A message from Brigstow

You might want to know what Brigstow’s been up to and what our plans are going forward.  I think it’s fair to say it’s been a difficult time for everyone, both personally and professionally. So we thought it time to share some of our recent activities and future plans with you.

We knew this would be a challenging time for our seedcorn projects so we met with each of the projects shortly after lockdown to discuss how their research was affected, what could be changed and how we could help. Our approach was to be as flexible as possible – after all, the combination of people and research is never plain sailing!  We were hugely encouraged by the teams’ enthusiasm and determination to continue with their projects making use of digital methods of undertaking research and collaboration.

This particular September is quite a milestone for Brigstow – it will mark 5 years of Brigstow’s existence and the funding of 127 new engaged research partnerships and projects, and numerous events.   Sadly, our events have had to move online for the time being so we’re sorry we can’t offer tantalising conversations as well as a delicious lunch.  We did hold a number of events online though over the summer – if you missed our first Creativity and Policy meeting, you can catch it via Youtube. You can hear from two of our interdisciplinary and coproduced research projects discuss their different creative approaches to explore immigration policies from the perspectives of those directly affected.  Also available is a recording of the Hidden Histories meeting – two very different histories are explored: Ken Pryce’s 1970s landmark study of Caribbean people in Britain is revisited, & the role of C19th asylums as therapeutic spaces is tested using stitching.

We’ve also had to rethink how and what we might fund in the coming year – we’re still keen to support new, experimental research partnerships but the timeline for the seedcorn and Ideas Exchanges competitions will change to later in the academic year.  We hope to announce the details and deadlines for these in the coming weeks and to give teams more time for developing ideas and the applications.  Our current thinking is that the deadlines will be early February 2021 with a longer production period to September/October 2021.  There will also be lots of opportunities for people to come and discuss (virtually!) their potential ideas with us over the next few months.

In the meantime, we’ve got an exciting opportunity coming up in collaboration with the Bristol Photo Festival for one research team to work together on a short project that uses photography as a research tool/approach/method.  We’d like the project to be, ideally, both interdisciplinary and co-produced, and fit broadly within the Brigstow theme of living well. We are especially interested in projects that involve participatory photography.  You can view Brigstow Institute and Bristol Photo Festival commission details here and the deadline for applications is 21st October 2020.

CALL OPEN: Brigstow Institute and Bristol Photo Festival

The commission

Brigstow is delighted to be able to work with the Bristol Photo Festival to offer the opportunity for one research team to work together on a short project that uses photography as a research tool/approach/method.  We’d like the project to be, ideally, both interdisciplinary and co-produced, and fit broadly within the Brigstow theme of living well. We are especially interested in projects that involve participatory photography or practice-led research (so photography is a critical part of the research process).

We invite applications from teams responding to either of the two themes identified by the Festival:

  • Growing Spaces. This theme raises numerous questions around the places where a variety of flora grows and is grown.  We welcome a breadth of research questions that might explore the relationship between gardening, farming and craft, guerilla gardening, planting and harvesting during lockdown, productive and unproductive edgelands, as well as those spaces where nature is nurtured by human care and knowledge.  We’re interested in agriculture and growing vegetables and fruit, but also trees and plants.  These are just a few suggestions that are intended to open up, rather than close down thinking or define what we might mean by Growing Spaces! Have a look at the Bristol Photo Festival theme description at http://www.bristolphotofestival.org/growingspaces/
  • The Living Room Archive. This theme raises questions around the meanings given to the places we call ‘home’.  We welcome a breadth of research questions that might explore where we live well, how ideas of what the living room represents changes over time and space, the negotiations of private and public space within the home, how we represent self within the home through curation, the gendering of domestic space, and the social nature of the living room.  We are as interested in other living spaces that people create and occupy that are more transient and temporary, and what ‘home’ means for the displaced as well as the settled.  What are other spaces where social interactions and conversations take place?  These are just a few suggestions that are intended to open up rather than close down thinking or define what we might mean by the Living Room! Have a look at the Bristol Photo Festival theme description at http://www.bristolphotofestival.org/the-living-room-archive/

About this funding 

 One commission will be made and the successful team will have a budget of c. £6k to fund costs such as fees and materials for the exhibition.

Please read the application guidance for further information about this commision, eligibility, and how to apply: Brigstow Institute and Bristol Photo Festival Commission_Application guidance (PDF, 226kB)

The closing date is Wednesday 21st October 2020

MAPHIS: Using machine learning to understand city development

Brigstow funded Experimental Partnership “MAPHIS: Mapping History – What historical maps can tell us about urban development”   intends to develop novel, interdisciplinary methods that facilitate the extraction of information from historical maps and the analysis of Census records, in order to study urban development in the long run.

The blessing, the curse, and the distortion of time.

