Want to see my book proposal?

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]Writing academic books can seem like a mysterious ‘dark art’ to those who haven’t done it, but there is lots of help available. I’ve written before about how to succeed in writing academic books, but I didn’t say anything in that post about the book proposal. Yet it’s a key part of the process.

If you are a novelist, you have to write your whole book before you talk to an agent or a publisher. If you are an academic writer, you can forget about agents (there aren’t any, at least not in the UK, and only about two in the US) but the good news is that you don’t have to write the book before you can get a publishing contract. You do, though, have to write a proposal.

A publisher worth their salt should have a book proposal form, guidelines, or similar on their website for you to download. The guidelines from my publisher, Policy Press, are here. The publisher is also likely to want a sample chapter, particularly if you have no track record as a book author.

From time to time, aspiring academic writers ask whether they can see one of my book proposals. Of course, I say, give me your email address and I’ll send it over. This happened again last week and it occurred to me that I could write a post here, and include an embedded pdf, to make an actual book proposal available to anyone who would find it useful.

I need to say a few things about the proposal first. It is the version that made it through the Policy Press acquisitions process and led to a publishing contract. There was an earlier version which was sent out with a draft chapter for peer review. This is normal with academic book proposals, and also hugely helpful. I got four sets of comments on this proposal, and was able to make it significantly stronger as a result.

In this proposal, the outlines of what will go in each chapter are quite brief. That was OK for this book; headings gave the reviewers and the publisher enough information to go on. Other books would need more details. For example, the proposal for the research ethics book I’m currently writing has a full paragraph for each chapter. (I’m not ready to share that proposal yet, as it’s currently out for peer review; watch this space!)

Finally, the publisher’s acceptance of the book proposal doesn’t mean you have to write the book in exactly the way you said you would. Publishers understand that writing is a creative practice and books change and grow in their creation. Of course it has to be in line with what you’ve proposed. It would be unusual to make significant changes to the overall structure, for example – but what you put in a chapter might change as you read and think and write about your subject.

The proposal I would like to share with you is for my second research methods book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. If you have access to a copy, you can compare it with the proposal and see how the book developed from my original plans. And here is the proposal itself. I hope you find it useful.

How Independent is an Indie Researcher?

independent womanI have always loved being independent. My parents like to tell the story of the time when, soon after I learned to walk, they took me for a picnic in a local park. My father put me down on the grass, and I got to my feet and toddled away. My mother looked anxious, and my father said, reassuringly, ‘She won’t go far.’ But his confidence was misplaced, because I headed determinedly off into the wide green yonder, and he had to do a quick sprint to bring me back before I came to grief.

When I began researching, I called myself a freelance researcher, or a consultant researcher. I didn’t start calling myself an independent researcher until Immy Holloway told me I should, at a terrific research methods conference in Bournemouth in 2006. (The same conference where I met the incomparable Ken and Mary Gergen, as a result of which they kindly wrote the foreword for my creative research methods book.) As soon as Immy suggested the phrase, I took to it immediately. It seemed to suit.

I love working independently. Particularly at the moment, when I’m mostly home-office-based and writing – though after a few weeks I’ll be pleased to have the meetings and teaching that are scheduled then. But for now, I’m really happy sitting alone at my desk, looking out at the garden growing into spring, listening to the birdsong and the squeals of next door’s children on their trampoline, and writing this blog post.

You know, though, I’ve been thinking recently that despite being officially an independent researcher, I’m actually very dependent. For example, I am completely dependent on others for my income. If nobody chooses me, or not enough people choose me, to do available work, I will go under – particularly as there is so little research funding for which indies can apply. Also, I often need to ask for favours, from small (please can I put your name down as a referee for this research tender?) to large (please will you write a foreword for my book?). As an independent writer, I am dependent on readers for reviews, whether official written ones on websites or in journals, or unofficial verbal ones – the coveted ‘word of mouth’ (at least, it’s coveted if the words are complimentary). More worryingly, I am also dependent on readers to help get my books translated into other languages. My publisher tells me that this usually happens when a bilingual academic makes a proposal to a non-English publisher and offers to support the translation. I am only fluent in English, and although I have good international networks, they’re mostly in English-speaking countries. Unlike institution-based scholars, I have never been able to afford to go to a conference outside the UK where I might make contacts with bilingual academics who could help with translations, perhaps in return for other favours. As a result, I know very few people who I can ask to help with translations. (If you know anyone in the social sciences, arts, or humanities who might help, do tell me please!)

