Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can we still teach about media bias in the post-truth age?

Following on from my earlier re-blog of David Buckingham’s insightful piece on the role of media literacy in response to fake news, here is his latest piece focusing on the matter of media bias.

David Buckingham

Bias – along with related ideas like objectivity, impartiality and balance – is a staple issue in public debates about media, and in media literacy education. Yet in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign, the victory of Donald Trump, and the attacks on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, many have argued that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. In this context, is bias still a useful and meaningful concept in media literacy education? And if so, how should we teach it?

Two weeks ago, the BBC Trust – the body that regulates the UK’s national public service broadcaster – ruled that its chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, had breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in her reporting of a story involving the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the Trust is not exactly the most ferocious of media regulators, the ruling might have been rather surprising; although…

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PhD bursaries available


New PhD bursaries available in Geography at University of Portsmouth.

Includes study into ‘Career trajectories and paths to self-employment for graduates in the new digital economy‘ with Dr Carol Ekinsmyth & myself

Check out the details here:

Click on the images below to find out more about the supervisors:


Dr Carol Ekinsmyth


Dr Tara Woodyer

HOT OFF THE PRESS ! Children, young people and critical geopolitics

The start of the new year saw the first academic publication arising from our ESRC funded Ludic Geopolitics project. This is a chapter entitled ‘Ludic – or playful – Geopolitics’ in the Benwell and Hopkins edited collection Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics.

To whet your appetite:

‘Play is often considered inferior to the more ‘serious’ enterprises of work, endeavour and effort; at best, a rehearsal for adult life. In this chapter, we want to suggest otherwise; to take play, and those who play, more seriously. We do this with specific reference to toys, and build our argument in the following way. First, after a short literature review, we argue that toys need to be situated within specific geopolitical contexts; our focus is upon the history of the ‘action figure’ toy in both Britain and the U.S. In the second section, we show that while such discursive approaches are useful in addressing some of the broader aspects of the ludic, they form only part of the picture. In addition, we need to think more closely about how critical accounts of geopolitics might actually engage with children and children’s play. Potential ways that this might be achieved are discussed, with an attendant discussion of the challenges inherent in developing more affective and non-representational accounts of children’s play. The chapter finishes by offering a set of conclusions and suggestions for future research. In short, we contend that the ‘ludic’ is both under-theorised to date and increasingly important in a world where leisure time, and what children do with it, is becoming more and more complex (Livingstone, 2002). Social media and computer games, in conjunction with the continuing popularity of more traditional toys, such as action figures, are all part of a global toy industry that is now worth some $30 billion (Clark, 2007).’

(Carter et al 2016 p.61)

The chapter contains the first published empirical material from our project in the form of adult reminiscences of play with Action Man figures, interviews with former Palitoy workers (the British company who manufactured the original Action man range), and ethnographic accounts of visitor engagement with the V&A Museum of Childhood’s War Games exhibition.

Published by Ashgate, the wider collection engages with contemporary concepts in human geography including affect, emotional geographies, intergenerationality, creative diplomacy, popular geopolitics and citizenship. The chapters draw on research with children and young people from Europe, Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas.

‘The focus on the lives of children and young people problematizes and extends what we think of when considering ‘the geopolitical’ which enriches as well as advances critical geopolitical enquiry and deserves to be taken seriously by political geographies more broadly’

(from the cover of Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics).

The collection has been well received:

How do children see and respond to prevailing geopolitical imaginaries in their everyday lives? Benwell and Hopkins have assembled an outstanding volume that advances both critical geopolitics and children’s geographies by probing their subjectivities and quotidian ways in which they are militarised. Children should be seen, heard and understood as actors who are not merely the humanitarian victims of violent wars, but brokers and makers of geopolitical knowledge. Drawing on emotional, feminist, and other intimate geopolitics, the authors in this collection mobilise rich original research to foreground the agency and relationships of young people to geopolitics, from Laos to London, India to Cyprus, Australia to the Falkland Islands, and more.

