Diggers United! The Cultural Values of Digging Project Event

By Penny Rivlin

On Saturday 8th March, the team hosted a project event at the Friends Meeting House in Manchester. In a formal academic sense, project events provide an opportunity to publicly stage the ‘completion’ of the project – a moment to reflect upon, and share aspects of a research journey, its highlights and challenges, and ultimately present indications of findings to the academic community and other stakeholders. Whilst our event fundamentally conformed to this blueprint, it also evidenced the reciprocal and relational aspects of ‘doing’ a social research project. Here, I am referring to the investment and willingness of our diversely situated research respondents to share their stories – in this case, of ‘digging’ – with the academic community. But what became clear throughout the trajectory of the project is that our respondents’ perceived our project as a platform upon which they could communicate their digging-related experiences, aims and desires to wider constituencies than that of the ‘traditional’ researcher/researched relationship. All of our respondents are users and/or consumers of social media to varying extents; they blog, use Instagram, Audioboo, Flickr, Pinterest, and Youtube and comment on their digging stories across a range of time frames, from multiple daily, to weekly posts. They did not see their investments in our project as discrete, singular performances of self, but rather as connected, united selves in a common project, in which the cultural values of digging could be explored and disseminated via a ‘digital commons’. As such, we felt that our event should focus on our research participants, providing a space for collective engagement, connection and storytelling.

We invited all of our research participants and members of their projects, as well as other groups involved or interested in digging-related activities – that the event was fully subscribed is perhaps, in itself, a significant indicator of the circulation of cultural values of digging in the North West of England. Eleven of our fourteen case study respondents joined us; moreover, we were delighted that the event provided an opportunity to meet with other diggers from the Wigan Diggers’ and Moss Side Community Allotment projects. Of the team members co-hosting the event, the project’s Principal Investigator, Farida Vis has connections with all of the case study groups through her sustained investment in digging across a range of registers; co-investigators Erinma Ochu and Peter Jackson had connections with the wartime gardeners and Moss Side diggers respectively (due to other commitments, co-investigator Andrew Miles was unable to join us). In my role as Research Associate, I have been privileged to interview all the participants, so the event was a welcome opportunity to meet with them again, and for the team to meet, or re-connect with the diggers in person.

As a means of introducing and familiarizing the event collective with the aims and objectives of our research, Farida presented a slide-show and informal discussion of our case-studies,

The Cultural Values Team with artist Lyndsey

The Cultural Values Team with artist Lyndsey

highlighting the affiliations, thematic connections and (dis)continuities between them. The diggers’ feedback suggested that the presentation enabled them to situate themselves both in the wider context of the research framework and in relation to the other case studies. This generated a sense of connectivity, and, as one digger commented, of ‘digger unity’.

Situating herself as an embodied digger as well as researcher, Farida concluded her talk with a gift offering to the event attendees. Drawing on the theme of ‘gifting’ and reciprocity that cross-cuts the case studies as evidence and expression of cultural value, Farida had prepared gift bags containing recently potted strawberry ‘Maxim’ plants raised at her allotment in Manchester. She also included a packet of ‘Daniel’s Borlotti Beans’ seeds, explaining that these were, in turn, gifted to her some years ago by an elderly man who digs a neighbouring allotment. Having successfully nurtured Daniel’s beans for ten years, Farida offered these seeds as a ‘Manchester hardy’ plant, noting that Daniel would be happy to know that his beans are thriving across various gardens and yards in the North West! This token of thanks appeared to be well received, even amongst the Wigan Diggers’ – none of whom engage in embodied digging activities (as yet!); their attachments to ‘digging’ being rooted in the historical-political symbolism of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley, and his involvement with the 17th century digger movement (see my earlier blogs on The Winstanley Festival for an overview).

