What do we mean by reanimating? Locating the methodology

Rachel Thomson

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

Data – dead and alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewilding methods – unleashing creativity and unleashing time

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

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

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

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

The What, How and Who of Reanimating Data

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

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

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

References and further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other archives

Rachel Thomson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing on shoulders

Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott

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

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

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

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

Sue Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Thomson

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

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

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

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

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Too much?

Rachel Thomson

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

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

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

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

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

Making sense of the boldness of the sexual discourse.

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

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

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


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

Urgent mini interviews

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

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

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

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

What really counts? A worm hole

Rachel Thomson

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 2019 we showcased one of our worm-hole experiments as part of the Brighton Digital Festival. We shared our work with fragments of original audio recordings in which young men and sociologists talk about sex (collected as part of the Men Risk & AIDS Project).  The aim of this experiment was to 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.

At the showcase we invited people to view our installation and talk with collaborators Rachel Thomson, Alex Peverett and Janet Holland. A recording of the installation can be viewed here.