Creative Research Methods

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]I have always been interested in creative research methods: not at the expense of traditional methods, but to augment them. I have used a variety of creative methods, when appropriate, such as storytelling and photo-elicitation for gathering data, fictionalisation and photo-essays for writing research, and drama for presenting findings. I have also combined methods where necessary, used technology in research, and worked within a participatory framework where possible.

A couple of years ago, for reasons I can’t now remember, I went looking for a book on creative research methods. I searched all the usual online booksellers but couldn’t find anything that fitted the bill. So I decided to write one.

In the process of writing this book, I read hundreds of journal articles, book chapters, sometimes whole books. I didn’t read everything there is to read – that wouldn’t be possible – but I learned a lot. And it slowly dawned on me that the field of creative research methods could be conceptualised as having four broad categories:

  1. Arts-based research – e.g. visual arts, performance arts, textile arts
  2. Research using technology – e.g. social media, apps, computer/video games
  3. Mixed methods research – traditionally qual+quant, but also quant+quant and qual+qual
  4. Transformative research frameworks – e.g. participatory research, feminist research, decolonising methodologies, activist research

Clearly I am not suggesting that these categories are mutually exclusive. In fact I did find some examples of research employing tools from all four categories. But they do provide a useful way of thinking about the subject for now (I say ‘for now’ as the field is developing fast, so may need a new conceptualisation in time).

I found many fabulous, inspiring, examples of research across all of these categories and from all over the world. There are over 100 boxed examples in my book, with others scattered throughout the text, and I still didn’t have room to include everything I would have liked to cover. I also realised that ‘creative methods’ doesn’t always mean ‘innovative methods’ (though it often does). It may mean being creative with traditional methods, such as by combining those methods in an unusual way or taking a new look at an existing method. For example, in recent years researchers using focus groups realised that they could get more out of the data by analysing the interactions between people in each group, as well as the content of the text yielded by the transcripts.

I’m delighted to say that even though the book isn’t out yet, it has received a good reception from academics around the world. It has been described, among other things, as an ‘inspiration’, a ‘treasure trove’, and ‘ground-breaking’. And most wonderful of all, especially as my first degree was in psychology, my creative research heroes Kenneth Gergen and Mary Gergen have very kindly written a foreword.

So publication day is 10 April in the UK, May 15 in the US. Here’s a very short book trailer I made for you.

If you would like a copy, you can buy direct from the publisher, Policy Press, at a 35% discount, by signing up to their monthly e-newsletter. This applies wherever you are in the world, and the discount is on all their books, not just mine. They publish some excellent work so I’d recommend checking this out.

If you want to know more about creative research methods, I hosted a twitterchat on 26 March, on the #ecrchat hashtag, and the storify is here.

The book will be formally launched at a one-day conference at the British Library Conference Centre on 8 May. The conference has four workshop streams and I’ll bet you can guess what they’re on… yep: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed methods research, and transformative research frameworks. There seems to be a real appetite for this topic, as we had an unprecedented number of abstracts – four for each presentation – so we have a terrific selection of workshops. Over half of the places are already booked. So if you’d like to come to the conference, please don’t leave it till the last minute, as it is likely to sell out. I hope to see you there!

Teaching Writing to Doctoral Students

just me teachingI spent last weekend teaching writing to doctoral students at Staffordshire University, and enjoyed it enormously. It was an experiential course that I had devised with input from Dr Katy Vigurs, who hosted the course. We included creative exercises on drafting and redrafting, getting unstuck, the relationship between writing and thinking, and how to find your voice. There was also a short talk from me and several discussion/Q&A sessions. In between these were a dozen half-hour ‘shut up and write’ sessions for students to work on their own writing.

This course demonstrated to the students, very thoroughly, that they can achieve a meaningful amount of writing in just half an hour. And we taught them how to do that, through discussion, example, practice, and review. They had seen the course programme beforehand and planned what they would work on. The half-hour discipline was difficult for them at first; they found it hard to ‘get in’ and ‘get out’, but by the Sunday they were switching between ‘work’ and ‘break’ modes like doctoral ninjas. Several students commented on their evaluation forms that they had achieved more than they had planned.

Before the course, I asked students to complete a form telling me which aspects of academic writing they were good at, and which they wanted to work on. I also asked for a 500-word sample of academic writing from each student. This was partly so I could give individual feedback, and partly so I could get a sense of the individual and overall standard. Generally, the standard was good, particularly as I was seeing excerpts from work in draft. But the students evidently thought they were not good at writing.

