Performing Arts and Social Violence: Innovating Research Approaches to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Global South

Forcer, S. , Fitzmaurice, S. M., Martin, L., Fofana Ibrahim, A., Coetzee, M.-H. and Shutt, H. (2022) Performing Arts and Social Violence: Innovating Research Approaches to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Global South. Project Report. University of Sheffield, Sheffield.

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Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a global epidemic. It has been estimated that one in three women worldwide is subjected to physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. And yet, there is a paradox between the commonality of SGBV and the ability to speak and address these issues openly. Some of the reasons and rationales for this are culturally specific, but the fact remains universal – it is difficult to talk about and address SGBV. Fighting SGBV is a stated objective for numerous governments and international organisations, as well as researchers. However, methods and approaches can be heavily standardized and bureaucratic, taking no account of the range of emotion involved in tackling SGBV. Relying on these risks neglecting the fundamentally complex and contradictory dynamics of SGBV, and limiting the effectiveness of discussions about it. Driven by a belief in the power of the arts and humanities to provide playful, creative, and counter-intuitive responses to urgent problems, this project used comedy, theatre, song and dance in activities run for women and men in partnership with established NGOs. Emphatically, the project’s findings illustrated how ‘fun’ arts approaches (such as humour and improvisation) may be highly effective in opening up very sensitive conversations about deadly serious topics. Instead of being disrespectful or incongruous responses to the matter, they may provide insights into how concepts such as violence are understood contextually and culturally. Thus these methods have the capacity to open up completely new ways of understanding these notions in order to address them. The methodological headlines of the project have already been published in a peer-reviewed academic article entitled “Embracing Aporia: Exploring Arts-based Methods, Pain, “Playfulness” and Improvisation in Research on Gender and Social Violence.” Some of the conceptual findings around performance and dramaturgy in the midst of workshops can also be found in the forthcoming article “The Theatre of Development: Dramaturgy, Actors and Performances in the ‘Workshop Space’” in Third World Quarterly. The project was evidenced by fieldwork and workshops in Sierra Leone and South Africa. The scoping work highlighted the extent to which SGBV research in the Global South is directly relevant to the Global North. While this project conducted research primarily in the Global South, the findings have broader implications for exploring the nuanced ways in which SGBV is an acute, pernicious global epidemic embedded in the subtleties of individual and collective attitudes and behaviours. In addition to known drivers of SGBV (such as socio-economic privation), there are drivers that are not as well understood. These include socio-cultural narratives supporting individual and institutional responses to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity (e.g. men’s treatment of wives as property and the complicity of police); the affordances of technology (e.g. easy access to pornography); the enabling role of local institutions and social norms that create barriers to justice; discourses of sex and sexual roles; and geographically and culturally inflected gender performances. Without understanding these drivers, it is impossible to find ways to stem the tide of SGBV, safeguard victims and survivors, and change the behaviours that perpetuate the cycles of social violence globally. Developing this work, therefore, requires new funding streams and award schemes that promote the co-construction by academic and community researchers of creative, discovery-led, longitudinal work. Any ambitious new funding programme should facilitate broader comparative case studies, alongside the further development and deployment of arts and humanities-led interdisciplinary approaches, and expand existing innovations to advance the field. Funded projects should include capacity building, e.g. research training for community participants and for NGO members; doctoral training for local researchers at local universities; institutions and infrastructure to support ongoing work beyond the life of a project. These programmes should be international and integrate the practice of international exchange between the Global North and South to enable comparative study of SGBV cultures and explore the universality of the nuances driving social violence and allow scope for extensive knowledge exchange across these contexts. This should include provision for Global South researchers to participate materially in fieldwork and research activities in the Global North. Methodologically, this project strongly endorses the use of arts-based methods, including comedy, song and dance, and theatre, to engage audiences in discussions around SGBV. The scoping project identified a major new research opportunity for the urgent use of arts and humanities-led interdisciplinary approaches to explore the subtle ways in which social violence, specifically sex and gender-based violence, manifests and persists. The exercise confirmed that arts-based methods (when used meaningfully and appropriately) can facilitate discussion about sensitive subject matter, including SGBV, and may in fact be a ‘natural’ or intuitive way of engaging with this discussion. It also highlighted the value of approaching the design and conduct of research in different ways. These include the need for research to be slow or incremental: that is, building relationships and trust with communities and project partners, co-designing projects and performances with the full research teams and returning to locations over time and for research to involve exchanges. Further, instead of focussing on pre-determined outcomes, arts-based methods enable researchers to maintain flexibility and remain open to travelling where the research leads. Following the affective turn in applied theatre, we aimed to engage the sensory, embodied and affective power of performance and produce certain sensory effects in relation to a particular theme (here, SGBV). Our team are sceptical about transformational, interventionist projects, and recommend that emphasis be placed on how to engage with existing practices as methods that open up difficult conversations and move people emotionally and physically. We argue that fun and playfulness should not be dismissed in the face of sensitive subjects such as SGBV, but rather more fully embraced and explored in greater depth. This means moving away from using flat, binary data as evidence and results, and instead having the intellectual conviction to back the potential of this sensory, ludic, proleptic approach to methods, evidence and outcomes.

Item Type:Research Reports or Papers (Project Report)
Keywords:Performing arts, sexual and gender-based violence SGBV, GBV, comedy, humour, song, dance, theatre, development, UN sustainable development doals, SDGs, NGO.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Fitzmaurice, Professor Susan Mary and Forcer, Professor Stephen and Shutt, Ms Helen
Authors: Forcer, S., Fitzmaurice, S. M., Martin, L., Fofana Ibrahim, A., Coetzee, M.-H., and Shutt, H.
Subjects:H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
College/School:College of Arts & Humanities > School of Modern Languages and Cultures
College of Arts & Humanities > School of Culture and Creative Arts
Publisher:University of Sheffield
Published Online:15 November 2022

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
315439Performing Arts and Social Violence: Innovating Research Approaches to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Global SouthStephen ForcerArts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)AH/V005480/1Arts - MLC Administration