As of March 1st I began my new AHRC Leadership Fellows project, continuing my collaboration with Crafts Council UK. The project seeks to develop an empirical and theoretical account of the nature of craft expertise among primarily black and minority ethnic (BAME) women in the UK.
As I have detailed in this blog over the past few years, I have been interested in the nature of expertise in creation, or aesthetic expertise – which I understand as a knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in appropriating that knowledge to produce a work of aesthetic value. I argue that the notion of aesthetic expertise can help us to re-conceptualise and re-imagine what expertise is in cultural work. In turn, I hope this could potentially help to address issues of inequalities and lack of diversity in the sector, because it can help us to understand forms of aesthetic expertise taking place in spaces not traditionally considered ‘creative’ – for example, the domestic space. Indeed craft is often associated with domestic, feminised, ‘amateur’ pursuits. Furthermore, in this ‘post-Etsy’, maker movement-inspired surge in craft practice and enterprise, online spaces tend to be dominated by white, middle-class, western makers and aesthetics. The recent race row in the knitting community as documented on Instagram illustrates the underlying assumptions about who gets to freely position themselves as a potentially ‘expert’ maker, able to make a living from their work. The result is a contemporary craft sector which is not diverse, yet craft practice has been taking place within communities around the world for generations. For some, it is as routine as cooking or cleaning.
Because of craft’s traditionally domestic location among BAME families, it is almost inconceivable that one could forge a career out of making, because it does not represent a secure or prestigious job. Many of the women I have spoken to in my previous research with Crafts Council UK indicate that their parents encouraged them to study law, accounting or medicine instead. The perception of craft within certain communities as a feminised, precarious and primarily domestic pursuit is at odds with the idea of the ‘expert’ – a traditionally masculinised, privileged and powerful figure. How can the idea of the ‘expert’ be claimed (or reclaimed?) in craft? Could the (re)claiming of expertise among women makers of colour – the idea that their work involves practical skills which produce work of aesthetic value – help to address issues around the visibility of diverse crafts and makers? These are the questions directing my thinking throughout this project.
In a practical sense I will be working with Crafts Council UK to produce social media resources for makers, podcasts and policy recommendations. I will be interviewing makers from all over the UK and carrying out ethnography at various maker spaces. I’m looking forward to engaging with more makers over the next two years and hearing about their stories and expertise.
The Creative Economy Engagement (CEEF) project in collaboration with Crafts Council UK is now coming to an end, and there are some exciting outputs from the project which will be posted on the Crafts Council website soon. The most recent blog post updates about the final workshop and next steps are here.
I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded a two-year AHRC Leadership Fellowship which builds on the CEEF project and extends the existing partnership with Crafts Council UK. The funding will allow me to revisit my thinking on expertise and develop a theoretical account of aesthetic expertise in the contemporary craft economy. More details to follow soon.
This is an update on my AHRC funded project with the Crafts Council originally posted on their website.
I am now almost three months into this AHRC-supported Creative Economy Engagement Fund project in collaboration with the Crafts Council. For this project we are looking at how digital technology, mainly social media, could support diversity in craft practice. As stated in my previous blog post, I am looking for women makers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to participate in an interview and a free social media workshop ran by myself. I am still recruiting participants, so if you are interested, or know anyone who is, do get in touch at the email address below.
So far I have carried out eight interviews with makers from London and Birmingham, and already some interesting themes have emerged about the role of social media in craft practice and the specific experiences of BAME women.
Below the main themes emerging from the research so far:
- For the women makers of Asian origin in particular, family and cultural expectations have sometimes made it difficult for them to make a career out of craft initially, because it is expected they would go into a more ‘secure’ or prestigious job. This raises questions about how craft practice, particularly by women, is valued in some cultures.
- Many of the participants are wary of appearing too ‘sales-like’ or ‘pushy’ on social media. Also, some do not feel confident with revealing aspects of their practice or personal lives online, and prefer to keep their social media presence ‘strictly professional’. Such sentiments are also evident in my PhD, my paper with Annette Naudin (Naudin and Patel, 2017) and in accounts of women’s self-promotion by Genz (2014) and Scharff (2015). The lack of confidence with self-promotion may be even more apparent among BAME women, which I am looking to explore further.