This made for a very satisfying moment for me. It went like this:

Me: “I’d like to know who, in this room, thinks they struggle with academic writing because they’re not very good at it. Put your hands up please.”

[Most hands went up, most faces looked miserable]

Me: “I’ve seen examples of your writing, so I can tell you, with some authority, that you’re wrong. You are good at it. The reason you struggle with academic writing is because it’s hard.”

Then I stood in front of the class for a quiet moment, enjoying the war of expressions on people’s faces, as the message began to sink in. It was such a delight to see incredulous smiles break through.

It was also a delight, as always when teaching, to witness students having ‘light bulb’ moments. One woman said to me, with an expression of pure joy, ‘I’ve got it! I just have to write! That’s all I have to do! And if I keep writing, I’ll get my thesis done!’ It’s the kind of statement that can seem obvious after the fact, but it was a huge learning point for her, and I was thrilled to see her happiness.

Of course the true test will come when the students are back in their everyday lives. I think and hope we did enough to embed the practice and motivate the students, and the evaluation forms certainly suggest that we did. But I’ve been involved in training and teaching for far too long to take that for granted. We encouraged the students to form peer networks for support, and suggested that they might set up their own ‘shut up and write’ sessions, whether virtually or in real life. Early signs are that mutual support is growing within the group, and that can only help.

Talking of the virtual dimension, some students from Staffordshire University who couldn’t make the whole weekend, and some from other universities, joined in with our ‘shut up and write’ sessions via the #StaffsAcWri hashtag on Twitter. There are regular ‘shut up and write’ sessions on Twitter (check the #stuw hashtag) which you could join if this interests you – or you could even start your own. It’s amazing how much you can get done in half an hour: one student wrote over 800 words in just one of the half-hours, and most produced several thousand words in the course of the weekend.

My favourite comment from the evaluation forms was: ‘I never drifted off! I have only 2 relevant doodles and have produced work I will be proud to share with my supervisors!’ Further to last week’s post, this is why I think writing can be taught. Not everything about writing, and not to everyone – but those who are engaging with the process, and willing to learn, can certainly be taught the skills and the craft of writing.

On Teaching Writing

quill pen writing womanI love to teach writing. I have taught writing for research in various contexts: to voluntary sector practitioners, statutory sector managers, and postgraduate students. Next weekend, for the first time, I will be running a writing course for doctoral students with Katy Vigurs at Staffordshire University. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this – I’ve had so much fun already, just doing the preparation.

There is a school of thought that considers writing can’t be taught. I’m afraid I think that’s utter rubbish. For sure, there’s an element of ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’, as the saying goes. Ultimately, however much teaching someone has, there comes a point where they have to get on with the writing for themselves – and there are people who continually struggle at that point. Writing is particularly hard, I think, for people who don’t like writing but have to do it anyway. I’m lucky that I like writing, and I’m confident I can pass on some ways to make it less onerous and more fun – or at least more productive.

Writing isn’t easy to teach, and it’s difficult to learn, but there are lots of tricks of the trade which the more experienced writer can pass on. Some people can learn from written advice, whether on blogs like that of the estimable Pat Thomson, or in books by people like Pat or Rowena Murray. But for many, there is no substitute for time in a classroom with a group of other learners and a skilful tutor or two.

I learned a lot, years ago, from attending courses myself. I went on three Arvon courses, and a doctoral writing workshop at the University of the West of England (UWE). Two of the Arvon courses focused on novel writing and were useful for my fiction work. The other Arvon course, and the workshop at UWE, both focused on the permeability of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, and the way some writing techniques can be used for both.

I attended these two courses during my doctoral studies and they were inspirational. I’d already been grappling with ideas around truth versus authenticity, the function of creativity in research, and the role of storytelling in human communication. I had read Sol Stein’s book Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non-Fiction which also suggests that fiction writing techniques can benefit non-fiction writing, and vice versa. This concept has been a huge influence on my work ever since. I have written about it in academic journals and books, and now I’m going to teach it, properly, for the first time.

Among the learning outcomes I’ve set for my students are: writing non-fiction is a creative process, writing is hard even when you’re skilled and experienced, and thinking and writing are inextricably linked. I have also promised them that they will come away from the weekend with between 1,000 and 5,000 new words of their thesis, depending on how far advanced they are in the process. The group includes students at every stage, from those who have only recently begun to those in their final months. I would expect students to write more slowly at first, more quickly in the later stages.

