Sally Munt: Cultural Values from the Subaltern Perspective: A Phenomenology of Refugees’ Experience of British Cultural Values

This project seeks to understand the value located in a range of arts/cultural activities to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, a group new to British cultural life who are often marginalised from ‘mainstream’ cultural activities, but who are simultaneously expected to adopt a hegemonic national identity of Britishness and henceforward espouse British cultural values. Refugees are a group who typically have experienced forced migration, oftentimes related specifically to their own – often fiercely defended – cultural activities and values in their country of origin. This migratory biography makes for a complex, rich contribution to how we think about the value of arts and culture, and cultural expression, in the UK today.

We will investigate the standpoint of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on British cultural values, benefitting from their ‘outsider within’ perspective.

British cultural values are not unitary, nor are they precisely definable, they are shaped and refined by participation and engagement. We will seek to identify the components of cultural value embedded in a set of typically British arts and cultural pursuits, based in and around the city of Brighton.

We will break down the components to be identified using a range of methods that focus on the discrete senses, and on the particular forms of embodiment that such activities claim. We want to examine carefully what constitutes the experience of involvement in the arts and cultural sphere, so we will also be collecting information on the cognitions and emotions that are attached to such experiences.

Refugees constitute a unique case: migrants pay acute attention to the acculturation of British values. This attention can be a protective mechanism, a philosophical choice, an attempt to move away from a traumatized past or culture of origin, an imposed set of norms, or a way of making their enforced dislocation intelligible. Refugees are legally required to learn British cultural values in order to be ‘awarded’ citizenship, via the Home Office instrument, the ‘Life in the UK’ Test (which will be interrogated in group discussion). Whatever the reason, refugees have an acute sensitivity and prescient awareness of ‘what makes us British’. Yet, often their access to the cultural industries can be severely restricted, due to explicit factors such as economic barriers, and due to implicit factors such as the perceived ‘Whiteness’ of some art/cultural pursuits (eg. premier league football, and the opera – two performances that will form part of our programme).

This project will take the form of a 16 week course, called ‘What is British Culture’, offered to 14 women refugees. Through a range of arts and cultural activities, we will assess refugee’s embodied experience of participation and reflection, gathering sensory information through creative expression. In order to gather robust data, the course is quite long and demanding; however we have found in previous projects that refugee participants appreciate such commitments as they enable a strong group identity to form, which can continue informally after the planned meetings finish, providing a sustainable resource.

As researchers we have our own cultural values: our model is taken from feminist praxis. Feminist epistemologies focus on the way “in which gender does and ought to influence our conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject, and practices of inquiry and justification” (Anderson 2004). At the core of feminist epistemology is the concept of the situated knower, who produces situated knowledge. Donna Haraway (1998) famously argued that most knowledge, in particular academic knowledge is always “produced by positioned actors working in/between all kinds of locations”. Collaborative learning, respect for social difference, creating an environment of mutual support, listening and consideration for others, these characteristics are all markers of the feminist classroom, cultural values which we hope to emulate in the process of the research.

We are now two thirds of the way through the project and have recruited 14 women from 9 different countries including Sudan, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Attendance has been strong, and we have completed a range of activities including visits to Brighton Royal Pavilion, Brighton Jubilee Library, Brighton Museum, Preston Manor, a seaside walk on the seafront, yoga and meditation, and life history exercises, and are looking forward to watching England womens football team play Montenegro live at the Albion Stadium, and attending Onegin at Glyndebourne Opera House. We have completed individual interviews, focus groups, and ten class meetings. We look forward to exploring our findings.

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