Soundings and Findings: A Connected Communities Research Conference

AGM orangeUEP’s PI, Andy Miles introduces the UEP panel at the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Soundings and Findings conference, together with slides and audio from contributors.

At the beginning of July, the AHRC held a conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich to mark the culmination of its summer 2015 national Connected Communities (CC) Festival. The brief was for contributors to come along and talk about insights emerging from CC projects and how these were contributing to the changing research landscape. In the organisers’ words, they wanted to hear about ‘the actual research the programme has produced and is producing’… ‘more product than process’. This they counterposed to what they saw as a prevailing discursive emphasis, up to this point in the life of the programme, on the relational contexts, collaborative dynamics and new research practices associated with CC projects. Aware that, for some, this call might seem to amount to ‘a disavowal of what Connected Communities is about’, the organisers nevertheless maintained that now was a good moment to articulate and evaluate how the programme was impacting research fields and agendas.

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UEP is currently just past the mid-point of an intensive 5-year programme of empirical research, collecting a range of new data throughout every year in six contrasting case study locations across England and Scotland. Thinking about how to present and evaluate ‘findings’ from a project on this scale at this point in its schedule raises some important considerations about the relationship between process and product.

Firstly, the logistics of sustained, large-scale and differentiated data collection by a widely distributed research team provide few opportunities to pause collectively to reflect and take developed analytical stock across the project as a whole. Distinct patterns and themes are emerging at different times in different types places. But making broader, comparative or ‘stable’ sense of these in relation to the UEP project’s overarching research questions and multiple theoretical influences, is an ongoing, recursive process. Secondly, given the way in which our research approach is informed by recent debates on the ‘social life’ of methods, product, as we see it, is always contingent on the process of first making and then relating data.

For Law et al (2011), research methods are not simply neutral tools. Rather, they are loaded devices; in the first place, ‘constituted by the social world of which they are a part’ (2011: 5) and then, in turn, themselves ‘performative of the social’ (8). The design of the UEP project both recognizes and responds to this position by adopting a ‘mixed methods’ approach to collecting data about everyday cultural participation.

The genesis of the project is in previous research which illustrated the limitations sample surveys like the DCMS’s Taking Part as the standard approach to understanding participation. ‘Seeing like a survey’ (Law 2009) actually blinds government and market researchers to an abundance of informal participation practices, which resonate deeply in people’s social and cultural lives (Miles 2013). In this way the method becomes the medium in which people are described, making up some people as ‘cultural participants’ while marking out others as ‘excluded’ or ‘in deficit’ (Miles and Sullivan 2012).

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 20.53.21To counter this, alongside the reanalysis of existing quantitative data, UEP deploys a range of methods, including in-depth interviews, ethnography, focus groups, social network analysis and asset and participation mapping, to collect new data offering different perspectives, or ‘lenses’, on cultural engagement. The traditional way of mixing methods in the social sciences employs the notion of ‘triangulation’, which assumes that the findings from different empirical approaches are complementary parts of the same jigsaw, and often involves qualitative research being used as the junior partner in the relationship to flesh out findings from ‘more robust’ quantitative research. In UEP, by contrast, no methodological hierarchy is assumed, and the idea is consider the effects of each method on its own merits and then, following the approach of Mason (2006), to bring the data each generates – which might not match up and could actually be contradictory – ‘into dialogue’.

The presentations UEP team members gave to the CC conference in Norwich each reflect a different component of this mixed-methods process for understanding participation. In order to draw the presentations together as a collection, we each considered how the findings that are emerging across the project allow us to address the core substantive theme of ‘culture and stratification’. In other words, how both the notion and practice of participation works to order, classify and negotiate social relationships.

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In a project introductory talk, I firstly set out the background to UEP and explained its focus and design. This includes, amongst a range of theoretical influences, our particular concern with cultural participation as a mechanism for ‘distinction’ (Bourdieu 1984). Also, our central contention that studies which have provided important new perspectives on cultural engagement using a Bourdieusian model (e.g. Bennett et al 2009) nevertheless overlook the importance of location and place to participation (and vice versa). Click above for the slides from this introduction.

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The second presentation was given by Adrian Leguina, our new project postdoc. This focused on the way in which multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) – Bourdieu’s own method for analyzing survey data – is sensitive to the number of categories included in the sets of indicators used to describe particular cultural fields. In the case of the Taking Part survey, which includes many traditional cultural activities but relatively few indicators of everyday participation, this exaggerates the importance of formal culture in defining the social space. Using a development of MCA called Multiple Factor Analysis, or MFA, Adrian went on to show how, by properly weighting the indicators for different cultural fields against each other, the importance of non arts participation, and the ways in which informal cultural engagements define clear lifestyles, is revealed. To complement his PowerPoint presentation (above), Adrian gives some further explanation of this approach in this audiofile below.

