Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Multisensory engagements...Reflections

Having rambled on un-academically about Alex Rhys-Taylor’s observations, I have obsessively spent the past couple of weeks pondering over how to take his research findings further. I have become fascinated by how adopting a multi-sensory approach to empirical research leads to a fuller picture being generated of the phenomena at hand (in an urban context or otherwise).
Various researchers from the field of neuroscience and psychology hail the stimulation of all five senses as being responsible for a number of biological and cognitive developments. Willis (2012)[1] states that multisensory stimulation has the ability to magnify memory storage and retrieval, as information from each sense is stored in a different part of the brain, different ways of reviewing the same material leads to the creation of more nerve cell circuits to connect the similar pieces of information. Thus, individual’s with a multisensory experience of phenomena are able to access, retrieve and thus articulate their memory of that experience more clearly and cohesively.

As an avid art researcher, I am intrigued as to how developing a multisensory approach to art leads to art spectators to potentially being able to articulate the ineffable. Or as Mos Def puts it, "good art provides people with a vocabulary about things they can't articulate".

A quick definition – immersive installations are a space which has been recreated for an artistic purpose, typically created in order to augment a particular concept or theme. The immersive element of installation art was first encountered in the 1950s, with the most famous example being that of Walt Disney’s Disneyland, designed to immerse the visitor in a cartoon-esque alternative reality. Fast forward sixty years and artists are using immersive installations as a means to often more complex and interdisciplinary ends. Take the Helen Storey Foundation’s Eye & I installation for example, a room within a room with specially trained actors pulling genuine emotions[2]  behind eye slots to bewildered spectators. Or even Thomas Hirshhorn’s current exhibition at the South London Gallery, Gramscian inspired destruction made out of cardboard and box tape. We can understand, according to the descriptions on the artist’s websites, what the themes and concepts behind each installation piece are, but are these the same overarching themes and concepts experienced by the spectator themselves, if not, how can we maximise the spectators experience? Will educating a group of purveyor’s prior to entering an immersive installation art exhibition? Or does this detract from the impulsive interpretations that frame spectators understandings?

Sensing the everyday


As a researcher by profession and passion, I find myself being forcibly inspired by the mundane and uninteresting, deceiving a determination to finish a report on a topic that I may not be genuinely passionate about. This in turn has had a large part to play with my general ambiguity over things that I have an honest not for profit interest in.

The last piece of research that I read which sparked off a genuine interest for me - and by genuine interest, I mean a desire not to skim read the entire document - was Alex Rhys-Taylor’s PhD thesis entitled Coming to Our Senses. A multisensory ethnographic piece spanning Ridley Road Market and Petticoat Lane Market, with the aim to persuade urban micro-sociologists not to overlook the importance of sensory experiences of the city dwellers they aim to dissect.
Despite being a bit thin on the ground with regards to locations covered (Rhys-Taylor chose to observe two prominent east end markets, a select few businesses, their owners, their customers and all bits in between). The analysis and the parallels drawn provide intellectual insights into the multisensory experiences gained by those who actively participate in frontline urban life. Rhys-Taylor takes this further to analyse everyday objects and occurrences that would regularly frequent the market’s examined, drawing the reader’s attention to the contemporary shifts in meanings of ordinary objects found within your atypical East End market.

One particular example, is the contemporary role of the seafood stand so synonymous with East End culture. Once a common trade of the early twentieth century Jewish migrant to, and now one of the last remaining symbols of the ‘real’ East End - despite being a source of disgust by those outside of the ‘know’. The humble molluscs and eel (boiled and cooled to develop its accompanying jelly) are sold to customers from a stall, eliciting a level of disgust partly thanks to the ‘unhygienic’ location of the market and also due to the biblical connotations of shelled sea animals and snake-like creatures (see Leviticus). Ultimately within this example, Rhys-Taylor asks the weak stomached to; acknowledge the synesthetic dissonance that plays a key part in their disgust; to re-address the socio-economic distinctions associated with certain water based animals; and to re-evaluate notions of ‘appropriate’ food places - why is seafood anywhere else apart from an east London market palatable? Rhys-Taylor also goes on to talk about the overtly sexual connotations surrounding oysters, and how their consumption within the (commonly assumed) sexually and culturally dangerous space of east London, does little more than cement the consumption of oysters in a market as a behaviour for the un-refined.
Further parallels are given within a well-researched socio-historic-economic context.

