Ode to the City – An Ethnographic Drama

This month we published Ode to the City – An Ethnographic Drama by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese. In this post the authors explain the context for the book and how they went about writing it.

One of the 16 ethnographic sites we observed during the research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities (TLANG), was a large, new, city-centre library. Our guiding concern was to investigate how people communicate in public settings when they bring into contact different biographies, backgrounds and languages. The state-of-the-art Library of Birmingham was the largest regional library in Europe. It attracts a diverse constituency of users, including local people from the city, and visitors from all over the world. One of the library staff, Millie, agreed to be a key participant in the research. She was originally from Hong Kong, having moved to the UK nearly 20 years earlier. Over four months we observed her working in the library. Our colleague Rachel Hu shadowed Millie as she went about her daily routine. We (Adrian, Angela and Rachel) wrote extensive field notes which described what we saw and heard as we observed. We gave Millie a digital voice recorder, to record her spoken interactions with members of the public and colleagues. She also recorded during her tea breaks and lunch breaks.

When we first negotiated access to do the research, the library was a beacon of civic pride for the city. Record-breaking numbers of people had visited in the 12 months since it opened. The spectacular building had exceeded every criterion for success. But by the time we started our field work, six months later, the government had made cuts to local authority grants. The city’s finances were hit hard. Opening hours were significantly reduced, and the library announced that it would cut more than 50% of its staff. As we observed and listened to the people who worked in, and accessed the services of, the library, politics was at the forefront of discussion. When we recontextualised and recreated these discussions as ethnographic drama, it was almost inevitable that the narrative would be dominated by concerns beyond the linguistic.

Ode to the City – An Ethnographic Drama represents discourses in circulation at a moment of political tension. The play focuses on four customer experience assistants in the library, three women and one man. The drama opens at the point when they have been told they have the option to put themselves forward for voluntary redundancy, or apply for their own jobs, with no guarantee of success. We meet the four characters in the staff room, where they take their lunch breaks and tea breaks. All the circulating tensions in the library are played out in their conversations. They are the only characters in the play, and they are all on stage throughout. In their interactions the voices of others are heard. They discuss the positions of the interim director of the library, the trade union, their colleagues, local and national politicians, and so on. In these discussions perspectives on histories, politics and economics are played out.

The ethnographic drama is made from field notes, audio-recordings, and any other material we were able to gather. This includes fictionalised voices. The ethnographic drama is a creative documentary account of an actual situation, and a specific environment, which integrates original and constructed dialogue. We enhance the rhythm of the dialogue where we can, to drive it forward. It has to move at a good pace, and at a varied pace, or the audience will be bored. We want to bring to the attention of the audience what we saw, and what we heard during our time in the library. Ode to the City – An Ethnographic Drama is about how political decisions affect people’s lives, often unfairly. It’s about a government pushing an austerity policy which harms the lives of the least privileged. The discourse of the four characters represents a particular moment in the workplace, offering an insight into the effects on working people of the government’s austerity measures. The drama treads a line between giving in to the force of powerful structures, and seeking the possibility of escape to new horizons. Ode to the City – An Ethnographic Drama takes ethnographic material and renders it for an audience in as truthful a way as possible. The rest is up to the audience.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like the authors’ previous books: Volleyball – An Ethnographic Drama, Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama and Voices of a City Market.

Representing Ethnographic Research as Drama

This month we published Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese. In this post the authors explain why they chose to present their research as a play script.

Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama is an outcome of a large, team linguistic ethnographic research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities (TLANG). As part of the research project we conducted ethnographic observations in an Advice and Advocacy service in a Chinese community centre in a city in the Midlands of England. We were interested in people’s communicative practices in a context where clients needed help to negotiate bureaucratic systems related to welfare benefits, health, education, insurance, immigration status, and so on.

Following comprehensive analysis of data, we produced a rich, detailed research report. However, we were not convinced that academic writing alone was adequate for the task of representation of social practice. Although we are thoroughly invested in the tradition of writing ethnography, we recognise a need to reach beyond its limitations. With this in mind, we chose to represent the life of the Advice and Advocacy service as Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama, which takes an arts-based approach to the representation of research outcomes.

In linguistic ethnography we typically observe, and ultimately explain, the lives of others. But we wanted to move beyond explanation of cultural life, which can be reductive. We chose to represent the social practices of the Chinese community centre as ethnographic drama because it is a form which by definition resists explanation. It was not our intention to explain or make meaningful the lives of Chinese or Chinese-heritage people in the UK. We were instead concerned with all aspects of communication.

The community centre proved to be a rich site at which to observe the communicative practices with which advice workers render the world more just for their clients. We peered into the hidden spaces where, day after day, mediation, translation, and interpretation enable those with limited capital to gain access to resources which are otherwise elusive, and often out of reach. Through ethnographic drama we did not attempt to explain these cultural practices, but we made them visible.

Ethnographic drama enables us to show the complexities of interactions in which Advice and Advocacy workers are essential figures who keep the city moving. Beyond making social space more habitable, they have the potential to make life better for those who come to them for help. In our observation of the advisors’ practice, more than anything we see people concerned to improve the lives of their clients. In the nooks and crannies of social life they keep the superdiverse city moving. In showing the world rather than telling it, ethnographic drama offers a representation of social life that has the potential to enhance, heighten, and expand understanding, and to bring ethnography to wider audiences.

We are very grateful to Mutlilingual Matters for their generosity and vision in enabling us to take off creatively, turning field notes, transcripts, and other ethnographic material into drama that shows communicative practice in an often-concealed part of social life in the superdiverse city.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like the authors’ previous book, Voices of a City Market