This is an opportunity for mixed interdisciplinary teams of researchers to carry out risky, experimental, and exploratory projects to take the first steps in developing and pursuing new research questions. We especially welcome applications from teams that might find it difficult to find early-stage funding because of the novelty of the ideas, methods or approaches.
Funds are available to initiate and develop partnerships to undertake early-stage, experimental research pilots. This funding is also suitable if you received Ideas Exchange or network funding from us before and are now ready to embark upon testing those ideas through a seedcorn research project.
Early in 2020, on a wet February morning, our research team got together to flesh out the plan for our project. In keeping with the place-based, experiential and co-produced focus of our research, the meeting took the shape of a walk to the summit of Robinswood Hill. We were led by Nicola from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, and joined by Dawn and Caroline from The Venture, a local organisation that provides community-based play opportunities for children and families. Both organisations are community partners of the Trust and play a central role in sustaining connection and wellbeing in the neighbourhoods in which the Trust works.
As we made our way up the muddy hill, Nicola told us about the history of the orchards, wells and quarries that form part of Robinswood Hill Country Park. Dawn and Caroline reflected on the significance of the hill in their lives and community work, from the walks and picnics they organised with local families, to the legends they learnt as children about the ghosts that roam the park at night. At the top we were treated with spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, with the Severn Bridge to the South, Malvern Hills to the North, Black Mountains to the West, and Cotswold AONB to the East. We experienced the Hill as a meeting point between urban and rural landscapes, observing how the neighbourhoods on the fringes of the City of Gloucester (Matson, White City, Podsmead and Tuffley) nestle round its base.
As we slowly made our way back down, the design of our research activities got underway. We planned to bring together local school children to take part in a series of storytelling walks on the hill, followed by a workshop facilitated by artist and team member, Scott Farlow, in which the children could explore their experiences of the hill. However, in the weeks that followed, with the pandemic unfolding around us, our research plans were put firmly on hold. We have since discussed redesigning the research to deliver something remotely, such as packages for parents and local schools that would include a map of the hill, arts materials and activities, and culminate in a virtual exhibition of their artwork.
The problem was that we are faced with a series of challenges, most significantly, was it possible to explore felt and embodied experiences of place and space from afar? For the time being we have decided to put things on pause until Spring next year, in the hope that we might get a window of opportunity (pandemic permitting) to run the workshops face-to-face. Regardless of the format, our central lines of inquiry – to explore the significance of the park and its role in contributing to community wellbeing – feel ever more pertinent given the impacts of the pandemic on our daily lives and relationships to place and space.
There are many things that we can do virtually, including running research institutes and universities, but some forms of research rely on the proximity of bodies and things. In our case, we need the space and light of the hill, the crunch of earth beneath your feet, because these are the experiences we want to understand and document. So, we will have to wait, until we can be together, in time, on a hill.
Find out more about Brigstow funded project Once Upon a Hill: An action research inquiry into community engagements with Robinswood Hill Country Park in their project profile.
With the covid pandemic we have adapted our research because unfortunately we did not have access to a workshop to play with digital pigment in the way we wanted. But while we did not reached yet the stage of creating digital tattoos, we still looked at how to use the technology to create non rectangular displays as a first step. Interestingly we have had two opposite reaction to this objective.
The first question people asks is “why do you want to have a display that is other than rectangular?”. This question is very interesting because somehow, when we think about the word “display”, we do all think about a rectangular TV screen. But if we really think about it, a firework is a display too. Even throughout the history we have used many topologies to “display” information, e.g. paintings on column in ancient Egypt, vases or plates were very common. The first Cathode Ray Tube TVs were even circular but were changed to fit the rectangular shape of perforated filmstrips who were rectangular. A century later, we still use rectangular displays. Somehow we have biased ourself into thinking displays must be that way.
To counterbalance that, we also have a second type of question that people asks us which is “how can i use this now for X application”. And those people are either artists, or industrials who can clearly see beyond the biases we have toward thinking about display are rectangular and planar. We have had interest from urban artists who want to use it for street art, from more tattoo artists. We also have had interest from phone and car producers. So there is definitely a market for creating displays of any shapes or that can be integrated on many topologies. The truth is that advances in technology have and are enabling to make displays with varying shapes. But the most difficult challenge we are face now is to break those established and static ideas that have accumulated over decades.
We are hopeful that our research could do this, either by inspiring artists who often in the history have enable changes to happen, or either inspiring manufacturers into breaking norms and standards.
It seems like a long time ago that our project team met for the first time in a crowded, very much un-socially distanced Boston Tea Party on Park Street. It was hard then to envisage a time when we would have a ‘minimum viable product’ available for testing. But here we are! Next week we enter the final stage of the Brigstow funded part of our project – testing a plug-in with sustainably minded consumers.
