So what is a chat-bot, and can they be a feminist? Most of us only have experience of chat-bots providing help in our online banking, drawing on an archive of possible answers trained by AI to match up with recognised questions. Cecile and Sharon explain: ‘Our feminist approach to computation means that we are not just coding for coding’s sake, we are interested in critiquing both the means of production (e.g. the process of making) and the outcomes (e.g. the software/object created). This also means that the data and the context of our coding work are important. Therefore, we are delighted to announce that we have teamed up with the Reanimating Data Project to create a chat-bot that speaks to the Women’s Risk and Aids Project archive (WRAP).’
So Friday was the first in
the series of workshops and Suze worked patiently with a diverse group of
participants whose expertise ranged from ‘complete novice’ to ‘rusty’. We learned
about the difference between the ‘front’ and ‘back-end’ of applications and
gained a sense of the painstaking work that goes into to creating the kinds of
interfaces and functionalities that we take for granted. As part of setting up
the task I brought along some of the original pamphlets from the study. However
it was when we connected our coding to dummy data from the archive that we got
a taste of what it might mean to create an interface. The chat bot asked us who
we wanted to talk with in the archive. We said ‘Mary’. And then Mary appeared,
ready to answer our questions: a voice from the past meeting us in the present.
At this point there was an avalanche of questions about the original study, how
old were they now, were they even alive? What had the original consents
entailed and how it might be possible to translate them into a new media
landscape. The conversation moved into our own teenage experiences, questions
about what had changed in intimate relations over 30 years and how much we had
in common as women from different backgrounds and cultures. We also began to
understand the power of the chat-bot as a tool for a new kind of data analysis:
what kinds of questions would she be asked, how would these shape her approach
to the archived material. Even though we knew “Mary” was a sequence of Python
statements there was still an overwhelming emotional response to “Mary”
speaking back – especially for those, like myself and Sharon, who have been
working on the data for the last year.
Our plan is to work towards
building a chat-bot over the next two months and for this to be part of our
presentation of the fruits of the Reanimating Data Project in Manchester on March 7th. We don’t
know what this will look like, we expect that Suze will need to finish it off
for us. We are also unsure whether the chat-bot-and-archive will need
supervision – probably. We know that there are difficult stories in this
archive, including stories of bad and non-consensual sex, or loneliness and
self-doubt. These are also part of the historical record and while we have made
sure that the interviews are anonymous we are unwilling to censor or erase the substantive
content. So we just need to think carefully about the situations in which the chat-bot
is used and to understand a bit more about the black box of AI that we evoke
when we say the bot is trained with the data. In what ways might we need to
intervene in order to encourage her to be a feminist-bot?
Yet again, the project of reanimation has brought up vital contemporary questions. Starting with an archive is an exciting prospect, opening up many opportunities for discovery, collaboration and play. I am very grateful to Sharon and Cecile for agreeing to work with the WRAP project. Not only are we developing some of the skills and awareness necessary for understanding how to make things in a digital age, we are also bringing together tools and materials in new ways that open up the possibilities of what a (feminist) chat-bot might be. I am especially intrigued to fund out what people want to ask the past as well as to discover if these questions reveal aspects of the archive that have as yet been occluded.
In April 2019, I gave a paper, “How did portrayals of ‘disruptive sex’ change for teenage girls in the magazines of 1950–2000?”, at the Rethinking Disruptive Sex conference at LSHTM; my paper referenced WRAP paper 4, ‘Learning about sex’, by Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott. Later at the same conference, Rachel spoke about WRAP in connection with her current reanimation project that explores changes and continuities in girls lives and gendered sexual cultures over the past 30 years.This started a conversation about possible connections between the WRAP data and my own research, which explores girls’ interactions with magazines in the late 20th century.
My research is a historical study that uses readings of girls’ magazines of the late 20th century, and results from a survey of adult women about their recollections of the magazines they read as teenagers. Many of these women were reading the same late 1980s and early 1990s magazines that the original WRAP participants could have read. My research focuses on the letters that girls wrote to magazines, exploring the ways in which they engaged with and critiqued magazine content. What’s clear from the letters that girls wrote to magazines, and which repeatedly emerged from my survey results, was that girls had very limited ways of accessing information about sex. They described being unable to talk to their parents, having no siblings (especially those who have no brothers needing to learn about boys), and about the inadequacies of the school curriculum in covering these topics. Both the WRAP data and my survey data make it clear that for some girls, magazines were able to fill this gap and provide some straightforward, helpful advice:
[I learned] Far, far more about sex and relationships [from magazines] than I would otherwise have known; safe sex, healthy relationship advice that no-one else was giving.
(My survey respondent 1)
Jackie magazines were quite good actually. They’re really sexist but they were good for things like [periods].
(WRAP interview ALS20)
Girls were not all uncritical readers – some of them recognised that much of what they read was romantic generalisations, which turned out to be at odds with the girl’s experience of relationships with boys:
[I read] Jackie, and My Guy, and […] You know you just get an idea somehow from these magazines that the boy will take you out, and will be really nice to you, and at the end, they’ll kiss, and you think […] That’s the way it’s meant to be
(WRAP interview MAG12)
The lifestyles described seemed so far from my own that it was more like reading fiction than fact. Especially […] ‘dating’ as an event rather than something you sort of slipped into. The idea of ‘going on a date’ was totally alien to us.
(My survey respondent 9)
Nevertheless, magazines remained a major source of information for these girls, and the 1980s and 1990s represented something of a turning point in the way they covered sex and relationships. The girls’ magazines earlier in the 20th century were navigating a difficult balance between the dangers of too little information, and social pressures opposed to magazines offering too much information. In the 1980s however that balance slowly began to change, in the wake of influences including AIDS and second wave feminism. In girls’ magazines of the 1970s and earlier, coverage of sex was almost exclusively along the lines of ‘boys want it, and it’s up to girls to say no’, with no acknowledgement of any reason girls might want to say yes at any point before marriage. In the 1980s, that began to change, as demonstrated by this reader letter published in Jackie:
I’m 17 and I have a boyfriend I love very much. I’ve been having sex with him for over a year and up until now I’ve been lucky, but one day I won’t and I’ll get pregnant. We usually use a condom, but I’m still worried. I mean to say ‘no’, but I love him so much I can’t.
(Jackie, 9 May 1987, p. 25)
The landscape had changed enough that the magazine response entirely ignores the last sentence, and focuses instead on advice about contraception. Teenage sex between couples who are in love (perhaps especially when the girl means to say no) was no longer always frowned upon.The WRAP captured similar experiences of women who were having regular unprotected sex with a partner – knowing that they shouldn’t, scared they might get pregnant, but unsure how to have the conversation about contraception or to know who to turn to for help and advice.
QU: This boy you went out with for 9 months. Did you use any contraception? AN: No. QU: Why? AN: Cos he wouldn’t wear a condom, I weren’t on the pill. QU: Were you worried about that? AN: Yeah. QU: Was he? AN: Yeah, both of us was really. I kept on thinking, oh no, I’ve got.. [unclear]…yesterday.. I was really scared, I thought, cos I came on early, so I thought, what’s happening, what’s going on? It’s quite unlike me to come on two weeks early.
(WRAP, interview AMB18)
Experiences like these sometimes prompted girls to write in to magazines to try and help others learn from their example, as in this letter in the Just Seventeen problem page:
Recently, I was at a party and met a boy I thought was really nice. We both got drunk and ended up having sex without contraception. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d been sober, and afterwards I felt so cheap and dirty. I was a virgin before this happened and I’d always hoped that when I lost my virginity it would be with someone I cared for, and it would be a loving and pleasurable experience. It didn’t turn out that way. When my period was late, I became so worried, thinking I must be pregnant. Eventually, my period arrived late and the relief I felt has led me to write this letter. I feel I nearly ruined my life because I got drunk, and I’m never going to let this happen again. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, and hope you print this to help other people realise how stupid it is to behave like this.
Tricia, Edinburgh. (16 November 1988: 51)
Just Seventeen at this point carried quite a few similar letters from girls who had taken risks with sex and wanted to help others avoid making the same mistakes, despite the fact that they themselves must have previously read similar stories and made the mistake anyway. This is however, part of increasing acceptance in the magazines of girls’ sexuality, and experimentation with sex, even if in sometimes-risky ways.
