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). They 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. Thefinal 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 MRAPninterviewer Tim Rhodes 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.

Re-animating a Social Science Data Set: A Reflection on Access and Preservation

Sharon Webb

One of the main goals of the Reanimating Data Project (2018-20) was to archive and make publicly available the interviews and field notes of the 1980s research project, Women, Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP). The collection, created between 1989-90, had for some time existed in various boxes, hard-drives, computers and folders in a London attic. In this current moment, the original sociological data-set is now historical, they are primary material which capture a unique moment in British history, of youth sexuality, of sub-cultures, of sex education, of sexual norms and perceptions, as well as teenage anguish and family life.

My role in the Reanimating Data Project was ensuring that the we had the correct infrastructures in place to archive the collection in the long-term, as well as for immediate access. Our plan was simple, use the University of Sussex institutional repository, Figshare, as means to store the entire original collection and the anonymised versions in the long-term, thus ensuring sustained access to this important collection long after the RAD project funding ends. Secondly, use Omeka, an open source publishing platform, to provide users, researchers and students with an access point that includes curated exhibitions that reflect the concerns, priorities and research of the current project team and wider partners. Following our own logic, we are also archiving the research data generated by the current project, therefore, we are currently working to catalogue the various experiments, project documents, etc., that we have generated – archiving in this sense is iterative, cyclical – we are archiving with the worm hole in mind, as we traverse to the future, we anticipate the needs of those researchers.

It’s important that we separate these activities and take advantage of the infrastructure available to us. We are fortunate to have the support of the institution, this ensures the burden of responsibility shifts from the project to a much larger machine – a third level institution. Knowing that the University, through the Library and ITS, take seriously the challenge of long-term digital preservation is a comfort but as a project we have a responsibility to ensure the way in which we describe the collection is future proof – there is no point creating collections that no one can find, or that users cannot assess (at a glance) if the content is useful to them or not. It is for this reason, that we spent a lot of time making sure that the metadata was a certain standard, that our descriptions were useful and our subject terms appropriate and standardised. I remember the first conversation I had with Rachel about this project, I cautioned that we should not underestimate the time and energy it takes to write metadata and to archive the collection. This task is ever more complicated by the nature of the objects – transcripts in various formats and with varying length. Each interview had to be read from start to finish in order to give a proper summary for the metadata description, the level of anonymity painstakingly reviewed and rediscussed and reviewed again. Even settling on subject key terms is a challenge and a task in and of itself, especially when discipline specific controlled vocabularies like HASSET seem archaic and outdated.

When we showcased Figshare and Omeka for the first time at our Edinburgh workshop (Nov. 2019) we were asked a question from the audience – but what can you do with the archive? Can I do text analysis? Beyond accessing it, what can I do? I struggled to answer the question momentarily (trying to remember any of limited functionality that comes with Figshare and what we planned to implement for Omeka), but then I remembered that, as project, we were tasked with archiving the collection first and foremost. And while, to some, mere access is no longer enough, the task of providing access is massive. Increasingly, we are used to things being readily available, and while additional user functionality is required (and I advocate for it), in some cases “mere” access is a luxury and not always a given. We have made the dataset available and from that starting point researchers and users can create additional access points, through text analysis, through data visualisation. As a project team we have experimented with feminist chat bots and sound installations among others… because we now have access to a previously closed, inaccessible collection.

The use of the two platforms, Figshare and Omeka, also allows us to interact with different audiences. Through Figshare the WRAP collection is available to an international audience, it automatically has a wider reach and is part of rich research, international, eco-system. Omeka, on the other hand, allows us to give project partners, researchers, and other users the opportunity to contribute content, to curate exhibitions which bring collection items together and to be part of the RAD project and team (and I always smile when I see the “RAD” team…because it really is rad!).

I’ll probably think more about lessons learned in a few weeks and document more fully our process but in the mean time if you have any questions about our archiving approach and method please feel free ask, sharon.webb@sussex.ac.uk And don’t forget to check out the collections on Figshare (available now) and on Omeka (soon to be published).

Thomson, Rachel (2020): Women, Risk and AIDS Project, Manchester, 1989-1990. figshare. Collection. https://doi.org/10.25377/sussex.c.4433834.v2

International Women’s Day, Manchester Central Reference Library, March 2020

It was only 3 weeks ago, but it seems like another life-time already – a reminder of how the arrival of a new, untreatable virus can change the world.