The I Didn’t Buy project was set up to develop a web browser plug-in that would allow people to rapidly access information on the sustainability of products they were researching. We want to ensure that sustainability features as one of the normative evaluation criteria for online shopping, along with price, appearance, and customer review. Thinking back a few years, online shopping did not take customer opinion into account at all, and that has changed thanks to now assumed technologies that afford user generated content. We suggest that sustainability information should be the same, becoming a completely normal part of everyday online shopping.
Furthering that, we want to encourage consumers to be an active part of the plug-in, rather than simply receiving the information. The plug-in makes it easy to review information and share thoughts with other consumers and with manufacturers – for example, calling for better sustainability information and transparency, or actively choosing a brand because of their policies, and pointing others in the same direction. This approach promotes agency, envisioning a kind of online community of sustainable shoppers who empower themselves and each other.
Since the project launched in January, we have been able to hold two face-to-face focus groups before moving our methodology over to online interviews. These two research phases were focused on understanding how sustainability-minded people shop, and the experiences they have of shopping online. The findings emphasise the confusion surrounding shopping with sustainability in mind, with complex trade-offs making it difficult to act in line with professed values. People found that corporate sustainability language is difficult to follow, often buried, or potentially untrustworthy. Consumers often either rely on the brands they know and regularly use, or simply give up. Often, in order to guarantee the provenance of the products they are buying, many people avoid online shopping altogether. But they still see value in researching products online.
The interviews gave us rich, nuanced data to work with. Using thematic analysis and presenting findings in report form, we developed a set of requirements for the plug-in. We have developed a prototype which we are now ready to test. The final phase of research is the most ambitious: it involves three stages, with seventeen sustainably minded consumers. These range from rapid, largely unreflexive shoppers, to those who are more considered and careful, and keen to share their experiences. Participants will be shown a video of the prototype as a short familiarisation and training exercise online, with a synchronous question and answer session. For a week they then go about their normal lives, but we ask for a short survey to be completed each time they search for something online (or a minimum of three times). These questions prompt reflection about how the plug-in would have been useful. Finally, an hour-long online interview will be conducted, where the plug-in will be interrogated for its design features, depth of content, presentation of information, and usability.
We have had to adapt our methodology considerably during lockdown and it has certainly slowed us down – we were initially hoping to finish the project in April. However, the slower pace has allowed more detailed reflection about our approach and the chance to theorize our findings. It has been fascinating working in such a strongly interdisciplinary team from both academia and practice. Our modus operandi has been communication and clarity at every step. We might have different ways of describing or researching phenomena, but through good humoured conversation have always managed to reach a point of agreement. The next step is publication (for the academics) and securing further funding to facilitate marketisation.
John Donne’s evocation of human connectedness across space and time is a fitting sentiment for our Brigstow-funded project “Medievals and Moderns in conversation”. Here, we’re asking how the long-history of our rural medieval churches might help us imagine new roles today for church buildings in their communities. As part of this work we’re developing an interactive audio tool to help us work closer with our community partners at Brockley in North Somerset. To date, we have conducted a number of face-to-face interviews with residents concerning rural life; our ambition is now to open-up this process further, bringing other perspectives into our conversations and creating new routes for participation in the process. Thinking beyond our earlier interview approach (see insight post here), we want to support a more open-ended, reflexive, and collaborative engagement with people’s stories at Brockley. In the first stage of this project, we’re asking how new technologies and a deeper engagement with the long-history of Brockley might help us achieve this.
Taking the Long View
In Medievals and Moderns our central interest lies in how the long-view of communities – back to the medieval period – might change the way we think about the future of our under-used historic churches. St Nicholas’ Brockley is one such church. Since its release from the parish into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, how St Nicholas’ might now best support its community has become a pressing question.
Why are we turning back to the medieval period for new insight on a modern problem such as this? There is, perhaps, a risk that we inherit today too-narrow a view of our historic churches either as spaces ‘isolated’ for Christian worship or as works of ‘religious art’ to be preserved at all costs. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these positions, they can act to limit our view of the rich relationships that have sustained churches and their communities (today as in the past), or might make claim to historical continuity (“this is how it is, and this is why”) that misrepresents the past in some way.
Looking back to the medieval period at St Nicholas’, we encounter a very different relationship between faith and community to the one we see today, the subject of a future insight post. Suffice to say, what the long-view can open up is new ideas for creative and meaningful relationships between a church and its wider community. We want to ask if the perceived gap between church sites as “sacred heritage to be preserved” and “community hub responsive to current needs” might be a largely conceptual one – something that can be tackled by taking the long-view. In this insight post, we’ll focus on the new interactive device we’re developing to help stimulate exactly these conversations at Brockley.
