Museum Volunteers as Researchers: Applied Participatory Ethnography (Thinking Methods Blog, October 2016)

This article draws on my experiences conducting ethnographic research in a small, Tudor, historic property in Hackney as part of the MY426 ‘Doing Ethnography’ course. Prior to the research, I volunteered at the museum for two years. I began the research by talking with one of the property’s custodians. He expressed frustration at the lack of in-depth information about visitor experiences at the house. The National Trust distributes surveys to its constituent properties to collect visitor feedback, however, we agreed that the added depth of an ethnographic study would complement the survey data nicely. After introducing myself to other volunteers, I reprised my role as a ‘room steward,’ standing in a sixteenth-century parlour answering visitors’ questions about the architecture and uses of the room. The visitors would ask questions to each other, and I would intervene with answers. This practice generated rapport, and a chance to talk to visitors about the complexity of the house’s history, and their responses to it. I would then sit with other volunteers and share stories about our experiences with visitors; what kind of questions they asked, what they seemed to find interesting. As a result of my volunteer status, visitors were willing to share their questions and complaints about the museum. One visitor wished there were more placards explaining the historical detail of the rooms. Others wondered why elaborate patterns were painted on the walls only to be covered up by wooden panels. Others were amused to know that much of the furniture in the house is a modern reproduction, and were left unsure as to just what was ‘original’ and what was not. The research ended with me setting aside my role as a volunteer and observing a guided tour as a member of the public, ensuring that I observed the property from a visitor’s perspective as well.

The research experience taught me that visitor feedback would benefit from being richer, more detailed and more precise, integrating the experiences of volunteers and visitors alike. While surveys, if well designed, can offer useful indicators of the overall success of a museum in educating and entertaining its visitors, they can be supplemented with detailed qualitative research. We could refocus on the specifics of individual museums, using knowledgeable, skilled volunteers as qualitative, ethnographic researchers. We could allow volunteers not only to collect data but also to set the research agenda. What do they see as the greatest challenges facing the organisations they have devoted themselves to? When visitors complain to volunteers, what are they complaining about? What can be done to address those complaints? By treating people within an organisation as research instruments, rather than research instigators, we fail to ground our research in what really matters to them.

How, then, to equip volunteers to investigate the cultures and challenges facing their museums? Colin Robson argues that there is, ultimately, a ‘common sense core’ to social research. The goal here is not to produce a peer-reviewed article or to nuance a grand theory. The goal is to allow volunteers to make powerful statements about the institutions they work for and contribute towards change processes therein. This is not, however, to suggest a laissez-faire approach. Indeed, Mohammad et al. (2015) propose a useful framework. They argue that practitioners can strengthen the rigour of their work through regular and reflexive consultation with their colleagues. Group discussion and knowledge-sharing would allow the most experienced volunteers to encourage and mentor less experienced ones. I conclude that a sense of collective ownership of the research will produce valid findings if they reflect the lived experiences of volunteers within the subject organisation. We can allow volunteers in museums to tell their own stories about their own practice. We should place more value on the insider expertise of practitioners, whether in the heritage sector, human services, healthcare, business or beyond. Social research is not a jealously-guarded secret. It has long been seen as a means of empowering those whose stories we tell. An inclusive, participatory approach to ethnography could empower practitioners still further, by allowing them to tell stories of their own.


Embracing Reflexivity in Textual Analysis: Lessons from the Desk (Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Conference, August 2016)

I want to start this talk by sketching out the research that motivated it. I was interested in studying feminist zines, which are small-circulation, handmade magazines with a sort of DIY aesthetic. Zines can feature comics, personal stories, polemics, poetry… My research became focussed on feminist zines with male audiences, intended to educate and persuade men to adopt feminist principles.

I’m interested in using discourse analysis to identify the persuasive methods that these zines use, and my contention is that reflexivity is crucial to a proper understanding of this source material.

But what is reflexivity? There are all kinds of different definitions for it but there are a few in particular I want to focus on. At the broadest level, to be reflexive is to subject yourself to ‘self-scrutiny’ throughout the research process, as Chiseri-Strater put it. At all points in the research process, the researcher’s subjectivity, positionality, biases, and prejudices are acknowledged and accounted for. As Wanda Pillow argued, reflexivity can entail an awareness of the impact of our research: whom might it exploit? Whom might it empower? What are the political repercussions of our work? The self is thus inserted into the work at a fundamental level, to the point where, as Uwe Flick put it, we are ‘co-constructing’ the research alongside our data.

I would summarise these three definitions of reflexivity as follows: Reflexivity is accounting for, and embracing the fact, that the researcher is a human being. And today I want to argue that this fundamental fact doesn’t change, no matter what kind of research we do or what discipline we are a part of. We are human beings who make it their business to study other human beings. We can either embrace this, or sweep it under the rug. We either embrace reflexivity, or we quash it. I want to argue that reflexivity is not a choice. It’s not something you can decide upon as you design your research. Reflexivity is inevitable: it’s simply a question of whether to embrace it or not.

