The Taking Yourself Seriously Project set out to explore the relationship between
community arts and social cohesion with particular reference to sustainability of projects
- beyond the immediate context.
The Taking Yourself Seriously project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research
Council’s Connected Communities Programme. This programme seeks to encourage
community co-produced living knowledge that directly works with, not on communities.
The funding aimed to explore the role of artists in social cohesion projects in partnership
with ARVAC, the Association for Research in the Voluntary and Community Sectors. At
the end of the project, the project team gathered together in Sheffield to reflect on the
findings and to consider what we learned. We were joined by Sharon Hutchings, from
We came together as one group, enacting social cohesion in practice. The purpose of
the writing retreat was to explore what everyone had been working on and how it all
fits together. It was an opportunity to listen to each other and to hopefully learn more
together about the ways in which artistic methodologies can inform social cohesion.
You can download this here TYS Writing Retreat
This review considers the use of arts based approaches for social cohesion. It makes up part of a more extensive literature review that has been created to support the artistic projects that emerge from the Taking Yourself Seriously project. The Taking Yourself Seriously project is working in partnership with the Association for Research with the Voluntary and Community Sector (ARVAC) to share the knowledge developed through our work with other voluntary and community groups. This review is intended to be used as a resource for Community and Voluntary Sector members of ARVAC who are interested in developing similar projects. ARVAC key findings
The Taking Yourself Seriously Project (TYS) explores how arts methologies can facilitate social cohesion within communities. TYS is situated into three situation specific community spaces, one of which is a secondary school in an area where there have been issues of social cohesion.
Co-production, ethics and prioritising young people’s voices, alongside a relinquishing of ‘adults’ as the knowledge experts has been key to this exploration, and to the generation of different understandings of social cohesion within the school context.
The research team within the school is composed of three TYS project staff and 4 Year 8 pupils. The aim is to coproduce the research by enabling young people to explore what social cohesion means to them, and how they and other young people in the school understand and recognise cohesion in action.
The young people are using creative tools such as photography, filmmaking and audio recording as they undertake their research. In one particular session, the young people spent some time showing us around the school whilst photographing their favourite spaces/places. We asked them what they thought social cohesion was within the school; they said it was making friends, having safe and favourite places where they could be together and being able to be themselves.
Looking through the photos they’d taken, the young people explained why they had taken the pictures that they did, and talked through what the different spaces in the school meant to them.
For one young woman the library was an unsafe space. She told us that when she was in Year 7 she had overheard other young people saying not very nice things about her and now she doesn’t like going into the library. One of the young men explained that he didn’t like the library as it meant he had to read. He also said that the library was a safe place because it was quiet and calm.
The canteen was a safe and unsafe place. It was safe because there were counters, and lots of teachers and dinner ladies about so it was watched. It was unsafe as lots of fights happen there and it can be very busy and loud.
The school is very good at recognising success. Around the school several walls are covered in framed photographs, letters and artifacts that celebrate pupil achievement, as well as former students who have achieved myriad goals. Two of our young researchers stated that they liked this space as they could look at the photos and think about the things they want to achieve.
All of the young people liked the music room. Our young female researcher plays piano, two of the young men also played instruments and one of them explained that he plays the drums as this helps him when he is frustrated and angry. Making a rhythm helps him to calm down and get into a different headspace. Another young researcher said that he likes it when everyone plays their instruments together and is part of a band making lots of noise. Each of them said that music was a way of communicating, of using a different language to work together.
We asked the children to choose their favourite photo and to use this as inspiration to create something on a large piece of paper that reflected what social cohesion in the school meant to them. Whilst we were making, one of the team asked them what they didn’t like about school and they shared some of the things they found difficult. They felt that some young people were treated differently than them, and that these young people can get away with things that they cant, like wearing trainers and being given more time to complete activities set in class. They felt that they were treated ‘less better’ than these young people.
Another young person then disclosed how his experience of a family trauma meant that he got frustrated and didn’t always want to behave in school, and when his friends had been unsupportive, he struggled to not misbehave due to his anger.