A Role for New Technologies
The building block of our interactive device is the Jigsaudio system developed by Alexander Wilson at Newcastle University’s Open Lab research group (http://jigsaudio.com/). At the base station (Figure 1), Jigsaudio technology allows you to record an audio file and give it a unique identification tag. This unique tag can be associated with any other physical object, such that when the object is placed against the base station, that specific audio file associated with it can be played back on speakers. In this project exploring rural life today and the future of St Nicholas’, the Jigsaudio system can help us record people’s stories, perspectives, ideas, and questions as part of an ongoing conversation – this might be through an organised workshop or opened up to more spontaneous individual contributions over a period of time.
We see this as an example of how ‘slow technology’ can be used to give people more time in crafting (or reconsidering) a response to difficult questions about place and place-change. It’s an approach that can release time to work together, open up different conversational moods (both formal and informal), and introduce conditions that encourage people to contribute in a thoughtful and respectful way. As slow technology, the physical element of Jigsaudio devices is also very important. Highly portable, it can be setup just about anywhere, meaning that its design and installation can be tied with the special characteristics each space has to offer. Finally, the device’s tagged objects, each with a unique associated audio file, can be assembled together to form a physical community storybook at the site in question.
Connecting Conversations with Objects and Places
In the conversations we want to hold at St Nicholas’, there are three different pairings between place (where a device is situated) and theme we want to explore: The first is the font, where we will focus on themes of community identity across generations – past, present, and future; the second location is an 18th-century family box pew, where we’ll focus on the role of St Nicholas’ in constituting and structuring community in different periods; finally, a third device will be kept entirely portable, focusing on people’s personal stories, hopes, and ambitions for life in Brockley. Through the tagged objects described, we will introduce ideas from the long-history of St Nicholas’, a means of shaping these three “sited” conversations.
As an open-source device (meaning the software and hardware design are available for anyone to use free of charge), the Jigsaudio system comes in ‘barebones’ form. We are treating this as an opportunity to design a casing for the device that is special to the project and its use in a church setting. Getting the design right is an important step (figure 2). If done well, it can help cement the idea that re-thinking St Nicholas’ future is nothing new – an ongoing process with a long pedigree; if done badly, it risks staging this project as a temporary ‘intervention’ – one that can change nothing.
A Symbolic Starting Point
Our aim is to design a device casing that is firmly the product of our time whilst also one drawing on the heritage of St Nicholas’ and Brockley. A key design position is to avoid coming too close to a ‘religious object’ (something imitative of a liturgical vessel or church furnishing); rather, we want to draw on design motifs that recognise Brockley’s indebtedness to the Christian Faith whilst also acknowledging that St Nicholas’ future lies in its support for the whole community. Our starting point has been the term ciborium, from which both chalice and canopy are derived. Each symbolises divine presence, but in different ways: one – held, contained, and embodied; the other – overhead and all-embracing. The significance of container and covering is a far reaching one in our human story; it both predates and reaches beyond Christianity alone.
With an etymology that describes an open seed pod, the chalice has come to occupy a central position amongst sacred vessels, the cup in which the wine and water of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is contained. Other altar vessels, such as the Ciborium or Patens also echo the significance of a hand-held object that signals divine presence. In a similar guise, the canopy symbolises the heavens above ‘down here on Earth’. Canopies have come to take on an enormous variety of forms, scales and functions. We see them as overhangs for processions, wall niches, tombs, statues, and font coverings. (Even architectural ribbed vaults were understood as canopies by contemporary chroniclers). Here at Brockley, canopies are found over the pulpit, in its stained glass windows, and even over the chimney pot in the southern transept. Our initial design adapts this joint symbolism further.
The device (Figure 3) takes the form of a cylindrical object, tapered on the underside and with a deep recess into the upper surface, giving it a bowl- and canopy-like quality. Held in the hand, it has the intimacy of a simple bowl – a symbolic centring for personal reflections on community today; suspended over the font, or held-up in position in a pew, it takes on the form of a small canopy – symbolically embracing each of us within community. Recognising our interest in the changing role of St Nicholas’ (from past through present to future), the device casing will be cast in Pewter, a soft and malleable metal alloy commonly used for everyday objects in the Middle Ages and a material that will itself be transformed through use. As with St Nicholas’ itself, this is not the place for design that is ahistorical or resistant to the passage of time.
Over the inner surface of the device, we will depict a model of the medieval universe as imagined by Dante Alighieri at the beginning of the 14th century in the Commedia. A work of poetry – a love poem – the Commedia tackles the pursuit of a good life in the face of lived uncertainty. In the Commedia, to paraphrase Robin Kirkpatrick: Human existence expresses itself through ‘will’ and ‘desire’ – in an appetite, shared with all other forms of life, to live as completely as possible (Dante Alighieri (2007). Paradiso. Translated and edited by R. Kirkpatrick. Penguin Classics, pxiii). That this is a journey fraught with difficulties is beyond doubt, but it is one we must all embrace. Under lockdown, we are reminded that the historic parish church has been witness to the challenges each generation has faced, providing a beacon for renewal in the most difficult of times. It’s time, again, to explore what the next chapter in that journey might be.
