Everyday Participation in Parliament

In December the Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values project (UEP) was chosen by the AHRC to highlight its cross-Research Council, Connected Communities programme at a high profile Research Councils UK (RCUK) event in the House of Commons. Entitled Underpinning UK Growth and Well-Being, the purpose of this event was to raise awareness of the impact and benefits of publicly funded research with parliamentarians, peers and business.

In particular, the event emphasized the importance of cross-Council collaborations and interdisciplinary research for addressing some of the key issues and challenges facing the UK at a time of economic uncertainty and rapid social change. All 10 UK Research Councils were represented across a series of exhibitions about their work; the ESRC’s, for example, focusing on ‘Global Uncertainties’, while the EPSRC’s demonstrated its ‘Digital Economy’ research, and so on.

For this event, the AHRC made a short film about UEP, focusing on our preparatory work in the neighbouring communities of Broughton in Salford and Cheetham Hill in Manchester. This is the area we have chosen for the first of our six ‘cultural ecosystem’ case studies across England and Scotland, in which we will explore how participation practices are mediated by place and how they play out in terms of community dynamics.

One reason that these areas are interesting is that, although they border each other and share common histories, they fall under the jurisdiction of two different City Councils. Another is that while their residents can look out onto a cityscape marked by Manchester’s iconic cultural institutions, just a twenty-minute walk away down Cheetham Hill Road, they are, as communities, culturally remote from the City Centre.

An extended version of the AHRC film can be viewed here. Abigail Gilmore (who leads the Manchester/Salford case study) and I were keen that, rather than just report on the project solely through the eyes of a researcher, the film featured some of the people who live in the area who are connected with the themes, groups and settings that have emerged as locally significant during our scoping work.

So far, this work has highlighted strong rates of participation in diverse faith communities, involvements in a wide range of, often non-mainstream, sporting activities, the importance of specialist food production to the local economy, and the role of parks and supermarkets in providing ‘neutral’ meeting places as especially notable. These themes and issues are all touched on by local people in the film, with individual stories conveying the richness of everyday cultural life in two communities that, in other senses, are quite deeply deprived.

As it turned out, the process of recruiting a cast and explaining what we are trying to achieve to the filmmakers helped our thinking about ways to engage people with and in the UEP project. It also reinforced the importance of good local partnerships in contextualizing and brokering relationships upon which a major part of the case study research will be founded, and we are very grateful to Shirley Lundstram, Strategic Development Manager for Culture and Leisure at Salford City Council, for her help in bringing participants together and hosting filming at the Broughton Hub and at Fit City Broughton Pool.

Back at the House of Commons, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had just announced a £600 million injection into the UK’s research infrastructure as part of his Autumn Statement. The RCUK event therefore kicked off with short but buoyant speeches by Andrew Miller, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, Professor Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK and David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science before each embarked on a tour of the various exhibition stands to learn more about the featured projects.

When the Minister arrived at the AHRC stand, he watched the UEP film and his first comment was: ‘Ah, so this project is about social capital’. This struck me as an interesting reaction on several levels: first, because of the continuing currency of this concept in policy circles between the Coalition government and the previous New Labour administrations  – stretching back now over a period of 15 years; secondly, because it suggested a rather more sophisticated recognition by government of the potential contribution of arts and humanities research to the social policy field than is to be found in the superficial rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’; and thirdly because UEP is, indeed, partly about social capital.

However, what the project seeks to do in this latter regard is to make better sense of how, where and with what consequences this kind of capital is generated, transacted and translated as a resource  – both by individuals and communities. To do this we need to understand the cultural significance of people’s everyday practices and associations, looking beyond the traditional conflation of terms like ‘cultural participation’ and ‘cultural value’ with the formal activities and institutions of the established cultural sector. In short, we need to explore the relationships between different forms of capital – cultural, social and economic – in context.

AGM

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