Dr Helen Thornham
Associate Professor, Digital Cultures. Programme Leader MA New Media
0113 343 5824
Clothworkers' Building North, 2.06
BA, MA, PhD
I joined the ICS in 2011 from City University London where I was a Lecturer in Media and Sociology. My research centres on issues of gender and digital technology. At the moment, I am writing about the digital mundane, as well as key methodological and epistemological issues of contemporary digital culture. I am a digital ethnographer as well as a media scholar and I am currently involved in a range of projects including the RCUK Digital Economy Network+ on communities and culture (EP/K003585/1) and ‘Defence, Uncertainty, Now Media (D.U.N): Mapping Social Media in Strategic Communications’ (ES/K011170/1), with Dr. Sarah Maltby (PI). In 2015-16, I will be doing work in Mexico as part of a British Academy Newtown Grant (as PI), as well as writing a book on the technological imaginary.
My main research interests are around gender and digital culture; narrative theories and mediation of technology; transformative use and appropriation of (new) media; feminist film theory and feminist new media theory. I am currently leading a £1.5 million RCUK Digital Economy Network+ investigating the digital transformations of communities and culture. www.communitiesandculture.org This research extends interests around embodiment and technology and lived mediations of technology into areas of policy and practice, working with third sector industries, the public sector, users, communities and private institutions. My work with the D.U.N project develops my interests in imagining and articulating power relations, technology and the lived realities of being positioned. Both of these projects offer long term and sustained work into mediations with digital tehcnologies as they intersect with organisations in various ways. At the moment I am drawing on a range of STS work and feminist digital media theories to think about the power relations of social media in relation to everyday and mundane practices.
I currently lead the following modules:
COMM1780 What’s New about New Media and Digital Communications? (2014-15)
COMM2725 Digital Cultures
COMM5740M New Media Cultures
I teach across the Digital Media Programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and contribute to the feminism and media modules across the school.
I am Programme Leader for the MA New Media.
(2012) Renewing Feminisms.
Renewing Feminisms offers a lively and timely contribution to current debates around lived and imagined feminism today. Calling for a re-tooling and re-purposing of existing feminist critiques and methodologies, the book serves as a reminder of the power of past feminist interventions, as well as a renewed call for future ones. With contributions from longstanding feminists in the fields of cultural and media studies, as well as emerging feminist scholars, Renewing Feminism reclaims and repurposes the field of media and cultural studies. Reinvestigating the past facilitates a claim over the future, and it is clear from all the contributors to this book that feminism is not only far from over, it is lived and experienced in the everyday, and on personal and political levels. Divided into four key sections, the book revisits key feminist areas, investigating representational issues, issues of agency and narrative, media forms and formats, and the traditional boundaries of the public and the private. What emerges from this book is not only a real intervention into media and cultural studies in terms of how we understand it today, but also a claim not only to a continuation, but to a feminism that is renewed, reinvigorated, and re-imagined.
(2011) ETHNOGRAPHIES OF THE VIDEOGAME. Ashgate.
'Helen Thornham's excellent exploratonof video gaming decisively shifts the terrain of game studies. From the solitary screen expreience to play in the living room, in Thornham's work gaming becomes an embodied techno-social relation accounted for in narrative terms, A rich and sustained ethnographic study that also re-theoreizes the relation between games and those who play them' Caroline Bassett, Univerity of Sussex
This article explores the tensions apparent in anonymous military online forums as sites of publicly visible yet discursively intimate performances of military identity and sites of distinct power relations. This article draws on data collected from British military forums and the organisations that own and manage them. We consider the discursive online practices within the forums and the extent to which the technological affordances of ‘anonymity’ (or what we define as pseudonymity) act as a critical interface between the military community who contribute to the content and nonmilitary observers who read, access, mine and appropriate the content. In so doing, we raise critical questions about the nature of ‘anonymity’ and the complex tensions in and negotiations of private and public, visibility and invisibility that occur through it and the framing and monetising of particular online communities for economic and political purpose.