Since the 6th July, the Churches Conservation Trust has begun the process of opening its churches. This means that, soon, we will be able to return to St Nicholas’ with a working prototype of our interactive audio device, a first step to sharing, testing and iterating its design.
Health issues started to impact on our project (Kept Apart: couples and families separated by the UK immigration system) before the UK locked down in response to Covid-19. Just before our first workshop, Katharine (the PI) was struck down by a nasty case of food poisoning. If we cancelled the workshop, with lockdown looming, it seemed unlikely we would be able to meet at all. So, led by Rissa, we pressed ahead, documenting the workshop in photos and notes so that when Katharine recovered she was relieved to find that she could get a good sense of what had come out of the day.
On a practical level the pandemic and consequent lockdown meant moving all project activities after the workshop. online, including the co-creative process with our project participants. Hence, the second ‘workshop’ which would have been an in-person meeting of the group focused on working with the draft material from the first workshop to co-produce final prose and content for the book had to happen through a series of online meetings and correspondences with the participants. Whilst this was disappointing given that the first workshop had provided so much in terms of feelings of unity and support for those affected but it was a good alternative given the insurmountable restrictions. We were able to carry on with most elements of the research – working on the text and developing illustration ideas through email, holding the second workshop and team meetings online using Blackboard collaborate.
As a co-produced project, we relied heavily on the willingness and ability of our participants to stay involved. They had signed up for two face-to-face workshops, but ended up in a more protracted process of developing and refining the work online. The fact that they did continue to contribute was all the more remarkable given that for those still going through the immigration process, the Covid crisis had often made their situations worse – increasing the uncertainty about when they would be reunited with family members, or whether they would be able to meet the requirements for visa extensions.
But Covid may also have created opportunities. The travel restrictions and social distancing measures have seen a large proportion of the general population experiencing enforced separation from family members and friends. Therefore, there is a sense that this may have opened up new possibilities for empathy and paths of understanding and connection for those people who haven’t encountered the experience of family separation before. Combined with renewed debates about immigration regulations, and greater recognition of the contribution of migrants during the crisis, we see this as a moment of potential for change. In this context, Reunite Families UK, one of the project partners, launched a renewed campaign to scrap the minimum income requirement for family migration, gaining celebrity support, and providing an opportunity to release the ebook which emerged from our project into what we hope will be a more receptive environment.
We were of course fortunate – for many projects the practical impediments to research plans during the Covid crisis will have been insurmountable. But each stage of the project, as new challenges emerged, a simple core principle emerged that we will take away for the future – that a strong and collaborative team (including the research participants) who are committed to the importance of the research, increases the chances of being able to ‘roll with it’ as the unexpected gets in the way of original plans.
I’ve always regretted not meeting Ken Pryce when he was in Bristol. He left in 1973 and I had only just arrived in the city in 1972. But his book Endless Pressure first published in 1979 was to be a great influence on me, so I was delighted when Jo Kontis came up with the idea of revisting his work including the PhD dissertation on which the book was based. Her aim of finding out what had since happened to some of the people who had featured in his original research seemed particularly important as many were elderly and their experience would soon be lost to posterity.
The project was also particularly timely given the present focus on racial injustice and the lack of diversity at institutions like the University of Bristol. What was life like for people from African-Caribbean backgrounds in Bristol (and the UK) in the post-war era and how have things changed since then? What can Pryce’s experience as a Black academic from Jamaica tell us about both mainland Britain and its former colonies? It also raises other questions which are preoccupying us all. These include issues of identity and the relationship between academia and the public. But the project also makes us reconsider issues around who is best placed to capture marginalized people’s experience and how that can best be done.
Though I never met Ken, I came to know many people whose lives he had touched, from some of the people he interviewed for his study to others outside St. Pauls. Given the anonymity which respondents were supposed to have enjoyed, I won’t list the names of the people whom he interviewed for the study whom I knew, but only those at the University of Bristol and elsewhere in Bristol. These included his supervisor Michael Banton, friends and supporters such as Professor Steve Fenton, and Angela Rodaway. What follows is a personal assessment of Ken Pryce’s life, approach and contribution, and is based both on his work and on conversations with some of the people (including friends and family members in the Caribbean) who knew him personally. I write both as a historian with an interest in oral history and the history of marginalized groups and as someone long engaged with examining issues of racism, ethnicity, gender and social justice in the public arena.
Who was Ken Pryce?
Ken Pryce (1942-1987) was a Jamaican criminologist who is most remembered for both his ethnographic investigation of the African-Caribbean diaspora in Bristol in the early 1970s and for his untimely and mysterious death in Jamaica whilst investigating international drug networks in the Caribbean. At the time of his death he was an academic at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustines, Trinidad. He was born in Franklyn Town Kingston. He always used to say he was a born Kingstonian but his family, though respectable and aspiring, was not a member of the Jamaican elite whose privilege, colourism and elitism he was forthright in decrying.
