Research Ethics with Integrity: A Panel Discussion

Sometimes, maybe at the beginning of a research project or perhaps when you’re thinking hypothetically, you could be fooled into thinking that ethics in research is simple: You want to do what is right for everyone involved, you make a plan at the beginning to do what is right and you promise to stick to it. This month’s Research Ethics with Integrity seminar hosted a panel of experienced researchers who beautifully illuminated just how messy and precarious research is and how the ethics of research is entangled within this messiness and precarity. 

Dr Claire Fox chaired the panel of three experienced and highly regarded researchers, each of which spoke with honesty and care around their own experiences of ethical complications within research.  Our guests included Professor Cathy Lewin (Professor of Education and lead for the Digital and Innovative Pedagogies research group), Professor Deborah James (Professor of Educational Psychology and lead for Educational Psychology) and Professor Kate Pahl (Head of ESRI and Faculty Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange).

The discussion was structured around five questions from Claire, with opportunities to share challenges from each researchers’ own experiences. Topics included collaborative working, peer review, co-authorship and media relations. 

One thing that clearly stood out from the discussion was that research doesn’t happen in a vacuum and this all plays into the ethics of a research project. The panellists shared ethical dilemmas that were shaped by the political, institutional and social tensions around them. This was also evident in the responsibility of research and the real consequences that can occur based on the research findings and recommendations. The panel spoke of sleepless nights, redundancies and difficult conversations that came with the actuality of working through ethical tensions.

A particular element from the discussion that highlighted how enmeshed research ethics is with the world around it was the role of funders in a research project. The panel shared examples of funders asking for changes in final reports or even preventing the publication of findings. This was particularly of interest when funders were directly linked to government, and publications were halted as the political direction changed. One suggestion from the discussion to combat these requests from funders was through publication agreements included in contracts at the beginning of the research. This sounds straight forward, but is  made less simple by tender processes, time constraints and the intricacies of working relationships. 

There was also discussion around working with external partners and communities in research that centred on the question of whether research of this nature can be truly collaborative. Kate Pahl drew on some of her experiences from a project that involved, ‘re-imagining contested communities’. For anyone who would like to read more, please see the book that arose out of this project. 

Though we may agree that you can expect something to go array in a research project, perhaps what is less obvious is that, from the beginning, we may have different ideas on what is the right thing to do. Often this variation is created by the different histories and epistemologies of disciplines and universities. An example from one panellist showed how a particular story in their previous university’s history had shaped the ethics systems that were currently in place. Our panel of three, though from different academic backgrounds, work within the same university in the same research centre and yet varied in their experiences of how they would approach certain ethical situations. One of these differences was around naming authors on publications. As someone fairly new to academia, and getting to grips with academic publications, I am often perplexed by the importance of first author positions and the politics of authorship. Nevertheless, the recognised points system that is in place makes authorship an essential aspect of academic outputs. Some of the panel preferred to name early career researchers as first authors to support their introduction to a somewhat brutal system, others on the panel articulated it was important to recognise the collaborative nature of doctoral research between students and supervisors and that this should be reflected in publications.

A final topic discussed was that of relationships with the media and the dissemination of research to the public. Alongside a few horror stories of misrepresentation and hidden intentions it was agreed that we, as a university, need to develop our ability to work with the media. It reminds us that we must always consider who we are working with and representing within research and how the work that we create sits within the different social, political and cultural narratives that surround it.

Thank you to our three panellists for their time, words and honesty, which created such a rich discussion. This was the last seminar in this year’s series and we hope to be back in the next academic year with a new programme of events around research ethics with integrity.

What is ‘oddness’ and how does it circulate and attach to things in school?

The Odd Project: feeling different in the world of education is a research project conducted by researchers and artists at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam University with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Over three years, the team has worked with students, staff and parents at Alma Park Primary School in Manchester, with partners from Catalyst Psychology, the NCB and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, as a loose research collective.

Throughout this research project, traditional ideas about things in school being fixed were troubled, made more fluid and understood in different ways: children’s identities, behaviours, relationships between adults and young people…school time, and even the building around them.

We understood school as an assemblage, a moving collection of bodies, of matter, of relationships and even of time. Thinking about school in that way, we needed to use different techniques to attune to its movements and energy streams. The Odd Project has used creative methods to feel, think and experience how difference proliferates in the context of a primary school. 

