Concentric Circles for Gathering Research Data

concentric-circlesMost people, when they think about gathering primary data for research, think of the ‘Big Three’ methods: questionnaire surveys, interviews, and focus groups. This is rather limiting when there are so many other methods that can help to answer research questions. One example is concentric circles. They are used quite frequently in market research, and have also been used in social research for several decades, yet I am frequently surprised to come across people who have no knowledge of this approach.

Concentric circles are generally used to investigate people’s relationships with other people, objects, or phenomena. There are two main ways to use concentric circles. One way is to put something at the centre – in market research, usually a product or brand – and ask the participant to make a cross, or drag-and-drop a digital image, to a point within the circles that they feel represents their closeness to that product or brand. So, for me, if the brand was Nestlé I’d put myself right on the outer edge, whereas with a product such as the Co-op’s fairly traded wine, I’d be close to the centre.

The other option is to put the participant at the centre, and ask them to use the concentric circles to map relationships such as the people or agencies who support them, with those they feel closest to placed nearest to the centre and vice versa. This can be done in evaluation research as part of a pre-post design to document changes. For example, if part of the point of a service is to act as a gateway or signpost to other relevant agencies, it might be useful to ask users of that service to map their relationship with other agencies at the first point of contact, and again after a suitable period of time. That would help to assess the impact of the service in increasing users’ links with other agencies.

The concept of this is easy for participants to grasp, perhaps because the circles provide a recognisable structure but are not prescriptive. They are appealing because they give the participant a lot of choice and flexibility in how they respond. This avoids difficulties that can be raised by a standard type of research question such as, ‘How supportive is your spouse or partner?’ Some participants would find a question like this difficult to answer, say if their spouse or partner was unsupportive, or abusive, or recently deceased. If such a participant met this question in a survey, interview, or focus group, at best they would provide no or inaccurate data, and they could suffer serious embarrassment or upset. However, with the concentric circles, a participant can choose which of the people in their lives they include in the discussion.

Perhaps because of their ease and sensitivity, concentric circles have been used effectively in research with children, the elderly, and people with learning disabilities, among other groups. They are rarely the only method used, but they add an interesting and useful dimension to an investigation. In fact, the potential applications of concentric circles are many and varied. For example, they could be used in:

  • Nutritional research to explore people’s relationships with different foodstuffs
  • Tourism research to investigate people’s relationships with different modes of travel
  • Sports research to assess people’s relationships with different types of exercise

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Completed concentric circles can provide powerful illustrations for research reports and presentations, although care should be taken to ensure that participants and others who may be mentioned cannot be identified as a result. One option here is for a researcher to recreate a participant’s concentric circles with different names and/or with changes to other identifying details.

I’ve just put in a proposal to a potential client including concentric circles. I hope they like the idea. Do you use concentric circles? Or do you think you might use them in the future?

Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #2

treasure-1357460__340I wrote the first post in this series last summer, not knowing then that there would be another. In that post I highlighted work by doctoral students who have presented their theses or dissertations in various creative ways such as graphic novels or a combination of video and text. I’m grateful to MzOpera for commenting on that post and pointing me to the work of Rebecca Zak from America, who created the first ever entirely web-based PhD dissertation, made up of YouTube videos and blog posts.

Rebecca Zak had a close predecessor in Saliha Bava, whose web-based dissertation was produced as long ago as 2001. She describes it, in her dissertation abstract, as ‘a montage of a postmodern inquiry… within the discourses of postmodern, dissertation, academia, experimental and cyberspace innovations among others.’ Sadly, a lot of the links in Bava’s online dissertation are no longer functioning, but there are still pdfs to download and read, and videos to view. I wanted to check whether Zak had referenced Bava, and thought of searching Zak’s blog, but the site where her blog lives, at http://www.davezak.com/questioneducation/, has been reported as an attack page and blocked by my anti-virus software. These demonstrate some of the downsides of web-based dissertations or theses: they are only publicly available, to those with internet access, for as long as the technology permits.

MzOpera, via Rebecca Zak, also led me to Spencer Harrison from Canada. He is an artist and gay rights activist who painted his PhD on the outside of a circus tent; it seems almost redundant to add that he was the first Canadian academic to do so. I also discovered the work of Daria Loi, who did her PhD in Melbourne, Australia, and presented her thesis as a suitcase containing written text and a variety of interactive artefacts.

Rebecca Zak makes the point that to present your thesis or dissertation in such a creative way, your university needs to have (or develop) an ‘alternative format’ policy. I’ve had a look at several of these and they are very varied. Some only allow for the inclusion of published or publishable written material, such as a book chapter or journal article. Others are much more flexible. For example, the University of Exeter, in the UK, has a particularly comprehensive policy which says:

  • Regardless of whether they are on a named programme, which has specific submission requirements, which may differ from the norm, students are permitted to make representations to submit a thesis/dissertation in an alternative format, requests to do so must normally be made at the application stage.
  • An alternative format may include either:
    a) the presentation of part or all of the thesis in an alternative format e.g. it may be a multimedia document (e.g. an element or the thesis in its entirety, which is presented in a format appropriate perhaps for presentation at a conference);
    b) A constructed text such as a piece of art, or a record of professional practice in the form of a series of case-studies, which must be accompanied by a commentary.
  • The formats listed here are not exclusive and candidates should first discuss the matter with their supervisor should they consider there to be potential to present their thesis/dissertation differently, who will be able to offer advice on the appropriateness of different formats within the context of that discipline, and with regard specifically to how they relate to the candidate’s research project.
  • Permission to do so may be given provided that by virtue of the subject:
    a) the intellectual quality of the thesis/dissertation would be enhanced;
    b) that a qualified supervisor and appropriate examiners can be appointed;
    c) the format is appropriate to the thesis/dissertation;
    d) that the format will allow the student to demonstrate their ability to meet the award criteria;
    e) or, that the alternative format is an appropriate specific arrangement to make to ensure the consistent equitable assessment of a student with disabilities.