By addressing the banal and ordinary instances within an East End market in a way that is genuinely inquisitive, Rhys-Taylor encourages his readers to look at these normative existences – jerk chicken bagels, jellied eels, incense sticks, halal haribo, etc - and question their modes of existence and the effects that they may or may not have on our everyday existence; our relationships with others; and our ever-changing local spaces.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Families and Poverty: Everyday life on a low income by Mary Daly and Grace Kelly

Within the book in question, families are defined as “a normative sphere, structural unit, and set of relationships that merit investigation in their own right” (2015: 5) -thus acknowledging that a‘family’ exists not only as a physical entity but also as a set of meaningful activities which serve to reinforce the family’s existence. 

This Barthes-esque (1957: 100) interpretation of the family adopted by the authors serves to create a research piece which acknowledges the individual interactions between each families structure, rather than reducing them to a standardized family model.
There are four main objectives within the book:
To contribute to the theoretical literature on families by offering a theorisation of the relationship between family and poverty/low income; 

To explore how decisions and practises around resource utilisation are influenced by family-related considerations, especially the well-being of children;
To examine the support networks (if any) that people have available – more specifically the support roles of (near and distant) family, friends and neighbours and the norms and expectations associated with such support;
To elucidate  how income shortages influence and affect people’s local and wider engagements and interactions and the actions and representations people undertake to maintain an acceptable ‘local face’ and ‘public image’.

In order to address the objectives, the book reports on the findings of a study conducted between2011 and 2012-prior to and during the changes made to the welfare state by the Welfare Reform Act.The research consisted of 51 open-ended face-to-face interviews with respondents in Northern Ireland who were a part of a family living in poverty or deemed to be low-income. The sample was drawn from respondents to the Northern Ireland Family Survey[1] who had given their permission to be re-contacted for the purposes of other research.

The book is structured into ten chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. Chapters one to seven were the result of a thematic framework which focused on any interconnections between the key questions, themes and dimensions of analysis, as well as regularities and irregularities of association in order to identify explanatory factors.

The conjoining factor between all of the chapters is the focus on familial lives and their complex relationships with poverty.
Each chapter opens with an overview of the main topic being discussed and how the current chapter ties into the subsequent one. The chapter is further broken down into subthemes which are supplemented by supporting interview quotes. Each chapter ends with an overview section which summarises the chapter and reiterates the most prominent findings, supported by relevant literature or further data from the interview transcripts.

This layout is a useful mechanism in reflecting on the powerful insights offered by the research participant’s perspective, all the while ensuring that the individual voices and anecdotes are not lost within the wider debate of poverty-related policy.
The thematic layout of each chapter is befitting for the theoretical framework utilised to analyse the data.This format, coupled with the ties between the chapters highlighted in the introductory paragraph of each chapter allows for a consistent read throughout. The use of open ended face to face interviews provided the book with a real-life quality, something that is often lacking in research studies that are heavily public policy-related (Colechin, Griffiths and Wilson, 2015. Beatty, Gore, Powell, 2011). Despite the typical constraints of ‘biased’ research interpretations through the use of qualitative methods, the authors manage to maintain a sense of neutrality when analysing the data, any notable themes are thoroughly discussed and based heavily within a theoretical context before any conclusions are drawn.

Having said this, the inclusion of just one representative on behalf of the family unit only allows the input of one voice amongst a multi-dimensional unit, this in turn may result in further insights and different perceptions to be overlooked. 

This was an issue addressed by Backett (1990), whoconducted a study into health beliefs and behaviours in middle-class families by conducting three rounds of interviews with parents over a period of eighteen months, followed by a supplementary study with the children of the families.Although this research design is more complex than if one interview stage took place, a fuller picture of family life is generated. This is supported by Pahl (1989) who states that joint interviews allows for a thorough insight into the interactions and non-verbal communication within a family unit. Therefore, as the study focuses on moving away from the concept of families as being a logical category,an observational research method would serve to provide further insight relating to the enactments of a family unit.
A key theme mentioned in the findings of the research was the existence of the family as a complex series of relationships rather than a unit of its own. One example of which was members of the family being categorised as rich and not rich, in accordance to whom help can be sought from, and the relational context within which it takes place.

One interesting finding was the active re-designing of family structures facilitated by family members themselves, which in turn disproved the societal trends towards individualisation and pluralisation (Beck, 1992. Giddens, 1992) within the family unit. More specifically, Daly and Kelly noted that rather than there being a collapse of normative family structures, there was in fact a re-design of family structures, whereby extended family members and kin were included if they met certain characteristics i.e. were a valuable form of financial support or a consistent source of emotional support (2015: 110).