For researchers interested in economic history, there are lengthy periods during which isolation is welcomed, or even required. In isolation, the economic historian can freely explore new data sources, discover hidden gems, and encounter issues—more often the latter of these three. In that regard, lockdown was first a blessing, then a curse. Time was in infinite supply, then suddenly lacking.

The blessing

The MAPHIS project relies on access to invaluable data sources: the universe of Census records between 1851 and 1911; Ordnance Survey maps 1870-1940. Census surveyors and cartographers (also) had time on their hands; lockdown was the opportunity to discover and exploit the consistent reporting of industrial chimneys by cartographers (see the red circle below) and the consistent reporting of farming activity by Census surveyors (notably the number of acres for each land owner) between 1851 and 1881.

Ordnance Survey map (Burnley, 1880-1890)

Industrial chimneys are a salient feature of the rising industrial city, while the structure of farmland ownership is important to understand migration from its hinterland into the growing city. The lockdown was the perfect opportunity to try and extract these novel bits of information.

The curse

Working with historical data is, however, challenging. For instance, maps are repositories of unorganised data: text, symbols, lines/segments, and coloured surfaces are often grouped together on the same map tile, each corresponding to different pieces of information. Even Census records lack the structure of a dataset: data structuring has lately been disciplined by the availability of, and need for, computer-based operations (e.g. the merge between datasets along a set of identifying variables); historical data sources thus often lack this inherent structure. Understanding rural-urban migration requires matching individuals across Census waves, based on their names, family structure etc., leading to low matching rates (see below for 1851-1861 for 17,000,000 individuals across England and Wales).

The distortion of time

Time initially appeared to be in infinite supply. There were discoveries, then issues, and more issues. Time was then suddenly lacking. We hope that the next blog entry will discuss the output of research, more specifically:

  • how the grain invasion led to a massive rural-urban migration from rural hinterlands to cities,
  • how residential sorting of migrants shaped the city,
  • and how industries and their environmental impact further reinforced neighbourhood segregation.
Matching a small share of census records (1851—1861, red: females, blue: males).


View the MAPHIS project page or hear about the research progress to date on youtube: Mapping, Data and Interdisciplinary. 

A Tale of Three Methods

There is a recognised need to find new roles for our churches, helping them better serve communities and move towards long-term sustainability (a pressure recognised at the highest level by the Church of England). For the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), their historic churches are to be enjoyed by everyone as places of heritage, culture, spirituality, and beauty. Their potential to support community, social, and economic life is still, however, to be fully understood. In “Let’s Gather In” we’re asking how CCT sites might serve their communities in new ways by hosting community-driven collaborative work that responds to pressing local needs. Our findings will be addressed elsewhere as they develop; here, we want to briefly explore some of the methodological challenges raised.

Every CCT site is different, each with its own connection to the the community and potential for future use. The shape and intensity of those interactions with a community foreground how you ask the question: What do communities want of their CCT site? Building a representative sample of a community’s interests and needs will be an important part of developing new roles for CCT sites. Any consultation process, however, holds a dual risk: first, of introducing biases into your sample that return only a limited sense of a site’s value and potential; and, second, of leaving unchallenged the disconnects that can exist between a community’s ambitions and the perceived role of a church site. (That gap, for example between “sacred heritage to be preserved” and a “pop-up community hub,” may be a largely conceptual, rather than practical, issue)

Get that Snowball Rolling

At a number of our project sites, a small but active volunteer network is serving as a springboard to reach further into their communities and gather valuable insight into community life, needs, and challenges. Here, we are using a simple snowball sampling methodology from the social sciences. In snowball sampling, a small initial cohort of subjects in a study are asked to nominate through their social contacts others who might be willing to participate in the study. Each round of subjects is similarly asked to identify future subjects, and so on. This process continues until the right sample for the study can be achieved. Whilst commonly used to reach into ‘hidden populations’ (for example those operating on the “margins” of society), here we’re seeking to reach parts of the community that may operate outside of the normal CCT social network. By asking CCT volunteers to nominate acquaintances both inside and outside of that circle (and targeting, where possible, change makers in different “communities of interest”), each cycle of recruitment can strengthen the representational qualities of the sample. At one of our sites, an initial volunteer’s interview led to ten others, spanning different generations of village residents, the wider CCT network, the parish council, and small business community; after COVID-19, we will seek to expand that sample in new directions.

Indeed, a key strength of the snowball sampling technique is that any biases that may emerge in a study sample can also be addressed in subsequent iterations. To aid this, open-source data services can be useful in building a wider picture (albeit low-grain) of a community’s social structure or composition. This can help reveal, for example, where any gaps in age groups or professions might be present in a sample. Readily available sources include local area reports with demographic and labour market data from NOMIS (a free service provided by the UK Office for National Statistics; the ONS), information on registered UK businesses from Companies House (through their ‘Free Company Data Product’), and data on business activity, size, and location, again from the ONS. Building a sample through sequential cycles of recruitment means that snowball sampling can take time to conduct, but it also creates many different ‘routes’ through a community to explore the potential of new site uses, i.e. it is an approach that is readily repeatable and able to generate new insight. It is also a sampling method that can help reveal (and quantify) the wider social network that connects a CCT site into a community.

