The complexity of researching ‘representation’

Dr Nostromo (aka Dr Martin O’Neill) recently blogged about the legacy of post-industrialism in terms of health inequalities, using the case study area I am working in as an example. How post-mining communities are represented, especially in the context of austerity, is a highly relevant and contentious topic. And, for the people living in places such as Merthyr, it is an emotional topic. In 2010, Sky News recorded a piece called “A Town Like Merthyr” in which Jeff Randall described Gurnos as having a ‘stench of decay‘. When I began talking to people in Gurnos – 3 years later – about how their community is represented, almost every person I spoke to mentioned how much that programme had hurt and angered them. But it is not an isolated incident. A local community worker told me he receives more press enquiries from newspapers and television programmes than he can cope with. Residents in Gurnos have received leaflets asking them to take part in a programme about being on benefits, and a major TV channel is filming right now in the area. I heard stories that in the past programme makers have lured people to be filmed by giving them free alcohol, and that the nicer parts of the community have been deliberately left out of shot in favour of barbed wire and boarded up houses.

So how has the community reacted? Some have made their own films in response to programmes such as Jeff Randall’s despicable portrayal of Gurnos and Merthyr. Message from MerthyrMerthyr Views and Two Sisters are films made by young people wanting to put forward a more balanced and ‘realistic’ representation of their community. Some wrote to the local press. But many feel powerless over the way that their community is portrayed.

To lump all residents of Gurnos together to call them ‘the community’ is of course misleading; there is considerable diversity and people have moved to Gurnos from many other countries including The Philippines, Portugal, Poland and Ireland to name a few. There are also gypsy/traveller populations who have settled into bricks and mortar in the area. There are internal divides between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Gurnos, which relate to the two distinct phases of building that took place in the 1950s and 1970s. This is not an homogeneous community, which makes the issue of representation even more complex. Being an academic exploring representation, and wanting to work with residents and artists to produce new representations, this is both exciting and daunting. Our project is about using the arts and humanities to represent the lives, histories, experiences and health and wellbeing of people living in communities which are constructed as ‘deprived’ and which may experience stigma. But although we would like our project to have a positive impact on the area in terms of producing representations which are grounded in the experiences and priorities of local residents, I am mindful of our status as ‘outsider’ academics and the delicacy of the relationships we are beginning for build. How will our influence and stake in the project shape the end result? How will we work with local groups and individuals as well as artists, historians and organisations in a way that enables us all to be represented in the way we choose? Are we doing co-production? How can we mitigate against any potential harm that the project might cause?

One approach which seems to be working for me is to establish relationships with other projects happening in North Merthyr, rather than attempting to start from scratch. The POSSIB project is one of these, whose aims and methods are similar to ours. The POSSIB project looks at how the arts can help people to have a say over public services and, ultimately, improve their health and wellbeing. We are working with POSSIB on a storytelling project with primary and secondary schools in North Merthyr starting this week; they have come up with the idea and recruited the schools. We have helped to develop creative ways of capturing a baseline assessment and will incorporate some evaluation of the storytelling project (for POSSIB) into our ethnographic methodology. In this way, we hope to avoid any duplication of existing projects, and to avoid inflicting ‘project fatigue’ on the groups we work with. Importantly, we want to build on the assets and priorities of the local area, which is why the partnership with POSSIB works so well. It is part of a Lottery-funded programme, MAGNET, led by Voluntary Action Merthyr Tydfil (VAMT), a local organisation aiming to support the Third Sector in Merthyr and to create a healthy civil society. POSSIB itself is led by Canolfan Soar, a bi-lingual arts organisation comprising Theatr Soar which ” offers a stage to a community, a resource to realise ambitions, and a space where the professional and amateur can captivate an audience“. VAMT, Canolfan Soar and Theatr Soar are some of Merthyr’s finest assets so working in partnership with them is one way we can deliver the project in a way that respects and capitalises on the existing good work that is taking place.

Have you researched ‘representation’? I would be really interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences in this field, and any advice you’ve got!

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