Performing memory & memorialising conflict at a distance: innovative approaches to understanding the views of displaced people & receiving communities

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: ADM Birmingham Sch of Media


The project explores our understanding of global conflict as it relates to the European refugee crisis, which has been framed simultaneously as a humanitarian emergency and a security threat. We are examining how this understanding is constructed through media representations, official and popular discourses, and institutional and citizen-led initiatives. In doing so, we wish to explore how people understand both population movement and the role of local, national and European institutions in relation to conflict. We are exploring how this understanding in turn shapes institutional and popular responses in receiving countries, ranging from hostility, such as the framing of refugees by politicians, as 'economic migrants' who are abusing the asylum system; to solidarity, as in grassroots citizen initiatives, using social media to host refuges and send donations to Calais. We are also interested in examining how experiences and perceptions of conflict are remembered and memorialised by displaced people and the role this can play in peace-building and conflict resolution. We are focusing on the UK and Italy as two countries that have experienced mistrust towards European institutions (intertwined with debates around migration in relation to conflict), connected to disaffection with mainstream politics, but where, despite this, there are simultaneously numerous local citizens' initiatives in solidarity with refugees, often organized through social media.

Our project will explore this situation through an interdisciplinary approach in which we apply arts methodologies to social issues. This includes mapping official and media discourses used to construct the refugee crisis in the UK and Italy; mapping citizen initiatives both in solidarity with refugees and those which express hostility towards them; conducting interviews in collaboration with organisations supporting migrants asylum seekers in the UK and Italy; a study of social media responses to the refugee crisis, and a survey of attitudes to the refugee crisis and the role of political institutions. We will also carry out 'critical memory work' workshops for people who have fled conflict. Critical memory work is a method which uses performance and other creative approaches for people to reflect on their experiences and to explore how conflict is remembered and memorialised.

The material gathered from this research will be disseminated to several audiences. We develop publications for academic audiences (a book and several journal articles) and will present our work at conferences. We will also create a report summarising findings for organisations and policymakers. Working with Implicated Theatre (a theatre company with experience in community theatre and participatory arts), we will develop an ethnodrama script. Ethnodrama is a method for incorporating social sciences research findings (quotes, survey data, ethnographic fieldnotes) etc. into a theatrical script and/or performance. The script will be shared with community organisations. The report and ethnodrama script will be translated into Italian to share the results of our research to Italian audiences. At the end of the project, we will hold a public event at Nottingham Contemporary in which we share research findings, and hold a public reading of the ethnodrama script. A smaller-scale parallel event will be held in Italy at an alternative theatre, working in collaboration with Cantieri Meticci, a theatre company with experience working with asylum seekers. The material will also be used to develop an online archive which will be hosted by the University of East London as part of their Social Sciences Living Refugee Archive.

Planned Impact

Academic impact:
Beneficiaries include postgraduates and early career researchers and researchers in the fields of Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Migration, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Political Sociology, in the UK, Italy and Europe.

The project will benefit these academic stakeholders through developing new knowledge and insights about perceptions of conflict, particularly those of citizens and displaced people. In doing so, it will address timely and important issues: the European 'refugee crisis' and faith in political institutions, which have implications for the UK, Italy and Europe. The research will develop interdisciplinary, arts-based approaches (drawing on Cultural Studies and Media Studies) and test arts-based methodologies (specifically ethnodrama and critical memory work) and their use in combination with conventional social science methods. This will enable the project to contribute to academic debates in conflict research, and in research methodologies, and also to develop new models for conducting conflict research, which can be shared with postgraduates and early career researchers within research training and professional development contexts.

The project will build links between disciplines (involving research from Cultural Studies, Sociology and Peace Studies) and between organisations (BCU, UEL, University of Pisa, Nottingham Contemporary and the collaborating organisations in the UK and Italy), and will develop the careers and skills of the early career researchers involved with the project, including the P-I, who is an Early Career Researcher and will be mentored by one of the Co-Is (Prof. Gargi Bhattacharyya), and by a mentor based at the P-I's institution (Prof. Paul Long). The research team will also be advised on the specific methodologies by advisory group members Prof. Molly Andrews (on critical memory work) and Prof. Joe Kelleher (on ethnodrama).

Societal impact:
Beneficiaries include: community organisations supporting migrants and refugees; migrants and refugees in the UK and Italy; policy-makers in the fields of community cohesion and of global governance; and representatives of regional, national and transnational political organisations in the UK, Italy and Europe with responsibility for communicating security and humanitarian policy.

The project will benefit community organisations supporting migrants and refugees and policymakers in the UK and Italy by providing evidence, analysis and insights on public and official debates on conflict and migration, citizen responses, and the perceptions and experiences of those who have fled conflict.

The project will also benefit policymakers and representatives of political organisations in the UK, Italy and Europe through the insights developed on popular attitudes towards regional, national and international political institutions, and the relationship between migration, institutional responses to global conflict and political dis/engagement.

Through producing a final report summarising key findings, an online archive, an ethnodrama script and related educational materials, the project will provide research evidence, tools and resources that community organisations in the UK and Italy can use in their work, thus benefitting and potentially changing practice in the voluntary sector.

The project will enhance the research capacity of Nottingham Contemporary through involving Janna Graham (Head of Public Programmes and Research) as consultant in the initial conceptualization, and dissemination and impact activities.

Refugees and migrants in the UK and Italy will benefit through their involvement in a process of sharing and reflecting on experiences of conflict in the critical memory workshops, and memorializing their experiences through the online archive.

Finally, the project will contribute to public awareness and understanding of migration and conflict through sharing insights and key findings.


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Description Training/educational developments
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Aims, methods and first results of the research were presented and discussed during a high-level professional development course on the access to rights by asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, organised by the University of Pisa. The course targeted volunteers of NGOs and workers of social cooperatives enroled in the reception system of asylum seekers and refugees in the Tuscany Region. The presentation provided new analytical tools for understanding the link between media/public discourses on conflicts and media/public discourses/attitudes on/towards asylum seekers. It helped volunteers and workers to better understand how several representations of conflicts producing asylum seekers and of the "refugee crisis" influence their daily work and may obstacle the full access of people to their rights.
Description Research Presentation on challenging stereotypes of refugees 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A presentation took place about the research project for colleagues, postgraduate and undergraduate students. This sparked questions about the stereotyping of refugees and migrants as "tellers of sad stories", and discussions about alternative ways of representing refuges and migrants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017