Sunday 22 October 2017

P/political Creativities (3) | working with stuff

In March 2016 Paula Briggs wrote: 

As a child when I wasn’t eating, sleeping or at school, I was making. 

My memories of childhood relate to stuff – smell, material and texture… It feels so fundamentally good and right to use our hands to manipulate materials – to use tools to extend our ability; to put stuff out into the world. The urge to alter our environment is part of our genetic makeup. The skill of making lies latent within all of us. (emphasis added).

My memories of my first year at ‘big school’ (1970/1971) – at a comprehensive in Sheffield and the Girls High School (no 11+ exam for me, just a couple of questions on maths and some reading for the Head) in Falmouth – are joyous. In both of these art, music and English were enriching experiences, encouraged beyond the confines of the classroom. I still remember some of the stories and poems I wrote and the weeks we concentrated on perspective and on silhouettes and profile in the art room convinced me that I was as artistic as the next girl. At the end of a term’s (free) violin classes the patient teacher suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the instrument for me but I was encouraged to continue with music even though my ear was poor. Things changed somewhat the following year and although I remember continued encouragement in English and music the art classes became a boring hour and a bit each week within which we were told to ‘draw your family’, or something similar, with little/no guidance, explanation, encouragement.

After leaving school at 18 with a couple of lacklustre A’ Levels I trained to become a nursery nurse and right from the start I struggled with much of the practical ‘making’ sessions. I’ll never forget the clunky crib mobile I made; the coat hanger was wooden and should have been wire, the star, moon and sun not that well-made or decorated and all hanging at similar lengths. On reflection I think that the D+ received was rather generous.

I remembered these two artistic disappointments recently when reading the following in a media article focused on ‘creative industries’:

Whenever I hear the phrase “creative industries” I’m always surprised. I ask myself, are there any uncreative industries? If so, how do they survive?…. we have to debunk the notion popularised by Hollywood that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth than normal folk – that creativity is something mysterious, elusive and cannot be taught.

We are not talking about high art, but empowering people to use their imagination. Not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. I believe everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, where we are taught literacy and numeracy. Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment.

The author – Tham Khai Meng - continues:

We spend our childhoods being taught the artificial skill of passing exams. We learn to give teachers what they expect. By the time we get into industry, we have been conditioned to conform. We spend our days in meetings and talk about “thinking outside the box”. But rarely do we step outside it.

Similar issues are raised in the article I referred to at the beginning of this piece:

We know that creativity is good for the economy too. The UK creative industries generate £84.1bn a year and account for 2.8 million jobs. It’s the fastest-growing sector of the economy....

We work a lot in schools and see 10-year-olds who can’t use scissors. We see art squeezed into obedient slots that require no mess, quick results and easy success. We see children who have never had to solve the problem of a sculpture that doesn’t balance; never had an argument with a lump of stuff; and never learnt the need to rebuild....Somehow, somewhere along the line, making became seen as a “nice” activity, but one we could do without.

So are we really preparing our children for their creative futures? There are so many reasons not to make and we need to talk about them. Let’s get the reasons our children aren’t making out in the open…. If we want a world full of creative, entrepreneurial thinkers, we need to enable and sustain making from a very young age. Not all of us will become sculptors or engineers or designers, but we will become more connected, rounded and creative people.

In two recent blogs and I have concentrated on some of the connections between politics and creativity. This included some consideration of different sorts of political writing and on music, comedy and the like. My main focus here obviously is on the making of ‘stuff’. Such activity, and the (political) discussion of it, is not new. During the movement for abolition, sewing circles served as a place for women to exchange ideas and talk about political work:

Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery…. A friend in a neigboring town recently said to us, “Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle”.

And during World War One:

grandmother in Belgium knitted at her window, watching the passing trains. As one train chugged by, she made a bumpy stitch in the fabric with her two needles. Another passed, and she dropped a stitch from the fabric, making an intentional hole. Later, she would risk her life by handing the fabric to a soldier—a fellow spy in the Belgian resistance, working to defeat the occupying German force. 

...every knitted garment is made of different combinations of just two stitches: a knit stitch, which is smooth and looks like a “v”, and a purl stitch, which looks like a horizontal line or a little bump. By making a specific combination of knits and purls in a predetermined pattern, spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message, buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or hat

There is a gender element here and given that knitting and sewing have traditionally been viewed as women’s work such activities were rejected by some within the suffrage movements. And yet, some suffragettes used needle arts to further their cause, not least to attempt to appear non-threatening to those opposed to their demands who labelled them ‘unwomanly’. To bring this right up to date the Women’s March in protest against President Trump’s administration was characterised by the hand-knitted ‘pussyhats’ representative of a resurgence in knitting as a political tool. 

