Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Irish Law

Who’s left holding the baby now? Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Irish Law

by Sarah Pryor

The rapid rate of development and expansion in usability of genetic technologies in the past decade is both a cause for celebration and a cause for concern.

There is an impetus on law and policy makers to act responsibly in creating and implementing legal tools to aid in the smooth operation and integration of these technological advances into society in order to mitigate the possibility of society enduring any negative impact from the existence and use of technologies in this growing area.

The question asked here is; do assistive reproduction technologies challenge the traditional concepts of parenthood generally, and motherhood specifically, and what impact does this have on Irish law and society?

Quite simply put, the answer is yes, these emerging technologies do challenge traditional familial concepts and norms. The answer as to what impact this has on Irish law and society is exceedingly more complicated.

Ethical concerns

Reproduction is becoming increasingly more medicalised, geneticised and commercialised. This has the potential to diminish the human condition and damage the human population.[1] In a time of scientific, social and legal change it is inevitable that there will be periods of uncertainty. It is under these conditions of uncertainty that identity and ethics must be debated, and boundaries must be established in order to ensure that no negative experiences come to the broader population due to the advancements being made in the area of assisted reproduction.

The ethical concerns surrounding the increased medicalisation of human reproduction range greatly.[2]

The most challenging element of reproductive technologies is the fact that the issues being debated are deeply personal and sensitive, meaning that no one experience is the same and as such, there is difficulty in establishing a standard of practice, as well as a legally and ethically balanced acceptance of the use of these procedures. These difficulties are inherent to discussion surrounding human reproduction.

Assisted Human Reproduction in Ireland

Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) was not formally recognised as an area in need of governmental oversight until the year 2000 when the Commission for Assisted Human Reproduction, herein referred to as ‘the Commission’, was established and the need for comprehensive, stand alone, legislation in this area was recognised.[3]

The Commission and subsequent report were welcomed as a move towards the recognition of a set of newly emerging social norms in Ireland; both in terms of medicine and reproductive technologies and also in terms of the traditional nuclear family and the growth towards new familial norms. However, following the publication of the 2005 report there was little done in the way of proactive implementation of the set out recommendations.[4]

Political conversation centres around the disappointment that questions surrounding the protocol of AHR services and their use must be addressed via judicial channels and that there is not legislation in place to counteract the need to use the Irish Court System to get answers.[5]

The lack of legislation in this area means that the only avenue for the guidance of medical practitioners comes from the Irish Medical Council “Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for registered medical practitioners”.[6] Several cases in recent years have been brought to the High Court and Supreme Court in order to solve the maze this legal vacuum leaves patients struggling through.[7] These cases, as recently as 2014, have highlighted the necessity for legislation in the area in order to protect all parties involved.

The role of religion

It is important to recognise the cultural history of Ireland and the importance of the social and political role of the Catholic Church for many years. Older Irish generations were reared in a country in which contraception was illegal and women did not work once they were married as their societal role was in the home. Newly emerging technologies, such as surrogacy, further challenge these traditional values.

There is an unfortunate pattern of political and religious control over a woman’s right to reproduce and the conditions in which it is ‘right’ for a woman to have a baby. For a long time in Ireland, there was no real separation of church and State. The ramifications of this have rippled throughout Irish history and up to the present day – no more so than in the area of the reproductive rights of women.

Parallels with the Repeal the 8th campaign 

Although distinctly different from the abortion debate, and the argument for the repeal of the 8th amendment, certain parallels can be drawn in how the government has responded to calls from various groups to provide guidance in the area of assisted reproduction and how these calls have been largely brushed to the side. On the introduction of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, Minister for Justice & Equality Francis Fitzgerald removed any reference to surrogacy because it was too large an issue to merely be a feature of a more generalised bill, so there is indication that positive movements are being made in this area – the question is when will they actually be formulated into real, working policies, laws and protocols?

ARTs and the Marriage Equality referendum

Until 2015, marriage in Ireland was exclusively available for heterosexual couples. The 34th Amendment of the Irish Constitution changed this, effectively providing for a more equal society in which traditional Irish values towards marriage were replaced with a more accepting stance, something which was voted for by the Irish public through a referendum.[8]

The gravity of such a change in Irish society has implications beyond just marriage. Laws regarding areas such as adoption were relevant only to the married couple and, within that context, this meant only heterosexual couples. Irish family law was written with the traditional ‘mother, father and children’ family in mind. It is fair to say that family dynamics have changed significantly, and the movement away from traditional concepts of family is increasing. With the passing of the Marriage Referendum, marriage in the context of law and society has taken on a new meaning, and the symbolic nature of this recognition of a new familial norm is plain to see. The Irish electorate voted for this, and public consultations on Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) have illustrated the support of the Irish people for ARTs, and for legislation regulating their use – and yet, still there is none.

ARTs are used by heterosexual and homosexual couples alike. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 has made movements towards acknowledging new familial norms in Ireland and was a welcomed symbol of the future for Irish society as increasingly liberal and accepting. Although many pressing issues are not addressed within the Act, such as surrogacy, the support for the enactment of new measures regarding familial relationships is a deeply reassuring acknowledgement of the changing, evolving nature of Irish society and their views towards non-traditional family units. While this is to be welcomed, it simply doesn’t go far enough.