So here’s why I chose to embrace reflexivity in my textual analysis. I had long been anxious about the problems raised by being a man who studies feminism. That my privileges and biases would inevitably make my findings suspect. However, when I noticed the wealth of feminist zines that are explicitly targeted at men, and indeed, often written by men, I felt as though I had an opportunity. I am a member of the intended audience of the texts that I study. The zines were written to educate men like me. They were intended to persuade men like me. Embracing my reflexive findings was therefore too rich an opportunity to ignore. Perhaps my subjective responses to the material could be integrated, giving an insight into the impact of the zines’ arguments on a reader. This is particularly true considering that I had no way of interviewing or conducting focus groups with other readers. I was, in essence, alone at my desk. But I see no reason why this should prelude reflexive analysis. I see no reason why the same self-scrutiny and introspection that goes into anthropological or ethnographic fieldwork shouldn’t be applied to my analysis of text

In fact, it would seem that my source material agrees with me. Here’s an extract from one of the zines’ introductory remarks:

‘I want you to read this as a conscious being who is ready to think about what is being said here. let it touch you. let it light a fire under you. let it make you feel sad, mad, connected.’

My own source material was grabbing me by the wrist, and demanding that I take a reflexive stance. That I be conscious. That I be aware of myself. Combine this with the fact that I am a member of the intended audience of the zines, and a non-reflexive stance becomes impossible. The zines were seeking to persuade me. How I felt, how I reacted, how I responded, became one of the only means through which I could judge the persuasive methods being used. I was the stand-in for the unknown male readers I could not interview or contact.

In fact, the zines were using reflexivity as a persuasive method. Consider, for example, the sheer preponderance of articles that ask readers to reflect on their experiences of patriarchy as children. There’s an article in one zine that lists all different kinds of questions for the reader to grapple with:

 ‘At what point were you aware that you were not a girl but a boy?’

‘Who taught you more about your gender role? Mother, father, peers or others?’ 

Or consider:

‘Count how many times you speak and keep track of how long you speak’

‘Be aware of how often you ask people to do something as opposed to asking other people…’

‘Think about and struggle with the saying, ‘you will be needed in the movement when you realise that you are not needed in the movement’

The texts expect their readers to grapple with their own emotions and reach conclusions on their own. The texts nurture reflexive thoughts in their readers to better press home their arguments; they fully expect that if you are introspective and considerate, you will reach profeminist conclusions through your own inner dialogue. How, then, do we ignore reflexivity in analyzing these texts? How do we make that choice? We can’t. What I’m proposing today is a reflexive method grounded in our texts. Responding to the demands they make.

There is a rich and valuable literature on the rhetoric of social movements, but, ultimately, when it came to identifying the stylistic elements being used by the texts, I found this to be a subjective exercise, precisely because of how emotive the zines were.

I know that the zine authors used humour to put their arguments across. I know this because I found their material funny.

The zine authors used terse, aggressive language to stress the importance of their arguments, and the fact that men have a lot of urgent soul-searching to do. I know this because I personally found the authors to be a little curt with me.

Finally, the zine authors frequently attempt to appeal to the reader’s personal life. The problem with being reflexive here is that discussing my personal feelings to quotations like this would involve implicating other people and laying my own personal life out, risking not just bad ethics but bad taste.  But nonetheless, I knew the material was touching, because I was touched.  I was still able to check the validity of my conclusions against the existing literature about social movement rhetoric: I knew that my personal responses were nothing too out of the ordinary. So I don’t see the demands of scientific validity as a barrier to integrated reflexive analysis. In fact, Corbin and Strauss have already argued that checking reflexive analysis against the existing literature allows grounded theory and reflexivity to be integrated very comfortably

I want to present a few basic techniques I used to ground myself in the zines throughout my research. The simplest technique was to position myself as a good reader. A good member of the audience. When multiple zines recommended I read a certain book, I did so. This led me to read John Stoltenberg’s Refusing to be a Man, recommended by 3 zines; bell hooks’ The Will to Change, recommended by 2 zines; and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, again recommended by 2 zines. The benefits of doing this additional reading were twofold. Firstly, it allowed me a valuable insight into the intellectual history of the zines – the scholarly context in which they were grounded. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was a reflexive act grounded in the source material. I was following the instructions of the zine authors. This kind of grounded reflexivity was easily integrated into the research output; it didn’t take any special methodology to simply incorporate the work of these authors into the analysis of the zines. So that to me would be the first lesson I took from this research: try and be an obedient reader. Texts can make demands of us. They can ask us to reflect on our own lives; they can ask us to be empathetic, emotionally engaged.

Which brings me on to the next major issue. How to incorporate reflexive findings into the research output? I’ve already argued that reflexivity is an inevitable consequence of being a social scientist: it just happens. But how do we write about it? I’m going to take you through a few attempts by other authors to incorporate reflexive analysis into their research and add a few of my own thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see articles and think pieces that discuss reflexivity without ever actually using those reflexive thoughts in the final analysis. We have a lot of reflection on reflexivity, but no framework or approach for embracing reflexivity in textual analysis. No method for really incorporating it.

