Article: A group of one’s own: Working with young people beyond the constraints of the project imaginary
James Duggan engages critically with the taken-for-granted concept of 'projects', exploring the ‘research co-production project imaginary’ through reflections on a research project with young people during the pandemic.
What are projects? What are we doing when we do them? And, how are they doing us? Whether we work within or between academia or youth work settings, projects profoundly shape our encounters with young people. This includes worrying about funding, writing an application, delivering what we promised, closing the project and wondering what next. We are, of course, not short of project management guides but they tend towards the functional and instrumental rather than the reflective and critical. Indeed, in research, compared with the panoply of other key terms – methods, methodology, data, ontology, epistemology – projects have not been subject to the same level of interrogation, differentiation and invention, at least not explicitly as projects. There are other ways of categorising scholarship (e.g. fields, disciplines) and for organising work (e.g. networks) but projects are synonymous with and the effective grammar for organising research in contemporary academia. I came to question the effects and constraints of projects while co-producing the Left on Read project, which explored how arts-based and creative activities might help young people individually and collectively navigate the challenges of loneliness and mental ill health during ‘lockdown’. In this article I try to surface the ways in which projects and project imaginaries shape our practice and make the case for searching for new imaginaries appropriate for a more uncertain future.
Thinking in terms of imaginaries and project imaginaries follows, ‘a renewed appreciation [in academia] for human agency, collective action, ideology, cultural matters and what has been called the “narrative turn”’ (Selbin, 2019: 493). Imaginaries represent systems of symbols and signification that structure understandings of what is possible and probable, who we are and what we should do, what the social and economic institutional relationships that connect us are and how they should work (Castoriadis, 1987). These systems and orders are dynamic and involve the continual creative work of individual’s imagination in relation to collective social imaginaries which constrain or afford, nurture or obscure what is possible and sensible (Castoriadis, 1987). If the imagination is ‘the radical capacity to envisage things differently and construct alternative political projects’ (Bottici, 2014, p. 1), we can say, ‘the social imaginary is the social context that possesses individuals’ (Bottici, 2019: p. 434). Significantly, imaginaries are not only shared ways of thinking and normative assumptions but they manifest in material and social practices, as in the systems for calculating and managing risk and uncertainty in banking and finance (Appadurai, 2016) or as in this case the various social technologies associated with project management in academic research. Furthermore, pertinent to this inquiry, new imaginaries emerge during times of crisis (Castoriadis, 1987; Zanoni et al., 2017; Roux-Rosier, Azambuja and Islam, 2018) and so help us understand the timings, tensions and transitions as we navigate what academic research is and can be during times of crisis and the searching for whatever we realise beyond.
Projects are a pervasive feature of society, functioning, ‘as the basic mode of productive labour to the extent that is has become an organizing principle of life and work…’ (Bayly, 2013: 162). We can understand projects as entangled within broader imaginaries (e.g. entrepreneurialism of the self in relation to capitalism), constituted by competing or subordinate imaginaries within the project, and, as I argue, an imaginary in-and-of themselves. It is helpful to think of the two meanings of project, in relation to academic research. Project as a noun describes research projects with allocated budget codes and part of the grammar by which research activity is made legible and legitimate, and associated with demands to produce world-leading outputs, excellent outcomes and impact (Hall, 2018). Whereas project – or to project – as a verb, speaks to the funding application as a speculative document proposing actions and effects in relation to a calculable future, which is in turn subject to the forms of accountability and governance in higher education. In relation to these two orientations – project and to project – I am interested in the strange boundedness of the project, what Groys (2014: 72) calls the project’s ‘loneliness’. The project is, therefore, a sealed-off space, distinct from the world it hopes to re-join and remake at its conclusion. Equally, the project is, ‘directed towards the production of an excess of unforeseeable possibilities, the outcomes of which remain desirably undecidable.’ (Bayly, 2013: 164).
The Left on Read project was conceived and funded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but adapted and enacted during periods of lockdown and physical distancing. Thus the ‘unforeseeable possibilities’ the project sought to explore and understand were young people’s complex experiences of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic. The project imaginary produces a set of parameters and affordances by which we are able as researchers to encounter the world and hope to discover something new or unknown, but also how we can respond and adapt or not both within the project but also to the world the project re-joins. We are aware of many of the socio-material practices of the project imaginary that determine the adaptability of a project to changing contexts – such as funding contracts and ethical review agreements – but this article is interested in what others there might be and whether this means we need to rethink our reliance on projects.
The co-produced research project
I want to explore the ‘research co-production project imaginary’. There are a number of ways of understanding research co-production such as equality, empowerment, emancipation, democracy, and social justice approaches (e.g., Beebeejaun et al., 2015). Alternatively, the co-productive imagination develops through the creative, collaborative and imaginative work to propose new encounters and attune to the new potentials and capacities, ideas and affects that are produced (Duggan, 2020). Despite the expansive engagement with speculative and process philosophy that ventures forth into a world of relation and flow, the co-productive imagination arguably resides within the boundaries of academic research projects and the co-produced research project imaginary.