Following Farida’s presentation, we invited the diggers to share and discuss their stories with the group. The practice of ‘storytelling’ presents a space in which individuals and groups ‘give voice’ to their own interests, priorities and ideas as unmediated accounts. Whilst several of the diggers are experienced public speakers, most are not; yet all were willing to contribute as both storytellers and listeners. So commenced a few hours of spontaneity, inquiry, humour and reflexivity, as contributors interacted, shared and constructed their own digging agendas in the moment. An interesting aspect from the perspective of our project was that whilst the storytellers re-energized some of the central priorities and themes formerly narrated in their interviews, they also raised other issues and ideas in response to each others’ stories – a kind of reciprocal engagement that prompted the construction and recognition of cultural values of digging in a shared space. For instance, across the three case studies, the theme of sharing (food, time, labour, space, knowledge, skills, culture) predominates, alongside putative desires for local, place-based community cohesion and connection (both online and embodied). The Moss Side Community diggers’ stories foregrounded the centrality of ‘caring, sharing and community’ as ethos and practice. Presently celebrating their self-construction of a community hub – ‘it’s for all the community, not just the diggers’ – they told us that where possible, they share food with local residents at free, regular garden events or in response to gluts. Last summer, sixty lettuces were placed on the doorsteps of neighbouring residents, demonstrating that the cultural values of digging – as gift giving – can potentially foster community cohesion and inclusivity (visit the Moss Side diggers’ at http://mosssidecommunityallotment.wordpress.com).

Yet it emerged that the groups are also concerned to connect with other ‘diggers’ at the level of the political and the affective (an ethic of care) beyond the remit of the local. The diggers raised the issue of visibility: how to access and connect with others who may feel marginalized within their proximal and wider communities, for instance, in the context of the festival, public event, and the everyday. Given their prime location at the heart of their residential community, the Moss Side Community diggers suggested that ‘word of mouth’ remains a valuable, and valued resource for engaging and relating with all local residents, and even more distant diggers in the region – an observation that was also affirmed by the Wigan Diggers’. In response, wartime gardener Andrew Oldham suggested that ‘social media is the new word of mouth’, serving as a primary means through which cultural values of digging can be shared, co-constructed and disseminated at both local, and global levels (the wartime gardeners website http://lifeonpigrow.blogspot.co.uk and the Wigan Diggers’ http://wigandiggersfestival.org attract international visitors, and the Oldham’s Facebook page converses with the international community).

An exciting contribution to our event involved the production of a pictorial representation of the Cultural Values of Digging story. We had commissioned a Manchester based artist, Lyndsey Winnington, to articulate our case-study diggeing stories via a ‘live’ illustration. Prior to the event, we discussed some of the central themes emerging from the research with Lyndsey, and she also explored their online self-representations, which she subsequently recorded as a ‘skeleton’ sketch on canvas. During the storytelling process, Lyndsey brought colour and life to the canvas, connecting the stories through the nature/culture metaphor of a ‘tree of life’, alongside an innovative, contemporaneous ‘tree of Wi-fi’ – effectively bringing another layer of interpretation to the project. Lyndsey worked diligently throughout the event, (heroically!) completing her artwork as the event came to a close. We see the illustration as a novel and accessible representation of the cultural values of digging as they are expressed and lived across a range of contexts. This work elicited a range of responses from viewers – albeit wholly positive and appreciative, and we would like to express our thanks to Lyndsey for her interest and investment in our project. You can view both the illustration and detailed snapshots at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31020216@N04/13062355745/in/photostream/.

Illustration 2

As is the case with all social research projects, our own could not have proceeded without the investment and interest of our multiple research partners, and here, we wish to thank all stakeholders, but especially, the Wartime Gardeners, the Moss Side Community Allotment diggers and the Wigan Diggers’, for so generously giving of their time to our project.