The role of the mother

One area that has not been addressed in any significant way is the greatly changed role of the mother.

Mater semper certa est – the mother is always certain. This is the basis on which Irish family law operates and it is this historical, unshakeable concept that is being shaken to its core by the emergence of ARTs.

Traditional concepts of motherhood are defined solely through the process of gestation.[9] A birth mother, in the context of Irish law, is the legal mother.[10] This has remained a point of contention in the Irish courts, demonstrated in the 2014 Supreme Court case addressing the rights of a surrogate mother to her genetically linked children to whom she did not give birth. Denham CJ addressed the ‘lacuna’ in Irish law, emphasising the responsibilities of the Oireachtas, in saying that:

“Any law on surrogacy affects the status and rights of persons, especially those of the children; it creates complex relationships, and has a deep social content. It is, thus, quintessentially a matter for the Oireachtas.”

Chief Justice Denham further stated that:

“There is a lacuna in the law as to certain rights, especially those of the children born in such circumstances. Such lacuna should be addressed in legislation and not by this Court. There is clearly merit in the legislature addressing this lacuna, and providing for retrospective situations of surrogacy.”[11]

The emergence of ARTs as common practice, particularly regarding egg and sperm donation, surrogacy and embryo donation, have created a new concept of parenthood, and more specifically motherhood.

There are deeply segregated emerging views over who exactly is the legal mother, and the social mother, the rights that each participant has, and who is responsible for the donor or surrogate child.

Whilst some of these issues were addressed in both the Commission Report and the 2013 RCSI Report, such as the right of the donor child to the information of their donor, neither delve deeply into the implications of such medical processes on concepts of motherhood and parenthood.

Three fragmented concepts of motherhood now exist; social, gestational and genetic.[12] Although there are established ideologies of parental pluralism within society regarding adoption, the nature of the situation in which a child is born though the use of ARTs is fundamentally different from an adoption agreement which is accounted for in Irish law.

Feminist views on ARTs

Feminist views differ greatly in their resounding opinions on the emergence of assistive reproduction technologies. Arguments are made opposing ARTs as methods of increased control over a woman’s reproduction through commercialisation and reinforcement of the pro-natalist ideologies.[13] Others argue in favour of ARTs in stating that their development allows women more freedom over their reproductive choices and enables women to bear children independently of another person and at a time that is suitable to her; an example of this being the use of IVF by a woman at a later stage in her life.[14]

These complexities exist before even considering the social and legal role of parents in same sex relationships – what relevance does the role of the mother have for a gay couple? What relevance does the role of a father have for a lesbian couple? Does the increasing norm of homosexual couples having children via surrogate mitigate any need for these socially constructed familial roles and highlight the irrelevance of these roles in modern society? The same questions can be asked of a single man or woman seeking to have a child via surrogate – should a person only have a child if they are in a committed relationship? Surely not, as single parents currently exist in Ireland, have done so for some time, and are raising their children without objection from society or the state.

‘The law can no longer function for its purpose’

Regardless of where one’s stance lies on the emergence of these technologies, it is undeniably clear that their use is challenging normative views and practices of parenthood. The traditional, socially established norms are shifting from what was once a quite linear and nuclear view. ARTs allow for those who previously could not have genetically linked children to do so via medical treatments. It is in this way that the situation under current Irish law is exacerbated, and the law can no longer function for its purpose.

Something needs to be done, so that whoever wants to be, can be left holding the baby!

[1] Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts, Born and Made: An Ethnography of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (Princeton University Press 2006).

[2] Sirpa Soini and others, ‘The Interact between Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Genetics: Technical, Social, Ethical and Legal Issues’ (2006) 14 European Journal of Human Genetics.

[3] David J Walsh and others, ‘Irish Public Opinion on Assisted Human Reproduction Services: Contemporary Assessments from a National Sample’.

[4] Deirdre Madden, ‘Delays over Surrogacy Has Led to Needless Suffering for Families’ Irish Independent (2013) <; accessed 25 June 2016.

[5] Roche v. Roche 2009

See also, MR & DR v. An tArd Chlaraitheoir 2014

[6] David J Walsh and others, ‘Irish Public Opinion on Assisted Human Reproduction Services: Contemporary Assessments from a National Sample’.

[7] See Roche v. Roche 2009. See also MR & DR V. An tArd Chlaraitheoir 2014

[8] 34th amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015.

[9] Andrea E Stumpf, ‘Redefining Mother: A Legal Matrix for New Reproductive Technologies’ (1986) 96 The Yale Law Journal 187 <; accessed 16 June 2016.

[10] See, MR And DR v an t-ard-chláraitheoir & ors: Judgments & determinations: Courts service of Ireland [2014] IESC 60.  [S.C. no.263 of 2013]

[11] Ibid, para 113, para 116.

[12] SA Hammons, ‘Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Changing Conceptions of Motherhood?’ (2008) 23 Affilia 270 <; accessed 4 August 2016.