I remember when my supervisor and I were planning my viva. I knew who I wanted for my external examiner, but my supervisor over-ruled me, because she didn’t know the person I wanted, and she did know someone else who she thought would be good (and was). She said she was sure he would do it because he owed her a favour. I have learned since then that a lot of academia seems to work through giving and calling in favours. In such an environment it feels odd to call myself ‘independent’.

The book I’m writing is on research ethics. In the Indigenous research paradigm, reciprocity between researchers and participants is a key ethical principle. However, in the Euro-Western paradigm, researchers have found that attempting such reciprocity where there is an imbalance of power is difficult and can even have dangerous consequences (Israel 2015:137-8). I can’t find much work on reciprocity between academics, and what I can find addresses reciprocity between countries or disciplines and doesn’t say much about power imbalances. I haven’t found anything about reciprocity across the walls of the academy, where there is undoubtedly a power imbalance. I’m glad to say that, in my own experience at least, academics have mostly been courteous and often generous with their help and support for my work, even though, as an indie, I can’t reciprocate in all the same ways that I could if I was based in an institution. This potentially makes me even more dependent, because I have less to offer than salaried mid-career academics. As I progress in my work, will this power imbalance grow? Will it adversely affect the reciprocity on which my entire career depends? Or am I needlessly worrying about something because it feels insecure, when in fact it doesn’t really matter?

Writing The First 10,000 Words

writing deskYesterday I hit 10,000 words of the first draft of my research ethics book. That’s a huge milestone which has taken me two years to reach (though most of that was preparation – I started the actual writing earlier this year). I still have around 65,000 words to write, but having the first 10k safely on my computer and backed up is an enormous relief.

The photo shows one side of my desk, this morning. The other side looks much the same, piled high with books, some of them open and face-down to keep a place. Although I have spent two years thinking about this book, talking about it, interviewing people around the world, and reading reading reading, I am still reading – and re-reading – more than I write. So far I’ve mostly been reading books, but yesterday I started delving into journal articles, and of course there are gazillions of those to explore.

As a result, it’s taking me a full day to write 1,000 words. It feels frustrating to be building my argument so slowly, but I know it’s inevitable at this stage. I read, and think, and read, and think, and sometimes the reading and the thoughts coalesce into a sentence, and I write it down. Then I read some more, and think some more, and so on.

When I teach writing to doctoral students, they often express frustration at the slow pace of their writing. I tell them it’s common, even for experienced writers, and they look at me with sceptical faces, as if they think I’m trying to soothe their feelings rather than telling them the truth. But it is true. I’ve written a masters’ dissertation, a PhD thesis, 2.5 books, and several journal articles, and this is how it is, especially at the start of a long and difficult piece of work. I’m sure the pace of my writing will speed up later, especially when I get to the easier chapters, but for now all I can do is plod on.

Another myth is that writers start writing at the beginning and carry on until they get to the end. Unusually for me, I did draft the first chapter first, and then drafted most of the second. But I have also written 491 words of chapter 3, 60 words of chapter 6, 18 words of chapter 10 and 36 words of chapter 14. This is because, as I have been reading, I’ve come across sections that have been relevant to those chapters, and at this stage it’s easier to create a new document and write a sentence or a paragraph in there than to add to my already copious notes.

I’m doing the early chapters first, this time, because they’re the hardest. The first part of the book has five chapters of context-setting: research ethics, political ethics, institutional ethics, professional ethics, societal ethics, individual ethics, the connections between them, and case studies. The second part has nine chapters about research ethics in practice at each stage of the research process and will, I think, be much easier to write. I often counsel students to start with an easy part, whatever they most feel like writing, and have usually done so myself. This time, though, the later chapters will need to draw on the earlier chapters, so I have to write the harder part first. (Though I do start with the easiest part within each chapter.)

Luckily for me, I’m home-based for the whole of April. I have some client work to do, but I should be able to spend quite a lot of time working on the book. My aim is to get the difficult chapters drafted by the end of the month. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Let’s Talk About The Money

cashbox-1642989__340As the end of the financial year is imminent, it seems a good time to talk about money. Turns out I had a bumper year in 2015/16: my company made a profit of over £36,000. That’s the most this decade. Part of the reason was I won a good-sized research contract, which is the first time that’s happened in this decade. I won a lot of work in the 2000s, and did a fair bit of sub-contracting too, but since the change of government in 2010 I’ve mostly been the sub-contractee. Which is fine by me, actually; it’s a lot less hassle, and I like working in teams.