- Some participants discussed the tensions between using social media and the nature of their craft practice. Some makers become immersed in the slow pace and detail of making, and for them this is at odds with the fast pace and brevity of social media. This is an interesting theme emerging which raises questions about the role of social media use in craft practice.
- The next steps are to continue recruiting participants for interviews and the workshop, and then arrange and devise the London workshop which will take place in June. I will also be holding a workshop in Birmingham in the autumn. The workshops will involve me sharing some social media skills and tips from my own professional experience working in social media. I also want to work with makers to tailor social media guidance for them, with a view to creating some useful resources.
For more details about this project and if you are interested in participating please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since late 2017 I have been working with my colleague Dr Annette Naudin and Professor Jenny Phillimore of University of Birmingham on a report which maps diversity in cultural leadership in the West Midlands. This is part of a larger project on diversity in leadership by the West Midlands Leadership Commission, led by Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and journalist Anita Bhalla.
For the report I collected and analysed data on employment and leadership in the cultural industries in the region, focusing mainly on the subsidised arts sector. In the report I suggest that more needs to be done to collect data on cultural leadership in the region, as there are some problems with reporting. Initiatives such as RE:Present16 and ASTONish, both programmes in Birmingham designed to support diverse cultural leadership, are held up as case studies of good practice.
It has been a while since I have posted on this blog and that is because I was busy finishing my PhD thesis and preparing for the viva. That is all done and minor corrections have been submitted, so now I am waiting for that official letter!
Just before Christmas I was delighted to have been awarded an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship, working with the Crafts Council. Full details are in this blog post and call for participants but essentially I am looking at how women makers from diverse backgrounds use social media. This is building on initial insights in my PhD research relating to the potential benefits of signalling expertise on social media. The women in particular found the mutuality and aspects of community on social media valuable for their career in creative work, however such online spaces appeared to be quite homogeneous. Focusing on the specific area of craft and working with the Crafts Council to address their priority of diversity, I want to look at how social media can support diversity in craft practice. The project incorporates a knowledge exchange approach comprising interviews and social media workshops with makers.
During this project I also want to think about notions of expertise in craft practice, which I touch on in the thesis but there is much more scope for further exploration. The project is running until the end of October 2018, so keep an eye on my Crafts Council blog for further updates as the project progresses.
Last week I had my final review for my PhD, which is the formal meeting at my University to ensure I am on track and ready to submit by this September. At that meeting I presented my research in five minutes, and I wondered how on earth I could condense my thesis into such a short space. In order to gain some distance and ‘see the wood for the trees’ I borrowed Annette Naudin’s idea to write about your thesis as if someone else is quoting you in their literature review. I found it strange at first but ultimately very useful for presenting three years of work in a few minutes.
So below is my attempt at gaining some distance from my own work. I changed it back to first person for my final review, but this first iteration was crucial for helping me get there in the first place.
Patel (2017) explores expertise in cultural work in greater depth, specifically how cultural workers signal expertise on social media. Her thesis, titled ‘The Politics of Expertise in Cultural Work’, highlights the contemporary relevance of expertise debates in political and popular culture, and uses this context to demonstrate the necessity of individual, everyday expertise in mitigating the risks of an unstable and volatile economic, social and political climate in the West. Focusing on the everyday expertise of cultural workers, including writers, painters, sculptors, composers and craftspeople, Patel provides a novel and timely account of the everyday skills, mastery and technique practised by cultural workers and how their expertise is presented, mediated and negotiated on social media platforms.
She offers a methodological framework for analysing how expertise is signalled on social media, drawing on the signalling expertise framework of Candace Jones (2002) and adapted for a qualitative analysis of expertise on social media. In her research Patel highlights the implications of signalling expertise on social media for cultural labour – such as its role in cultural workers’ everyday practice, how cultural workers negotiate their presentation of self and their expertise on social media, and gendered strategies for signalling expertise.
Patel offers a general definition of expertise which is: “the possession of specialised knowledge or skill, which is recognised by others as legitimate, and accumulated, mobilised and signalled within a particular social context.” Patel also acknowledges the specific forms of expertise required in cultural work, most notably, aesthetic expertise. Drawing on the history of aesthetics as outlined by Martha Woodmansee (1994) and Paul Oskar Kristeller (1951; 1952), she proposes that aesthetic expertise comprises knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in mastering the tools and techniques to produce a work of aesthetic value. Patel demonstrates how aesthetic expertise can be signalled on social media by cultural workers who confidently reveal aspects of the artistic process and discuss it in detail, whilst effectively managing their relationship with their online audience at the same time. A cultural workers’ ability to demonstrate and describe their process and techniques can be enhanced through the affordances of social media platforms by providing work in progress, creating tutorials, or interacting with the audience to produce testimonials and positive feedback which add to their profile.