[13] SA Hammons, ‘Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Changing Conceptions of Motherhood?’ (2008) 23 Affilia 270 <; accessed 4 August 2016. See also, Gimenez, 1991, p.337

[14] See, Bennett, 2003 and Firestone, 1971

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]



The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?



Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.



Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.



Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.


Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.



Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]



[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at:

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at:

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 


(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012


Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see:

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.


[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4]

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

Detecting Parkinson’s Disease with your mobile phone


by Reham Badaway, in collaboration with Dr. Max Little.

So, what if I told you that in your pocket right now, you have a device that may be able to detect for the symptoms of a brain disease called Parkinson’s, much earlier than doctors themselves can detect for the disease? I’ll give you a minute to empty out the contents of your pockets. Have you guessed what it is? It’s your smartphone! Not only can your trusty smartphone keep you in touch with family and friends, or help you look busy at a party that you know no-one at, it can also detect for the very early symptoms of a debilitating disease. One more reason to love your smartphone!

What is Parkinson’s disease?

So, what is Parkinson’s disease (PD)? PD is a brain disease which significantly restricts movement. Some of the symptoms of PD include slowness of movement, trembling of the hands and legs, the resistance of the muscles to movement, and loss of balance. All of these movement problems (symptoms) are extremely debilitating and affect the quality of life for those diagnosed with the disease. Unfortunately, it is only in the late stages of the disease, i.e. when the symptoms of the disease are extremely apparent, that doctors can confidently detect PD. There is currently no cure for the disease. Detecting the disease early on can help us find a cure, or find medicines that aim to slow down disease progression. Thus, methods that can detect PD before doctors themselves can detect for the disease, i.e. in the early stages of the disease, are pivotal.

Smartphone sensing

So, how can we go about detecting the disease early on in a non-invasive, cheap and easily accessible manner? Well, we believe that smartphones are the solution. Smartphones come equipped with a large variety of sensors to enhance your experience with your smartphone (Fig 1). Over the last few years, abnormal characteristics in the walking pattern of individuals with PD have been successfully detected using a smartphone sensor known as an accelerometer. Accelerometers can detect movement with high precision at very low cost, making them perfect for wide-scale application.


Fig 1: Sensors, satellites and radio frequency in Smartphones

Detecting Parkinson’s disease before symptoms arise

Interestingly, subtle movement problems have been reported in individuals with a high risk of developing PD using sensors similar to those found in smartphones, specifically when given a difficult activity to do such as walking while counting backwards. Individuals at risk of developing the disease are individuals who are expected to develop the disease in the later stages of their life due to say a genetic mutation, but have not yet developed the key symptoms required for PD diagnosis. The presence of subtle movement problems in individuals with a high risk of developing PD indicates that the symptoms of PD exist in the early stages of the disease progression, just subtly. Unfortunately, these subtle movement problems are so subtle that individuals at risk of developing PD, as well as doctors, cannot detect them – so we must go looking for them. It is crucial that we can screen individuals for these subtle movement problems if we are to detect the disease in the early stages. The ability of smartphone sensors to detect the subtle movement problems in the early stages of PD has not yet been investigated. Using smartphones as a screening tool for detecting PD early on will mean a more widely accessible and cost-effective screening method.

Our solution to the problem

We aim to distinguish individuals at risk of developing PD from risk-free individuals by analysing their walking pattern measured using a smartphone accelerometer.

How does it work?

So, how would it work? Users download a smartphone app, in which they are instructed to place their smartphone in their pocket and walk in a straight line for 30 seconds. During these 30 seconds, a smartphone accelerometer records the user’s walking pattern (Fig 2).


Fig 2: Smartphone records user walking

The data collected from the accelerometer is then downloaded on to a computer so we can examine the presence of subtle movement problems in an individual’s walking pattern. However, to ensure that the subtle movement problems that we observe in an individual’s walking pattern is due to PD, we aim to simulate the user’s walking pattern via modelling the underlying mechanisms that occur in the brain during PD. If the simulated walking pattern matches the walking pattern collected from the user’s smartphone (Fig 3), we can look back at our model of the basal ganglia (BG)- an area in the brain often associated with PD – to see if it is predictive of PD.




If it is predictive of PD, and we observe subtle movement problems in the user’s walking pattern, we can classify an individual as being at risk of developing PD. Thus, an individual’s health status will be based on a plausible link between their physical and biological characteristics. In cases in which the biological and physical evidence do not stack up, for example when we observe subtle movement problems in an individual’s walking pattern but the information drawn from the BG is not indicating PD, we can dismiss the results in order to prevent a misdiagnosis. A misdiagnosis can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and psychology. Thus, it is pivotal that the methods that we build allow us to identify scenarios in which the model is not capable of accurately predicting an individual’s health status, a problem which a lot of current techniques in the field lack.

To simulate the user’s walking pattern, we aim to mathematically model the BG and use it as input into another mathematical model of the mechanics of human walking. The BG model consists of many variables to make it work. To find the values for the different variables of the BG model such that it simulates the user’s walking pattern, we will use a statistical technique known as Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC). ABC works by running many simulations of the BG model until it simulates a walking pattern that is a close match to the user’s walking pattern.

Ultimately our approach aims to provide insight into an individual’s brain deterioration through their walking pattern, measured using smartphone accelerometers, in order to know how their health is changing.


