Beyond the Echo Chamber

By Dan Silver and Dan Farley

Making sure that research is heard, discussed and acted upon beyond a small clique of people is a major ambition of ours. Social comment communicated clearly through thoughtful design is one way to achieve this.

In the summer of 2014, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and the Social Action & Research Foundation (SARF) launched our report that focused on representing the lived experiences and concerns of different white working class people in Higher Blackley, north Manchester. This found that communities felt stigmatised through mis-representation in the media, marginalised economically through low-paid and insecure jobs, and often abandoned by politics as a means of delivering social improvement. As one local dad told us, “…they promise you the world and then drop you on your arse”.

The final report was 200 pages long, and read in local and national policy circles. It was also picked up by local and national press, including a wonderful feature in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper. While this was of course positive, it is important that research is used to inform broader debate, support activism and reach into the public realms that are frequently untouched by such reports.

Howard Becker writes in ‘Telling About Society’ that the reports we produce are different types of artefacts – abstract representations of lived experiences together with our analysis of social issues – some might choose a graph, some might pick a photo, others could prefer the story of someone’s life; Becker notes that at each step, ‘the observation becomes more abstract, more divorced from the concreteness of its original setting’. We cannot physically re-create what we have seen through the course of research (nor would we want to), and so need to make particular choices on what it is we choose to report. Different forms will reach different audiences – it is an important choice.

The shared experiences of marginalisation that emerged from the research clearly resonate, with many people recognising common features. So, we wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating and reaching people who will not have seen the original report and to create something that can support local debate and social action. Experimenting with different ways to communicate is important if our research is to have a wider impact beyond the echo chamber and contribute towards democratic debate in our communities.

We have been inspired by Dave Beer’s ‘Punk Sociology’, which calls for an approach to research that opens up new spaces for critical thought that break with convention. Beer asks us to be bold and creative, not to play it safe and to be ‘more fearless in offering stripped-back and raw forms of social insight’.

To this end we have built upon the historical tradition of pamphlets and aimed to re-imagine this for a contemporary audience. Pamphlets can provide information and context to a situation, and so present ideas to challenge consensus and open up discussion for alternative futures. Our idea was to make this particularly visual, following Emory Douglas the artist of the Black Panthers, who used graphic design to “inform, enlighten and educate” in order to “create a culture of resistance”.

In order to help shape the content and language of the pamphlet, we held a workshop with a small group of NGO-activists in Manchester and Salford who had experiences that resonated with the report and are involved in developing alternative approaches. The group session created an energy and tone for the content and design of the pamphlet. All participants were direct, honest and fostered a DIY approach in their own way.We tried to reflect that in the design, taking inspiration from the history of hand-made and fanzine publications. We wanted eye grabbing images to back up the sentiment of the words while keeping it positive and accessible with colour and a softer illustrative approach in places. The words and imagery in the pamphlet are not nuanced in the way our full-length report is, but rather designed to provoke an immediate response. In this age of digital, we share the pamphlet online; but the main thing with this particular project is about having these tangible publications that we have made and folded ourselves to be found at community centres in Manchester and Salford and floating around in public places, for people to pick up, feel and think about and maybe do what they have been thinking about for a while.

We hope this is part of what Kirsteen Paton has called “getting real, DIY and going live.” We will be using the pamphlet as a way to generate discussion; already this has included getting it out to local community organisations who can use it through applying their own interpretation of issues to frame their activity. We also hope that it will be of use for people to draw on the steps of DIY social action identified through our NGO-activist partners and possibly make contact with some of the organisations featured that are creating alternatives through action in the great cities of Manchester and Salford.

Experimenting with different ways to deliver social comment based on challenging injustice is important;  this pamphlet is our latest contribution to that.

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