These projects typically involve collaboration between university and community partner, academic and practitioner. These collaborative relationships between academics, artists or practitioners and communities have a long and varied history, including Community-University Partnerships (Hart, Wolff and Maddison, 2007), anchor institutions (Sorrell, 2015), collectives (Autonomous Geographies Collective, 2010), and research council programmes (Facer and Enright, 2016). Despite this diversity the research co-production project imaginary has formed and fixed, through a series of mutually beneficial relationships. Universities and academic research have been critiqued for a lack of relevance (British Academy, 2010) and are incentivised to engage with non-academic partners and communities to secure funding and create research impact (Darby, 2017). In addition, there are more practical reasons, for example, recruiting participants and accessing or researching pioneering practice. Practitioners and third sector organisations often commit to research-informed practice and the benefits of evidence for advocacy (Gormally and Coburn, 2014), as well as the benefits of diversifying programme funding in an austerity policy context. Young people’s participation is justified in terms of receiving support, developing skills and career advancement, and being paid for their time. This project imaginary is interpolated within a broader set of relationships, values and commitments, and forms of governance relating to professionalism, safeguarding, research ethics, publicness, and social justice. These are things that ought to be celebrated and defended but there are implications in terms of funding projects in an austerity context. There are considerable differences between what resource is created between, as in this case, a funded research project based in a successful youth charity compared to what is available to the majority of young people due to significant disinvestment in communities and the exacerbation of multiple forms of poverty (Youdell and McGimpsey, 2014). A concern running through this article is whether or not, when and where the project imaginary is problematic and ethically viable.
The Left on Read Project
Left on Read was a collaborative project I developed with 42nd Street, a youth mental health charity in Manchester, to explore youth loneliness with young people through co-produced and creative approaches. The initial application focused on youth loneliness and creative methods. The funding was agreed before the scale of disruption posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK was understood. As the original idea involved face-to-face workshops, the funder invited us to resubmit an application that was safe and in line with the guidance for physical distancing. We also changed the focus to young peoples’ experiences of the pandemic. The aim was to work with a group of six youth artists to co-produce six ‘Homelabs’, which would be artistic or creative encounters with loneliness that young people could experience in their home, outdoor space or online according to the rules of physical distancing. The youth co-researchers would then use the engagements with the Homelabs as inspiration to create an exhibition about youth experiences of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic.
Written through the design was a concern with increasing the scale and reach of the project. This expansive orientation is an expected part of research funding, as part of demonstrating value for money and achieving research impact. In the original and amended applications, I said the project was,
Committed to translating, contextualising and amplifying young people’s [the youth co-researchers] ideas about what loneliness is, how it feels, and what might help young people. These might be pervasive social practices such as ‘do you fancy a cup of tea?’ or more speculative and inventive such as instituting ‘coming in’ for lonely people as an equivalent to ‘coming out’ in the LGBTQI+ communities.
These conceptual and instrumental aspirations gave way to more pressing concerns as the project developed. During weekly meetings with the group of youth co-researchers, held on a secure online platform, we spent time getting to know one another, talking about what was happening in the world and our lives. That summer witnessed the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter global movement. The mental health effects of young people due to the lockdown (Holmes et al., 2020) and the role of inequalities in experiences of the pandemic were becoming higher priority concerns (Leavey, Eastaugh and Kane, 2020). These conversations reflected broader discusses about how the pandemic unsettled not just research methods but academic identities, values and commitments (Sequeira and Dacey, 2020; Duggan and Hackett, 2020). Navigating and articulating these new ethical relations was part of the on-going sensemaking I was engaging in as a father, partner, son, brother, neighbour and citizen but also a principal investigator on a small-scale study on young people, mental health and loneliness in the pandemic.
The ideas we were developing for the Homelab encounters are a productive way of tracking how our concerns changed as the project developed. In the beginning our plans involved staging arts encounters for many people to engage. For example, one young person wanted to create a series of arts and poetry installations around a lake near her house. Another idea was a cross between forum theatre and a live action comic that would be acted out with props and speech bubbles on abandoned land in the city centre. As the months passed, however, the focus shifted to those of us in the group and trying to find the energy and motivation to do anything. The arts and creative activities we were engaging in were, for example, Sashiko jeans embroidery, paper making, and writing poetry as a form of journaling. We spent an entire session talking about mindlessness. If we began ready to save the world, we ended the project just trying to care for ourselves and one another.
It became apparent that instead of us creating something that other young people could do in their homes, what we valued was not so much the arts activities but participating in the group. Aware that throughout the pandemic we were unusual in we had all benefited from a funded support group, the question was how might we help other young people find a group of their own? At the risk of internalising and accepting austerity politics or essentialising this particular project approach, it seemed highly improbable that all those young people in need would be able to access high-quality group provision in line with the imaginary in which we were working (e.g. supported by two adults, access to mental health services etc).
