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About IPSA

Identity, Performance and Social Action: Community Theatre Among Refugees (IPSA) is an ESRC research project which brings together theatre and social sciences in the study of the lives and identities of refugees.

Directed by Professor Nira Yuval-Davis it investigates refugee identities and social actions by using an innovative methodology of Playback and Forum theatre performances and workshops run by research fellow Erene Kaptani while working with four refugee groups in London. 

The research aims to explore constructions and politics of identity and belonging among refugee communities in London. These Identity constructions are narrated and performed during interactive community theatre events and consequent reflections in several community centres in London - Kosovan, Kurdish, Somali and a mixed refugee course. For this purpose the research project has used, as its main methodological techniques, two experimental theatre techniques, Playback and Forum Theatre, which allow participants to reflect on the performance, intervene in it and explore in the performance alternative strategies of social action. The research examines crucial situations of the refugees' lives since coming to Britain, highlights conflicts between constructions of self, community and society, and explores modes of identity authorisation and resistance involved in the multiplex processes of settlement in London and integration into British society. Of particular interest have been the roles of community organisations, statutory agents and the state.

Outline of the Project

Rationale: Displacement, migration, resettlement and the major traumas these usually involve deeply affect the ways refugees view themselves (Hayter, 2000). The daily struggle to survive and integrate into their new social environment often leaves them no space to reflect on their experiences. In this context, conventional interviews often produce little more than stereotypical narratives. Our research is methodologically innovative in using performative theatrical techniques (Playback and Forum Theatre) instead: refugee audiences will be narrating and performing personal stories, focusing on crucial moments in their lives since coming to Britain, particularly highlighting conflicts between constructions of self, community and society, as well as exploring alternative strategies for social action. 

Theoretical and conceptual background: Ever since the works of Mead (1967) and Goffman (1958), the reflective and performative nature of identity construction has been at the centre of theoretical thinking on identities. Furthermore, postcolonial adaptations of Frantz Fanon's use of the reflective relations of Master/Slave (1995), Jacques Lacan's (1977) emphasis on 'mirroring' for the constitution of the self and Judith Butler's (1990; 1993) use of the concept of performativity from linguistic speech-act theory have firmly anchored this approach in most contemporary theorizations of identity (Hall 1996, Bell 1999). The proposed research aims to observe the narrative, reflective and performative moments involved in the constitution of identities in everyday life in the theatrical space itself. By doing so, it will blur the boundaries between the real, the fantastic and the playful in order to provide a safe and non-threatening environment for exploring processes of identity-construction. In this environment participants will be able to explore and enact particular moments of their lives and those of other people in the audience. Identities are stories that people tell about their lives and who they are (Martin,1995), and these stories – contested and multiplex, depending on time and context – are continuously evolving, shifting and borrowing from more than one source of collective identity. Identities can never, moreover, be reduced to and/or confused with social positionings, on the one hand, or political value systems or projects, on the other hand, although these are interrelated (Yuval-Davis, 1997). Participants invest within the community setting and in front of the 'others' (actors/facilitators) stories based on memories with emotional material. Watching others re-enacting one's story creates a reflective distance between the tellers and their stories. Evaluation sessions and interviews can help the cognitive processes of exploration and clarification of  'what really happened in the session'. Re-visiting their stories and trying out other options could lead to personal change and growth (Sallas 1993; Boal 1998). Of special importance would be the ways the 'others' (actors and facilitator) are perceived and integrated into the participants' narratives (Pajaczkowska and Young 1992). Hill & Wilson (2003) differentiate between 'identity politics' in which notions of identity and culture are used for explicit political gains and 'politics of identity' in which people choose or are forced to interact with other people within institutions and collectivities at least partly on the basis of their shared or divergent notions of identity. One of the questions we would like to explore is to what extent the 'politics of identity' is being transformed and authorized in the community organizations in which the theatre performances will take place into 'identity politics' which stabilize, if not reify, meanings and boundaries of identities. More broadly, and probably more importantly, we are interested in observing the general intersection and interplay between discourses of identity, culture and power as they are reflected within the theatre settings and as constructed within the variety of social, public and institutional spaces in which the experiences narrated by the audiences have taken place.

