What do we mean by reanimating?: Locating the methodology

Rachel Thomson

In this blog post Rachel Thomson locates our idea of ‘reanimating data’ within a wider methodological landscape and literature, twisting together three methodological threads: the vitality of data; an archival turn within the social sciences and creative approaches to working with time in the research process. The blog identifies the key components of a reanimating approach and points to further reading.

Data – dead and alive

One important element of contemporary social science methodological discussion concerns how we engage with what Adkins and Lury (2009) call a ‘post-empirical’ moment for sociology (see also McLure and others on a post qualitative moment) – that involves stepping away from separating the methods of documentation that we engage with and the data generate this data. This moment is informed by a number of different strands of thought including feminist methodologies which have critiqued the view from nowhere associated with modern scientific paradigms understanding knowledge as situated and agency as relational (for example Haraway 1988, Barad 2007); posthuman approaches associated with science and technologies studies such as John Law’s 2004 After Method which argues simply that methods produce the realities that they seek to understand; and the embrace of a reinvigorated relationship with these data that recognises their vitality and communicative possibilities as laid out for example in Back and Puwar’s manifesto for ‘Live methods’ (2012).

The motif of ‘liveness’ as opposed to deadness is a recurring theme in contemporary discussions of methods, denoting the need to remember that research itself is an embodied social practice involving relationships, feelings and collaborations. The motif of aliveness also connects us to the posthuman notion that agency may not be simply the preserve of people, but for example that documents, objects and data may have agency in their own right. For example Les Back’s account of ‘live sociology’ uses the dead / alive binary to counterpose intrusive empiricism, objectifying practices and zombie concepts with vitalities that transcend human/ objects as captured by new materialism. Dead sociology is objectifying, comfortable, disengaged and parochial. More recently, and in a similar vein Ellingson and Sotorin (2020) call for a sense of academic playfulness that has the capacity to inject new life into what might feel like tired methodological debates. Key motifs in their account include ‘livelineness’, ‘messiness’, ‘data on the move and on the make’, ‘becoming with data’ – which they oppose to notions of dead data and zombie methods.

This ‘re-enchantment’ of data also extends to discussions of data linkage and working with data archives. So, for example Lisa Blackman works with a notion of ‘haunted data’ as a way of exploring hybrid forms of aliveness and deadness made possible by digital methods and transmedia data linkage, suggesting that ‘It is through the connecting up of fragments across space and time that a new collective story-telling machine can and could take form’ (2019: 177). In a Maryanne Dever’s collection on new feminist archive methodologies, Marika Cifor uses the terms ‘animacy’ (‘a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveliness 2012:2) to argue for an understanding of archives as ‘vigorous and changeable’ rather than as ‘static, dusty, and the collectors of dead things and past times’… a space, set of practices, site of intervention’ (2019: 18).

In our approach we use the idea of reanimation – in recognition that there is and always was life in data but also, that in new encounters and entanglements with these materials new things can happen.

The data are out there – an archival turn for the social sciences

The idea that data may already be ‘out there’ and that our engagement with these data can be a site of creativity and novelty has taken some time to evolve within the social sciences and is shaped by the divisions between qualitative and quantitative paradigms that continue to structure the field. Within qualitative approaches there has been considerable resistance to practices of data archiving and re-use, despite official policy inciting these approaches with the deposit and sharing of data sets becoming a condition of public funding and the review of existing data sets a requirement for new proposals. Encouraged by investments in longitudinal qualitative research, the qualitative research community has engaged with what it might mean to work with documents generated by others considering what it might mean to assemble materials from different studies and rethinking the relationship between the original context of a study and the new moments and contexts when such data may be revisited (see for example Hughes et al. 2020). These discussions form part of a wider interest in temporal methods within sociology, that includes revisiting studies, longitudinal approaches and an engagement with archival sources as part of a historical sociology (McLeod & Thomson 2009 for overview). In an important intervention in the field ‘The Archive Project’ (2017) Niamh Moore explains that ‘social science struggles to imagine its own archive’ (149) and this includes ‘the sometimes fraught debate over archiving and (re)using data’ which has ‘compounded this ambivalent relationship’ with archives (149). Moreover, ‘archival research does not appear as one of the sites of innovation in the social sciences’ (149) – often more concerned with questions of access and confidentiality that the potential for knowledge and methodological renewal that they might promise.

Debates within sociology have felt removed from wider interdisciplinary discussions associated with an archival turn, which itself has been fuelled by new possibilities offered by digital methods including a democratisation of collecting and sharing associated with community and everyday archives (Bastian & Flinn 2019, Beer & Burrows 2013, Withers 2015, Eichhorn 2013). In fact, it is spaces where community and academic interests coincide that much of the new wave of interest in archives can be found, including exploring how the re-use of materials from the past might make sense in the present – for example in areas such as black archives; queer archives; feminist archives; and archives as a source of evidence in political struggles. Importantly, archives may operate as effective points of shared interest for different knowledge communities, what Moore (2016), drawing on the writings of Susan Leigh Star, characterises as a ‘boundary object’, shared yet understood in unique ways by different stakeholders, with academics brokering essential access to the resources necessary for preservation and findability for these resources. For DM Withers the feminist archive is our ‘already there’, ‘a field of inheritance’ that demands care and keeping alive ‘through practices of exchange across generations’ – in a way that recognises ‘psychic links between generations’ and the potential of a continuous transgenerational flow/imaginary that is concealed by metaphors of  waves ( 20-21, 28). For Moore and colleagues, this kind of work demands a new ‘inventive ethic of care-full risk’ that is more responsive and less prescriptive than the kinds of approaches to ethical practice in social science that have become institutionalised.

We see our work as an intergeneration sociological endeavour, connecting feminist researcher-activists over time within a tradition which is porous and inclusive both in the past and the present.

Rewilding methods – unleashing creativity and unleashing time

The question of how we might engage with archived materials is perhaps one of the main stumbling blocks to social researchers interested in the re-use of the rich data sources that are available to them. Approaches range from large scale data mining approaches that connect data sets (Edwards et al 2021 to smaller scale (often place based) initiatives in which the specificity of data fragments operates as a starting point for engagement with new communities of interest (Lyon & Crow 2012, Moore et al 2022 forthcoming). Questions of how data might be matched across samples, or what it might mean to compare data from the past and present rattle the cage of social science methodologies still reliant on underpinning epistemologies of sampling.

In thinking through how we might work with archived materials we have turned to work in the field of queer temporalities, in particular Beth Freeman’s Time Binds which points to the potential or creative and imaginative methods for exploring thinking about the materiality of archival documents and the ways that they can connect past and present.  The idea of the ‘time bind’ provides a way into a rich vein of creative methodology. Drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Freeman conceptualises the time bind as ‘achronic correspondences’ (2010: 126) connections between past and present that facilitate antinarrative leaps across time achronic correspondences’. Time binds involve mimetic connections with affective resonance – and when staged within meaningful intergenerational relations these can conjure a sense of ‘afterwardness’ – belated understanding, potential to relive a past she could not live at the time’. Although focused on the past such methods ask us to imagine the future ‘in terms of experiences that discourse has not yet caught up with, rather than as a legacy passed on between generations’ (84). For Freeman Time Binds are found in literary and cinematic works, in the form of homage, pastiche and other kinds of ‘temporal drag’. The perfect match imagined by the social sciences is not a focus, instead the impossibility of matching like with like is understood as generative through an embrace of anachronism – variously conceptualised as ‘habitus out of joint’ and ‘chronotopic disjunctiveness’ (6) that ‘unsituate viewers from the present tense they think they know.’ (61). Freeman seeks a ‘method of literally feeling the historical’ (93), focusing on allegory as a literary form that allows ‘the telling of an older story through a new one’, ‘suturing two times but leaving both visible’ (69).

The methods through which such encounters are possible are participatory and creative. Here we might point to Lyon and Carabelli’s work with contemporary youth on the Isle of Dogs, encountering the archives of Ray Pahl and the imagined futures of their predecessors (Lyon & Carabelli 2016). We might also take up Ellingston and Sorotins (2020) idea of ‘palpating data’ and ‘following data’s lead’ through the staging of data engagement or sense events. The evocation of time itself through an encounter with archival traces is something also suggested by Adkins in her discussion of archives as a site of speculative research. While such sources can attune us to ‘the pastness of data’ they also attune us to ‘the capacities of recorded data itself’, allowing ‘time to emerge as a key object of investigation’, ‘a form of time .. [that] is incomplete, not-yet known, and stands in a possible or not yet relationship to the future and the present it inhabits.’ (Adkins 2017:117). In a similar vein Kate Eichhorn suggests that archives can ‘produce a space to imagine an encounter that otherwise may have remained unimaginable’ (61), offering the idea of ‘archival proximity … the uncanny ability to occupy different temporalities and to occupy temporalities differently, thereby collapsing the rigidly defined generational and historical logics that continue to be used to make sense of feminist politics and theory’ (61). By inviting research participants and audiences to encounter, engage with, revoice and rework words, ideas and feeling captured in research encounters of the past we can open new spaces which allow something new to be experienced and articulated, in ways that escape the well-worn narratives generally available to us (McGeeney et al. 2018, Perrier & Withers 2016).

In our approach the idea of the time-bind – the meaningful connection between past and present is important, as is a playful and irreverent approach to ‘data’ enabling the opening of spaces through which authentic connections can be made, and through the ‘cover’ of this kind of temporal drag, new insights may be forged.

The What, How and Who of Reanimating Data

WHAT: Re-animation as a term which captures the liveness of the original data and the possibilities of making this available to new audiences in new contexts to be animated in new ways.

HOW: The archive as a shared boundary object with the potential for critical pedagogy. Time-binds as ways of feeling history and connect past-present-future

WHO: Working with an intergenerational tradition/community – feminist activist researchers. Playful approaches to working with data with contemporary audiences

References and further reading

Adkins, L. (2017) ‘Sociology’s archive: mass observation as a site of speculative research’, in A. Wilkie, M. Savransky, & M. Rosengarten (eds) Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures, Routledge.

Adkins L. & Lury C. Introduction: What Is the Empirical? European Journal of Social Theory. 2009;12(1):5-20.

Back, L. & Puwar, N. (2012) Live Methods, Wiley Blackwell/ The Sociological Review.

Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, North Carolina:Duke University Press.

Bastian, J., Flinn, A. (eds.) (2019) Community Archives, Community Spaces: Heritage, Memory and Identity , 2nd edition, Facet

Beer D. & Burrows R. (2013) Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data. Theory, Culture & Society. 30(4):47-71.