Jennifer Hyndman, York University, Canada

For those considering how everyday life is imbricated in geopolitics, this volume is a must-have. While its most obvious contribution can be found in foregrounding the role of children and young people in geopolitics, I think it more broadly pushes us to think carefully about the spaces and times in which geopolitical agency emerges in unexpected ways.

Jason Dittmer, University College London, UK

Thanks to Matt Benwell and Peter Hopkins for inviting us to be part of this exciting collection and for their work in putting it together.


Letters to Santa & reflections on disenchanted childhood

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 09.32.55It’s not unusual to see the inclusion of feel-good festive stories in the news at this time of year. One caught my eye this morning. Builders found an old letter written to Father Christmas when taking down a chimney during house renovations in Caversham, Berkshire. The letter had been penned by a young David Haylock, now 78 years old. Haylock remembers “bending down with my mother and putting it up the chimney, and waiting for the draught to take it up”. The letter asks for a Rupert Annual, drum, box of chalks, soldiers and Indians, slippers, silk tie, pencil and “any other toys you have to spare”. The builders chose not only to return the letter to Haylock, but to also play Father Christmas and go out shopping for the items listed to gift to him, all wrapped up ready to open on Christmas Day.

Comparisons were drawn to Haylock’s grandchildren, who email their letters to Santa, and the contemporary wish lists of children that contain expensive gifts such as iPads.

A quick search for the news story online revealed this tale is not unique. Earlier this month a letter to Father Christmas from a five-year-old girl in the 1930s was found up a chimney during renovation work to house in Powys. In the note, Christine Churchill, now 82 years old, asks for “some nice toys” and a hymn book. Last year, the BBC reported that a letter to Father Christmas written in the 1920s had been found up a chimney in a boarding school when it was being cleaned. In this case, the letter asked for a book and an evening dress. The letter was used as a prompt for current pupils to reflect on their own Christmas wish lists and make comparisons with earlier levels of expectation.

The tone of these stories reflects a more general tendency to view contemporary childhood through a nostalgic lens, prompting concerns about trends such as growing levels of consumerism. This nostalgia is an admixture of adult imagination and memory, a romanticism shrouded in the mysticism and innocence of childhood. It powerfully fuels images of contemporary disenchantment. It is argued that children have been robbed of innocence and autonomy by the increasingly influential market, whose cultural products are motivated by economic interests, rather than a desire to enlighten, inspire and educate. Traditional values, discipline and patterns of social relations have been displaced by an acquisitive throwaway mentality and a desire for immediate gratification.

Materiality often plays an important role in ideal constructions of childhood and children. For instance, toys feature heavily in anxious accounts of contemporary childhood. It is argued that toy guns and videogames encourage violence and aggression, that fashion dolls flaunt sexualised images, and that interactive toys, and character based toys stifle creativity. Concern also extends beyond form to the materials from which toys are constructed. This concern is infused with a poetics that reminisces about ‘authentic’ associations with nature, and finds particular expression in debates about the relative preferences of (natural) wood and (chemical) plastic. Anxiety about the character of contemporary toys is intensified by their increasing commercialisation. As a sacralised realm, childhood is seen to conflict with the profane sphere of the market.

Today’s news story gave me pause to feel a little festive, but also reflect on this wider context; a topic I continue to address in my ethnographic research. While popular concern about the character of modern toys has sharpened, academic analysis of their social context has lagged. My PhD thesis sought to actively address this academic neglect, presenting an “alter-tale” to the story of disenchanted alienation fuelled by our nostalgic tendencies. It tells a series of contemporary stories about children’s domestic practices of play that accentuate the meaningfulness of toys in children’s everyday lives.

My current collaborative project continues this concern with placing toys in a wider social context. Focusing more specifically on concerns about war toys, this research examines how children express and enact contemporary geopolitics through their play. Recognising that play does not occur in a social vacuum, but rather reflects and helps shape wider contemporary society is a central principle of this work. Readers can find out more about this research from our project blog here.


Domesticating Geopolitics – how domestication and the intimate help us understand the geopolitical

Following on from my previous post on the ‘Domesticating Geopolitics’ sessions organised by the Ludic Geopolitics team as part of this year’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) conference, here is a summary of the sessions courtesy of Diana Martin, Research Associate on the project.