When you run your own business, one year’s profit doesn’t tell the whole story. You need to look at the last five years to get a sense of where you’re at financially. My worst years were 2011 and 2012, and those are now receding into the distance, thank goodness. Here are my profit figures for the last five years:

2016: £36,168
2015: £8,594
2014: £26,939
2013: £12,357
2012: £5,261

The profit on a business does not constitute your income, because you have to pay tax. I’m happy about this because I appreciate the public services they fund (though I wish more would be spent on schools and hospitals, and less on armaments and wars, but that’s a discussion for another time). Here’s the tax I’ve paid on the profits above:

2016: £7,271
2015: £1,719
2014: £5,316
2013: £2,486
2012: £0

This is corporation tax, not income tax. I also pay tax on my income, but nowhere near as much, because my income is quite small. It’s usually a few hundred pounds (I would give the actual figures but I haven’t kept records).

To really get a sense of the full story, we need to look at the averages of these figures. The average profit my business has made over the last five years is £17,862, and the average tax I’ve paid over the last five years is £2,491. So, on average, I’ve had a surplus of around £15,000. From this, I have to put money aside for business expenses such as professional subscriptions and training/conference costs (so now you probably understand why I am rarely able to pay for conferences). Then I can give myself an income.

Through 2011-13 I paid myself very little from the business, but since late 2013 I’ve been able to pay myself £1,000 per month. This provides me with a comfortable living, mainly because I’ve paid off my mortgage, don’t have children, do have a partner who earns a similar amount, and am happy to live fairly cheaply.

It’s strange to see that the odd numbered years are less lucrative than the even numbered years. If I wasn’t a fan of empirical methods, I’d probably start reading something into that, especially as 2017 looks set to follow the pattern.

I’m sure some independent researchers make more money than me, and I’m equally sure others make less. I could probably earn more if I chased work harder, but I like writing books. This means that as long as I have enough work to keep me going, I don’t chase moStreet harbour-wardsre work, instead I spend my time writing. And the books are beginning to yield something of an income, after six years of hard graft; I can now rely on a four-figure sum arriving each year, and that’s a month’s money, maybe two months this year if I’m lucky.

We don’t talk about money much, but I think we need to, because this is the reality behind our high day rates. I’m not complaining, though; quite the reverse. I feel very lucky that I can support myself by doing the work I love. And I can even afford holidays. Right now I’m in the Canary Islands having a wonderful time, and not missing the British March weather at all!

Mixed-Methods Data Analysis

concentric circles slide 2Following my post last month about using concentric circles for gathering research data, I had a question from a reader. Nieky van Veggel asked me, “How would I analyse the outcomes of this method?” This is a good question and, like many good questions, it has more than one answer.

First, you can do quantitative analysis: counting and measuring. If you have the participant at the centre, you can count the number of people, agencies, or whatever it is that they have drawn or placed around the concentric circles. Then in either system you can measure the distance, or distances, between the fixed central point and the drawn or placed point(s) chosen by the participant. Once you have the raw numerical data from your counting and/or measurement, you can use statistical calculations as appropriate to your sample size and sampling technique.

Second, you can do qualitative analysis. You can look at the types of relationships depicted and sort those into categories and themes. You can cross-tabulate relationships with other participant attributes, e.g. age or gender. You can also cross-tabulate with any other data you have collected to see if there is a relationship.

Third, you can do both. Then you can synthesize your qualitative and quantitative analyses – or, at least, you can try. There are too many ways of synthesizing data to give full details in a blog post, but you can find more information, references, and examples on pages 106-109 of my book on creative research methods. This post is designed to give you an overview of the subject.

Data synthesis, or data integration as it is also known, can be useful in a number of ways. For example, it can be used to triangulate your data, or to enrich your analysis, and it can yield results which could not be obtained through the analysis of any single dataset. The findings of each single dataset will help to answer your research questions up to a point, but bringing those findings together may give a fuller explanatory narrative. However, integrating findings from different datasets can be one of the most challenging aspects of mixed-methods data analysis. Therefore, it makes sense to have a rationale for doing this, rather than trying to do it for its own sake.

Broadly, when you try to integrate your data, one of three things can happen:

  1. The findings from the different datasets agree. Sadly this is not as common as you might think.
  2. The findings from the different datasets agree in some respects but not in others. This is probably the most common outcome, and requires hard thinking and more analysis to try to resolve the disagreements as far as possible, with further research required where resolution cannot be reached.
  3. The findings from the different datasets do not agree at all. This almost certainly indicates a need for further research – which is not always a palatable message for research managers, commissioners, or funders.

When you write up your data integration process and findings, you need to show how each element relates to the others. The danger with this is it can make your article or report rather ‘methods-heavy’, so be concise where you can.

