Twin towns project to explore how international friendships are formed

Dr Holly Ryan will examine enduring cultural ties between the UK and places outside Europe

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Dr Holly Ryan, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, has been awarded £300,000 from the ESRC New Investigator Award

Image: Tim Green via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The purpose of ‘twin towns’ and the bonds of international friendship that they nurture will be investigated in a new research project.

Dr Holly Ryan, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, has been awarded £300,000 from the ESRC New Investigator Award to look into the relatively unexplored area of how relationships formed through these official partnerships morph into enduring cultural ties.

The three-year project will define ‘international friendship’ and the value of it, look into how the practice has evolved since the mid-20th century, and understand the role that art and cultural exchange play in maintaining these relationships.

Solidarity twinning

Existing research tends to focus on the ‘macro-trends’ of how and where twinning occurs, and its use as a form of ‘municipal foreign policy’ undertaken by local councils.

Yet little exists on the ‘micro-processes’ of how these link-ups emerge and are sustained, particularly in the form of ‘solidarity twinning’. For instance, enduring ‘international friendships’ between the UK and Nicaragua date back to the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, when scores of international volunteers travelled to Latin America to assist with the rebuilding of the economy.

Despite local government funding cuts since 2008, partnerships forged in this way continue to remain vibrant. Twelve UK/Nicaragua twinning organisations are still in existence, yet only two enjoy council funding and are instead largely run by enthusiastic volunteers.

Dr Ryan said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to the research base on international friendship, solidarity and cultural exchange, which takes on a renewed importance at a time of rising polarisation.

“Among other things, this award will enable me to conduct research on twinning projects beyond Europe, which we really know very little about.  

“One of the wonderful things about this award from the ESRC is that it combines the opportunity to undertake research of public interest and with a comprehensive skills development programme which is extremely useful for Early Career Researchers such as myself."

Dr Ryan intends to use a rare arts-based approach to the research, analysing cultural outputs such as paintings, plays and dance.

This is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to the research base on international friendship, solidarity and cultural exchange, which takes on a renewed importance at a time of rising polarisation.

Interviews will be conducted with organisations involved in twinning, and an in-depth case study will also be conducted using at least one of the UK/Nicaragua links.

Dr Ryan will author a monograph on completion of the project, as well as several journal articles and public reports and events to increase public and professional understanding of twin towns.

The ESRC New Investigator Grant supports early career researchers working in the social sciences.

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