Our interest in the 'politics of identity', however, is just one aspect of our interest in people’s 'politics of belonging' (Yuval-Davis, 2003). The participatory dimension of citizenship and the emotional dimension of solidarity and cohesion are the other major planks that constitute these politics. It is important to emphasize in this context, however, that people's membership in collectivities is multi-layered and relates to sub-, cross- and supra-state collectivities as well as national (Hall & Held, 1989; Yuval-Davis, 1997; 1999) and that while refugees and asylum-seekers might be stripped of their rights and legally become the Agambian (1998) 'bare life', their politics of belonging is often richer than that of 'normal' citizens. It is for this reason that we consider it so important to observe and analyse the politics of belonging of refugees in London as they are enacted in the community theatre in the refugee centres that take part in the research project.

Key Questions

  • To examine the ways the use of experimental community theatre techniques can add to theorizations of identity, especially those that emphasize the performativity of identity, and the links between identity and patterns of social action
  • To explore the ways identities and modes of belonging are constructed, reflected upon, communicated and authorized in the community setting
  • To investigate the ways particular notions of conflict and/or cohesion between self, community, society and the state are being enacted in practices of everyday life
  • To identify what practices and policies towards refugees can be pinpointed as models of good practice, and to inform community and state agencies about them
  • To demonstrate the use of community theatrical techniques as alternative or complementary social research methods for investigating experiences and identity constructions among refugees and other social groupings.



Research Methodology: 
A series of theatrical events which focus on the refugees' lives since coming to London and their encounters with local voluntary, statutory and governmental agencies are going to be realised. In Playback Theatre, members of the audience tell stories based on their own experiences and reflections that are then 'played back' to them by actors on stage. Forum Theatre allows both actors and audience members to change the course of the dramatic action, to 'step in' and to suggest and explore alternative behaviour. The theatrical events will be followed by evaluative sessions and semi-structured interviews with a sample of the audience. If permission by the audience is granted, the theatre performances will be videoed. Otherwise, they will be audio-recorded, as will be the follow-up interviews. Interpreters will always be present. Our method of discourse analysis will broadly follow that of Wetherell and Potter (1992) and will focus on the interpretative repertoires, ideological dilemmas and institutionalized intelligibility found in the various discourses on identity, community and British society that emerged in our analysis, as well as particular constructions of boundaries and belonging/s. On a different level of analysis, we shall register all instances of interaction between the subjects and agents of community, statutory and state organisations and highlight moments of good practice as they emerged in our collected data.


  • Our work will increase understanding of how refugees who come to London experience their new environment through a new body of knowledge. It will highlight instances of social inclusion and exclusion and the ways legislation and local and national government policy affects and constructs the everyday lives of refugees.
  • It will investigate models of good practice for professionals working with refugees, knowledge and understanding of which will be useful to the work of a wide range of scholars, community activists, development workers, civil servants and policymakers.
  • It will introduce into the context of social science for the first time the theatrical techniques used in our work as a new methodological tool that could be used in a wide variety of circumstances.
  • Together with the other research projects of the overall research programme, our work will contribute to theoretical debates on Identities and Social Action. It will especially add a new perspective on the debate on the performativity of identity constructions as well as on the relationships between politics of identity and politics of belonging.

Further Information

The project will run from April 2005 to March 2008.

The organisations involved so far are Social Action of Health, RAMP (Renewal Refugee and Migrant Project), Shpresa programme (Kosovo Group), Halkevi and KCC (Turkish, Kurdish centres) SWAN (Somali Women’s Advice Network) and Shoreditch Trust peer education group (mixed refugee and migrant group).

Main Findings

The research explored identity, belonging and social action among refugee communities including Kosovan, Kurdish and Somali groups. The research used two participatory theatre techniques, Playback and Forum, in which people could narrate and perform and then subsequently reflect on their identities and their lives since coming to Britain, highlighting encounters of self, community, state and society.

We found out that:

Methodologically, using participatory theatre techniques produces a different kind of knowledge from that of other, more common social science research techniques, on the lives and problems confronting refugees settling in London. This knowledge is reflective, embodied, dialogical and illustrative, and therefore can be highly effective and affective in the dissemination of the findings to interested parties.

Theoretically, identity processes cannot be analysed as either individual or collective, but rather as inter-relational processes of in-between 'becoming's. These processes involve both narratives and performative practices which are continuously communicated, contested and authorized by self and others, and get fixated only within specific contexts of power, such as when subjected to specific discourses of the state. 