Furthermore, this selective isolation of
 the family in question also extended to neighbourhood relations, as half of the participants reported having no close contact with their direct neighbours (138:2015).  Although this lack of civic duty has long been noted as a common feature of post-modern society (Moroi, 2008. Beck, 1992. Giddens, 1991).

Another key theme within the text was that of transactions of support whereby meals were shared in return for childcare or other forms of return from neighbours, family and kin. These forms of symbiotic relationships were frequently mentioned throughout the book, and in turn relate to social exchange theory, whereby human relationships are based on a series of subjective cost-benefit analyses and the comparison of alternative options. Another example of this was through engaging with local community services, whereby engagement with a local service was conducted on the basis of what beneficial services could be received (Gergen, 2012).

A geographical element was also mentioned frequently within the book, with families choosing to remain within an area providing that it is geographically close to relevant provisions and other family members in order to cut down on travel costs and particularly the need for a car and the expenses that it incurs. This is supported by Young and Wilmott’s (1957, then followed up in 1973) study of family structures in east London, which describes how older relatives would follow their children into the suburbs where possible.

Overall, it seems that the argument that Daly and Kelly are aiming to present within the text is the notion of an abstract and fluid family structure which shifts from a tangible to a non-tangible form (and vice versa) in accordance to the family’s needs. This discovery highlights a gap in the provisions for family related policies and front-line services to accommodate such dynamic family structure.
Ultimately, the research presented in this book provides an engaging and passionate contribution to the debate around family life and poverty. Although the language used is targeted towards an academic audience, it would be useful to welfare policy makers and practitioners, as well as those interested in issues of parenting, money management, family support and local engagement.


Backett, K.C. (1990b) 'Studying Health in Families: a qualitative approach', in S. Cunningham-Burley & N.P. McKeganey (eds.) Readings in Medical Sociology. London: Routledge.
Barthes, R. (1957) Mythologies. London: Routledge.
Bauman, Z (2003) Liquid Love: on the Frailty of Human Bonds. Oxford, Polity.
Beatty, C. Gore, T. Powell, R. (2011) The impact of welfare reform and public sector spending reductions on low income households in Hampshire. Available at: http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/welfare-reform-low-income-hampshire-summary.pdf Last accessed [10/12/2015]
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.
Colechin, J. Griffiths,J. Wilson, T. (2015) The impacts of welfare reform on residents in Brighton and Hove. Available at: http://cesi.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Impact%20of%20welfare%20reform%20BHCC%20final%20report.pdf Last accessed [10/12/2015]
Gergen, K. (2012) Social Exchange: Advances in theory and research. Berlin: Springer Science and Business Media.
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self- Identity.Cambridge: Polity.
Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies.
Cambridge, Polity Press.
Moroi, Y. (2008) Ethics of Conviction and Civic Responsibility. Lanham: University Press of America.
Pahl, J. (1989) Money and Marriage. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Willmott, P. Young, M. (1957) Family and Kinship in East London.London: Policy Press.

[1]The Family Resources Survey collects detailed information on the incomes and circumstances of private households from April to March each year. The survey has been carried out in Great Britain since 1992, but in 2002-03 it was introduced to Northern Ireland for the first time. 

Friday, 11 December 2015

Coffin beds and camaraderie: a review of an exhibition of homelessness in Victorian London

Tens of thousands of people made their homes in rented rooms and bedsits - in extreme cases, hallways of houses were let to those willing to pay the rent. Individuals were often left to while away a short term lease wondering what the next month would bring. Homes would be shared with strangers, and mandatory upkeep of a dwelling was not an easily enforceable concept. There were also numerous others who could not scrape together the pittance needed for this, as jobs were hard to come by and state assistance was subject to strict eligibility criteria. Those at the poorest end sought protection from the harsh world by entering refuges or by sleeping rough in the most decrepit shelter one could find.


This description of modern-day London is practically interchangeable with the same streets of the 1800s. This parallel hasn’t gone unnoticed by the curators at The Geffrye Museum, itself a former almshouse. Their Homes of the Homeless exhibition sought to depict the lives of the poorest of the poor during the Victorian times. The collection consisted of art pieces, domestic debris and furniture all aimed at visualising this common, yet frequently under-looked narrative, juxtaposed with quotes from William Booth, George Orwell and Jack London as well as snippets of interview audios from the workhouse residents themselves. Ultimately, serving as a stark contrast to its house exhibition of upper-class period rooms through the ages.


The layout of the curation started on the ‘streets’, looking at the plight faced by Victorian rough sleepers in the capital - depicted perfectly by Augustus Edwin Mulready’s unnamed painting of a young angelic recess on London Bridge, and Thomas Benjamin Kennington’s ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ portrait of a widowed mother and her two children selling flowers on a street corner.