They will be doing creative writing exercises. Not just for fun, though I hope there will be some of that too. The exercises are designed to teach students about overcoming resistance to writing, the purpose of rewriting, how writing helps thinking, and voice. There will also be a number of ‘shut up and write’ sessions where we will all write together, as well as plenty of time for questions and discussion, not to mention cake. And in the evenings we will, as writers often do, patronise a nearby hostelry.

It may be a working one – but I am so looking forward to the weekend!

Putting Research Ethics Into Practice

ethicsDoing research ethically is not about finding a set of rules to follow or ticking boxes on a form. It’s about learning to think and act in an ethical way. How ethical an action is, or is not, usually depends on its context. Therefore, everything must be thought through as far as possible, because even standard ‘ethical’ actions may not always be right. For example, many researchers regard anonymity as a basic right for participants. However, if your participants have lived under a repressive regime where their voices were silenced, they may feel very upset at the thought of being anonymised, and want any information they provide to be attributed to them using their real names. In such a context, claiming that they must be anonymised because of research ethics would in fact be unethical, because it would cause unnecessary stress to your participants.

In my role as ethics lead for the UK’s Social Research Association, I’ve been helping a group of people from the Academy of Social Sciences who have been developing some common ethical principles for social science. This has involved a long and multi-faceted consultation process, during which a number of people spoke in favour of ‘virtue ethics’, or the idea that a good person will be an ethical person.

I fundamentally disagree with this position. As demonstrated in my last post, we are all subject to cultural conditioning which is bound to influence us as researchers. We are also all vulnerable to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias (giving more weight to views or phenomena that support what we already believe) and hindsight bias (seeing events as having been predictable when they happened). Given this, it doesn’t matter how virtuous we are, we’re not going to be as ethical as we could be if we put some simple steps in place.

The first step is to acknowledge, and try to identify, your own cultural conditioning, and to learn about the cognitive biases that may affect you. Although we’re notoriously bad at identifying our own cognitive biases, we are better at spotting other people’s, so if you’re working with others it can be helpful to look out for each other’s biases.

Then articulate the value base for your research. If you’re working alone, you need to devise this for yourself; if in a team, produce it collectively. And don’t just write a list of words; think through the meanings of the values you choose. For example, if you want your research to be ‘honest’, what does that mean in practice? We all tell lies all the time, even to ourselves, and research is no different. For example, researchers think it’s perfectly OK to lie in the interests of maintaining participant confidentiality. So if you want your research to be honest, you need to consider how honest you think it can actually be.

Try to identify your own assumptions. While it’s important to try not to make assumptions about other people, research is usually based on some assumptions, and it helps to act ethically if you know what these are. For example, are you assuming that your research is not intrusive? Or that it will be as high a priority for others as it is for you? Are you assuming that your sample is representative? Or that your data is accurate? Why are you making each assumption? What are the implications of your assumptions for your research?

Grounded theorists Strauss and Corbin suggested watching out for absolutes as a useful way to guard against biases and unhelpful assumptions. So if you find yourself, or a participant, using words like ‘never’ or ‘always’, or phrases like ‘couldn’t possibly’ or ‘everyone knows’, take time to work out what is behind the statement. You may well discover an obstructive bias or assumption, and then you can begin to search for a way to counteract that bias or assumption.

As social scientists, we try to include a wide range of people as research participants, but we can forget to take the same approach to literature. So another step is, when you’re reading, try to find relevant work by people with different backgrounds and perspectives from yours. This could include people from different nationalities, disciplines, genders, professions, and so on. Then, when you’re writing, try to draw on the work of a wide range of people too – though only if that work is relevant and worth citing, otherwise you are being tokenistic which is not ethical.

It is of course impossible to write a full set of ethical guidelines in a blog post. However, following these suggestions will lead you to a wider, more fully ethical approach to your research. If you want to delve further into the whys and wherefores of ethical research, there is plenty of material online. Here are some useful links:

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics – the ESRC is one of the UK’s biggest research funders, and this Framework was updated in January 2015.

The Research Ethics Guidebook – actually a website with a wealth of information, linked to the ESRC principles.

Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Guide – a wiki containing useful pointers for doing ethical research online.