Bright and aspiring, Pryce was able to get into Gaynstead High School in Kingston at a time when secondary school facilities in Jamaica were limited. He left school at 18 to earn money taking various administrative posts for 3 years before leaving for Britain in 1963.[i] Once in England he worked at various jobs and studied part-time at a technical college to get his A levels. This enabled him to get a grant from the Greater London Council to study at University of York where he achieved a 2.1 in the Social Sciences and where he first met Laurie Taylor the BBC broadcaster and sociologist who was his tutor. Whilst at York, Ken was the chairman of the newly formed ‘3rd World Society for Overseas students’.
He then came to the University of Bristol where he did his Ph.D under Professor Michael Banton. He found the academics under whom he studied encouraging, but was caught between his own interests and political orientation and those of his supervisor and had to negotiate a way in which he could satisfy both. He sought the support of another Bristol academic, Huw Benyon, for ways to do this. According to Benyon, ‘He was very committed to the work that he had done and to the people of St Pauls and wanted to produce a completely full and “honest” account of daily life there. He was nervous over the conventions of a PhD thesis and how best to develop a text that drew on his field work notes and interviews.’
Finances were tight and throughout his academic career in Britain, he had to supplement his income with other work including doing stints in London as dockworker. Strapped for cash, Pryce stayed for a time rent free with the English community worker and campaigner Angela Rodaway in her house in Windsor Terrace in Clifton who introduced him to many people in St. Pauls where she worked. He owed much to Rodaway but it is telling that when he thanked her in his dissertation he did so for her ‘domestic support’, which reveals some of the gender bias in his own thinking. As one of the few Black people at the university he felt the social isolation and preferred to be in St. Pauls where he socialised with people living there. These included many of the people who were the subject of his investigations, not all of whom were aware of his project. Though identifying strongly as a Jamaican , his friends also included white English intellectuals and activists whose political values he shared, including Steve Fenton, who was then a young lecturer at the University of Bristol. Pryce moved into St. Paul’s briefly but reportedly had to go into hiding at one point when some of the people involved in the local drug culture realised he was a researcher. He had to leave Bristol before finishing his thesis in order to earn money as a community worker in London before he was able to return to the Caribbean in 1976 to take up a post at the University of the West Indies.
Ken Pryce and his Bristol writing
Members of the public who can now have free access to his dissertation through this project can find out so much about the lives and experiences of Black people in the British diaspora (as well as in the Caribbean). The thesis and the book also contain good accounts of the Bristol Bus Boycott and the earlier Windrush generation.
Ethnographic studies (given the field’s historical associations with Western colonization) are rightly subject to particular critical scrutiny. Ken Pryce’s categorization of the mainly Jamaican cohort he was studying was particularly controversial. His identification of the people studied into various ‘life styles’ or subcultures (the saints, respectable proletarians, mainliners, in betweeners, teeny boppers and hustlers) was made even more contentious by placing these groups along a continuum of those who those who were law abiding and those who weren’t. As he wrote in his thesis (Volume 1, pages 2-6):
“These two main directions of behaviour are termed “life-orientations”. They are the Expressive-Disreputable orientation and the Stable-law-abiding orientation. I believe that the fundamental distinction between the people who follow in these two primary walks of life is between those who work and those who don’t work or, to put it another way, those who work and those who “hustle”.”
Pryce was criticized by some social scientists for the covert nature of his ethnographic research which did raise ethical issues. But as Jo Kontis has pointed out, he did operate in the days before ethics committees and the routine use of consent forms guided the work of postgraduate students. At the time, however, some people covered in the study felt betrayed and exposed when his book was published both because some of them hadn’t realized they were the subject of investigation and also because their personal identities were recognizable despite Pryce’s attempts to anonymize his findings. This made them very resistant to cooperating with further sociological investigations into their community. But Pryce was also slated for his ‘unwitting perpetuation of negative cultural stereotypes and the effect his research had on the researched community.’ For portraying in such detail the attitudes and transgressive behaviour of some sections of the African Caribbean population, Pryce is charged by some with giving justification to the hard policing tactics subsequently employed in Bristol which led up to the uprising in 1980. But this is based on a misreading of Pryce’s analysis.
