Migrant families speaking out and speaking up to creatively challenge stereotypical representations

Migrant families speaking out and speaking up to creatively challenge stereotypical representations

Umut Erel, Maggie O’Neill, Erene Kaptani, Tracey Reynolds

In our recent research project Participation Arts and Social Action in Research – PASAR, we explore how participatory action research engages migrant families as co-producers of knowledge. The project, funded by the National Centre for Research Methods and the Economic and Social Research Council, focuses on the potential of walking methods and participatory theatre to create a space for exploring, sharing and documenting processes of belonging and place-making; all of which are crucial to understanding and enacting citizenship. Based on Participatory Action Research principles of inclusion, valuing all voices and action-oriented interventions, we conceived of this project as a way of engaging with our research participants as a citizenship practice, that is, a socially transformative practice that challenges normative practices of who should be seen as belonging and having the right to participate. Using creative methods, we make explicit the experiences of our research participants, create a space for them to share their subjugated knowledges with each other, the research team, practitioners and policy makers. As part of the study, we worked closely with a range of support and advocacy organizations, such as: RENAISI, an organization working with parents and young people of migrant background; Praxis, a migrant advocacy organization; Counterpoints Arts, who engage with migration issues through the arts; and Runnymede Trust, a race equality organization. Here, we offer some reflections on issues raised by this Special Issue of Discover Society, namely examples of how participatory theatre and walking methods can move beyond stereotypical dichotomies of representing migrant mothers and young girls as only a ‘victim’ or ‘hero’, and how these methods offer ways of engaging with participants’ multiple experiences, subjugated knowledges and constructions of social reality.

Racialized migrant mothers are often portrayed in mainstream political discourse as posing a risk to social and cultural cohesion, or standing in the way of their children’s successful ‘integration’ into society. Migrant families are viewed as a problem for social, health and other public services, with suspicions raised over their entitlement to access these services. While this view of migrant families as threatening outsiders is not new, it has recently been exacerbated through the Conservative government’s hostile environment policies (O’Neill et al 2019). Against this backdrop of stereotypical representations of migrant families, our study created a space for our participants to explore stories and experiences beyond a narrow view of migrant families as either constituting a problem or experiencing problems. We do so by combining participatory theatre and walking methods to reflect on migrant women’s and girls’ stories, having participants share their individual and collective experiences. The participatory theatre was based on Kaptani’s participatory performance practice (Kaptani and Yuval-Davis 2008) which draws from and combines dramatherapy, movement, playback and forum theatre. The walking methods are based on Maggie O’Neill’s artsbased walking practice (O’Neill and Roberts 2019).

We began the research process with playback theatre methods (Fox 1994) where personal experiences are shared and ‘played back’ by professional actors and a live musician. This served to develop trust and rapport with researchers, theatre facilitators, actors and within the group of research participants. When introducing these sessions, we invited all stories, explicitly giving permission to share everyday, enjoyable, but also difficult experiences, as this method starts with actors and researchers sharing a story of their own life and in this way establish an ethos of reciprocity.

One of the stories that participants shared was ‘Good Morning’, which thematises the frustrations of one participant at not being greeted or wilfully ignored by her neighbours, other parents in the school playground or at the park. She reflects on this denial of recognition as an expression of social norms of anonymity within the city, but also deliberate and conscious acts of racism. The method of playback theatre is one way of building rapport, developing the language of theatre as a shared way of communication within the group and building a dialogic ethos that permits individual participants to share their own stories with other group members, invite recognition, reflection and the emergence of multiple voices. Thus, other participants came up with similar or divergent stories about the lack of recognition through being greeted in everyday encounters.

The technique of playback theatre generated some key themes on the broad research question of ‘what does it mean to be a migrant mother/ girl from a migrant family in London’. By responding to each others’ stories, developing particular themes or branching out into new themes, such as housing, relationships with schools or family members locally and transnationally, participants were able to contribute to identifying key issues that they wanted to share within the research process.

Another key method we used to explore participants’ experiences was Forum Theatre (Boal 2000). Forum Theatre invites participants to enact a particular conflict or dilemma they have experienced and identify what outcome of this conflict they desire. In a second step, they show this scene of conflict to the whole group and other group members are invited to step into the role of the story’s protagonist to try to achieve their goal. As different people step into the scene to attempt to change the course of events, they develop different strategies. In each scene, participants can experience different aspects of the way power relations are played out. Participants come to embody a dual role as spectators who reflect and as actors within the scene who strive to change the course of action. In this sense, they become ‘spect-actors’ (Boal 2000). The opportunity to share different strategies of resistance and reflect on their outcomes is one of the ways in which the group can identify and analyse the workings of personal as well as structural power relations.

