Research and Communities: Effects in Glasgow

Ruth Webber is a PhD researcher on the UEP project. Currently based in Glasgow, Ruth’s PhD was made possible by UEP’s partnership with Glasgow Life. Her blog below reflects on her position as a researcher undertaking two ethnographies in Glasgow communities. As such she is involved in research that is connected to, and in dialogue with, the issues raised by the debate surrounding the controversial Glasgow Effect art project by Ellie Harrison.

This featured post is copied from Ruth’s blog, and is subsequent to a Ruth’s previous timely response to a post on Bella Caledonia, Dear Creative Scotland, Ellie Harrison is a class act.

Nobody Knows Glasgow Better c/o Ruth Webber

Nobody Knows Glasgow Better c/o Ruth Webber

This whole ‘Glasgow Effect’ thing has made me reflect on the process of conducting publicly funded research, and engaging with communities, and the ways in which research should be engaging with communities in order to benefit them somehow.

Ellie Harrison’s ‘The Glasgow Effect’ is essentially a self-exploratory venture in which, by imposing the restriction of being unable to leave Glasgow at any point for the year she is conducting the research, Ellie will delve into thinking about how a local approach can effect and shape art practice, well-being, carbon footprints. In her own words as said in the third person:

“By setting this one simple restriction to her current lifestyle, she intends to test the limits of a ‘sustainable practice’ and to challenge the demand-to-travel placed upon the ‘successful’ artist / academic. The experiment will enable her to cut her carbon footprint and increase her sense of belonging, by encouraging her to seek out and create ‘local opportunities’ – testing what becomes possible when she invests all her ideas, time and energy within the city where she lives.”  (from the Facebook page)

People’s frustrations in the days that followed this post spoke about a number of things, but in the case of what I want to reflect on here, it was people’s annoyance at the idea that she was being paid to conduct a self-exploratory piece of work about how having to stay in Glasgow would affect her on a day to day basis.

What’s tricky is that this project is fundamentally process driven, rather than a project with a tangible, visible outcome. Where the arts are concerned and particularly at a time of crushing austerity where people see precious resources being squeezed tighter and tighter, which causes a rift between ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’, it is so easy for people to point fingers at things which are not producing outcomes or having impact in ways that can be seen and touched in the world and which benefit the wider population’s day to day lives. This is understandable as tangible, practical outcomes are important, fundamental even, in terms of generating feelings of success, completion, pride, and all these other things which are such key nutrients in bolstering individuals and communities. But the intangible outcomes which are so often by-products of community work are key too.

Ellie’s project doesn’t actually state that it is about working with communities in Glasgow to understand their lives in the city better, or even that it’s directly about exploring the role, causes of and effects of ‘The Glasgow Effect’ on people who live there, many of whom are doing so under the very same self-imposed restrictions Ellie has given herself. But there is evidently a feeling among many that any publicly funded project should have a responsibility to feed back into the public who have enabled it to go ahead.

“People are pissed off because you’re getting £15,000 to live and work in Glasgow, something that a lot of people do anyway, often without thinking about it and sometimes for less money in total income than you’re getting in funding alone. If you want to make a project about living constraints in the Glasgow area, do something with poverty – do some work in the East End, paint a mural or something so that people will see the money is going back into good things for the community, and they won’t begrudge you it.” (from the Facebook page).

And I would say that at this stage in my life, right now, I agree with this idea of feeding back in. Projects which come into being through the provision of public funding, should carry out work which at some stage produces tools, ideas, findings which are useful for improving wider society. I guess I’m thinking specifically about research such as that of my own here, rather than arts-based projects, but the same applies, I feel. Whether the focus is challenging accepted norms, exploring the role of play in adult well-being, or considering processes of home-making; being entrusted with public money heralds a certain degree of obligation for that work to contribute in some way to making this world, this city, this village, a better place to live.

This can take many forms, and it doesn’t always have to be an obvious formula, things have ripple effects in ways we can’t anticipate and should allow room for, but I think that with things as they are right now – and I suppose have been for a long, long time – socially, community-oriented projects are what is needed.

c/o Ruth Webber

If you are undertaking work which is intending to understand people’s lives in the city as framed by a particular thing (in my case migration, belonging and identity), then the only way to do this is to spend time with those people, talking with them about their lives, writing it up, checking you’ve not misunderstood or misrepresented that individual or community, and building a picture of the myriad lives and experiences which exist within the framework of whatever questions you’re looking for answers to, or whatever experiences you are looking to understand more deeply. In understanding comes a greater capacity to engage with and work towards tackling issues like integration, poverty, inequality. If our understandings are based on un-checked notions of what and who a person or a community is and why they may do what they do, how are we supposed to start shifting the status quo to improve people’s lives?

Recently I had a small existential crisis in which I got heavily absorbed into thinking about how this PhD sits with me as an individual, in terms of my favourite ways of working, things I enjoy doing, what I don’t want to do; generally, my own well-being overshadowed other ways that I could think about this opportunity and stopped me from being able to see it as that; an opportunity. Not just for myself but for the people I am (/will be) working with to talk about their stories and experiences, and project a representation of themselves which they are fully in control of into an arena which frankly, for many, it would be significantly more difficult to be a part of. Bureaucratic barriers are put up in the face of people migrating to the UK who are wanting to continue or embark on further study in the UK.

I need to do a bit more research on this kind of thing, and I have spoken to a number of people who have come to the UK and are undertaking PhDs, so it’s not a simple matter, but there are undoubtedly doors which open more easily open for me as a white middle class person. One thing I have been struggling with recently has been how to make the best use of my own privileges as a result of who I am, and how social structures shape the opportunities I have more ease of access to. Being in receipt of public monies to study brings with it both a freedom to think creatively and a responsibility to act in the same vein. Right now, what I’m most interested in learning about is how to collaborate effectively with people to create something which might just have some use in the world.

Currently based in Glasgow, Ruth’s PhD is co-funded by the AHRC and Glasgow Life.

You can see the original blogpost on Ruth’s personal site here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the UEP project or its partners, etc.

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