Culture, space and difference

This interdisciplinary research group connects with disciplines to explore three interests: how we live with difference in the modern world; material challenges related to energy, food and waste; and the investigation of cultural spaces, with reference to aesthetics, politics and histories.

A woman reading a short story
A participant from one of Richard Phillips' creative writing workshops reads her story.

This interdisciplinary approach involves a corresponding wide range of research methods and media including creative writing, textual analysis, ethnography and interview-based social research. Projects and funding sources are equally diverse, including the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Leverhulme, the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust.

Research themes 

How Do We Live with Difference in the Modern World?

Our research asks how difference and diversity – including ethnicity, race, religion, class and sexuality – are expressed and experienced geographically.

This research examines experiences in the UK and around the world, involving:

  • Specific communities, eg British Muslims of Pakistani heritage in the UK.
  • Elite migrants including highly skilled EU nationals in London.
  • Older and younger generations in the UK, China, and Africa.
  • Diverse communities in the UK, Poland and other parts of Europe.
  • Particular groups of women, including Black British Muslim Women.

This research uses mixed methods including interviews and focus groups, alongside some innovative research methods, which we have pioneered and applied. These methods reflect the social and cultural approaches of research group members, include:

  • Participatory workshops involving animation, storytelling and writing.
  • Arts and theatre practices, exploring and disseminating ideas and experiences.
  •  Participant diaries of everyday practices, such as clothes worn and food consumed.

Researchers in this field include: John FlintRichard PhillipsGill Valentine, Azeezat Johnson, Nafhesa AliAna Laura Zavala Guillén, Beth Kamunge, Paul White.

Material Challenges: Energy, Food and Waste.

Contemporary material challenges, examined in our research, revolve around how humans consume energy and food, the resources we use and the waste we produce. The challenges of living in an increasingly populous world are addressed through a series of interconnected research projects on consumption, waste, environment and food.

Themes of ongoing projects include:

  • Consumer anxieties: food safety, perceptions of vulnerability and the management of food-related risk.
  • The intersections of consumption and identities.
  • Innovation in human and animal food, exploring new food sources such as insects.
  • The ‘materialities’ of everyday practices such as household and industrial waste.
  • The environmental consequences and considerations of everyday life.

Projects in these areas examine, for example:

  • The enactment of freshness among retailers, suppliers and consumers in the UK and Portugal.
  •  Feminist and Critical Race perspectives on food consumption in Africa.
  • Household material practices such as laundry and food storage in the UK.
  • Commuting by car in the UK: understanding how, why and where people drive cars.

Cultural Spaces: Aesthetics, Politics, Histories.

Working at the interface of Geography, Philosophy, History and Literary Studies, researchers in this group are exploring spaces of difference and identity, trauma, memory, exile and cultural politics.

Themes for this research include:

  • The world after empire.
  • Landscape, memory, narrative and trauma.
  • Emotional geographies, memory and domestic spaces.
  • Histories of sexuality and prostitution.
  • Art, utopia and the city.
  • Geographies of curiosity.
  • Historical geographies of race, racism, cultural racism and anti-racism.
  • Theologies and philosophies of place and displacement.

Current projects are global in reach and in some cases reach through contrasting historical settings. Examples include:

  • Sexuality politics in the USA and British Empire.
  • Geographies of philosophies: the places behind and within philosophical writings.
  • Postcolonial cinema: French language films about North Africa and North Africans.
  • Feminist historiography of Portuguese academic geography.

The methods adopted by researchers within this research cluster involve a number of sources and approaches associated with the humanities, some of which are listed below, as well as with more conventional social science techniques such as oral histories and interviews. Examples include:

  • Archival research: working with archives of social movements and filmmakers.
  • ‘Storying workshops’: participatory events including animation and creative writing practices.
  • Film: content analysis and audience research.
  • Arts practices: using visual arts to elicit and explore experiences.

Research making an impact

Members of our department are conducting pivotal research on contemporary geographical issues.

Making Space for Curiosity and Innovation: Reshaping Sheffield Museums

This is an ethnographic PhD project looking at the making and use of space in the institutional context of the museum – particularly as it connects to themes of curiosity, meaning-making and innovation. It has followed a Heritage Lottery Funded redevelopment of five gallery spaces within a city museum.

Museums across the UK have faced an uncertain political and funding landscape over the past decade – impacting on how their spaces have been made and used. Increasingly museums are being asked to demonstrate their relevance to contemporary society but this is not necessarily easily measured using quantitative metrics as is commonly demanded. Additionally, city museums, and in particular their behind the scenes processes are typically under-researched with the majority of research taking place in national institutions. By taking an ethnographic approach this project seeks to construct knowledge about the relevance and usage of museum space in a different way.

This project addresses these issues by looking at a city museum in a Northern English city. Through collaboration, it has adapted to the needs of its partner organization, providing input into ongoing operations and offering analyses that impact directly on redevelopment. Begun in October 2014, Pippa Gardner's project is currently in the writing up stage.

More information about Pippa Gardener's project.

Storying Sexual Relationships: British Muslims of Pakistani Heritage

Relationships between majority and minority groups are often framed around perceptions about the sexual relationship attitudes and practices of minorities: the ways in which these groups approach issues such as dating, marriage and homosexuality. These perceptions are often unfounded, yet they have implications for community relations. This project asks how young British Muslims, particularly those with Pakistani heritage, talk and think about their personal and sexual relationships. It involves reading discussion groups, and storytelling workshops.

Together with academic publications, outputs will include interview data, and stories told through media of creative writing, animation and the spoken word.

This is a 3-year project (2016-19), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project team is led by Prof. Richard Phillips, with Nafhesa Ali as Research Associate, and co-investigators Claire Chambers (York University), Peter Hopkins and Raksha Pande (Newcastle University).

Discover more about this project.

Enacting Freshness in the UK and Portuguese Agri-Food sectors

This project examines the commercial, environmental and social significance of ‘freshness’ as a key attribute in the production and consumption of food.

The project aims to advance the understanding of ‘freshness’ as a key quality in the production and marketing of food, exploring its significance for retailers and consumers, including its implications for environmental sustainability, public health, food safety and waste reduction.

Working closely with a range of commercial partners, the project focuses on the post-harvest processing, retailing and consumption of food including the materials (technologies, devices and infrastructures) and competencies (skills, senses, tacit knowledge) that different actors use to assess and categorise food as ‘fresh’. Among consumers, the project examines the enactment of freshness in practices of food shopping, storage, cooking, eating and disposal; how meanings of freshness are combined and/or traded-off with other qualities of food (such as taste, price or provenance); and how they are understood through different forms of knowledge.

Potential impact partners include food businesses, public policy, NGOs (such as WRAP - the Waste Resources and Action Programme) and the wider community. Our advisory board includes representatives from WRAP and the Food Standards Agency. We are also working closely with major retailers including Tesco and the Coop (in the UK) and Pingo Doce and Jeronimo Martins (in Portugal).

The project is led by Peter Jackson with David Evans and Angela Meah (University of Sheffield). Also involved are Monica Truninger and João Afonso Baptista (University of Lisbon).

Explore this project's website.

Staff, students and funders

Academic and Research Staff

PhD students

  • Patience Muchada: Food safety in UK and Zimbabwe
  • Susan Moore: Food fraud and Big Data
  • Rowan Jaines: Geographies of Discontent
  • Beth Kamunge: Black feminist activism and the politics of food
  • Barley Blyton: Food, place and memory
  • Hazal Dolek
  • Jennifer Veenstra
  • Nerea Okong'o
  • Will Haynes
  • Sara Ahmadi

Funders and Collaborators

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.