Tracey Moon suggests the use of a reflexive diary throughout the process of secondary data analysis. Certainly, I had considered the use of some kind of journal – and did keep some jottings of my thoughts in a notebook though nothing quite on the scale of Moon’s work. The problem is, how do we use this information? How does the reflexive journal figure in the final analysis? How do we make sure that the diary entries don’t hover mysteriously above and apart from the ‘main’ analysis? The reflexive diary of Moon’s work does not appear to have any substantive impact on her analysis, serving as more of a glimpse into the research process. While this is certainly valuable, I would suggest that segregated reflexivity is no reflexivity at all. To separate reflexive findings from supposedly ‘objective’ analysis is to reinforce a misleading and rather pernicious assumption. The whole point of reflexivity is to acknowledge the fact that your identity has impacted the research – treating reflexive analysis as somehow other, outside of that, misses the point and renders reflexivity pointless.

So we need an integrated approach. But, stylistically, how do we achieve this? I found one very simple change to be very helpful:

Stop using the passive voice. 

For one thing, it’s clearer. For another, it accustomed me to the fact that subjectivity and reflexivity were going to play a fundamental role in the work. I couldn’t hide behind an objective-sounding writing style: I had to put the self at the forefront.

While we must always remain conscious of our own power, good fortunes and privileges in the course of the research process, they shouldn’t be reported in a confessional, ‘mea culpa’ kind of way – segregated from the main body of the research and devoid of any impact. Try, if at all possible, to turn your positionality into an opportunity. I felt a great deal of trepidation coming up with a research project that centred on feminism as a white man. It was hard to shake the feeling that, as a man, I had nothing to contribute. The fact that I study feminist magazines with male audiences does not mean that my maleness makes the research ‘better’. I still have all the ingrained biases and naiveties that come with it. But DO SOMETHING with those biases. Discuss how you have been affected, educated, instructed, moved, upset, challenged, frustrated by the texts that you analyse. In many cases, that’s precisely what the texts were designed for: to have an impact on the reader. Consider what your source material might have to say to someone in your position. Have a dialogue with the text in front of you.

Review: The Impact of Research in Education (Research Matters, December 2015)

Research Matters Review – The Impact of Research in Education: An International Perspective (2013)

The Impact of Research in Education: An International Perspective sets out its central thesis clearly. Educational research is underfunded, poorly disseminated and lacking relevance to everyday practice. The work offers a comparative, international approach to a global problem. The contributors, including educational researchers in both universities and the public sector, unanimously declare that research must be rigorous, relevant, and understandable to teachers. By analysing policy interventions and organisations, the authors suggest a range of ways in which this might be achieved.

Given the solidarity the contributing authors show in prescribing similar solutions for similar shortcomings, the work can seem repetitive. The stronger chapters, however, offer original research, cover varied topics and use novel approaches. One such effort is Ilon’s chapter on South Korean educational research mobilisation. Its vast appraisal of lifelong learning and vocational training is refreshing and engaging. Read, Cooper, Edelstein, Sohn and Levin’s contribution offers original research into the ‘knowledge mobilisation’ (KM) practices of Canadian universities. KM is defined as ‘moving knowledge into active service for the broadest possible common good.’ The authors found that educational researchers in Canadian universities were ‘divided’ about whether KM was valuable at all. Only 3% used blogs to publicise their research, and 2% used social media.

The comprehensiveness of the work can come at the expense of clarity. The weaker chapters feature oblique, overlong sentences. Occasionally, the statistics used lack justification. Holm’s contribution tells us that 386 ‘person-years’ have been spent on educational research in Denmark, but offers no comparison with other fields to help the reader understand the real significance of this figure.

The conclusion pulls together the salient points of all chapters, and argues for credible, context-sensitive research involving partnerships with teachers. This sober, reflective book would be valuable for new educational researchers concerned with the impact of their work.

Oxford for Radicals (Skin Deep Magazine, March 2015)

‘I do a kind of historic tour of Oxford for radicals,’ one audience member introduced himself, ‘from a Marxist perspective.’ He had adorned his coat with campaign badges dating long before I had arrived at Oxford, their colours bleaching and the lettering unclear. ‘It’s fascinating, how the university produces both the established ruling classes, and breeds resistance at the same time…an extraordinary dialectic’, he continued. I agreed, dismally marshalling my knowledge of Marxist theory, and deciding that this was not an appropriate time to bring up my own tour guiding, the majority of which had a decidedly bourgeois flavour. Think Downton Abbey, not Electric Avenue.

We had assembled in East Oxford’s Community Centre to hear Aaron Dixon, a former Black Panther, speak. As founder of the Black Panther free breakfast programme for schoolchildren, he would later tell me, with great pride, that as a result of their campaigning through example, the city of Oakland came to develop its own breakfast programme, servicing the community on top of the thousands fed by the Panthers.

Walking into the centre and noticing who I had been speaking to, Aaron broke into a grin: ‘There’s my tour guide! Man, you really took me in – I just had to sit down and let it all sink in… so much information!’ We were led into the basement, seating arranged in a crescent shape in front of an open bar. The audience was eclectic and people’s motivations for turning up varied heavily: I was there to conduct an interview; another was attentively making notes while her husband snored loudly and slumped in his seat. A minority chatted amicably to one another, regular attendees of those events planned by the African and Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative. The majority simply had a strong interest Black Power, its ideology and its history.