The late 80s was also the era of a beginning discussion in girls magazines about pleasure in sex for girls and women, which participants in both my survey, and the WRAP interviews, picked up on, albeit somewhat tangentially:
I just sort of knew vaguely that women can have orgasms [from] problem pages
(WRAP interview MAG12)
I learnt the word ‘orgasm’ in magazines, and an awful lot of tips for pleasuring boys. Disturbing considering the age bracket…
(My survey respondent 27)
So although magazine readers of the late 1980s and early 1990s discovered the theoretical possibility of pleasure in sex for women, it would take longer for this to translate into the right to expect pleasure. The conversation was still focussed on girls’ right to say no to sex, with the possibility of saying yes often only implicit in the discussion, or otherwise portrayed as problematic in some way. For example, 19 magazine, aimed at older teenagers, ran an article in 1991 about girls who sleep around, which includes the statement that ‘girls have as much right to do it as boys’, but moderates that right with questions about their motives in doing so:
But are they really happy? Tricia Kreitman thinks not. ‘There is something missing in these girls’ lives,’ she says. ‘They are looking for a sense of worth, to feel attractive and wanted, and they are hoping to find it through sex.’
(March 1991, p. 16)
This example from Just Seventeen is unusually explicit about girls right to say ‘yes’ to sex and in its critique of the slut-shaming discourse that could be read elsewhere:
[T]he only reason why you should have sex […] Because you want to. That means not feeling threatened or bullied and not having sex to appear mature […] being a virgin is nothing to be proud of or ashamed of. You shouldn’t feel inadequate if you’re lacking in experience, or ashamed if you have had sex before […] If you feel ready to have sex with your partner, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make the first move. It doesn’t mean you’re “loose”. Just that you’re taking the lead.
(Just Seventeen, 15 June 1988, p. 37)
The WRAP captured young womens’ experiences of negotiating sex and relationships against this shifting and often contradictory backdrop. Interviewees were frequently asked about their experiences and expectations of pleasure in sexual relationships and although the authors of the study concluded that sexual pleasure was largely ‘missing’ from women’s experiences of heterosexuality there were also examples of young women enjoying sex and trying to make sense of their pleasure using the limited discursive frameworks available to them, as this field note shows.
First sexual rel. at 15 with a 17 year old boy. Did it because she wanted to, says she was not pressured. Her mum is a health visitor and wanted her to stay a virgin until she got married, she didn’t think that that was realistic anymore.
Present relationship with a boy who she thinks she will stay with permanently. I asked her what made him different and one of the central reasons was that he was good in bed, and/or she actually enjoys sex with him. This lead to a conversation about expectations of sexual pleasure. I asked her if men and women had sex for same reasons, she said that women had sex for different reasons, they were more interested in the emotional side and men in the physical.
(Fieldnote for interview AMD10).
Despite the increasingly liberal approach to young women’s sexuality in girls magazines, participants in both WRAP and my own study looked back at their younger magazine-reading selves with some anxiety, and took pains to distance themselves in their present-day critical-thinker personas:
I think […] you always sort of learn things from magazines but I don’t know whether they’re the right things. Because they are all biased aren’t they especially the problem pages.
(WRAP interview BT08)
I didn’t really know how to read this critically, I just absorbed everything.
(My survey participant 55)
Some readers of the magazines did, however, read critically, and some magazines even encouraged this. Mizz in the 1990s was one such, running frequent debate articles on topics like abortion, and sex before marriage, featuring readers arguing the case and responding to each other; the magazine also encouraged readers to write letters arguing with things they’d read in the magazine, and frequently published these. Also appearing in the 1990s, a few years too late for the WRAP participants, was a magazine which whole-heartedly endorsed pleasure in sex for women and girls: more!, fondly remembered by my survey respondents for the ‘position of the fortnight’ and the idea that sex should be fun:
I remember that more! was really sex positive. Giving positions of the week and generally telling girls how to enjoy sex.
(My survey respondent 11)
Every issue of more! in that period contained a double-page spread on sex, including the position of the fortnight, reader letters, mini articles and trivia, as well as the usual amount of sexual content on the main problem pages. But readers’ recollections of this are coloured by their adult ideas about age-appropriate reading matter, for example:
In more! they had ‘position of the fortnight’ which I always thought was quite highly sexualized given the reading age.
(My survey respondent 31)
The WRAP interviewees who complained about the content of their magazines might have been consoled by some small improvements in these magazines in the following decade, with magazines like Mizz encouraging readers think critically about the world around them, including about issues of sex and romance, albeit while still portraying a world where girls must act as gatekeepers for the sex that boys want from them. For the daughters of the WRAP interviewees, and the daughters of my respondents, seeking information about sex in the twenty-first century is a very different proposition. There is infinitely more information available, but finding the good stuff in amongst the bad can seem impossibly difficult. The next challenge may be how to help today’s young women to navigate that.
We are working with the notion of ‘queer rematriation’ to account for some of our hopes and intentions in bringing back to Manchester, thirty years later, interviews carried out with young women living there in the late 1980s as part of a foundational ESRC research project, the Women Risk and Aids Project (WRAP). We are creating an open archive of these interviews and we are engaging in projects to work with that archive with groups of young women in Manchester now. We take up the concept and practice of rematriation from indigenous feminist scholars and activists (Muthien n.d.); Moro 2018; Tuck 2011; Gaztambide-Fernández 2013) to ask how we might put this to work in UK sociology, and especially UK-based feminist research, to explore what is at stake in plans to re-turn and share data with the communities where the data was originally created.
While for some it may seem counterintuitive to bring indigenous feminist theory and methodology to the UK, to Manchester, we suggest that taking seriously indigenous critiques of the colonial logics of research practice can also be revealing about the practice of research closer to home. The colonial logics of research don’t only unfold overseas and do not disappear in the UK but may seem harder to trace and unravel. Bernadette Muthien (2011) in her advice to ‘European allies’ suggests a focus on ‘rematriating [one’s] own ancient knowledge and practice as women-centred (instead of gawking at Native women as exotic and ideal)’. And while our knowledge may not be so ancient – although sometimes the 1980s do seem an unimaginably long time ago – we are committed to generating and sharing feminist knowledge across and with different generations.
In trying to take seriously the question of what it means to return these interviews to Manchester, rematriation is a challenging ambition. Rematriation is not just about a simple act of return, not a repatriation of objects or artefacts back to a point of origin, not just dumping the data and us returning to our universities (which this team never exclusively inhabited anyway). Rather we are challenged to work through the ambivalent gift (Diprose 2012; Hird 2010) of revisiting their making, 30 years later, to create new connections, to recognise the need to do the work of cultivating new relationships. Rematriation takes the politics and practices of return seriously. Rematriation asks how do we revisit a moment in place and time in order to give birth to new feminisms and new feminists, or perhaps just to create a new space of possibility. This revisit is best understood not as a search for origins but as retracing and remaking genealogies and about creating an opening for different points of departure, different lines of flight. Against Descartian ‘I think therefore I am’, Muthien proposes ‘I am because I belong’ – I am because I am connected. Rematriation is a generative relational conceptual and ethical framework for making our intentions explicit, shifting from research ‘on’ to research ‘with’ – from us using the data to also asking how communities might use the data, and to doing the work to create and forge new relationships. In this sense, rematriation is not about deferring to a reified ‘sense of place’ but rather about making a commitment to what Val Plumwood has called ‘an ethic of place’ (Plumwood 2005); that is paying attention to how places are connected and related and how some places – ‘shadow places’ – flourish at the expense of others, how universities might flourish at the expense of the geographical communities, or communities of practice which resource them (Plumwood 2008).
At the same time, given the provenance of ‘rematriation’, we also signal to the complexities of power relations in research. UK social science has often been an extractive economy, with stories and lives renamed data, recorded and removed from communities, repackaged in journal articles and books, and hidden in filing cabinets or behind the licencing arrangements of more formal archives so that communities and individuals do not have access to their own stories. Just because much sociological work tends to be done ‘at home’ rather than abroad does not mean that it is necessarily less extractive, any less bound up in complex power relations, than disciplines such as social anthropology that have had to begin to deal explicitly with their own origin stories. As with other academics, feminist academics are not innocent here, committed to creating knowledge, but also at times complicit in the extraction of stories and knowledges; at the same time feminism’s commitment to reflexivity and questions of power also provides conceptual resources and politics for thinking through some of these complexities, and drives our work here.
