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Department of Social Anthropology


Communication Faultlines on the Frontlines

Leverhulme and Isaac Newton Trust Early Career Fellowship (2021-2024)

This Leverhulme ECR Fellowship project, entitled Communication Faultlines on the Frontlines, tests the limits of communicating need and deservingness of support between people who have little common ground. 

The overall aims of this project are to:

1) identify knowledge-making incompatibilities within the UK’s ‘superdiverse’ social landscape; 
2) to highlight the effect of individual constructions in socially-defined, ethical positions on worth, support, effects;
3) to advance discourses on ‘epistemic injustice’ beyond philosophy by anthropologically testing the limits of language 

Uniting a background in anthropology, disabilities-led arts praxis and social policy, this research engages various theoretical frameworks – particularly communication ethnography, epistemic injustice, and semiotic affordance theory – to understand the empirical points related to stereotypy and definitional disparities that lead to social and communicative breakdowns. This work is underpinned by broader questions concerning the ways that communication resources influence knowledge-making processes and value judgements within health and social care, and in constructions of categories of personhood, specifically as this applies to interactions within British institutions including: Education, Care, and Judiciary. It investigates language-in-use by observing how people express need or prove ‘deservingness’ of support (Howe 1985), whether for the benefit of institutions, family, or strangers. 

The ways that people define and communicate social worth – values that ultimately dictate public support – have shifted significantly in recent years, particularly since the UK’s resources have strained under austerity measures, are being transformed by algorithmically-determined eligibility, and as both Brexit-based polarity and Covid foreground the size and cost of the Social State. Using participant observation, discourse analysis and participant workshop events, I will spend time in schools, the Citizens Advice Bureau/Royal Courts of Justice (CAB/RCJ) and in a District Court to map the constitutive layers that build individual interpretations of support, paying particular attention to communication ‘affordances’ (Gibson, 1979. Keane, 2018. Ingold, 2018): the environments, upbringings and epistemologies that shape personal definitions and ultimately determine the success or failure of relational knowledge-making (Toren & Pina-Cabral, 2011). Critical to these investigations will be the well-documented health costs associated with seeking public support, more specifically increases in psychic crisis, self-harm, and suicide during benefits claiming*.

I am committed to what I call in-reach, a reshaping of traditional institutions such as Cambridge through inviting key publics in – research participants, community leaders, specialist practitioners – reforming scholarly spaces into inclusive domains. In-reach is key to my work, both as an ethical imperative and analytical tool. It facilitates broader thinking, invigorates analysis, and incorporates otherwise unheard expertise. It is built into every research project I conduct. For this reason, I have incorporated an, Anthropology for Children initiative as part of my research in primary schools, teaching year six students ethnographic methods such as field notation, proxemic mapping and photo voicing, as well as discussing bias, stereotypy, and reflexivity. I’ve conducted this research across state and private schools as well as in schools for children with special educational needs. The children have learnt invaluable research approaches but have also begun to think about their own agentive force in the world, thus impacting on future understandings of citizenship and action.




Dr Kelly Fagan Robinson
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow
Fellow and Postgraduate Tutor, Clare Hall college
Postdoctoral Researcher at the Early Cancer Research Institute
Affiliated Lecturer
HMS Anthropology Examiner