Blackman, L. (2019) Haunted Data: Affect, Transmedia, Weird Science. London: Bloomsbury.

Crow, G. & Ellis, J. (eds) (2017) Revisiting Divisions of Labour: The Impacts and Legacies of a Modern Sociological Classic, Manchester University Press.

Dever, M. Ed (2019) Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research, Routledge

Edwards, R., Davidson, E., Jamieson, L. (2021) Theory and the breadth-and-depth method of analysing large amounts of qualitative data: a research note. Qual Quant 55,1275–128.

Eichhorn, K. (2013) The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ellingson, L. & Sotorin, P. (2020) Making Data in Qualitative Research: Engagements, Ethics & Entanglement. London: Routledge .

Freeman, Elizabeth (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives”, Feminist Studies 14: 575–599.

Hughes, K. & Tarrant, A. (eds) (2020) Qualitative Secondary Analysis, London: Sage.

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, London: Routledge.

Lyon, D. and Crow, G. (2012) The challenges and opportunities of re-studying community on Sheppey: Young people’s imagined futures. Sociological Review. Blackwell, pp. 498-517

Lyon, D. and Carabelli, G. (2015) Researching Young People’s Orientations to the Future: The Methodological Challenges of Using Arts Practice. Qualitative Research. Sage, pp. 1-16.

McGeeney, E, Robinson, L, Thomson, R and Thurschwell, P (2018)  The cover version: researching sexuality through ventriloquism. In: Boyce, P, Cornwall, A, Frith, H, Harvey, L, Yingying, H and Morris, C (eds.) Sex and Sexualities: Reflections on Methodology. Zed Publishing, pp150-172. McLeod, J. & Thomson, R. Researching Social Change: Qualitative Approaches, London: Sage.

Moore, N., Dunne, N., Karels, M. & Hanlon, M. (2021) Towards an Inventive Ethics of Carefull Risk: Unsettling Research Through DIY Academic Archiving. Australian Feminist Studies, vol 36. DO  – 10.1080/08164649.2021.2018991-

Moore, N; Salter, A, Stanley, L and Tamboukou, M (2017) The Archive Project: Archival research in the Social Sciences. Routledge.

Moore, N., Thomson, R. & McGeeney, E. (2022 forthcoming) ‘Putting place back into the patriarchy through rematriating feminist research: the WRAP Project, feminist webs and reanimating data’ In J McLeod, K O’Connor, A McKernan (eds.), Temporality and Place in Educational Research (Routledge, forthcoming 2022).

Perrier, M. & Withers, D.M. (2016) An archival feminist pedagogy: unlearning and objects as affective knowledge companions, Continuum, 30:3, 355-366

Withers, D. M. (2015) Feminism, Digital Culture and Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage, Rowman & Littlefield

Other archives

Rachel Thomson

One of the joys of this project has been to learn new skills. Having been trained as a sociologist I have a particular set of methodological skills.  Sociologists are good at producing data: this might be in the form of conducting and recording interviews, groups discussions, ethnographic field notes, questionnaire returns, creative projects with participants. We co-produce documents/ data. That is our starting point and then we use these documents as our evidence – often drawing strong boundaries around this body of evidence asking hard questions about what it represents, how it can or can’t be generalised as well as distinguishing this primary source of evidence from other secondary sources.

This is part of a wider story about the evolution of the social sciences, the emergence of the ‘sample’ as a device for generalisation that has been written about in interesting if controversial ways by Mike Savage (Identities & Social Change OUP 2010) and Peter Burke (Sociology & History, Routledge, 1980). But it is not the only story of sociology, as argued by Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley and Maria Tamboukou in The Archive Project  (Routledge 2017) – who trace an alternative sociological tradition that takes in life histories, oral history, genealogy and community archiving.

As a sociologist I have been responsible for making (or contributing) to a number of important data sets which have in turn been archived both at the UK data archive and in digital formats that make them available online: this includes the WRAP data set that is the focus of this project, but also the 15 year longitudinal Inventing Adulthoods data set that operated as a demonstrator project for the social science archiving and the Everyday Childhoods project literally ‘started with the archive’, inviting participants to make a public archive with researchers to be deposited within the Mass Observation Archive. But what I have never done before is work with an existing paper archive.

The rationale for the Reanimating Data project included a commitment to recontextualise the WRAP data set, in particular the 70 odd interviews generated in Manchester during 1988-9, conducted by myself and Sue Scott. One route back to this time was the field notes written by the researchers, the time sensitive references in the interviews (for example mentions of Gillick, the Rosie Barnes campaign to get rid of topless images of women on ‘page 3’ of tabloids and a health scare around the IUD ‘Dalkon Shield’).  Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the strange wormholes of memory that I found myself falling through when working with the original research documents, needing to place them into diachronic order as a starting point for triangulating my narrative memories with archival traces. I found myself needing supervision and guidance from a historian, how could I begin the process of connecting the WRAP archive with other sources that helped me escape the confines of my own biography and memory. Claire Langhamer, a critical friend of the project, suggested that I start with the local press, the Manchester Evening News and the weekly cultural round-up ‘City Life’.

Claire and I were interested in the relationship between sociology and history. I had invited her to be involved as a critical friend because of her doctoral work exploring women’s postwar leisure in the greater Manchester area, imagining her oral history interviews as capturing some of the intergenerational back-story of the lives of the WRAP  young women (Langhamer, Claire (1999) Manchester women and their leisure: changing experiences from youth to married adulthood, 1920-1960. Manchester Region History Review, XIII. pp. 32-42). But my approach to the archive was highly boundaried. I wanted to focus on the time period covered by the original fieldwork, to gain a sense of synchronicity – what was happening at the same time, possibly on the same day as an interview. This gave me boundaries (Claire said I was lucky to have this focus) as well as allowing me to take an inclusive approach – hoovering up depth and detail to contextualise the ‘moment’ of the original research.

I spent several days in Manchester’s central reference library pouring over the bound volumes of City Life for 1988 and 1989. My narrow focus on the two years meant that I did not need to ‘sample’ the volumes – for example focusing in one edition for each month – rather I immersed myself in the whole collection,  flicking through as one does with magazines – reading some articles, making copies of things that caught my eye, noticing connections and disconnects between the Manchester portrayed the magazine and the Manchester emerging from the interviews. My key ‘method’ in the archive was using my camera as an aide memoire, capturing snapshots to be made sense of later. Over the course of two visits I snapped 200 images, which I then catalogued and made into my own personal archive. What I collected was heterogeneous, but the guiding logic was material that expressed something of the sexual culture and politics of the city at that moment. This included:

  • small ads (I was interested for example in the new 0898 telephone lines being advertised for advice as well as sexual services),
  • personals (noticing how do people describe themselves and what are they looking for),
  • news stories (capturing activism around sexual violence, the closure of family planning clinics, activism around section 28, and the privatisation of public assets including worries about corruption),
  • event listings (a lively women-only feminist scene, concern with censorship, the eruption of house music, the arrival of ecstasy and the flourishing of a new service sector fuelled by cultural entrepreneurship),
  • reviews of books and films (the complicated politics of pleasure) and
  • opinion columns (the enduring nature of sexism and the reinvention of northern masculinities).

One of the most interesting sources were the cartoons that condensed and expressed this zeitgeist, speaking clearly to the middle class hip audience that made the magazine’s readership and which resonated with my identity thirty years ago as a 23 year old graduate student and researcher.  A series of cartoons by illustrator Martin Ridgewell were particularly generative, two of which are reproduced (badly) below. The first features a conversation between a young couple on a bus, talking about an old woman – amazed that the new language of body fluids and safer sexual practices would be foreign to her. For me this image captures the sense of change that was characteristic of the moment and the way that speaking explicitly about sex (as demanded by an activist public health response to HIV/AIDS ) became a marker of generational change that consolidated a range of assumptions about social class, religion and gender politics. The past (as embodied in the older working class northern woman concerned with respectability, speaking in euphemisms and shaped by demands of industrial capitalism) is pushed away as embarrassing and irrelevant. In doing so many assumptions are made about her and the past which are no doubt unfounded. Yet we hear echoes of this narrative in the interviews as young women distance themselves from the expectations and values of their mothers, recognising that as a generation they will need to forge lives of a very different kind. See for example Stacey (MAG12).

Cartoon by Martin Ridgewell, with permission of artist. Originally published in City Life 1989.

In the second cartoon we see a new mother – struggling to translate her progressive political commitments into a form of parenting, yet doing so alone at home suggesting that although ideas and identities may have changed continuities continue at the level of practice and the participation of men.[

Cartoon by Martin Ridgewell, with permission of artist. Originally published in City Life 1989. CPBF is the Campaign for Broadcasting Freedom, very active in Manchester at this time, holding weekly meetings and regular conferences.

It took me a while to understand the acronym CPBF, but looking at the listings helped me work out that The Campaign For Broadcasting Freedom was very active at this time holding regular meetings and conferences. In fact the whole question of censorship was a big deal to those who saw themselves as progressive. The Chief of Police in Greater Manchester (born again Christian James Anderton) had become infamous for his enthusiasm for eradicating pornography (including raiding an alternative record store and confiscating the 1984 album by the band Flux of Pink Indians ‘The Fucking Cunts Treat Us like Pricks). Section 28 of the local government bill which banned the promotion of homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationships’ was also a focus for activism and understood in terms of censorship. In his book on Good As You: 30 Years of Gay Britain, Mancunian journalist Paul Flynn comments; ‘It wasn’t just gay sex he [Anderton] disliked so much. He had built up a habit of police procedures that included raiding local sex shops, gay and straight, and swooping into newsagents to divest them of top-shelf materials.’ (2017: 77)

The vocabulary of the cartoon is also vintage late 1980s with the term ‘discourse’ capturing the turn to language that swept up academics and activists, focusing attention on the way in which it was and was not possible to talk about sex. Understanding heterosexuality as a language that privileges masculinity was at the heart of the feminist politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s (Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990). We can hear something of this language in the interviews and the frustrations expressed by a group of self-consciously feminist young women, committed to social change but struggling to negotiate this within intimate relationships. Coming up against the problem of desire that continues to be calibrated to unreformed versions of masculinity [see for example Donna (NMC06), Hannah (ABC09), Simone (NMC12), Rebecca (THW50),  Amanda (MAG19).