The venue was comfortable, with bean-bags scattered everywhere alongside a number of sofas. The Community Centre does not have a reputation for hosting radical speakers. Our pre-talk chit-chat unfolded outside of a dance-calisthenics class, the bright acoustics and varnished floors evoking memories of suburban parish halls, not radicalism. This event, then, could only serve as a snapshot of radical activity. It was unlikely that such a combination of people would ever be in the same room again – it’s not every day a Black Panther comes to Oxford.

Aaron Dixon had, the previous day, spoken at the Oxford Union in proposition that the United States was institutionally racist. He had prepared notes, which he stuck to throughout, and was unfamiliar with the Union’s rules, unsure why a member of the opposing side kept standing up every time he implied that the CIA had fed crack into American ghettoes. He was not there to make friends. Here in East Oxford, however, his speech was captivating, his manner easy. The audience was reverentially quiet: no ad hoc applause, no white-tied guffaws or disapproving clamour. He knew his audience, and he knew the numbers: 10,000 grocery bags, with a whole chicken in each one, distributed to Oakland families under his watch; 350,000 regular subscribers to the Party newspaper; 350 blood tests for sickle cell anaemia administered to African-American inmates. To join the movement, you needed two weapons, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, tempered by two hours of political study per day.

To have power, he said, was to be able to ‘define the phenomena around you.’ To identify problems, offer solutions, and carry a weapon. He said this more than once, and the audience nodded in agreement. He was a living picture of the romantic activist. He told stories of close shaves with the police, late nights drinking ‘panther piss’, (two parts port wine; one part lemon juice. I have had this under a different name which I have since forgotten) and one incident where a party member shot his TV because he was sick of seeing cowboys kill Indians. At the high point of describing one police confrontation, he paused, and intonated each syllable: ‘We were more ready to die than they were.’ Maybe in a different environment, this would have been greeted by a rowdy cheer or a disapproving growl, depending on your student-political affiliation. But the audience was silent. We knew he meant every word, and some wished they could mean it too.

The talk ended and the room slipped into more serious chatter. Calls for volunteers for various events and fundraisers were issued, donations given and food ladled out. The room became an open floor for the issues of the moment. An older person with a campaign button to save Cowley’s local swimming pool passed out pamphlets and shared information. Audience members exchanged details, and Aaron faded into the background. I came away from that evening with the impression that East Oxford’s activism network was a vibrant forum for anyone with a genuine passion and something to say. Issues previously unknown to people, such as Marine Le Pen’s visit to Oxford, were discussed with spontaneous verve and intent to act. People from all walks of life assembled, though only for an evening, to hear a legend speak, and left resolved to define the phenomena around them, whatever they might be.

Never Look Back: Free Jazz and why it Matters (ISIS Magazine, February 2015)

One  evening in Vienna, I was part of a thin, bewildered crowd, listening to the Peter Evans Quintet. The shrill whirrs of a laptop synthesiser jarred with Evans’ buzzing trumpet, the double bass and the drums had very little to do with each other, and the keyboard hopelessly attempted to punctuate the disorder. But  during rare glimpses into the internal logic of the improvisation,  the whole thing seemed to make perfect sense. We suddenly latched on to the melody, then the rhythm; every note was meant to be there all along. Those moments seemed to justify everything that had come before. The first segment over, and the curtain drawn, a gentleman turned to me and said, rather sagely, ‘Terrible… I’m much more into the old Dixieland jazz myself… And we came to Austria for the classical music, so, you know…’

I didn’t really know. I think I was meant to nod and agree that whilst Dixieland and classical music held the gravitas of history, free jazz belonged in some other category. That the music to which we were listening existed in a historical vacuum, without heritage or pedigree. We were in the country of Mozart, and free jazz was no more than a squatter in his illustrious city. I nodded agreement that the Quintet’s clamour was an ‘acquired taste.’ But free jazz does have a history, and while it may not be glamorous, it’s worth telling.

You can’t talk about the history of jazz in America without talking about substance abuse, homelessness and police brutality. From Miles Davis’ autobiography springs an image of New York’s white-owned clubs flooded with Dexedrine, marijuana, cocaine and LSD. John Coltrane’s ruthless schedule was fuelled by alcohol, endless cigarettes, and heroin. Even as late as 1957 he struggled to make a secure living, earning just $300 per album, at a rate of three albums per year.

Yet there’s a curious nostalgia about the ‘jazz age’ and beyond. We’ve re-imagined the drug-dens into smoky speakeasies and the impoverished musicians into romantic bohemians. We’ve sold ourselves an image of the African-American musician with a suit, skinny tie and a million-dollar smile, and yet there’s an uneasy sense that this is hiding a darker reality.

‘I always hated the way [Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie] used to laugh and grin for the audience…

I wasn’t going to [grin] just so some non-playing, racist, white motherfucker could write nice things about me.’

(Miles Davis, 1991)

Modal jazz and widening horizons

Free jazz as a musical form, whilst not quite free from compositional logic, was free from imposed constraints.  Even as late as the 1960s, the repertoire of young jazz musicians was limited to show-tunes and a few standards based on simple chord progressions and well-known melodies. Bill Evans and Miles Davis created one of the most strident departures from the norm with Kind of Blue (1959). Based on different scales, rather than strictly limited chord progressions, the album was characterised by a tranquil unpredictability. Each musician had the freedom to roam within the different modes, rather than trying to cram the maximum ‘wow’ factor into their allotted solo before the song’s structure forced them back to formula.