We’ve approached ‘oddness’ in many ways, using stethoscopes for example, to listen to the school’s textures. We’ve closely considered how we work in ethical ways with young people in school, responding to the challenges presented by the interplay of power relationships between young people and adults, and us as researchers. We’ve moved towards the experiences of bodies. We’ve attempted to sense our ways into the flows and systems of school life and sought to open things up – if only briefly. Now our time in school is finished, we want to turn to others, including you. 

The team wants to connect their work to your work; their experiences to yours. Click this link to subscribe to Odd Notes, a selection of highlights from The Odd Project emailed to you in the coming weeks.

“I want to break things”: Post-qualitative co-produced research during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What is that we are doing when we co-produce research with the young people and communities with whom we work? As I wrote in a paper on the ‘co-productive imagination’ (Duggan, 2020), there are various rationales for participatory or co-produced research, from empowering participants, contributing to social justice or enacting democratic or equal relationships within the project. An underpinning logic is that the greater the intensity and extensity with which what were participants are included in research activities is expressive of research co-production. I do not question that participating in research activities is indicative of more equal relationships and more empowering but there is a risk this equates research with the delivery of projects, which are troublingly managerialising way of organising inquiry and thinking. A further concern emerges from the post-qualitative critique which reminds us that conventional qualitative social science research methods were ‘made up’ in part as a way of justifying qualitative research in the ‘Paradigm Wars’ and the ascendance of all things quantitative (St. Pierre, 2011, 2018). What therefore are we empowering or including non-academics in when we co-produce research projects? And, if we know and practice conventional research methods, even if we are developing interesting and unconventional research methods, then what other ways of knowing and taking action in the world are we circumscribing? 

I worry that when we invite people to participate in research projects that the world of research seems somehow duller and less vital than other scenes or practices in which they might be involved. As academics we might get a pass because we are anything from boring nerds to doing serious work. I’ve been thinking how we might remake research in relation to community imaginaries and practices, specifically the community of Hulme. In a forthcoming paper with Dayo Eseonu, I say, 

“These orientations [those of a hip-hop scene] create a series of expansive and emergent drives and loops of socio-material practices. The party needs a DJ, music, lights, fliers, a crowd, drinks, marketing, security, recycling and on and on. These are the youth cultures and processes of worlding that we as researchers try so hard to attune to and communicate in research yet arguably absent from our processes of research co-production.”

I am still thinking about this but it seems to me that as researchers we might use a zine as a media format to share research, which is great, but these zines are not those of the punk scene as interpreted by 

“It was incredibly varied: zines came in more shapes, styles, subjects and qualities than one would imagine. But there was something remarkable that bound this new world I had stumbled upon: a radically democratic and participatory ideal of what culture and society might be… ought to be.”  (Duncombe, 1997:2) 

It is a tall order to expect research to match the cultural vibrancy and invention of the punk scene but I still think we can learn from the worlds we encounter and seek to experiment with these processes of worlding in our research.  

While developing the Left on Read project I was keen not to include young people in (my) research but instead support them to develop inquiries that expanded from their concerns and ways of thinking and inquiring. The aim of the project was to work with a group of young people to co-produce arts-based and creative resources for other young people to encounter in line with the conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown to explore loneliness and isolation in safe and productive ways. During the project I was working with 42nd Street’s Creative Agents group. We met online throughout the project, exploring different arts practices, sharing what creative things we had done or hoped to do, waiting for us each to find something to develop. 

I one session, Jolene exclaimed, “I’m angry. I have this rage. I just want, I just want to break things.” Rod Kippen (42ndStreet) connected this to action art, citing the documentary Cutie and the Boxer about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara whose art involves, for example, punching paint onto canvases in boxing gloves. This developed into the Action Art Room, in which Jolene and two peers wrote insults they had suffered on the walls, threw paint at the walls, and had a lot of fun. 

The next phase of the research was to disassemble and explore what was happening in this form of action art as catharsis. We wanted to take this process, encounter and experience and reassemble it in forms that other young people could experiment with, without the opportunity to throw paint around their parent’s house. Drawing on her design skills, Jolene developed an amazing resource which walks the reader through from understanding emotions to doing action art practices that might help them move through difficult feelings.  