Moving between the interview collection and the City Life archive has been valuable in many ways. It helped me pin down a chronology around important events. It also helped me think about the cultural currents of the city, the relationships between students and locals, the city centre, the neighbourhoods and the surrounding towns – what it might mean to go to different nightclubs, to travel, to be political. I also gained immediate access to the technological landscape of the times. The small ads gave me a visceral sense of face to face meeting, lots of clubbing, dangerous walks home, DIY publishing, landlines, walkmen and phone sex. It was a version of the city that made sense to me – I had been a reader of the magazine in 1988-9.

Another archive would tell a very different story of the city and may well connect with the interviews in distinctive ways. For example we have also worked  with the Feminist Webs archive which is held at the People’s History Museum and which consists of the pooled personal collections of feminist youth workers working in the northwest over this thirty year period and more. The collection is full of newsletters, posters and educational materials that would have been used by and with young women attending youth clubs in the city. Arguably these sources tell us more about the youth workers than the young people, in much the same way that City Life tells you more about me as the interviewer rather than the young women I was interviewing. Perhaps this is inevitable in that young women despite all being in Manchester in 1988-9, willing to be interviewed and aged 16-21, the WRAP interviewees are a wonderfully diverse group. And while they are shaped by place, that place is also incredibly heterogeneous, with the intersections of locality, religion/ ethnicity, social class and industry giving rise to micro cultures, which combined with family dynamics and personal agency presents through diverse biographical situations and projects. Understanding more about the cultural landscapes of the time is vital, but we also need to understand how and why particular cultural resources become important.

The cultural resources that were important to the young interviewees are not always the resources we might expect. In the interviews we hear about Jackie Collins novels rather than Just 17 and local pubs rather than city centre night clubs. Yet as Elizabeth Lovegrove shows us in her blog, there are ways of moving between cultural archives (such as magazines) and interviews that do not rely on direct relationships – but instead connects how it was (or wasn’t) possible to put sex into words (and images), defining certain kinds of problem and answers as featured in the popular problem pages of the magazines.

So what is the relationship between ‘our archive’ – the Women, Risk & Aids project collection and these ‘other archives’ that can be linked to, providing context. In an age of digital data it becomes possible to draw a range of digital sources together – presenting them as part of a time-line or a map. If the items are digitised we may be able to show and share them as part of our archive – but only if they are licensed in such a way that allows this. The WRAP materials are made available under a creative commons, educational, non-profit license which means they can be shared freely. The City Life archive is not digitised and in making copies of material I agreed to do so for personal use only. I have reproduced the cartoons above having had personal correspondence with Martin Ridgewell, who ironically does not have copies of the cartoons himself any more and asked me to send him my photographs.  The image from an 1989 edition of Cosmopolitan above is unauthorised and I may be asked to take it down. It is my own copy, but I do not have rights to reproduce it. I have included it here for educational purposes because it tells us a great deal: here we see the naming of a ‘problem’ in a new way, the relationships between a teacher and a pupil, something eventually criminalised by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act which codified such a relationship a breach of trust. We also see the 0898 number again – here as a monetised route to advice. British Telecom had been privatised in 1984 and by 1990 the problem of ‘0898’ numbers was being raised in parliament in relation to the circulation of ‘obscene material’ and fraudulent use of communications. Technology and intellectual property governance has a history, but it also shapes how we are able to show and tell our histories.

Reanimating data: A method for secondary analysis, historical enquiry, and participatory data collection

In collaboration with NCRM the Reanimating data team will be running an online methods workshop aimed at postgraduate students, early career researchers and anyone with an interest in creative and participatory methods.

The aim of the workshop is to explore data reanimation as a qualitative research method. The focus will be on creative, participatory and innovative ways of working with archived qualitative research materials for the purpose of secondary analysis, historical enquiry and / or data collection. During the workshop we will explore different theoretical and disciplinary traditions informing data reanimation and consider the ethical challenges and possibilities of reanimating qualitative data sets.

We discuss what data reanimation is and consider the benefits and affordances of using this method of enquiry. In particular we will consider how this approach 1) enables creativity, reflexivity, experimentation and innovation in research, 2) creates opportunities to engage non-specialist audiences and communities in collaborative secondary analysis, data collection and/or public engagement 3) engages critically with ideas around social change and continuity.

This is an active workshop that will invite participants to experiment with reanimating qualitative data using different methods. Participants will be encouraged to bring their own research materials with them where possible or work with archived data provided by the workshop facilitators. We will consider how to reanimate data ethically and with care and share examples of how this has been done in recent research and community projects.  

The course will run on zoom on 16th June 2022 10 – 4pm BST. For more information and to book go to:Reanimating data: secondary analysis, historical enquiry, & participatory data collection (ncrm.ac.uk)

Ways into the archive

Rosie Gahnstrom

A collaged image with quotes from WRAP interviewees about virginity loss that captures something of growing up in London in 1989

The current moment, framed largely by Covid-19 and its many (necessary) restrictions, poses many difficulties for undergrad and Masters’ students who might have been thinking about conducting empirical fieldwork as part of their dissertations and are now left wondering what they might want to explore instead. In this blog I want to introduce a newly available digital archive of qualitative interviews, conducted with young women in London and Manchester in the late 1980s and to suggest that this might be a valuable resource for research students looking to carry out original feminist research. Now completely anonymised and easily accessed through our digital archive, these interviews, conducted as part of the Women, Risk and AIDS Project, have been relinquished from attics and floppy disks and are waiting to be revisited, reimagined and reanalysed through contemporary thought.

My own PhD project utilizes the WRAP data to (in a nutshell) interrogate how meanings of virginity have changed for young women and what this might be able to tell us about gendered sexual social change. ‘Virginity’ was the thing that really pulled me into the archive –the thing that ‘glowed’ (see Maggie MacLure’s work on The Wonder of Data for more on this).  My own narrative of ‘virginity loss’ was a defining moment in my first foray into feminist thinking about gender and power (though I didn’t realise that that’s what it was at that time) and there was something really powerful about seeing some of myself in the archive, within the folds and contradictions of these young women’s stories. What was really interesting was that it felt like it could have been me and my friends discussing our own sordid tales of virginity loss as teenagers in the late ‘noughties’ (it had to be before we turned 16) – nothing seemed to have changed much in the interim. Of course, taking place over 15 years earlier, the experiences of WRAP interviewees were totally different. The interviews needed to be situated in the particular time and place that they were conducted to get a sense of what sexual stories could be told in 1989 and what aspects of these might ‘stick’ across generations.

While traditionally framed through marriage and religion, the 1980s replaced traditional understandings of ‘virginity’ with new meanings of sexual knowledge, experience and pleasure. Brought into conversation with teen girl magazine problem pages from the late 80s, the WRAP interviews help provide a glimpse into the everyday of this new sexual culture and what it might have meant to grow up in a time more usually defined by Thatcherism, the AIDS crisis and widespread youth unemployment (Brooke, 2014). One particular quote from an interview with Danielle (aged 18-19, Caribbean, lower middle class, no religion), living in London, really captures how things were changing for some young women:

“‘I called him a chauvinist, I said, “you’re a chauvinist; you believe that when women have children they should give up work to look after them”. I said oh, I said, why can’t the man do that?  I said, why can’t you have an equal partnership where you both go out to work’… ‘Marriage is a piece of paper. I don’t wanna have kids till I’m about thirty-five. When you’re mature you can actually enjoy them a lot better rather than having them young.”

Danielle (LSFS32)

And on ‘virginity loss’ specifically:

“Q. Yeah. Cos sometimes, I mean like you were saying about that first relationship where … that you had when you were very young, that it included everything but not sex. You must have made some decisions there that it wasn’t going to include …
A. Yeah, I think we both did to a certain extent because we were both quite young schoolkids. It was just sort of an unspoken rule – you don’t go all the way.

Justine (LJH17)

While Justine (LJH17) doesn’t mention penetrative sex here – what we might typically think of as virginity loss – her acquisition of sexual experience without ‘going all the way’ points to new understandings of ‘what counts’ and what is allowed to be talked about, in comparison to earlier generations of women.

Through secondary analysis of the WRAP archive I aim to find out more about how these young women are able to talk about ‘virginity loss’. To locate these findings in their wider context, I’ve first gone back in time to the earlier part of the 20th century to understand how the changing relationship between love, sex and marriage allowed for the slightly more permissive society and sexual politics of the 80s. Teen girl magazines from 1989 are also undergoing some secondary analysis – the problem pages I’ve read so far, in Jackie, J17 and Mizz, don’t seem to have any qualms with their readers having sex – so long as it’s within the confines of a steady, stable relationship and framed by love, trust and good communication.  At some point this new look at old materials will be used to form participatory virtual workshops with young people today to try and gain a further sense of what ‘virginity loss’ might mean now, eventually (hopefully) culminating in some sort of online open access resource on using the WRAP interviews as a pedagogic tool.

While my research focuses primarily on themes of desire, respectability, femininity and social change, there are loads of ways into the archive and so many different questions you can ask it.I read each interview at least twice when preparing the dataset for digital publication and I’m sure if I read them all again now, I’d find something new to think about!

Exploring the relationship between location and sexuality would be a great place to start –  there are striking differences between the stories told by WRAP interviewees in London and in Manchester, despite the diversity of  young women that were interviewed in each place. Many in Manchester had totally different, more traditional aspirations than those living in the capital. This is highlighted even more by WRAP London interviewees who had moved to the city from somewhere more rural or Northern and reflect on their experiences of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle.

This word cloud shows you just *some* of the keywords that you can search in Figshare to pull up different interviews that might pique your interest:

You could, for instance, look at the different forms of contraception that young women were (or not) using and their experiences of these. There were many health-related fears around the contraceptive pill at this time, for example, and many WRAP interviewees used birth control to regulate their periods rather than to protect against pregnancy. Some accessed contraception through family planning clinics while others visit their GP. Sex education is another key feature of the interviews – how was it different to now, and where did these young women find alternative means of sex education outside of formal schooling? How did young women from typically othered cultural or religious backgrounds, usually here as second-generation migrants, navigate their own sexual subjectivity in late 1980’s UK? What were some of the cultural tensions and contradictions they were facing, and are these the same or different today?