Two years later, John Coltrane released My Favourite Things (1961). With its waltz time-signature and breezy melody, the title track became a cornerstone of his performances for years to come. Coltrane could improvise on just two chords for as long as he wished, without an overcomplicated structure dictating the nature of his playing. The song could accommodate up to forty minutes of live improvisation, and the radio edit became one of the most frequently played jazz singles of the decade. Wild, lilting and ecstatic, by his final performance, the tune of the  chorus  is almost never stated. The song takes on a life of its own; it becomes more John Coltrane than Rodgers and Hammerstein. It becomes free.

                ‘…but then it was really getting too long.’

(John Coltrane, 1964)

Free jazz and Black Power

By the late 1960s, the consensus around early jazz was shifting. Melodically, artists had laid the groundwork to play their own compositions in the way they felt best. But the economic hardship of the musician’s life and the pervasive racism of the music industry and of society remained. The image of the Uncle Tom with a Saxophone was deeply troubling for black musicians, none of whom wanted to be associated with musicians who chemically straightened their hair to look white, or who performed self-deprecating or clownish songs like Calloway’s ‘Reefer Man.’ Free jazz was political. The number of musicians’ collectives and independent record labels skyrocketed from the 1970s onwards, as artists were let down by mainstream producers, affording them both financial and creative independence. Charles Mingus expressed his politics through song titles (‘Faubus Fables’, after a segregationist Arkansas governor, and ‘Remember Rockefeller at Attica,’ after the 1971 prison riot) and Colette Magny wrote the ‘Oink, Oink Suite’ in 1972 to commemorate victims of police violence in France.

The twin ambitions of restoring dignity to the art form and expanding the musical options available allied free jazz with the internationalism of Black Power. Beginning perhaps with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (1960), and advancing to the use of African percussion by Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, the restless adoption of new musical cultures is emblematic of a Black Nationalism which had broadened its outlook and saw civil rights as part of a global process of liberation.

In spite of its sometimes uncompromising rhetoric of political rebellion, free jazz often lent itself to wry satire rather than outrage. There’s a misconception that the music of this period was seething with politicised rage. Indeed, most artists, when interviewed, have been alarmed to hear that their music has been received as ‘angry.’ It’s difficult to imagine that Coltrane’s Meditations (1966), made up of tracks like ‘Love,’ ‘Serenity,’ ‘Compassion’ and ‘Joy’, was intended to be as furious as the drones of his instrument might intuitively suggest. Eric Dolphy, a multi-instrumentalist and  sidekick to Coltrane, would embellish his improvisations with phrases from ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, and play alongside Mingus in irreverent renditions of ‘Cocktails for Two’ or ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ They were gently mocking the middle-class affection for early jazz, as if paying lip-service to those tastes before pushing ahead with creating art. Free jazz is not a snarling middle-finger to the music of the past so much as a gracious, departing nod. Bartok, Bach, Rachmaninov and Gershwin were inspirational figures for many. The pastiche became less gentle during the seventies in France, when one collective performed in blackface, sporting rictus grins in a parody of Jim Crow. In 1977, Mingus took aim at James Whitcomb Riley’s ‘Short’nin’ Bread,’ for suggesting that black children lacked refined taste:

‘Who says momma’s little baby likes short’nin, short’nin bread?

That’s some lie some American white man said!

Momma’s little baby don’t like no short’nin’ bread!

Momma’s little baby likes truffles… Momma’s little baby likes caviar…’

(Charles Mingus, 1977)

This, ultimately, is why free jazz matters. Its harmonic experimentation, provocative satire and ruthless tone function as ‘Freedom by any means necessary’, set to music. When we see past the false glamour of its infancy, the necessity of free jazz becomes clear. Deliberately progressive, it either advances or it stagnates. It looks forward so that it need never look back.

‘[Jazz is] the only area on the American scene where the black man has been free to create. And he has mastered it. He has shown that he can come up with something that nobody ever thought of…’

(Malcolm X, 1964)

Interview with Aaron Dixon

So, could you describe for me the ideal qualities of a Black Panther recruit? Presumably, as a Black Panther captain you had to decide who was suitable for the movement and who wasn’t. So, in terms of personality traits, physical fitness [He laughs], philosophy…

You know we didn’t really look at that. Maybe we should have but we didn’t really look at that. We just looked at somebody… well, we had a five week training programme that we supposedly were supposed to put them through but we really didn’t. They had to be committed, they had to be willing to go out and sell papers, they had to be willing to participate in all party activities, and rallies. They had to be willing to use a weapon if they needed to, they had to have a weapon, they had to acquire a weapon and get ammunition. We had weapons classes to teach them how to use a weapon, how to break down and clean their weapons, and participate in military drills.

And what do you think attracted women, specifically women, to the movement? Do you think there was something in it for them in particular?

Well they were just like the men. You know, they wanted justice to be done. They wanted to see justice in their communities. They had seen the same thing  as the men had seen. That is, racism and injustice that had been perpetrated by the police departments. So you know, they wanted the same thing that we wanted.