Finding new imaginaries
The argument I am developing is that there is more to the co-produced research project imaginary than the mere cohering of activity under a name and budget code etc, as became clear with our search for new inspirations to organise our response to the lockdown. The approach we found emerged from artist Cassie Thornton’s visit to Greece, a country rocked by the 2008 global financial crisis and the resulting social, economic, health and political crises (Stuckler and Basu, 2013). Without the money for private healthcare, solidarity clinics emerged offering non-hierarchical, holistic and joined-up services delivered by volunteer professionals and citizens (Evlampidou and Kogevinas, 2019). Thornton’s (2020) The Hologram: Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future connected what I was concerned with projects and the pandemic with responses to previous crises. Grounded in anarchist and anti-capitalist thought, Thornton advocates we perceive ourselves as a social species with capacities for trust, mutual aid and cooperation but capitalist and elite knowledge circuits inculcate a sense of dependency on expertise and market relations. We need to disrupt our habits and presumptions that we can rely in impersonal forces and institutions by, for example, getting a job to save for a pension that will protect us in old age. The Hologram is, in part, the process through which we can form a group of 4 peers to undertake a trajectory of where we are now to our lives in an anti-capitalist future. This process requires us to re-imagine and revalue money, time, expertise and what it means to ask for and offer help in relation to practices of mutualism, self-help and solidarity. There are no professionals in the Hologram. Instead of being a patient, we are a teacher helping others to understand our life and health. These people then become a living archive our who we are, what effects our body and mind, helping us to make decisions in the future. All developed through an arts project, as with Left on Read, The Hologram offered a new imaginary.
The Left on Read project sought to use mobilise art and creativity to help young people navigate loneliness and isolation during the pandemic, but what we understood art and creativity to be and the relationship to young people oscillated through the project. We began the project with commitments for art as a general and vernacular capacity for creativity. The post-Occupy art practices for movement making were a particular inspiration (McKee, 2016). As the project progressed, art and creativity tended towards more therapeutic and meditative practices of selfcare, which is indicative of prevalence of such practices in the field of youth mental health and the response to the pandemic more generally (e.g., Herrmann, De Zárate and Pitruzzella, 2021). The Hologram renewed our interests in art as social practice but specifically focused on helping young people to form social relationships and develop individual and collective capacities to manage their physical and mental health in addition to all aspects of their life. There is of course a risk that such an approach represents or might become a form of individualising and neoliberalising governance where obligations and responsibilities for care and investment in young people’s present and future is passed from the state to young people and their families (Pimlott-Wilson, 2015; Peters, 2017). There are no easy answers to this conundrum but merely pragmatic intentions in relation to exigencies experienced in Greece after the post-2008 crises, what we were experiencing in Manchester during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the various future disruptions we will encounter.
As the project concluded, as all projects must, we explored the Hologram with the young people involved in Left on Read but it became clear quickly that we faced significant challenges in relation to much of what is accepted in ways of working in the co-produced research project imaginary. Concerns around risk management raised questions as to how we would ensure appropriate safeguarding and pastoral care of the young people involved. There is a growing movement for paying young people that participate in co-production projects (Co-production Collective, 2022). How would payment, training and other forms of support, reward and recognition work within the specific relationality of the Hologram? How would the emergent, implicit and decentralised approach to knowledge relate to the co-produced research project imaginary of communicating knowledge through publication? Unfortunately, we did get to answer these questions as the project concluded and we returned to the world that was much changed with an idea that was half-formed and ill-suited to the youth work and research contexts characterised by project imaginaries. My attention was drawn to completing other research duties, applying for funding for new projects, writing articles and reports and so on as windows of new projects opened.
This article has argued that there are more to projects, that they are more than and carry more constraints than we might at first think. I argued that the co-production research project imaginary is the product of a particular time and context but that we may need to rethink our reliance on it as we encounter increased disruption in the future. I would like to deal with an anticipated counterargument: the project form provided an appropriate framework for Left on Read. As a small-scale project we lacked the capacity to substantially support other young people and communities. Instead, we focused on minimally adapted goals that enabled us to stay on track amidst the turbulence of the pandemic. The research co-produced a range of findings on young people’s experience of lockdown and creative strategies that helped navigate loneliness and isolation. Finding the Hologram as an appropriate set of resources and relationships is something that can help amplify the development of that approach, and various dimensions (e.g. building safe infrastructures for youth-led practices) could be explored in subsequent research projects.
This is all true but arguably complacent. The research co-production imaginary grew out of a funding and institutional context in youth and community work that is becoming a distant memory. The rhythm of research to recommendations to inform practice to subsequent research with additional recommendations may reflect the modernist approach to research and much of the research co-production imaginary but as in the case of Left on Read, we conducted a project and spent much of the time working through the assumptions and socio-material practices of the imaginary before we found the project form was inappropriate for the COVID-19 lockdown context. If co-production offers to bring academia down from its ivory towers to venture forth in the world beyond, we must be careful we are not trapped in the projects of our own making.
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Last Updated: 8 July 2022
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Dr James Duggan is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health and Education, MMU. His research brings together inventive and co-productive research approaches to explore issues with young people and communities. The focus of this work has mostly been on youth loneliness and youth loneliness during the COVID-19 Lockdown but also work with military veterans and digital ethnography in smart schools.