Archive for the ‘Conference reports’ Category

Documenting diasporic identities: report on the CRONEM conference, 11 June 2009

June 12, 2009

Yesterday, I presented a poster about our work at the annual conference of the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Migration (CRONEM) at the University of Surrey. The abstract for the poster is available here and the final version can be downloaded here. (Condensing it to A4 size did some funny things to the layout – sorry…).

The aim of our poster was to stimulate a discussion about future research challenges relating to the role of online ‘archives’ in constructing identities in diasporic communities. No one has as yet given us any pointers as to how we might design an appropriate research methodology, but there was a broad consensus that these are important future questions.

An additional reason for attending was to catch up on the latest debates about how societies ‘manage’ diversity. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the ‘backlash’ against multiculturalism, a phenomenon which has filtered through to the heritage sector (for example through the side-lining of the Heritage Diversity Task Force at the GLA). Ien Ang, the opening keynote speaker set the tone by taking on this issue right from the start.  She argued that the policy shift needs to be situated not just in the context of 9/11 and its aftermath, but also within the wider framework of neo-liberal globalisation, which has fuelled transnational flows whilst at the same time raising anxieties about diversity in many populations undergoing rapid change. She highlighted the need for social conditions to facilitate conversation and exchange between ‘different’ people, in order to contribute to the ‘normalisation’ of cultural diversity. But she also did not suggest that inter-cultural dialogue was any sort of panacaea: as she put it, “there is no definitive way of resolving the multicultural question,” only “ways of juggling multiple identities.”

This weary (although not necessarily pessimistic) realism seemed to me to characterise many of the arguments I heard, and this seems to me to be a shift from the tone of the discourse of few years back, when ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘inter-cultural dialogue’ were being touted as possible paths towards harmonious liberal democracies. Perhaps liberal democracies have also lost some of their sheen; certainly, the erasure of conflict around aspects of identity no longer seems either achievable or, to some, entirely desirable. Amanda Wise for example posed the very pertinent question, drawing on her research into interactions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Australia, of just what the best possible outcome looks like? Should we be worried if friendships across cultural divides remain rare, as long as people can find ways to ‘rub along together’ in the workplace, or civic spaces?

The theoretical thread was pursued by Floya Anthias, who offered a ‘thought piece’, rather than research findings. She made a number of useful points, including on the theme of ‘identity’, which she sees as an unhelpful category (as do many others). Instead, she argued, we should consider ‘claims’ people make on ‘representational or distributive resources’ (on the basis of a strategic identity) and the ‘attributions’ that are imposed on members of particular groups. Overall, the emphasis should not be on ‘difference’ per se, but the way ‘identities’ are mobilised to construct boundaries.

One of the most troubling sessions I attended was about citizenship, and specifically the introductin of citizenship ceremonies and education in the UK. Eleni Andreouli, Bridget Byrne and Charlotte Chadderton all seemed to confirm that in both registry offices and the classroom, an implicitly racialised, exclusive notion of ‘Britishness’ is being pushed by registrars and teachers, who have received minimal (if any) training in order to enable them to fulfil their new roles. This is partly because government guidelines have produced a Britishness that is negatively construed; in other words, it is a concept that is presented as having become necessary because our national ‘community’ is experiencing unprecedented threats (from terrorists, benefit cheats, illegal migrants etc.). There is nothing in this formulation to suggest everything that immigrants have contributed to Britain, or indeed that we are all, on some level, immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

The thing that concerned me most however in this respect is the extent to which there is a huge gap between academia and policy; very little of this critique seems to me to feed through to the government agencies in question. This discrepancy is most marked in the area of border controls. Over lunch I discussed this with Dama, a Madagascan musician who was performing that evening and who has been participating in Southampton’s fantastic TNMundi project. However much ‘transcultural capital’ individuals like himself may enjoy, travelling between Europe and Africa across networks of musicians, promoters, producers and so on none of this counts when he has to cross a border into the EU. His immense capital is immediately devalued; few border officials (and the policy-makers who instruct them) speak only the language of threat and control, very often with racist undertones. Social theorists need to work harder to engage a hostile and suspicious audience, it seems to me.

