Research of substance

Tara Brabazon on the cutting-edge centres that generated a new way of doing research

June 19, 2008




As someone who works in media studies, the discipline that is seen in the UK as one step above dental flossing, there have been many scholars and research centres that rise above this reputation to inspire important, passionate and international scholarship. The researchers at the now closed Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies sent their Stencilled Occasional Papers out into the world. The impact of these roughly copied documents not only in the UK and North America but also in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand is incalculable. Twenty years before the world wide web, these pamphlets travelled through space and time. Along with these pages moved ideas about how culture could be more political, and politics more cultural. These were words, pages and ideas that mattered.

For my generation, it was the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture (MIPC) that opened up a night-time wonderland of music, cities, sport and dancing. Its Popular Cultural Studies Series from Ashgate functioned like those Stencilled Occasional Papers. These brightly covered books moved through the world changing readers as they were bought and borrowed. I remember as a young postgraduate in Australia receiving each new volume with the excitement of a new pop gospel. Instead of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it was music, drugs, deviance and dancing. I had a small reading group at the University of Western Australia in Perth in the early 1990s that devoured these books with relish. When I moved to New Zealand to teach, the books travelled with me. I introduced a generation of Kiwis to Bez, casuals and post-youth culture. They loved the excitement of these books, the challenge of Rave Off and the energy of The Passion and the Fashion. Through these pop epistles, it was as if – even at an Antipodean edge – we were invited to the greatest scholarly party on the planet.

I never had a chance to visit Manchester until much later, and only a couple of years ago made a pilgrimage to the MIPC itself for a conference on The Smiths. I made it before it was too late. On 31 August 2006 the MIPC closed for the last time. Appropriately, it finished with a bang – the MIPC Discontinued Party. But how such an influential centre could disappear less than five years after the Birmingham centre was closed captures not only the changes in the British academy but also the losses to a research culture of consultancies and enterprise, individual “esteem”, outcomes and indicators.

Perhaps the time was right for its closing. The centre, which was based at Manchester Metropolitan University, has had three directors. Steve Redhead left Manchester for a professorship in sport and media cultures at the University of Brighton. Although I read his work from afar in my early twenties, I know him now through an accident of marriage. I loved the MIPC so much, I married its director. That’s political commitment. Steve’s great friend Derek Wynne died – tragically – in 2002. The last director, the incisive and radically interdisciplinary Justin O’Connor, left to take up a professorship in creative industries at the University of Leeds and is about to move to the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. These three men built a matrix of popular cultural scholarship that taught hundreds of students directly, but informed and influenced thousands of readers and writers around the world.

Their legacy remains, not only in the way that researchers understand pop, but in the institution that continues their project. Substance – www.substance.coop – is a newly formed not-for-profit organisation and worker co-operative. Three of the four members, Adam Brown, Gavin Mellor and Kath O’Connor, were research fellows at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture. The other member, Tim Crabbe, is professor of the sociology of sport and popular culture at Sheffield Hallam University. Their goal as a “social research company” is to generate good policy in sport, urbanity, youth and popular cultures. In modelling new ways of thinking about social problems such as “binge drinking”, “urban decline” and “inner-city crime”, they aim to give a voice and to present the views of those too-often excluded from political debates and governmental policy.

Their current projects are remarkable for such a young organisation. They are the national monitoring and evaluation team for the UK Home Office’s “Positive Futures” programme, which explores the success and failures of sport-based social inclusion initiatives. Another area of their work, with Spring Worldwide, is to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework for an HIV/Aids awareness programme for young women in Delhi.

While working through this global spread, they are based on Ducie Street in Manchester and operate outside universities. They continue the initiatives and goals of nearly 40 years of media and cultural studies research. They do not “celebrate” popular culture or relish the pseudo-democracy of voting off housemates in Big Brother. Instead, they assess and question modes of social exclusion and how to build sustainable and more equitable communities. It seems appropriate as the MIPC closed and Substance opened that there was a research document to signal this passage. Their final report for Football and its Communities was released for the Football Foundation in May 2006. While the report had many recommendations, the overarching goal was to increase the training and awareness of both coaches and policymakers into the specific needs of minority ethic communities, people with a range of physical and learning difficulties and young people with a history of public offences. The function of sport for these groups, and for the wider personal development of excluded men and women, was verified through careful collaborative research with these communities. They demonstrated how “a familiar picture of neglect, suspicion and decay” can be transformed into an organised community with a positive future.

