Performing Arts and Social Violence: Innovating Research Approaches to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Global South

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: English


The project examines the use of the performing arts to gauge the extent to which comedy, theatre and dance can be harnessed to understand and address social violence, in this case sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It will seek to link the literature with a more practical engagement. Therefore, the project activities will consist of a comprehensive literature review, accompanied by 'live' elements, which will involve academics, performers, NGOs and policymakers from across the globe.
The project will begin with a review of the state of the performing arts and their relationship to social violence, particularly SGBV and their impacts in different contexts. The second part of the project involves practical engagement. Our in-country Co-Is and local partners in South Africa and Sierra Leone will identify additional collaborators to engage with for a workshop in South Africa and a conference in Sierra Leone. With local comedians, dancers and theatre performers, we will use these different performative modes as a means to better understand and engage the extent and limitations of using the performing arts to engage with SGBV, and the differences and commonalities between theatre, dance and comedy in creating spaces for conversations about SGBV.
The first workshop will take place in South Africa. In partnership with Clowns without Borders, project Co-Is will help co-produce and attend three activities. These will be organised in communities near Cape Town with a dance group, a theatre group and a comedy troupe with contents relating to SGBV. After each performance, the Co-Is will conduct focus group discussions with the communities to inform our reflection on these performances and preliminary research findings.
The larger component of the scoping project will be a 4-day conference in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This conference will engage academics, practitioners and performers from different countries and disciplines. In partnership with Co-Is, the conference will be co-produced with Timap for Justice staff, SGBV activists and performers from Sierra Leone and South Africa, providing a valuable opportunity for capacity building by helping design the program contents and logistical support.
The conference aims to be an interactive and immersive experience for participants. Following the South Africa workshop, the conference will involve participants attending and observing different groups of performers of theatre, dance and comedy, each related to SGBV, over the course of the first three days in Freetown communities. These sessions will be followed by large discussions with the communities, and then a follow up discussion amongst the conference participants and the performers about their observations and approach. Participants will be asked to reflect on these experiences and contrast them to their own experiences with different performing arts mediums in different parts of the world. These sessions will be the basis for an open access Special Issue in an interdisciplinary journal that will reflect on the ideas and performances at the conference. All publications will be co-authored, with people from the global south collaborating with those from the global north. In addition, we will produce a short film highlighting the performances and perspectives of participants.
Importantly, owing to the uncertain implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for our work, we have built in contingency planning. For instance, if travel is impossible, we would conduct both the South Africa workshop and the Sierra Leone conference virtually in collaboration with our partners and Co-Is. The performances in both places would be live streamed and online discussions would follow.
The scoping work in the project will, therefore, develop existing interdisciplinary work led by arts and humanities scholars and provide the basis for identifying new arts and humanities research directions that respond to the SDGs.