For indigenous scholars and activists rematriation commonly signals a reclaiming of an entangled commitment to life, to germination and regeneration, which necessarily includes land, and nature, as queer kin in an ongoing project of co-creation. Yet the very strangeness of an injunction to reclaim knowledge and return it to a generative source, seems indicative of just how instrumentalised and distant our relationship with land has become. The idea of such a return seems incomprehensible. Land has become property; or perhaps landscape, suggesting a view from afar; at best as social researchers we might explore relationships with ‘place’. What on earth could a relationship with land in Manchester mean? It seems no accident to me that it is in the intergenerational and transgenerational practice of feminist youth work, taken up in Feminist Webs, and now working through this project of Re-animating Data: experiments with people, places and archives, that we find new ways of telling stories of women’s knowledges. There was some hands-on relating to the land involved in the emergence of our efforts to rework relationships with data. I first became involved with Feminist Webs a project partner, through talking with Amelia Lee while digging on a small patch of overgrown allotment in south Manchester being worked by the Young Women’s Health Project. It was a cold wet day when Amelia mentioned a possible funding application for a participatory oral history project which would see girls and young women in youth groups interviewing older feminist youth workers across Manchester and the north west. Since then I have been drawn into the sticky Feminist Webs, where the importance of the LGBT Centre in Manchester and other youth groups, and generations of feminist youth workers, in holding tight to spaces for girls’ work and girls’ groups, has been key.
The passing on of stories by older feminist youth workers which were about the fight for working with girls, made possible in the context of a participatory feminist herstory-making project, was necessarily a project of re-making feminism with different generations. Against the gatekeeper logic of social science where the idea of the archive has at times been presented as a paternalistic protection of data, to be made available only to bona fide researchers – a ‘protection’ which means that research participants themselves were unlikely to be able to access their own interview transcripts, we explore what it means to share stories with the communities that generated them. Muthien stresses the importance of rematriation to the feminist movement more widely. She speaks of the need to reclaim women’s knowledge of feminism. So foregrounding rematriation is a way to demonstrate that our project is informed by histories of feminist theory and practice that have troubled any sharp distinction between theory and activism, academia and communities. At the heart of rematriation is a commitment to reclaiming the regenerative power of feminist story-telling and/as knowledge co-creation and sharing with and through generations, in order to give birth to new queer feminist kin and new movements of feminism.
Questions abound for us – will anyone in Manchester now want our ambivalent gift? What kinds of feminist genealogies might we remake? (How) will our invitation to work together be received? Who will speak back?
Diprose, Rosalyn. 2012. Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas. SUNY Press.
Hird, Myra J. 2010. ‘The Life of the Gift’. Parallax 16 (1): 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/13534640903478676.
Moro, Andy. 2018. ‘DECLARATION: When Indians Act’. Canadian Theatre Review, January. https://doi.org/10.3138/ctr.173.014.
Muthien, Bernadette. n.d. ‘Rematriation of Women-Centred (Feminist) Indigenous Knowledge’. http://www.gift-economy.com/articlesAndEssays/rematriation.pdf.
Plumwood, Val. 2005. ‘Decolonising Australian Gardens: Gardening and the Ethics of Place’. Australian Humanities Review: Ecological Humanities Corner, no. 36 (July). http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2005/07/01/decolonising-australian-gardens-gardening-and-the-ethics-of-place/.
———. 2008. ‘Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling’. Australian Humanities Review: Ecological Humanities Corner, no. 44 (March). http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2008/03/01/shadow-places-and-the-politics-of-dwelling/.
Tuck, Eve (2011) ‘Rematriating Curriculum Studies’. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 8:1(34–37).
One of the ways that we have been thinking about our methods
of reanimation is through the metaphor of the ‘worm-hole’ (thanks to Caroline
Bassett at our kick-off event for this). The definition of a worm-hole is
something that connects two points in space-time – allowing travel
between. We think that this is a great
way of thinking about the different experiments that we have been making in
this project – using documents from the Women, Risk and AIDS project as a
medium through which to connect now (2019) and then (1989). Wormholes can take
many different forms. Auto-biography is one way of doing it – maybe the easiest
for me: connecting me-then and me-now. But it is a bit exclusive. Opening up a
worm-hole so that others can join in is where the action is.
On October 21st we will be showcasing one of our worm-hole experiments as part of the Brighton Digital Festival. We are working with fragments of original audio recordings in which young men and sociologists talk about sex (collected as part of the Men Risk & AIDS Project). If it works, our experiment will communicate something of the 30 years of time encompassed by the project – a period characterised by a revolution in technology alongside spectacular yet elusive changes in sexual culture and values. The question of ‘what really counts’ focuses attention on number and marking time – including a sensitivity to timing in making a relationship; how the passage of time makes things look different; and the struggle over time that underpins an attention economy.
In creating this worm-hole we have layered and combined different practical strategies for connecting moments. It is a ‘spell’ that brings together heterogeneous materials with focused intention. We have included biographical time (by inviting original interviewers to re-speak and record questions with questions first asked in interviews in 1990). We have included material time (by changing analog into digital and digital into analog), methodological time (counterposing two generations of feminist methodology) and aesthetic time (connecting a 90’s ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic to a contemporary cut and paste political economy). Paradoxically, the intensity of the mash-up creates space – between questions and answers, between contexts and media and between generations. We hope to have forged a worm-hole that is inviting, inclusive and collective.
Please join us on 21st October at the Sussex Humanities Lab (Silverstone Building) where the installation will be open all day culminating in a question and answer session at 4pm where collaborators Rachel Thomson, Alex Peverett and Janet Holland will hold a Q&A. All welcome.
Today I went to Levenshulme and back to go to a session with
the project that Ali Ronan has been running with the Levenshulme girls group. Our
pilot reanimating data project where we work with a group of girls aged 12-18 to
explore different ways of working with data from the WRAP archive and finding
out what it means to ‘reanimate’ it in 2019. We want to see if the girls are
interested in the archive and in the 1989 young women’s stories, to develop
some reanimation techniques and in doing so see what we learn about sex, gender
and social change. I travelled up for what would be their fifth session. So far
they have looked at clips from 1980s Top of the Pops and discussed black women
in music. They have read short extracts from the WRAP archive, usually
performing the roles of interviewer and interviewee in pairs. The extracts have
kicked off conversations about lying to your mum, being a Muslim in Britain, sex
education, periods, taking risk sand gender roles. The group have also played
games, got to know each other and discussed research ethics and
Former youth worker and historian Ali has been running the
project, working with youth worker Toni who has now left to start another job and
project lead Marianna. I don’t live in Manchester and for me to take part in what
will be session 5 its an 11 hour round trip. A long day for a 1.5 hour session but
well worth it. Because it ended up being much more than a 1.5 hour session. It
was a meeting with Ali in the community café at Inspire, where the Levenshulme
girls group meet to reflect on the work so far and plan the next stages. A chance
to see the STUFF the group have been creating – long rolls of paper with body
outlines on them, where the girls have had a go at naming and fleshing out the
WRAP interviewees. They imagined one WRAP girl – until now called MIS09 – as
Haleema. 15 years old, really smart, a small group of friends (but popular),
loves sport, running and football, 6 siblings. Very strict and religious. She
wears a headscarf but remains otherwise faceless. The other girl (we’ve been
calling her AMB18) is Malaika. She takes pictures of nature, she doesn’t wear
make up, she’s pretty, beautiful, she can sing, she’s artistic, a nice person,
she’s popular, she cares about the world and she’s finished school. She wears
her hair half up and has one big eye open.
My trip was also a chance to meet Paula Carley, a fantastic new addition to our project team who is working with us on several of the Manchester projects as part of her engagement role for Manchester libraries. Paula is a digital artist who brought along 6 ipads, a bag of sharpies, paper and microphones to the session. Just seeing this STUFF got me excited about the possibilities for reanimation. Paula also brought print outs of some of the images the group had made the previous week when she had come along to the session with her colleague Siobhan. Siobhan had worked with half the group who were interested in comic strips. They had experimented with using the app ‘Comic’, taking photos of themselves (and of Malaika) and adding captions.