Using the word “Substance” – and deploying a Peter Savillesque crisp design for their promotional materials – hints at the cultural reference points of the primary researchers. Substance has become the academic equivalent of New Order. They are collaborative risk-takers who are part of many communities but beholden to none. Just as New Order arose from the ashes of Joy Division and the death of Ian Curtis, so has Substance survived the closure of the MIPC, the death of Derek Wynne and the loss of Steve Redhead and Justin O’Connor. By staying in Manchester, it has kept alive not only a narrative of political dissent and industrial innovation, but also maintained the spark of the MIPC, commemorating a time when the city was the popular cultural capital of the world, bouncing along with Bez and reading along with the Ashgate Popular Cultural Studies Series.

While Substance is a continuation of this bright and dynamic popular cultural story, there is a well of sadness punctuating its designs and rhythms. With all this remarkable research work and community building, through their policy interventions and the commitment to social justice, the British university system could not include this type of work within its boundaries and portfolios of scholarship. Justin O’Connor, moving to a professorship at Leeds became the institutional excuse to close the MIPC. Studying popular culture could no longer be supported by Manchester Metropolitan University. Yet through the MIPC, Manchester’s “other university” became famous around the world. Bristling academic managers preparing for the research assessment exercise never grasped the international scale of this success.

It is difficult to find high-quality popular cultural scholarship – with the right mix of danger and rigour – anywhere at the moment. That Substance had to be formed outside the university sector – that there was no place to conduct this important work on popular culture, sport and social exclusion – is a statement about what constitutes research. Substance’s 2008 conference After the Event: Culture and Sport – Access and Legacies aims to leverage discussions of football and leisure into issues of participation and active localism. While Substance works with universities and academics, it is not restricted by them.

Popular culture is exuberant and defiant. It can either damage the empowered or reinforce the status quo. Very often it provides a path to our social and political future. As discussions are held about the future of scholarship after the RAE, it is up to all of us who believe in justice, equality and multiculturalism to intercede. We should demand a space and place in our universities for research that may not be included in a select few of journals managed by a selected few gatekeepers. It may not be funded by elite business consortia looking for cheap answers to deep problems with the environment or sustainable development. It may not even create the quick postgraduate completions of a thesis that few will read and fewer will cite.

Through this discussion of light-touch peer review and bibliometrics, we must find a way to develop, co-ordinate, assist and acknowledge the co-operatives and collectives such as Substance so that more remarkable researchers do not feel it necessary to leave our institutions to create influential and productive work.

There was a time when academic outsiders could remain inside a university. Academic history is filled with tales of gritty defiance, steadfastness through managerial ambivalence and incisive interventions in injustice. E. P. Thompson’s clashes with the University of Warwick – from within – triggered a critique on corporate takeovers of educational institutions years before many would routinely sell their words and ideas to the highest bidder. Edward Said began his critique of the West by clipping articles from daily newspapers that – like an endlessly dripping tap – betrayed damaging and seemingly unconscious assumptions about the Arab world. Without his long-term theoretical struggle, political commitment and empirical focus, writers, teachers and journalists would not hold the analytical tools to understand the difficult and occasionally terrorised dialogue between East and West. Similarly, the courage of Howard Zinn, in cutting through class-based bias, has meant that those too often discarded into the dustbin of history – particularly indigenous peoples, citizens of colour, women and the working class – have a language and space to commence writing their own stories and narratives through tropes of struggle, resistance and survival, rather than loss, defeat and destruction. That all three men maintained an uncomfortable relationship with their universities adds credibility to their critique, a legacy continued with – and by – Substance.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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