And finally, I experienced a disconcerting turning-of-the-tables when Suzanne Wessendorf presented a paper based on her ethnography of an area of London I know very well, and where I used to live. The tensions she observed across class divides (primarily, rather than ‘race’ or ethnicity) rang very true from my own experience, and I found myself thinking of endless episodes that could have constituted moments from her fieldwork. It is not always comfortable, being the observed rather than the observer, however remotely and it reminded me just how important it is to present findings in the form of a dialogue, rather than an academic judgement if they are to be at all well received.



Community Archives: the view from Canada

May 20, 2009

I attended an excellent conference in Calgary, Canada, 14-18 May, offered by the Association of Canadian Archivists. There is great interest in community archives and identities in Canada, in particular associated with the treatment of people from the First Nations. One very controversial issue is around the management of Residential Schools run by churches on behalf of the state from 1880 to 1960s. It is complicated, involving claims of abuse, missing children, loss of cultural identity, class actions. Lots of church archives are being kept very busy finding records relating to individuals. Lots of the issues seemed to me to have an overlap with the UCL research into community archives and identities, although from a different perspective.

One thing though is the terminology: ‘community archives’ to them means, the archives of a local community ie a geographic area such as a town, whose archives will go to the Provincial Archives, so they don’t understand why ‘community archives’ has any link to this First Nations archive discussion. Of course, I spoke up but understanding will be greater when more of the project publications come out.
They are having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission now, which is setting up a TRC research and documentation centre, which raises issues about the nature of the record, whether it is real or virtual centre, where the records come from and whose they are, what models of curation, how it overlaps with museum, oral history etc. I think the ideas here from the project on curation models would really help them.

Elizabeth Shepherd

Conference Report: Living Cultures: Contemporary Ethnographies of Culture

April 1, 2009

For the last two days I have been at this conference, organised by the Institute for Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. I was there to present a paper setting out how we are using ethnography as a research method for the study of community archives. My paper was entitled ‘Owning the past, imagining the future: towards an ethnography of heritage practices in a community context.’ One reason for presenting the paper was to road-test some ideas for a methodology paper, which we will use to make the case for the extension of ethnographic methods in heritage studies. In my paper I used the following quote from McKemmish et al.:

Archival ethnography could be used to study cultures of documentation, the forms of records and archives, the recordkeeping and archiving processes that shape them, the worldviews made manifest in their systems of classification, the power configurations they reflect, and associated memory and evidence paradigms. (Sue McKemmish, Anne Gilliland-Swetland and Eric Ketelaar, ‘“Communities of Memory”: Pluralising Archival Research and Education Agendas, Archives and Manuscripts 33 (2005): 146-174).

Whilst the agenda they set out is exciting, their statement continues to reflect a set of possibilities, rather than describe an existing research field.

Overall, I was disappointed by the fact not to find more people working on cultural heritage and the ways in which the past is mined by individuals and groups for its symbolic content. There was one paper on museums, but this dealt with visitor responses to contemporary art and the challenge of developing an ethnography of the senses (a theme of the conference, following Les Back’s exhortation in his opening address to a ‘sensuous scholarship’), rather than encounters with historic material. Moreover, my paper did not give rise to much discussion, possibly because there was too much contextual information and not enough of the ethnographic detail that tends to pique the interest of listeners, but also possibly because I spoke first in a panel of four and questions were left to the end… Surprisingly, perhaps the paper that mostly closely echoed my concerns was a paper on the way that nostalgia for a lost golden age of white working-class heroes is used to maintain rugby league as a space of hegemonic whiteness. The consequence, as Stan Timmins put it is a racism that is, “like the wind: you can feel it as a black person, but you can’t see it.” But the vast majority of papers were much more concerned with cultural experience and production in the here and now, rather than the use of the past as a resource.

There was however a lot to take away from a methodological point of view. Here are a few things that I picked up, in no particular order:

¨ No one has, as yet, come up with a satisfactory method for conducting ethnographies of online communities (it’s not just me not knowing where to look!). This wasn’t always explicit in people’s papers, but was discussed quite freely over coffee. Even multi-media scholars are by no means sure how to track web interactions, and are particularly troubled by how to account for ‘passive’ web use, that is to say, visiting pages without necessarily commenting on them (an activity which still fosters identity construction).