My trip was also a chance to see Marianna Vareli, who leads
the Levenshulme girls group, again. Marianna was just back from Greece and had
missed a couple of sessions. Ali brought her up to speed and we planned for
what would happen over the summer. Marianna explained that the numbers often
drop off over summer as most of the girls come straight from school and when
school finishes they have quite a distance to travel. We agreed to keep the
project going if the girls are interested. It was volunteer youth worker Nadine
who first introduced us to the project but she hasn’t been able to come for a
few weeks. Whilst Marianna has been away youth worker Toni has kept things
going but she has now left to go to a new job. Ali has been running the project
but she’s also now off on holiday for 6 weeks so now the project is over to
Marianna and Paula and me. A rotating team of youth worker, researcher, artist
Sitting in the community café we also had a chance meeting with
Dez who heads up the Levenshulme Youth Project. Dez was interested in the
project and what we were doing and asked us what would happen at the end of it.
He’d like us to have a community event in the café at the end of the project, perhaps
with screen showing any films the girls have made. He says he always looking
for ways for the community to see what the youth project is doing. We reflected
that we weren’t quite sure how the project would end as it depended on what the
girls would like to do. The group have been working in a participatory mode. Allowing
time for the girls to consider how they might want to take the project forward
and what kinds of creative modes they might like to explore. Four weeks in and we
are still not sure where the project is going or what the focus might be. There’s
an interest in illustration and comics and themes have emerged around risk,
respect, periods, mothers, boundaries and race. But we’ve yet to negotiate
where the project might go or what the end product might be. Ali reflected that
going into a project without your agenda (Right! We are doing a drama project)
is much slower, more uncertain and unpredictable. We all reflected that youth
work is slow. In this project each session is only 1.5 hours and by the time
everyone has arrived, chatted, introduced themselves and played some games, there’s
not much time left. Each week Ali has observed that there has been too much to
say and too much to do. The previous week had been particularly hectic as film-maker
Marie had arrived and consent forms and permissions needed to be negotiated and
Paula and Siobhan from Manchester libraries had been there. There were lots of
adults and time was needed to get to know each other and start to build
Outside of the sessions it has also taken time to sift
through the data to find extracts that might be suitable. The archive is not
yet in any order. Not all of the transcripts have been anonymised and there are
certainly no codes or tags to help navigate easily to extracts or interviews
that would ‘work’ for this particular group. Most of the Levy girls are younger than the
WRAP girls (sometimes by about 10 years) and it appears that sex, sexuality and
relationships are not hot topics that are easily discussed within the group. We
were told from the outset that the girls are young and that many of them are
from strict religious families. A warning perhaps? And one that was somewhat confirmed
In the first session when Ali showed a clip from Top of the Pops as a safe and
easy starter to the project and one girl remarked that she isn’t normally allowed
to watch that kind of thing at home. A risky move when we thought we were
playing it safe.
Starting our creative work in Manchester with the Levy girls
has been productive. Forcing us to think about what it is possible to do and
whether the work is possible at all. It has challenged me to think again about
what it means for material to be ‘appropriate’ in education contexts. I keep checking
that in my selection of extracts from the group I am not censoring material unnecessarily,
falling into the age old sex education trap of giving young people too little
and too late, perhaps shaped also in this case by (my own?) racist ideas about
what young religious and migrant girls do and don’t need in relation to
sexuality and relationships. Not that it
has been hard to find extracts. Each interview is full of material about women’s
lives, families, career choices, friendships, social lives, bodies and health.
There’s material about politics and discrimination, migration, poverty and social
mobility. It’s within this context that the interviewees talk about (and as a
reader you come to understand) their sexual experiences, relationships, desires
For session five we had decided to focus on risk. This was a
theme that had emerged from earlier discussions, with one young woman
reflecting that she doesn’t take risks but would like to die her hair purple. Ali
and I decide that we will re-ask one of the questions that the interviewer asks
to lots of the interview participants: Are you someone who likes to take risks?
In the WRAP archive the responses are beautifully varied. One young woman says
she sometimes doesn’t pay the right bus fare, another says she once smoked
dope, another has booked a holiday she can’t afford and another stole some
tampons from a club toilet. Our plan is to explore this data and reanimate it,
using Paula, the iPad and the comic app.
Unusually most of the girls don’t turn up, perhaps because it’s
the end of term. So we only have the two older girls who act as peer educators
within the group. We all introduce ourselves and then Ali opens up a
conversation about confidentiality. E and A say that this isn’t something that
they talk about much at school, only when the teacher wants to take you outside
of the room to have a talk. It comes up a bit in E’s health and social care
course and in A’s psychology course and in her photography course where they
are told that they need to get people to sign model release forms. Although as
Paula reflects, as a photographer you don’t actually need consent to take
photos of people in public places.
We work in pairs, two peer educators, two youth workers, a researcher
and an artist. Paula gives each pair a mike and we record ourselves being
asked: are you someone who likes to take risks? Paula and I reflect on how this has changed
over time with both of us feeling like we used to be a lot more able to take
risks than we do now. We all reflect as a group that this is a hard question to
answer. Much like many of the WRAP girls we struggle to come up with something
to say. Next A and E perform a couple of extracts, audio recording so that we
will have material that the group can use to play around with in making
animated material. The first extract is about the girl who says the only risk
she takes is going on a holiday that she hasn’t paid for. This doesn’t seem
that risky initially, although it leads to A telling us about the time she went
to Lonodn on her own on the coach. This was scarey (and something E. definitely
feels that she would never do) and A. didn’t feel brave enough to leave her
friends house much in the three days she was there. When it came to getting the
coach home she couldn’t find the coach stop and found herself wondering up and
down the Hammersmith Road looking for the coach and then crying as she realised
she’d missed her coach and had no idea what to do. All the adults imagine that
young people get taught lots of about ‘risky behaviours’ at school but A and E
don’t seem to have. There’s not much on drugs and when we read the extract about
the girl who smoked dope once, A and E reflect that this doesn’t seem that
risky anymore. Lots of people do it and the police don’t care. Next we read about
the girl whose risk is sometimes not paying the right bus fare and once taking
tampons from a club toilet. Not paying the right bus fare isn’t possible anymore
the girls say although you can back pass your bus pass, slipping it through the
line of people so that more than one person can use the same pass. And stealing
tampons is fair enough. They should be free anyway. We all agree.
We run out of time and there was none left for doing and
making. Its hard to find the balance between unpicking and discussing and
creating and doing. Ali observed that the previous week they had split into two
groups, one led by Ali and one by Siobhan. Youth worker Ali focussed on
process, discussion, meanings and group relationships. Artist Siobhan focussed
on product – creating the comic strips and using the comic app. We agree we
need a combination of both and that perhaps its time to orientate this group towards
making a product.
We are learning that the work is slow, that we need to talk
as we do or the doing will never happen and that youth work is unpredictable. We
are also learning that the WRAP extracts will take us in unforeseen (and
forseen) directions. Or as Rachel Thomson has suggested – that the WRAP extracts are wormholes – tunnels
through space-time that you dive in to at one end and never quite know where in
space-time you will journey to. Jumping into one story from 1980s Manchester about
NUR19’s ‘risky’ decision to go on a holiday she can’t afford takes us straight
to London in 2019 and A’s story of getting lost and panicky in London. Then we
are off to 1980s Paris as Paula tells us her partners story about getting separated
from her friend on the metro and roaming around the city to try and find her in
a pre-mobile, pre-digital era.
We plan for future weeks to try out creating a comic strip
or using the book creator app to create a book that animates the WRAP girls
stories. The girls are interested in stories of migration, of fitting in and
not fitting in when you move to a new place. More wormholes to fall down and
see where we end up.
In March we held two workshops in Manchester. The first was an academic workshop: Rematriating the WRAP: Connecting academic and community archives. Centring around the key concept of ‘rematriation’ we explored what it means to bring an archive back to the place it was created and abstracted from. We were a mix of mainly historians and social scientists drawing on our different traditions to explore the following themes of revisit and return, archiving and digitzing, reanimating and accessing.
Rematriation: We were in Manchester – one of the two cities from which the WRAP material was extracted. We are working there over the next year to return the data – to give it back to the communities from which it came and see if anyone wants it. An ambivalent gift. The term rematriation helps us to make complex the process of ‘repatriating’ archives materials – taking objects out of museums and returning them to the communities they came from. Drawing on post-colonial indigenous movements we can understand this process as more than the gifting of materials but a process of (re)building relationships with and within communities.
We are already deep in the process of doing this – working with youth and community groups, to reanimate the data and work out what we can ethically show and do with the original material. Some of these are the 2019 versions of the 1989 communities that the WRAP team worked with but we are finding that the landscape of youth groups and sexual health outreach work has dramatically changed in the past thirty years, as Rachel reflects on in her post Digging where I stand. (re)building relationships has been slow, exciting and painful.