Cultural Values of Digging: Mid-project Update

By Penny Rivlin

Last Thursday marked the end of a government-sponsored national campaign, The Big Dig – a year-long initiative that aimed to promote a culture of ‘giving’ through urban community garden projects organized around food growing (see Big Dig website).  One of our four case studies, The Big Dig is representative of organized garden projects that aim to regenerate cities, spaces and communities.  Through our review of the existing literature, we know that there is nothing especially innovative about organized modes of participatory engagement via digging. What interests us about The Big Dig, however, are the ways in which it seeks to generate impact and value through attaching voluntarism to the idea of digging as gifting. Supporting the development of new and embryonic urban growing spaces, The Big Dig’s launch statement placed particular emphasis on capturing volunteers from constituencies that are ‘traditionally’ disengaged, as a means of improving local wellbeing and community connections, as well as reducing levels of of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Oriented to the conceptual coordinates of the Big Society ethos, this policy intervention is based on the premise that the giving of one’s time and labour via green gardening holds transformative potential for the self, the social, and local environments.  If recruitment to The Big Dig is considered as a measure of cultural values of digging across the UK, then the project’s closing summary indicates its (re)emergence: all targets for volunteer and social action opportunities were exceeded (albeit ‘traditionally’ disengaged recruits constituted a modest 1,900 people), suggesting that the values of gifting has some cultural purchase in contemporary Britain.

Our project explores the ways in which cultural values circulating around digging – as an orchestrating node for the mobilization of diverse agendas – traverse the realms of everyday life, activism and policy. It seeks to establish evidence of cultural values through attention to embodied enactments of digging as everyday life or way of life(style) practices; the role of, and the processes by which, different media technologies and practices are implicated; and mediations and uses of digging/land-use histories and heritage(s) for modes of ethical relating and value-making in the present. With an empirical focus on the North West, we are conducting three case studies of digging that have developed over the past three years.  Our Big Dig study examines the specificities of digging cultures and practices in an urban community allotment in Greater Manchester.  Employing in-depth interviewing with volunteers alongside textual analyses of the volunteers’ engagements with digital media platforms, we are evaluating the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in online and offline contexts.

Reproducing these methods across the two other case studies, we are examining the cultural significance of digging as a metaphor or symbolic connotator in contexts of heritagization; a wartime garden experiment, and a public event.  An example of an online-offline green-living experiment (Marres, 2009), the wartime garden study examines a hetero-nuclear family’s attachment to the WWII ‘dig for victory’ campaign, and their recreation of the gardening broadcaster Mr Middleton’s prescriptions for year-round food self-sufficiency. Whilst cognate wartime slogans have been articulated to a range of consumerist and political agendas in recent years, our interest in the wartime gardeners resides in their nostalgic re-valorization of a past moment of austerity and security as response to the present conjuncture of eco-austerity (Bramall, 2013). Charting and synchronising their experiences of wartime gardening across a wide range of social media platforms, the wartime gardeners reach out to all heterogeneous communities of diggers (many of whom can consume digging culture only at the level of fantasy), gifting online visitors with comprehensive planting schemes re-worked from Middleton’s original manuals; advice on accessing heritage seeds; and vintage themed food growing films and collages.  Here, we are beginning to understand the ways in which the discursivity of heritage digging informs the constitution of cultural values of (digital) sharing; anti-consumerism; resistance (to the commercialization of the food system and to new austerity); and to familial and community resilience.

In the context of the public event, we are similarly establishing evidence for cultural values of sharing, individual and community resilience, and collective resistance in relation to the heritage elements of digging. This case study focuses on the Wigan Diggers’ Festival – an annual, free event in central Wigan (2011-2013. See Festival website).  The Festival reinvigorates and celebrates the political agency of Wigan born radical Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) and the Diggers’ movement (1649-51) as symbolic resource for the expression and dissemination of a collection of political ideals circulating around interrelated issues of social justice and the redistribution of land (the ‘commons’), and ‘common’ resources and services – now effectively ‘enclosed’ through privatization and deregulation.  Disembedding Winstanley from land rights and food growing issues, the Wigan Diggers’ harness the historicity of the 17th century diggers’ narrative to express dissent at current welfare austerity measures, neoliberal modes of governance, and for the reclamation and renewal of working class politics and values. Like The Big Dig and the wartime gardeners, the Festival actively disseminates its political ideals in online and offline contexts.  Drawing together virtual and embodied communities into ‘digging’ spaces and places, these case studies diversely express, shape, renew and enact cultural values of digging in dynamic and productive ways.