The commentary referred to has to be 30-40,000 words long. This differs from the experience of Daria Loi, who had to write the same amount of words as for a conventional thesis to put into her suitcase with the other artefacts she prepared.

We’ll end with a supervisor’s view. This is recorded on p. 46 of Playing with Purpose: Adventures in Performative Social Science by American psychologists Kenneth and Mary Gergen. They describe ‘…one of the most audacious performance pieces we know: Zoë Fitzgerald Pool’s PhD dissertation (in 2008) from the University of Bournemouth. The dissertation arrived for Mary’s review in a wooden box inscribed with a brass nameplate. In the box were placed two books, each page illustrated in colorful graphics, describing the outcomes of interviews conducted during the research. Also included were DVDs with visual and auditory expositions of this material. As appreciative gifts to the reader, there were an assortment of treasures: music, a mermaid doll, a large doll representing a stuffy old-fashioned professor, chocolates, and hundreds of tiny scrolls, each with a quote from the interviewees written in elegant calligraphy. Included as well was a map to describe how to “read” the ensemble, which was secreted into various sections of the box. There was no single way to “read” the dissertation. It was a cornucopia of possible experiences, rich and exciting.’

So there are some positive voices in academia – but not yet enough. Getting creative with your thesis or dissertation may take even longer than the conventional method because, as Daria Loi points out, you may need time for making as well as writing. Yet these creative approaches offer new ways to articulate, communicate, and understand research. All universities need to get to grips with facilitating these kinds of creative approaches within doctoral research to allow some doctoral students to reach their full potential.

University bureaucracy needs to sort itself out

bureaucracy

Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Now and again, I come across an academic bureaucrat who wants to help people find ways to solve problems. More often, sad to say, I encounter jobsworths for whom ‘the system’ seems to be all-important. I know my colleagues in academia expend a lot of time, effort, and frustration on their interactions with academic bureaucracy. This can often get in the way of what should be simple, straightforward transactions, such as paying people for work that a university department needs – or paying people for work they have already done.

 

I was recently asked, by a Professor of my acquaintance, to teach a research methods module for his doctoral students. The Prof explained that this would involve one day of teaching per month for six months. I agreed to do this, and to accept the university’s sessional teaching rate rather than charging my usual, considerably higher, day rate, because his budget was limited. I figured the work would be interesting, something new on my CV, and I knew he really needed my help. But then, when we’d already had a planning meeting, the bureaucrats said I had to join the payroll, to become a part-time employee of the university, rather than invoicing for my work in the usual way. One day per month is nowhere near even a 0.1 post, and the work this would have caused my accountant – and the resulting costs to me – made it completely uneconomic to take the job. The really bizarre part is that I had worked for this university before; I was set up on their system as a supplier; and I had done tasks of longer duration for which I had invoiced and they had paid quite happily. There seemed no sense in their refusal, and I know the Professor pleaded – it made his life particularly difficult as the refusal came so late in the day. But they were obdurate. So he had a more demanding and stressful semester, and his students didn’t get the benefit of a different teacher.

Some months ago, an academic I had never heard of contacted me out of the blue to ask me to take up a Fellowship at her department. This was a comparatively new department, set up with millions of pounds of funding from a research council, at a university that is in excellent financial health. They are doing interesting work, but I said a polite ‘no, thank you’ because they were looking for a significant time commitment and I don’t do unpaid work for wealthy organisations. She had a chat with the head of department, and emailed to say they could pay me: not my usual day rate, but an amount worth getting out of bed for. If I was still interested, she said, I should seek a sponsor from among the department’s staff, all of whom were aware of the sponsorship scheme for the department’s Fellowships and would understand that their primary role was to help with the bureaucracy. The first person I approached said they had never heard of the sponsorship scheme, which was embarrassing, and – when he realised about the bureaucratic requirements – decided he didn’t want to sponsor me. The second person didn’t reply to my email; the third replied enthusiastically saying ‘yes of course, carry on’, so I emailed again explaining about the bureaucracy, and heard no more. With the fourth person – someone I knew slightly from other arenas – I struck lucky: being fairly senior in the department, they actually did know about the sponsorship scheme and what it entailed, and they were enthusiastic about working with me. However, after a few days, that person emailed me and said oops, sorry, actually we can’t pay you after all, there’s been a problem with the bureaucracy. So that was several months of effort down the drain.

It’s not only independent researchers who are at the sharp end of this kind of bureaucratically induced misery, but also casual staff. An academic who I met online recently had a problem with a post-doc who was working for him and had employed a research assistant. The RA started work very late in the contract, which was partly due to bureaucratic difficulties, and ended up working more hours after the end of the grant period so they were owed money. In the meantime, the post-doc had moved to a second university, with another grant which included funds to pay the RA. However, the second university would not issue a contract because the amount of money concerned was too small, while the original university would not raise an invoice without a contract. So the RA ended up having to invoice the second university themselves. That meant the RA had to declare those earnings as self-employment for that tax year, with all the attendant hassle of completing a self-assessment form: a classic example of bureaucracy generating bureaucracy.

These are just three sad and sorry cases of bureaucracy impeding effective academic work. I am sure most, if not all, of my readers will have their own examples to share. I know it doesn’t have to be this way, from work I have done with universities where bureaucratic systems have supported and enabled, rather than obstructing, academic work. Perhaps that’s why I, and others I know, find bureaucratic impediments so very frustrating. We know they don’t have to be there – but they are there, and at times, for unfathomable reasons, they’re insurmountable.