I think it is more than simply personalising inquiries to the interests and preferences of the people we work with. Design, and a particular form of design, away from university and in a space where she was taken seriously (42nd Street’s Horsfall Gallery) helped her express her feelings. She hoped it would help her make her way in the world. It was a space and set of practices that buzzed with excitement and possibility. Probably the same as I feel about research when the mood takes me

James Duggan

For more information on the loneliness research visit Loneliness Connects Us

Research with Young Children

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, PhD Candidate, ESRI

What is research? What is consent? Who can we trust? These are some of the questions that arose in our second seminar in the Navigating Research Ethics with Integrity seriesThis seminar focused on research with young children. I was honoured to speak alongside Abigail Hackett and Christina MacRae introducing some of the ethical complexities that we have encountered in our different research projects. These projects are based within a variety of spaces where young children are present including galleries, museums, nurseries and play groups. The subject spurred a vibrant discussion with attendees showing an abundance of care for the subject matter and the importance of continuing spaces like these for sharing discussions on ethics within the university. 

The first presentation, from myself, focused on research with babies in a gallery space, sharing my experience of navigating between NHS ethics protocols and the university’s ethical review system. This introduced themes on the role of co-researchers in multi-professional research and what we mean by ‘assent’ when working with young children. I covered ways to tune into the often non-verbal communication of assent or dissent with babies. As one attendee commented, this requires experience and expertise on the part of the researchers. Sharing an ‘assent promise’ with parents, whereby I am clear how I will ensure I have the child’s assent throughout the activity is important. 

How do we move our attention from written and verbal communication to take note of the embodied effect of ethics in the moment when carrying out research?

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett

Abi Hackett extended the theme of assent within her own research in play group settings with families. She shared considerations on the relationship between the researcher and the participant and what it means to be involved in research. She suggested that seeking consent and assent is an on-going process in an agreement that is never quite fixed. When considering ethics as involving the body and emotions, and not just discursive, consent becomes emergent and provisional.

There are no positions of unquestionable virtue for the researcher. I cannot keep myself pure of the messy implicated, power infused, world making, storytelling nature of research just by following certain key principles or processes

Abi Hackett

Next, Christina MacRae focused on recent work with families from a local nursery with attention to parents as co-researchers. As working with parents in this way becomes more popular, and is often regarded as good practice, it is essential to consider what this means in practice. Christina described the messiness of co-researching with parents through the pandemic and questioned what counts as co-research. She considered the role of the parent co-researcher from the initial stage of research design through to how this style of working is written about at the report stage. This included troubling the notions of ‘we’ and ‘with’ and the tensions that arise between claims of impact and the participatory nature of the research.

Research cast as ‘with’ parents can reinforce some problems associated with research that is ‘on’ or ‘about’ parents.

Christina MacRae

The seminar provoked a compelling and careful discussion which spun the initial themes into an assortment of rich threads. A few of these are included here, though there were many other threads that continued throughout the discussion.

One attendee questioned the distinction between assent and consent and suggested the use of ‘assent’ belittles children’s rights and participation. There was an agreement from many in the room that there was unease in the use of ‘assent’ and a possibility emerged of suggesting ‘legal consent’ and ‘consent’; this could be a way to show more value in this process.

Another colleague shared the idea that ethics is a pause in the research process and articulated thoughts on creating a space where it is possible to say ‘no’. A discussion bloomed around how this works in research when conducted in environments such as schools and nurseries, where children expect to have less choice in their day-to-day activities.

There was a discussion on the role of consent forms and shared concerns that the layering of legal language in consent forms could become a barrier to working in participatory ways. This led onto a discussion of the increasingly prescriptive process of consent forms and the ethical and practical implications that these create.

There was a comment from a memory of Elisabeth St. Pierre which suggested some ethics protocols are disentangled from the philosophy of ethics in research which becomes problematic and counteractive for methodological thinking. 

The Chair of the Faculty of Education ethic committee stated that a lot of the topics discussed throughout the seminar are not specific to young children but traverse research with all ages. Nobody can fully know what they are consenting to at the beginning of a research process. He proposed a series of ethical principles that we abide by and communicate this to others. He suggested that, as researchers, we want to learn, not to prescribe, and that we all want to be baffled.

As we moved to a discussion of trust, a final question from Abi was: why should participants trust us? As she reminded us, we are often unknown to them, living elsewhere, entering their space and asking something from them. Perhaps this is something we should always keep in my mind when considering the ethical complexities of our own research; but, trust can take time to develop. As articulated by a colleague, we perhaps also need to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a participant, for example, how would we feel if our words were taken out of context?