Digging Up Mucky Carrots

By Penny Rivlin

Last Tuesday I invited my teenage daughter and her friends to help me prepare a bonfire night supper. Earlier in the day, I had harvested parsnips, beetroot and carrots from my plot, and had left them in the trug by the kitchen sink, ready for washing.  Returning home from school, my daughter spied the supper harvest, joking that the carrots and parsnips resembled the animal fodder we see in the neighbouring fields on our walks. Whilst the beetroot was pleasingly round and unblemished, the carrots and parsnips were large, knarled and clod coated – aesthetically very different from the clean, uniform shape and size of those delivered to our local supermarket. Of course, for the diggers among us, this kind of ‘earthy’ aesthetic is both expected and even desired.  As Eden et al. (2008) have observed, for some consumers, the presence of dirt and the non-uniform presentation of homegrown and organically grown vegetables works as a symbolic marker of its ‘ethical’, pro-environmental status and provenance.  ‘Mucky carrots’ therefore confer ethical value to both the producer and the consumer. Or as Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) argue, in the context of community supported agriculture the experience of digging up locally grown, seasonal veg brings forth feelings of ‘enchantment’ in the digger that cannot be reproduced in the ‘organic’ and ‘ethical food’ aisles of the supermarket. There are interesting affinities here between Thompson and Coskuner-Balli’s notion of enchantment, and the processes of ‘visceral learning’ advanced by Rebecca Sandover (outlined by Peter Jackson in an earlier post). The concept of visceral learning encompasses the embodied and affective dimensions of digging, as both an individual and a shared experience.

In part, feelings of enchantment through visceral learning arise from the performance of digging labour itself: both embodied and sensory, engagements with the outdoors, earth and ‘dirt’ engender reconnections with food, the embodied self, and ‘natural’ environments in both rural and urban green spaces. Whilst digging for self and others is often onerous and time intensive, in the challenging conditions of an unstable, intensely competitive labour market (and increasingly denuded welfare state conditions), digging offers opportunities for experiences of unalienated labour, the products and benefits of which are principally delivered to the digger (and digging communities).

Expressions of digging for enchantment are evident in the self-representations of two of our case studies – the wartime gardeners and Big Dig allotment volunteers.  As I observed in my earlier post, ‘Digging for Abundance’, these diggers’ pictorially showcase their homegrown food on social media sites with evident pride and esteem.  As one Big Dig volunteer comments in response to a recently dug (mucky) harvest: ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. Similarly, in a celebratory facebook entry, the wartime gardeners recently posted an image of their home-canned green beans, sharing their pleasure in consuming ‘a taste of summer’ as the winter nights close in.

Returning to my bonfire supper, a rather different version of enchantment emerged as my daughter’s friends gathered to prepare my homegrown veg for roasting. None were diggers’ or from digger families, approaching the ‘misshapen’ mucky carrots and parsnips with amazement and some trepidation (to my my daughter’s amusement). Whilst one girl felt unable to handle the veg, the others tackled the peeling and chopping with enthusiasm, such that her initial reluctance soon dissolved. The vegetables, they joked, had a ‘fairy story’ character – they were well suited to the giant’s table in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It might be fun, they mused, if they could organize a school veg-growing project for a communal ‘giant’s supper’ next bonfire night.  In this moment of visceral learning and (imagined) digging as enchantment, pathways were forged to future possibilities of digging and community connection in unanticipated ways. We might, therefore, fruitfully think of ‘enchantment’ as a cultural value that is attached to, and constituted through digging at the levels of both fantasy and embodied practice.


Eden, S., Bear, C. and Walker, G. (2008) ‘Mucky Carrots and Other Proxies: Problematising the Knowledge-fix for Sustainable and Ethical Consumption’, Geoforum, 39(2): 1044-1057.

The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: http://www.bigdig.org.uk/ Accessed 7 October 2013.