Some of the implications revealed through the analysis include the pressure cultural workers experience to maintain an online presence, which for some punctuates and adds to daily work pressures. Cultural workers also need to negotiate what to reveal, and what not to, on social media in order to balance the maintenance of their presence with managing the imagined audience. Rather than just promoting their work, Patel reveals that the women cultural workers engaged with other women online more, sharing work and collaborating to attempt to facilitate a wider raising of visibility, which is a much more relational strategy for signalling expertise than the more one-way, promotional tactic of the men.
Patel raises questions about cultural value on social media – as cultural production online is increasingly motivated by engagement and getting the online attention of users. What could a preoccupation with numbers mean for cultural value? While social media platforms present positive possibilities for wider engagement and lowering barriers to access to cultural production, Patel argues that the democratising potential of social media is misleading – those who really want to make a living from cultural work still need the social, cultural and economic capital to make that happen, and social media will not change that. Overall, Patel provides useful insights into the individual experiences of cultural workers, and the politics of expertise in contemporary cultural work.
The distance really helped me to reflect on the key take-away points of the thesis, and of course its contributions to knowledge. It will be interesting to see how much it changes between now and the viva.
In the past week I have had the pleasure of attending two events at the Research Institute for Media and Cultural Economies (CAMEo) at the University of Leicester: Literature, Writing and the Creative Economy on 24 Feb and Co-working Dynamics and the City on 1 March. The themes of both events do not immediately appear to relate to my PhD on artists and expertise, however now that I am approaching the end (I am due to submit this September) I am beginning to think of ways in which I could extend my research or take it in new directions. Both of these events were incredibly useful for that.
Literature, Writing and the Creative Economy
I was interested in this event for a variety of reasons – the opportunity to discuss ideas in a workshop, the fact that a couple of my PhD participants are writers, but mostly because there was going to be a talk by Claire Squires (pictured above) on diversity in the literary economy. Diversity is a theme which I’m sure will influence much of my future research; I’m particularly interested in diversity and expertise. Claire highlighted the entrenched inequalities in the publishing industries around race, class and gender. The most striking point for me was even though the publishing industry is made up mostly of women, men get paid 16% more. Clearly, more men are in ‘expert’ positions in publishing, so what can be done to address that imbalance? (I’m well aware that gender inequality affects most industries).
Claire also highlighted some of the efforts to build diversity in publishing (such as the Jhalak Prize) yet at the same time publishing industry norms continue to reproduce and play up to stereotypes, using this example from Anamik Saha’s work on the rationalising/racialising logic of capital in cultural production. The book covers all depict variations of Asian stereotypes, mainly involving veiled women and the Taj Mahal. This example made me wonder how conscious publishers are that they are adhering to such stereotypes, whether there are guidelines and templates they follow without questioning them, and whether deadlines and workloads constrain their ability to do anything differently?
Rick Rylance discussed the literary economy, revealing that it is among the largest in the world, generating £2bn of the £10bn from the UK’s creative industries annually. He suggested that the literary economy should not be thought of as ‘special’ and a marginal activity, it is very much mainstream. Barriers to access were mentioned and particularly the ‘internship culture’ of the creative industries as one of the contributing factors towards a lack of diversity in publishing at least. Someone in the audience pointed out however that government efforts are too focused on a career ‘pipeline’, which is too linear and not reflective of creative careers. This resonates with my own research in that many of the artists I interviewed went into art and writing as a career change, once they had made enough money in another job to begin a career in cultural work. This is interesting in itself and could be one area for further exploration.
The main takeaway from this event was that though it is a huge industry there are stark inequalities in publishing. As academics we need to think of ways to address this. I think the internship culture does not work – it is not viable for working class people who cannot afford to work for free and it contributes to the class inequalities in the cultural industries. One person suggested apprenticeship schemes instead, which is a potentially more appealing solution because at least people won’t be working for nothing (or next to nothing). I suggested to my workshop discussion group that diversity is linked to social justice – and until wider societal injustices and inequalities are addressed, a lack of diversity will continue to be a feature across the cultural industries.