The session aimed at exploring notions of domestication and the intimate to understand the geopolitical.

What are the ways in which geopolitics is domesticated? And what does domesticating geopolitics mean and entail?

The two sessions gathered scholars from the disciplines of geography, international relations and education to capture practices, objects and perfomativities that contribute to the domestication, but also constitution of geopolitics.

Sean Carter (University of Exeter) opened the two sessions with our Ludic Geopolitics’s paper titled ‘Playing War: the action figure’s role in the domestic co-constitution of geopolitical cultures’. He pointed out how the notion of domestic has a particular meaning in IR theory. Domestic is the national, the space of national community and territory. It is associated with what it is known and good as opposed to the ‘foreign’, often associated with enmity. If domestic is often associated with the state and the nation, the space of the home has only recently become part of geopolitical considerations and investigations. Drawing on our domestic ethnography, Sean explained how geopolitics enters the space of the home through the HM Armed Forces military action figures, a range of military-related toys licensed by the Ministry of Defense (MOD). While it is often assumed that the outcome of playing with these military action figures is the naturalisation and sanitation of the military and its logics, our work on Ludic Geopolitics shows how play is both ‘entangled’ in contemporary and past geopolitics as well as ‘entangling’ . While it draws ideas, perfomativities and language from the geopolitical, it may also produce new geopolitical orders through play.

Related to young people and the ways in which they may be considered geopolitical actors, Kate Botterill (Newcastle University) presented a paper titled ‘Securing Disunion: Nationalism, identity and (in)security in the campaign for an independent Scotland’ on experiences of (in)security of young people from ethnic minorities in the context of the campaign for Scottish independence. The paper was co-authored with Peter Hopkins (Newcastle University), Gurchathen Sanghera (University of St. Andrews) and Rowena Arshad (The University of Edinburgh) and explored the ways in which geopolitical events (the campaign) and agendas (Scottish nationalism) shape young people’s everyday lives as they negotiate their identity (as part of an ethnic minority) and inclusion within Scottish nationalism to find their own sense of security. In doing so, they contribute to the ways in which Scottish nationalism is constructed as inclusive and multicultural.

Matthew Rech (University of Exeter) with his paper ‘Ephemera(l) geopolitics: the material cultures of British military recruitment’ looked at the ways in which militarism becomes part of the everyday through the materiality of military recruitment. The geopolitics of recruitment enters the space of the home through objects that may be utilised or displayed for collecting purposes. As Matthew pointed out, objects are not passive but active parties in constructions. They also impinge on everyday lives as they have relevance beyond recruitment (see for instance the ‘Help for Heroes’ eggs). He finally pointed out that we should think about our domestic lives as making and remaking the geopolitical.

JJ Zhang (University of Hong Kong) presented his work on ‘Paying homage to the ‘Heavenly Mother’: intimate geopolitics of the Mazu Pilgrimage in the midst of rapprochement between China and Taiwan’. By examining the role of Mazu pilgrimage in the rapprochement between China and Taiwan, JJ explored geopolitics beyond the notion of states and the role of the intimate in producing new geopolitical relations and possibilities. Tourism is a social and cultural phenomenon and a practice that allows people to socialise beyond states’ rivalries. Here geopolitics is domesticated through the intimate, able to connect people and spaces that in other geopolitical narratives are not normally friendly and/or connected to each other.

In his paper ‘The everyday geopolitics of Space Shuttle mission patches’, Andrew Maclaren (University of Aberdeen) talked about the ways in which the materialities of space missions (the mission patchesreproduce and reify national imaginations in different moments of history: the age of comptetition (1981-1991), the age of cooperation (1991-1999) and the age of internationalism (1999-2011). As the iconography of the mission patches encoded geopolitical narratives, these materialities become ‘banal reminders of geopolitical conflict, cooperation and internationalism’.