It’s certainly the case that in the 1960s and beyond, most white Bristolians hostile to or wary of New Commonwealth immigration identified St. Pauls and African-Caribbean people with the very criminal subculture that Pryce documents. But unlike them, Pryce makes the point that these groups are outnumbered by those who are hard working and law-abiding. Also, Pryce historicizes and explains with reference to the history of slavery, colonization and neo-colonization why a hustler orientation has emerged. He treats those inclining to it as individuals each with their own life story and rationales for thinking or behaving in they way they did. To my mind, this honesty is prescient in so many ways and has a relevance for the way we look at issues like school exclusion and policing today. Pryce is resolute in calling out white racism, but sees it as part and parcel of a wider set of historical factors which show the inadequacy of the simple binary perspectives we get on Twitter. For example, his portrayal of the conflict between British-born teenyboppers and their law-abiding parents anticipates issues around family dynamics, mental health and inter-generational conflict which are re-emerging today post Brexit and post Covid for all sections of the population, but which are differently experienced by people of colour and particularly by those new incomers from global south countries such as Somalia. The groundbreaking documentation of life in St. Paul’s from the 1980s that has been produced by Clive Smith, another member of our project team, does not shy away from some of the complexities of the issues which Pryce first raised.
Pryce’s point about the tendency of white intellectuals and other progressives to romanticize African-Caribbean communities in the diaspora is something worth considering today, particularly in relation to issues around policing, exclusion, addiction and gang culture and the way they are discussed in the public arena. Stuart Hall and others point to the fact that Pryce’s investigation not only coincided in time with their own investigation of Black youth and crime in Britain in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order first published a year before Endless Pressure but also reinforced their own their own critique of the way Black criminality was and is understood.
It’s beyond my competence to assess Pryce’s subsequent contribution to criminology, but he has been called the Caribbean’s first criminologist and insisted that
‘“…[we] need to examine the reality of crime from a critical standpoint in the context of the Region’s history of capitalist repression and exploitation, and in terms of the Caribbean’s structural heritage of black working class styles of protest and modes of response to oppression through slavery down to the present stage of neo-colonialism.’ (The Daily Gleaner, 23 July 1969)
The fact that he promoted a criminology which saw criminal acts from the standpoint of local conditions and not in terms of the frames of reference and purely bourgeois assumptions of the Establishment and the local metropolitan-orientated ruling elite demonstrates both the evolution of his views since his departure from the UK (he became increasingly influenced by Pan-Africanist views) and also his continuing insistence on looking at local circumstances before simply assimilating them to over-arching theoretical perspectives. His looking local and thinking global is a perspective that would serve us all well. The sociologist Robin Cohen who was an associate of Stuart Hall in the early 1970s and who met Ken Pryce in Trinidad in 1977, testified in a personal email that: ‘There is little I would suggest he would could do differently if he were with us today. Of course, black British society and British society in general has moved on, so some of his categories would need refashioning, but his method and scholarly integrity remain.’
The ‘How can flood data be more useful’ research project brings together an interdisciplinary team with the aim to gain a deeper understanding of organisations’ flood data needs, in order to produce more useable science.
In this short post we will provide an update on the progress of the project and highlight key contributions to look out for soon.
Our principle tool to find out how we can make flood data more useful is designing an online survey with a unique mapping component. Pre-COVID, the plan was to host a workshop to gather experiences from individuals who work with flood data and use these sentiments to construct our survey. With the ever- changing situation, and perhaps more significantly the acquisition of a social scientist intern (Anne-Laure Donskoy) with a wealth of experience in interviews, we decided to instead conduct a series of in-depth interviews to better understand the problem and therefore make sure we are asking the right questions. This approach had numerous advantages. We could now really go in-depth with our questioning which really allowed us to detect the more subtle nuances, especially with language. Moreover, we could conduct, record and transcribe responses more easily and we were not geographically bound.
Recently, we completed our 7 interviews. Participants came from all corners for the globe – from Bangladesh to the Republic of Congo to Vietnam. A range of organisations were represented, including international humanitarian organisations, academia and government. Responses were really positive, with participants eager to talk about their experiences (one interview lasted for 2 hours!). All participants recognised the disconnect between the data producers and the data users, reassuring us that the problem we thought exists really does.
From a personal point of view (as a physical scientist) I have learnt a great deal about how research works from the ‘other-side’ (social scientists). Protocols such as ethics committees and adhering to GDPR were quite unfamiliar to me. Designing questions, and most importantly the right questions, is crucial, and working with an interdisciplinary team has helped with this tremendously. Pleasingly this has worked both ways too with all members of the team learning from disciplines they are not familiar with.
The completion of these interviews is only the first step. The next stage is to take what we have learnt from the interviews to tweak the questions in our survey in preparation for testing and a full release later next month. Post-survey, we plan to host some online focus groups and write a report summarising our findings. So, watch this space – there is plenty more to come.
Julia: Do you have a copy of Ken Pryce’s Endless Pressure?