This paper draws on empirical research with NEET populations (16–24-year-olds not in education, employment or training) in the U.K. in order to engage with issues around identification, data and metrics produced through datalogical systems. Our aim is to bridge contemporary discourses around data, digital bureaucracy and datalogical systems with empirical material drawn from a long-term ethnographic project with NEET groups in Leeds, U.K. in order to highlight the way datalogical systems ideologically and politically shape people’s lives. We argue that NEET is a long-standing data category that does work and has resonance within wider datalogical systems. Secondly, that these systems are decision-making and far from benign. They have real impact on people’s lives – not just in a straightforwardly, but in obscure, complex and uneven ways which makes the potential for disruption or intervention increasingly problematic. Finally, these datalogical systems also implicate and are generated by us, even as we seek to critique them.
© 2016, © The Author(s) 2016. This article draws on empirical data with British military personnel in order to investigate what we call the digital mundane in military life. We argue that social media and smartphone technologies within the military offer a unique environment in which to investigate the ways individuals position themselves within certain axes of institutional and cultural identities. At the same time, the convolutions, mediatory practices and mundane social media rituals that service personnel employ through their smartphones resonate widely with, for example, youth culture and digital mobile cultures. Together, they suggest complex mediations with social and mobile media that draw on and extend non-military practice into new (and increasingly normative) terrains.
This paper draws together empirical findings from our study of hackathons in the UK with literature on big data through three interconnected frameworks: data as discourse, data as datalogical and data as materiality. We suggest not only that hackathons resonate the wider socio-technical and political constructions of (big) data that are currently enacted in policy, education and the corporate sector (to name a few), but also that an investigation of hackathons reveals the extent to which ‘data’ operates as a powerful discursive tool; how the discourses (and politics) of data mask and reveal a series of tropes pertaining to data; that the politics of data are routinely and simultaneously obscured and claimed with serious implications for expertise and knowledge; and that ultimately, and for the vast majority of hackathons we have attended, the discursive and material constructions of data serve to underpin rather than challenge existing power relations and politics.
This article draws on research with young NEETs (not in education, employment or training) in Leeds in order to contest the assumption that technological qualities informing new media devices (here mobile phones) simply or transparently translate into social or ontological categories. We draw on a long-term ethnographic study of NEET individuals to argue that one of the underpinning principles of mobile phones – that they pertain to mobility and that mobility is positive and agential – is called into question. Our aim is not only to unpack a number of concepts and assumptions underpinning the mobile phone but also to suggest that these concepts unhelpfully (and even detrimentally) locate mobile phones in relation to the technological possibilities on offer without taking into account what is simultaneously made impossible and immobile, and for whom. Finally, when we set the digital experiences of NEETs alongside the discourses around mobile phones, we find that mobility is restricted – not enabling, and that it is forged in, and articulated as part of an everyday life that is dominated by the social and economic horizons set by the groups status as NEET.
(2015) “Selfies beyond self-representation: the (theoretical) f(r)ictions of a practice”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture Frosh P; Becker K (eds.). 7: 1-10.
DOI: 10.3402/jac.v7.28073, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/93099/
Drawing on a wide corpus of ethnographic research pro- jects, including on photography practices, young film- makers and writers, and current research with young unemployed people, we argue that contemporary under- standings of selfies either in relation to a ‘‘documenting of the self’’ or as a neoliberal (narcissistic) identity affirmation are inherently problematic. Instead, we argue that selfies should be understood as a wider social, cultural, and media phenomenon that understands the selfie as far more than a representational image. This, in turn, necessarily redirects us away from the object ‘‘itself,’’ and in so doing seeks to understand selfies as a socio-technical phenomenon that momentarily and tentatively holds together a number of different elements of mediated digital communication.
(2015) “‘Raw Talent in the Making’: Imaginary journeys, authorship and the discourses of Expertise”, Convergence: the journal of research into new media technologies. 21.3: 314-327.
