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

Ways into the archive

Rosie Gahnstrom

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle (LSFS32)

And on ‘virginity loss’ specifically:

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

Justine (LJH17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from a Women’s Theatre Society RAD workshop

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

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

Working with questions

Ester McGeeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Are you Catholic?

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

2. Back to back

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

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

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

4. A daunting task

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

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

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

5. Quite a closed question

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Mum – what are these?

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

7. It was like therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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