Digging where I stand

Rachel Thomson

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 own.

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.

Go for it: on ignoring publishers and reaching readers

Liz Stanley

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 boundaries.

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!

Collaborate and Perforate

By Lucy Robinson

In this blog I am going to introduce the Mass Observation Project and its digitised off shoot – Observing the 80s. 

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’.

G226, F, 1941

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. 

B1106, M 1945

And to think about how time, and life cycle stage intersect.

B1989 M b1927

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.

B1215 F 1953

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 responses.

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.

W729 Part time library assistant
A883 M b 1933 who explained why he couldn’t answer the day diary in the other part of the directive.

These are reflexive researchers.

47 year old F G226

They record the process of their own research…

Male 66, R1418

… and make their own analysis of what the research is for and  why it matters.

53 year old male B1426

As co analyst MOP writers feel entitled to take control of the agenda, this is ‘their’ project after all.

Male 66, R1418

And they also feel licensed to critique the agenda and the process.

Gay Male 42, B1106

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.

The teenager

By Pam Thurschwell

“Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own — a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society almost untouched by the war. It is a world of sweaters and skirts and bobby sox and loafers, of hair worn long, of eye-glass rims painted red with nail polish, of high school boys not yet gone to war. It is world still devoted to parents who are pals even if they use the telephone too much. It is a world of Virgil’s Aeneid, second-year French and plane geometry, of class plays, field hockey, “moron” jokes and put-on accents. It is a world of slumber parties and the Hit Parade, of peanut butter and popcorn and the endless collecting of menus and match covers and little stuffed animals.”

“Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own” Life Magazine, 1944.

While researching my book on adolescent temporality I found myself transfixed by a photo essay from a 1944 Life Magazine called “Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own”. The photo essay portrays a sea of happy, white, middle class, mostly blonde, American girls doing all the things we associate with the bobby-soxer: dates, sodas, high school football games. The photos and captions give the reader a sense of the divide between adults and young people that becomes more noticeable around the 1940s. The article has a tongue-in-cheek anthropological tone; the teenager seems like an alien intruder with a strange set of rituals and habits. 1940s teenagers are pictured as confusing to their parents’ generation who grew up without access to that identity. The Life Magazine story makes it seem as if to understand modern teenagers, adult readers need to be anthropologists of their own children, studying them to try to understand their newly emerging culture.

During the course of the 20th century adolescence goes from being seen as a potentially troubling and anarchic stage everyone passes through to an identity category bound up with consumption and style.  We know that adults are often anxious about the potential radical rebellions of adolescence – think about contemporary panics over youth radicalization for instance. Simultaneously youth as a stage has often been romanticized—either as blissful innocent idleness or safely navigable anarchic rebellion. Adult society anxiously criminalises the behaviour of teenagers, feeling it needs to keep a close watch on them, while at the same time idealizing adolescence, and wanting to remain in it. There are paradoxes that gather around adult attitudes toward the teenager in every time period. Are teenagers sloths (hiding in their rooms or apathetically on their phones) or are they dangerous revolutionaries? Are they where we now put the possibility of fun, play, adventure, or where we unload all our most troubling fears for the future?

From the mid 20th century onwards, youth begins to become an object of desire in itself, rather than just a stage of life to be endured. This shift accompanies more possibilities for young people to spend time together in public space, at dances, in clubs or schools or hanging around on street corners. Jon Savage’s book Teenage charts this change all over Europe, tracing the ways adolescents claim new kinds of freedom and organise in new forms. Changes in education laws in Europe and America feed this change. From the 1870s in England when education becomes compulsory, public funding for schools meant that children stayed in schools for longer. Conscription during both world wars also played a part in prolonging the space before entering the adult world of work. Adolescents had more leisure time and eventually more money to spend. At this point adolescence morphs into a shiny new identity: the teenager.

Before the 1940s then, there are no “teenagers” but many of the concerns and worries that we find about teenagers and how they are spending their time, are clearly apparent much earlier, from the end of the 19th century when we find growing concerns about adolescents’ leisure time and activities and how adults can be sure they grow up properly into certain socially sanctioned directions and not others. The Life Magazine article features something we probably want to call fun; there is a lot of hanging out in packs with friends, at the record store, at the soda fountain, at the drive in movie. But this fun is shot through with rigidly disciplinary gender and sex expectations for teenage girls who are negotiating this new identity. Notice especially the “sandwich girl” “who is considered a real crumb” in the words of the Life Magazine photo caption.  Pictured surrounded by boys in a diner, the sandwich girl allows her body to be in too close proximity to boys and puts herself in the centre of the picture.  Life asserts this will not go unnoticed: “girls will not invite her to their hen parties and will try act cool towards boys who formed sandwich.” Is Life simply reflecting or is it helping to create this punishment of the new teenage girl at its centre?