Another way into the archive would be to strip back the interviews even further and think about where the WRAP study sits within a historiography of feminist sexualities research or girlhood studies. While the original project was a response to the AIDS/HIV crisis and widespread anxiety around the sexual health and safety of young people, there was other feminist work on ‘desire’ happening at the same time. Where does WRAP fit in with this? What methods were able to be used and which questions were able to be asked? ‘The Male in the Head’, a publication from the original WRAP research team that came out of the project, offers a way of thinking about how youth sexuality and identity was constructed at this time, and would be high up on my list of recommended reading for anyone interested in the study.

The Reanimating Data Project offers both tools and inspiration for using the interviews in participatory group work with young people, which could be easily adapted. You can go big, like Ester did with the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester, where she facilitated workshops using data from three of the WRAP interviews that resulted in an incredible, intergenerational performance. Emphasis in these workshops was to be messy with the data to see what might happen – from re-asking each other questions from these original interviews and using the data to write songs and powerful personal moments (for more on these methods check out Ester’s blog here. Niamh’s work with Sapphormation and subsequent work by Ali Ronan with a youth group at the Proud Trust demonstrate how generative just small chunks of interview can be. You can read Ali’s blog about this here.

Image from a Women’s Theatre Society RAD workshop

With previous experience of both youth work and conducting creative, participatory research on youth sexualities and sex education with young people, I’m a big fan of using these sorts of ideas to engage young people in critical thinking and discussions. There is a real sense of how useful these activities are, or could be, in helping to create the right sort of space for this research. And they might not work with your own group of young people – which, of course, provides useful and reflexive insight in itself.

I hope what I’ve managed to convey through this post is that there are a number of ways of using the WRAP interviews outside of the more traditional archival sense and I hope that others – from sociologists, to social historians to youth practitioners, and everyone in between – can utilise the value in these young women’s now-historical accounts. There are so many fascinating ways into the archive and so many interesting discussions that can come out of it. I was lucky enough to find my thing that ‘glows’ fairly early on, and I hope that someone else might find their own wonderous lightbulb moment in the WRAP archive, too. Let us know what you find and feel free to get in touch with any questions. You can follow us on Twitter at @ReanimatingData

Working with questions

Ester McGeeney

Back in October 2019 I went to one of the Women’s Theatre Society’s Reanimating data workshops. The group were coming to the end of five weeks of workshops in which they had been exploring data from three of the WRAP interviews using movement, games, creative writing exercises, song, music, ephemera from the 1980s and lots and lots of discussion. The project was led by third year drama students Elena and Lae with different women invited to facilitate the workshops, of which there were two a week. The workshops were popular, with between 8 and 20 women coming each week and new participants continuing to join. The workshops were also productive, generating so much material and so many ideas that Elena and Lae decided to put back the performance by a few months to give them longer to work with the material.

This was the first (and only) workshop I went to. I was keen to observe the group and see how the young women were working with the data we had given them but the group soon put me to work. Elena asked me to talk to the group about the Reanimating data project and then run a workshop in any way that I wanted to. A few weeks previously I had been in Brighton to see the sound installation that has emerged from another one of the project experiments – What really counts? In this experiment Rachel Thomson and sound artist Alex Peverett had been working with fragments of original audio recordings collected as part of the Men Risk & AIDS Project (MRAP), a follow on study to the WRAP with interviews conducted by Janet Holland, Sue Sharpe and Tim Rhodes. In the experiment, as well as working with fragments of the original recordings, Rachel and Alex also worked with original MRAP interviewer Janet Holland, asking her to re-record some of the questions that she asked the young men 30 years ago. The final piece includes a combination of the new material re-voiced by Janet (and 2019 young person Issac Thomson) and the original poor quality recordings of Janet, the other other MRAP interviewers and some of the young men they were speaking to.

What stood out to me as I listened to the installation were the questions. Taken out of the context of the interview they sound blunt and obtrusive, making the sociological ‘sex’ research interview strange as you reflect on what it is possible to ask and say in this public/private space.

Listening to the installation I was also interested in the interplay between deliberate and random selection. Rachel had been through the MRAP data and coded it, carefully selecting questions to re-voice and material to include in the installation. But what the viewer hears at any time is selected at random by the algorithm that Alex created. There are chunks of data that come round cyclically but as a listener you are never sure what question or answer you might hear next and whether it will be Janet from 2019 that will speak or Janet from 1991.

Fresh from viewing this latest experiment I decided to play around with these ideas in the theatre workshop. I was interested in working with the questions from the Women Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP) and playing with this tension between purposeful and random selection. We don’t have the audio from WRAP like we do from MRAP, but we do have the transcripts and had previously given the group three transcripts from the archive that had been very deliberately and purposively selected. All three interviews were with young women who, in 1989, were all drama students at the University of Manchester. We were interested in how drama students at the university thirty years later would engage with the material and its descriptions of sex, gender and the role of women in the ‘drama scene’.

I handed out print outs of the three interviews to the group. I asked them to throw the papers up in the air and then to mess them up, to mix them up, to stamp on them and scrunch them. I wanted them to know that they could be irreverent with the data – to mess with it and play with it. A month earlier when I had met with the society committee one of the young women told me that she had read all three interviews and felt overwhelmed by them. They were so rich. There was so much to say about them and so much material that she could use for the workshops she was going to deliver. Her feelings were very familiar to me. I frequently felt overwhelmed by the data set of over 60 interviews and often struggled to know which interviews and which extracts to use when working with other groups. Today I wanted to work in a different mode. I wanted to work with the data more randomly, more irreverently, more playfully.

Next I asked each person to select one or more sheets of paper at random and to chose questions that stood out to them and to cut them out. These could be questioned that interested them, or jarred them and they could discard the sheet they chose and select another if nothing stood out. As they cut them out they stuck them on coloured pieces of card.

Working in pairs the group had a go at re-asking each other the questions from their newly created interview-question-collages and then reflecting on how this felt. I’d asked them to keep the original pages from the transcription that they had cut their questions from and put them to one side. Once they had tried interviewing each other they compared their own responses to those of the original participants, captured on the cut-up transcripts.

The final task was to devise a short scene that captured their experiences of re-asking the questions and reflecting on the responses past and present. After some time for experimenting, devising and rehearsing the pairs and trio performed their scenes to the rest of the group. I recorded each of these, with consent, on my phone. [Available to view here]

There were six scenes in total, each capturing different themes. There was religion, faith, death and dying and hospital care; school sexual culture, gossip, slags and virginity; AIDS, changing attitudes and sex education; the mother-daughter relationships, periods and sexual learning; sexuality and relationships. Some of the scenes reflected on the research process itself, exposing the questions as blunt and strange tools, offensive and unusable when taken out of context. Other told personal stories, intergenerational stories or captured moments of discussion. The young women used words and silence, their bodies, chairs and bits of paper and other props. Some played with time – spinning it round, splicing it up, juxtaposing now and then, 1989 and 2019.

As a mini-collection then scenes seemed to me to show the range and the breadth or what the WRAP data (+ these women and their creative practice) can do and become – the conversations, stories and silences, as well as the reflection, thinking, performance and play.

  1. Are you Catholic?

This trio started their scene with one young woman asking another: are you Catholic? The question was abrupt and jarring but effective. Her respondent opened up, talking about her dad’s experiences of Irish Catholicism and telling a story about her Grandad’s funeral, in which the priest, who turned out to be her Grandad’s cousin, barely mentioned her Grandad at all. ‘My Grandad’s body is right there’ she said, ‘and no-one has mentioned him for like two hours’. As she was telling her story the other two group members used physical theatre to act her stories out. Then they switched and the same question was asked again. The new respondent told another intergenerational story about her families experience of being Christian scientists. She tells the story (whilst her co-performer acts it out) of her Grandmother being in a car accident and refusing to go to the hospital even though she was in ‘so much pain’. Her dad took her Grandmother there against her will. ‘I wish’ she said, ‘they didn’t have to think like that’.

2. Back to back

There’s no question in this scene. Just two young women sitting back to back on the floor, talking. It’s a snapshot of a discussion about their experiences of sexuality at school, naturalistically performed as if they are just talking to each other as two friends. School is a place where women’s sexuality and virginity are policed and gossiped about. There is always a ‘slag of the year’. Knowledge of who has done what is public and school seems to kettle the gossip and the cruel labels so that nothing can escape. It’s only once you leave school and come away to university that you don’t hear those words and those labels and sex doesn’t seem ‘naughty’ anymore.

3. AIDS? I mean I’ve not really heard of it before

In this scene there are two performers – one is 1989 and one is 2019. 1989 says – AIDS: I mean I’ve not really heard of it before. 2019 says – AIDS? Why shouldn’t it be included in sex education at school. Anyone can get AIDS. 1989 is shocked and appalled – ‘even heterosexuals?’. The scene is funny. The joke is on the past – for thinking that straight people can’t get AIDS and for thinking that if we teach children about AIDS, something terrible might happen.

4. A daunting task

In this scene the performers also sit back to back, but this isn’t a naturalistic, intimate discussion of shared experiences of school sexual culture. This is a highly stylised scene that captures the power and discomfort of sexuality research, highlighting how strange and inappropriate interview questions can be when taken out of context.

When I spoke to these two young women they said they found it unsettling to re-voice the questions and found themselves silent in response. They said the questions were obtrusive, invasive. Silencing. They capture this beautifully in their scene and shoe that when you decontextualize the interview questions they are stark, shocking and unanswerable.

In the scene the two young women are on chairs and take it in turn to read out the questions that they have cut out from the transcripts. When one asks, the other responds largely through body language. Head in hands, body turned away. Silence. An exasperated ‘yes!’. A long stare – of disbelief? And more silence. A shy look towards the floor. And more silence. A quiet – ‘I mean I guess so’. And finally, an abrupt leap out of the chair and cry of: I’m not answering that question.

5. Quite a closed question

This scene starts with one young woman holding up a piece of paper that says: 1989. The other two performers act out the start of an interview and the interviewer asks (reading from the original cut up transcript):  We are talking abouts sexuality and differences between men and women. I wanted to ask you do you think of your sexuality in terms of physical things like orgasm or in terms of emotional things like getting close or relationships?

The response also comes from the 1989 transcript. The young women tells us that it is  ‘difficult for me to say right now’.  She’s quite ‘career minded’ and doesn’t able to get into a relationship as she fears ‘it might hold me back’. For her a career and a relationship are incompatible.  