As well as identifying those at risk of developing PD from healthy individuals, our approach provides the following benefits:

  • Providing insight into how the disease affects movement both before and after diagnosis.
  • Identifying disease severity in order to decide on the right dosage of medication for patients.
  • Tracking the effect of drugs on symptom severity for PD patients and those at risk.


Apple recently launched ResearchKit, which is a collection of smartphone applications that aims to monitor an individual’s health. Companies such as Apple are realising the potential of smartphones to screen for diseases. The ability to monitor patients long-term, in a non-invasive manner, through smartphones is promising, and can provide a more accurate picture of an individual’s health.

Advances in smartphone sensing are likely to have a substantial impact in many areas of our lives. However, how far can we go with monitoring people without jeopardizing their privacy? How do we prevent the leakage of sensitive information collected from millions of people? The growing evolution of sensor-enabled smartphones presents innovative opportunities for mobile sensing research, but it comes with many challenges that need to be addressed.

The wonders of kelp, and why we need to save it.

‘Deforestation of the Sea: A closer look at valuable kelp forests in shallow seas around Britain’ by Jess Fisher.

 ‘I can only compare these great aquatic forests… with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp’

Charles Darwin (1834) Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Kelp forests: the rainforests of the ocean

A few weeks ago, I settled happily into Finding Dory on a Saturday night. Towards the end, the little blue fish drifts through the giant kelp forests, devoid of life, and sadly proclaims ‘…there’s nothing here but kelp!’. Having studied this oceanic plant, I can confirm that this is 100% scientifically incorrect: well done Pixar.

Kelp forests actually have around the same levels of biodiversity as a tropical rainforest. But why should you care?

Because kelp can do everything: it’s home to hundreds of thousands of marine species, it can be used as a fertiliser and a biofuel, it can be extracted to use in cosmetics like make-up and toothpaste, amongst many more uses. In 1908, Japanese biochemist Professor Ikeda isolated monosodium glutamate (or MSG – one of the things that makes Asian food so great) from kelp. Who knew science could be so delicious?!

Why is kelp disappearing?

Unfortunately, kelp is reported to be disappearing. This is mostly because of climate change making the oceans uninhabitable for some species, but also that more people are harvesting kelp from the wild. Lots of people are even beginning to call it a superfood. While its rapid growth rate (up to half a metre per day in some species) suggests that harvesting kelp should not really be a problem, conservation scientists are worried that all the marine life living in kelp forests will take quite a bit longer to return. Britain is especially important for kelp (because of the variation in habitats and rocky shores) which is why I started working on a project looking to test novel monitoring methods for kelp, so we can potentially measure what is actually happening.

How our project works

Kayaking into the open ocean near Plymouth, we fought through choppy waves into a prevailing wind, whilst I continually threw cold seawater with my paddle onto my kayak-partner, who was sitting behind me! Lots of kelp lives in the subtidal zone (beneath the sea surface even at low tide), and so the plan was to beam sonar onto the seabed from a kayak, look at the graph that the sonar gives back, and then use a GoPro camera to visually verify assumptions that we were making about which graphic patterns denoted kelp. For example:


 This was one of four kayak trips the team made to test the method. Amongst some other objectives, the main aim is to ask whether sonar can be used to monitor kelp at a Britain-wide scale. The findings will be given to our funder, The Crown Estate, who manages development on the British coastline (The Crown Estate is owned by the Queen of the United Kingdom). They would like to eventually create some guidelines for sustainably harvesting wild kelp, so that this valuable seaweed resource (and its associated flora and fauna) will be available for future generations for years to come. Some kelp snapshots from the seabed:

Counting the cost of losing kelp forests

Kelp forests are reported to be worth billions of pounds. In the northeast Atlantic, young lobster live in the kelp, and are eventually fished by a lobster industry worth £30 million alone. Is it worth keeping? Certainly. Is it worth monitoring incase of declines? Definitely.

 Inspired? Check out the Big Seaweed Search, Capturing Our Coast, and Floating Forests for some citizen science kelp-focussed initiatives. You can also read about the project on ZSL Wild Science.


Death and Me

By: Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce, Lecturer in Criminology, University of York, UK.

During my criminology PhD research into the relationship between celebrity and crime at the University of Leeds some 10 years ago I came across an interesting story. It entailed the relocation of the mummified arm of murderer, George Carpenter. Dr Charles Kindersley had retained the arm after dissection in 1813 and kept it in his home as a souvenir until it was donated in 1938 to the police museum in Marlborough before being passed on to the National Funeral Museum, London in 2005. I was fascinated by this macabre tourist-like act conducted by a doctor and on returning home to my husband that night (and much to his bemusement) burst out with: ‘Darling, there’s a mummified arm in Wiltshire!’

This marked the beginning of my scholarly love affair with death and culture.

Death and Culture

Being a cultural criminologist based in a sociology department with a research interest in crime, popular culture and celebrity, and death is an unusual combination. It has its advantages, such as being able to draw on my combined research interests and film with the BBC’s Hairy Bikers. I talked them through the murder of George Cornell by the Kray Twins in the Blind Beggar Pub in the East End of London in 2015 (as pictured below).

