Story by Alessandra Grillo
Throughout my early education and into freshmen year of college, I studied Spanish language and culture. Each textbook assignment and pedantic lecture that passed only crystallized my desire to immerse myself in the vivacious Spanish culture. Ultimately, in order to understand the intricacies of this European cultural hub, I knew I had to venture out and experience this culture first hand. I longed to verbally connect with the natives, share experiences through aperitifs and tapas, and view the picturesque oceanic and ancient roman architectural views.
Fast forward to my 4th year of college, when I had the opportunity to go on a dialogue, I had no hesitation in choosing to sign up for the dialogue titled, “Ethnography and Social Networks in Barcelona and Sevilla.” As a Behavioral Neuroscience major, I did not fully understand what the title entailed, but it was a conduit to experiencing Spain through two culturally- rich cities. What I did not know was that these two sociology courses were going to alternatively inform my understanding of human behavior: not through biological, neurological or physiological means, but through social relationships, and how urban spaces mediate those connections.
The classes were titled “Ethnographic Methods” and “Social Network Analysis,” which were designed in collaboration with universities in both Sevilla and Barcelona. Social Network Analysis was centralized around using network analysis as a qualitative research methodology. We created and analyzed our personal networks, where we designed geographical nodes as to where we met people in our lives, and connected lines between who knew each other between nodes. The strength of your network was correlated to the interconnectedness and abundance of your lines. This can translate into a measure of social support. I personally learned of the strength of my network, such as the connectedness of friends from my hometown with my college network, for example. Additionally, network analysis can be combined with other qualitative strategies to understand the efficacy of a community. From a communal standpoint, we experientially learned about the abundantly strong networks in Sevilla and Barcelona through observing neighborhood dynamics, community coalitions, and information campaigns. This was done through community interviews, group walks, and lectures from university faculty. It was a beautiful process to understand the value Spanish communities put on collaboration to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood.
Ethnographic Methods was my favorite course. This involved taking field notes, where our assignment was to venture into each city to make observations and distinguish patterns that define a cultural aspect of Spain. For me, I had an affinity for observing how members of Spanish communities utilized parks at different times of the day and week. Of the minutiae of observations I made, of importance was the presence of graffiti. However, Spanish graffiti is not pathologized or marked as deviant behavior compared to American graffiti. In fact, the graffiti was intricately designed, had artistic integrity and showed an openly accepted conduit of self- expression. Secondly, Spanish teenagers used parks heavily as a method of social interaction. They often brought cheap cans of “Cruzcampo” beer, guitars, and cigarettes and created rather large gatherings. Police officers maintained a perimeter to make sure nothing was too out of hand, but also kept their distance and allowed “kids to be kids.” If you had brought that same behavior to American parks, law enforcement would have done their due diligence to break up these social interactions.
Essentially, hours of observation turned into a narrative of the Spanish teenage experience: a story of self- expression, socialization, and mutual respect for authoritative figures. They have these beautiful, widespread recreational spaces overlooking waterways to socialize with their environment as a conduit for doing so: a pure instance of how an urban space complements the social dynamic in Spanish teenagers. However, my understanding of urban spaces in Spain did not begin and end in the parks. My wise peers through their own field observations shed light on generational used of public space. Basically, both Sevilla and Barcelona are comprised of wide- open spaces in a series of plazas (plaças in Barcelona). The plazas are comprised of restaurants, stores, and benches aligned around open spaces, all of which are mechanisms that foster social interaction. These spaces are used at multiple times during the day, after the work- day and on the weekends. Residents casually sip on beers, or feast on tapas and pinchos. Consequently, sidewalks are a lot larger and tidied up, another method to moderate social interaction and foot travel to the hundreds of casual dining options in both Sevilla and Barcelona.
Essentially, Spanish cities are designed for you to be outside interacting with your community and fostering important human relationships. There is rich, natural food, colorful music, infectious laughter, perpetual kindness, and apt urban spaces that encourage socialization and self- expression. I admire the opportunity I had to discover these cultural facets for myself, and understand the value that Spain puts on relationships. It was an experience that no textbook or lecture could confer.
I never would have thought that there would be an interconnection between this dialogue and my studies, nor was I intending it to, but ultimately, it taught me how nuanced human behavior is. We are shaped not only by biological principles, but also by psychosocial and environmental circumstances that confer human behavior and design cultural lifestyles.