Many thanks to all who contributed to this discussion and thanks to Claire for creating a space to discuss these experiences of ethics within research. Shining through the conversation was an appreciation of the work that Claire, Ricardo and others do in navigating a way for researchers to keep ethics integral to their practice. 

Navigating Research Ethics with Integrity

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, PhD Candidate, ESRI

Data Management

Last month ESRI launched a new series of seminars focusing on everything to do with research ethics. The series aims to provide a space to share best practice and open up discussions around the complexities in navigating all of the frameworks, conflicting ethical principles, and managing data.

The series kicked off with an introduction to data management with Nicki Hargreaves, Information Records Manager, Jacqueline Vigilanti, Research Support Librarian, and Ben Goddard, Deputy Data Protection Officer.

Nicki discussed the life cycle of the research project and the data that goes with it. The main tip was to keep all data together as much as possible and tidy it up as you go along. Did you know, for example, that short term notes that are no longer relevant in your data can be discarded leaving only that which will be useful? Nicki cautioned that there are risks of under and over retention! 

Jacqueline introduced us to the FAIR principles of data which ensures your data is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. The library holds a wealth of data management guides and offers workshops that are open to staff and students. They can offer support on data management throughout the research process, for example, they offer one-to-one support on writing a data management plan. The library guides on data management can be found here.

Ben‘s presentation focused on data protection and the handling of ‘personal data’. This included consideration of how we share data, particularly if we are working in collaboration with colleagues at other organisations, using external suppliers (e.g. transcribers) and using online application service providers, such as MS Teams for our research. 

This final section led into a discussion that focused on virtual data collection, something that has become a focus for many researchers over the last year, and how to navigate data management practices from different online platforms. There is a list of pre-approved services that have been assessed by the data management team as acceptable for us to use. It is clear that more attention is needed to ensure that research can be carried out online in the fairest and safest way for participants. 

There were also a number of questions about data retention and Nicki provided links to some webpages under Records Management that can be accessed here: There was agreement that when it comes to data retention it can be difficult, and it really can vary from one project to the next (depending on contractual or legal requirements) but Nicki is happy to help Principal Investigators work out which retention period applies. 

Finally, Ben acknowledged there are challenges when working with audio and visual data; it can be difficult making the data anonymous unless it is transferred into written form. The key, Ben explained, is to be transparent with research participants about how the data will be managed. 

All three presenters said that they are very happy to be contacted directly for any queries around data management for research, which was very reassuring to many of us struggling to adjust to all of the new procedures. Thank you Nicki, Jacqueline and Ben!

Building Data Literacy with the Teaching Profession at Global Scale

On March 18th 2021, the Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI) at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Research Lab on Digital Education Governance at Helmut-Schmidt-Universität (HSU) in Hamburg hosted an exciting online event to explore strategies for building data literacy with the teaching profession at global scale.

We organised this event to facilitate professional conversations about the growing datafication of the education field, including quantitative performance measurement, algorithm-based learning analytics and various other forms of data-driven governance.

Teachers around the globe are not only increasingly required to produce, analyse and use data in their work, but are equally subject to problematic impacts of data (e.g. performative accountability and the rising power of EdTech companies or data agencies). To protect and enhance teacher professional autonomy today, the profession must continually develop its understanding of how data, algorithms and education technologies are actively reshaping schooling.

Data literacy is important in order to (1) make appropriate use of available data, (2) contest detrimental uses of data; and (3) develop alternative uses of data and/or alternatives to data-driven approaches.

While scholars around the world are increasingly bringing attention to the complexities and challenges of datafication in education – thus sharpening our understanding of what data literacy should entail – there is a pressing need to engage actively with the profession, including teacher organizations. Teacher organizations play a crucial role in setting and contesting political agendas in education and in helping to translate academic research for their members.

Recognising the need for stronger alliances between academic researchers and teacher organisations in relation to this important issue, the Building Data Literacy with the Teaching Profession at Global Scale workshop brought together nearly 100 academics, teacher organisation staff and other colleagues to discuss needs, challenges and promising strategies for developing data literacy and building new collaborative networks. 

The workshop opened with keynote presentations on the present state of datafication in education and the challenges it creates.

Professor Bob Lingard (Catholic University Brisbane) provided an overview of ongoing datafication research in schooling globally. 

Dr Anna Hogan (University of Queensland) and Dr Ben Williamson (University of Edinburgh) then discussed the rising power of EdTech in education policy and datafied governance.