All of the young people made something different to contribute to the collage. They all returned to the significance of music, and how this brings everyone together; even if you speak different languages you can still communicate with others through the notes and rhythms, as you know what the next person is doing when they play their instruments. Their reflections on the importance of music lead them to add a plasticine circle to their collage. The young people each made a plasticine sausage that were joined together to make a circle. They said that the circle is because music brings people together. They wrote inside their circle “ Our music community that brings us together”.
In creating space for young people to be the ‘expert’ and self-define their understanding and experiences of social cohesion what became clear is that they negotiate a lived-experience of social cohesion daily. This negotiation involves wrestling with ‘othering’ and ‘being othered’, living with the nitty-gritty issues of real-life and the struggles of juggling these within school life; they are also acutely aware of the juxtaposition of different spaces being both safe and unsafe inside and outside of school.
By Zanib Rasool & Katy Goldstraw
As the work of the taking yourselves seriously project develops we continue to use arts methodologies for social cohesion. Five themes have emerged from our work within the three projects; knowledge, co-production, roles, voice and ethics. Our work with the women’s project in Rotherham has developed and as the artist reflects, she is immersing herself in the space and time that she is capturing on canvas. As she immerses herself in this space and time, in the sight, sound and smell of Pakistan, we have realised that need things. Lorraine Daston (2007:9) reflected
‘Imagine a world without things. It would be not so much an empty world as a blurry one. Nor would there be anything to describe, or to explain remark on, interpret, or complain about -just a kind of porridgy oneness. Without things we would stop talking.’
At that start of this project we perhaps did not did not envisage objects and things having such important significance. However, artefacts and objects are therefore important tools for research as Rowsell, (2011:332), argues ‘putting artefacts in the centre of the methodology, as an optic [is] to get an insider emic gaze of individuals, their communities, and lived histories’. She further emphasises on the power that artefacts hold in allowing researchers to access information that might not be possible through other methods, such as observations, document analysis and even interviews. As we felt for our mother’s journey we needed images of objects to help us to narrate their stories of migration.
“I remember playing under mango tree with clay pots and marbles
I use to help my mum and aunties in the corn field
I remember my grandma milking cows and making lassie in a gadget called Madani
Grandmother grinding flour in chakki
We had tandoor in our yard; women neighbours use to come to make roti
During kite flying season we children get together and make kites at school and then take them home and fly them from the top of our house roofs, it was our social activity
I remember the house roof leaking at night and putting buckets under the leaks.
Decorating hand held fans with moti”’ Interviewee One
We wonder how the artist will capture those emotions of home on the canvases that she is creating? Using objects and artefects to recall the emotional aspects of memory helps us recall and re-imagine our memories, to reconnect with the multicolour tapestries of our multiple identities. The arts offer a way of seeing what might not always be visible, which we consider within the projects. Investigated within the projects is the idea that the quality of arts based research lies in the process of its creation. Arts based approaches can be understood as a process, or a product. Arts based approaches can be a social journey through which a new understanding emerges, or a the production of a work of art, or indeed as anywhere along the process to product binary.
Using arts methodologies for social cohesion is complex, integrated and emotional. Issues of power and trust are located in conversations around inequality, identity and diversity. Using arts methodologies for social cohesion is to ask questions and create connections from an alternative angle. Indeed, arts methodologies enliven our minds, bodies and emotions, recognising the multiplicity of our knowledge and identities. In conclusion, arts methodologies have the potential to empower the process of social cohesion through an alternative lens (Eisner, 1997). They offer an opportunity to build dialogue and reflect alternative knowledges.
We are using artistic methodologies to explore Muslim women’s layered experience of identity in Rotherham. We are exploring ways in which artistic methodologies can support community-led research with a focus on the life trajectories of women from Pakistani heritage backgrounds. Community co-investigator, Zanib Rasool, is using poetry and other artistic methodologies to connect family histories, creating a sense of being between generations. Through arts based practice we are capturing individuals’ unique stories across three generations. The project gives the deserved recognition to the contribution migrant communities have made to social, cultural and economic life.