I also discovered just how hard it is to walk, talk and hold crime scene photos at the same time. It turns out that filming for television is more difficult than I anticipated.

However, as an interdisciplinary scholar I face some unique challenges. I have to constantly work at making sure I do not disappear between the boundaries of disciplines.I battle with not being criminological enough for criminology journals, and yet too crime-based for sociology journals, and too popular culture rooted for death studies journals.Thank goodness for journals such as Mortality that welcomes engagement with death from a variety of disciplinary approaches.


Dr. Penfold-Mounce featured with the BBC’s Hairy Bikers

I have had to work hard to establish a death and culture scholarly community by drawing likeminded scholars together through various events including running day symposiums like Negotiating Morbid Spaces (2014) and Marginal Death Research: Doing Edgework (2015). I even ran a three day international conference Death and Culture (2016) where 90 scholars came together from over 15 different disciplines to talk about death from a cultural perspective. The result has been that I no longer feel so isolated, and a strong death network has been formed, it is growing, and it has connected researchers across the globe.

Gazing on Death and the Dead

A driving force of my work in death and culture is my passion to stop people thinking that death is taboo.

Death is actually ever present, ranging from Disney movies (pretty much every Disney character has dead parents think Bambi, Frozen, The Lion King etc.) to executions being filmed in Syria and placed on Youtube. We see more graphic death than ever before. The big barrier that seems to make people think death is taboo is that much of what we see is mediated. In other words, seeing death on television or in film (ie mediated death) gives us a softening lens through which to engage with death. It means that popular culture makes seeing death more palatable and even normal. As such it would seem that it is ok to watch death and see inside the violated human body (CSI autopsies are a great illustration of this) but we are less comfortable chatting about it in personal terms in general conversation. As you can imagine, I do not share this restraint. Instead I work hard at being open about death and making the dead visible. I want to attract people’s attention and get them thinking and talking about death and the dead.

Conveniently for me, death has been particularly evident in 2016. In fact 2016 has been a very productive year for my research. We have witnessed an unanticipated boom in terms of deaths amongst the famous, including:

  • singer David Bowie
  • actor Alan Rickman
  • radio and television presenter Terry Wogan
  • magician Paul Daniels
  • comedians Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett
  • musician Prince
  • entertainer and ventriloquist Keith Harris
  • boxer Muhammed Ali
  • actor Gene Wilder

Whilst a common response has been grief or amazement or just general outcry – my response is ‘That’s perfect for my research’.

This peak in celebrity deaths led me to become interested in the posthumous careers of the famous dead and I’ve written about how lucrative being dead can be by using a case study of Marilyn Monroe for Death and the Maiden blog. It would seem that being dead can be a successful career move for many celebrities. My enthusiasm for the famous dead, particularly recent deaths, has provoked responses of concern at my apparent glee at the death of another human.

Please do not interpret my enthusiasm for this topic as macabre or dismissive of the loss of these individuals or dismissive of those suffering a loss. Instead, my enthusiasm is rooted in exploring death within our culture and how the famous dead helps a wide audience engage with mortality.

Since researching celebrity and death it has become clear that the famous dead can have value, not just in economic terms, but also as a cultural symbol to explore fears about life ending. The celebrity dead demonstrate that an individual can have a life in death and not just a life after death. In my book ‘Death, The Dead and Popular Culture’ (with Palgrave Macmillan due out in 2017) I examine not only the value of the famous dead but also the entertainment that the dead in popular culture can contribute to society through the Undead (zombies and vampires) and also authentic corpses (models or live actors who play the dead in a non-fantasy setting). Consuming the dead and death is commonplace and everywhere and provides a safe arena in which to explore cultural fears about mortality.

So what is next for me and death?

Well so far in 2016 I have hung out by Dick Turpin’s grave for The York Press to discuss the famous dead and tourism, and desperately tried not to smile for the camera or rattle the beer cans which were around my ankles. I have also been interviewed about violence against the female dead in television drama with Radio 4.


Dr. Penfold-Mounce at Dick Turpin’s grave.

I have run a workshop on the famous dead at the Before I Die Festival in York and made plans to run an interactive session for the public on ‘Spectacular Justice’ at the York Festival of Ideas in June 2017. I have also taken on more fabulous doctoral students many of whom are focusing on death in relation to popular culture or crime. So I think I will just go and finish writing about ‘A Corpse for Christmas’, a lecture I am giving at St Barts Pathology Museum this Christmas and then get working on my new book with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Death, the Dead and Popular Culture’. After all, I can rest when I am dead.


Images from ‘ A Corpse for Christmas’ the topic of one of Dr. Penfold-Mounce’s upcoming lectures.


Society & the female voice: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

‘Enter Ophelia distracted’: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen


Ophelia, singing before she drowns in a river, by Sir John Everett Millais.

by Florence Hazrat.

She is noisy and uncontrollable, a nightmare at polite dinner evenings. She annoys everyone with her stories, it’s only always about doom and gloom! She is the embarrassing sister, the unmarried daughter, the taker, the trickster. She is the woman who withheld sex, she is Cassandra.

Cassandra, a princess of Troy, who predicts the city’s fall, but no-one believes her. Cassandra, favourite of Apollo, given the gift of prophecy in exchange for her body. Cassandra who accepts the one, but refuses the other. Cassandra the seer, punished by Apollo with the curse of disbelief — you may speak the truth, but if no-one trusts you, it sounds like babbling, like nonsense. It sounds like madness.

This classical myth of the prophetess who was never believed is described by Homer in his famous poem on the war of Troy, and it puts its finger on a knot of issues pervading culture then, as much as in the Renaissance, and perhaps even today: there’s something about women who speak – sing even – that makes people nervous, that slips through barriers of (male) control, and that has a privileged access to truths, and uncomfortable ones, too. Shakespeare taps into these perceived connections when he stages Cassandra in his play on the Troy story. It’s something he returns to throughout his dramatic career, exploring singing women on the stage, mad perhaps, but with a powerful instrument: their voice.

Society and the female voice

Apart from Cassandra there were other female prophets among the Greeks, notably the Sybils and the Pythia at the Delphian oracle, infamous for the puzzling nature of her pronouncements which the askers needed to interpret, and did, though catastrophically wrong most of the time. Being an oracle, etymologically, means to speak. How can one speak, though, in societies that prize silence and reservation as female virtue? From Socrates to Shakespeare, a voice ‘soft/ Gentle and low’ was seen as ‘an excellent thing in woman’ (King Lear, 5.3). My research investigates the link between female singing on (and off) stage, as well as women’s use of song to fashion and assert their identities in the sixteenth century. I’m excited about the implications of this for what we think about women speaking in public and private today, from me and you to Lady Gaga and Hilary Clinton. Might our own concepts of talkative or loud or simply outspoken women be coloured by the past more than we might be aware of, and like to admit?

Much like us, Renaissance playwrights inherited a mixed bag of attitudes towards, and explorations of, gender. Women who did not conform to a role subservient to men needed to be controlled, which meant imposing silence, a restricting and disciplining of speech by husbands, brothers, fathers. This process is documented in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew which sets our teeth on edge today (and perhaps also those of some Elizabethan Londoners? Who knows.) It seems women had little chance of expressing themselves in more than prescribed and pre-scripted ways, but there appears to be one way, albeit a risky and tragic one, to claim independence of words, and that was madness. Not any kind of mad behaviour, but one whose symptom (or cause?) is music, a wild eruption into song, violent, disturbing, and disruptive.

Ophelia: Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman

Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman, perhaps even initiating a trend for such types and their representation in the theatre, is Ophelia, a young gentlewoman at the Danish court, and Hamlet’s sometime lover. Owing to his unaccountable rejection of her, as well as (more grievously) his murder of her father, she loses her mind, bursting onto the scene ‘distracted’, the stage directions tell us. More precisely, as one of the text versions from 1603 specifies, she is ‘playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing.‘ Public performance of music, even just within the story’s own court setting, was an inconceivably forward attention-seeking gesture for a gentlelady, clearly labelling Ophelia as out of her wits. She then launches into a cascade of fragments from songs popular at the time, some bawdy, some mournful, and sacred even, and it is precisely this mixed nature of her songs, which is problematic for the Renaissance playgoer: Ophelia’s songs are broken up into snippets, and randomly stitched together, a seemingly disconnected medley whose meaning we can only guess at — but therein lies exactly her powerful threat against the authorities. Interpretation. Ophelia’s songs make us interpret, and consciously so, as suggested by a nervous courtier who prepares the audience for her first entry in another version of the play text a year later:

Gentleman. She speaks much of her father, says she hears

There’s tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart,

Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt

That carry but half sense, her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

 The hearers to collection, they yawn at it,

 And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,

Which as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,

Indeed would make one think there might be thought

Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

Horatio. It were good she were spoken with, for she may strew

Dangerous conjectures in ill breeding minds.   (Hamlet, 4.5).

‘Her speech is nothing’…Yet it is something enough to engage her listeners, to encourage them to figure out less which songs she is pasting together but why. Primed by the courtier to read deeper meaning into her supposedly random associations, we become complicit in Ophelia’s possibly political public music. Is she suggesting her father’s killing was murder? Does she mean there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark? Are we, perhaps, those ‘ill breeding minds’ in the end…?

Music: at the heart of the issue

By claiming the right to speak, Ophelia transgresses limits of aural female presence, more even, by lifting her speech into song, she offends twice, but it is precisely music which both enables and attenuates charges against her crime of song: are these truly her words, or are they just lyrics belonging to everyone? Or no-one? We have all sung these songs at one time or another; does that make us culpable of inciting rebellion against the king and queen? Does Ophelia, perhaps, become the avenger that Hamlet ought to be whose father was also murdered? And does music mean anything anyway? It’s just sound after all! Music, it seems, is both a screen and at the heart of the issue of the female voice, ambiguously “there” and self-effacing at the same time.