Finally, Professor Sigrid Hartong (Helmut-Schmidt-University Hamburg) talked about opportunities and challenges for developing data literacy with the teaching profession.

During the midday session, participants discussed data literacy initiatives from various countries and educational contexts in parallel breakout sessions. A list of all initiatives, including abstracts and contact information can be found below.

In the afternoon, all participants returned for a plenary discussion of the work of teacher organizations in relation to datafication, digital technologies and algorithms. Presenters from Education International and from teacher unions in Germany and Belgium, as well as an academic researcher working closely with and the Iceland teachers union, discussed their perspectives on fostering data literacy with teachers and collaborating with academic researchers.

We would like to thank all participants and keynote speakers for a highly inspiring event! Feedback indicated that the workshop sparked a number of productive discussions andhelped to establish new connections and ideas for developing this important agenda further. 

By Sam Sellar (Manchester Metropolitan University), Sigrid Hartong (Helmut-Schmidt-Universität) and the organizing team.

For more information about the workshop, contact Sam Sellar at

Coproduction in a pandemic: listening to the voices unheard

Coproduction of knowledge and participatory research are all the more important in the context of COVID-19. Social distancing, emergency legislation, and a lack of institutional transparency and accountability are likely to exacerbate current inequalities and further disempower those voices historically excluded by society. At a time of extreme pressure on the welfare state, there are also opportunities to “shake up” the system and including marginalised voices in this process of change is all the more important. Research can play a crucial role in bringing these voices closer to the ears of policymakers.

In a recent event part of the ESRC’s Festival of Science, Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark from MMU spoke with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell about the opportunities and challenges for coproducing research at a time of social distancing. Groundswell is a national charity who provide people facing homelessness the opportunity to coproduce solutions to homelessness through research and advocacy. Their work has an impact on both public policy and services. 

The pandemic has been a time when the issue of homelessness has become central to public health. The spiralling economic crisis is putting many thousands of households into poverty and at risk of losing their homes. At a time of social distancing ensuring the voices of those experiencing homelessness are not lost is as important as it is challenging. The constraints imposed by the pandemic have forced the team to reinvent and develop some of their work in creative and powerful ways, which rely more on peer-led reporting and the use of new media, audio, photo and video to reach out to people and bring their voices together. A group of national reporters with experience of homelessness shared their own experience of COVID-19 and what was happening in their local area. 

There are several challenges when trying to achieve this, from digital exclusion (which right now can raise ever-deeper barriers to participation) to the difficulty of supporting people emotionally and physically from a distance. The current situation has also triggered new thinking to adapt old models of working while continuing to invest in building meaningful relationships with the people involved in the peer-led reporting research. Reporters are supported remotely by a Groundswell mentor and have all the equipment they need for the role (phones, credit and tablets) to ensure nobody is out of pocket. As it has become harder to reach out to people, methods have also adapted. For instance, Groundswell have introduced data capture methods to allow non-research staff to input what they are experiencing on the ground. 

Probably more than ever before coproduction of research is needed as an empowering process that can bring isolated people together around common needs and issues, contextualising what might otherwise feel like individual problems or ‘weaknesses’. In the typically risk averse homelessness sector, people with experience of homelessness often are not trusted. The opportunity to participate in research, and be trusted to do so, can be an important step in challenging unequal power relations. Issues of power differentials also exist within coproduced research and require careful negotiating of relationships, particularly when vulnerable people are involved. Vulnerability does not negate the fact that everyone has unique strengths. The word vulnerable can be problematic, because there is an assumption that participants might need protection and it promotes the self-empowerment of those who act as “protectors”. These ideas are often based on an underestimation of participants’ ability to resist power. The system often depicts people as ‘receivers’ of services so ‘giving back’, participating in research and feeding into responses to homelessness gives people an opportunity to correct the power imbalance.  Importantly, key stakeholders from the National Health Service and Department of Health and Social Care are keen to listen and the shorter feedback loop that comes with mobile reporting means that crucial insight can get to them in real time. 

