Processions of Witness

It is a huge oversight on my part but I have not blogged for a while! There are probably 2 reasons:

1) I got a new job so have been settling in to that – new teaching means I spend a lifetime writing powerpoints

2) I am a sufferer of impostor syndrome so occasionally turn to mush and am unable to communicate my ideas with any confidence!

Anyway, time to get this old thing back on the road!

Myself and a colleague here at MMU, Dr. Tim Edensor, put together a proposal for a small study which has been awarded a pot of funding (maybe enough to get half the interviews transcribed…but that is better than nothing). Here are the details to whet your appetite!

Photo by Donald Judge from Flickr

Photo by Donald Judge from Flickr

The role of processions in the urban context remains under-examined but provides a curious case study within critical event studies. In particular the phenomena of Whitsun Walks in the Northwest of England (during the Christian Festival of Pentecost), has been examined from theologically but not as performative practice. The Walks see a directional perambulation through the streets (between Manchester Cathedral and St Ann’s Church in the case of central Manchester), sacred bodies walking in mundane and secular spaces. In some ways the epitome of, a folding of ‘body, self, other humans and non-humans, time-space, and place together’ (Edensor, 2010: 78) which can be powerful for the individual but also collectively. Indeed, Butler (2015) has identified the performative power of assembly, particularly in a context of precarity, and, potentially in this case, the diminishing importance of the walks within the urban milieu.  This nexus between the secular and spiritual demands further attention in examining placemaking by northern working class identities. The walks are significant, heavily imbued with history, meaning is inscribed on the moving body and brings identity and place into being (Pink, 2008).

There is increasing attention being paid to ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ landscapes and cultural practices and the Whit Walks offers a unique case study. The Walks are part of a spiritual ritual that is ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ and apart from everyday life, yet, once a spectacular sight on the streets of Greater Manchester, now a relatively mundane and low-key activity undertaken by a few church communities (often overshadowed by brass band contests in some locales). Indeed, this blurring between the secular and the religious has been already evidenced in the Walks’ history (Entwistle, 2012). The idea of ‘rational recreation’, whilst usually applied late Victorian leisure may still be salient and how the Walks still contribute to municipal ‘social control’ in times of precarity remain unexamined. Within the study of festivity, this is a gap in the research particularly at a community level of how processions of this nature contribute to belonging and placemaking. Emphasis has often lay on spectacular forms of definitional processions such as Pride parades (cf. Brown, 2007; Johnston, 2007; Johnston & Waitt, 2015) and other forms of carnival such as St Patricks Day (cf. Maples, 2009 Pherson, 2014; Scully, 2012).

We will interview participants across generations of church-goers. The study will include elements of photo-elicitation (Harper, 2002) using archival materials (from Manchester Libraries) to provoke discussion around memories of the Walks. Observation at the event (May 2016) will be undertaken and interview participants will be invited to record a visual log of the event (and preparations) as they see it for further visual analysis (Pink, 2008).

Project aim

To examine the role of the Manchester Whit Walks as perambulative performative practice in shaping sacred and profane identities in the urban context.

Project objectives

To assess the nature of procession as contributing to identity formation.

To understand the role of the Walks in placemaking in the urban/suburban leisure environs.

To examine the meaning of the Walks to the participants in the modern urban context.

To appreciate the experience of the Walks as performative practice.

To develop further research opportunities.


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Butler J. (2015). Notes Towards a Performative Politics of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Edensor T. (2010) Walking in rhythms: place, regulation, style and the flow of experience. Visual Studies 25: 69-79.

Entwistle D. (2012) The Whit Walks of Hyde: Glorious Spectacle, Religious Witness, and Celebration of a Custom. Journal of Religious History 36: 204-233.

Harper D. (2002) Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17: 13-26.

Johnston L. (2007) Mobilizing pride/shame: lesbians, tourism and parades. Social & Cultural Geography 8: 29-45.

Johnston, L. & Waitt, G. (2015). The Spatial Politics of Gay Pride Events and Festivals: Emotional Activism. In: Paternotte, D. & Tremblay, M. (eds). The Ashgate Research Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism. Farnham: Ashgate. pp. 105-120.

Maples H. (2009) Parading Multicultural Ireland: Identity Politics and National Agendas in the 2007 St Patrick’s Festival. In: Brady, S. and Walsh, F. (eds) Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 237-248.

Pehrson S, Stevenson C, Muldoon OT, et al. (2014) Is everyone Irish on St Patrick’s Day? Divergent expectations and experiences of collective self-objectification at a multicultural parade. British Journal of Social Psychology 53: 249-264.

Pink S. (2008) An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9: 175-196.

Scully M. (2012) Whose Day Is It Anyway? St. Patrick’s Day as a Contested Performance of National and Diasporic Irishness. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 12: 118-135.


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