More singing madwomen were to follow Ophelia and Cassandra, such as the Jailor’s Daughter in Shakespeare’s late play Two Noble Kinsmen, but also in works by other playwrights. The Renaissance stage was a network of players and writers who knew each other intimately, and cooperated more often than not, circulating and recycling ideas from each other. In the pieces of these dramatists, madwomen use pre-existing words to speak about their own situations, like oracles to speak truths which their environment tries to suppress as well as interpret. Being forbidden a voice of their own, they make the voice of everyone theirs, turning collective into individual identity. Music, almost beyond good and evil, offers women a means to carve out an independent, a noisy self. In a tragedy, that outspoken (outsung?) self often perishes, either by her own or at others’ hands, and yet: the claim to presence and acknowledgement of female personhood has been made. The silence has been broken, and phenomenally so, when Cassandra, rocked by a vision, bursts out like a vocal volcano:

                             Cry, Trojans, cry! practise your eyes with tears!

                        Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand;

                         Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.

                             Cry, Trojans, cry!

She is greeted by her brothers as ‘our mad sister’, but… every single one of these brothers will be dead soon, as much as the fortress city will have crumbled into dust and ashes. Then we will mingle our voice with Cassandra’s, having nothing else to do but mourn and cry.


Cassandra, by Frederick Sandys.

Reflection: Tackling the ethical conundrums of research at the Digital Economy Network Summer School

By Angelika Strohmayer

Building a City of Ethical Conundrums

Doing research is difficult, and no amount of training is going to prepare us for every single potential ethical question or incident in the field. While applying for ethics approval from the university is supposed to help you think about potential issues that may arise in your research, they don’t always make you think about all the little details, the small things that can happen when doing fieldwork.

When looking at ethics as a constant conversation you are having with yourself, your supervisors, your colleagues, and maybe even the ethics board, it helps you address these conundrums that come up through the process; the invisible questions.

These conversations are hard to have with colleagues or supervisors, let alone the official ethics board of the institution, as many of the issues that come up may be very personal and complex. On top of this, it seems to be that safe, judgement-free spaces to talk about these types of issues openly are also sometimes lacking.

To address this issue, three PhD students from Highwire Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) at Lancaster University and Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Digital Civics at Newcastle University put together a workshops for other PhD students studying in DTCs and CDTs within the Digital Economy Network (DEN) at the annual DEN summer school (this year hosted by Open Lab at Newcastle University) on the 19th of July 2016.

This workshop was an opportunity for students to have a safe space to address any ethical questions, conundrums, or concerns that they may have come across in their work so far, or are worried they may come across in any of their future work.

Since we knew this was going to be a difficult topic to talk about, we addressed the topic in a serious, but fun and creative way: We built a city of ethical conundrums.

Using ideas from anarchist and critical pedagogies where embodiment, creativity, reflexivity, communication, and collaboration are important, we came up with the idea of creating a common language among participants to talk about these personal concerns.

The workshop started with a short activity to get to know one another, and a longer conversation on the importance of safe spaces including how we were going to make sure our workshop was a safe space. After this, there was a short period of individual reflection where participants created unique pieces of art to represent their own ethical concerns in silence. After sharing these with the rest of the group, the building of the city began.


Starting with simple language and concerns, we used black building blocks and markers to document the conversations that came out of the individual presentations. To address invisible issues that arise throughout the research process we added little clay ghosts, and to further complicate the conversations we ended up building in some Lego figurines to populate our city of ethical conundrums. After all these conversations, we tied balloons to the ghosts and came up with strategies of addressing these invisible issues. At the end of the day, we ceremoniously popped these balloons to let the glitter that had been filled in them fall onto the hostile-looking city we had built throughout the day. This made the city prettier and shinier, adding to the metaphor: while the kind of research we are doing in sensitive settings is difficult and at times may look hostile, when we talk about and address these concerns the research will be less hostile and more beautiful.


This workshop helped us learn from one another’s concerns and allowed us to address many difficult issues in a safe environment. The workshop was a great opportunity to exchange experiences, reflect on ethical implications of previous, current, and future projects, and to engage in discussions around these concerns. We were able to map commonalities between the different research projects we addressed in the workshop, and to see that while all participants were working in very different environments, many of the ethical concerns appeared in all of our work. The safe space we created through the workshop allowed us to address both very detailed and unique concerns, but also broader ethical issues we see in academic research as a whole.

All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own

by Olivia Wilkinson.

While spending time online you have probably come across a clickbait article about someone who gave up work and went travelling on his or her own to discover the meaning of life. There have been lists of the top 10 reasons to travel on your own, hundreds if not thousands of blogs have been born to document their owners’ solo travel experiences, solo travel tips are just a quick Google search away, and countless articles have been published that extol the virtues of travelling on your own and discovering your true self along the way.

Solo travel for research is rarely cast in this light of self-discovery.  It only hits the news when tragedy occurs, most recently with the killing of an Italian PhD student in Egypt this year, which highlighted the dangers present while conducting fieldwork. In particular, the position of a woman researcher conducting fieldwork can be precarious, with a study finding that 18% of women scientists had experienced sexual harassment during fieldwork. While there have been highly worthwhile academic work published that deal with the position of women in fieldwork scenarios, I want to reflect more generally on what it’s like to be a solo researcher away from home.