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Description The project identified a major research area: the urgent exploration of the subtle ways in which social violence, specifically sex and gender-based violence manifests (evidenced by work in Sierra Leone and South Africa), using arts and humanities-led interdisciplinary approaches. The scoping work highlighted the extent to which comparative research that explores SGBV across both the global south is directly relevant to the global north; while current research focuses on the global south, there is an urgent need for research in this domain to learn from the outcomes of this work to really address the drivers of SGBV in the Global North. At a time when SGBV has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, this project has highlighted the nuanced ways in which SGBV is an acute, pernicious global epidemic embedded in the subtleties of individual and collective attitudes and behaviours. In addition to known drivers of SGBV (socio-economic privation, etc.), there are drivers that are not as well understood, which require urgent investigation. These include socio-cultural narratives supporting individual and institutional responses to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity (e.g. men's treatment of wives as property and the complicity of police); the affordances of technology (e.g. easy access to pornography); the enabling role of local institutions and social norms that create barriers to justice (e.g. local chieftaincy structures and belief systems; polygamy; honour; compromise); discourses of sex and sexual roles (i.e. women cannot ask men for sex for fear of being viewed as promiscuous); and geographically and culturally inflected gender performances. Without understanding these drivers, it is impossible to find ways to stem the tide of SGBV, safeguard victims and survivors, and change the behaviours that perpetuate the cycles of social violence. While there are general understandings of the drivers of SGBV, much current research misses the subtleties and nuances that tend to create these cycles. The deep examination of the cultural intricacies in which SGBV is embedded is required to really understand the underlying drivers of social violence in order to be able to address them. At the same time, the project has revealed the considerable but under-researched cross-cultural dimensions of SGBV. Arts and humanities methods and approaches will play a critical role in uncovering and exploring deep interdependencies of behaviours and attitudes with institutions, discourses and systems over time in order to tackle the causes of this pernicious phenomenon.
Methodologically, the scoping grant strongly endorses the potentially incongruous use of arts-based methods, including comedy, to tackle the life-and-death issue of SGBV. The scoping exercise has confirmed that arts-based methods (when used meaningfully and appropriately) can facilitate discussion constructively. It has also highlighted the value of approaching the design and conduct of research in different ways. These include the need for research to be 'slow' or incremental (e.g. building relationships and trust, co-designing projects and performances, returning to locations over time and for research to involve exchanges); the use of the performing arts not to address pre-determined outcomes for a particular group of stakeholders, but instead (following the 'affective turn' in applied theatre) to engage the sensory, embodied and affective power of performance and produce certain sensory effects in relation to a particular theme (here, SGBV).
Our team are sceptical about 'transformational', 'interventionist' projects, and recommend that more emphasis be placed on how to engage with existing practices (which may not necessarily be thought of as 'methodological' per se) that open up difficult conversations and move people emotionally and physically. We would argue that 'fun' and 'playfulness' should not be dismissed in the face of sensitive subjects such as SGBV, but rather more fully embraced and explored in greater depth. This means moving away from using flat, binary data as evidence and results, and instead having the intellectual conviction to back the potential of this 'sensory', 'ludic', 'proleptic' approach to methods, evidence and outcomes.
Key potential outputs include: Policy reports/ recommendations; Knowledge exchange (GS researchers and NGOs coming to the Global North); Co-devised innovations in NGO outreach.
Exploitation Route Expanded research capacity to innovate and embed methods at all stages of the research process in interdisciplinary projects that span the global north and south;
New laws informed by research in this area, for example, that shape and influence international action on SGBV, used in lobbying the UN or other major international institutions to galvanise action.
Enhanced sex education tools and materials informed by a more nuanced understanding of the deep relationship between exposure to pornography and perceptions of sex and the dimensions of violence associated with pornographic sex.
The expansion of the research area will demonstrate the social benefits of understanding the uses of humanities-led methods to illuminate the lived experiences of the communities impacted by SGBV for sectors outside academia.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The report of the findings have been utilised by the AHRC in developing the new delivery plan. See . Subsequently, the report provided a route into a series of roundtable discussions on January 31, 2023 and February 8, 2023.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Other
Impact Types Societal

Description Report for AHRC Where Next funding calls
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Description International Symposium on Performing Arts as Research Methods 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The symposium invited a number of researchers, third sector organisations and policy makers to discuss the following questions: What is the current state of the theory and practice of performance-based research methods as a response to global issues? What are the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of different approaches in the field?
What can using arts methods do that other research modes do not?
Do different modes of performance suggest or invite a different quality of engagement or discussion with subjects like Sex and Gender Based Violence?
The participants contributed insights from their own experiences of working with different communities in the global south and the global north to these questions. The discussion highlighted divergence in the uses of these methods as interventions and as approaches to researching global issues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description International symposium on Sex and Gender Based Violence 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This symposium was a follow-up to the first symposium and focused explicitly on SGBV. We used the notes from the first symposium and the findings from our research in Sierra Leone and South Africa to inform the questions posed to participants: Are there research methods that you have found particularly effective when conducting studies into SGBV? What is it about these particular methods that is suited to understanding this topic? Is there anything specific about arts-based approaches which is particularly effective for projects investigating forms of violence. Are there limitations with these approaches? In all three locations we conducted field work in South Africa, there was general consensus that hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininities - reinforced by cultural practices related to marriage - are central to violence against women. Have there been any striking observations or findings in your research around SGBV. The discussion generated interest in collaborating across disciplines and globally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021