Take a musician like Gil Scott-Heron, he can get away with saying quite inflammatory things about white feminism but still have women on side. What I’m asking is why some women felt attracted to the movement in spite of a very masculine rhetoric.

Well, you know, the same thing that attracted the men to the ‘masculine rhetoric’ [He looks a little unconvinced by my choice of words]. It was defiant, and for standing against the system, standing up against police. That was attractive to men and women. Uh, and you know, women were able to do a lot of the things that the men were able to do in the party, so uh, you know, women in the black panther party were not like regular women. They were very strong. Just like the woman who first joined, she came by that office and said ‘how come you ain’t got no women in here?’ She had the audacity to say that. And that’s the type of woman that we wanted, that’s the type of women you had to be. You had to have audacity. These were tough minded women.

Tell me about Kathleen Cleaver.

She was very smart, very dynamic, a great speaker. She was the epitome of what a black panther party woman was about in the early days. She was that first image of a woman that you saw in the black panther party. She had the leather coat on, the sunglasses and a shotgun! [Laughs]

And the uniform was more or less the same for both genders?


Right down to the tie?

Yes… no, they didn’t wear… Black dress, that’s what they wore.

What did people take away from the breakfast programmes? Did they enjoy it? Did they see it as something that they’d move away from eventually?

Well yeah people enjoyed it! I mean, it was hard work ‘cause you had to get up early and feed kids, but it was rewarding work because we fed so many kids and you know, what I forgot to mention is that we forced the government into forming a national breakfast programme which is still around today.

And that’s why it’s a revolutionary act?

Right, yeah.

You once marched with Martin Luther King but joined the black panther party after his death which could represent disillusionment with non-violence. But later on you engaged with the electoral system. I wonder what motivated you to run for office yourself?

Well when Bobby Seale ran for mayor that’s because that’s what the party ordered him to do. [Matter-of-fact] That was the next move. As I was saying, we were always changing. We saw this as an important tactic. As a matter of fact this tactic led us to take over the city of Oakland, we were going to take our campaign around the country and take over other cities!

So a combination of self-defense and political activism?

Yeah, yeah.

How can people be persuaded to give more, and more effectively? (GWWC, September 2014)

Research and prose by Michael Davis, Angus Smith and Denise Melchin

Encouraging people to give to charity is often based on appeals to emotion. Encouraging people to give to the most effective charities, however, involves appealing to their reason. Do these facts necessarily clash? Does the effective altruism movement face an uphill struggle against people’s intuitions, gut feelings and personal experiences?

Our findings investigate the ways in which giving with your head can appeal to the heart. A number of simple, intuitive, persuasion techniques can dramatically alter an individual’s ability to understand, and really internalise, their potential to do good.

Crunching Numbers

‘Giving ten per cent of your income’ is a scary thought, until you actually think about it. So, when persuading someone to take the Giving What We Can pledge, giving someone the space to think it over can be a surprisingly useful tool. A 2011 paper by economist Anna Breman showed that when regular donors were encouraged to increase their donations, the mean increase in monthly donations was 32% higher among people asked to do so after two months, than those who were asked to do so immediately. In a second experiment this figure stood at 11% So, when inviting someone to take the pledge, consider asking for a commitment first, and allowing them space to adjust to the idea before actually starting payments.

Another way of framing the ten per cent donation in a more appealing way is through suggesting that the donations be made frequently, and in smaller amounts. A study by Strahilevitz in 2010 showed that ‘the relative appeal of giving to charity rather than having those resources for oneself is greater for small amounts than for large amounts.’ Have you ever been reminded of how much you could give to charity if you simply cut down on the lattés? This is the ‘little-but-often’ model at work: when people see a donation as a series of small sacrifices, they are much more likely to appreciate its overall good.

This brings us on to a fundamental problem with fundraising for effective altruism: people struggle with conceptualising large numbers. When Kurt Tucholsky (not Stalin, who was hardly an insightful man) said that one death is a tragedy, and thousands is a statistic, he was alluding to a truth that social psychologists have recently come to elucidate. Take a recent series of studies by Västfjäll et al. (2014) which found that as more children were introduced in different charity appeals, activity in the Zygomaticus Major muscles decreased. Activity in these muscles is typically associated with compassion and the anticipated ‘warm glow’ of giving. As more victims of poverty were introduced, then, people’s empathy towards them decreased. Västfjäll, understandably annoyed, organised a second study in which these children were grouped into ‘entities,’ such as families. He found that eight related children elicited more empathy, and donations, than eight unrelated children. So, when talking about the lives that one can save through effective giving, stress that these are not simply abstract third-worlders, who exist as nothing more than statistics, but real people who relate to one another.

‘It’s not that I dislike people but I’m a great animal lover…’

There are, however, some heavily ingrained biases in people’s altruistic behaviour which can take real effort to break. Today’s society is saturated with different charitable appeals, and interview data suggests that donors use a variety of heuristic, experience-based rules of thumb to cope with the complexity. A study in 2014 pulled up such responses as, ‘I very rarely look at a new charity,’ ‘I’m not adding to my list,’ or ‘I have a box…all the [charity leaflets] go in and every month I donate to two of them.’ In persuading someone to give effectively, we have a responsibility to help people see through the complexity of charity and explain clearly and concisely why organisations like the Against Malaria Foundation deserve our support.