The first performer returns, this time silently holding up a piece of paper that says: 2019. The interviewer and interviewee have switched round this time but the question is the same. This time, the respondent speaks as herself, a young woman in 2019. Her response is quietly delivered, and moving:

I mean, I feel like it’s quite a closed question maybe? I mean. I don’t know. I feel like it’s only recently I’ve been properly confronting what my sexuality means to me and I feel like that binary thing that its either a physical sexual thing or its emotional I feel like women typically either being consigned to having no sexuality or just the emotional side of it is quite limiting and I think sexuality I’m trying to navigate having both and accepting both and it being my own.

This scene has played on my mind. I was struck by how much has changed since WRAP and since I was a teenager, when it felt like young women didn’t know they had a sexuality to confront or to understand. We barely knew that we had a choice about being straight, let alone that being straight (or gay or bi) could be done in so many different ways. We were navigating something, but I’m not sure we had the language, reflexivity or self-awareness to know that we were doing it.

Through this project I have come to understand that one of the features of WRAP that made it a landmark study is that it was able to name and denaturalise heterosexuality. This scene reflects on one of those moments in which the researcher is spelling out a feature of asymmetrical heterosexuality in which physical sex is for men and emotional relationships are for women. The respondent is living with this asymmetricity – choosing a career over a relationship, because women cannot have both. In 2019 this language and construction of sexuality is so limiting that the young women cannot relate to it. It is too ‘closed’ and they see a sexual future that offers much more for them. I’m relieved and grateful that these young women feel able to access a more expanded version of sexuality and also mindful of how much hard work it all seems.

6. Mum – what are these?

The question in this scene comes from a child, who asks her mum, ‘what are these?’, referring, we guess, to a box of condoms. There are three mini scenes here that tell us a condensed story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The passing of time is marked by the daughter standing up and spinning round and telling us how much time has passed: 3 years later! 6 years later! They have a lovely and loving relationship. The mum, it seems, wants to deliver age appropriate sex education for her daughter but she is uncomfortable when her young daughter finds the box of ‘sweets’ and distracts her by offering Haribo. At 16 she tried to give her daughter ‘the sex talk’ but her daughter is cringing, barely able to listen, and at this point knows all about condoms from school based sex education anyway. When she starts her period at school, she calls her mum from the school toilets on her mobile and her mum reassures her and helps her out. Go to the reception she says, they will have something there.

7. It was like therapy.

There was one final pair who didn’t perform a scene. Instead they ‘played’ around with the questions and got talking. They found the questions productive and provocative. They had ‘a couple of rants’ and joked that ‘it was like therapy’. One of the pair remarked that reading the questions ‘makes you think about things that you wouldn’t normally think about on a daily basis’. In particular a question about ‘positivity’ seemed to resonate. Or rather –  the participants response. Whatever the question was she said something like:  ‘now that I think about it I was actually really sad but I didn’t realise it at the time’. This led the pair to talk about how women experience and manage their emotions and how this effects sexual relationships and friendships. ‘Its interesting’, one commented, ‘because as women…there’s a lot of pressure to put on a positive font but sometimes you need to take a moment and then you realise – oh actually I was kind of sad then but I didn’t let myself feel like that.’  

There wasn’t much time to discuss the scenes or reflect on the task as we’d taken up most of the three hours already. In the final part of the session the young women reflected on the work they had been doing over the past five weeks, writing down activities they had enjoyed and themes that stood out for them so that Elena and Lae could use these to plan the next stage of the project. I looked at these and saw that one young women had written that they had realised how ‘seeing how doing little is actually a lot in theatre’.

In this workshop I was struck by how little data was needed in order to do a lot in theatre. One line, one question, one comment could become a long discussion, an intergenerational story, a highly crafted silence, a joke. Watching the performance months later I saw some of the scenes from the questions workshop in the play, along with movement pieces, songs, group scenes and a series of beautiful monologues in which the young women told their own stories about love, sex, sexuality, relationships and their bodies. It felt like there was no end to what the WRAP data + these young women and their shared creative practice could do.

Previously in workshops with other groups we had struggled to select small amounts of data for groups to work with and had become burdened by the scale of the archive and the belief that we needed to have sound logic in our data selection. We had experimented with bringing along extracts to workshops, carefully selecting data that related to a theme we thought the group might be interested in or from interviews that seemed a good match in terms of age, religion or ethnicity. This was often clunky and what resonated with different women and different groups was surprising and of course unpredictable.

In this workshop data selection had been careful – a deliberate match between the young women and the data in terms of age, gender and occupation but the method had been playful. It allowed the group to work with small amounts of data and explore what the data could do now. The women worked in part in part randomly (chucking the data up in the air and picking up the sheet that fell close to them) and part deliberately and incisively selecting questions that jarred or connected with them.

At the end of the session in October I reflected to Elena what a special space they had created. I mused: It feels safe, participatory, inclusive. There are different women there, bringing different experiences. There is so much enthusiasm and appetite for the project – it feels like there really is the opportunity to experiment with the data and the archive as I had hoped we could. This – what’s happening in the workshops – is what I wanted to do in this project. I’m wondering why this has ‘worked’ and the others haven’t – at least not in the ways that I had hoped.

Importantly this experiment was the only one that was led entirely by young women. In the other projects I often felt uncomfortable, like we were taking over a classroom or youth group space that didn’t belong to us. In this experiment, everyone was in the room because they were interested or invested in the project. They also had a shared creative practice, unlike in other groups were the young women had a shared investment in their youth group perhaps, but not in a shared creative or artistic mode.

Reflecting on ‘what worked’ helps us pull out the learning for future projects but I also know that meeting Elena and Lae was a moment of luck and serendipity. As third years and women’s theatre society committee members they were perhaps looking for an opportunity for the society to do something different and they were also in a position to be able to make something like this happen – to craft the project, to bring together and nurture a large group of young women and craft the experimental work they were doing into a final performance.

You can view the final performance of Reanimating data here and read more about the teams reflections on the project here.

Standing on shoulders

Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott

What does it mean to take data back to a community? When thinking through the return of the WRAP data to Manchester we had to think about whether any of the spaces or access points from the original research still existed or made sense. We quickly found that many of the youth centres we had visited in the 1980s had closed down and in some cases been demolished. One access point that did seem possible was the drama department at the University of Manchester. In the original study three interviewees were drama students at the University. These interviews captured a particular culture of sexuality – political, reflexive, cosmopolitan but also complicated in term of the sexual politics of the drama scene and expectations of intimacy and availability within the theatrical community. Read again against the elapsing thirty years these interviews seemed to be #METOO before the hashtag.

We approached the University drama department to see if there might be any young women who would be interested in revisiting these interviews today. What would it mean to do this? How much trouble might be involved in this digging up of the past? We were keen to share the anonymised material but also concerned that these accounts would be treated with respect and care. It felt very complicated, yet the possibility of working with contemporary drama students, engaging with verbatim theatre practices and utilising performance as a mode for opening the material up for exploration was an exciting possibility.

Through the help of Alison Jeffers we found the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester- a student society lead by Lae and Elena, two final year drama students who had recently taken over the leadership of a safe space where female students can engage in performance. Elena and Lae were very open to our invitation and ran with the project – workshoping the material, inviting researchers to join them for questioning abut the original context and engaging themselves in short interviews with original researchers. On Saturday 15 February they presented their final piece at the student union and were met with standing ovation.

Here are some reflections on the performance by the two original researchers who interviewed over 60 young women in Manchester 30 years ago. We hear first from Sue Scott and then Rachel Thomson.

Sue Scott

The weekend had been a bit of a rush and I arrived ‘just in time’ from a crowded train so had not really thought my way into the situation and wasn’t at all sure what to expect. It was delightful when Rachel and myself were greeted by enthusiastic and excited young women – the play’s directors, Elena and Lae.

I had a sense of being a ‘celebrity’ by virtue of being part of the original WRAP project  – very strange when it was all so long ago, but as they made clear in the Q and A they wouldn’t have done it without WRAP and they had clearly got so much out of it that whatever else happens to the play it has played an important part in their student experience.

Such a lot of them on stage – and so colourful – it gave a sense of the best sort of ‘Girl’s Group’ turned theatre. I’m sure that for some of them the confidence was hard won, but they inhabited it, at least for the period of the play. The way that they developed and interwove the stories from the interviews with there own was very well done, if a bit of a whirlwind experience at times. They were brave in what they said – not just because they were saying it in public, but also because they had already said it to themselves and each other and carried on. Yes sex is discussed everywhere, but yet it isn’t. 

The continuities and commonalities were striking and yet the drama students who Rachel interviewed in 1989 probably couldn’t have done this, so something has shifted. The students demonstrated wonderfully some of the many and various ways of being a young woman in relation to their sexuality and their presentation of gender in a way that might have been easier in 1979 than in 1989 – but of course only for a minority and in a safe feminist context.

It struck me so forcibly that the young women of the WRAP data would now be old enough to be these young women’s mothers – older perhaps than some of their mothers. It was clear in the Q and A that this was not lost on them, but there was no time to ask them if they discussed the play and the WRAP project with their Mother’s or Aunts – I would love to know. The ‘imaginary’ interview with one of their mother’s was powerful.

It could have been depressing as many of the negative aspects of sex and relationships for young women were clearly portrayed but they had their appropriate place and not to the exclusion of some positives and also ‘ordinary’ and ’mundane’ experiences being recounted, of which there were many in the WRAP data, but perhaps we didn’t take enough note at the time…

I was struck by the dynamic of the interviews – very odd to hear Rachel giving voice to her younger self! And the way the young women took this as a starting point to – as Rachel put it – then ‘interview themselves’. It definitely made me think about different ways of accessing data and stories.I think the theme that I came away with though was ‘friendship’– or at lease comradeship – and in the young women’s stories and my thoughts about not having explored this sufficiently in the original project. I now want to read the transcripts of the interviews they drew on.

It’s also important to think about what the theatre society can do with this now – all the hard work should have more of an airing and it would be great to share it with other young women.

Rachel Thomson

 There is much to be said about the performance, but the point I want to note here is how it was so very different to what I had originally anticipated and how this difference gives us both insight into the way that social change is lived and hope for the future of gender equality and sexual revolution.

When working with the material, what the young women in the theatre society notice and are moved by are the interview encounters themselves: the communication that took place between a young women (much like them) and a researcher (not much older). The interview questions were bold, much bolder than would be possible or acceptable today (when was your first sexual experience, did you enjoy it, how did you know…).  They found the questions problematic and part of the performance shows their irritation. But they also noted that the space that the WRAP young women took in these interviews was remarkable – speaking with an honestly and openness that was transformative. Not simply in the moment, but again and again as the material is performed and reanimated. The young women in the Women’s Theatre Society wanted to do justice to the realness of the young women’s accounts. In doing so they created their own monologues, effectively interviewing themselves but in the context of solidarity from others – both in the present and in the past.