Jackie: Yes, a very worn copy. The front cover has a photo of three young black men dressed in 1970s clothing, trying to look cool. The skinny middle ‘yout’ stares straight at the camera wearing pilot Ray Ban reflective sun glasses, flares and a white shirt opened to reveal some of his bare chest. Beside him is a Rasta haired young man with a beard wearing jeans that have been ironed, probably by his mum, leaving a sharp crease down the middle and a black bomber jacket over a navy jumper and red shirt. The last dude looks about fifteen. He peers over the shoulder of the middle guy, smiling innocently at the camera with an open face and flat cap that was all the rage back then. They are pictured in the open doorway of what appears to be a youth club, with walls painted yellow and green, run down with age and poverty.
Julia: When did you first read it?
Jackie: I read the book in the 1980s before I became a sociologist. It was probably one of the only books I had seen with a picture of black people on the cover, and the fact that it focused on ‘West Indian culture’ helped me to think that my cultural and political experience might be something worth studying. Though actually, as I‘m from London, I remember thinking Bristol was another country and being fascinated by the world he described. Some of it made me feel uncomfortable though, and as a black women, I also remember feeling written out of it. But I wasn’t a sociologist then, so I couldn’t really analyse what it was that made me feel uncomfortable.
Julia: I read it in the 1980s too, when I was an undergraduate sociology student. It was recommended reading for a module called The Sociology of Deviance. Now you come to mention it, it must also have been one of the first books I ever came across with an image of black people on the cover, but I don’t remember noticing or thinking about that. As a young white person, who’d grown up and gone to school in a very white area, and only recently started to socialise with any black or Asian people, I was probably completely unaware of the almost exclusive whiteness of the books I read, including the books I was studying as a sociology undergraduate.
Jackie: And then when you were given a book about black people’s lives, it was for a module on deviance!
Julia: Yes! So I read it alongside all those famous old white American sociologists’ ethnographic studies of ‘Outsider’ groups, like William Whyte’s 1943 study in Boston, Street-Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, and Howard Becker’s 1960s research on jazz musicians and marijuana users, and Ned Polsky’s 1967 book, Hustlers, Beats and Others. Of course, Ken Pryce was making an intervention into debates on ‘race relations’ and migration, but the fact his book could be slotted into a module like that reminds me that in Britain in the 1970s, sociological approaches to race and migration overlapped with the study of ‘deviance’. Again, whiteness was the taken-for-granted norm, and any group that deviated from it was a sort of social ‘problem’ to be put under the microscope, studied and ‘explained’. And also, Pryce’s book was based on the same sort of field study methods that sociologists of deviance used, and created a typology (saints, mainliners, hustlers, teeny boppers) which defined groups on the basis of how much they conformed to or deviated from ‘mainstream’ – i.e., white – norms and values.
Jackie: That’s probably partly what made me uncomfortable about the book, even though I could relate to much of his description of Jamaicans in Bristol. Pryce described the experience of young men in education and after school when they tried to find jobs that were worthwhile, and he tracks older members of the community through different church and work organisations. His description of children’s migration from Jamaica to the UK resonated with my family experience. In 1958, my older brother migrated to the UK aged nine to live with my dad. By that time, my dad had established a new relationship with my mother, a white Spanish woman, also a migrant to the UK. They went on to have three children – I’m the eldest. Like a lot of Pryce’s interviewees, for my brother, migration wasn’t only about leaving one country for another, it meant change to every aspect of his life. So my brother’s arrival and his experience of school mirrored many of the interviewees in the book. I could also recognise the description of ‘Mainliners’ who become the mascots and mouthpieces of big institutions and the establishment, having known plenty of people like that growing up in London’s East End. But I also find parts of his description of people’s lives and strategies for coping with the endless pressure of racism quite problematic.
Julia: Yes, I was surprised by some of the language when I re-read it. Like here, where he’s describing going to a blues and talking about going into a room where the atmosphere changes:
“There is something menacing, almost sinister about the faces here. The faces are serious, even sullen… This is the smoking room of the professional hustlers and their prostitutes. Birds of a feather stick together. Hustlers always stick together and smoke together at a blues dance… The faces are motionless and sombre to the point of appearing evil and sinister. These men represent the hardcore of the criminal underworld of Shanty Town” (p101).
“Sullen” and “menacing” and “evil”? This reminds me of the language white people used to stereotype and caricature enslaved people in the nineteenth century. It’s hard to imagine any sociologist, white or black, writing a passage like that today.
Jackie: And the same with gender. He says in the book’s methodological appendix that as a man, he didn’t have the same research access to women as to men, but this doesn’t really explain the way represents women in the book. They basically only seem to appear as either mothers or “prostitutes”. And even the mothers that feature most prominently are “problems”, like the story of “the frantic, hapless, Miss Williams, a loser in her fight to save her son” (p119).