DOI: 10.1177/1354856515579841, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/84122/
In the digital age, it seems that participation has been conflated with literacy; content with engagement; novelty with innovation; and ubiquity with meaning (see for example, Thornham & McFarlane 2014, Gillespie 20010, Dean 2008, Livingstone 2009, van Dijck 2013) and encapsulated in terms such as ‘digital native’, ‘digital divide’, or ‘born digital’. In turn, these conflations have done something to technology, which is constructed as malleable, a supportive facilitator; and the user, who is constructed as active agent. Neither of these, account for mediations, or – crucial for us – the notion of the imaginary, which emerges in our research as so central to expertise. Drawing on ethnographic work carried out in Studio 12, a media production facility for young people with disadvantaged backgrounds in Leeds, UK, we propose that the concept of expertise emerges through a bigger array of social capital as well as traditional structures of power such as class, gender and race. Expertise is claimed, evidenced, and generated. For us, however, expertise emerged not only as elusive, but also because it was premised on a disjuncture between lived and everyday youth, and the promises of becoming in a future orientated (technological, imaginary and creative) landscape.
(2015) “Capability in the digital : institutional media management and its dis/contents”, Information, Communication and Society. 18.11: 1275-1296.
DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2015.1046893, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/84133/
This paper explores how social media spaces are occupied, utilised and negotiated by the British Military in relation to the Ministry of Defence’s concerns and conceptualisations of risk. It draws on data from the DUN Project to investigate the content and form of social media about defence through the lens of ‘capability’, a term that captures and describes the meaning behind multiple of representations of the military institution. But ‘capability’ is also a term that we hijack and extend here, not only in relation to the dominant presence of ‘capability’ as a representational trope and the extent to which it is revealing of a particular management of social media spaces, but also in relation to what our research reveals for the wider digital media landscape and ‘capable’ digital methods. What emerges from our analysis is the existence of powerful, successful and critically longstanding media and reputation management strategies occurring within the techno-economic online structures where the exercising of ‘control’ over the individual – as opposed to the technology – is highly effective. These findings raise critical questions regarding the extent to which ‘control’ and management of social media– both within and beyond the defence sector – may be determined as much by cultural, social, institutional and political influence and infrastructure as the technological economies. At a key moment in social media analysis, then, when attention is turning to the affordances, criticisms and possibilities of data, our research is a pertinent reminder that we should not forget the active management of content that is being similarly, if not equally, effective.
(2015) “Irreconcilability in the digital: gender, technological imaginings & maternal subjectivity”, Feminist Review. 110: 1-17.
DOI: 10.1057/fr.2015.14, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/84132/
Drawing on empirical research from two focus groups, this article investigates the narratives and discourses that emerged around pregnancy, technology, birth and motherhood. In so doing, the article engages in some longstanding debates within feminism around embodied and maternal subjectivity, agency and identity (see for example Hirsch 1992, Irigaray 1985, Kristeva 1980, Lazarre 1976, Adams 1994). Seen here, the focus groups serve initially to remind us of the pervasiveness of gender inequality and the continual ambiguity of, and anxieties around, maternal subjectivity. Secondly, the focus groups reconfigure these issues through a technological lens, which in turn, seems to offer new spaces where agency can be (momentarily, problematically) claimed. This in turn, extends existing debates in new directions through the particular framework of technology that is variously figured here as an object, as information and as imaginary digital space. All of these constructions however, become problematic as they - despite their promises - nevertheless ultimately and profoundly return the women to an emplaced, embodied subjectivity that has been at the heart of feminist debate for so long.