Coproduction of research can help challenge the system of knowledge control established through mainstream research, as we try to change a status quo whose contradictions and unacceptable inequalities have been laid bare by Covid-19. At Groundswell volunteer reporters, researchers and advocates have a shared experience of homelessness and related traumas. These shared experiences mean that empathy and trust can be quickly built. Anyone who has faced homelessness has survived exceptionally difficult circumstances and has a great capacity to contribute new ideas to help rethink and strengthen the welfare state and the way society and institutions understand and respond to homelessness. In this way, we find that the process of conducting research for people experiencing homelessness can trigger current or existing trauma but revisiting those traumas can also be crucial in the process of healing.  As one of Groundswell’s peer researchers explains:

“So the experience of meeting homeless people like you – not only the research it helps on a personal level like … when you’re feeling down, it brings back memories when you were in that situation. And how far you have come away. It reassures you that I am not doing that bad. It gives you some motivation” 

What Groundswell has been able to maintain, in these exceptionally difficult times, is a team of people, many, but not all, with lived experience of homelessness, working together in an equal relationship where everyone’s strengths and vulnerabilities are equally recognised and valued. 

Sonia Bussu, Suzy Solley, Nigel Allmark, and Mat Amp

Urgent, meaningful and delightful; aspirations for coproduced research with babies and families during physical distancing

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, Abigail Hackett, Katy McCall, Naomi Kendrick

This blog emerges from conversations about how participatory research should respond to the seismic shifts in communities and everyday lives that are unfolding as a result of Covid19. Our thinking emerges from a working group we have belonged to for the last 18 months, in which staff from Manchester Art Gallery (Katy, Naomi), MMU (Abi, Ruthie) and local Children’s Centres and nurseries explored ways in which we could work more closely with local families with babies. The pandemic has offered huge and unique challenges for new parents, babies, and those who work with them. At the same time, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, lockdown and physical distancing measures might create new spaces to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Therefore, as a group we were interested in asking; could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together?

Tacit knowledge, partially articulated things and the importance of what goes unsaid

Many methods of data collection have had to be adapted because of Covid19, and in the early months of lock down, there was an outpouring of knowledgeable, creative and innovative responses to the question of how to do participatory research alongside physical distancing. However, one of the things that started to nag in our minds was the extent to which many of these methods relied on knowledge that was fairly definite, explicit and easily conveyed in words. Classic participatory methods for working at a physical distance might include things such as interviews conducted over a video call, asking participants to keep a visual or written diary of their experiences, or shared spaces where participants can upload responses to prompts and questions. Whilst these methods can be incredibly powerful in some research contexts, they run up against many of the ways we are used to supporting, researching with and building relationships with communities, families and babies. These ways have tended to centre on time spent physically together, creating beautiful and immersive spaces that invite different kinds of interactions and conversations, tracing small moments (Stewart, 2007), bodily experiences and sensations, things that can be known through the body and partially articulated in writing. These aspects of lived experience with babies and toddlers are rarely articulated and often hard to explain. So what might we need to consider then, in terms of working in communities and with families with young children, during the time of physical distancing? Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words.

Our work together at Manchester Art Gallery

Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to think about how babies and young children use the space. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits. Our focus was to support Katy McCall, MAG’s Family Learning Manager, to create a new space for families in the gallery, due to open in May. When the gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space.

When lockdown temporarily closed the gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world, but our conversations changed. We tried to continue our original track discussing how the new space could be used in response to what families would need ‘after lockdown’. We considered how to document family’s experiences, perhaps exhibiting a collection of ‘lockdown art’: NHS rainbows, window trails or home craft activities. 

As the pandemic continued this thinking trailed off into the fog. Perhaps this was because we knew that these dominant narratives of children crafting away, joining Joe Wicks and zooming with friends were not everybody’s stories. We knew there were families without scissors and glue or wifi. Perhaps also because we felt too much was unknown. We felt the frustrations of the increasingly complex restrictions and plans for ‘once this is all over’ became faded and far away. Perhaps we changed direction because focusing on the space, whilst it was empty, was not urgent enough. Haraway suggests that ‘urgencies’ rather than emergencies ‘have other temporalities, these times are ours. These are the times that we must think; these are the times of urgencies that need stories.’ (Haraway, 2016:37).

The need for urgency was balanced with the need to build something meaningful, useful and delightful. The nature of our meetings changed to something more immediate. We met more regularly, our talk changed from thinking about the space to thinking about the current experiences of the families that would usually be in it. Step by step we made 100 boxes of sensory gifts and art making materials for babies and toddlers living within the city centre. 