The Reanimating data team travelled one last time to Manchester on the evening of March 6th in order to prepare for our finale event at the Library. We had sent ahead some of the physical documentation of the project to be housed in the vitrines of the archives plus section of the library: the original WRAP questionnaires, pamphlets and some data; feminist youth work posters and magazines from 1989 taken from the Feminist Webs collection and examples from our different youth work projects in Manchester which during the last 9 months have ‘reanimated’ the WRAP data. It was exciting to see these materials behind glass and preserved as history.

We then went upstairs to get our meeting room ready – spreading banners, craft materials, and ephemera from 1989 around the room. We had a playlist with some musical highlights and we waited to see who would turn up.

Before long we had a room full to bursting. Young people from all the different youth groups were there. Our critical friends. The original researchers and new generation researchers working with the materials. Youth workers and sexual health workers from across the city and the lifecourse. We all got to know each other by playing human bingo – looking for members of the original research team, a youth worker, a member of a youth projects.

Niamh Moore opened the workshop by welcoming participants and explaining how the old WRAP project links to the new RAD project. We began the day by sharing the film that Sue Reddish and Jim Dalziel have made explaining what it means to ‘reanimate data’ and capturing the different youth work projects in Manchester. Huge thanks to Sue and Jim for documenting the work and helping us make sense of it all.

After this young people from each of the projects then had the opportunity of talking about their experience of the project – sharing what they had done with the data, what they learned and what surprised them. We started with Emma Okomoh from the Levenshulme Youth Project who showed and talked about the short animated film that she had made working with one of the WRAP interviews, noting how important it is to find someone you can identify with in the material as a starting point for connection. Emma had been supported in this by Paula Carley and Siobhan O’Connor and Marianna Vareli, the lead youth worker for the Levenshulme girls group.

Next youth worker and artist Hebe Phillips and young people from one of the Proud Trust ‘s LGBT young women’s groups talked about their work with the ‘purple pamphlets’ and how they had used music to try and get a taste of the 1980s. The group were uncertain whether any of the original interviewees had identified as lesbian or bisexual and in their work on the project had tried to read between the lines of the interviews. They also had a go at asking some of the questions posed on the interviews of themselves as a way of filling the gap. This group’s creative work developed into the creation of self portrait squares that capture their identities as this is what they came to realise was happening in the original interviews as each WRAP participant was invited to tell her story. The making of squares was opened up to participants on the day and in the library after the event. These squares will be stitched together by textile artist and youth worker Hebe Phillips to make a banner that celebrates the voices of young women and takes their stories into the future.

The best thing about the data for this group was the lack of subtlety of the interviews making it possible to talk explicitly about sexual practise and feelings. What surprised one of the young women, Bethan, was how little has changed in terms of formal sex education despite big shifts within the culture towards openness. Answering the question of how they had learned about sex the young women at the Proud trust were surprised to find that their answers were very close to those of young women in Manchester thirty years earlier.

Listen to some of the Proud Trust group talking about what the reanimating data project was like for them in their own words.

Young people from the Women’s Theatre Society talked about how they had worked with the interview material since September, using drama exercises and bringing it to life in different ways and in the process creating a show that included skits, extracts, and personal testimonies inspired by reading the stories of others. Again, the directness of the original questions were valued, even if they had been surprising and transgressive at the start. By working with these direct questions the group found themselves having conversations that they would not otherwise have had, making themselves vulnerable and naming experiences in such a way that they were able to identify with each other and with an audience. The positive reception that the show received had taken them aback, being so wrapped up in what the process has given them the young women were surprised and moved to realise that this process would continue with the audience who also identified with and responded to the authenticity of the material, feeling that they had been understood through the story of another.

Hear from some of the Women’s Theatre Society in their own words (and bear with the bad audio – it gets better!)

Lecturer and former youth worker Jayne Mugglestone from Manchester Metropolitan University talked next about working with her final year Early years and Childhood studies students to explore the WRAP data. Jayne reflected on how the creative and participatory methods used to work with the data had transformed the students’ understandings of research but also how she had been reminded herself about what was possible in a university classroom setting. From a predominantly South Asian backgrounds and living in Greater Manchester the young women Jayne works with had been fascinated both by the continuities over the thirty years (nothing has changed) but also positive changes such as the way social media facilitates community for those who might otherwise be isolated. The experience of being in a community of women, asking difficult questions about sex that spanned thirty years was a powerful experience for the group – opening up their understanding of well-being and the role of women’s spaces of inquiry in making this important work happen.