In recognition of the importance of creativity more generally the Labour Party remains committed to putting creative subjects back on the school curriculum. In their 2017 general election Manifesto the Party pledged to pump £160 million into improving school arts facilities each year and to set up specialist careers advice services, following a report noting that schools that encouraged more creativity achieved significantly higher grades. The ‘Creative Sector’ also featured in the manifesto with a commitment for a £1 billion investment to provide better access to cultural institutions and arts education to provide a creative future for all, or to put it another way; ‘culture for the many, not the few’.

Over the last few months I have been experimenting, both within my academic work and with reference to other non-academic activities (including political activism), with making stuff. I owe my renewed engagement with this sort of creativity to the experience I had at a conference I went to earlier in the year – Thinking Through Things – organised by Magali Peyrefitte and Carly Guest. In one of the sessions during the day participants were asked to make a collage representative of their 'work self'. I found this activity and the discussion that took place during it both personally enriching and intellectually stimulating. Since then I have initiated, and been part of, collage and zine (a non-commercial often homemade or online publication usually devoted to a specialised and often unconventional subject matter, sometimes with a political focus) making in several academic settings and created another zine of my own within which I published a series of politically focused short stories that I wrote between the summers of 2016-2017, see:

This creative doing has surprised me in a couple of ways.  First, I was at first amazed at how enjoyable and valuable I, and others I have worked with, found such activity. But after all…to quote Paula Briggs one last time:

Making connects the hand, eye and brain in a very special way. It’s empowering for both maker and viewer. The act of making is optimistic; it’s an act of faith. People of all ages feel better for doing it. Making can also be very social – conversations can meander while hands are kept busy. 

Second, I have wondered why it took me so long to realise the importance and possibilities of such work. Especially as I have long been concerned to encourage those I have had the privilege to teach and mentor to not be frightened of play (as in playing with research data, with method, with theory and with the words we use to write up such endeavours). Perhaps, and I’m trying to excuse myself a little here, my reticence to play with ‘stuff’ is because of my earlier disappointing outputs. Anyways here are some examples (so far):  

My short story zine

My first collage: my researcher self 
My most recent collage: my mentor self 

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Bias, Truth, Trust | what the media can learn from social research(ers)

The current debate over bias in and trust of the media reminds me of long-time debates amongst social science researchers about objectivity and subjectivity within social research. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has said that criticism of the BBC and of mainstream newspaper journalism from alternative online media sites (from both the left and the right) are at least partially responsible for a lack of trust in outlets and outputs traditionally viewed as beyond reproach. Robinson describes this as a ‘guerrilla war’ arguing that the critics of television and newspaper reporting ‘now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe in ‘the news’.

Yesterday, I read two responses to this: 
We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial’ (Owen Jones, The Guardian (Opinion) 9th October, 2017 and 
‘Centrist pundits are losing the plot over ‘impartiality’: from where I stand’ (Aaron Bastani, Huck, 9th October 2017)

Owen Jones argues:

Britain’s press is not an impartial disseminator of news and information. It is, by and large, a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying. It uses its extensive muscle to defend our current economic order which, after all, directly benefits the rich moguls who own almost the entire British press. Whether it’s the Sun, the Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, that means promoting the partisan interests of the Conservative party. The press has been instrumental in upholding the political consensus established by Thatcherism: deregulation, privatisation, low taxes on the rich and weak trade unions. It has traditionally defined what is politically acceptable and palatable in Britain, and ignored, demonised and humiliated individuals and movements which challenge this consensus.

The influence of such an approach is evidenced, Jones adds, by the fact that opinion polls show that many people still believe misrepresentation, inaccuracies, lies even, if reported in ‘the news’. Interestingly, and ironically, Jones cites the Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh, who once described Jeremy Corbyn supporters as ‘thick as pigshit’, but not The Guardian journalist Nick Cohen who similarly called us (making my own ‘bias’ obvious here) ‘fucking fools’. Jones also makes reference to alternative news outlets which he judges as good and not so good without acknowledging this as reflecting his own personal views and prejudices.