Witnessing the performance was an extraordinary experience for me: understanding that a form of evolution has taken place, but that it demanded an engagement with a tradition of speaking out together about sex. The young women’s monologues did not start from scratch, they began from where the interviews in the WRAP archive left off and they honour the form of talk and communication that marks the highpoint of those conversations. Some of the monologues deliberately used the interview as a form. For example Savannah’s piece was an imaginary interview with her mother that allowed her to step into her mother’s shoes and to speak about a vivid experience of gay pride in Ghana and Black Gay pride in London – luxuriating in the beauty and freedom of her daughters.

As an original interviewer who has now spent much time revisiting the conversations that took place thirty years ago I am very sensitive to the plasticity of our subject positions: I am me now (a mother), and me then (a daughter). I am the interviewer and yet the interviews tell my story as well as the women I spoke with. It was this fluidity, possibility and pride that I heard most clearly in the performance. Yes, there were and are things that don’t change. Sex and power still combine in cruel ways and new generations of young women appear to have to learn things again painfully. Yet it is also possible to stand on each others’ shoulders, to share knowledge and build possibility. When this happens we are very powerful.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Too much?

Rachel Thomson

The idea of working with a group of drama students came about when re-encountering the original data set and finding and remembering an interview (MAG50) with a young woman studying drama at Manchester University. MAG50 was eager to talk about her own complicated emotional life as well as the ‘false and forced intimacy’ of the drama scene.  She shared stories of non consensual sex as well as intense relationships with powerful older men. She also articulated her understanding of the sexual politics of the theatre industry where women may need to be sexually available in order to get work.

Reading this interview in a new historical moment framed by the #metoo movement and  the exposure of predatory men within the entertainment and creative industries encouraged me to take this material to todays drama students at Manchester University. I wanted to find out if they would be interested in the material and in collaborating in a project of reanimation that would help us think about social change and continuity. We began by making contact with Alison Jeffers in the drama dept at MU who put us in contact with Elena and Lea – two third year students who had recently taken over the stewardship of the Women’s Theatre Society – a student led theatre society for women.

The work began. We shared two further transcripts with the group – both interviews with young women who were drama students at UM in 1989.  After 6 weeks of workshopping the material I was able to join them.

Before leaving for Manchester I gathered some memorabilia to take with me – objects from my life at the time the research was done; an old diary, photographs and a copy of my handwritten Masters dissertation on Women and AIDS, which lead to me being part of the WRAP project. I also read MAG50 again on my way to Manchester as well as reading my dissertation. Through these objects I tried to remember my 23 year old self. When I met the young women that evening they jumped, as if they had seen a ghost. I understood that they had got to know a version of me in the interviews and that meeting the 53 year old me was strange for them. I tried to explain that it was strange for me too.

I shared my memorabilia and to began a Q&A session that lasted over an hour where we did the work of weaving feminist webs between our shared relationship with this interview and our shared co-presence, uncannily in the very building where the original research had taken place. There were a number of moments in this conversation when connections were made between the old me and the new me, between the young women and MAG50, between 1988 and 2019 in that building. I felt like we were doing a collaborative analysis.

Making sense of the boldness of the sexual discourse.

A burning question for the group was how it was possible for the original conversation to have taken place. It was so bold, intimate, open. At first I thought that they were telling me that from their perspective the research was unethical, that the questions too direct, transgressive. But over the discussion I began to understand that they were curious about how such a discourse became possible. They wanted to know about the staging of the interview and the lead up to the conversation (did they know what would be asked?) and about whether I had supervision to prepare me for the ‘heaviness’ of the discussion. It became evident that having a conversation like this now would be very difficult, constrained by concerns about safeguarding, consent and triggering. But rather than chastising me for bad practice I discovered that the young women were eager to re-enact this way of talking.

Rachel: I think that’s really interesting because I think now we would see a study like this through the prism of mental health and it absolutely wasn’t how we looked at it. So, we would now … I don’t know, tell me what you think, I think we would think about triggers things like that, is it triggering? Could you ask that because that might…? Whereas in a way this was the stuff that happened before that whole way of looking at  the  world  came  about,  this  was  much  more  political  I  think  in  a  straightforward way, well nothing is straightforward is it? But it was much more about trying to say, “That’s not fair.” Or, “Put that into words; what words does that…?” Because we didn’t really have any vocabulary to talk about sex, people didn’t know what to call bits of their body, they didn’t know how to name power, and I say ‘they’ I would speak of myself as well, you know, like we didn’t really have a vocabulary to describe any of these things so it was the basic work.

Together we worked out the relationships between now (2019) and a time (1989) where speaking out about sex and about power was a project of making the personal political, naming the unnamed and developing a new vocabulary. As threads connected the two moments in time the young women articulated that this formed a necessary foundation for a future culture that is saturated in the knowledge of sexual violence. Yet we also mused that something had been lost in the reframing of sex from a political to a more psychological register. We realised that there is a complicated new kind of silencing that reigns in the young women’s worlds in which sex is both seen as casual and no big deal, as well as too much trouble, too difficult and too important.

#metoo

At the end of the session I asked them about the #metoo movement and about the sexual politics of the drama world and the entertainment industry. Again the young women told a story of unevenness and contradiction. In many ways things are better for young women – there are pockets of feminist practice and areas of the business dominated by women (documentary film was given as an example). Yet elsewhere in the industry things are worse then they have ever been, with market forces determining what it valued and valuable. An actress still has to rely on her body and her youth. It is not sexism as such that is to blame, but the laws of the industry and the preferences of the audience. We talked about women withdrawing from exposed patriarchal spaces, deciding that it is just ‘too much’ and not worth it. I began to understand what they were trying to tell me about contemporary sexuality and to grasp how what came before is part of what is now in a way that escapes the linear narratives of progress and decline that stand in the way of generational connection.

Urgent mini interviews

The evening culminated in an urgent series of mini interviews, with young women choosing fragments from one of the three interviews to revoice and discuss or simply asking me to ask them questions like I had asked the WRAP young women. The interviews were double documented – I recorded them as ‘data’ for our reanimating project and Elena recorded them as useful material that the group might use for devising a performance.

I learned a lot from these conversations: that it was still hard to be a virgin; that it was hard to find a ‘middle ground’; that the protection of men and families is vital for many people still; that loving oneself can be harder than loving someone else. It was an overwhelming and moving experience that I am in the midst still of understanding.  These re-enactments were the frenzied culmination of a long slow process of engagement which I would like to think of as a single method spread out in time and space and certainly a kind of co-production that we both documented and made our own.

Watching the performance several months later I could see how strands of our conversations in the workshop had been worked with creatively and brought to life through performance. Although the performance did contain extracts from the three interviews, reperformed by the young women, the focus was on the 2019 young women’s stories. In the discussion after the show the young women told us that engaging with the material gave them permission and a desire to tell their own stories and to think that someone out there might be interested in listening.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Making poems with data and data with poems

Ali Ronan

Setting up and getting going: Film-maker, Sue Reddish and I had met earlier to discuss the filming and go over the plan for the evening. We arrived at the venue in Manchester at 6.  There were 10 young women there plus 2 youth workers. Hebe the artist and youth worker came at the same time. And then another young women then joined us. Hebe is well known to the group and I had met some of them before, I also know the youth workers well.

We did a quick name round + our chosen pronoun + whether people been on TV or radio/ round which raised some laughs and generated some curiosity about why people had been on TV etc.  I introduced Sue and she talked through the consent form and the way that she would do the filming. 2 young women did not want their faces to be filmed but were happy to be recorded, otherwise everyone was happy with the filming.

Time travel: We then introduced the project and talked very briefly about the 1980s at that point.  We did another game introducing ourselves plus our date of birth to a 1988 Top of the Pops soundtrack. We also had to say one thing that happened in the eyar that we were born. The dates of birth in the group ranged from 1951-2003 so this got us talking about the decriminalisation of section 28, the new labour landslide victory, the 2002 commonwealth games, the introduction of the right for gay people to adopt, the release of the film Body guard, John Major and Spitting Image, rationing and the end of World War two, the 1999 solar eclipse and the release of the first Toy story film. A lot of discussion was then generated about the 1980s and 1990s. We mentioned the miners’ strike, Greenham and Section 28.  Section 28 generated more discussion about sex education now and the difficult discussions that are being had in Birmingham and in Manchester around the rights of parents and faith groups to have a say over the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum.

Who am I? Each person was given a Who am I? sheet to complete and used the answers to create a soundscape. Hebe encouraged the group to draw something on the sheet that describes or represents you in some way, something that is important to you or a symbol or shape that you associate with yourself. This generated more discussion about identity.

  • I am an activist
  • I am Israeli,
  • I am a student,
  • I am resilient,
  • I am happy, I am a lesbian
  • I am autistic,
  • I am a non-binary woman,
  • I am brown,
  • I am wonderful,
  • I am a daughter,
  • I am a sister,
  • I am patient,
  • I am a walker,
  • I am a community member,
  • I am 16 years old,
  • I am a good friend,
  • I am indecisive,
  • I am a woman,
  • I am organised,
  • I am a friend,
  • I am frowning,
  • I am kind,
  • I am an aspiring gardener,
  • I am a youth worker.

Warming up: We then broke for coffee and started again with a warmup moving game – creating a rainstorm with  tapping, clicking, stamping, jumping. There was lots of laughing.

Working with data: We introduced some interview extracts that I had chosen from the selection that Niamh Moore had used during a workshop at Sapphormation – a festival in Manchester for ‘women who love women’. The extracts were taken from the one interview in the archive with a young women, Hannah, who explicitly identifies as ‘gay’ plus one extract from the interview with Sarah whose first sexual experience was with a woman.

The young women split into groups of three and each had a look at a couple of extracts. They read the extracts out loud and talked about the data. The brief was to see what stood out for them, to highlight it and talk about it.

The young women were really engaged with the material, sitting on the ground and pouring over the interviews. I went around, clarifying anything and trying to provoke more discussion. After about 10 minutes of lively discussion in the small groups, we asked them to tell us what they thought. They were interested in the short extracts and they were happy to read them out, to talk about the questions and how the interviews were conducted. They felt many of the questions were intrusive.

We then sat down at the table and used the interviews + magazines to cut up and create collages or poems or whatever- this created much more discussion.

