Approaching the Field: Dérive

Lukas Grellmann

»On the Veddel, during our first dérive, the first thing we noticed was that people from different cultures don’t sit together, even in public and open spaces they don’t connect, there is no link between them.« Hebatullah Hendawy

How can researchers explore urban space without merely following pre-defined problem-definitions and avoiding stereotypes and clichés to affect their research? This theoretical question and its implications for practice led to the methodological question of how researchers can explore urban space and develop research interests relying on personal analyses and experiences within and of the area rather than following prevalent problem-definitions right from the beginning. Can researchers identify potentials but also challenges of urban neighbourhoods that add to commonly accepted knowledge? Can they do so by looking at the area with little prior knowledge and an interdisciplinary approach?


To find answers for these questions, the dérive was used as an experimental method to explore the neighbourhood and accordingly develop research questions for projects concerned with the neighbourhood. Taking the dérive-concept of ‘drifting’ literally – ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ (Debord, 1958) – participants were not provided with any input about the areas we were going to study, and explicitly left to explore the area unprepared. The groups were only asked to collect any kind of information they found worthwhile. These impressions were discussed within the working groups and later presented to the whole group. All this information gave an overview on the area’s urban context and triggered research questions that guided the groups’ further neighbourhood research.
Using the dérive as a method meant that the working groups only received instructions about where and how to enter the research area, how to get to the starting point and where to arrive. How to find their way to the destination, what to look for and how to orient themselves was left to the working group members. The only given task was to precisely document any detail that appeared to be important or distinctive for the research area and to bring photos and videos or any physical object to illustrate their dérive experiences. While working group members got to know each other they were equally confronted with new and different perspectives on urban space, depending on the respective interdisciplinary and intercultural formation of the each group.
Each group used information from their dérives and plenary sessions to generate a common research topic. Further research focused on these emerging, more specific topics. The participants were asked to bring into a dialogue their various professional skills in order to conduct a neighbourhood analysis from an interdisciplinary perspective by using different methods according to the different backgrounds and tools available in each working group. As a means of generating a common research topic within the working groups, the dérives served as “idea-generators” as the groups collected information without any pre-set restrictions or problem-definitions or even predefined research questions. To the contrary: to develop the research questions was precisely the aim of the dérives.
The workshop began with a derive, starting at the Landungsbrücken through the Old Elb Tunnel (the old tunnel under the River Elbe) and the harbour area. The participants were expected to arrive one way or another at the University of the Neighbourhoods (UdN), located in the Reiherstiegquartier on the Veddel. This walk was characterised by three main phases. The Old Elb Tunnel with its long, straight and narrow tube generated a dramaturgy towards the Island of Wilhelmsburg (on which the Veddel is situated) and created a certain curiosity about what will be reached on the other side. Coming out of the tunnel, reality retrieved us. Not really pedestrian-friendly, an industrial area with restricted access for the public forms a long corridor, leaving hardly any possibility to walk but straight ahead. We walked between warehouses, cranes and trucks, the walls and fences on both sides. The third important situation arose just after leaving behind the forbidding harbour area with its restricted access. Attracted by the first building, a single remaining house of an art nouveau block structure, we started a conversation with an old lady who had been living there all her life, for almost 70 years. As she knew a lot about the place, its people and the waves of changes and transformations, she became a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ for us and introduced us to the island of Wilhelmsburg.

The methods we used for this workshop reflected the dynamics of the process. Our work took many turns, shifted, experienced turbulences and blurred the lines until we reached something more concrete that we were able to work with. This situation emerged due to a lack of information, wrong and greater expectations, the short time available and different and conflicting points of view. The journey from the vague beginnings to a more focused perspective required a constant reflection and adaptation of the methods we used in order to address the respective aspects we were interested in and came across. A wide range of methods and approaches was deployed to serve the advancement of work. Since we were perfect strangers to the area we had to familiarise ourselves with the island. We chose an experiential approach following the Situationists’ dérive, the randonnée and rambling-moving-walking-seeing-feeling-hearing-experiencing. Experiential approaches such as these characterised the first few days. We had to search for a research interest and develop guiding questions, which was not an easy task given the different perspectives and backgrounds as well as due to the fact that we only knew little about the neighbourhood. We continued with another dérive on the Veddel in order to get a first hand experience of the research area.

  • The dérive started at 2.26 p.m. with a cab ride to the end of Haulander Weg. From there we walked to the south, passed an apple orchard adjacent to the highway and took a coffee break at Wilhelmsburger Hof. We met the owner of the place who collects bottle-openers. His collection counts 11.000 bottle-openers. After this impressive meeting we walked through an industrial area dominated by a large number of parked trucks and lorries until we saw people walking on the streets. We followed them and reached an intersection with apartment buildings in the west. From there we walked through the neighbourhood until we heard the sound of children playing. We stepped into the backyard and watched them playing football between the buildings. Continuing through the neighbourhood, we finally arrived at the bunker next to UdN at 6.25 p.m. [Collective Spaces]

  • Our study started with a dérive in Willhemsburg that led us through some allotment gardens where we noticed the mix of symbolism, personal identification, and territorial arrangements and their role in identifying the community’s social organization. These issues were highlighted once more as we took our second dérive, this time in the isolated neighbourhood of the Veddel. We noted several attempts of territorialising and controlling the neighbourhood based on behavioural patterns or nationality, as well as symbols of personal or national identification. [Barrier]