Scholars' Association News
Issue 40
November 2016


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Athens Social Atlas

The Athens Social Atlas is a website featuring text and audio-visual materials about the social structures and processes that constitute the Greek capital. It’s also an ever-evolving programme because the producer’s intention is for the Atlas to evolve and be systematically updated over the years to come. It has already garnered considerable interest with more than 27,000 hits and over 18,000 unique visitors within just a few months. In fact, one in five of those visits is from abroad.

The Atlas primarily draws material from recent and past research, since the aim is to offer scientifically documented information. Yet it is not just a mere list of data and description of conditions. The texts on the site express views and interpretations about the phenomena observed.

Quality is ensured by an editorial board which dedicates the necessary time to constantly expand the Atlas, operating on the basis of specific, transparent rules when it comes to choosing new materials. The Atlas differs from older social atlases created in Greece from the 1960s onwards because it is exclusively digital and wholly online (which is to say it will never appear in hard copy). The intention is to exploit the internet’s potential to the full. That means that the Atlas will be constantly added to and updated with new material; with new chapters being added all the time and users being informed regularly about recent additions.

The idea came about as part of another programme about Athens, which also happened to be supported by the Onassis Foundation. The Foundation immediately accepted the idea, and over time the Atlas became a stand-alone programme. In addition to the Onassis Foundation, agencies involved in producing the Atlas include the Harokopio University’s Department of Geography and the École Française d’Athènes, though the National Centre for Social Research and the Hellenic Statistical Authority ELSTAT have made major –albeit indirect– contributions. The key players in the overall effort though are the countless authors who have contributed texts to the Atlas and all those who will do so in the future.

The Atlas today consists of 62 chapters written by 74 authors in 2 languages (Greek and English), and 15 new chapters are currently being readied for publication. There are also introductory texts about the project and its authors, detailed instructions for new authors who want to contribute, and various methods of communication are offered for anyone interested in receiving updates about new entries.

The chapters/entries have been classified into 15 topics: History, Politics, Economy, Housing, etc. In terms of structure, the Atlas resembles an encyclopaedia or dictionary of Athens (rather than a book with a beginning, middle and end). There are three different ways of searching the subject matter as one navigates around the Atlas, corresponding to different ways of using the materials.

The Atlas covers a diverse range of topics. The initial social divisions in the city as it shifted from Ottoman Athens to the Athens of the modern Greek state; the areas where various professional classes lived in the 19th century and early 20th century; a description of a Turkish military map from 1827 which was recently made public; texts about specific neighbourhoods in the city such as Kypseli, Anafiotika, Metaxourgio and Gazi; urban farming practices and solidarity practices; the impact of the crisis revealed by mapping closed shops and abandoned buildings; the city’s buildings and in particular apartment buildings erected using the part-exchange system, population distributions by income across the city’s various areas, the spatial allocation of cardiovascular diseases, and many other topics are addressed in the Atlas’ diverse entries.

The Atlas’ utility
On the issue of the Atlas’ utility, the key aim is to gather together up-to-date research and views about social structures and processes in the city in an easily, quickly accessible location. The academic community and anyone researching these issues are clearly the initial potential target group. But it is not limited just to them. As a source of well-documented information, the Atlas can also be useful for local government officials, journalists, politicians, students, high school pupils, and any citizens interested in the society of the city they live in.

But since the Atlas isn’t just a source of well-documented information but also a forum of discussion, its utility goes much further, creating a locus for properly showcasing the city’s issues that should be on central government, local government and civic society’s agenda.

At the same time, the fact that the Atlas is also available in English –and soon in French– means that its potential utility is even greater, and could prove useful to curious tourists visiting Athens not just for sun and sea, to researchers seeking out comparative materials or Greek experts for use in joint research projects.

Moreover, since Athens –internationally speaking– isn’t as well-known as city as London, Paris or New York, well-documented information about it offers knowledge that until now was scattered among specialised academic publications to which only few had access. The knowledge isn’t intended only for the outside world but also for residents of the city, who often fall into the trap of interpreting what happens in the city and acting based on dominant trends in well-known megacities, even though it is often a quite distorted way of looking at things.

More comprehensive knowledge of the city’s social reality is vital to defend and develop the social relations we want to see dominate our day-to-day lives. So, if we don’t know the social function of the apartment building built using the part-exchange system (which favours different social groups living together) and we only focus on its limited aesthetic value, then we can easily want to get rid of such apartment buildings, if possible in practical and financial terms. Such changes could radically alter the city’s social life in ways that are not always obvious.

Better knowledge about social structures and processes in the city can help protect and improve the social atmosphere and avoid dystopias, which are often the necessary price of economic growth. Better knowledge is also a condition for democratic decision-making about the city’s future.

(Thomas Maloutas is Professor of Social Geography at the Harokopio University)

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