Taking Yourself Seriously funded by Art and Humanities Research Council explores artistic approaches to social cohesion. The Clifton girl’s project utilised artistic methodologies to gain a more meaningful and deeper insight into Muslim women’s mufti- layered experience of identity and citizenship. The current narrative discourses of Muslim women are based on stereotypes that undermine all our achievements and successes and make invisible the positive contribution that every day we make to British civic life, social and economic life. Through life story approach eight women of Pakistani heritage share their stories of the challenges and barriers they have faced as daughters of immigrants; and also their story of inner strength and resilience, challenging some of the negative assumptions made about Muslim women in policy and media, and placing Muslim women at the centre of social research and arts pedagogy.,
Artists have a social responsibility to bring untold stories to life and reposition community narratives and change the power balance through artistic methodologies to connect family histories and creating a sense of belonging for younger generations. Through arts based practice we are capturing individual women’s unique stories across three generations.
During the month of August it was 70 years since the independents of Pakistan and India which came at a cost, and those human stories of sacrifice remain untold. The ‘Others’ history being made invisible with no particular history lessons about one of the bloodiest wars taught to their children in British schools. Like the stories of our father's working in the steel industry and their contributions goes largely unrecognised.
Cohesion can only happen when people of all backgrounds and faiths have their rightful place in history and artist have a role to play in this, in capturing events and moments in history of the marginalised through visual narratives, through poetry and writing, through performing arts and making visible those invisible lives Artist can validate the lives of their ancestors and their struggles and be a voice for their community
These women who left Clifton school in the 1970's their stories would have remained untold if it was not for this project. As women we are disadvantaged by our gender and the feminist writer, Ann Oaxley rightly argues ‘women and other minority groups, above, all need qualitative research because without this, it is difficult to distinguish between personal experience and collective oppression’. (2005, p. 189). Artist and poets can get to those personal experiences.
I have been meeting with Nazia Lafit, a local artist, every week in August
Nazia- This project has given me a greater understanding of our past histories. Art and poetry help with communication with people and how people feel. Art is a way of expressing feelings and recognise the sacrifices of the older generation.
Often when we talk about cohesion we start reminiscing and during one of those moments I remember growing up in a street that reflects what social cohesion should look like with people living side by side. I write about my street.
‘The Irish, the Polish, the Italian and the Commonwealth immigrants from Pakistan living in a row of run down terrace houses, side by side in a little industrial market town.
The boys played with their multi coloured marbles on the street corners, seeing no difference between them for they were all children of migrants united in a new place.
The sounds of home echoing through the distinct languages each brought with them which we no longer hear, the multilingual voices calling the children to come in at nightfall are now silenced.
The Irish stews, Madras curries, Pierog (Polish dumplings), and Tuscan soup, the aroma of home, the recipes forgotten, no one can cook now like Ammi (mother) did.
The Sunday church bells mingled with the reading of the Quran from my house, the opera played loudly next door, Irish bagpipes in tune with Polish folk songs down the street, those sounds are getting quieter now’
The street, I grow up was like many other streets across this country in the 1970s, you did feel a sense of belonging in my street with some English families and Irish families who lived there for a long time and with new immigrant families like mine moving in. ‘A sense of belonging is a reoccurring theme in definitions of social cohesion. A sense of belonging can also be connected with identity and to identification with a geographical space. Sharing a sense of belonging or identity arguably promotes social cohesion (Holtug, 2016). However it is important to question how do we build collective and community identities without scapegoating those that are excluded from them?’ Over time in my multicultural neighbourhood like other similar neighbourhoods there was ‘white flight’ and we the minority ethnic community are made the scapegoats for living parallel lives which is unjust but then politician do not need to look at racism and high unemployment leading to migrants living in poorer areas clustered together. .
I remember as a child, in my street all the mums use to hang the washing out about same time in the morning, only for the whites to get covered with soot from the smoke from the factories on our doorstep. They also use to shout in the evenings simultaneously in different languages for the children to stop playing and come in for bed. No one had much money so friendship counted and we did not have mass media like we do today fanning the fires of intolerance and blaming immigrants for everything. In the past and even now immigrants are doing jobs that pay very little and finding the streets are not paved with gold but hostility.
Social cohesion happened more naturally then and was not forced by government policies and strategies. There was trust between neighbours whatever background they were from.