Digitizing and sharing: Jenna Ashton reminded us that it is important to think about why you are digitizing an archive beyond the desire to ‘save’. She called our attention to the desire to digitize and get everything ‘out there’ without thinking about Who, why and what is it for? Jenna also cautioned against the allure of shiny tech and VR, reminding us to pay attention to sensor experience and the digital. Julie Mcleod also reminded us of the need to think about ‘ordinary people’ as well as ‘teccy people’ when considering how best to ethically and effectively show our digital archives to others.
Our work in Manchester helps us to work out who might use the archive or to whom the archive might matter. We will be working with university students, school pupils, youth workers, teachers, community workers, community members and activists – exploring what is interesting and useful, what resonates.
Anonymity: to harm or protect? Andrew Flinn and Niamh Moore’s discussion unveiled the different ways in which anonymity is viewed within oral history interviews and social science traditions. Within the oral history tradition people it is presumed that people will be named. This is an important way of giving people voice and connecting people with places and historical events. To remove someone’s name in this context is to do harm.
Within the social science tradition it is presumed that participants will be anonymised. And this is usually to protect them from harm.
We are currently anonymising the WRAP material and facing challenges in working out what is ethically ok. We are removing participants names and the names of the boyfriends, ex-boyfriends and friends. But we are leaving many of the details about place. It often feels uncomfortable as we try and work out how much of the detail about place should we remove to protect participants anonymity without erasing the rich details about Manchester city life and its communities thirty years ago? Talk about Hulme, Moss side, Moston and Salford tells us much about how socio-economics, community and place shaped sexual cultures and responses to HIV and AIDS in 1989. One young woman tells us that she feels less at risk from HIV from having unprotected sex with men than she does from working with children at a school in Moss side. A community she images as risky due to drug use and prostitution. Although she also (along with other young women in the archive) wonder how their own sexual behaviour differs from that of prostitutes. They are sure it does. But they aren’t always sure how.
Emotional communities.Historian Claire Langhammer has been working with Rachel and reading some of the WRAP interviews. She observed that there is a ‘raw’ emotional quality to the data. She encouraged us to think about historically situated ‘emotional communities’ and ‘affective ecologies’ to help us work with the data and understand the heterogeneous nature of social change in Manchester as uneven.
Claire observed that there is little talk of love in the WRAP interviews but rather an overwhelming sense of anger and disappointment. She shared a moment from the archive in which a young women expresses frustration about the amount of emotional labour she has to do in her relationships. She wonders, in conversation with the interviewer, whether the relationship might not be worth doing. Claire invites us to see this in the context of wider shifts in the 1980s in gender and sexual relationships in which women were starting to see themselves as having greater choice in their relationships, compared to their mothers, and a desire for greater equality, but were not always seeing these choices and desires translating into safe, contented and equitable relationships.
That’s not my Manchester! Rachel Thomson presented an account of 1980s Manchester as captured in the Manchester based magazine City Life. There is a public concern about sexual violence. Manchester is a trendy city and there is a feeling of change – City council privatisation. The arrival of ecstacy. Entrepreneurship. International travel. We see scallies and yuppies and education, gender and class trouble. This Manchester – an increasingly privatised, global and globalised Manchester – was not familiar to many of the participants in the room who had lived in the city in the 1980s. They reminded us of the many other archives – in particular queer archives – that tell different stories about the city and its communities. We were reminded by Liz Stanley of Borges and the powerful deception of the archive in making you think that it is give you ‘the’ story.
Feminist webs. The WRAP project developed out of a web of feminist academics and community activists. It was not a purely intellectual project but as a response to work that the WRAP team and others were doing in community groups where they met women who were angry about the way that women were meant to be solving the problems – by getting men to wear condoms.
The feminist web is an important metaphor for this project we revisit a project that took place as part of a feminist web whilst also using modern day webs and connections to make our project happen. As participants reflected, these are webs with messy boundaries where academics and communities are in conversation, not without tension.
Day two was a workshop for youth workers in which we had a go at reanimating the WRAP data through poetry and craft.
Images from our craft workshop are available here. Below is a summary of the poetry workshop, led by Ali Ronan and some examples of the poems created with/from the archive.
We started with brief
introductions to relax the group. The group takes the lead from the workshop
‘leader’ so I was brief and informal in my own introduction and because the day
was intense and with lots of questions/memories to discuss – I decided to work more
quickly than I usually would. I used ‘flow writing’ to start.
Flow writing:The task was to just write for 2 minutes without stopping about a young woman. It could be you or someone imagined. This exercise was just to get the workshop going and to get people relaxed. I made it clear that there was no sharing of material at this stage. This was important so that people were not feeling vulnerable or exposed.:
Clusters:The next task was Clusters, which is an exercise using a word to link with other words that are evoked. For example: :
Sex –Fun-Funny-Awkward-Secret -Bodies —
So the next task was to
ask people to start a cluster of words with Sex in the centre. We worked quickly to avoid overthinking the
Lists and patterns:I then asked people to create a list/patterning poem by starting with the phrase Sex is …. I kept it simple in this workshop but you can make it more complicated by adding different ideas such as Sex is .. Sex is not… This time I made it clear that we might share some of these lines/lists if people wanted to.
After 5 minutes I asked
people to read out one line each, I started and then we went round the table so
that a poem was created line by line – some lines were repeated and or echoed
which made people laugh in wonder.
Working with WRAP
Then I distributed two
short WRAP extracts and asked people to read them and circle ideas and works
that sparked a response in them. We then used the same patterning / list making
technique with these words to start to write a poem. I used
short ones – just one side of A4
QU: Do you talk to your dad about this [a sexual experience with someone who refused to wear a condom, which led to Michelle refusing to have sex with him]? AN: Yeah, and my mum. QU: That’s great. Have you always been able to? AN: Yeah, I mean I had a one night stand when I was only 14, and I’ve not told my mum and dad, not for the fact that they would have done anything or said anything, but the fact that I was so ashamed. It’s part of something that I’d rather forget, it’s personal to me. And I think it would have disappointed them both if I’d’ve told them, and if I told them now they’d..(unclear). But that was something that was for me, that I wanted to block away, my little skeleton that goes in my little cupboard. I mean everybody’s got them. But from then on we talked about this, that. They came home and I told my dad. And he said – What would have happened if he had actually have gone through with it, if he’d have worn it [a condom]? I said – Well, I’d have been regretting an act then, not a near act. I said – It’d’ve happened and I would be regretting it, I would have found out the hard way that that wasn’t what I wanted. QU: It might have been fun? AN: Yeah, it might have been fun, but that’s.. QU: Would you feel guilty, or alright about casual sex for the fun of it? AN: No, I don’t think, I felt fine, I felt lovely up until the time when he said – I won’t wear one of them’. But I mean that’s all I wanted at the time. And if it had gone through that I would have been quite prepared to continue. But that was all I wanted. But time passed, and I realised that it’s not what I need from a man. I mean if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it properly. You know, have a bit more up top behind it, as well as down below. I mean he was really, we didn’t even talk, and I fancied the arse of this lad, and that was all.
Michelle, (EDD135) Aged 20. The WRAP archive.
emerged. And we shared what we had written, to laughter and astonishment.
The term digging where you stand was introduced in 1978 by Swedish oral history activist Sven Lindqvis who called upon factory workers to investigate their own workplaces as a form of self-organisation. I know this because Andrew Flinn provided a compelling overview of community history making and archiving at the Sussex Humanities Lab. Andrew has used the slogan ‘Dig where you stand’ to describe and organise community heritage work – inviting people to research their own communities, and localities. Sometimes this means literally digging where they stand.
Last time I was in Manchester I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the Reno night club, demolished in 1990 and dug up in 2016. Lead by community activist and playright Linda Brogan and funded by the HLF, archaeologists at Salford University literally dug at the site of the Reno, with community members joining in to reveal treasures including the original dance floor, old library cards and a thirty year old bag of weed! The Reno had been a haven for a generation of young people who identified as ‘half-caste’, the children of white Mancunian mothers and African or west Indian fathers. On the back of the excavation an oral history and community memory project has been undertaken that documents how groups of friends installed themselves within the club, had their own spaces of standing, watching and dancing – how the Reno was part of a network of community spaces in Liverpool, Nottingham and Cardiff . The Whitworth Art Gallery has given a large space over to the project and includes vitrines displaying objects, screens for listening to A/V recordings of interviews, collections of memorabilia, an in-memorium wall marking the faces of the many players in the story who are now dead, long before their time. The project and the website that accompanies has the feeling of a community endeavour. Interviews are full of laughter, reminiscence, shyness and pride. Taking over the museum is a political intervention as is the task of maintaining control over the character and methods of the project.