Arguably more damaging is the idea that there is a limit to how much good one can really be expected to do. Having done one’s ‘good deed for the day,’ people can get defensive, even offended, about being asked to do more. It falls to us, then, to remind people of their potential to save lives, resisting the temptation to rest on one’s laurels and focus on future aims rather than past virtues. Indeed, one study has shown that people primed to think of themselves as virtuous behave less altruistically than those primed to think of themselves in a negative light. Without going so far as to advocate a wholesale campaign against people’s self-esteem, it can be useful to shift the emphasis of a discussion away from someone’s previous acts of generosity and towards what should be done in the future.

Persuasion Techniques

More generally, there are a number of things to keep in mind, whatever the nature of your appeal, for encouraging people to give more. We have already gone over a number of barriers towards attitude change that many perfectly well-intentioned people can experience. In persuasion, it is always better, and indeed, more sympathetic, to yield to some of these truisms rather than attack them outright. Cialdini, Green and Rusch found that students interviewed about exam reform at their university were more receptive, even to specious arguments, when the interviewer yielded to some of the subjects’ arguments rather than resisting them.

Suppose, however, that you are in a position of responsibility for delivering a presentation on altruism to a large group of people. A different, very easily applicable technique is not to immediately tell the prospective donors what your aim is. Begin with a brief discussion centring on the precise goals that Giving What We Can and other effective altruism movements seek to tackle. Go into some detail about the nature of different interventions and encourage people to think in a logical way by guiding them through how poverty alleviation works in practice. One study showed that people prepared to engage their minds by memorising long sequences of letters were much more likely to donate to a charitable appeal which focussed on the plight of multiple children as opposed to just one, than those asked to memorise just two letters.

We have outlined a number of problems, and, hopefully, a number of solutions, to the question of how to encourage people to break their implicit assumptions about charity, and to give with their heads as much as their hearts. The mental blocks that keep people from giving effectively are often long-ingrained beliefs that, while firm, can be brittle. If you can really get someone to engage their brains by discussing charity in an intelligent way, you may be surprised how quickly attitudes change.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of the human mind that it struggles to conceive of large numbers in a meaningful way, and this is an obstacle that Giving What We Can must overcome in order to press home points about effective giving. The scale of what we can accomplish can, both for better and for worse, be unimaginable.

Speech to Warwick University’s Effective Altruism Society (November 2014)

The effective altruism philosophy is, at its core, a basic concept: people should realise their full potential to do good. What should interest us is whether or not this principle is really intuitive. We know from the Drowning Child Analogy that most people, when guided through the logical steps, are altruistic. Almost no one you’ll ask would say that they would ignore the child under any circumstances, but when it comes to actually following through, and doing the logically consistent thing, which is donating as much as they can to life-saving causes, something weird happens.
For some reason, even though the analogy establishes that altruism is a morally intuitive concept for most people, we’re still a long way off from most people giving regularly, let alone to effective charities.
To solve this issue it’d be nice to establish a few basic premises: First – Effective altruism is a morally sound concept. Second – A morally sound concept should be intuitive to people. Therefore: Effective altruism should make intuitive sense.

But it doesn’t.


I’ve been researching a number of mental barriers to people really empathising with global poverty, and barriers to people coming to terms with their obligation, and potential, to tackle it.

The first barrier relates to ‘heuristic,’ or ‘experience-based’ thinking. These are thoughts like, ‘I can drive round the corner not wearing a seat-belt; there are hardly any cars on the road this time of night.’ They’re rules of thumb, learned rather than examined critically. In the context of charity, they look like this.

 ‘I’ve got a box…everything goes in and I give to two a month.’
 ‘[I support] basically anything that catches my eye.’
 ‘I often look at who the patrons are, if I like the patrons.’
 ‘It’s not that I dislike people but I’m a great animal lover’

It can make for quite distressing reading. For what it’s worth, virtually everyone in this series of interviews was over forty years old, and I’d argue that heuristic thinking of this type tends to get more ingrained with age. However, people wouldn’t need to use ‘mental shortcuts’ like this if the charity sector wasn’t so complex to begin with. We might mock, but the guy with a box full of charity leaflets has resorted to this method because the charity sector as a whole has let him down.

There’s been an abject failure of communcation. On the one hand, you have hundreds of charities making emotional appeals for a huge number of different causes, and on the other, you have organisations like ours acting surprised when people struggle to make the right decision about charity.

To return to the drowning child analogy, let’s add another condition: suppose the water has become so muddy that you can barely see the child anymore. Can we really be surprised that effective altruism hasn’t become the dominant philosophy in charity?

I think what this all comes down to is empathy. We looked at a number of studies which suggest that people really struggle to understand – or perhaps, we’ve failed to convey – the scale of global poverty in a way that people grasp.
Let’s take a look at a study by Kajonius et al. which looks at the impact of what he calls ‘moral exhaustion’ and its impact on charitable giving. A number of undergraduates were presented with charity letters describing the plight of Ethiopia. One letter came attached with a list of four charities that each specialised in a different area, and presented the opportunity to donate to one of them. Another letter was supplemented with a list of forty charities.