An example of this in our workshops was a scene where a mother asks the head teacher of her child’s school for special leave in order to visit a sick relative. The head teacher insists that leave within term time is not allowed and will not even listen to her case. Numerous participants stepped into the role of mother asking for leave, trying out different strategies such as explaining the situation, pleading, or insisting on their right and challenging the head teacher that they would appeal against this decision (Clip: Asking for Leave from the Headteacher). In this particular scene, the strategy that succeeded was based on citing rules and regulations, which the head teacher respected. This scene gave way to reflections on the challenges of bureaucratic decision-making. By enacting the same story with multiple spect-actors and with different endings, participants see the world as one of possibilities where there is more than one possible course of action. Experiencing the multiple interventions of other spect-actors in forum theatre raises awareness that social change is achieved by multiple, sometimes small, sometimes decisive individual or collective acts (cf. Erel et al. 2017).

While the participatory theatre work brought migrant women’s issues into the workshop space, through arts based walking methods, we brought the reflections on issues of belonging, racism, and family relationships developed in the theatre workshops into the everyday social worlds of participants. Based on Maggie O’Neill’s walking practice (O’Neill and Roberts 2019), we asked participants to share with us individual or collective walks in which we explored biographical narratives, place making and how they created a home for themselves through their everyday routes and routines of bringing up their children, and creating multi-ethnic communities, against the pressures of gentrification, as well as everyday sexist and racist encounters in the street and public spaces (Clip: Walking with Mothers: Arsenal Stadium).

Reflecting on these issues while walking side by side with the researchers, our participants move beyond and challenge stereotypical narratives viewing them as outsiders in need of ‘integration’, instead sharing with us the contested meanings of ‘belonging’.

We used these methods to suggest the possibility of multiple different experiences and strategies of enacting change. In this way, they offer one way of side stepping the racist dynamic of ‘the mark of the plural’. In his work on colonizing knowledge, Albert Memmi describes ‘the mark of the plural’ as a colonizing strategy whereby ‘The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he [sic!] is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity’ (cited in Tomlinson 2013:257-8). By mobilizing methods which allow for a recognition of migrants’ diverse experiences as individuals, as well as reflection on common themes, and the building of a collective subject, the research was able to sidestep and challenge stereotypical representations of migrant families.  The combination of participatory theatre and walking methods engages a diverse range of stories that went beyond narratives of victim or hero and helped us understand processes and practices involved in enacting citizenship.

Boal, Augusto (2000) Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto.
Erel, Umut, Reynolds, Tracey, and Kaptani, Erene  (2017) Participatory theatre for transformative social research. Qualitative Research, 17(3), 302-312.
Fox, Jonathan (1994) Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. Paltz: Tusitala.
O’Neill, Maggie, Erel, Umut, Kaptani, Erene, and Reynolds, Tracey (2019) Borders, risk and belonging: Challenges for arts-based research in understanding the lives of women asylum seekers and migrants ‘at the borders of humanity’. Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture10(1), 129-147.
O’Neill, Maggie and Roberts, Brian (2019) Walking Methods. Research on the Move. London: Routledge.
Kaptani, Erene and Yuval-Davis, Nira , (2008) Participatory Theatre as a Research Methodology: Identity, Performance and Social Action Among Refugees, Sociological Research Online, 13(5), http://www.socresonline.org.uk/13/5/2.html  doi:10.5153/sro.1789
Tomlinson, Barbara (2013) Colonizing intersectionality: replicating racial hierarchy in feminist academic arguments, Social Identities, 19(2), 254-272, DOI:10.1080/13504630.2013.789613


Umut Erel is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The Open University. Her research interests are in gender, migration, racialization and citizenship. She was PI on the Participatory Arts and Social Action ResearchMaggie O’Neill is Professor in Sociology & Criminology in the Dept. of Sociology & Criminology at University College Cork. ‘Imaginative Criminology of spaces past and present’ with Lizzie Seal and ‘Walking Methods Research on the Move’ with Brian Roberts are recently published with Policy Press & Routledge respectively. Erene Kaptani is a participatory performance artist. Her participatory performance practice is informed by her studies in anthropology, physical theatre and dramatherapy. She is a member of Playback South Theatre Company and devises performances at Studio Upstairs arts community. Tracey Reynolds is a Research Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Computing and Humanities, University of Greenwich. Tracey’s teaching and research interests focus on: transnational families and kinship networks; and constructions of motherhood and parenting & youth studies. She has established international recognition within these fields of expertise.

IMAGE CREDIT: Author’s own