We read the poems out, we talked about words and phrases that had meant something to the young women. We talked about the magazines – they were intrigued by the notices of meetings etc.

Hebe talked to the group about how we could take the project forwards. She suggested making some kind of banner that the group could put up when they are in session as part of the ritual of coming into the space and setting up the session. She suggested a table cloth but left this open for further discussion. The poems could be a starting point Hebe suggested, we could edit them down further to identify key words or to create an image- like a young women’s group coat of arms of the things that are important to us. Hebe opens things up to the group and we agree to think some more.

We said good bye – a quick post–it note of one word feedback on the session: Insightful, open, exciting, powerful, intriguing, brilliant, fantastic.

Anonymity in the archive

Rosie Gahnstrom

Most of my last year has been spent on my sofa, watching daytime TV and preparing the Women, Risk & AIDS Project (WRAP) interviews to be published in a digital archive – my day to day hasn’t changed much at all in light of Covid-19 (apart from the added anxiety of worrying about the health and safety of everyone in the entire world, the plummeting economy and the precarity of academia and its dwindling job market, a.k.a my future prospects).

My role in the Reanimating Data team has been to format, anonymise and catalogue all of the meta-data for the interviews and their accompanying field notes. Much of this has been fairly mundane, ritualistic and monotonous – open document, select all, change font to Arial, size 11, justify margins, adjust margins, insert, page number (top of page, Plain Number 3), find all double spaces, replace all double spaces with single spaces. The trickier, more interesting bits have been treating the data with a feminist ethics of care. Simple, I thought. I just need to give each interviewee a pseudonym and redact any identifying information. We’ve been taught a fairly generic, blanket rule of adhering to ethics like this, but I’d never really had the chance to properly engage with and reflect on these principles.

I had tried to be completely objective when changing the names of research participants. I had a list of ‘Popular baby names 1970s UK’ open on Google, and once I’d exhausted those would stare longingly at my book shelf, mentally scouring stories for names that might fit the stories being told in each interview. Naming each interviewee couldn’t really be objective – there’s too much tied up in a name, and assumptions around social class, ethnicity, place, time, gender. Which names would the original interviewees have picked for themselves? What a certain name might mean to me most likely has totally different connotations for someone else. AMD18, for example, I had named Tonya. On reflection, I think I had been struggling to think of any new names, but had recently seen ‘I, Tonya’ with Margot Robbie, where Tonya Harding (whose life the film is based on) was born in 1970 – just the right age for a WRAP participant. Rachel, PI for the project, said that she wouldn’t have chosen Tonya for that particular interviewee. There’s lots of literature on the importance of naming in social science research (Moore, 2012 – The politics and ethics of naming, for example), and I’m sure I could quite happily write an entire dissertation on the topic.

Archiving the dataset for public use raises a whole host of other ethical issues, too – does informed consent obtained in the late 1980s still count today? Could any of the original research participants ever have imagined that the archive would be taken out of a box in someone’s garage and uploaded onto the internet for anyone to stumble across? Would they want the intimate thoughts of their younger selves out there for themselves to find? – I still can’t decide whether I would like the goings on of my teenage years and the way that I would have framed them then to be known by anyone now, other than maybe my therapist.

Of course, any potential identifying information from each interview has now been anonymised or redacted. Originally, this had meant working with some key principles for anonymising the data, but in practice it didn’t feel right to be as consistent as that. Names of places, parent’s job roles, bands and musicians that young women listened to became [NAME OF TOWN], [CARING PROFESSION], [COUNTRY SINGER]. How much of these young women’s stories are woven into the industrial town in northern England that them and their parents, and probably their parent’s parents grew up in, and the opportunities that had been afforded to them there, and how much context do we lose when we omit these? These are all different parts of these young women’s lives that have, to some extent at least, shaped the way that they think about their sexual identities or how they position themselves against the opposite sex.

Anonymisation principles used by the Reanimating Data team.

  • Change all people’s names (in CAPS). This includes the name of the interviewee, any partners, friends, family members etc. This is the only ‘fake’ information we will include.
  • Where a participant gives their name, change this and create a pseudonym. Where they don’t do this, don’t create a pseudonym.
  • Put all new text / changes in caps.
  • Remove names of schools, workplaces and colleges. Do not replace these with made up names. Instead put [school] [company] etc.
  • Leave all place names and details of neighbourhoods where possible. Where a participant has moved around or where the combination of different places feels identifiable change these. Do not make up alternative places but replace with [town] [city] etc. Or make specifics more generic. E.g. ‘Singapore and Hong Kong’ can be replaced with ASIA.
  • Change details of locations and jobs for third parties (parents, partners) unless seems highly relevant.

One particularly tricky interview to work with was Amanda’s, or LSFS23 as she had been known for some time. Amanda had unfortunately been through an incredibly traumatic sexual experience in her home country before moving to London in the late 1980s. She went into quite a lot of detail about this in her interview and it felt significant for her story to be told, and to be heard. After much consultation with Rachel, Niamh and Sue Sharpe, who had originally interviewed ‘Amanda’, we decided that it was important to keep more than the bare bones of her story alive. Redacting some of the finer details of what had happened, and the names of countries, of work colleagues, of slang terms particular to where Amanda had grown up, felt like enough. We know through the wake of the #MeToo movement that there is power in storytelling, but of course we don’t know whether ‘Amanda’ would still want her story to be heard, and how she would want it to be told. Omitting the entire experience felt like silencing her, which happens far too much to women in society more generally, so I hope that we have done enough here to retain the eloquence and bravery with which Amanda’s story had originally been told.

The Women, Risk and AIDS Project had been conducted in both London and Manchester yet publications that came out of the study blurred any geographical differences, identifying young people only by their age, gender and social class, rather than by their location. Reading the data now I notice striking differences between the data from each of these places. There are different norms and youth sub-cultures operating in the different cities, and in different places within each city. Growing up in Brighton, my own adolescence was spent outside Borders on a Saturday afternoon during my ‘emo’ phase, in Saltdean park with a bottle of Glenn’s vodka on a Friday night, shortly graduating to club nights like Shameless at Audio on a Thursday or Pound Dance at Digital on a Wednesday. These are some of the places that helped shape my identity as a teenager.

The concept of place had been an important way of framing the Reanimating Data project. We have chosen to work with just the Manchester data and to work with community groups in the city to ‘rematriate’ some of the original data – to give it back to the city and communities it was abstracted from. In anonymising the data, we have clearly labelled each interview and fieldnote as ‘Manchester’ or ‘London’, offering the opportunity for future researchers to explore the significance of place to these young women’s lives, relationships and sexualities. Through anonymising the data and employing a feminist ethic of care we’ve had to remove many of the details of the streets, neighbourhoods, clubs and areas of Greater Manchester that the young women evoke. It feels almost sad that some of the defining parts of the WRAP young women’s stories (their Friday nights spent in Saltdean park making some questionable choices concerning boys in the year above) are lost through the anonymisation process, and that a new generation of researchers are unable to explore how, why and in what ways place might have mattered to them in forming their own sexual identities.

What we have made possible is that current and future researchers can now read these stories which have been handled carefully – twice. Once in 1989 and the early 1990s by the team of WRAP researchers and again in 2019 and 2020 by a new team of feminist researchers trying to balance our desire to both protect these young women from unwanted exposure or harm, whilst ensuring that the stories they chose to tell are still being heard.

INTERVIEWEE: What do you hope to gain from this research?
INTERVIEWER: I think we hope to be able to give young women themselves some kind of voice in terms of the sorts of things they find difficult or important or are concerned about. And to have some kind of input and feedback into health education. Some people design the leaflets and posters all the time, but they don’t necessarily talk to the people who are supposed to be reading them about what is important to them.
INTERVIEWEE: Will it go back into like sex education in schools do you think?
INTERVIEWER: We hope so yes. Because sex education in schools is pretty rudimentary and most people we have talked to say what you said. Something like it’s about babies and it wasn’t very helpful. It’s trying to say something about that. And more general things about how women feel about relationships and sexual relationships in particular, and what’s important. Generally nobody asks you, so we would like to do that so there will be a number of different things that we hope to relate to that and of course it should have been explained to you already …………..so you don’t need to worry about that, but we would like to think that the women we interview might actually read some of the things we write.
INTERVIEWEE: You actually write in magazines?
INTERVIEWER: Well we might do, we haven’t, but we think that might be quite a good idea to do that……….. not about…..so you might see something about it in Nineteen ……….

Interview with Lucy (MAG18) for the Women, Risk and AIDS Project.

To download and read the anonymised material visit the archive here. And if you don’t know where to start? Here’s Tonya’s interview.

Collaging data and learning under lockdown

A few weeks ago we posted a blog by Charlotte Bagnall who shared how she and her colleague had used data from the WRAP archive as teaching materials for a series of sessions on thematic data analysis. Since Charlotte and Claire delivered these sessions, Corona Virus has arrived in the UK. We are in lockdown and educators across all sectors are working out how to facilitate teaching and learning online and from a distance. In these unfamiliar times we are realising that digital archives of sociological studies, like the WRAP, offer new possibilities for students and educators who want to research, teach and learn during lockdown. There are possibilities for students to do secondary data analysis, comparative historical work and data reanimation and possibilities for educators who may want to use the data, as Claire and Charlotte did, to guide students through more structured programmes of learning about research methods, feminist sociological research, sexuality studies, creative methods, Relationships and Sexuality education and much more. With this in mind we are sharing details of a session we ran in September last year with a group of students at Manchester Metropolitan University, when we had never heard of Corona virus and could sit and talk, learn, think and create together. In the session we used collaging as a method for engaging with and exploring the WRAP data and thinking about sexuality and social change. Although this was an offline, group session its simple creative methods of reflect, free-write, read, think, stick, paste and share could be transferable to different spaces and contexts.

Collaging sexual learning

On the 30th September 2019 lecturer and former youth worker Jayne Mugglestone, Ali Ronan and I facilitated a workshop for third year undergrad students studying on an Early Years and Childhood Studies programme undergraduate programme at MMU. Ali and I met Jayne early in the morning in the teaching room to set up for the session. Jayne had been feeling concerned that our decision to do a workshop on sexualities in week two of the module was not a good idea. In week two students wouldn’t know her, or each other, very well or have got used to working together as a group. The previous week Jayne had introduced the topic and let students know what would be happening. A few of the students had come to talk to her after the session to say that they were concerned about the topic, because of their religious values – some Christian, some Muslim. Jayne was feeling nervous about doing the workshop and concerned that some of the students wouldn’t turn up. This mirrored the nervousness of another of the youth workers we have worked with in this project who was concerned about how the young women in her group – from ‘strict’ Muslim and Christian backgrounds – would respond to the WRAP material. As we were setting up for the session however some of the students who had approached Jayne the previous week turned up and she could relax.