Drawing on original empirical research and theories of cultural geography, this article investigates the multiple ways community is produced, understood and valued through a closer interrogation of the community centre as a contested site. The paper investigates the symbolism of the buildings [see Dovey, K. (1999) Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form. Routledge, London] as they are claimed and framed by local government; the use of the buildings and how this contributes to what we might call the overall assemblage or forming of the building [see Lees (Towards a critical geography of architecture: the case of ersatz colosseum. Cult. Geograp.; 2001 8:51–86), De Landa (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Continuum, London, Jacobs (A geography of big things, Cult. Geograph. 2006;13:1–27)]; the affect of the buildings or architecture on community use [see Thrift, N. (2004) Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(1), 57–78]; and disruptive, haptic, unintended or ‘queer’ use of such spaces (see Grosz (2001) Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA). In so doing, we argue that an investigation of architecture can offer key insights and contributions to debates in wider policy, particularly in relation to the values and affordances of ‘community’ in the UK today. By focusing on the community centre, we also shift the existing focus of much architectural research away from what Jacobs has called ‘big things’ [Jacobs (A geography of big things, Cult. Geograph. 2006;13:1–27, pp. 4–5)] onto ordinary, everyday and mundane architectures of community centres. Secondly, we argue that, particularly the newer breed of ‘community facing social enterprise centres’, construct and imagine notions of communities in inherently problematic ways, and while in some instances such productions and imaginings are disrupted through use, the architecture nevertheless continues to be claimed by local government as a powerful indicator of (a particular notion and construction of) community.
(2014) “Claiming ‘creativity’: discourse, ‘doctrine’ or participatory practice?”, International Journal of Cultural Policy. 20.5: 536-552.
© 2013, © 2013 Taylor & Francis. Drawing on empirical work with a third sector community organisation in the UK and the young NEET adults (16–20 years old, ‘not in employment or education or training’) they ‘creatively’ work with, this paper explores the practices and meanings of creativity as they emerged through a project funded through public and third sector organisations. The paper argues that there is an increasing disjuncture between creativity as a process or method, evidenced in the approaches, practices and ethos of the community organisation I worked with, and the notion of creativity as productive outcome seen in wider policy. This is having an impact on the practices and values of community organisations, particularly as they are pushed to rationalise processes as a result of austerity measures. Indeed, in the era of wider public and third sector cuts, creativity as a process or method is becoming harder to sustain on a day-to-day basis.
(2013) “Claiming ‘creativity’: discourse,‘doctrine’ or participatory practice?”, International Journal of Cultural Policy.
DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2013.865729, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79514/
Drawing on empirical work with a third sector community organisation in the UK and the young NEET adults (16–20 years old, ‘not in employment or education or training’) they ‘creatively’ work with, this paper explores the practices and meanings of creativity as they emerged through a project funded through public and third sector organisations. The paper argues that there is an increasing disjuncture between creativity as a process or method, evidenced in the approaches, practices and ethos of the community organisation I worked with, and the notion of creativity as productive outcome seen in wider policy. This is having an impact on the practices and values of community organisations, particularly as they are pushed to rationalise processes as a result of austerity measures. Indeed, in the era of wider public and third sector cuts, creativity as a process or method is becoming harder to sustain on a day-to-day basis.
(2012) “Youthful 'fictions', creative 'journeys' and potential strategies of resistance”, Media, Culture and Society. 34.2: 228-237.
DOI: 10.1177/0163443711431203, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79503/
(2012) “The dis/embodiment of persuasive military discourse”, Journal of War and Culture Studies. 5.1: 33-46.
Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79504/
Persuasive discourse is a fundamental aspect of contemporary asymmetric warfare where the power of military technologies has been displaced by the need for all parties to a conflict to persuade others to act in accordance with particular war aims. Here we suggest that persuasive military discourse evokes corporeality, transforming armies and enemies into individuals, and utilizing powerful corporeal imagery to fantasize ideals or imagine threats. This article investigates the use of the body as a tool of persuasion through an analysis of NATO Psychological Operations materials used in Afghanistan. These materials are primarily used to persuade the local population and Afghan security forces of particular courses of action, whilst simultaneously seeking to dissuade, disrupt and deter Taliban forces. Such an investigation not only offers insights into the ways in which the body becomes a site for political ideals, truths and imaginings but also the extent to which this process masks the lived bodily reality of war.
(2012) “Architectures of youth: visibility, agency and the technological imaginings of young people”, Social and Cultural Geography. 13.7: 783-800.
DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.726637, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79509/
This article investigates what we call the architectures of youth. Drawing on the ‘unofficial’ audio-visual recordings from an ongoing research project, and contrasting this footage with the new building that ‘houses’ our project, we argue that the young people are being constructed in a range of problematic ways that continue to emphasise visibility. The school building, complete with its panopticon tower, is premised on the symbolic power of the visual. When pupils are given visual technology and asked to film around the school, however, negotiations with, and disruptions of, the visual become evident. This raises questions not only around the wider relationship between youth, place and space, but also around the imagined and lived dimensions of youth, which are brought to the fore through this project.
(2011) “POSTCOLONIAL MEDIA CULTURE IN BRITAIN”, ETHNIC RACIAL STUD. 34.8: 1409-1410.
(2011) “Cross-generational gender constructions. Women, teenagers and technology”, SOCIOL REV. 59.1: 64-85.
(2011) “DISCOURSES OF THE DIGITAL NATIVE Use, non-use, and perceptions of use in BBC Blast”, INFORM COMMUN SOC. 14.2: 258-279.
DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2010.510199, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79505/
(2010) “AFRICAN FILM AND LITERATURE: ADAPTING VIOLENCE TO THE SCREEN”, ETHNIC RACIAL STUD. 33.8: 1478-1479.
(2009) “Claiming a stake in the videogame: what grown-ups say to rationalize and normalize gaming”, Convergence: the journal of research into new media technologies. 15.2: 141-159.
DOI: 10.1177/1354856508101580, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79506/
This article explores the rationalizations and normalizations adult gamers offer in their justifications of both gaming 'itself', and the possession of a videogame console. While there has been a proliferation in research on the videogame recently in terms of what Kerr et al. describe as the 'productive use of new media' (in their 2006 article 'New Media — New Pleasures?' p. 64), which includes issues relating to gender, pleasure, production and gameplay as well as more ethnographic research relating to young people and games, there has been a significant gap in research around adult gamers. This article is the result of four years' ethnographic research, which followed 11 participant gaming households (along with the questionnaire of over 100 respondents), recording, interviewing and observing them prior to, during and after gameplay. Included in this demographic are all-female and all-male households, mixed gender, sexuality and ethnicity, and diverse geographical intake from Northern Ireland to southern England. Throughout my research and this article, I argue the political and social necessity of including gamers and their discourses into research on gaming in order to better understand the significance of gaming and gaming discourses on our social and political lives.
The recent proliferation of videogame theory has opened up a body of work concerned with legitimating the videogame as a viable cultural text. However, there is still a significant gap in research around addressing the lived cultures or cultural practices of gaming as an embedded domestic leisure activity. Furthermore, research into the "cultural practices" of videogames reveals that predications to play, perceptions about, and actual play are highly gendered in ways that reveal gaming as a normalised and normalising technology. This article is the result of nearly four years ethnographic research, during which I interviewed and recorded gamers and gameplay. Six out of the eleven participatory households are represented here. The scope of the research is also expanded through the questionnaire of, at the time of writing, 118 respondents. Included in this demographic are all-female and all-male households, mixed gender, sexuality, and ethnicity and diverse geographical intake from Northern Ireland to southern England. Throughout my research and this article, I argue the political and social necessity of including gamers into research on gaming, in order to better understand the significance of gaming and gaming discourses on our social and political lives.
(2008) “Making games? Towards a theory of domestic videogaming”, Fibreculture Journal: internet theory criticism research. 13
Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/84131/
(2014) “Claiming content & constructing users: user-generated content and BBC Blast”, In: Buckingham D; Bragg S; Kehily MJ (eds.) Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. 186-201
Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79502/
This chapter utilizes key findings from a research project investigating teenager user generated content (UGC) in relation to creativity and learning on BBC Blast (2004-2010). The chapter draws on this research to critique three key issues in relation to new media. The first is the widely constructed conception of the user of new media in individualized terms, a construction that is doubly exacerbated by the discourse of the digital native found in youth studies (and beyond). The second issue relates to the value afforded to uploaded content, which is often taken as evidence or affirmation of creative ‘autonomy’ (Castells, 2009: 129), thereby resonating with the construction of the user of new media noted above. Both these constructions (of the user and the content) are not only compounded by the discourse of young people and in particular that of the digital native, they also heavily rely on a dichotomous understanding of new media and its’ users as (more) active, representative, interactive than ‘old’ media/audiences. Consequently, our third argument is that these constructions offer a blanket approach to both content and users, one that tends to conceptualize new media in singular terms, where uploading becomes a linear action into and onto the technology.