In terms of the refugees' daily realities and their policy implications:

  • Refugees cannot be seen as one homogenous group of people.

 Their migration circumstances, processes of settling here and experiences of the British society differ. Also as a result of complex and shifting British immigration policies, they are in different legal relationships with the state in terms of rights and obligations. Different social locations, identifications and values in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, stage in the life cycle, etc also affect refugee identities.

  • Although members of the three ethnic refugee communities with whom we worked can all be labelled as 'Muslim', 

'Muslim' identity meant very different things to the participants within each group but especially between them - from an almost vacuous identity marker of origin, via a boundary marker of national belonging to a central cultural and religious mode of selfhood.

  • Different refugees have different resources, economic but also human and social capital, to aid them in their settlement process

 in London/Britain and in their encounters with the state. Their membership in a community organization can become such an important resource.

  • One of the most fundamental problems, common to many refugees, even those who are settled here, is the uncertainty concerning the future, not knowing when they would be told that their country of origin is now 'safe' and therefore they need to be 'repatriated'. 

Their inability to plan their future seriously hampers their full integration into British society. 

  • The refugees develop multi-layered sense of belonging, trans-national where possible. 

Although longing, nostalgia and/or loyalty to their countries of origin is common among refugees, they usually also develop a sense of local belonging, often pragmatic, often mediated via belonging to their community organizations, often ambivalent as a result of a sense of racialization and exclusion by local society and state. 

  • The relationships of refugees with local people (including agents of the state) varies 

from a complete sense of separation and isolation, sometimes persecution, to frequent tales of friendship and support.

  • Many refugees, often depending on their gender and generation, develop conflictual relationships with cultural norms of both community of origin and local peer groups. 

Many youngsters feel impeded in their pursuit of education and fulfilling work as a result of needing to support their families.

  • Lack of knowledge of English emerged as a major problem, with interpreters often causing problems of their own. 

Children who are required to interpret for their families feel trapped in the middle of conflictual conversations between powerful adults and professional interpreters are perceived as often abusing their power and exploiting the refugees.  

  • Special technologies of intimidation and disempowerment are 

used in crucial encounters of the asylum seekers with the state, such as taking away their mobile phones, preventing them from bringing their solicitors, friends or interpreters. 

  • Children are sometimes separated from their parents

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ so that the latter could be deported while the British state still conforming to the ban of child deportations in international covenants on the rights of the child. Refugee women, especially Somali, often live in fear of their children being taken away from them.

  • Even when state policies are aimed at inclusion and integration, their mode of execution can end up being counter productive, as they are not case sensitive. 

For example, policies aimed at encouraging women refugees to learn English and to find work (such as Sure Start) do not take into consideration their family situation, needs of husbands and often end up being divisive. Moreover, these policies are applied in a top-down manner which is not sensitive to particular individual circumstances and are abruptly stopped when the women’s children reach the age of five.

  • This bureaucratic top down approach can also have other unintended effects of disempowering refugees and others. 

For example, refugees who wanted to retain independence and autonomy and not to rely on social security, were told they cannot get any training and support in applying for various training courses and jobs as such help was only available to those registered as unemployed. Similarly, settled refugees from other European countries who arrived to the UK to take care of ailing relatives were not given housing support because they were not registered locally as refugees.


There is a central paradox in the treatment of the state of refugees and asylum seekers: on the one hand they are accused of not being willing to integrate with British society and its values and on the other hand, many of the policies aimed at them are intended to prevent them from staying, let alone integrating, in Britain. The burden of integration and cohesion is seen to fall on refugees and other migrants rather than the rest of the local population and the state. The refugee and migrant 'other' is blamed for any disintegration experienced in British social cohesion. Neither assimilationism nor multiculturalism which reifies and homogenises ethnic cultures and boundaries are the solution, but rather a convivial attitude to difference and a decentring of Western centrism. 

Ethnic community organizations can help rather than hinder integration to British society, although preoccupation with difference can be destructive and pluralist citizenship spaces are vital. A sense of cohesion and belonging does not depend on the population’s shared sense of similarity and a myth of common origin, but also - more crucially - when they share a sense of common destiny. Helping refugees and British society to feel their futures are interlinked, is the best way to generate a sense of common belonging and cohesion. Denying refugees any sense of permanence and constructing their stay as contingent can only prevent such an integration. 

