The Rural Diary Project
April 2020. A chance conversation with a neighbour over my dry stone wall led to the creation of the Rural Diary Project. Its aim was simple – to capture and describe the everyday realities of living in the rural areas of Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire during the pandemic. Through a digital diary project, a kind of living social history centred around a shared landscape took root.
Three rationales underscore the project and its trajectory:
- We don’t know how rural communities are experiencing, responding, and navigating the crisis. There is (and will be) plenty of research on how specific groups are impacted by the pandemic but this study was interested in capturing everyday life in a particular place.
- Conceptual muddle – pandemic messaging often refers to ‘place’, ‘home’, and ‘local’ – but how do people understand, manage and operate these? Where do you draw boundaries when it comes to providing collective support? What are the geographies of staying ‘at home’ anyway? What does it mean to ‘be’ and ‘stay local?’
- Informing present challenges and future recovery – we need to correct the absence of rural voices in the pandemic discussion. The needs of communities are diverse and as pandemics exacerbate (rather than level) pre-existing inequalities, we need to understand them in geographic context.
Tales of everyday life matter because understanding what individuals and communities need, what their assets and vulnerabilities are in the face of a global pandemic, demands close attention to the context of their lives. As many have come to realise, the pandemic is not some great leveller. Who can access certain spaces, who can work and where, the provision of services, access, transport, intersect with longstanding inequalities. Rural and quasi-rural areas are not beyond the reach of poverty or ill-health or isolation. Even on ‘The Tops’ of the Upper Calder Valley, often presumed to be enclaves of comfort if not wealth, there are those with long-term health conditions living in social housing flats, those who have woken in winter to frost on the insides of the tenanted cottage, those living with food insecurity. Sensitively and adequately responding to community need must be grounded in the particularities—assets, challenges and dynamics—of place.
Participants, Place and Methods
In April 2020 the project recruited participants. Information was placed in local village shops and post offices and shared through online facebook groups. 42 participants answered the call. Participants are drawn from hill-strewn cottages, from ridge-line villages, and from post-industrial communities on the valley bottom. They are parents, retirees, commuters and working-from-homers, they are furloughed, self-employed, unemployed. They are cancer patients, soon-to-be grandparents, single, widowed and married.
A dedicated digital inbox was created to receive submissions. In the academic literature such things are referred to as ‘solicited digital diaries’. They can be open and free form, the type adopted for this project, or they can be structured by the researcher – with headings and guidance. As a method they have been predominantly used in healthcare research where capturing changes and experiences in close to real time matters.
Because the entries could take whatever form or focus participants wanted, submissions are wonderous in their variety. Some participants became endurance diarists – writing an entry every day for up to 90 days. Others sent weekly or monthly reviews. Some used the project as an opportunity to keep a journal and the submissions reflect this ethos of introspection. Many referred to ‘big events’ alongside everyday life in the valley, providing their own analysis on the way. Scrapbooker participants would send recipes and links to online classes, others would send book recommendations interspersed with information on their volunteering activities. Almost all centred the landscape and their access to it as a saving grace. Between April and August 2020, the project received over 100,000 words in entries.
Many participants enjoyed the regular habit of diary writing so the inbox remains open. It still receives regular updates and submissions from over half of the original participants. Project updates are sent regularly to participants. These are used to sense check ideas, pose questions and queries, participants respond with anecdotes and guidance. Several digital interviews have been undertaken, and next steps will be to undertake walking interviews. This matters as the project seeks to understand the relationship between place, landscape, rurality and pandemic experience.
Together, a micro-community has developed around the project, sharing as we do, a landscape and an existential moment. For a project which has been totally digital, insofar as it has not used in-person methods of interviewing or observation, it has a DIY, analogue, spirit at heart; its findings are rich, full of feeling and experience.
The project is currently drafting written pieces based on analysis undertaken so far. Participants have been invited to contribute their own written reflections on being part of the project at this time. A priority for the project is writing in ways and formats which are accessible and interesting to my participants and their neighbours. The project has become an extended conversation, it is only right this continues into the sharing of findings.
Project Team: Dr Emilie Whitaker
Research Group: CLDR, Digital Society Project