(2012) “Articulating Technology & Imagining the User: Generating gendered divides across media”, In: Thornham H; Weissmann E (eds.) Renewing Feminisms. IB Tauris.
Research Projects & Grants
British Academy Newton Grant £10,000 (2015-16) for a project entitled ‘Digital Culture and its Discontents’. A collaborative project between UK-Mexico scholars.
ESRC led RCUK Global Insecurities Grant:£240,000 project (2013-14). Co-Investigator on a project entitled ‘Defence, Uncertainty, Now Media (D.U.N): Mapping Social Media in Strategic Communications’.
RCUK Digital Economy Communitites and Culture Network+ Grant: £1.5 million (2012-15). Principal Investigator on an international project investigating the digital transformations of communities and culture. This project has a number of strands all relating to culture and community, the cultural and creative industries, transformation, embodiment, expertise and the everyday. More information can be found here www.communitiesandculture.org. This network does research and funds research. Under this project, I have led a scoping study invesitgating notions of digital engagement with public and third sector organisations and local residents, the report can be found here along with conference papers.
British Consulate Knowledge Exchange grant £12,750 (2013). Principal Investigator in the establishment of international knowledge exchange activities with Institute of the Future, the Computer Museum, Loyola University Chicago, Science and Justice Centre, Santa Cruz, Centre For Digital Storytelling, Berkeley and University of San Francisco.
I am leading a project investigating the impact of the recent welfare changes under the Universal Credit scheme where the notions of the digital native and user-as-consumer are paramount. Here we work with a number of local organisations whose roles are changing under this bill, and with those immediately impacted (inner city populations, homeless, young people, old people, rural populations). This is within the Communities and Culture Network+.
I am doing two embedded ethnographic projects in 2013, fundied through the CSI hub where I spend a prolongued period of time with a cultural or creative industry, working on a creative project. These have at their centre issues around transformation and impact as well as a deeper critical interrogation of the axes of creative and policy.
Past projects include:
HEIF Seed Funding Grants: £1000 (June 2011- Sept 2012) and £7500 (April 2010 – Sept 2011). Principal Investigator for an ongoing visual ethnographic Pilot Project entitled ‘Negotiating the City’. This project develops from the initial project entitled ‘Chillaxing in the City?’.
AHRC/BBC Knowledge Infusions Grant: £12,750 (January 2009 – January 2010). Principal Investigator on a project entitled ‘Alone Together?’ investigating perceptions of creativity, UGC and learning in relation to visual media on the BBC website Blast. click here
AHRC Postgraduate Grant: £2000 (October 2006) on behalf of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network.
Research Centres & Groups
Along with the CSI hub within the University, the Feminist Reading group and the Visual and Digital Cultures research group within Media and Communications, the Communities and Culture Network+ has also established a number of research groupings around heritage, engagement, materiality, expertise and communication. I am involved in all of these.
– Consultant for ESRC Centre for International Social Media Research (2013)
– Strategic Advisory Group Member for the AHRC Connected Communities Theme (2013-16)
– Consultant for EPSRC Internet of Things Large Project Call (2013)
– Steering Committee Member for Growing Cultures (PI: Farida Vis, Sheffield) and Sustainable Knowledge (PI; Kate O’Riordan, Sussex) (2013)
– Consultant for EPSRC Digital Personhood Sandpit (2012)
– Consultant for Sustainable Society Network+ and NEMODE (2012-15)
– AHRC & ESRC Peer Reviewer (2009-13)
PhD & Postdoctoral Supervision
Current PhD students: