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Bettina van Hoven: researcher ‘sans frontieres’

Cultural geographer Van Hoven on research with senior citizens and people with a disability
10 April 2018
Bettina van Hoven: Participative research generates some very valuable information.

Cultural geographer Bettina van Hoven isn’t fazed by frontiers. As a matter of fact, it’s crossing them that interests her. To her mind, the best place to practise science is in the area where different fields meet – in no-man’s land. Van Hoven conducts research for and with senior citizens in the city of Groningen. They are also involved in the actual research process, often conducting interviews themselves.

Texst: Gert Gritter, Communication / photos: Elmer Spaargaren

It’s hardly surprising that Van Hoven thinks boundaries are a pointless, irritating concept when you consider that she is the product of a Dutch father and a German mother. She has dual nationality, switching between cultures and languages without batting an eyelid. But not only between German and Dutch. She has also studied and lived in Plymouth in the south of the UK, but mainly in Canada. Vancouver Island has been a regular destination since she was 17. She did her Bachelor’s project there, worked on a documentary, spent a year living with a host family and now goes back to teach summer schools. Her disregard for frontiers also applies to academic disciplines. She studied biology in Osnabrück (Groningen was a good second option) and Plymouth, but gradually drifted in the direction of geography. Graduating as a biologist, she was awarded a PhD in 1999 as a geographer. She now works at the UG as an Associate Professor of Cultural Geography in the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, but also has a job at the multidisciplinary University College Groningen.

Participative research

Van Hoven is a keen supporter of participative research, a method whereby (you’ve guessed it) a ‘boundary’ is removed; the boundary between research object and research subject. The target group is given an active role in the research project. The concept fitted in perfectly with the municipality of Groningen’s ambition to become an ‘Age-Friendly City’. Fellow-researcher Tine Buffel had already carried out participative research into Age-Friendly Communities in the English city of Manchester: her subjects were elderly local residents, who volunteered to take part. This example inspired Van Hoven and other UG geographers to set up a project with senior citizens in the Groningen district Vinkhuizen. All in all, research carried out for and by the older generation. Van Hoven: ‘The co-researchers help to guide the research; they contribute ideas and help with decisions in the research process, conduct the interviews with other elderly residents and decide how their findings should be relayed to a wider audience. The co-researchers’ local social networks and their knowledge of the area are indispensable. Local senior citizens often find it easier to talk to a familiar face, and as the co-researchers are of the same age, it is easier for them to identify with the accounts given by locals than it is for researchers from the University. Although participative research is a time-consuming business (often referred to as ‘slow science’), it generates some very valuable information.’

Bettina van Hoven
Bettina van Hoven


Another of Van Hoven’s ‘cross-border’ projects is the partnership with Noorderbrug: a specialized institute for people with acquired brain damage, deafness with complex problems, a chronic neurological condition and Huntington’s disease. Van Hoven: ‘My students in Groningen have regular contact with clients from Noorderbrug. They learn about the problems that people with a disability face in the practical situation, and how this can be taken into account in spatial planning. What’s it like being in a wheelchair and wanting to go to the pub? And if you need the toilet? Or if you want to go to a football match and can only get in through the back entrance?’ Students from the Minerva Academy of Art were also involved in this project. Teams comprising a student from the UG, a student from Minerva and a client from Noorderbrug were formed. ‘Artists can help to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. And help to translate images and emotions. This is what makes the project so wonderful, so unique and enriching. A group spirit developed between students and co-researchers, which resulted in interesting initiatives, including several outside ‘work time’. One student, whose hobby was mountain climbing, arranged for a co-researcher to be hoisted up a climbing wall to experience what it was like.’

James Bond

As part of the project described above, one of the teams created an installation featuring blown-up photos of the eyes of Noorderbrug clients. To these young people, seeing and the role that the eyes play are particularly important. Some of the clients can only communicate through a system of eye-tracking. They can tell from the expression in the other person’s eyes what they think of them, if they are avoiding direct eye contact, for example. ‘This photo installation really gave me goose-bumps!’ Another team came up with the idea of making James Bond-type film posters with Noorderbrug clients and students in alternating roles of the baddie, the hero and the ‘damsel in distress’. Van Hoven: ‘They highlighted the role played by perception. Everyone has more than one identity. Take me, for example. I’m a researcher, biologist, geographer, mother, wife, skating coach, Dutch national, German national and so on. I relate to other people in all these different capacities. There’s more that unites us than divides us.’


‘Students are forced out of their comfort zones, which can be very confrontational. They look at reality in a different way and learn to see life from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair. This changes people, and it’s this transformation that fascinates me. We must stop pigeon-holing people, stop noticing arbitrary differences and divisions. Stop thinking: this is how it is because that’s what I’ve been taught. University has its own own way of looking at things, but this isn’t necessarily how the outside world works. A partnership between students/researchers, co-researchers and artists can change the way you think, make you ask different questions and lead to different conversations. And that’s what science is about; this is what I want students to understand.’

A participation day has been organized by the UG and the UMCG on 12 April. Bettina van Hoven will be giving a workshop about the Noorderbrug project.

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Bettina van Hoven

Last modified:11 April 2018 3.35 p.m.
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