Next up was Claire Fox Reader in Educational Psychology at MMU and Charlotte Bagnall, PhD student and associate lecturer – who shared with the audience how they had worked with BSc Educational Psychology students to use two transcripts from the WRAP archive to teach qualitative research methods, including the coding and interpretation of qualitative data. The richness of the material meant that students could focus on just three pages each from two transcripts generating rich findings about the inadequacy of school sex education and the workings of an informal sexual culture characterised by a sexual double standard and governance by sexual reputation. Here is their blog about their experience of using the archive as a teaching resource in higher education(and how to make methods teaching lively, ‘experience-near’ and feminist!)

Ali Ronan who acted as the coordinator for the youth work projects thanked all the projects and shared her view that the work has only just begun.

The final part of the event involved sharing the archive that has now been formally published in the University of Sussex repository where it will be preserved. Rachel presented this and thanked Rosie Gahnstrom for the huge amount of work that she has been doing in anonymising and cataloguing the data set. Janet Holland and Robert Albury were also thanked for the tricky and time consuming work of freeing the original data from obsolete media and machines. The archive will also be available through our Omeka platform (FAYS) where we will be creating ‘exhibitions’ using material we have collected and generated over the course of the project. This will give potential users a taste of how the WRAP archive can be used and explored and will help build a community around the archive.

The archive has been reverse engineered, and Manchester has been put back into the material and made visible. The archive will also remain in Manchester and people were encouraged to use it. 

Over the course of the project we have been exploring different versions of sharing and exploring and animating the archive, including the kinds of youth work and creative practice shared at this event. To conclude the event Rachel shared some initial reflections from another experiment we have been working on – the feminist chatbot. This has been developed in collaboration with a group of women learning to code at the University of Sussex as we explore new ways of asking questions directly of the archive. We introduced the room to the bot and asked everybody to write down one question they would like to ask of the archive. We tried one and the bot couldn’t answer, but we’ve kept their questions to help us understand what potential archive users might want a feminist chat bot to do and what future work might be done with the WRAP archive.

At this point the group went downstairs to the archives section of the library which was buzzing with people who had come for the International Women’s Day celebrations. Members of the public were invited to make their own felt square using material from the archive, an invitation that they responded to enthusiastically.

A huge thank you goes to Ester McGeeney who managed the reanimating work from a distance and planned and lead the day. An exhausting, exhilarating ending for an extraordinary project.

Teaching qualitative research methods using the reanimation data project archive

Charlotte Bagnall

Research methods are a core component of most degree-level programmes, but nonetheless renowned for being students’ least favourite component of their course. Tasked with the role of developing new content to teach qualitative research methods, within the Faculty of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, I was keen to demonstrate the usefulness and real-world implications of key qualitative methods and analysis to inspire my students. In doing so, I came across the ‘reanimating data project’ funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (for more information see: http://reanimatingdata.co.uk/about/), which gave my colleague Dr Claire Fox and I what we needed and ‘reanimated’ our students.

We had three weeks to work with the students on this project. Week One, students firstly learnt about the importance of archival data-digitising, sharing and re-using data, in addition to ethical considerations to take into account when conducting such work. This led on to Weeks Two and Three, where, following lectures on qualitative data analysis and more specifically Thematic Analysis, the students had the opportunity to conduct their own Thematic Analysis on real-world extracts taken from two interviews collected as part of the Women, Risk & AIDS Project (WRAP) social research study conducted in Manchester in 1989-90. Each student worked with three pages of data. Their research question was:

‘What are young women’s perceptions and experiences of sex education in the 1980s?’.

Prior to delivering the sessions, Claire and I had analysed the data ourselves. We were working with two interviews from the WRAP archive:  The interview with Simone, 18, White British, working class, Roman Catholic (Ref: NMC12) and the interview with Stacey, 20 – 21, White British, working class (Ref: MAG12). Two main themes emerged from our analysis: Basic or limited sex education and Gendered Double standards.