Thompson, C.J. and Coskuner-Balli, G. (2007) ‘Enchanting Ethical Consumption: The Case of Community Supported Agriculture’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(3): 275-303.

Digging for Resilience

By Penny Rivlin

This week the Cultural Values of Digging team held a meeting to discuss the primary emergent themes arising from work conducted on three of our four case studies.  We have been reviewing academic literature and relevant policy documents that engages with ‘digging’ across different scales and registers.  In addition, we have conducted close textual analyses of a range of different social media platforms that are used by diversely situated actors associated with our case studies.  This evidence, and our preliminary observations were condensed into three richly detailed case study reports, which provided the spur for our discussion at the meeting.

We have identified a broad range of primary themes and sub-themes specific to each case study; however our present objective is oriented towards identification of central themes that cross-cut the different cases. Although our case studies operate at different social scales and mobilize a range of social actors, organizations and historical resources associated with digging, we were interested in the affinities between, and suggestions of shared cultural values that traverse the data generated from social media networks. We will be pursuing some of these thematics in future blogposts; for now, I want to comment on the notion of resilience in relation to digging.

Only one of our case studies – The Big Dig – explicitly harnessed the concept of resilience; its articulation was more nuanced in the others, which I will explore in later posts.  In our analysis of featured gardens on the Big Dig website, and of the social media platforms of a community allotment in Greater Manchester, we noticed that several differently situated volunteers drew on a discourse of resilience to explain their individual motivations for, and collective experiences of digging in an organized community garden project. Diggers’ referred to the ways in which enactments of digging contribute to embodied resilience: ‘getting fitter’, ‘being in the fresh air’, ‘eating good food that you’ve grown’, ‘getting outside’, ‘hanging out at the allotment at the weekend’. These narratives suggest that digging serves as an antidote to our (increasing) consumption of indoor activities and technologies.  But there is also evidence of putative desires for community resilience in conditions of uncertainty and austerity: ‘we’re becoming stronger as a community’; ‘we don’t know what we’re facing, let’s pull together to build a community hub’ (on the site); ‘it’s about working together as a community, helping each other’; ‘we’ve grown free food for our community- brilliant!’. Here, digging serves as an edifice upon which cultural values of sharing, caring and civic participation can be built and consolidated.

The embodied resilience(s) of digging might therefore counteract the sedentary, technologized, potentially alienating aspects of everyday life, bringing forth shared cultural values for communal connections and community bonding.

Digging as ‘Abundance’

By Penny Rivlin

Next week the Cultural Values of Digging team will be meeting to finalize our research interviewing schedule, and in particular, to clarify and polish our case study Topic Guides. As planned, we will then be in a position to enter the social ‘field’; collecting evidence of the emergence (or indeed the absence, or consolidation) of the cultural values of digging in the North West of England.

In preparation, we have been researching our case studies in relation to the existing literature; to activity on social media sites; and to self-representations of digging through different media (e.g. self-produced/narrated films; auto- and self-directed photography; usage of historical resources for contemporary agendas).  Through a close reading of these texts and resources, we have identified a number of interrelated – and competing – themes that will inform our approach to the construction of the interview guides, and our conceptual framework for the cultural values of digging. In the past few days, we have observed a recurrent theme across the case studies of the wartime gardeners and The Big Dig organized garden projects – that of abundance.

There is a wealth of literature that engages with digging across a range of socio-cultural, historical, environmental, ecological, radical-political and utilitarian scales and registers; however, the notion of digging as abundance is comparatively unexplored. Given its rehearsal in two of our case studies, it seems that abundance – considered (at least) as an effect of, if not a spur to the formation of cultural values of digging – might warrant attention. For example, whilst the wartime gardeners often frame their digging and food related activities through a lens of (eco)austerity, their publication of a swathe of lush, elegantly photographed images of gluts of homegrown fruit and vegetables speak more resoundingly of abundance than of austerity. Likewise, their images of cooking-in-action showcase the fruits of their labour as transformed into abundant preserves, pickles, chutneys, and canned food (the latter practiced as a ‘wartime’ experiment to reduced reliance on the freezer) as a means of extending this moment of post-summer harvest abundance into the less fertile months ahead.