Zanib- ‘My mum use to leave me as a baby with her lodger Jean that rented a flat from my dad. Jean and her teenage daughters use to look after me while mum went and got her shopping done. There was trust then. Trust is a very big part of community cohesion and when trust breaks down, community break down and we start living parallel lives’
At our last session in August, Nazi and I talked about Pakistan about our parents’ lives there, our mothers would have been very young when they arrived here with no English, and it must have been very lonely.
We talked about objects and one of those was sewing machines, objects are good way of narrating women’s livers.
Nazia -Every women from Pakistan was talented, we had henna artist, we had women who sewed beautifully, did embroidery, knitting. Every house had a sewing machine, now hardly anyone has a sewing machine, we are losing creative skills
Nazia –Pakistan art is colourful; it is bold, symmetric patterns .and textiles. Everyday objects, cooking pots, buses and lorries. I am going to look at the work of South Asian artist. I love Islamic art. I am learning so much, I am experiencing my own culture, it’s fascinating. I am able to look back on women’s lives and their progression
Nazia and I talked about life in Pakistan and I remember when I was six I visited Pakistan for the first time in late 60s having been born in Newcastle I remember the hot summer and sleeping outside in the courtyard and counting the stars all night, it felt so peaceful.
My mother had a bed shipped from Pakistan which is now in my spare bedroom
My mother gave up sleeping under the stars on summer nights for cold, damp dismal house near the dockyards when she first arrived here in the early 1960.
Nazia This work has also made me think of my mum’s sacrifices, our mums came here to give us a better life. I think they were happier there, it was more relaxed, they had roots, and our mums lived for their kid
Objects seem to play an important role in the narrative of Pakistani women’s lives but modernity means we are losing objects and things that were once important, our cultural artefacts which provide us with past narratives of our family lives are being replaced with new objects along with our culture.
Feeling nostalgic I walked around my house and my mother’s one Sunday morning and realised in my mother’s house there were still things the linked to Pakistan and her pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia whilst I had a fridge with magnets of holidays taken in different parts of the world.
My 24 year old nephew likes eating from these clay pots sent by his maternal grandmother in Pakistan
Perhaps it is a way of keeping our ancestors close to him, something that reminds us of them and our parent’s country of origin, our roots. ‘Objects are animated with human histories, vision, and ingenuity’ (Brandt and Clinton, 2002, 345)
Artists are the people that can bring the past to life and provide us with visual images of our future. They weave a splendid web of hope that often links us with our past and takes us to our future
Nazia. We are good, when we do art, we face lots of barriers, I am more confident in my art then I was before. Before this project I did not know much about my own families’ history as artists’.
In the current political climate differences are viewed as a threat to social order. We have to be brave and cross boundaries and artist are best placed to lead the way
‘I can only speak through my art work; my ideas are generated by my passion for artistry’ (Nazia Latif conversation with Mariam Shah, Oral historian on this project, August 2016).
Oakley, A. (2005) Reader: Gender, Women, Social Science. Bristol. The Policy Press
Brandt, L. and Clinton, K. (2002) Limit of the local: Expanding perspectives on literacy as a social practice. Journal of Literacy Research. 34 (3) 337-356
How do we work to collaborate and respect the multiplicity of our knowledges? How do we hold diverse voices in one space? What is the value of using art as an alternative lens to view society?
Our Taking Yourself Seriously project has been thinking about these things. We have met again as a project team sharing the emerging developments that the three projects; the women’s poetry project, the adventure playground and the school have identified. Collaborative projects are tricky, involve difficult conversations and boundaried co-production as our blog posts have discussed before. Community and global politics have influenced the project’s development too. We have taken the call to take ourselves seriously to heart and have taken the need to have honest, conflicted and difficult conversations to the conferences that we have attended.
We have been presenting ideas to a number of stakeholders including ARVAC. Key themes of knowledge, co-production, roles, voice and ethics that have emerged as part of the Taking Yourselves Seriously project were presented to ARVAC at their annual conference. We then led a workshop asking reflections on three questions; what does art mean to you? what does social cohesion mean to you? what approaches to social cohesion have and haven’t worked? Key reflections emerged that included successful methods for using arts methodologies in film and photography, the diversity of approaches to social cohesion and the sharing of examples of top-down government policies that had failed due to lack of community engagement. The session ended with an enthusiasm for using arts methodologies to create ‘an alternative lens’ (Eisener, 1997), as a means of developing communication that has the potential to integrate all levels of community and locality.