Adolescence transforms into modern teenage identity at this (very white, very middle class, very American) Life Magazine moment. What kinds of data re-animation might allow us to understand this movement from adolescent phase to fashion-conscience, consumer oriented, explicit teenage girl identity we see in the process of sexualisation here? What kinds of stories come into play alongside the visualization, celebration, and punishment of the teenage girl emerging here in the 1940s?  How does data like this, obviously faulty, idealised, light-hearted and depressingly creepy still matter?

Experiments with re-animating data

By Ester McGeeney

Our new project will return to an academic data set back to the community from which it was once abstracted. Our data is a set of 150 in-depth interviews with young women living in and around Manchester in 1989-1990. These were collected as part of the Women Risk and Aids project and formed part of a landmark study that changed the way that researchers and youth workers were able to talk about young people and gender, sexual risk, sexual pleasure and sexual agency.

Our plan is to work with new generations of young women and practitioners currently living and working in Manchester to reanimate this data. This will involve re-using the data and opening it up for collective reanalysis to create new stories and new understandings of the changes in the experience and portrayal of teenage sexualities over a thirty year period.

In 2013 I worked with Rachel Thomson and the young people’s sexual health organisation Brook on the ESRC funded ‘good sex’ project. This project involved reanimating data from my PhD (a mixed methods study of young people’s understanding and experiences of ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure) to create a series of short films that could be used by education practitioners and hosted online by Brook.

At the start of this project I had no idea what it meant to ‘reanimate’ data so we worked in an experimental mode, inviting young people and artists to join us in developing methods for working with data in open, participatory and creative ways. First we worked with theatre director and writer Lucy Kerbel who shared with as a series of techniques for visualising data and creating written responses. ‘Get comfortable and close your eyes’, Lucy told us, before reading out a short extract from an interview with a young woman talking about her tugging sexual desire.

‘Look out through the eyes of the person who is talking…What’s above you? Look down at your feet. Look to one side and then to the other. What is the air like? Are you inside? Is it warm? Cool? What’s the quality of the air like?

Look around and spot one object. An object that appeals to that person. Move towards it, touch it, can you pick it up? Does it make any noise? How does the young person talking feel about that object? That place? Is the young person in a familiar place? Choose one word to describe that space. What would it be?’

The young people imagined the interview participant in Nandos, on a bus, at a house party, on a desert island and in her bedroom. She feels trapped, confused, despair. Time is moving slowly. There’s an iPhone, a hoody, a tin-box, windscreen wipers and a clock. Next Lucy asked the group to write non-stop for one minute expressing themselves as if they were the interview participant speaking to someone she felt comfortable with and then again to someone she did not feel comfortable with. The imagined scenes and scripts created a series of responses to the data, reanimating it whilst also creating new stories and scenes.


Watching Lucy work with the group I was struck by the ease with which young people engaged with the data and were able to imagine themselves to be a young woman with a set of desires perhaps very different from their own and to relate her experiences (as a young, black, muslim woman who wants to wait until she is at least 20 to have sex with a man) to the everyday objects and practices of their lives. The space Lucy created was the space that theorists argue for in the literature about sex education – a safe space in which young people are able to listen to and engage with sexual stories and desires of others, to imagine sexuality otherwise and to talk about and respond to stories about sexuality in ways that did not leave them vulnerable or exposed. A space that prioritised creativity, possibility and emotion – working beyond the didactic and judgmental modes so often mobilised in sex education. Here knowledge was not a thing made to be passed to young people but a thing in the making in which young people were active participants.

Our next attempt at reanimating data was led by the group of young people I worked with and facilitated by documentary film-maker Susi Arnott. The young people in the group found the stories captured in the interview data compelling.

They found stories that they had never heard before – stories of attempted first sex where the penis just wouldn’t go ‘in’ to the vagina for want of trying – but that perfectly mirrored their own and their friends experiences. They found others that they couldn’t believe someone had told me – stories of vulnerable masculinity and sexual failure and stories that they wanted every young person across the country to hear – stories of female pleasure and sex getting better over time. They wanted these stories to be heard by other young people in a simple format; a short film showing one young person speaking directly to camera, telling the story as if it were their own. So we experimented with asking young actors and peer educators to re-perform the stories captured in the data, speaking directly to camera as if in Youtube confessional mode. We also asked our actors to step out of role and comment on the story that had re-performed. Our films became movement of re-analysis. In their performances young people interpreted and gave meaning to the data and in stepping out of role they engaged in more straight forward analytic commentary – working out meaning, giving judgement, relating, commenting and empathising. We created new sexual stories in these films that simultaneously reanimated those found and recreated from the interview data.

