The long-term benefits of getting (a bit) drunk and being (a bit) annoying at academic conferences

A few years ago, Beth Breeze (philanthropy guru) and I conducted some research on what homeless people felt about the representation of homeless people in the fundraising literature used by homelessness charities. The original research is published here and here, and you can read what I have written around the issue here (p21) and here (p16) (I’m like Zizek*). Overall our focus group participants felt that while the images were a bit demeaning, inaccurate and overly staged, money maximisation has to be the primary goal of charities.

When we first raised this finding in an exploratory blog post for Third Sector magazine, we received several responses, ranging from questioning to angry (of Tunbridge Wells). One of the commenters stated (on face value not unreasonably) that:

It’s hardly surprising that a group of people who have lost all dignity and self confidence would react in this way.

Up to a point, we agreed: it is worrying that a group of rather powerless people who were relying on a charity for basic support were willing to give up any power they may have had over their own representation in order that services could continue for them and other people in the same situation.

However, the commenter’s idea that our focus group participants had “lost all dignity and self confidence” was just not accurate and showed a real lack of nuance about homeless people. The service users we met were a diverse group – bright, thoughtful, and most certainly didn’t lack confidence in giving us their opinions. The teenagers especially were a fun and lively bunch, who talked to us about being at college, applying for apprenticeships, having job interviews, and going to work. A few had done or were doing Media Studies at A-level, and it was clear they got the point of and compromises involved in advertising. Many of them understood that they themselves would not be included in such advertisements because they looked too happy and too clean (and had regular jobs or were in education). Advertisements had to include the images representing what charities thought donors thought the homeless looked like, because posters don’t have the ability to provide context and explanation – Gladwell’s ‘blink’ hypothesisLINK. Charities can worry about the education afterwards.

At the end of the preamble the point was this – if we think that (homelessness) fundraising literature has to appeal to the images that potential donors have in their heads, then:

  • What is that image in their heads?
  • How can we find that out?
  • If that image is stereotypical and inaccurate, what can we do about it?

The answers to those questions can be found here, in an article entitled ‘Drawing what homelessness looks like: Using creative visual methods as a tool of critical pedagogy‘. It may be 8,000 words long, but don’t worry, one of the benefits of the method employed is that there are pictures. I’ve also written a blog for Sociological Research Online about it which you can read here. The abstract is:

This article presents findings from a creative qualitative study, where drawing was used as a methodological tool to investigate university students’ awareness of homelessness. Previous research (Breeze and Dean 2012; 2013) has shown that homelessness charities often utilise stereotypical images in their fundraising campaigns, focusing on the arresting issue of rough sleeping (rooflessness) as opposed to other, more widespread experiences of homelessness. In drawing ‘what homelessness looks like’ the images students produce are often rooted in familiar local scenes – local roofless people they see regularly, or replications of common media images, with a tendency to depoliticise and individualise homelessness as a social issue. These drawings show striking similarities, common themes, and indicate a lack of critical engagement with the complex problems within personal homelessness narratives. The efficacy of the methodological approach is assessed, with the role creative methods such as drawing can play in stimulating critical discussion of issues, such as gender and the media, highlighted. The article also argues that such methods can play a role in critical pedagogy, encouraging deeply reflexive accounts of participants’ behaviour and knowledge. In policy terms however, this article concludes that it would be a risk for homelessness charities to utilise less stereotypical images in their fundraising materials, as the findings suggest such images align with those in the minds of potential donors.

Before I address the title of this blog (which, let’s face it, is why you came) I think SRO is the perfect place for this research. Firstly, being online the space is provided for over half a dozen images to be included, which probably wouldn’t be available in print. Secondly and more importantly, is the issue of Open Access research. With the stupid and prohibitive fees charged by academic publishers, having long-form, detailed academic research which the voluntary sector can access for free has to be a boon. After publishing in Contention last year, the vision of trying to make a sizable proportion (half?) of my publications OA seems to still be rolling.

Finally, the title of this blog comes from that hoary old issue: where do ideas come from? I presented our initial research at the ARNOVA conference (the biggest gathering of nonprofit researchers in the world) in Toronto in 2011. While there, I got annoyed at the overwhelmingly boring nature of the conference and the oddly-repetitive, characterless presentations delivered for three days straight. To compensate for this (and because I was an overly-privileged know-it-all British PhD student**), I got a bit drunk and complained loudly about the rather lousy conference to someone I’d just met who must’ve thought me rather terrible. I said we needed to do more inventive presentations. He politely asked for an example. I said perhaps in a presentation about homelessness you could ask the audience to close their eyes or lie on the floor and imagine sleeping rough, probably thinking I was being very inventive in bringing in this embodied element. He said this was really distasteful and stupid (which was, in hindsight, an excellent critique). Stunned, I quickly said, “Well, yes, but how about you give out paper and ask the audience to draw what they think homelessness looks like, and then see if it matches the advertisements, and then point out they are not accurate?” To give him credit, he thought about it, nodded, and said “Yeah, that might work”.

So there I was, a bit drunk, in a Toronto bar that was inside a shopping mall, haranguing a quite senior researcher from a prestigious US university who I’d never met before, blurting out the précis of a journal paper which would be published in Sociological Research Online three and a half years later. Funny how things work out.


* If you get that joke, congratulations, you’ve won 12 books a year for the rest of your life.

** I am now an overly-privileged know-it-all British lecturer.

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