Co-working Dynamics and the City
I have maintained an interest in co-working and collaboration during my PhD and have written a chapter in a forthcoming book about collaboration, so this event held much appeal for me. The keynote was Melissa Gregg (above) of Intel, and author of Work’s Intimacy (2013) among other publications which have had a huge influence on my own work. Melissa discussed the increase in temporary and contingent jobs in the USA and Europe, and how co-working spaces look to support the ‘digital nomad’. She identified initiatives and forms of co-working in the USA and around the world, and also discussed the ‘gig economy’ (e.g. Uber, Air BnB), crowdsourcing (Amazon Mechanical Turk) and digital freelancing (Upwork) are all a part of flexible yet highly contingent ways of working. Most crucially, Melissa mentioned how some co-working spaces harvest user data, to build user profiles and help determine which ‘type’ of worker they should market their space to.
Melissa’s presentation set up the themes and discussion for the rest of the day extremely well. There were presentations about community and co-working spaces, how co-working space managers act as curators and mediators, (both for me raised questions about diversity and barriers of access to co-working spaces) and some specific examples of co-working initiatives from Birmingham and Leicestershire. What struck me most were the parallels between artists in art studios, and co-workers in these spaces. I was reminded of Angela McRobbie’s (2016) point that nowadays, the cultural worker (the artist) is the model for all workers – self-managing, able to handle precarity, flexible, adaptable and so on. Tied in with the self-management ethos is the growing emphasis on productivity exacerbated by the freelance economy and encouraged through productivity apps to ‘get things done’ as highlighted by Melissa Gregg (2015).
McRobbie argues that the self-management ethos is symptomatic of neoliberal capitalism – the state’s way of placing all responsibility for work and life on the self, so that welfare support can be withdrawn. While those are the similarities between the artist and freelancer, I see similar parallels in terms of space – between the artist studio space and these co-working spaces – they both appear ‘open’ to ‘anyone’ yet can be exclusionary, they can be sites of collaboration, they can be a place to go for people and a marker of ‘professionalism’, there are cost implications and they can have a certain aesthetic designed to appeal to a certain type of person. Like the artist is the model worker, the studio is the model space, and both form the beacon of neoliberal capitalism’s ideal worker and work situation – precarious, flexible and self-managing.
In the final talk I found many crossovers with my own work. The presentation by Carol Ekinsmyth (above) on home working resonated with the experiences of the women artists in my research. She discussed home working as increasingly ‘the norm’ as a way of working yet there is very little support for home workers, even less than those in co-working spaces. Carol identified how women home workers in particular experience extra challenges when trying to negotiate childcare with work – experiences also felt by some of the artists in my research. I had come across Carol’s work on ‘mumpreneurs’ previously so it was good to see her talk about her more recent research.
The themes and issues raised in this particular event have inspired me to think about giving a paper on co-working/collaboration and expertise at my University’s upcoming research conference, RESCON.
Gregg, M. (2015). 12 Getting Things Done: Productivity, Self-Management, and the Order of Things. Networked Affect, 187.
Gregg, M. (2013). Work’s intimacy. John Wiley & Sons.
McRobbie, A. (2016). Be creative: Making a living in the new culture industries. John Wiley & Sons.
I’m coming to the end of a first full draft of my PhD, and in the introduction I attempted to situate my work within the wider context, my work being about expertise, and the wider context being debates around ‘post-truth’ and the denigration of experts. I mention it briefly in my introduction but if I expand on it there it doesn’t make sense, so I will do so here because I think it points to some further research which could be done in the future (and not necessarily by me).
First, the rise of populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. This is discussed by Hadley Freeman in her article about “bullshitting culture”. She points out that the denigration of expertise is a component of this bullshitting culture, “because expertise provides a bulwark against nonsense”. This nonsense includes whatever comes out certain politician’s mouths, and the “figurehead of the clean eating movement” Ella Mills. Freeman takes aim at both, claiming that both the U.S. President and Ella Mills come under “the umbrella of bullshit”. Ella in particular is heavily criticised for claiming in an interview that she is “shocked that some of her followers have ‘taken healthy eating to extremes’ and insists she ‘can’t take responsibility’. Then, in the next breath, she talks enthusiastically about how, for Christmas dinner, she ate just carrots and brussels sprouts.” Freeman argues that:
“We live in a blog culture where it’s pitched as a triumph of democracy that everyone can claim authority, which means anyone who says that, actually, there is an objective truth is condemned. Feelings rather than facts are what matter, these purveyors of bullshit claim”
Freeman’s critique demonstrates how on social media, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish expertise. When experts do offer insight and facts, they are dismissed by politicians. While the author is right to point this out and be critical, she is assuming that experts are always right.