Abundance is also articulated on the Facebook pages of an urban community allotment in the Greater Manchester area. In just less than two years, this community of volunteer diggers’ transformed a quarter acre of unused ‘waste’ land from head-high brambles into a verdant patch of richly productive land that supplies its members with an extensive range of organic foods. Volunteers regularly post images of harvested organic food on their Facebook pages, repeatedly labeling the images as, quite simply, ‘Abundance’. Moreover, this community regularly shares their abundant produce with non-volunteer residents of their local community: ‘feeding the community – it’s what we’re all about’. As such, digging emerges as a node through which abundance can be realized in ordinary, everyday settings in austere times; both in terms of the production and consumption of good food, and as enriched social ‘giving’ relationships at the level of the local.

Growing Communities with The Big Dig

By Penny Rivlin

This week, the team have been engaging with a nationwide digging initiative, The Big Dig, that aimed to promote and foster urban-based community digging projects.  A year long-funded project, launched in September 2012, The Big Dig was supported by funding from the Social Action Fund (managed by the Social Investment Business on behalf of the Cabinet Office), and was coordinated nationally by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.  Funding for The Big Dig was prompted and facilitated by the Giving White Paper (see its one-year evaluation, HM Government, 2012) – an initiative that seeks to address social challenges through ‘giving’. Predicated on the assumption ‘that people want to live in better-connected communities in which more people are working together for the common good’ the White Paper aims to ‘broaden the culture of giving’, such that giving acquires the status of an embedded ‘social norm’ for present and future generations (ibid: 5).  Situated in this institutional context, The Big Dig differs from our other case studies in terms of its close connections with national modes of governance/policy.

Although participating Big Dig cities and towns are directed by different partnership NGO bodies, they are united by an underlying ethos oriented to community-building (as evidenced in The Big Dig strapline ‘growing food together’), and inclusivity.  This premise is based on encouraging and engaging a target of 10,000 volunteers, and, crucially, people ‘from deprived areas who do not traditionally volunteer’ (see http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). In this sense, The Big Dig’s community growing projects aim to respond to and ameliorate wider issues of social disenfranchisement.

The Big Dig has established projects in 27 UK cities and towns. Volunteers receive training in a wide repertoire of food growing and associated skills, ranging from rudimentary to more advanced growing; organic gardening; cooking; permaculture; bee-keeping; green woodworking; food and resource waste reduction, as well as other strategies for instituting environmentally sustainable everyday practices.  Through these modalities of self and community empowerment, The Big Dig seeks to provide access to fresh, seasonal, local and healthy food – in turn fostering sustainable community bonds, sustainable selves and local networks of ‘pride’ that work to ‘reduce anti-social behaviour’ (http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). Moreover, many Big Dig communities have employed various social media platforms as a means of communicating digging activities, ostensibly sharing their ideas, failures and successes with local and national members and visitors. Thus, like the wartime gardeners and the Wigan Diggers, Big Dig volunteers contribute to the construction of ‘virtual’, as well as local-embodied communities of diggers.

In line with our focus on digging cultures in the North West of England, we shall be examining the specificities of digging cultures and practices in a Big Dig gardening site in Greater Manchester.  We will be exploring the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of the emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in relation to the key themes of the Cultural Values of Digging project. In addition to our consideration of the Big Dig in relation to its own aims and objective, we will be thinking about The Big Dig as a response to processes of individualization and self-responsibilization, and as evidence of an emergent ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977) for citizen-led action that is oriented to a qualitatively different experience of the social-environment nexus.


The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: http://www.bigdig.org.uk/. Accessed 7 October 2013.

HM Government (2012) Giving White Paper: One Year On. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/78916/17541-WP-Update-Version-2.pdf Accessed 7 October 2013.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.