Though it was unintended, each box has become greater than the sum of its parts and, as the pandemic continues, has become significant in building relationships across the city. Delivering the boxes has become an opportunity for human contact. For some, this was a catch up on the doorstep, a chance to ask that niggling question or a moment to meet a new face. These moments on the doorstep between parents, possibly babies, practitioners, the boxes and the gallery tune into Kathleen Stewart’s (2007) work on tracing the flows of energy and intensity between people, things and places. These moments will continue as the boxes become the focus of social distanced play sessions for families to play with their own boxes in a shared space. As restrictions fluctuate, more boxes are being made and will likely be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine, moulded by the alive, immanent and unpredictable forces that will occur between the boxes, gallery and babies.


Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online:

Skeggs, B. (2020) Introducing Solidarity and Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Sociological Review, Available online:

Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press. 

An Afrofuturist Outpost: Re-imagining co-productive from beyond the university

This blog emerges from the Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge ESRC Festival of Social Science event. For more information click here.

This is an attempt at an origin myth. A speculative writing of a future history. We aim to talk something into being. In lay person’s terms, this is a project that has happened yet. Starting co-produced projects is not impossible under lockdown and physical distancing but it is a gravity that works against the quality of emotional, relational and temporal investment in a project. There was a funding application but it fell at the last minute due to issues with partner commitments. 

We begin with an 18-month dialogue between MMU and the Niamos theatre in Hulme. Our concern is the disparity between the rich cultural achievements of Hulme and the simplicity, lack of care and imagination of the various institutional and social policy interventions aimed at the area and those that live in it. Hulme has made profound contributions to the arts, cultural and political vibrancy of Manchester and without exaggeration through at least its music and fashion the world. So, as we encounter an issue we are interested in thinking, What Would Hulme Do? 

This orientation suggested an approach to the issue of, from one perspective, increasing the diversity in the university and, from the other, expanding opportunities for young people in Hulme: 

SODA, MMU’s new School of Digital Arts is looking to create educational spaces to increase the diverse of its students and so skills pipeline and so the future workforce of the region. SODA aims to be the region’s home of next generation storytelling so whose stories are told and who tells them is crucial. Unfortunately, many of the existing approaches to increasing diversity often fail to scratch the surface. 

WWHD? Co-produced projects often begin in messy places and well set sail and navigate other messy spaces. So, one co-author (Duggan) thought the other (Ali) had produced an Afrofuturist pantomime at Niamos titled Snow White Privilege. As it turns out, the panto was not Afrofuturist but this error led to an interesting place. The idea was to co-produce an Afrofuturist intervention in SODA where the aim is not to integrate or accommodate racialised young people into an educational space but instead re-imagine the places, spaces, relationships and temporalities of digital education. The prospect of co-producing an Afrofuturist project to transform the university raised concerns of the ways in which co-production itself might work to shape, constrain and resist these research processes of imagining beyond the university from within and without. 

It might not feel like it to those of us struggling with the lack of recognition for the emotional and relational labour involved in developing co-produced projects within the university but co-production is an institutionally sanctioned discourse, like participation, inclusion and diversity. Co-production is typically constituted from project management technologies, contractual relations, upholds liberal Intellectual Property rights and so on. We might question whether these dynamics constrain the bases on which co-production is advanced, to empower, enact equality and democracy, contribute to social justice. The point here is not to nitpick. Inspired by speculative pragmatic approaches, we seek to identify and explore new propositions that are interesting, work to situate us otherwise. 

Re-imagining the practices of co-production through Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, interesting. It enables us to learn the lessons from moves to decolonise research methodologies and the university and apply this to research co-production. This is the work of co-production but it is not a neutral and apolitical set of practices in this work. Hence reimagining co-production through Afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism is not just a critique but a generative focus for co-producing research because of its diverse, live and lively practices and applications: For Womack (2013) it is… ‘Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.’ These lenses and inspirations kindle an Afrofuturist co-productive imagination which will begin moves to re-imagine the methodologies, ethics and practices and ways of valuing co-produced research. Co-production involves citizens in planning, collecting and analysing data but making theory remains the elite preserve of academics. Afrofuturism’s emancipatory politics inspires the attempt to co-produce theory with citizens, re-imagining what theory is and how it connects to everyday life. Co-produced ethics emphasise equality. Afrofuturism invites us to think of being alien and alienation rather than equality and participation posing profoundly different ways of understanding ethics, relationships of obligation, and the micro-social relations of accompaniment in research.

We are at the beginning of this adventure but we hope to develop an Afrofuturist-orientated co-production which involves collaborative theory building between citizens and academics, a process involving a lively encounter with music, film, technology and inspiring retellings of alternative pasts and (hopeful) histories of the future.

Elmi Ali and James Duggan