Wren Radford is lecturer in Liberal Arts at the University of Manchester. Wren develops creative arts-based collaborations with community groups to reflect on issues around inequality, activism, and the role of lived experience in social change. They are the author of the book Lived Experiences and Social Transformations, and they publish and teach on issues of inequality, interdisciplinary research methods, and disability, queer, and liberative theologies.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
I had been working with communities supporting their reflections and developing community-based research on action and activism around poverty and inequality. I started to see the connections between the political and policy debates around the role of people sharing their lived experiences of inequality and the discussions in practical, feminist, and postcolonial theologies around lived experience as a key theological source. This formed the basis of my doctoral research at the University of Glasgow, where I worked collaboratively with local groups to explore their practices of sharing lived experiences to address poverty and examined questions of experience, activism, and injustice in wider theological praxis. I had expected this to be a time where my interests would need to be narrowed down but (in part thanks to an excellent supervisor) this ended up being a time where some of my interests could be developed and expanded, particularly around creative arts-based and participatory methods, queer and disability theologies, and interdisciplinary work in literature and theology. The core threads running through each of those approaches are justice, lived experiences, and questions of how people represent experiences of injustice through literature, art, and activism.
I then had the opportunity to build on this with a two-year post-doctoral research position with Lincoln Theological Institute at the University of Manchester, exploring further questions around everyday embodied experiences of inequality in the UK, again working through collaborative and creative methods. I am now based at the University of Manchester as a lecturer in Liberal Arts, with teaching around areas of theology and interdisciplinary social research.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
There are a number of things that I think have been part of sparking and continuing to shape both my research interests and how I work. Feminist, womanist, postcolonial and queer theologians who have consistently raised questions about how power works in theological meaning-making and how we frame and interpret whose and what knowledge ‘counts’ as theologicalhave been a huge part in shaping my work – Mayra Rivera, Emilie Townes, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Courtney Goto (to name but a few).
Working with and alongside communities in research, appreciating their critical ways of engaging with the world has been a huge part of shaping my focus and the ways of conducting research. In my doctoral research I worked with a steering group of participants to design, shape, and evaluate the research. One of the questions we discussed was about how much of the project should be used in the academic discussion, and they were clear that the way they worked as people and as a community should influence how theological research is done. Since then, I’ve worked with steering or planning groups where possible, which has always produced exciting questions and ways of working that I wouldn’t have considered alone, and ensures that questions of embodiment, justice, and activism run through the whole of the research project.
Collaborative ways of working always raise questions about extractive research and thinking about whether and how communities benefit from engaging in research projects. Whilst I don’t think this removes power dynamics in research, in major pieces of research we’ll discuss as a steering group what kinds of outputs will benefit the community. Often this is something creative that a group of us will work on together as a way of sharing learning and perspectives from the project in ways that are important to that community, and something that can’t easily be subsumed into academic knowledge and outputs. I get to work with some of our undergrads in liberal arts around developing research with community and arts organisations, and I’m hugely impressed with the questions and sensitivities that they bring to their own areas of interest in qualitative approaches.
Literature and art also continually feed my imagination and interests. I enjoy disappearing into almost any book, but I particularly love speculative fiction, anything around magic, metafiction, other worlds, or dystopia/utopia…probably because I think these encourage alternative ways of seeing and imagining realities. I teach a course that looks at womanist, feminist, queer, postcolonial and trauma perspectives on the engagement between literature and theology, and I really enjoy the conversations with students on these areas, particularly in talking with them about what in their own reading interests have shaped their worldview and commitments.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
There are a few things coming out of the Embodied Everyday project (the post-doc at LTI) that I’m currently following up on. The project used creative journaling and reflective workshops with participants to explore their everyday experiences, and out of this we produced a digital resource ‘Filled to the Brim’ that recreated some of the journal pages and contributions to the workshops. http://lincolntheologicalinstitute.com/filled-to-the-brim/
From this both participants and I are taking forward some of the key concerns around embodiment and activism, as well as moving away from categorisations of poverty through a focus on ‘the everyday’. We are also developing resources for groups who would like to work in a similar way – there’s been a lot to reflect on about how our bodyminds show up in research and activism and thinking about how best to facilitate this in our research practices in theology.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
I’d say I’m interested in how broader questions of inequality and injustice are addressed through activist and theological practices in contemporary society. I tend to consider how specific practices – such as sharing their lived experiences - enable a community or group to be constructing and reshaping meaning, drawing attention to the particular critical knowledges and creativity emerging of that community in these practices. I’m interested in how queer, disability, feminist, and postcolonial perspectives have problematized and reframed categories of what is ‘theological’, ‘religious’ and ‘political’ and what possibilities
emerge when we work with and through the poetic, affective, and material dimensions of key social issues. So, for example, when I’ve written about issues like austerity, I’ve been interested in how in the UK disabled people, people seeking refuge, and people in poverty often have their experiences demanded of them by Jobcentres, at disability assessments, or by Border Control, and aren’t seen as having ‘trustworthy’ knowledge about their own lives but have to fit ideas around who is ‘deserving’. I’m interested in how theological practices and activist campaigns can counter this not through arguing for people as being on the ‘deserving’ side of the ‘deserving/undeserving’ binary, but by questioning that binary altogether and by working with the critical knowledges in these communities. This then also raises questions about how art, literature, testimony, and activism speak into and shape public life.