I found out about the
Reno revival on one of my trips to Manchester for The Reanimating Data Project.
I lived in Manchester between 1985-90, for a time just over the road from the
Reno. Between 1988-90 I was research assistant on a project documenting young
women’s sexual cultures. My job was to interview young women in Manchester and
I found them in lots of different ways: through youth clubs, through colleges,
through workplaces, trade unions and universities. The reanimating data project
takes me back to Manchester thirty years later to find out about whether there
are still traces of these places and people and whether there is meaning or
purpose in bringing this body of research back to the place in which it was
generated so long ago. It would be so much easier if I could dig where I stand,
but I stand two hundred miles away in the south coast of England, not far from
where I started before I left for Manchester in the autumn of 1985. So I have
instead to try and work out how to dig where I stood.
In 1988 when the WRAP
project went about recruiting young women into the project it was able to
collaborate with a vibrant network of youth clubs across the city, where
feminist youth workers were intervening in creative ways. Our project talked to
young women at Ardwick and Moston Youth Clubs – encouraged by youth workers
such as Nora Davies and Cath Lambert to capture young women’s views and
experiences of what was often a tough life for young women but which produced
wit, insight and ambition. The YWait project was a jewel in the crown of
Manchester youth work, a peer education project promoting sexual health for and
by young women. With the help of Pam Muttram we made contact with a young
mothers group in Higher Blakeley who were self-organising and speaking at
schools just as teenage pregnancy was beginning to be articulated as a problem
in a new way.
An article in Manchester based magazine City Life in 1988 called ‘Pregnant Thoughts’ by Penny Anderson reports how ‘high teenage pregnancy rates have shocked local welfare workers …according to new Government figures Greater Manchester has more teenage mothers than any other English county’. The piece comments that there is ‘no real stigma to illegitimacy any more’ with early and unmarried pregnancy operating as an intergenerational phenomena ‘if Mum gets caught the daughter is likely to get caught out as well’.
Fast forward thirty years and Ardwick youth cub has been demolished, targets to address teenage pregnancy have been met (partly by the widespread use of long lasting contraceptive implants) and the last strand of support for teenage pregnancy city wide disappeared two year earlier when pregnant school girl units were disbanded and FNP was not replaced. ‘Once we hit the target non-one was bothered’ explains Maggie Flint, who has worked with young women include the 1980s, a time she remembers fondly as a golden era, where ‘everything was possible’. Tracking around the new and shiny academies and youth hubs that have replaced the post-industrial landscape we notice that teenage sexuality and public health are no longer on the agenda. At the Academy we hear lots about early intervention, about tracking progress and intervening to address obstacles to progress. The intervention is more likely to be time-limited speech therapy for a parent in order to facilitate educational progress in a child than a service built around notions of equality or collective empowerment. The whole area was ‘swept clean’ for the Commonwealth Games explains Maggie. Local slums and local services where rationalised into strategic plans for the whole city – a multi-agency approach lead by a common assessment framework. The end of bottom up services. Activists become contract managers, freelance trainers, retire. How do we dig in this landscape? Where do we stand?
At the 2016 Tory Party conference Theresa May declared ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the
world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ She counterposed elitist cosmopolitan
drifters with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people
they pass in the street’. This phrase has come to my mind several times during
this project as our team searches for traction with communities in present day
Manchester – finding ways of connecting an extraordinary set of interviews
generated in the city thirty years ago with the city today. An obvious problem
is that the team is not based in Manchester, we come as visitors, attempting to
drum up interest in a past that is complicated. I find a similar ambivalence to
the past in the archive where I read a Jim Reeve review from 1989 of and
exhibition of Shirley Baker photographs that suggests that in the 1980s this past was too close – Reeve
comments on how in these images ‘the 60s
can be seen creeping up on a timeless people, tower blocks looming up over
back-to-backs, bee-hives and mini-skirts against a background of outside
toilets. If you close one eye you could imagine a scene from the 30s. Its
alarming to think that the fairly momentous 20 years covered by the pictures
still saw flabby arms folded around wrap-around pinnies, men with trilbies and
spectacles covered with Elastoplast, which is why anyone over 30 should steel
themselves before perusing these pictures. They are a grainy reminder that you
are becoming part of history…. The book left me with a dull feeling. That is
not to say that it is a dull book’.
I am very aware that I left Manchester in 1990 and the city
I return to now is a different place. Skyscrapers are sprouting up in the
centre of the city, rumoured to be funded by Chinese capital. Trams connect
neighbourhoods in new ways and the University expresses a new-found confidence
and ownership of the civic space. We convene a reunion of the old sociology
department where the study was born, attempting to retrace the lines of town
and gown that characterised the city in the late 1980s. We discover fellow
travellers who also passed through Manchester University during this era and
appreciate their nostalgic connections to the project. Yet for those still
living in Manchester, still working in the department, it is an unconnected
history – perhaps producing dull feelings. Our various gambits to capture
interest are productive but not always successful as our agendas slide away
from each other. Drama students in 2019 appear more interested in the stories
of working class girls that revisiting the dubious sexual cultures of middle
class drama training culture of the 1980s. Our hottest connection is with the
Proud Trust, still meeting in the Sydney Street building that is a living
connection with the Manchester of the past, celebrating the city’s history of
activism around section 28, of radical feminism and activism in the area of
young women’s sexual health. Workers and
clients see themselves in a local feminist activist tradition that includes our
study. As an organisation the proud Trust move easily across the lines of
academia/ local government, the voluntary sector and corporate fund raising. They
have not been swept away or built over, in fact they are key players in
building the new Manchester as they begin a major building project of their
I like the idea of digging where I stand. If I had stayed in
Manchester I would be able to align the geographical, biographical and
historical – but working peripatetically in this way alerts me to Manchester’s
place in a history of cosmopolitanism, of exporting and drawing in talent, of
reinventing itself and of looking forward rather than backwards. The metaphor
of digging where you stand is powerful and compelling. I want to be able to do
this and to claim the dubious authority of a living local. Instead I seem to be
burrowing, making channels below and along the ground, sometimes my personal
worm holes trap me alone in an auto-biographical past, but increasingly these
become connected spaces where I bump into others following their own leads.
Back in the mists of time and irritated by something I can no longer remember, I started editing a series of working papers called ‘Studies in Sexual Politics’. The titles were all research-based, the first ones featuring papers given at seminars and conferences, then others originating in dissertations and oral presentations of research. The series started in 1983/4 and the last title appeared in 1993. Over this period 37 titles were published. Initially they were printed by the Communist Party printers in Manchester, Progress Printers; and then by a Rochdale-based printer who had earlier worked for the University, Cedric Hardcastle.
Copies were taken to conferences and seminars, including to meetings of the BSA study group on Sexual Divisions, word went round about them in various women’s movement and gay groups, students heard about them, professionals working in the organisations that these research-based titles were concerned with also heard. From printing 25 or 30 copies at the start, by the end the print-run was 500 copies, and for some high-selling titles over 1000 were eventually produced and sold. They cost £1 each, a no-profit amount to cover just basic costs. As well as me, other people became involved in what turned into a time-consuming process of production and distribution (talking, encouraging, typing, editing, re-typing, letraset-ing covers, collecting huge boxes of printed titles, addressing labels, stuffing envelopes, trips to the post), including for varying periods of time Marilyn Porter, Sue Wise, Sue Scott and Olivia Butler among others, all of us associated with the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester as staff or undergraduate or postgraduate students.
