhoven and involved a new think tank where six designers and two anthropologists would be working together to tackle three issues. The issues concerned ING's procedures on cultural sponsoring, job applications and their customer and business relations. We worked together very well as a team with the designers and my fellow anthropologist Feye van Olden, and the results of our research, our conclusions and recommendations were well received. That proved to me that you can make your career as an anthropologist in the Netherlands.’
Feye: ‘I wasn't focused so much on the Netherlands at first. My real fascination was for distant cultures. I spent four years working in districts and neighbourhoods in Central America and Africa. Doing my own research, immersing myself in fieldwork, talking to and interviewing local people – that's what I most love to do. As a student I lived in Guatemala for a while, did research in neighbouring Belize and wrote my thesis on the Garifuna, an ethnic community there, and specifically on how they've been affected by tourism and their evidently vanishing culture. After graduating, my girlfriend (also an anthropologist) and I moved to Malawi for three years. There I worked at a youth prison, set up cultural centres and worked in the tourism industry, among other things. Back in the Netherlands, I came into contact with the ING Bank and Design Academy Eindhoven and was asked to take part in the project in which I met Merlijn.’
Making neighbourhoods add up
Merlijn: ‘After finishing the ING/DAE project, we decided to continue working together. That's how our agency Bureau Wijkwiskunde [Numerical Neighbourhoods, ed.] was born. Apart from the anthropological dimension, it was a real eye-opener to collaborate with other disciplines and thereby come to grips with and analyse problems faster. Photography, design, graphic design, landscape architecture and so on can all contribute to research and projects aimed at improving neighbourhoods.’
Feye: ‘Our agency concentrates on the divide between the city as it's planned and the city as it's experienced. Sometimes there's a total lack of insight into the problems within an urban district, or sometimes the insight is there, but no one's coming up with a solution. Our aim is to get a clear handle on these aspects using fieldwork and anthropological research methods such as participant observation, open and other types of interviews, recording life stories and visual anthropology (photography and film). We not only talk to residents, but also to policymakers and interest groups and then seek to furnish insight into the different living environments. Our methods enable public officials to get a sense of important issues in the community, while residents find out which policy changes will or could be effected in their neighbourhood.’
Merlijn: ‘One of our first projects concerned the basic identity of an urban regeneration district, Doornakkers in Eindhoven. Where it had once been a place where everyone knew each other, that sense of growing, working and doing business together had disappeared. Unemployment was a big problem, also among local youth. The hobby centre for seniors – who were mostly former DAF employees – housed a range of facilities that offered all sorts of opportunities for work-to-learn projects. We advised the municipality and the local housing association to tap into the experience they had at this hobby centre. That led to a project that paired unemployed youth with DAF retirees who could share a lifetime's experience working in the metal industry,
thereby enabling two different generations to learn from each other right in the middle of this regeneration district.’
Feye: ‘Strange enough, policymakers sometimes fail to look at what's actually happening in their district. They never go there. We've developed various methods to crystallise problems and opportunities. For example, we use pictorial maps of a district that pinpoint community anchors to forge links between knowledge, policy, potential and physical spaces, which then offers avenues for improving the entire district.’
Merlijn: ‘We make sure to be realistic. Sometimes local problems are difficult to solve. That can lead to an entrenched negative image that can only be changed by getting different sides to share the same vision. We approach this by using innovative mathematical methods. If you go around older urban districts in particular and keep an ear to the grapevine you can pick up certain refrains that carry a message about issues in the community. That's another anthropological method you can use to drill down to the heart of a problem and analyse it. As consultants we want to build a bridge between different parties; residents should feel heard and be enabled to show what they can achieve, while our clients are given the information and insights they need to take concrete steps, for example to strengthen the identity and image of a neighbourhood, square or street.’
Merlijn: ‘I'd actually always wanted to start my own business as an anthropologist and am very happy with this choice. Studying Anthropology helped enable me to do that. I particularly enjoyed the Visual Anthropology and fieldwork modules, and I use what I learned there on a daily basis.’
Feye: ‘I'd always wanted to do something involving research and applying it. The Methods and Techniques course was very valuable and we still draw on it. Other topics in the curriculum that particularly interested me were “inclusion and exclusion processes” and “social movements”.’
Merlijn: ‘As an Anthropology student, you don't have to look far to find a research subject and have that grow into a fantastic initiative.’
Feye: ‘Explore topics in your own neighbourhood; the field of an anthropologist can lie just around the corner and anthropologists can be excellent community builders.’
Merlijn: ‘Organise small-scale initiatives yourself – everything is possible, and DIY is hot!’
Read more about Bureau Wijkwiskunde, their current projects and work placement opportunities on: http://www.wijkwiskunde.nl/