What jars you?

We started with an activity called What Jars you? (Taken from the AGENDA resource created by Emma Renold). We hadn’t planned to do this but decided to as Jayne noted some nervousness the previous week about talking about sexuality. The task was to write ‘what jars you about talking about sex and sexuality’ on post it notes and stuff these into a jar. There weren’t enough jars so the students had to share. This was a large group of over twenty students – all female except one and all born between 1997 and 1999 (We know this because our intro-starter involved talking about the year you were born!). The group is mixed in terms of race and ethnicity.

I went round and spoke to two tables at this point. At the first table the students told me that nothing jars them. They said they are very open about the topic and they are happy to talk about it. They talked about the importance of RSE and of talking about these issues both as students and young people and as future youth and childcare practitioners. On the other table two of the girls talked about the fact that they don’t talk about sex and sexuality at home or with friends. The silence around sex and sexuality was referred to in relation to upbringing and family. It took a while for us to name culture and religion as important factors. There was reference to the protests in Birmingham at the time around the teaching of LGBT relationships to Muslim children. I wasn’t quite clear if these were evoked as an example of why its difficult to have these conversations or as a polite message to me that we shouldn’t really be having these conversations anyway.

Students weren’t asked to share the contents of their jars. They could choose to take their jars with them or leave them on the tables if they were happy for us to read their contents. Most, if not all, left them. I read them after the workshop, expecting to find examples of what the students find difficult about talking about sex and sexuality in a classroom or professional context (as this was the context of our conversation prior to the activity). Students took up the activity in a different way, sharing examples of their own fears and concerns about sex and sexuality – their own ignorance, experience of abuse and fears of being touched, not enjoying sex or of getting pregnant. They also wrote what jars them about the politics of sexuality – the lack of education, social taboos around sex, restrictive religious and cultural norms, gender inequality.  

We used young people’s reflections on the activity, and what they find jarring about sex and sexuality to think about how we were going to create a safe space for working. We created a set of ground rules and talked about confidentiality and how we were documenting the session that day.

For Jayne this activity opened up thinking about what support childhood and youth practitioners need before they can go out and deliver RSE.

‘We expect people to go and work with young people/all ages, in different roles – teachers, community workers, family support, etc. and support them around RSE subjects and issues when they have had no information or support themselves. It’s challenge as there is so little space even in our quite open curriculum to work on this kind of thing. The rooms, the group sizes, the course fees and related pressure on assessment and jobs, all gets the focus and the students themselves get missed in it all.’

Jayne Mugglestone, Lecturer and youth worker

Partner discussion and individual free write

We started the creative work by asking students to talk to a partner about how and what they learnt about sex, sexuality and relationships (and also perhaps what they didn’t learn or wasn’t said). Once pairs had finished their conversations they were asked to individually speed write for 2 minutes about ‘sexual learning’. They could write about their own experiences or reflect on their conversation with their partner. The free writes were anonymous and confidential, although many of the students said they were happy to share them and let me take some photos. Together they capture what has been well documented in youth sexualities research – that young people learn about sex and sexuality from a range of different sources and that sexual learning starts long before children start school. We also see that young people are critical of the education they get at school, that conversations with parents are limited and many young people do not have a trusted or reliable source of information about sex and sexuality or a place to go to explore the topics that interest them in more detail.

Engaging with the WRAP data on sexual learning

Next we put the written reflections / speed writes to one side and then looked at some extracts from the WRAP study on sexual learning. Students were asked to choose an extract and read it several times, underlining things that stood out to them. Next they discussed the extracts with a partner and then with the wider group. There was a feeling that the extracts ‘could have been today’. One pair were confused because they thought that the extracts were from today, and not from the past. This has happened across the projects we have done in Manchester. Young women read the material as if it were from today. At first I saw this as our failure to provide enough historical context around the archive but I have since come to see this as what the WRAP material does. It glows and speaks to the young women who read it today. Rather than seeing the data as a historical document they see the data as an invitation to tell their own stories or to take advantage of a rare moment to hear another woman tell their story, with an intimacy they tell us they rarely hear. They don’t seem to see the interviews and the extracts as historical documents or ‘archive material’ but rather as a collection of women’s voices that they can often relate to, or that they feel inspired by. After this the task was to create a collage that captured their thoughts about what is changing for young people when it comes to learning about sex and sexuality. Students could use the extracts, their own free writes, or create new material. They were given coloured paper, glue, coloured pens, scissors and crayons.

Creating collages

Students worked quickly and creatively, responding to the invitation to explore sexuality and social change in different ways – one created paper jigsaw pieces to piece together the different ways that young people learn about sex, others created columns to show what has changed and what has remained the same. When I went around and talked to young people in their small groups two south East Asian young women told me that they only really learnt about sex and sexuality and relationships from social media – Instagram and snapchat – as they rarely discussed the topic with friends (and never with family). They said that they would see articles pop up on their news feed or in the discover / explore section of the app and would sometimes click on them. We looked at their phones to see what kinds of articles were there on that day. We saw two examples that appeared on their news feeds –   ‘How experienced are you really?’ and ‘things girlfriends do that secretly annoy their boyfriends’. The young women said they found these kind of articles useful and interesting as a way of learning about sex and relationships. We talked about the fact that they had no choice over what appeared in their news feeds but choice over what they clicked on, open and decided to read. This wasn’t the same at school, where they had no choice over whether they could take part in an RSE session or not.

In another discussion with a West African and south east Asian young woman the West African young woman describe how she learnt about sex and relationships from her friends, her parents, school sex education and her church. For her these different sites were different, but complementary. She never had a burning question inside her that she couldn’t get an answer to because if church wasn’t telling her, she would ask her mum, if her mum couldn’t answer she would ask her friends. She said that all these different messages and information would bump up against each other and sometimes contradict each other but ultimately she would always come back to what her mum said. You always come back to where you lie at night. She explained that a teacher can’t slap you or punish you like your mum can – you live in her house so you ultimately have to listen to her rules and her way of seeing things. When I asked if that meant that the other messages and learning didn’t matter, she said no – that she heard them all, they passed through and lodged in her brain somehow, even if she settled for now with what her mum tells her. She later had a go at representing this through her collage. Her friend said that things were similar for her, even though her religion was different (Islam).  

When the collages were finished we stuck them on to the wall and asked the students to gather round and talk about their collage. Through their collages and the discussion, the students made the following points about sexual learning and social change:

Friends are still a key source of information about sex for some young people. There is more openness between friends for some young people but for others sex is never discussed. Or as one young woman commented – there are some friends I would say anything to and some I wouldn’t talk to about sex at all.

Relationships and Sex Education is still largely scientific – focussing on the biological aspects of sex and not discussing other areas such as emotions, relationships, consent and bodies. It is also still mainly heterosexual. It is still largely taught by female teachers.

The legal and policy framework around the teaching of homosexuality in schools has changed in the UK. There used to be ‘section 28’ and now there the Love is love movement. There is more openness around homosexuality now but it is still largely excluded from RSE which still focusses on heterosexual relationships. LGBT young people have to find out their own information. As M (young gay man) said – I felt like there was no space for me within RSE.

Parents still don’t really talk about sex to their children, although this varies between families and across cultures. One white young woman commented that her family would never talk about sex but that her boyfriend’s mum is really open. They all walk around naked! – she told us.

Gender.  It remains the case that women are judged more harshly than men for having sex.

Clinics. There are more sexual health services and charities to support young people and sexual health clinics are confidential for young people.

Media. One young woman commented that young people have always learnt about sex and sexuality from the media but we talk about this as if it is a ‘new’ phenomena. In 1989 young people were learning about sex from television adverts about HIV and AIDS and today young people learn from digital and social media, as well as television.  The range of media and the content of media has changed however. She commented that AIDS would no longer be talked about in the media as a ‘gay disease’, but that female pleasure is still side-lined as it was in the 1980s. There are more media sources for learning about pleasure now (previously just women’s magazines) but – she said – we don’t learn about it. In a patriarchal society it is more accepted that men have sex.

Others in the group talked about other ways in which young people learn through the media. For example, through documentaries and YouTubers. One young person gave the example of Stacey Douley’s documentary about brothels in Turkey where men visit sex workers because they don’t know where to put their penis when having penetrative sex with a woman. Here the sex workers are the sex educators. Shan Boody [Shan Boodram) was mentioned as a YouTuber that some young people watch.

The group reflected that now there is so much more media to learn from – particularly from social media. This can be a pressure but it is an important source of information. For some this is their only source (see above). There is more about female pleasure in the media now and so many more sources than previously (just a few women’s magazines). Porn is a source of education now for some young people.

Religion remains influential and important to how young people learn about sex, sexuality and relationships. Young people felt that things are changing within many faith communities, even though it can be hard to see this. One group said that a sexual health worker had started to come to their Mosque after lots of men started getting STIs from the extra-marital relationships they were having. The young women said that these men can’t talk to the Imam about these relationships or about condom use as the men shouldn’t be having these relationships in the first place.

After the session Jayne spoke with the students and asked them for feedback. She found that students had taken things away from the session for themselves and for their practice as future childcare / youth practitioners. In particular, the importance of access to information about sex and sexual health and the need to not be judgemental and understand difference. Students commented a lot on the creative methods we used, noting that they didn’t feel like they were taking part in research and rethinking what it means to do research with young people.

Six weeks later we returned to do another session using the WRAP data, this time exploring what we find in an archive and what we find missing. The students drew their ‘many selves’ and looked through the archive to think about what stories about women’s lives they wanted to be heard by future generations. Then some of them gifted us stories of their own.

‘The effects of both the sessions were felt throughout the rest of the time I worked with them and after that. Some of them told me that it had really helped to think more about it all and to be in a space where they felt that they could explore different views. It seemed to give them much more confidence in their ability to talk about issues and to feel taken seriously in their feelings and discussions was really important. Several said that they had previously thought about RSE as quite a narrow subject where they now thought that it was much wider and much more important for all ages than they had thought.’

Jayne Mugglestone, Lecturer and youth worker

Click here to explore the archive further and to use the selected extracts on sexual learning use the link above.