One group, then, came away with the impression that Ethiopia was struggling with a large number of issues, and another came away with the impression that there were only a few major needs.

Would anyone like to hazard a guess as to which group reported greater empathy and donated more money?
The ‘small number of needs’ group reported greater empathy and donation intention than did the ‘large number of needs group.

Another experiment by the same lab found that charities focussing on geographically narrow problems – a drought, a famine or something – elicited much more empathy and donation intention than charities that focused on a broad issue like, say, ‘extreme global poverty.’

Let me just reiterate the basic point: the greater the extent and number of perceived problems in Ethiopia, the lesser people’s willingness to donate.

So what are we supposed to do about this? By the way, it might be an idea to recall to you that quote by Peter Singer about how effective altruism combines the head and the heart. Did that statement seem a little strange to anyone when they first heard it? It should have – most of you guessed correctly how the different groups would respond to these stimuli. It makes sense. Human empathy didn’t evolve in a globalised context. The drowning child in a lake makes sense to us because we see the child. When the analogy asks us to imagine that the child is in Ethiopia, our ability to empathise drops right off.
It’s unfortunate but not exactly unsurprising. While going from a child drowning in a lake to a child starving in Ethiopia might be morally and logically consistent, it’s not emotionally consistent.

But we agreed at the beginning that any morally consistent principle should make intuitive sense, didn’t we? So it’s not enough to simply fold our arms and say ‘Well you said that you had an obligation to help so get on with it.’ There’s obviously some failure of communication on our part which stops effective altruism from taking off in the wider community.
This is partly where my training in history comes into practice. I know about attitude change, and I know that the great philosophical debates in history have never been won with statistics.

Martin Luther King had a dream, he did not have a PowerPoint presentation.

I think there’s quite a worrying tendency among the Effective Altruism movement as a whole to think that appealing to people’s emotions, passions and life experiences is in some way beneath us. It’s not. And it’s not patronising, either. I like to think that History is the study of gut responses to external stimuli. History shows us that emotions are all that really matter.
The statistical analysis comes later, once you’ve got people on side. So I’ve called this talk ‘Imagining the lives you can save’ because that’s ultimately what needs to happen.

My favourite study out of the ones I read over those two weeks with Giving What We Can relates to a concept called ‘Compassion Fade.’ The way it works is a number of undergraduates are presented with charity appeals that feature different numbers of ‘protagonists,’ if you like. ‘This is Ava, she’s four years old, she has schistosomiasis…’ and so on. As the number of these protagonists went up, compassion and donation size went down. The way Vastfjall ultimately reversed this effect was through something called entitativity. This is when you group previously unrelated people into sets, like schools, villages, families and so on.

Ultimately he found that eight children grouped as a family elicited more donations and empathy than an appeal featuring eight unrelated children.

And so now we come to the fundamental point: a very subtle change prompted a significant move towards rational, utilitarian thinking. Eight lives are worth more than one life. Any sensible person would agree. But it takes a certain kind of appeal to actually make people internalise that principle, and act on it.

I’ve brought up a couple of adverts that manage to put forward the idea of, at the very least, comparing one intervention with another for the purposes of measuring their effectiveness against each other. The first one, ‘would you like me more if I ate out of a dog bowl?’ actually manages to make a moral point against donating to a ‘less important’ charity: the advert is confrontational, and, amazingly, it’s confrontational towards people who already donate to charity!

While I’m obviously not going to advocate using techniques like this one, it does illustrate the point that you can articulate the idea that ‘x does more good than y’ in a way that’s punchy and attention grabbing. Here’s another. So – and I’m not a marketing guru by any means – what I see here is a nice juxtaposition that sticks in the head: dirty water is as bad as any gun. Neglected tropical diseases are as bad as any headline grabbing disease you care to name.

I really think Effective Altruists can play this game too: we know that worms are bad; we know they can deprive a child of their education, play, social life, and health. This is emotional stuff. But let’s take a look at what the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative’s website looks like – this is a real flagship of the EA movement.

And it’s a pie chart on a grey background.

I’ve checked – there’s no obvious mention of the fact that the schistosomiasis parasite burrows into human skin, lays eggs in your body, causes you to vomit blood, could cause you to be paralysed from the waist down. Check Google images: it’s nasty stuff. Why don’t we talk about schistosomiasis in these terms? Strip the statistics away for a minute – here is a disease which ruins lives. Talking in terms of emotional appeals works – the research backs me up on this. It’s a language we’re going to have to learn, and very quickly, if our ideals and our philosophy are going to stay relevant in the face of all the barriers I’ve outlined this evening.

This is what the EA movement should encourage. It is completely illogical to assume that you can get someone to think in an evidence-based way through evidence alone. If it were that easy, we’d have a packed auditorium; I’d probably be on TV.
The take-home point here is that we make a huge mistake by ignoring empathy in our thought. People are empathetic; the drowning-child you can see has much more of an impact on your mind than the drowning-child you can’t. We can either fold our arms and mock people for whom this is the case or we can make a concerted effort to appeal to that empathy in everything that we do. Or, we can take an active and interested role in how people think, why people think that way, and exploring people’s innate potential to be altruistic. I’m leaving this open-ended; it’s down to your creativity and ability to see the poetry behind the evidence we cite.