We have also been working with local community workers with an interest in arts methodologies. We again shared the emerging themes from our research through workshops. The first workshop was based on Maori concepts of sacred and everyday knowledge (Te Wahanga, 2011). We asked participants to consider the variety of knowledges that they held and to place them into a basket of knowledge. This workshop drew on the multiplicity of knowledges that we recognise within the Taking Yourselves Seriously project. The second workshop developed a personal map using poetry, questioning if cohesion can be built creatively and exploring personal relationships to place. The third workshop used creative arts to ask participants about their experience of using arts methodologies for social cohesion. We offered participants the opportunity to reconsider their perceptions of knowledge using creative techniques.
We were at the Co-creating Cites and Communities Conference in Bristol, hosted by the Connected Communities project, through which our Arts and Humanities Research Funded project runs.
Here, we shared a real dilemma that the project was experiencing. This was:
The area around Pitsmoor Adventure Playground had been experiencing some violent incidents involving gang violence, and the children and young people were finding it difficult. The playground is a safe space for them to play. Should its remit be widened to include becoming a community hub so that people could come there and be supported more generally?
TYS project workers briefly debated the issue and then asked for the advice and ideas to be work shopped. This approach, one of debate, dialogue and vulnerability was difficult. Not everyone felt that they could comment or offer an opinion this situation.
Taking yourselves seriously, for us, has become an opportunity to be honest about challenges, to have conflicted conversations and to share vulnerabilities.
Our emerging findings are as follows:
- Arts methodologies for social cohesion are complex, integrated and emotional.
- Issues of power and trust are located in conversations around inequality, identity and diversity.
- Using arts methodologies for social cohesion is to ask questions and create connections from an alternative angle.
- Arts methodologies enliven our minds, bodies and emotions by recognising the multiplicity of our knowledge and identities.
- Arts methodologies empower the process of social cohesion through an alternative lens (Eisener, 1997); they offer an opportunity to build dialogue and reflect alternative knowledges.
Using arts methodologies to consider social cohesion comes with complex ethical questions that require discussion and interpretation. Co-production is not equal, and power inequalities exist within artistic methodologies as well as within wider society. Here, we have sought to discuss and highlight these themes and offer an honest consideration of the value and challenges of using artistic methodologies for social cohesion.
This month on our project has seen our work developing and the presentation and preparation for presentation of our emerging ideas at summer conferences. It has led us to one of the emerging themes of the project, which is what is knowledge. University research has a role in legitimising knowledge and in shaping what sort of knowledge is given priority. Our project has taken a broader view of knowledge, in choosing to co-produce we have chosen to view knowledge as situated, relational and embodied … but what does that mean?
Knowledge production has diverse forms, knowledge encompasses space, place, histories and a variety of practical and relational skills, and frequently requires emotional intelligence to navigate. When considering creative approaches to arts enquiry we can consider art practice as the production of knowledge. The strength of arts based research is that it enables multidisciplinary forms of knowledge. Indeed this type of research often contradicts what is expected of research.
Knowledge is most often presented as a finished product the opus operatum, yet this most often fails to recognise the modus operandi (Bourdieu 1993). The processes of knowledge development, reflection, discussion and debate are often overlooked in the process of creating the finished product. In moving beyond the traditional theoretical, philosophical, empirical binaries of knowledge creative arts research enables knowledge to be articulated that is emotional, personal and subjective.
Arts have the potential to enable democracy, to create uncomfortable conversations, which generates values. The notion of ‘embodied knowledge’ integrates notions of explicit and tacit knowledge, recognising the fluidity of knowledge forms. Knowledge production then becomes a sensory activity that is situated with and between us and embedded in the relationships we build as a project team. Taking yourselves Seriously in co-produced projects means recognising the diversity of our knowledge and creatively crocheting our individual expertise into a whole.