With her paper ‘Soldiers’ bodies, authority and the militarisation of everyday life’, Leila Dawney (University of Brighton) discussed the ways in which the wounded or dead bodies of soldiers become the means through which ideas of nationhood are produced as affect is directed and moved. Soldiers are made victims but heroes at the same time. As suffering is conveyed in a way in which the government is never seen as responsible for injuries or death, affective practices and perfomances create forms of collective attachment.

Jo Little (University of Exeter) presented a paper on ‘Violence, the body and the spaces of intimate terrorism’. Unsettling the differences between the intimate and the global, she looked at the ways in which intimate terrorism operates on the body and the mind of the victim of domestic violence. By looking at the ways in which domestic violence is associated to terrorism, Jo disrupts the boundaries between what is commonly understood as domestic violence (physical violence and signs on the body) and what is rarely considered as such (the emotional violence, strategies of control and entrapment). In so doing, she argues that ‘intimate terrorism’ and practices of surveillance, normally used in a military context, are adopted in the space of the home as women are prevented from working, socialising or going out to be better controlled. As global violence such as terrorism and surveillance help explain dynamics taking place in the space of the home, domestic violence becomes a form of warfare.

Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford) examined diplomats of de facto states, governments-in-exile and minority community and their mimicry of the language and performativities of diplomacy in order to represent their communities and interests within diplomatic institutions. She pointed out that while we may be aware of a set of formal procedures, diplomacy is also made up of everyday routines and activities. Through their bodily comportments and language, these diplomats mimic and perform conventions of diplomatic decorum. Fiona argues that the resulting embodied performances blur the boundaries between the formal and informal and, as a consequence, the boundary between diplomacy and political activism.

Issie MacPhail (University of the Highlands and Islands) presented a paper on ‘Orienteering inside ‘The Idea of North’: aesthetic escape routes and Spivakian speech acts’. Drawing on artist, Shona Illingworth’s, work, Issie examined the ways in which senses, emotions and an aesthetics of sound connect the local ‘peace-time’ of the northern lands of Britain with the global Cold War context. In the vicinity of the Cape Wrath Bombardment Range – British and NATO forces’ training centre – war sounds are heard from the space of the home. In such instances geopolitics affects dwellers of the area and creates a ‘distinctive topology of threat’ which is international and domestic at the same time.

From these papers it seems that domesticating geopolitics means different things. It could be about rendering something familiar and informal as in the case of Fiona’s paper on the mimicry of a performative diplomacy which includes everyday routines and gestures. Domesticating geopolitics also stands for bringing home global security and insecurity practices as Jo argued in her paper on the ways in which terrorism and surveillance are part of domestic violence. But domesticating is also more than the sanitisation of geopolitics. It is not only about bringing the geopolitical into the space of the home or the intimate. As if on a horizontal parallel, the intimate, the space of the home and the global intertwine and actively feed each other in the co-constitution of the geopolitical through play (our paper on Playing War in the space of the home), through the negotiation of identity and fears (Kate’s paper on young people from minority groups and their co-constitution of Scottish nationalism), through objects (Matthew’s paper on recruitment events and objects, and Andrew’s paper on mission patches and the ways in which they make and remake the geopolitical), through pilgrimage practices (JJ’s paper on the Mazu pilgrimage connecting different and hostile communities), through the body (Leila’s paper on soldiers’ wounded bodies, the production of a collective attachment and nationhood), and through an aesthetics of sound (Issie’s paper on the ways in which senses and emotions connect the home to the international). Domesticating, therefore, is not only about the ‘reception’ and sanitisation of broader geopolitical narratives. As these papers show, domesticating is very much an active participation in the co-production of the geopolitical.

See the original Call for Papers here.

See the paper abstracts here.

The sessions proved to be a productive space for thinking about how notions of domestication and the intimate help us understand the geopolitical. We’re grateful to all the presenters and audience members for making this so. Thanks also go to the Political Geography Research Group and the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society for their sponsorship.

