Disobedient Buildings

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Sch of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography


Against the backdrop of the rise in health and safety incidents in decaying and retrofitted high-rise buildings worldwide, this project explores how the inhabitants of aging tower blocks are striving to create safe and comfortable homes. The project examines how ordinary citizens, conceptualise and confront macro-level concepts such as welfare, health and wellbeing on the ground within the context of widening inequalities and insecurities that seem to characterise contemporary urban life. Our main outcomes will be a participatory exhibition held at a major museum in London, an edited book/exhibition catalogue, three academic articles, a visual methods toolkit, three documentary films to be screened in festivals worldwide, a website, and an advisory document for local governments.

We will conduct a comparative, visual ethnography of creative practices of care and maintenance inside one block of flats in three European countries: the UK, Romania and Sweden. Each fieldwork location represents a different type of European welfare state epitomised by the degree of implementation of neo-liberal reforms over the past three decades. By comparing everyday lived experiences inside housing infrastructure, we will explore the impact of the weakening of the welfare state on ordinary citizens' health and wellbeing. Our focus on cultural specific material practices of maintenance and care will also question popular understandings of architecture and infrastructure as large-scale, technology-led projects that are single-usage across cultural contexts.

Theoretically this research will synthesize recent social science literature about infrastructure that stresses the intertwining of technological and environmental issues with political aspirations and symbolism with the latest anthropological thinking about the house and home. Methodologically we will combine social science approaches based on participant observation and interviews, with arts and humanities methods such as film, photography and archival research. However, what makes our inquiry ground-breaking is the holistic research design centred around the production of a participatory exhibition, that invites research participants and museum visitors, whether lay people or professionals linked with the housing industry, to become active contributors to the study.

By making an exhibition central to our research process we will record, assess, test, and share a huge variety of concrete practices and responses of ordinary citizens to ongoing economic austerity and precarity. The project will challenge the assumption that exhibitions are primarily final products to disseminate research findings with. It will test the hypothesis that exhibitions are unique forms of knowledge production by examining the potential of these dynamic spaces to generate new thinking beyond the initial research context. We will focus on the exhibition from the start of the project in order to recruit research participants and collect and analyse data and objects, but also to enable multiple creative collaborations and cross-fertilisations with research participants, academics, museum professionals, art practitioners, urban planners and the general public that continue long after a show has finished.

Planned Impact

Our key non-academic stakeholders who will benefit from this research include:

1. Museum audiences - We will create a participatory environment that visitors are encouraged to actively engage with through physical immersion and embodied vision as well as through contributing their own stories. The success of this approach has been tested by an ethnography of visitors conducted by the PI (Daniels in press). More than 12,000 people attended her previous exhibition about Japanese homes, and because this exhibition deals with a far greater variety of issues of current importance, we estimate that it will attract a least 25,000 visitors.

2. Museum practitioners - We are currently discussing the potential hosting of our exhibition with the following museums in London; The Barbican Arts Centre, The Museum of London, and The Geffrye Museum. We have also liaised with staff at The Museum of the Romanian Peasant, the top anthropological museum in Romania, and they have expressed a firm interest in hosting the show (see letter of interest in appendix). We plan to share our original findings about successful exhibition design, based on Daniels' previous experimentation with visual techniques (Daniels 2014), with curators at these institutions. We will also interact with other museums practitioners in a workshop about participatory techniques.

3. Website users - The website aims to create international communities of people interested in housing issues. In accordance with the widespread use of visuals with short texts on popular online platforms such as Instagram or WhatsApp, we will make visual communication central to the overall design of the website. Throughout the project users will be able to contribute by uploading photographs and video clips related to the issues that our research raise.

4. Film audiences - One film will be produced and directed by each of the three researchers with the help of a visual editor. They will be screened at film festivals, and in universities and community organisations. We will also liaise with the Royal Anthropological Institute to list the three films in their catalogues and make them available through their distribution networks.

5. Building inhabitants - Our collaborative ethnography will involve photography and film workshops with the inhabitants of the buildings we study. We will invite participants to contribute not only to data and object collection but also to the conceptualization of the exhibition. We will thereby make our research processes accessible and allow for any concerns to be more easily voiced.

6. Civil society - We will partner with local arts and community engagement organisations in each site. We aim to share our data and develop and implement new approaches to community engagement through participatory exhibitions, photography and film.

7. Architects, developers and urbanist planners -Through our exhibition, a workshop and a conference we will create opportunities for knowledge exchange with other parties linked with the housing industry in order to design a range of new guiding principles for improving health, safety and wellbeing in urban block of flats based of the lived experiences of our research participants.

8. Housing policy makers- We aim for impact at the highest level by engaging with the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and its equivalent in Sweden and Romania. Our evidence base will show the value of anthropological, participatory projects in contributing to the achievement of key housing targets such as the improvement of dwelling conditions and safety.


10 25 50