In the next presentation (slides below), I spoke about my work on participation narratives (see previous post) from my initial readings of the first wave in-depth interviews carried out in the Manchester/Salford, Gateshead and Aberdeen ecosystems. In particular, I concentrated on participation boundaries and cultural capital, looking at how both experienced and Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 20.20.30inherited cultural repertoires and understandings of physical cultural boundaries are used to mark people off from each other. Age and intergenerational differences are prominent among these groups of interviewees. The life stories of men and women in their 50s and 60s, and so born between 1940 and 1970, often reflect the pervasiveness of the ‘high-culture’ system (Warde 2014), where participation in ‘the arts’ and popular culture align with and tend to reinforce particular class identities. Retirement, as both a constraint and a liberating influence on participation is another strong theme amongst this group.

Younger people’s participation, on the other hand, is framed more strongly – and much more so than is usually recognised in studies of cultural engagement – by work and by family considerations. Amongst this group there is less interest in traditional formal culture and more involvement with the kinds of technical, embodied and social practices that have been associated with so-called ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘emerging’ cultural capital (Prieur and Savage 2013). Although this group is less likely to refer to culture preferences as symbols of social distinction, in places like Salford and Gatehead they are integral to the processes of displacement and disidentification that are implicated in the making of the ‘cultural city’.

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The final, combined, presentation in the session was given by Lisanne Gibson and Delyth Edwards who spoke first about their work on the ‘facilitated participation’ of young people in care in Gateshead (see above for slides). They then explained how, as the project moves on to research the rural ecosystem of Dartmoor, the concept of facilitation can help to frame thinking about other ways in which young people’s participation is the subject of negotiation and brokerage.

LGibsonsmallLisanne began by setting out the historical background to facilitated participation, which is characterised by discourses of cultural management and delivery in which some forms have been and remain privileged as ‘better’ than others and therefore ‘good for’ the subject. Over the past thirty years the narrative of improvement through participation has been mobilized by enlisting those deemed to be in need of cultural betterment through ‘co-production’ and ‘co-creation’ but this leaves open the question of just how much agency the recipient has in this process.

DE smallDelyth then spoke about the Gateshead ethnography. This revolved around the making of a film – part of which was shown during the presentation and will soon be published on this site – with and by young women growing up in care, which highlights the ways in which these young people have to negotiate cultural provision in different domains, involving a variety of institutional structures, which in turn express several, sometimes contrasting, types of cultural value. Beyond this, the young women’s own ‘everyday’ participation was shown to be a highly important domain of independent learning, meaning making and empowerment whilst simultaneously proving to be a source of anxiety for local service providers.

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The construction of young people’s everyday participation as potentially ‘dangerous’ was subsequently highlighted early on in the Dartmoor ecosystem work, notably in research participants’ stories of rave culture and drug use as ways of overcoming social isolation in a rural setting. One response to this has been for older community volunteers to take on a similar role to the local authority in Gateshead in trying to facilitate and in the process safeguard young people’s activities. The intergenerational dynamics involved in this process of mediated participation are now being explored in an ethnographic case study of young people’s engagement with local community theatre.

To return to my opening remarks, these were presentations of early findings on a particular aspect of UEP’s interest in cultural participation using a selection of data types and samples from just some of our case study locations. The project remains, in more than one sense, a work in process. Nevertheless, the emerging products of UEP’s research – here providing new perspectives on the boundary-making processes that attach to and define cultural engagement – are already offering a challenge to the limitations of current approaches in the field of participation research.


Bennett T., Savage, M., Silva, E., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. and Wright, D. (2009) Culture, Class, Distinction, London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: a critique of the judgment of taste, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Law, J. (2009), ‘Seeing Like a Survey’, Cultural Sociology, 3, 2.

Law, J., Ruppert, E., Savage, M. (2011), ‘The Double Social Life of Methods’, CRESC Working Paper Series, No. 95.

Mason, J (2006) ‘Mixing methods in a qualitatively driven way’, Qualitative Research 6 (1).

Miles, A. (2013), ‘Culture, participation and identity in contemporary Manchester’, in Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1800, edited by Savage, M., Wolff, J., Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Miles, A. and Sullivan, A. (2012) ‘Understanding Taste and Participation in Culture and Sport: Mixing Methods, Reordering Knowledges’, Cultural Trends, 21 (4).

Prieur, A. and Savage, M. (2013) ‘Emerging forms of cultural capital’, European Societies, 15 (2).

Warde, A. (2013), ‘Reassessing Cultural Capital’, unpublished paper presented to New Forms of Distinction workshop, LSE, 12 September.

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