¨ The enormous range and potential of non-textual ethnographic output. Over the course of two days I saw photos, video, animation, stills from ‘ethno’-theatre productions and fragments of art installations that all seek to translate research data into new media to facilitate their communication. As a creative practice in its own right ethnography is clearly thriving. I’m not sure how I could use these kinds of methods myself, at least in our current project, where it seems to me that our research participants have certain expectations with regard to our outputs and want us to generate material that offers them some form of institutional legitimation. But it highlight the extent to which ethnographic methods can feed into creative outputs both inside and outside the academy; the only limiting factor is the imagination (and technical skills – I could never shoot photos as carefully lit and composed as some of those I saw) of the researcher.

¨ Ethnography, as a research tool, may only be able to offer limited responses to the question of the ‘social impact’ of culture. This partly derives from the multiple difficulties associated with defining and measuring ‘social impact’, but also from the lack of fit between criteria established by government and what participants themselves value, which is what ethnography seeks to format. A visitor to an exhibition or a gig-goer is not going to tell you what s/he learned or how the visit enhanced their social capital, unless prompted in some very artificial ways. They’re going to tell you how they felt, or what thoughts a performance or image triggered. And it’s hard to squeeze the diversity of these responses into the categories of formal ‘impact’ evaluation. Moreover, as Victoria Foster pointed out in an inspiring presentation on her use of drama with Sure Start families, to engage with ‘impact’ assessment often requires us to use the language of capital, which, even in the Bourdieusian sense, can be deeply uncomfortable, suggesting the reduction of human difference to sets of quantifiable attributes that allow individuals to be situated within a logic of capitalist production, or as “means to an end” rather than an end in themselves (a point Foster illustrated with reference to the work of Kathleen Lynch).

¨ Following on from this, the importance of ‘attentive listening’ (as characteristic of ethnography) was emphasized on several occasions (not least by Les Back). However, as we were reminded in the closing plenary session, attentive listening does not just mean sympathetic nodding in agreement; it also means opening up critique, both in the conventional sense of deconstructing the worldview of participants but also in terms of challenging academic colleagues and allowing contrasting interpretations not just to coexist but sometimes actively to clash.

¨ Through a commitment to listening ethnography may yet do something that, in Les Back’s view theories of ethnicity and difference have thus far spectacularly failed to do and that is “to provide robust descriptions” of how people live “across difference”, a point he illustrated with reference to a south-east London market trader, who happily reconciled his laments for a lost white working-class with his children’s marriages to foreigners and cheerful interactions with his customers from all over the world. (Back’s work I think will be essential holiday reading before I start with Eastside…)

¨ And finally, generating these descriptions, whatever form they may take, also needs, to be fun. As Victoria Foster, citing Peter Reason, noted, the questions we should be asking of our research are, fundamentally “What injustice and suffering does it address?” but also “What joy does it bring?”

In the plenary session mention was also made of the fact that few of the papers had referenced ethnographic precedents. I’m fairly confident I’ve read everything in archival ethnography (not hard!), and I’ve yet to read anything that matches Georgina Born’s Rationalizing Culture (see my post on it here) for sound empirical research linked to serious intellectual work (Born was sadly unable to make the conference due to ill health, to everyone’s great disappointment) but nevertheless, I came away with a number of ideas for reading, based on citations from papers:

Back, Les, New ethnicities and urban culture: racisms and multiculture in young lives. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Burawoy, Michael eds, Global ethnography: forces, connections, and imaginations in a postmodern world, Berkeley, Calif. ; London : University of California Press, 2000.

eds Reason, Peter and Hilary Bradbury, The handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice, London : SAGE, 2001.

Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary affects, Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2007.

A space on the side of the road : cultural poetics in an “other” America, Princeton: Princeton University Press,1996.

And for a long time I’ve been wanting to read Danny Miller’s latest book, The comfort of things, Cambridge: Polity, 2008. (Although in the current circumstances Miller, Daniel, Capitalism: an ethnographic approach, Oxford ; Washington, D.C : Berg , 1997 might be a better place to start…).

All additional suggestions gratefully received…

Conference report: ‘shifting dialogues between users and archivists’

March 23, 2009

Andrew and I have spent two days last week in Manchester, at a conference organised by CRESC, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. The conference was the last in a series exploring ‘Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Methods and Ethics across Disciplines.’ This final event largely moved discussions on from the exploration of archive content and the implications of the archive for research in the social sciences to explore ‘shifting dialogues between users and archivists’ in the context of web 2.0 technologies and the phenomenon that has been described as ‘Archives 2.0’.

