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Hoole, a suburb a mile north of Chester Cross, was lit up for the nineteenth year in a row on Saturday 24th November. From 4pm children had been excitedly visiting Father Christmas in his grotto at the Community Centre and then making lanterns to add to the display at the lights switch on. Just before 6pm Father Christmas made his way down to the stage where he was joined by local children and the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Chester to flick the switch and light up Hoole for another Christmas Season. Local choirs, bands and bell ringers entertained the crowds, and shops with Christmas themed window displays stayed open later than usual. The whole event was covered by Dee 106.3, the local radio station.

You may well be asking: what has this got to do with sociology? The Christmas Lights switch-on may seem unexceptional, but that is what many sociologists do: research the seemingly mundane aspects of daily life.

Sociological studies of local communities were common in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most famous being Young and Wilmot’s Family and Kinship in East London. As a sociologist of community and everyday life and a resident of Hoole, this year I have been a part of the committee organising the switch on and a ‘participant observer’. A form of ethnography, participant observation means that I am both taking part and researching the event at the same time. This type of research has a long sociological history going back to the 1920s in Chicago, USA. By immersing ourselves in the day-to-day activities of those we are observing, participant observers develop an inductive (bottom up) approach rather than the deductive (top down) approach that surveys take.

The lights in Hoole are not paid for or organised by the local council but by the local community and businesses – funded by donations and run entirely by volunteers. What is interesting, sociologically, is how ‘the community’ (already an elusive concept) organises such an event and how it helps to create a particular local identity as a ‘Hooligan’ (person from Hoole). This year a new committee formed just ten weeks before the switch-on date. Key players on the committee were local business owners, residents, many of whom volunteer in other local community organisations, and local councillors.

Now that the main event, the switch-on, has taken place, I am interviewing a number of committee members to find out why they volunteer their time, and often their money, for an event such as this. I will also be talking to all the local shops to find out whether they value the event and feel it is beneficial to their business. And finally, members of the public will be asked to complete a questionnaire on how much they value the event. I will be producing a report on the findings which, if positive, may help the committee to secure funding from a variety of sources in subsequent years.

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