I write this blog at with images of community at the forefront of my mind, having watched the news of this week with tears in my eyes both with horror at the explosion and with admiration as the capacity of human kindness and of the immediate heartfelt love that Manchester as a city wide community has expressed.
The image on a recent album cover has inspired the title of this blog, moving forward through reading. The image is of some origami balancing out a grenade on some kitchen scales, the album is entitled The Counterweight, the artist Thea Gilmore.
I have been reflecting on the idea of moving forward through reading and of learning, engagement, dialogue and conversation having a fundamental role in social cohesion. Arts Methodologies in engaging creativity engage our mind but importantly also engage our hearts. We can express conflict, have uncomfortable conversations and address power differentials using creative and most importantly peaceful means. Poetry can express feelings of discontent, disaffection and of hope. The visual arts can offer images and reflections on the world that at once reflect both the complexity and the opportunity of a situation.
The Taking Yourselves Seriously project has been working across the three projects; women’s poetry group, creative work in Clifton School and the Adventure Playground during May to link the social cohesion in action within the project settings to the theoretical approaches. We have been considering the complexity of layered identities and belonging and of how those participating in the projects reflect on these. Conversations around multiple identities have considered how these ideas might be framed; as layers, nested or rhizomatic (a plant based metaphor around laying down roots) identities.
As the projects have progressed the importance of dialogue has been reinforced, we have considered what does co-production really mean for us as a Taking Yourself Seriously project team? Power is an important element here. Co-production as a term suggests equality and negotiation within the projects but other factors too hold power and control for the project process, the timing of both local and religious festivals, the school year and the weather all hold power and affect how the timings and project progression. Perhaps here we might consider boundaries; boundaried co-production sounds less equal but perhaps it is more honest? In laying out capacity for involvement we begin to have the more subtle conversations required for a social cohesion project that seeks to challenge through creative means? In reaching out to multi-disciplinary readings we discover boundary spanners are those that make links between communities, we discover too the importance of recognising power and trust within integrated projects.
If we recognise the nested identities of our projects perhaps we can too re-negotiate power within the boundaries of capacity and create an honest and fully creative approach to social cohesion?. There is optimism and hope, this can be found in creativity. To achieve power, people need to challenge and make change happen. This can happen as there is power in individual agency, this power can be found in creativity, in imagination, in love. Amartya Sen offers links freedom and capabilities. Resources are the means to achieve freedoms but freedoms have other determinants such as social provisions or political rights. For Sen freedoms are linked; transparency, trust and reciprocity are linked to social trust and social capital. Creativity is arguably a catalyst for individual agency, for in choosing to approach social cohesion with creativity, our heart is opened to trust, love and to the idea of taking risks in order to negotiate power.
Love can be used to create the potential to resist and to creatively respond with a proactive challenge. Indeed, as bell hooks states:
the moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.
Love and creativity as a creative response to social cohesion offers a unique way of understanding it. Love as a creative response to social cohesion offers optimism and hope. But to achieve this, we the taking yourselves seriously project team, need to use our agency to challenge and make change happen. Taking yourself seriously as I have said before, is a rather strong request … it means recognising that the way that you work is quite special and there is something to be valued in it. It also holds a responsibility to honesty which requires dialogue, reflection and a capacity to recognise our layered identities not just as individuals but as projects within the team.
There is often an assumption that social media are good for businesses as well as for charities. Social media can help organisations to engage their stakeholders and reach out to new audiences, enabling them to share, cooperate and mobilise supporters, or so the mantra goes. But is it always the case? And how can small organisations and voluntary groups make the most of online social networks?
A few days ago, I presented at an event organised by Barrow Cadbury, TSRC (Third Sector Research Centre) and Arvac (Association of Research in the Voluntary and Community Sector). This was an opportunity to launch TSRC’s new on social media and community action. I was invited to talk about a study on how Big Local community groups use social media, which I carried out in 2016 for Local Trust. For those who don’t know about Big Local, this is a resident-led place-based programme funded by the Big Lottery Fund and delivered by Local Trust, which is an independent charity. It involves 150 communities across England facing high levels of unemployment and general economic decline. Each area receives at least £1m and a range of light-touch support over more than 10 years, but decisions on how to spend this money are made by residents. Each area has its small group of volunteers, who drive the Big Local activities. We call them Big Local partnerships, and my research looked at how they are using social media to engage with the wider community.