Basic or limited sex education was a semantic theme, in other words it described explicit, surface-level meaning within the data. This theme included talk about the basic and limited sex education the young women received within the 1980s. For example, sex education lessons were selective, passive and detached, with teachers only focussing on the biological aspects of sex and discussions about emotions and the relational aspects avoided. These gaps were in part shaped by teacher embarrassment and their assumptions of hopelessness, which meant that, as a result, sex education lessons had little impact, students instead having to take their education into their own hands and seek out magazines as a source of better information.

In contrast, Gendered double standards is a latent theme and looks beyond what is said to identify deeper-level implicit meaning within the data. Gendered double standards were evident in that boys and girls faced different pressures in relation to sex in the 1980s, girls particularly fearful about being labelled as ‘loose’, a ‘slag’ and acquiring a negative reputation if they engaged in sexual behaviour or discussed sex. This ultimately underpinned young women’s perceptions, experiences and relationships during this time.

In the session with students we presented our analysis findings by sharing one table for each theme with the codes and supporting quotes. We also shared a short write-up of the theme Gendered double standards as an example (You can read this here). Students were then asked to write up the other theme. 

It was clear through the students’ write up of the Basic or limited sex education theme that they had engaged well and become immersed within the data. Here is an example from one of our students.

The young women detailed the amount and depth of the sex education they received within Catholic schools in the 1980s. The idea of basic or limited sex education was shown by mentions of few lessons given, e.g. ‘we got a lesson once’ (Simone) and ‘there was no sex education at all’ (Stacey). Teachers would rush over lessons, or miss out crucial information. ‘She didn’t really go into detail; she just went very fast. So we didn’t have much time to think’ (Simone) and ‘she just said – you can’t get AIDS from this, you can get it from this’ (Simone).


Sex education largely had a biological focus, as opposed to informing students about safe sex. ‘Yeah, just like how babies are made, and that’s it’ (Simone), ‘Q: Did they talk about contraception? A: No’ (Simone). Students were not informed about the ways to prevent pregnancy or transfer of STIs: ‘Q: So did she say that if you use a condom you’ll be protected? A: No way’ (Simone) and ‘Q: Did they talk to you about contraception and STDs at school? A: No, nothing like that’ (Stacey). Furthermore, teachers did not explain relationship dynamics, or what emotions may arise when a student became sexually active, e.g. ‘nobody ever talked to you about the problems and the entanglements, and what it means to be in a relationship when you start having sex’ (Stacey). The girls also noted that any sex education they did receive only involved the teacher giving a short session of ‘just the basics’ (Simone), with no time allotted for further discussion or an opportunity to ask questions. ‘All we did was read from a book. We didn’t really discuss it or anything’ (Simone).


Sex education for the general student population was described to be a bare minimum. Some further education would be given if students opted to study biology; ‘only if you took biology in the fourth or fifth year, we did quite a bit’ (Simone). The feelings towards sex education within biology in later school years seemed to be more positive, with more extensive education on how the body works: ‘I learnt a lot from biology, you know, about sort of …and the insides and things’ (Stacey).  However, this more detailed teaching was reserved only for those who chose to study biology, and was not offered to other students.


The basic or limited sex education led to students having to take their education into their own hands. Girls would seek out magazines as a source for better information, namely ‘man and woman’. Stacey explained that ‘we read them all! I think I learned a lot off that’. School sex education sessions left large gaps that the girls filled independently outside of school.
Overall, the girls explained that they received quite poor sex education. Between teachers rushing lessons, and only providing factual information, to more information being kept back from the wider student body, and only being taught to fulfil the exam curriculum, students’ sex education was basic and limited.

Angel Mellor-Davis, Year 1 Educational Psychology, MMU

There was such a depth to the data, that we were able to give students just three pages of data and a simple but constructive task to get them enthused and engaged in qualitative data analysis. They can take this learning with them and apply it to a different dataset for their assignment. Students discussed similarities and differences between the sex education they received and that of the young girls within the transcripts. However, with hindsight we could have done more of this and perhaps used it to teach students about ‘reflexivity’.

It has been great to be part of this project and use the WRAP data to the benefit of our students, and I am looking forward to involvement in further projects stemming from the reanimating data project archive.

Feminist chatbot 2: front /back, questions/ answers; now/then

Rachel Thomson

This workshop (second in the series) focused our attention on the relationship between the front end of the bot (written in Java and creating the interface with the user, designed to hear and decipher their question) and the back end of the bot – the potential answers to the question that takes the form of a data base or archive (and created in python code within a flask container). Workshop leader Suze Shardlow encouraged us to think through all the stages that might be involved in a simple question and answer cycle – each action requiring construction. Here we see one attempt to map the stages involved.