As Aaron Bastani notes without the huge amount of activity online – including alternative/new media writings; personal commentary and blogging; and memes and videos by the Labour Party, Momentum and other left wing supporters – it is less likely that Labour would have secured 40% of the vote in June 2017. Bastani, like Jones, provides useful evidence of the obvious political affiliations of many journalists and editors. He adds:

This fusion, between media and politics, is the totem of a rigged system. Trust in journalism is at historic lows precisely because people can see what is immediately obvious: the vast majority of the media isn’t impartial and those journalists that claim to be are almost all the result of an elite education. It is a club and there are rules. If you dare break them in politics you are deemed ‘unelectable’; transgress them in journalism and you are illegitimate.

So what has this got to do with social research? What are the connections between discussions of bias in the media and biased sociological (my own discipline) writings? Historically, within sociology and other social sciences the so-called ‘scientific’ approach was unquestioningly adopted as the best way to study both the physical and the social world. Objectivity was possible, it was argued, and the ‘expert neutral knower’ (the researcher) was expected to generalize from research to wider social and physical populations. From this perspective 'the truth is out there’ and researchers can investigate and discover said ‘truth’ by putting aside their own view, opinions, biases. As the supporters of this approach were mostly male (it was not until the second half of the 20th Century that women began to enter the academy in any great numbers) not surprisingly (and clearly demonstrating the bias at play) the focus was generally on male experience which was in turn positioned, and promoted, as the ‘norm’. The earliest critics of this argument  were also male and although they were critical of the claims to objectivity, value-freedom and the search for the ‘truth’ their research still tended to focus on male experience and the sexist aspects of the work was not challenged. From the 1970's feminist researchers began to criticise male-dominated ‘knowledge production’ and the methodological claims made by researchers who argued that their work was objective and value free.

In my own academic writings I have tried to work towards a position that challenges traditional claims to objectivity and recognises the identity (personhood) of the researcher and the complex relationship between the researcher and those they research (which itself has an impact on the research process and its final product) and yet still enables useful things to be said. It has become commonplace for researchers to acknowledge the need to consider how the researcher as author is positioned in relation to the research process, not least with reference to the choice and design of the research fieldwork and analysis, editorship and presentation. Increasingly researchers accept that subjectivity and bias is inevitable and with this in mind I have argued that  '. . .it is better to understand the complexities within research rather than to pretend that they can be controlled, and biased sources can themselves result in useful data' (Letherby 2003: 71). It seems that journalism, or at least some journalists, are catching up. Jones suggests that there has been an increase in opinion journalism masquerading as objective reporting and Bastani argues:

There is nothing wrong with politically committed journalism, be it in comment or reportage, legacy media or new. The point is to be open and honest with one’s audience about those commitments.

Yes indeed.

Rather than attempting to redefine objectivity (as some social researchers have done) I have, in my research work, instead been concerned (and have concerns) with ‘the pursuit for objectivity’ as the starting point of any methodological discussion. I have argued that if instead we start by accepting our subjective position - the significance of our personhood (intellectual, personal, political) within the research process - and really try to understand the complexities and the influence of these, this ‘super-sensitivity’ to the relevance of the personhood of the researcher could feasibly lead to the conclusion that our work is closer to objectivity, in that our work, if not value-free, is value-explicit (Letherby 2003, 2013). My starting point then recognizes the values (both positive and negative) of the subjective. For me subjectivity is not the opposite of objectivity but rather it is just how it is; an inevitable part of any research endeavor, and similarly any journalistic work. Furthermore:

·         Researchers are not intellectually superior to those they research but we do have privileges (e.g. discipline training, research resources and access to multiple accounts) and must admit the implications of these. The same is true of journalists and other such writers.

·         I do not believe that I am in a position to generate the 'true story' of any experience I research but I do believe that 'my story' can stand in opposition to and as a criticism of 'other stories' (both feminist and non-feminist, academic and lay). Similarly, alternative and new media provides us with a challenge to ‘news’ which has been shown not only to be not objective but is also guilty of promoting a politics of fear and of hate. I have written about this before; see:

·         In my research (and more recently my own political opinion piece writings) I do not claim to have ever found ‘the answer' but by starting to ask different questions of different/under-researched groups OR by drawing on accounts and writings that challenge the mainstream I believe that my writing helps to highlight complexities of differences of experience and of opinion that may previously not have been considered. I do not claim that my work is by definition superior to other knowledge claims and indeed I accept that my work and my bias, just like everyone else’s, should be subject to critical enquiry.

Nick Robinson's (and others) concerns have prompted debate on the value(s) of and embedded within the media (in its broadest sense). Such discussion can only be good as it shines light on the inevitable political bias within ALL journalism. The more we talk and write about this the better for all of us. 

Letherby G (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University

Letherby G (2013) ‘Theorised Subjectivity’ in Letherby G Scott J and Williams M Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research London: Sage