Playing war

20141209_133755Christmas came early for the Ludic Geopolitics team last year as Ludic Geopolitics HQ took deliver of a range of H.M. Armed Forces action figures and vehicles for use in the child-based streams of our project. Since January we’ve been busy sharing these toys in both school-based and home-based sessions with children. The school-based sessions are designed as a recruitment method for the more in-depth home-based research, but we’ve been finding that these fun-packed, lively sessions are generating rich material in their own right. To read more about this work see the progress report written by team member, Prof. Klaus Dodds, detailed in an earlier post on the blog.

We’re looking forward to presenting some of our initial findings from this ongoing research in our session on Domesticating Geopolitics at the forthcoming RGS-IBG Annual International Conference.

For more info about the project, visit the project website.


Little soldiers

There were some interesting talks about youth movements and their links to nationalism and militarism at the Play, Toys, War and Conflict conference in Greenwich back in May this year. Read my earlier post on this conference here.

Ludic Geopolitics

Lots of people have bemoaned the fact that, with the advent of a raft of health and safety legislation in recent years, children are no longer encouraged to play outdoors as they once did. In an apparent reaction to this, the British toy company, BattleBox, have released a series of adventure kits for children. As they say, “Many of us have forgotten how exciting the most simple things in life can be. There’s nothing more thrilling than sleeping under canvas, with only the stars and the wild beasts of the forest for company… Adventure is lacking in so many children’s lives.”


What’s interesting, though, is how BattleBox have explicitly linked their range to the military. Thus, in colours reminiscent of the Help for Heroes campaign, BattleBox sell a variety of products, including: ‘Kit For Heroes’ (an obvious take on the aforementioned), ‘Essential Soldier Kit’ and ‘Ultimate Soldier Kit’. The latter includes, “a replica one…

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Christmas List

The latest addition to my Christmas list, courtesy of Derek Gregory’s blog… I’m intrigued to see what is included in the chapter, ‘Playing War’, whether it concerns only video games or includes consideration of other kinds of toys and/or play.

geographical imaginations

BOURKE Wounding the world

Joanna Bourke‘s new book, Wounding the world, has just been published in the UK by Virago (the North American edition, re-titled Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social Life of Weapons, is due from Counterpoint early next year).

Wars are frequently justified ‘in our name’. Militarist values and practices co-opt us, permeating our language, invading our dream space, entertaining us at the movies or in front of game consoles. Our taxes pay for those war machines. Our loved ones are killed and maimed.

With killing now an integral part of the entertainment industry in video games and Hollywood films, war has become mainstream.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the First World War, and with it comes a deluge of books, documentaries, feature films and radio programmes. We will hear a great deal about the horror of the battlefield. Bourke acknowledges wider…

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Boardgames are still popular!

From Ludic Geopolitics, our ESRC project blog

Ludic Geopolitics

SHARON-risk-with-kids_tnImage Source: Hobbies on a budget website (here)

Despite the common belief that video games are taking old board games out of the entertainment market, the past decade has witnessed a growth in the board game industry. If the video game industry is in ongoing expansion, ‘the past four years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25% and 40% annually’ as thousands of new games are released each year (see here). Independent designers keep on emerging and this a sign that the public’s interests and purchases do not focus on games that rely on the latest technology and screens only.

As Ellie Gibson posits, the success of board games lies also on the fact that these games remind people how to play, share spaces, have relations and behave (see here). So for her, Risk is not only a game about world domination, but becomes…

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Little Green Army Men inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame

From our Ludic Geopolitics project blog:

Ludic Geopolitics

Image Source: Image Source:

After being among the finalists in the past two years, the Little Green Army Men were finally inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame alongside the Rubik’s Cube and Bubbles on 6th November 2014.

The prestigious recognition is given to toys that enjoy an iconic status, have engaged and amused different generations, have been considered innovative and inspired children from different times to learn, discover and use their creativity. As Christopher Bensch, vice president for collections at the Strong museum where the National Toy Hall of Fame is located, asserts “All three inductees represent three different types of play. Little green army men are great for storytelling; bubbles are purely a physical toy; and the Rubik’s Cube is much more of an intellectual toy.”

This year the little soldiers competed against other 11 finalists: American Girl Dolls, Fisher Price Little People, Hess Toy Trucks, My Little Pony, Operation Skill…

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