Suze encouraged us to juxtapose a typical commercial application for a chat bot (for example online Pizza ordering) and our attempt to use a chat bot as an interface for an archive made up of interviews conducted in a conversational style. So for example, the question ‘how can I help you’ on a pizza order site is limited in its potential answers to the menu offered by the restaurant. The questions that we might ask the WRAP archive and the kinds of answers that could be evoked are not so constrained.  So how do we begin the process of focusing down the kinds of questions that can be asked and the potential answers that can be given?

We could offer our users a limited set of FAQs to choose between. This would make things easier in the short-term, but it would also mean that we miss out on discovering what it is that contemporary audiences want to ask. It would also derail our desire to mimic conversation – to create the feeling that the user is talking directly to Mary and to the past that was so powerful in the first workshop when we first met Mary.

Thinking about potential questions also prompted a discussion about what was feminist about our bot. Would she for example refuse to ask certain questions, suggest that people reflect a bit more or simply suggest that they ‘google’ that one. How censorious and how curious would our chat bot-be?

We also had to think through the relationship between the questions asked through our chat-bot today (which would be relayed to the archive) and the questions asked thirty years ago by researchers. At one level this is an entirely practical matter – perhaps we could simply piggy-back on the original questions, re-using these to call up original answers. The problem with this strategy is that the interviews were highly conversational in style – it can be hard to isolate a single question and answer as we see below in this extract from an interview with Melanie:

Q: How about ways to stop it being sexually transmitted? Do you know how you can not catch it, I mean what safe sex is?
A: Oh yes, using a condom.
Q: Is there anything else that would count as safe sex other than using a condom?
A: No.
Q: Right, I’m not testing you. I’m generally trying to find out what type of things people know.
A: I think this is terrible actually, I really haven’t thought about it and I’m realising that I know so little about it’
Q: For instance would something like oral sex, would you know if it had any risk attached to it or not?
A: Well no I wouldn’t, but I would imagine that I would say it has.
Q: Right. So you’ve got a general idea of how it’s …
A: I’m assuming it has, is that right?

So, if we don’t piggy-back on the old questions, do we simply ignore them? In relation to the above example we might train the chat bot to hear a question that includes the word ‘safe sex’ – how do you understand safe sex? Do you practice safe sex? And we might select this particular extract from Melanie as an answer ‘I think this is terrible actually, I really haven’t thought about it and I’m realising that I know so little about it’. This allows for a direct relationship with the contemporary questioner and Melanie. Alternatively, the original researcher could be treated as an integral part of the conversation. Following this logic our contemporary user might ask a question of the archive along the lines of ‘how was safer sex talked about in the interviews’ – allowing an extract of conversation to count as an answer.

For the members of the workshop, this question linked directly to our explorations of who/ where/ how the feminism of the project sits and the relationship between feminism then (as captured in the approach of feminist researchers), feminism now (as captured by our decisions as to how to engineer the relationship between the front and back end of the bot) but also feminism (?) of the user whose questions have the potential to open the archive up in new ways.

And this takes us to the final key area of our discussion during the workshop which was the relationship between a rule-based design for training our bot to make links between questions and potential answers and a machine learning approach  (Artificial Intelligence) approach where the bot works directly with the language of the data set rather than the way that it is coded – having been already trained for the task using rule based approaches that are no longer visible to us. In thinking through these alternative strategies we considered the primary role of the chat-bot as a user-facing tool that would helps people access the archive – rather than a tool for analysis of the archive. In terms of the ambitions of the FACT workshop and the RAD project our aims are relatively modest – to collaboratively build a simple chat-bot and to gain an understanding of the labour involved in this process (FACT), and to experiment with ways of reanimating the data set to encourage new users and to learn about the questions they may have (RAD).

As with the previous workshop we also learned about the painstaking process of coding and that things take much longer than you might think – both in building the front end of the chat-bot and in preparing the data for the back-end. Our immediate plan is to mark up 5 interviews with around 10 key words as a first stage of creating a relationship between possible questions and potential replies. On Saturday March 7th we are introducing our pilot version of the chat-bot to her first audience at an International Women’s Day event at Manchester Central Reference Library where we will showcase some of the  ‘reanimation experiments’ that have been part of the RAD project.