The participatory action research (PAR) focus groups investigating the use of storytelling approaches to enhance a sense of place took place in Loughborough and Birmingham, England, UK.
In them, four groups of drama students worked with members of the local community for 12 weeks to explore their sense of belonging. They applied different storytelling techniques (in particular, soundscaping and digital storytelling) to communicate the relationship between food and culture; how it inhabits and influences our everyday life and how people experience food differently because of their culture.
The students worked on creating a collective digital soundscape and an accompanying interactive digital platform documenting the creative and socio-cultural process through online storytelling, blogging, vlogging and a variety of formats. Students were organised in different production teams, depending on their interests and skills.
The first part of the project consisted of the creation of a soundscape/soundwalk that investigated social issues (i.e., displacement) in the town of Loughborough through the medium of food. Students had to gather testimonies, sound atmospheres in streets, restaurants and take-away outlets around town.
Critically considering space and place was at the core of the participatory process. Beforehand, the words space and place were perceived as two fairly interchangeable words, disregarding an awareness for how deeply they could be deconstructed. French philosopher Michel de Certeau prompted the re-examination of this when he said place ‘implies an indication of stability […] space is composed of intersections of mobile elements’ (Certeau, 1988, p.117).
The students’ initial response was that place is a more fixed and tangible, less negotiable, construct, something more permanent. A space, by contrast, is more fluid and interactive, neither set nor permanent because of the ever-changing elements within it.
In fact, the truth is even more complex than this original breakdown because the students failed to consider the psychological and emotional attachments that can be involved when speaking of place and space. It took some time to consider the obligation to this in relation to the construction of the soundscape and whether this could be materially embedded or simply used as a train of thought in developing the different environments.
For example, Loughborough’s Students Union is notorious for student clubbing and alcohol consumption, and the students who fill this space have emotional and psychological attachments to it due to the friendship and memories they have created there. When representing a ‘clubbing’ environment in the soundscape, it proved important to consider the difference between student emotional connections and an outsider’s perspective (for example, older residents of the town) who may view this behaviour as disrespectful and disruptive. These contradicting attitudes reflect the fact that different people, and groups of people, may have different attachments to the same place.
Certeau ignited this exploration even further when stating ‘space is like the word when it is spoken […] space is a practiced place’ (Certeau, 1988, p.117). ‘The word’ and its verbal transmission are two distinct things with different meanings. Words can be used and applied differently depending on context and, like space, this is flexible and forever changing. It is also dependent upon the individual and how they choose to use it.
By investigating the social constructionist definition of place; ‘underlying social processes […] the unique attributes of a place’ (Cresswell, 2013, np), the students were able to develop their understanding even further. This quote prompted a complex re-understanding of how the soundscape was interacting with environments or different sites and the need to be aware of the socio-cultural, emotional and psychological effects of the students replicating that.
Was there any way the students could actually show the uniqueness of a place? Could they differentiate Loughborough’s market from any other? The ringing of the Town Hall bell, for example, is symbolic to Loughborough and, matched with the distinctive accent of some marketeers, demonstrates the uniqueness of this place.
Could the campus environment be distinguished from another University and exclusively depict the social processes unique to this place? How could the students show an awareness for the social processes at play and their emotional attachments to place through the sole means of sound?
These were all questions at the heart of the process and served as a prism in which to edit the 4 soundscapes.