In our new project I’ll work with Ali Ronan and local youth workers and artists to engage new groups of young people in reanimating and re-analysing the WRAP data, using methods that generate new sexual stories and commentary on what has changed for young people over the past thirty years. I imagine that performance will be a key strategy, but if my previous experiments have taught me anything it is that this work is unpredictable and that young people are capable of leading and developing their own methods that may be quite different to what I had previously imagined.   

Taking you back to 1989

By Rachel Thomson

Let me take you back to 1989 . Think Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’, Madonna’s  ‘Like a Prayer’, the B52s ‘Love Shack’ and A Guy called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’. Let me also take you to Manchester. It is the time of Clause 28 and the galvanising of a generation of queer-as-fuck activism that linked feminism, gay liberation, post miners strike political activism, dancing and DMs. In Manchester this took the form of marches through St Peters Square, dancing at the Number One club and Flesh at the Hacienda.

Manchester in the late 1980s was a complicated but cosmopolitan space. The music scene looked to New York and Detroit with its back turned firmly away from London. The once futuristic housing estate of Hulme became a rent-free republic for the unemployed: revolutionaries, students, villains all artist of various kinds. North and South Manchester were different worlds, the south shaped by the presence of Universities and the north by the relics of what were, until the early 1980s, thriving engineering and chemical industries that provided men and fathers with a family wage. Further afield in the cotton towns of greater Manchester a different gender regime held sway, where fast-talking funny women earned their own wages and refused to suffer fools gladly.

It was into this landscape, with a new Sony Walkman in hand, that I emerged as a 23 year old social researcher, recruiting young women to talk with me about sex. I was pushing at an open door. Hairdressers, school girls, beauty therapists, shop girls, shop stewards, trainee nurses, beauty therapists, telecom workers and a sound recorder at Granada Studios all responded to an invitation to speak out about sex. We were in a new moment made public by official alarm about the HIV virus which could only lead to AIDS and untimely death. Two years previously every house in the country had received a government warning not ‘to die of ignorance’ and now films featuring young heterosexuals dancing in discos showed at the cinema warnings viewers: ‘There is still no cure for AIDS. And its on the increase.’

The testimonies that we collected capture worlds in turmoil and transition. Young women are questioning the grim advice of mothers, making sense of the collapse of the industrial working class family, and troubling the boundaries between respectable and unrespectable femininity. This was a moment of popular feminism – a  no-going-back kind of feminism, emerging from the ruins of deindustrialisation and divorce where young women understood that they needed to forge their own way in the world as best they could. In retrospect we can see them as having invisible resources: unmentioned housing benefit and ‘free’ education. But they also had to contend with violence, with shame and with being shamed.

It is this set of interviews that forms the heart of the Reanimating data project, offering opportunities to revisit this moment in time and think again about what was happening. The project promises to conduct experiments with people, places and archives. Our first step is to secure the interviews. For thirty years the interviews have been stored privately by one of the original research team. Our task is now is to digitise and archive them in a form that means they are safe for the future. We then will work with our collaborators in Manchester to generate as much contextual material as we can about the time that they capture. We will revisit the places and some of the people involved in the research exploring what has and has not changed and what it means to bring data back to the people and places it emerged from. Working in partnership with community archive project Feminist Webs we will find ways of bringing this material back to life and into conversation with young women living in the city today.

This is the first blog post for the project and marks the moment when we open our work to a wider group of fellow travellers – people who might be interested in our experiments and their outcomes. The project is a collaboration from the beginning. A collaboration between the original research team that conducted the Women Risk And Aids project and who are the custodians of the material (Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and myself Rachel Thomson) and a team of new generation sexuality researchers including Ester McGeeney who will be working on the project; a collaboration between Universities (Edinburgh where Co-I Niamh Moore is based and Sussex where Sharon Webb and I are based) and community organisations including Feminist Webs (represented ion our team by Alison Ronan) and the Manchester people’s History Museum; a collaboration between sociologists and historians as well as between generations of feminists.


On December 7th 2018 we held a kick-off workshop through which we launched the project. The workshop enabled us to convene a group of critical friends who are helping us imagine and deliver this project and over they day they provided us with expert input on the key concepts and methods that underpin our work:

Key concepts: The teenager (Pam Thurschwell); feminist time travel (Caroline Basssett); collaborative history (Lucy Robinson); sexualisation (Sara Bragg) and collective biography (Janet Batsleer)

Key methodologies: the archive as boundary object (Niamh Moore); critical digital pedagogies (DM Withers), reanimating data (Ester McGeeney), preservation and access (Sharon Webb)

Over the next few weeks we will publish these contributions as blog posts, opening the conversation to a wider community. Right now we can share a short film made by Susi Arnott that captures some of our excitement about the original WRAP project and the opportunity to revisit it now.

The Reanimating Data project is in 2018 funded by the ESRC under its Transforming Social Science programme. The original Women, Risk and AIDS project was funded by the ESRC in 1988 as one of a series of social science projects responding to the AIDS crisis.