The SSP working papers morphed into
a related series called ‘Feminist Praxis’ (which in turn produced an edited
collection published by Routledge). They were intended as an alternative to
mainstream publishing, which I viewed then and view more strongly now as
creaming off its profits from academic labour and giving relatively little in
return. This is not to say that I did not publish in the mainstream, or
relative mainstream, for I did and do. These were also the days of Virago, he Women’s
Press, Pandora. High-profile feminist publishers were also working in
mainstream publishing houses, and I had productive encounters with them all, not
to mention the rise of the academic feminist journals that so encouraged us in
academia. But even so, ‘hot off the press’ was not their strong suit, and also their
referees could be conventional and timid or just not very knowledgeable. This
is where SSP was such a joy, for there were many women (and a few men) with
much that was interesting to say, nobody could say no, nobody could say you
can’t, other than readers by not forking out that magnificent sum of £1. And
the readers kept coming, indeed they increased in number.
Along the way I was told by some
feminist academics that energy should not be put into working papers, for this
would mean that the women involved would be deflected from publishing in
mainstream outlets, which latter would benefit their careers much more. A
sensible comment to make. However, when I review the SSP authors now, I can see
no sign that any of the people concerned were deflected any more than I was. We
all had things to say, and to say loudly, and we were saying these things in an
array of outlets. A large proportion of the authors indeed became high profile
academics or similar in other organisational contexts. I thought that the comment
was misplaced at the time and still do now. And I still continue to publish in
DIY places as a point of principle.
The SSP project came to a natural
end, for its very success meant it became impossible to deal with the ever increasing
print-run without it taking on the attributes of a ‘proper’ publishing
enterprise, albeit one that did not actually make money, while my commitment
was to my day job as an academic and regarding the family deaths that occurred
at the time. No decision that ‘the end’ had been reached was made, it just
became too difficult to do another title. The final title no.37, was concerned
with feminist research in and on the Mass-Observation Archive.
So what is the relevance of
remembering these things now? A mainstream corporate academic publishing empire
is still with us and is more rapacious than it was back then in dominating the
forms that academic publishing takes, in journals and monographs and textbooks,
and also in gobbling up anything else we might do. There is no high profile pro-active
feminist publishing that stands between us and ‘the empire’ anymore, alas. But,
there is a larger reading public existing across a whole variety of platforms
than ever before. And, there are technologies available that can help prevent
energies being siphoned off into the distribution side of things. And,
these technologies mean we can do our own thing and not be led by a publisher
interested primarily in profit. And, there are still things that can
best be said in forms that are not books or articles or chapters, and which
have many of the attributes of old-style essays or working papers because they
have an open-ended and provisional ‘for now’ character. And, in the UK
at least, our academic research assessment framework is neutral about any
specific publishing outlet and cares instead about the significance and reach
of the work itself. And, readers are more likely be and to remain
interested if things are said that are not just the same old yawn stuff that
everyone else is doing, but work which takes chances and pushes at the
The day of the hugely selling
working paper may be over but its heirs are around us and, regarding my own
activities, the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the Whites Writing Whiteness projects do some similar things (and I
am also Impressed with the Discover Society venture). What these
activities of my own don’t do is to bring together a large and diverse group of
people, all with something to say, all saying something different, and in many
cases disagreeing. This is what academic journals are supposed to do but rarely
achieve because they strive for respectability and conformability. And so enter
here the blog, the vlog, the podcast, and yes, the downloadable working papers
that can be published on research websites. Not all blogs need be the length or
sub-substance of a tweet, podcasts can act as a useful introduction or addendum
to a piece of written work, working papers can presents ideas in progress and
encourage debate, and people can agree, disagree and productively coexist while
doing so. In short, more interesting and more innovative use could be made of
the possibilities presently available – aspects of medical journals and related
publishing are of considerable interest here. The now ready availability of the
means for DIY publishing should be grasped and made full use of. Go for it! Let
a thousand projects bloom!
Archives are pedagogical spaces. Before the digital revolutionised the technical form of the archive and its role in everyday life, we might have considered archival pedagogies solely in relation to the contents of the archive: how artefacts can be used to provoke learning, questioning and exploration through the educational encounter. What we find in any given archive collection can help us learn about the world they reflect. In a digital environment the pedagogical territories of the archive are extended to encompass the material around collections. These also become a location where learning and social relations can be animated through activities of exchange and contribution.
To realise this, archives need to be understood as more than
their data – the contents of the collection I might visit to acquire
information. They also include an archive’s Meta-data:
the catalogues that feature complex webs of linked classifications and
descriptions that support the discovery of information. ‘Meta in Greek means three things: with or
among, between and after,’[i]
and it is within the ‘Meta’
capacities of digital archives – around its contents that co-mingle the past,
present and future – that transformative pedagogical practices can be
established and imagined.
‘Meta’ realm of digital archives are three key concepts – Transmission, Storytelling
and Care – that can be unlocked through pedagogy. To teach in the digital’s ‘Meta’ milieu is to activate and socialize
understanding of the catalogue as a transmission machine, a site of
inter-generational transfer and time travel, a contact zone with materials
assembled by persons in different times and spaces. For archives of feminist
social movements and other unofficial knowledges, these materials endure in the
present because people have cared: cared
enough to spend time and expend energy to collect, organise and preserve
the ‘Meta’ archive enables learners to participate in this circuit of care.
This might take the form of contributing descriptions and constructing new
connections between contents in the archive. The first step of any archival
activity is assembly – the salvage of materials from oblivion. What comes after,
however, is equally important, less emphasized and visible: the continued work to
maintain the integrity of collections and ensure they can remain animated, so
they might become a resource for (re)making society. In a digital environment
this reality creates pedagogical opportunity, a vehicle to devise learning
activities that socialize care and transgenerational responsibility.[ii]
Through embodying the ‘Meta’ space of the archive, learners gain sense (in the
muscles, hands, bones and eyes) of their capacity to take care of the knowledge
they attend to, and reflect on and among.
The technical concepts of archival science and computational
programming languages are opaque and distinctly apart from everyday life. They
are ‘hard to access.’ To support
movement into the ‘Meta’ space of archive it can be reclaimed as a Storytelling
location constructed in direct correspondence with archive materials learners
encounter. These ‘stories’, or descriptive layers, give further meaning to
archival content. They create traces that record how a reader responded to and
made sense of an artefact in a specific time and place. They are part of a
trans-generational dialogue that future readers might also contribute to,
reflecting on the different contexts in which the archive is accessed and
animated. Storytelling within the
catalogue realises the potential for care and transmission that can be realised
through digital archival pedagogies.
Archival collections do not come fully formed. They are
often messy and disorganised rather than neatly catalogued. For archive
collections created in the past 50-60 years, they are likely to contain
personal information about living, identifiable persons. Some of this material
will be ‘sensitive’ and some of it will not. Some people will know material
they created is included in an archive; others won’t be aware. This raises
ethical questions about access to materials but, importantly, legal problems
too. Teaching in the ‘Meta’ archive may help support the acquisition and
negotiation of socio-legal literacies that inform relationships with data in
the archive, but also in everyday life.
May 2018 saw significant changes to Data Protection Law
through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which ascribed a new
legal identity to people in a digital society: data subject. GDPR introduced
new regulations about how organisations store and ‘process’ personal data. Archives,
which might be public authorities or a public or private body that holds
records of public interest, are able
to ‘acquire, preserve, appraise, arrange, describe, communicate, promote,
disseminate and provide access to records of enduring public value for general public interest.’[iii]
Archiving in the public interest is the legal basis for archives to process
personal data. This means archives are not subject to the same restrictions as,
say, an online clothing company who must have a different – and more
time-limited – legal basis for collecting and storing data.
Because the GDPR is focused on the ‘processing’ of data it
places new legal constraints on the pedagogical activities that happen in the catalogue or ‘Meta’ space of the
archive. It transforms participants from learners into ‘data processors’ who
may, inadvertently, be involved in making judgements about materials they read.
This is especially likely if pedagogical activities respond to un-catalogued or
unpublished artefacts. Discussions about GDPR, when practiced in a context of
group learning, may also support collective
articulations of public interest vis-à-vis the archive collection in
question. After all, archiving in the public interest is not a self-evident
statement with fixed guidelines. It is a framework that must be contextualised
and argued for. Immediately it raises two compelling questions: which public(s)?
For a project such as Re-Animating Data, which is seeking to
activate a complex archive relating to young women’s sexuality and sexual
health created in the late 80s by feminist social scientists, this is an
opportunity to clearly articulate what ‘the public interest’ of re-using such
material is. This need not be a tick boxing exercise. It can be located in
pedagogical action, part of the project’s collective exploration of how ‘well-kept
and accessible archives contribute to the democratic functioning of society’[iv]
through the valuation, circulation and re-interpretation of marginalised
perspectives. In this manner archives can be leveraged to ask questions about
social change and organisation, enabling archival sources from a different time
and place to press into the contemporary context, offering orientation,
provocation and evidence. Introducing the socio-legal frame may also be used to
facilitate discussion about the wider rights of citizens-as-data-subjects,
whose social orientation is engineered to produce data, but not necessarily
exert control over where it is stored, or how it is used.
Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons & Timotheus Vermeulen (2017) Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth
After Postmodernism, London: Rowman Littlefield International, 8.
[ii] Bernard Stiegler (2010) Taking Care of Youth and the Generations,
trans. Stephen Barker, Stanford University Press.
The Mass Observation Project (MOP) is a volunteer writing project based at the University of Sussex. There are currently 450 writers (often referred to as ‘observers’) who respond to ‘directives’ or open ended questionnaires that are sent to them three times a year by email or post. The Directives contain two or three broad themes that writers are asked to comment on ranging from personal issues to wider social and political themes and events.
Each observer is issued with a code which is used to give them anonymity and allows them to write candidly if they wish. As a result, the Project solicits in-depth accounts of everyday life: stories, memoirs, lists, letters, diagrams, drawings, maps, diaries, photographs, press cuttings, confessions, reports on people, places and events, across a wide variety of topics. Since it was launched in 1981 over 4,500 people have volunteered to write for the project.
Observing the 80s is a relatively small scale project, which brought together oral history, mass observation
responses and ephemera from the 1980s. The material, which has been made available as an open educational resource, offers a unique insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 1980s.
The value of digitising these collections is that there was previously no established historiography of the 1980s. The decade was largely represented as polarised and the work that did exist was similarly divided into oppositional camps. By bringing together these resources from the MOP and the British Library Oral History Collections, students and academics are able to make and illustrate connections across and between these polarised approaches.
Observing the 80s was ostensibly a teaching led project, but it has taught me a lot about how I want to research, and how I might think about the journey between a piece of evidence’s initial context of production and its ongoing accrual of historical meaning, through use, and subsequent reuse. When we reuse data, each time it is picked up and picked through we add a new layer of our own meaning. The Mass Observation Project (MOP) writers have taught me to think about that historical acquisition of meaning, from production to reception, and to listen to the producers of our evidence as analysts or collaborators.
Mass Observation perforates the line between who is the researcher and who is being researched. It builds collaborations between the original researchers asking their questions in the past, between the respondents who shared their analysis, and between researchers since.
To illustrate this I’m going to use two MOP directives from 1988 to draw out the complicated ways in which events and linear narratives are intertwined, and how the barriers between evidence and analysis are perforated over time. I combine the directives and the responses to them, and the contextual explanation of the directives that Prof Dorothy Sheridan produced for the Observing the 80s project.
27. Autumn 1988: Part 1: Regular Pastimes SxMOA2/27/1
The first directive is form Autumn 1988. It was intended to capture TV-watching within a broader context and asked the correspondents about their leisure activities described as ‘Regular Pastimes’.
Regular Pastimes – that is to say not occasional (e.g only at weekends) or seasonal (e.g only in the summer). Reading is an obvious example but there are others things like listening to (and making) music, writing (letters, MOP observations etc), listening to the radio or watching TV, and crafts of all sorts of which knitting is only one example. What I would like would be a record of the place that such activities have in your daily life: when do you engage in them (e.g every spare moment, or set times); for how long usually; do you do something else as well; how do they fit in with the activities of other members of the household; if there are financial costs or limitations what are they, and, if there are end products, what happens to them?
The answers to this directive focus on newspapers, magazines, and all sorts of writerly and readerly pursuits as well as the physical space that readable objects, or their shelving, occupy in the home, The respondents interpreted the directive’s prompts in various different ways. Some produced a diary of what people did to pass the time, other provided a detailed account of their leisure activities. The respondents also interrogated the meanings of particular terms, for example the meaning of ‘regular’.
Some explore what reading means to them in vibrant ways. Reading romantic novels, or magazines like Valentine, mark life-cycle stages and book clubs provide social connections outside the family.
Not only does their voluntary participation in the project as a whole demonstrate the importance of the written word, their answers share the variety of ways in which writing matters and how it connects different parts of their lives. The etiquette around a quick response time to a letter, or regret for unfulfilled ambitions to become a writer as a younger woman, (C1191), another attended creative writing groups (G218).
The respondents also use the directive as an opportunity to think about what time means to them, and indeed the emotionality of time. Whether they are talking about how the day, or the week or year is structured by activity, the responses map periodisation as an experience. They also challenge some of the divisions between activity as leisure and work. As Langhamer has pointed out the categories of work and leisure are emotionally forged through gendered structures. A woman’s leisure activity (baking, sewing, playing with children) could equally be seen as work in a different context. Together these writers have taught me to be mindful of the ways in which people define these borders and perforations for themselves, rather than expecting them to fit into my boxes as a researcher.
And to think about how time, and life cycle stage intersect.
When writing about their pastimes respondents include where they
shop, what they listen to on the radio, some also include MO as a pastime,
occupying this space across and between unpaid work and leisure.
The List is a classic MOP frame. Respondents are often invited to make lists, and revisit them with others, to be the observer. But lists are also a way of taking control of content. Sometimes when the directives they are responding to are wordy, unclear or laboured, the respondent uses a list to gets down to what really matters to them; just the key objects or events.
27. Autumn 1988: Part 2: TV Day-Diaries SxMOA2/27/2
The British Film Institute (BFI) approached the MOA to participate in a national ‘Television Day Diary’ to capture on one day what people were watching on TV. The directive went out in the post with a colour printed form which explained the BFI’s intentions and offered space on the form for the day diary. The form was not restricted to the Mass Observers – it was the BBC’s general public form. Copies of the form were donated to the MOA.
Dear Observer, An unusual package this time. The British Film Institute has asked for our cooperation in their lst November “Television Day Diary” project – an idea inspired by MASS-OBSERVATION in the first place. The enclosed leaflet is self-explanatory but I’d like to emphasize two points: – The “Day Diaries” must be sent to the British Film Institute, 21 Stephen St, London W1P 1PL, and not to the Archive. – The BFI competition deadline is November 19th. This deadline does not apply to your response to the topics below which should be returned to the Archive as usual. I would be grateful for your help in this because your TV “Day Diaries” will finally be returned to us and will be a valuable addition to our collections. Please fill in the tear-off slip at the end of the Directive and return to us with your Directive reply. This will give us an idea of how many of our correspondents have taken part in the BFI project.
Setting the directive up as a letter (“Dear Observer”) breaks
down the relationship between contributor and archivist reiterating that we are
in this together in a shared endeavour, but more interestingly for this
Directive the commissioning process is explicit in the form and content of the
In terms of content the responses map different social values; some observers had embraced breakfast TV and it had the changed shape of their day; responses show the perennial concerns over violence in children’s cartoons appear regularly; respondents felt that there were too many quiz shows and too much Snooker coverage in the schedule and a number of respondents engaged with discussion of Pat Butcher’s earrings and how depressing Eastenders had become. There were those who identified themselves by their taste, whether they loved or hated Neighbours, or Terry Wogan. Responses also show people starting to use video recorders to fit TV into their life rather than the other way round. There were also numerous concerns about TV ‘ruling our lives’.
Even though this directive was explicitly for the BFI, and even though it looked different than the usual directives in form, MOP writers took their expectations of MOP with them in their answers. As researchers we also get some slightly different contextual information. BFI ask them to add their current marital status, and occupation. As Annabella Pollen has demonstrated looking for representivity is not the most interesting way to work with MOP. Because MOP is a writing project not a survey it is generally less interested in blunt markers of category around class for example. If I’m honest, this is what I love about working with MOP but it can be a bit frustrating when you just want to know a bit more basic background on the writers.
Respondents showed how perforated their own lives were.
These are reflexive researchers.
They record the process of their own research…
… and make their own analysis of what the research is for and why it matters.
As co analyst MOP writers feel entitled to take control of the agenda, this is ‘their’ project after all.
And they also feel licensed to critique the agenda and the process.
In this post I have worked through a few responses to a couple of Mass Observation Project directives. For me the scale or the breadth of the evidence is not the point, it is the journey that the evidence has made, from complex context to complex context, accruing meaning, resisting agendas, setting new ones, and inviting us to think in perforated rather than disconnected ways.