Advisory Committee

The Advisory Group

The Advisory Committee for the Identity, Performance and Social Action Research Project meets on average twice a year. The members use their areas of expertise to help highlight issues that need greater attention.

The First Advisory Meeting in October 2005 introduced the research project and discussed some of the theoretical and methodological issues that related to it. 

The Second Advisory Meeting in June 2006 focused around presentations and a panel discussion on the practise of using theatre as a research tool.

The Third Advisory Meeting in December 2006 was a Visual Analysis Workshop that was run in conjunction with the Centre for Narrative Research (CNR). Using video excerpts from the research this workshop aimed to help develop tools for analysing theatre visually. 

Advisory Committee

  • Dr Theodros Abraham (NGO, Anthropology)
  • Ms Nelly Alfandari – Theatre facilitator
  • Dr Molly Andrews – UEL (Narrative Studies)
  • Prof Floya Anthias – Oxford Brookes University (Sociology)
  • Prof Haim Bresheeth – UEL (Head of the department in social sciences, media and cultural studies)
  • Mr Alistair Campbell – Queen Mary University of London, (School of English and Drama)
  • Mr Simon Floodgate – Reading University (Drama)
  • Mr Don Flynn – Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrant
  • Mr Duncan Foster – Playback South
  • Mr Christos Giovanopoulos – Observer
  • Prof Paul Heritage – Queen Mary University of London (School of English and Drama)
  • Ms Jane Hoy – Birkbeck, University of London
  • Mr Mark Hunter – Institute of Performing Arts (UEL)
  • Mr Adrian Jackson – Cardboard Citizens
  • Dr Alison Jeffers – University of Manchester (In Place of War)
  • Dr Maja Korac – UEL (Refugee Studies)
  • Prof Phil Marfleet – UEL (Refugee Studies)
  • Ms Veronica Needa – Playback South
  • Dr Mark O’ Thomas – Director Designate Institute of Performing Arts (UEL)
  • Prof Ann Phoenix – Open University (Social Psychology)
  • Dr Lucy Richardson – London Metropolitan University 
  • Mr Fabio Santos – Project Phakama
  • Ms Thelma Sharma – Playback South
  • Dr Corrine Squire – UEL (Narrative Studies)
  • Dr Marcel Stoetzler – University of Manchester 
  • Mr Andrea Ughetto – Theatre facilitator
  • Prof Margie Wetherell – Open University (Director Identities Programme)

Papers & Conferences

The Identity, Performance and Social Action Research Project has attended the following conferences presenting these presentations and papers.

  • Erene Kaptani will be speaking at the Cultural Studies Conference in July on Performing power: using theatre with groups ['Playback' and 'Forum'] as cultural and aesthetic spaces for refugees to construct, authorize and resist power Download document - pdf format | Download Power Theatre presentation document 
  • Nira Yuval Davis Identity, Identity Politics and the constructionism debate at the BSA Conference 2007 at University of East London. Download document -pdf format 
  • Erene Kaptani Performance, Space and Identity: Community Theatre Among Refugees was part of a colloquium organised by the ESRC Identities and Social Action Programme and the Open University Geography Department, February 2007 and Performance and Asylum symposium, supported by AHRC, Royal Holloway, February 2007. Download document - pdf format | Download ESRC Paper 2006 document 
  • Nira Yuval-Davis/Erene Kaptani Theatre praxis as a research narrative ESRC residential conference of the Identities and Social Action research programme, July 2006 at Open University 
  • Nira Yuval-Davis  Identity, performativity, mirroring - some thoughts for the first advisory board [Sept 05] of the ESRC projects at the University of East London 2005 Download document - pdf format 

Annual Report

  • Annual Report 2006 - Word Document 
  • Annual Report 2007  - Word Document
  • Economic and Social Research Council (E.S.R.C) - Word Document 

Links to Related Groups and Projects

Contact us

Research Director: Prof Nira Yuval-Davis n.yuval-davis@uel.ac.uk 
Research Fellow: Ms Erene Kaptani e.kaptani@uel.ac.uk 

Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging

The Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging is located in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of East London.

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