The focus on changing user-archivist interactions was the primary interest for us; Andrew’s paper on community archives and democratization set out the ‘potential of collaborative technologies for enhancing archival practice and incorporating a wider range of voices into the management of the archive’. Showcasing the way online community archives such as My Brighton and Hove are encouraging the development of user-generated content, Andrew explored the potential of the Web to reconcile the desire of communities to retain control of their material whilst making it as widely accessible as possible, at least in digital form. His paper provoked a lot of discussion, particularly around the issue of the extent to which user-generated content removes appraisal and selection from the process of preservation: if everything is posted on the web and if the only criteria for preservation are determined by the creators (rather than negotiated between creators and archivists) isn’t there a risk that material will in the long-run become less useful to researchers? One response to this challenge is to suggest that this reflects a re-balancing of archival power relations away from the dominance of a small elite minority and that where creators assign value is arguably of more interest to researchers than the extent to which material held within communities conforms to traditional archival categories. It is however easy to lose sight of the ‘what’s the point?’ question, both within community heritage initiatives and research projects, and it is a challenge that we will need constantly to bear in mind as we move towards the final stages of the project.

But just what is ‘Archives 2.0’? Most of the speakers understood it as a new kind of relationship between users and archivists, as the conference title suggested, allowing more user input into the collection, description and dissemination of records. Others drew on how web 2.0 technologies in general were being used to enhance the (re)use of existing archive material; Laurence Brown for example described a University of Manchester initiative to use GIS technology and Google Maps to create visualizations of the patterns of settlement described in oral history narratives about migration to Manchester in Jewish and Caribbean communities. He has also been involved in a project with Manchester Grammar School to use Google Maps to document the history of the Chinese community in Manchester. These technologies can also be used to aid reminiscence, much as photos and other visual images have been for many years. Paul Bevan of that National Library Wales took a broader view of the question, exploring how web 2.0 technology was being harnessed to enhance the visitor experience and capture (and retain) new audiences. But some of the projects labeled ‘archives 2.0’ for the purposes of this conference did not seem very 2.0 to me at all, being restricted to somewhat conventional portals without opportunities for user interaction, of which some of the presenters were positively wary (particularly those from the ‘Documents on Irish Foreign Policy’ series, who, whilst there are no doubt good grounds for their nervousness about opening up a public debate on Irish foreign policy particularly in the current tense climate seemed to confuse allowing users to comment on texts with offering them the possibility to rewrite them.) Yet as a number of speakers noted if organisations don’t embrace web 2.0 it will happen to them anyway, with people cutting and pasting material to comment on it on their own sites or twitter about it. And surely it’s better to engage actively with this trend and to seek to embrace the enthusiasm for discussion than to seek to restrict it in the hope it will go away?

An interesting additional strand was the discussion about the changing nature of what constitutes data for social science research (or how to construct the archive of the social world). I copied down a quotation from Jennifer Mason, used in Sheila Henderson and Rachel Thomson’s fascinating paper on the ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ project:

[In the context of] a cultural shift towards a popularized research culture and to the public display and sharing of personal data and information it is particularly important that qualitative social researchers are leaders rather than laggards in helping to think through what are the methodological possibilities.

In other words, it is no good relying on interview and observation data in an age where people’s lives are increasing being played out through their various digital personae and in a context where the boundary between public and private is becoming blurred. What this might mean for issues such as consent and ‘anonymity’ is particularly up for grabs. One area in which it would be interesting to take the community archives research in future is into the virtual arena, with a closer focus on the impact of online archives of born-digital material. One of the reasons why this hasn’t happened in the current project was because we balked at developing an appropriate methodology. As an occasional reader of the medianthro listserve, I remain unconvinced that anyone really has the answers yet, but it is a challenge that will have to be addressed.

There were also dire warnings also about the failure of library and archive services fully to engage with new content, especially born digital content. University libraries, Derek Law warned, had not even managed to develop strategies to manage the digital content being developed from within their own institutions, let alone outside. Predictions from the early 1990s that we would enter a ‘dark age of literacy’, with few material traces of either the activity of government or the intellectual debates that have shaped our age seem worrying close to reality. The history of computing, for example, could only be recovered by reconstructing an original Atlas machine since there were no written records of how it had been done. Apply this to the whole digital ‘revolution’ and the picture is frightening indeed.