In the same newspaper 11 days later, another article emerged about the ‘clean eating’ fad and once again Ella Mills was the target of criticism for trying to distance herself from the movement. The author of this article, Ruby Tandoh, shows how some of the ‘clean eating’ pioneers are desperately trying to distance themselves from the fad after a recent BBC documentary Clean Eating – the dirty truth. Tandoh describes how some of the most popular advocates of clean eating based their approaches on the findings of doctors who were later widely discredited or even facing jail time for practicing medicine without a licence. Tandoh calls out the advocates themselves for peddling misinformation, and the book publishers which sell and help to legitimise such fads which are not underpinned by robust medical evidence. Tandoh also points out a gendered issue:
“Behind the pretty public face of wellness is a far bigger beast. With the exception of fitness guru Joe Wicks, the overwhelming majority of wellness personalities are young women, and it is these women who rise to and eventually fall from grace in the public eye. And yet the machinery of these fads is constructed largely by a small group of men. These are the doctors – self-styled or otherwise – who spin questionable academic studies, patchworks of data and sometimes little more than fanciful anecdotes into best-selling diet industry manifestos.”
These two articles demonstrate how complicated expertise can be. I believe here there is opportunity for further important research which looks at expertise, social media and contemporary aspects of popular culture which rely on ‘expert’ input – from nutrition, to fitness, wellness, mindfulness and other forms of self-help. It’s January and everywhere I go I see books, magazines and videos on these subjects, and their very popularity and the ‘expertise’ behind them could do with further critical engagement.
This week I hosted my first symposium and it was a very stimulating day that has provided a lot of food for thought. I would like to thank the fourteen speakers who travelled from all over Europe to present at the symposium. Also a special mention to MA student Anna Pirvola, PhD student Emily Bettison, and School of Media colleagues Annette Naudin and Kirsten Forkert for their help and support throughout the day.
I plan to upload the audio for each speaker to this blog when I get a chance. In the meantime, you can see the abstracts for each presentation in the abstract booklet. I also created a Twitter list of all of the speakers, for those who wish to get in touch.
When I used to blog about conferences I would summarise the presentations by each speaker, or at least the most interesting speakers. I think in this case that would not be useful; instead it is worth discussing the key themes which emerged from the talks.
One of the most prominent and noticeable features of most of the presentations was the masculinity of expertise, which I have discussed previously. I heard on several occasions the expert being referred to as a ‘he’, and most experts that were featured, whether they be Youtube vloggers or TV personalities, were white men. I think it’s important to stop and question this assumption of the expert as masculine, and explore in greater depth why women are not as heavily associated with expertise as men are.
A second theme is the idea of expertise being something you become – it is easy to proclaim and ascribe expertise, but it needs to be substantiated with evidence of knowledge and skill, and then recognised as legitimate by others of an equal or higher status. It is not helpful to think of expertise in binary terms (you have it or you don’t) – it is much more complex than that. Many of the speakers drew this out in their presentations.
Finally, I noticed that a lot of the discussion was about experts ‘out there’ – their position in politics, society and the media, and how they are perceived. There was little about the self and expertise, for example self-identity and expertise, or performing expertise. How do individuals accumulate and negotiate their expertise? How do they mobilise expertise over the course of their careers? This was thoughtfully unpicked in a reflexive talk by Natalie Squared, and there is much more room to think this through in a variety of contexts.
What also struck me was how expertise matters in so many different areas. There were talks (for example) about non-professional actors, heritage food, Martin Lewis (of Money Saving Expert fame), video gamers, street food vendors, journalists and Brexit, and expertise was thoughtfully discussed in all of these contexts and more. Expertise, so often taken for granted, needs further scrutiny and I hope this symposium is a step towards that.
Overall it was a very thought-provoking day and I was immensely pleased with the quality and diversity of the papers, as well as the level of engagement and discussion. There was also a warm and encouraging atmosphere throughout the day and I was glad to see a few of our MA and PhD students in attendance. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.