Julia: Part two of the book does focus on ‘The stable, law-abiding orientation’, and Pryce explicitly states that “Together saints and proletarian respectables make up the majority group of ordinary, steady, aspiring, law-abiding West Indians” (p185). But I still feel that any white reader who came to the book with preconceived racist stereotypes about black criminality and hypersexuality and family dysfunction would hone in on part one of the book – which is way longer than part two – and I don’t think they’d find it presented any great challenge to their racist preconceptions.
Jackie: Especially not their racist preconceptions about sex. There isn’t an index in my copy of the book, but if there was one, the words “prostitution” and “prostitute” would have a lot of entries! Mostly, he’s talking about white women in this context, and so interracial relationships also appear in the book largely as a form of ‘deviance’. There’s nothing in the book that speaks to relationships like my own parents’. I suppose my dad would have fallen into Pryce’s “Mainliner” category. He wasn’t religious, so not a “Saint”, but definitely he was very respectable. He was married to my mum for over thirty years and they both worked really hard to try to achieve a home and financial security for their family. People often forget that right through the twentieth century, there was hostility towards interracial couples in Britain as well as in the States, and that so-called “miscegenation” was seen as a problem here too. Or at least, they did until they saw the racist responses to Harry and Megan recently! My parents faced a lot of racism as an interracial couple in the 1960s and 70s, and there were couples like them in Bristol at the time of Pryce’s research, but he doesn’t really focus in on their experience. In fact, when he mentions hostility towards mixed black and white couples, he’s talking about his black research subjects’ hostility towards them, not white racism. So re-reading the book, I still feel uncomfortable and conflicted about it!
Julia: I definitely read it very differently today than I did as an undergraduate. In fact, it makes me realise how much debates on race and racism have changed over the past four decades. It’s another reason to mourn the fact Ken Pryce’s died at such a young age, so he didn’t get a chance to engage with these developments. I suppose that’s also why even though I recoil at some parts of the book, it seems harsh to judge it by contemporary standards when perhaps Pryce’s work actually contributed to the shifts that have taken place.
Jackie: Yes, you can place Endless Pressure alongside the work of people like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and many more who were also at that time writing about the policing of black communities and the experience of young black people in Britain. A lot of 1970s and 80s studies of black youth were also later criticised for focusing on ‘deviance’ – unemployment, crime, family conflict, and what Ken Pryce called being “tribeless” and “without solid roots” (p119). But then on the other hand, that kind of research was the bridge into Black British cultural studies which opened the door to much more nuanced and complicated understandings of race and identity, and allowed (some) sociologists to break with old-school, narrow understandings of racism and start to identify and challenge the way their own discipline reproduced pathologizing representations of black people and communities.
Julia: And that has helped paved the way for the current interest in decolonising curricula. Though it’s interesting too that Pryce was very much concerned with the legacy of colonialism. Endless Pressure starts with the history of slavery and British colonial rule in the West Indies, and very clearly sets out how poverty, economic underdevelopment, political instability and violence in Jamaica at the time he was writing was a product of that history. And as the introduction states, the book: “is an attempt to depict the life-styles of West Indians in Bristol, both within the context of the neo-colonial relations characterizing the post-war West Indian migration to Britain and in terms of the responses of West Indian workers to ‘slave labour’ and ‘shit-work’ in the contemporary British economy.” (pxi)
Jackie: Yes, and he says the book shows how Jamaicans who migrated to the UK to make a new and better life discovered in the end that they had “merely exchanged one colonial context for another” (p268). He was definitely not following the “race relations” type approach that in the 1970s would have looked at migrants’ “deviant” lifestyles and explained them as a failure to properly “assimilate”, he was adding in a Marxist concern with class, race and colonialism to show that the problem for West Indian migrants was being treated as a supply of cheap labour and subjected to racism and discrimination. But if he was doing the research again today, and was able to draw on the contemporary literature on decolonial theory and intersectionality, I think the book would look very different. As it stands, it just sounds so Othering. It reads as though it’s written for a white audience, and in the disembodied voice of academic authority, basically the voice of the old white colonial ethnographer who could somehow objectively describe the world of the “natives” he studied.
Julia: Presumably that’s how his white supervisors and fellow academics at the time expected him to write?
Jackie: Yes, probably. I would love to be able to ask him about his experience as a black PhD student and researcher in Britain in the 1970s, and about the racism he experienced. Given how bad racism still is in British universities, I imagine that he was under its “endless pressure” too. I suppose the fact that he reproduced the style of mainstream, white sociology made him a “Mainliner”, to use his typology. But that’s what he would have had to be to succeed in academia. I don’t know how much this has changed. Even though there are more black people in academic posts in universities today, there are very few in senior positions. And to succeed in academia, being brilliant isn’t enough. You need the support of more senior figures – first your supervisors, and then professors and heads of department to secure jobs and to mentor you. So black academics are still dependent on the patronage of white academics to get by, and there are lots of black and Asian British academics who still feel that they are over-represented amongst those performing the ‘slave labour’ and ‘shit-work’ within universities.