So what did we find? Social media raise a number of challenges for small community groups with limited resources and it is pretty difficult to demonstrate impact that can be attributed to online advocacy activities. For example, online engagement is quite tricky to measure. Generally, we rely on number of likes, shares or replies, which are not necessarily a good indicator of a strong relationship between the user and the organisation. On the one hand, the reach of a given post is likely to be underestimated. There are a lot of “lurkers” online, who might not interact but might still use the information they access online. On the other hand, people might click on a post but not get involved otherwise, with limited returns for a community group – the so-called clicktivism phenomenon. The old-fashioned knocking on doors might still be more effective at encouraging engagement at the community level.
The study on Big Local unveiled some clear patterns on social media activity:
- although most Big Local partnerships are online, they are not very active and generally use social media as a noticeboard to posts information about their activities and events, while interactions with followers are less likely;
- on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter people like to talk about everyday stuff in their community, but they’re hard to mobilise;
- the role of networked individuals emerged as very significant – they seem to have greater reach than organisational accounts.
The role of these connected individuals raises some important questions: should we rethink community action in terms of connectiveness instead of collectiveness, and what are the implications for community organisations and groups? Would this raise new problems in terms of equity of access, as the more capacity you have the more technology will deliver for you? It might also lead to a “cacophony” that makes it harder to recognise a unified organisational voice, with a centrifugal pull toward decentralised advocacy work.
One important issue we talked about was the association of social media with the neoliberal discourse. This inevitably raises questions on the values embedded in the commercial platforms we rely on to foster participation and collective action.
So where do we go from here? One member of the audience gave us some hope by telling us about Peckham Vision, a consortium of residents, artists and businesses that, by using a number of different strategies online and offline, is mobilising residents effectively. Social media for them is one among many engagement tools and part of an overall advocacy strategy. Perhaps, the lesson is that rather than embracing social media just because everyone says so, it’s more a case of community groups understanding what it can do for them and stick to what works best based on what they want to achieve and who they want to engage with. After all, counting clicks isn’t what counts.
Last month ARVAC co-hosted a seminar on the topic of social media and community action, at Barrow Cadbury Trust in London.
Social media seems not to have been adopted as widely by community organisations as might have been expected. Using mixed methods, our study explored the gap between claims for the transformative power of social media, and its use by grassroots community groups and organisations in England (report; summary).
Following a detailed literature review, questionnaire survey, interviews with experienced ‘champions’ of digital media, focus groups, and case studies of users, lapsed-users and non-users, we concluded that social media makes too many demands – in terms of skills, time, and the demonstration of impact – to make its adoption sufficiently straightforward for community organisations.
It cannot be said that these media contradict the processes of community action. Indeed by encouraging horizontal connections and the sharing of information, they appear to fit comfortably and even promise to enhance it. There are however strong views in the literature relating to the perceived association of Facebook (in particular) with neo-liberalism. This association raises questions about the values embedded in the systems from which enhanced levels of participation and engagement are expected to flow. It also raises questions about who benefits most from the affordances of these technologies. And yet, strikingly, we found no evidence that these issues were the subject of discussion or debate within the community sector.
From the research point of view, this point was one of several that serve to emphasise the value of mixed methodologies: some findings emerged in the literature but not in the primary material, and vice versa.
There are deceptions in the literature however. A substantial amount of research relates to the use of social media in relation to large-scale global movements, such as Arab Spring, with only a tiny amount of material describing the experiences of local community groups. It seems likely that many groups use Facebook, and often other platforms, to share information and raise awareness; but this experience seems not yet to have been studied.
The CASM study draws attention to imminent changes in the nature of community action. The literature points to a trend in which social action is increasingly stimulated and coordinated by networked individuals, exploiting the technologies - not by organisations or groups. Several representatives of organisations among our case studies expressed mild bewilderment at the nature of change associated with or reflected by social media. Our study asks, what are the implications for community organisations? This question was the subject of absorbed discussion at our seminar, but the debate has barely begun.
Kevin Harris, Third Sector Resource Centre