My interest is in light of two relatively recent experiences. Firstly, I did my own PhD research in 2014 and 2015 in the Philippines. It’s a wonderful country that I regularly miss, and that I encourage you to visit. But at times I found the experience very difficult. Sitting in a hostel in Manila on the first few days of my trip, I felt small and alone. I Skyped my boyfriend and threatened to buy a flight home for the next day. My self-doubt at the beginning of the lengthy trip was high. I worried that I hadn’t arranged enough interviews and focus groups ahead of time. I worried that the ones I had arranged would fall through. I thought I was not going to come home with enough data to fulfil my PhD requirements. I worried about the travel I would have to do around the country. I felt inferior in comparison to the old hand aid workers I was trying to contact as part of my research. The months ahead of me seemed overwhelming. Instead of buying a flight home, I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did: my worries gave way to excitement and the trip turned out to be a success. Some pre-arranged contacts worked out, some didn’t, but I met new people, organised new interviews and focus groups, and came home having experienced the most intense, but rewarding, months of my research career thus far. In hindsight, I feel I gave myself too hard a time, especially at the beginning, and have learned to be kinder to myself as a result. I hope I can share some of the things I did to calm my worries and feel more confident.


Olivia at the MacArthur Landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte, December 2014.

Guidelines for fieldwork

Secondly, I have recently worked with two other women, Bianca van Bavel and Brynne Gilmore, to bring together a set of guidelines developed by students and for students on the ethical conduct of international fieldwork (supported by the Development Studies Association of Ireland and the Irish Forum for Global Health). The guidelines emerged from conversations with other young researchers who had vastly different experiences of the amount of support they received in completing their fieldwork. After a comprehensive literature review and focus group discussions with other early stage researchers, the eventual set of guidelines we have formed gives highly practical recommendations on going about fieldwork in a responsible and ethical way, which is both safe for the individual researcher and the people they interact with during the research. If you are about to embark on research, or even if you are half way through, I would highly recommend reviewing the guidelines here. What we learned during this experience is how many times young researchers have felt let down by their institutions during their fieldwork, made avoidable mistakes, and generally been ill-prepared for the fieldwork experience. Although I was lucky enough to have a supportive background both personally and through my university, I still found the experience challenging. For those with less than supportive situations, the combination of factors can be extremely limiting.

While I urge you to look through the guidelines for specific advice backed up by the weight of evidence from our research, I will also briefly reflect on some of the key takeaways I personally have from my research experience, looking back with the 20:20 vision of hindsight as I come to the end of my PhD. So, what have I learned?

Tips to remember

Know your boundaries. This is about managing your own expectations as well as other people’s. Understand how likely you are to take risks, and whether you should take those risks. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. For example, are you prepared to take a lengthy bus journey on your own to a place you’ve never been before to talk to one interviewee who might not even show up? What are the risks that you might encounter to get to that one interview? Are they worth it for that particular interview? The answer may be yes, absolutely! But it may also be no and that’s ok. One less interview is not the end of the world.

Don’t be afraid to ask. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young female researcher. I felt, on the one hand, that I had to push quite a bit to underline my seriousness as a researcher. It was another woman, in fact, who belittled my research as just a pet project for my own benefit. On the other hand, however, I felt that I could benefit from this as people were very willing to help me out, assisting me in making further connections, as well as things like figuring out transportation or buying a SIM card. A lot of this was about learning to ask people for help and not thinking I was asking too much or seeming too needy.

Have an itinerary – and tell other people about it. It’s useful to plan your time carefully. You may feel like you have months ahead of you, but it will go quickly. More importantly though you should let others know when and where you will be. Like the advice to hikers before they head into the forest, let someone know when to expect to hear from you. Of course schedules change rapidly and you should take up opportunities when presented with them, but it’s always best to let a few people you trust have a broad idea of when and where you will be.

Know when to take breaks. Fieldwork is really tiring. You spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, waiting on replies to phone calls and emails, and conducting interviews, which is an intensive process. Navigating from place to place in a new environment can be exhausting. You may also stand out a bit. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to hide away and get some down time. Watching trashy TV all weekend (yes, I did this on occasion) is not necessarily a waste of time. You may only have a short amount of time in a certain place and feel pressure to get a lot done, but burn out can happen quickly, especially when you’re on your own, and some time for recuperation is well worth it.

Try to include a scoping trip. I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a month-long scoping trip before my main research trip. I highly recommend it, as it allowed me to not only gain contacts and organise things for my subsequent, longer trip, but also familiarise myself with the places I was intending to stay and learn how to navigate around the islands I would be staying on. This was very useful for my second trip when I was working really hard on my data collection. I was glad to have that familiarity, which made me feel more at ease.

My PhD experience would not have been even half as rewarding without my fieldwork. I personally gained a lot and I hope that I can give back through my research findings. Yet something we underline at the very beginning of the fieldwork guidelines is that international fieldwork is not for everyone. It’s a commitment and there are risks, both of which you need to be aware of from the outset. Inform yourself with our guidelines and other documents out there. If it’s still for you, then I have one last recommendation: remember to enjoy yourself too! Take a weekend off to explore! You deserve it.


Time for reflection while waiting for a focus group to start, Leyte, March 2015.