Going Door-to-Door

Where a snowball sampling approach is proving difficult to initiate, we are trialling “drop-in sessions” at the church site advertised through a community-wide leafleting campaign. Such a campaign has a number of benefits and drawbacks: On the one hand, it can be conducted quickly and used to reach a large initial population whilst also avoiding some of the biases inherent in traditional dissemination routes (e.g. through a village or parish newsletter). On the other hand, it is both resource heavy (especially at more sparsely populated rural locations) and might not be suitable to frequent repetitions (especially within a small community).

At one rural site, leaflets advertised an opportunity to “Have Your Say,” with four 2-hour events scheduled during the working week at the church site (16:00-18:00 and 20:00-22:00 on two consecutive days in mid March). Events were minimally CCT-branded, with attention drawn to reporting on community life exclusively. In total, 94 leaflets were distributed across all households and businesses in the community, with 52 people engaged directly in conversation about events. Using free-to-access Google Mapping tools, we calculated that this leafleting activity covered a 13 km route within a 2km2 area, and took a total of 5.5 labour hours to complete. Of those engaged, 10 were enthusiastic about attending, 22 interested, 16 uninterested, and 4 negative. There was, however, difficulty in translating interest into attendance: Our events had 5 participants, all of whom were already associated with the church, village hall, or parish council.

There are different ways to make sense of this low turnout (from the bad weather on both days to a wide-spread fatalism). It might be that a leaflet campaign could succeed under different conditions or at a different site; indeed, it could be insightful to test this approach at a number of CCT locations, correlating success with other measures of ‘community identity’ to determine where it may hold merit within the CCT portfolio at large. Whatever the explanation, an important question arises around perceived barriers to participation and how they might be broken down. Can, for example, innovative new methods help incentivise involvement by delivering the value of such research more directly into communities themselves?

Google My Maps. A simple mapping tool to help make sense of a leafleting campaign

A Co-creation Model

The use of semi-structured interviews (independent of the sampling method) can be a powerful way to learn about community life and engage in conversations around possible futures for church sites. The format itself, however, can be a barrier to participation. The use of an audio-recording device is intimidating to some, and the time-confined nature of interviews can pressure some participants to “say the right thing” or give ready-at-hand answers where closer scrutiny or reflection might be beneficial. We can ask: How else might people be given a voice in questions of place change?

Our third approach (funded through the Brigstow Institute at the University if Bristol) is to develop a “co-creation” model with communities, one where participants can make considered-contributions at a time of their own choosing. Here we are developing an interactive device to be installed at CCT sites building on the open-source ‘Jigsaudio’ system. Jigsaudio allows short audio files to be recorded and associated with a “tagged” object. At a base-unit, anyone with a tagged object can either play back an associated recording or make a new recording if none exists. These objects are then installed into a physical installation built around the base-unit. Working with community partners a community storybook can be built up over time, the basis for wider discussion around community life and church-futures through workshop events.

The strength of this approach is two-fold: On the one hand, it can centre a wider, public conversation around community life, with a “slow technology” approach helping drive more-considered and reflective interactions; on the other hand, it allows new ideas about the potential of church sites to be introduced from outside the community, a route to shaping that discourse over time. For example, working with medievalists at Bristol University, we will introduce ideas from the long-history of CCT sites (back to the medieval period) that will help challenge a widely held status quo that historic churches are in principle incompatible with a wider, multi-faceted community-serving role today.

Responding to COVID-19

Under COVID-19 conditions, this work is currently on hold, but we are ready to re-engage as soon as possible. People’s experiences of COVID-19 lock-down will likely feature heavily in how we think to the future of our communities and CCT sites: Capturing those experiences will be critical if we are to show how our historic churches can play a role in building resilient communities of the future.

Find out more about Brigstow funded ‘Tackling uncertainty across the centuries: medievals and moderns in conversation’ here.

Lets continue to connect!

Hello everyone,

We hope you are all keeping safe and well in the current difficult circumstances.

Just to let you know that Brigstow is still open for conversations and ideas, albeit virtually rather than face-to-face.  These are uncertain times but we are still planning to keep supporting new and exciting interdisciplinary projects in the future so will also be setting up virtual coffee mornings and afternoon teas to discuss potential projects and partnerships.  Or if you just want to connect with us anyway to talk about what we do and what you do, then please do get in touch and stay in touch. You can find our contact details on our contact page.

We will be using this rare opportunity of time to refresh our website and hopefully some more resources for you all to peruse.

If you can, connect by whichever means possible, remain hopeful and enjoy the emerging spring.

Love, Brigstow