PhD student Ruth Kelly uses the arts to help global activists re-tell familiar tales of protest in different ways.

Tell me about your research

My doctoral research looks at how storytelling can help people imagine and promote alternatives to dominant ways of organising politics, society and the economy. I’m also interested in how activists can challenge dominant narrative structures by reworking them.

What difference will your research make?

I’m exploring how we can do research differently – for example, integrating social science and the arts might help researchers understand certain dimensions of human experience a bit better. In July 2017, I worked with film artist Emilie Flower on some experimental workshops using arts-based methods to try to shake up the way we do research. Activists we worked with in Uganda and Bangladesh found that the methods we used helped them access imaginative and emotional dimensions of experience that they rarely pay attention to, giving them space to feel and to dream. These workshops were funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund. 

Integrating the arts into research could change the kind of advocacy agenda pursued by NGOs. For example, arts-based methods could help researchers understand the kind of emotional and care work that female activists are often expected to do alongside their other responsibilities. This could encourage men to share responsibility more equally and contribute to campaigns for better public services to free up women’s time.

More broadly, we hope our research will give activists tools to identify what they are campaigning for, as well as what they are campaigning against.

Who are you collaborating with?

I’ve come to my PhD after eight years working in the international development sector. I’m funded through a ‘collaborative studentship’ which means that I’m working with my former employer, ActionAid, as well as the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at York.

I did my initial research methods training with the Centre for Women’s Studies at York. My supervisors included Paul Gready, director of CAHR; Maggie O’Neill, from the Department of Sociology and Jon Ensor from the Stockholm Environment Institute at York.

I also work closely with one of CAHR’s associate artists, film artist Emilie Flower, and with academics, activists and artists in Bangladesh and Uganda. Bangladeshi installation artist Shohrab Jahan and Ugandan scriptwriter and director Patience Nitumwesiga - recently attended a workshop at York on arts, activism and research to celebrate CAHR’s 10th anniversary.

What’s next?

I’m planning a visit to Bangladesh and to Uganda to hold workshops with academics from Makerere and Jahangirnagar Universities as well as artists and activists to reflect on our initial findings and to develop ideas for future research collaboration.

I'll also spend more time in Uganda working with colleagues at Makerere University, especially with Ugandan poet and academic Susan Kiguli. I hope to observe existing storytelling projects in Uganda and hold storytelling workshops to see if retelling familiar tales can help activists and others to articulate and promote their vision of how they want the world to be.