At the turn of a corner, the exhibition displayed areas of refuge for the destitute poor, images of ‘spikes’ (workhouses); refuges and shelters; and common lodging houses. A real-life construction of the coffin beds used to sleep those residing in a Salvation Army night shelter was open for visitors to climb into - hay lined the bottom and a hard ‘step’ at the top of the coffin served as pillow, however the said beds were still better than the harsh outdoors.

There was also an extensive map depicting all the hostels built by the philanthropist and politician Lord Rowton, where for a shilling one could reside in a cubicle rather than a shared room.




The exhibition ended somewhat prematurely albeit optimistically with a series of images depicting the camaraderie and togetherness that sharing a communal space brings. From local Londoners and colonial sailors sharing room space, to women bible studying together.

Interestingly, within ‘Down and Out in London and Paris’, whilst referring to the poor, George Orwell states that “poverty frees [the poor] from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work”, the fact that displays of solidarity were frequent amongst the poor of Victorian Britain suggests that despite the freedom of societal norms, cohesion still existed amongst the underclass.


The Geffrye Museum’s Homes of the Homeless kindly provided the public with a space to reflect upon the divisive nature of societal poverty. Where industrialisation created richness and poverty in Victorian Britain, the modern banking system has had the same effect, redistributing wealth from the poorest 90% in Britain to the richest 10%, inadequate and unaffordable housing being a by-product of this.
This paradox has been highlighted through the commissioning of a sister exhibition entitled Home and Hope, a collaboration between The Geffrye Museum and the New Horizon’s Day Centre - a homeless young person’s day centre in Kings Cross. Following a similar spiral layout, this exhibition proves promising to once again demonstrate the infinite nature of societal poverty.

However a full review of this exhibition ought to be reserved for another blog entry

-Watch this space.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Inspired by Zephaniah

Your house is
Falling down
And you got
To eat,
Don't worry
Be happy.
Your fish
Have drowned
You wear
A frown,
You search

 But you don't
Own a pound,
Don't worry
Be happy. 

De Rong Song by Benjamin Zephaniah

Monday, 16 March 2015

"People don't understand the pressure on me to look perfect"-Kim Kardashian, 2011.

A brand endorsed by almost every consumer outlet (from Lipsy to Quick Trim) is the bodacious Kim Kardashian. 

Since 2007, Kim Kardashian has been the self-styled queen of the social media revolution, utilising social media outlets to #breaktheinternet. Her publicity, personal contacts and brute power make her the ideal selling platform.

The Kim Kardashian image, is of particular interest to me as I am a young, female, image-conscious twenty something, Kim’s main target consumer. The Kim Kardashian is a relevant contemporary brand as it is a phenomena created and exemplified by the mass media and its consumers alike - E! give her untold amounts of publicity and her fans buy into her existence.

The cultural cues that Kim Kardashian taps into are that of 'nouveau femininity' as represented by a voluptuous female shape with an ambiguously tanned skin colour - exotic yet still American.
Glamorous enough to entice the opposite sex yet authoritative enough to assert her independence (e.g. I’m in control of my own sex tape!). There is also the cultural cue of backlash and rebellion associated with Kim Kardashian’s body, as the trend for large breasts and buttocks came shortly after the size zero phenomena. The Kim Kardashian body is rounder and less angular, paradoxically connoting that it doesn’t let the media tell it what to do.

I feel that it would be fair to say that Kim Kardashian brand is a super brand, it is a brand endorsed by other brands, a marketing tool in itself to say the least. Kim Kardashian has endorsed at least 23 image and lifestyle related brands, including (but not limited to) DASH, the Kardashian’s clothing store; Tria At Home Laser Hair removal kit; Skechers Shape-ups; an OPI nail polish range amongst others. 

I predict that her career as a freelance promoter is the start of a future evolution of the celebrity super brand, her consistent self-promotion and her ability to be a relatable caricature of the all-American woman (superficially spanning across all ethnicities given her half-Armenian heritage) means that she is the perfect super brand for all other brands to invest into.

Ultimately it seems that the more brands that utilise Kim Kardashian's power, the less importance is given to her celebrity non-status. She’s exceeded the expectations of the B-list, and has worked her way up the ranks (via marriage) into the A-list. This in itself suggests that celebdom is fluid and dependent on an intrinsic mix of the consumers that buy into you and the brands that you endorse.

Just remember this Kimmy K, you are what we make you...