Australian researchers Reesa Sorin, Tamara Brooks and Ute Haring did some research into children’s understandings of their physical environment. In the process, they developed an analytical procedure using three different methods to analyse a dataset made up of children’s artworks and stories. They began with a quantitative technique: content analysis. This involved identifying the main features of children’s drawings and putting them into categories such as animals, houses and trees. Then they counted the number and frequency of items in each category, reasoning that the more frequently something appeared, the more meaningful it was to children. The other two methods were qualitative. One was interpretive analysis, in which they identified more categories, this time based on the presentation of each drawing, its mood, and the messages in the story the child had told about their drawing. The other qualitative method was developmental analysis, which suggests that stages in the development of children’s artworks can be correlated with their ages. So the content analysis outlined the features of the drawings, the interpretive analysis added depth by showing multiple meanings, and the developmental analysis added ages and stages. The researchers concluded that this combination of analytic methods can ‘provide deep insights into young children’s understandings’ (Sorin, Brooks and Haring 2012: 29).

Data analysis is at the core of our interpretive work as researchers, yet it is rarely discussed and often misunderstood. You can’t learn how to analyse data from a blog post, but it may help you to figure out what some of your current questions are. And I hope, Nieky van Veggel, that this post will provide a step on the way to ticking off another item on your impossible list. Good luck!

Social Media: Is It Just A Numbers Game?

jumbled numbersGoodness me, such a busy week, I almost forgot to blog. This time of year is often very pressured for independents and non-academics with 31 March being a crucial end-of-financial-year deadline by which many projects must be finished and invoices paid. So much so that I haven’t been around on social media anywhere near as much as usual.

Nevertheless, in the last couple of weeks, I have passed the 3,000 follower mark on Twitter, hit 200 followers on Instagram, and reached the magic 500+ on LinkedIn. Ding!

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and Instagram since 2014, so these figures aren’t particularly impressive. Publishers, for example, don’t start taking notice till you reach 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. Part of the reason is I’ve never tried to attract followers, other than by being around and talking to people, and following those I feel a connection with. Others take very different approaches. I know a fiction writer on Instagram, someone I’ve met IRL a couple of times, who reached 10,000 followers in less than a year and is now coaching other writers on how to attract followers like honeysuckle attracts bees. She wrote a blog post with a few pointers, such as: choose, and stick to, a colour palette, so that when someone looks at your Instagram profile and sees your last nine photos, they give a coherent message. There were other tips, like how to schedule posts for maximum impact, all of which seemed entirely feasible to implement.

So, I thought, I could do that.

I’d probably sell more books that way.

But.

I can’t do that.

I simply can’t bring myself to be so contrived. It’s not me at all. The thought of choosing a colour palette, and scheduling my posts for maximum impact, makes me feel queasy.

One of the things I love about social media is the randomness. Yesterday I mislaid my landline handset, wailed on Twitter, and a woman from Brisbane told me how to find it. On Instagram I seek out interesting academics and I talk to a Romanian woman studying for a PhD in Japan, a Dutch academic in America, an Australian academic in America, and so on. The glimpses of their lives are fascinating to me; I hope mine are to them.

I should take the ‘colour palette’ approach; it’s sensible marketing. I should create and nurture a brand for myself. To an extent, this blog has a colour palette. The designer friend who made it for me asked what my favourite colours were; I told her; she liked and used those colours. But I don’t pick photos in those colours for my blog posts (though I did for this post, because I came across one on freeimages.com and it amused me), and I certainly can’t Instagram everything in purple, turquoise, and hot pink. It would be exhausting even to try.

I was musing about all this to a friend who is quite the social media expert.

“I just like, y’know, hanging out with people online,” I said. “I don’t want to do this ‘brand’ thing. I want the weird, the random, the serendipitous. I like making friends.”

“That,” he said, “that IS your brand.”

I guess he’s right. It’s not much of a brand, though, in marketing terms. It’s just me, bimbling around online like I do offline, forgetting things sometimes, doing my best. I could change; I could do this whole thing differently. Maybe, sometime in the future, I will. But, for now… I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of trying to present myself as something I’m not, something polished and shiny. It would be too much like having a proper job. So I shall carry on dropping in and out of social media as I please, chatting when I have something to say, and otherwise lurking or taking time out. That makes me happy. And while my approach may not sell as many books as the ‘colour palette’ system, it has made me some great friends and taken me all around the world. So, in my terms, it works just fine.

New Directions in Qualitative Research Ethics

TSRMcover 1..2I have co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology with my friend and colleague Dr Lucy Pickering from the University of Glasgow. It is online today – International Women’s Day, how timely! – and it’s called New Directions in Qualitative Research Ethics.

I am the ethics lead for the UK and Ireland Social Research Association, and Lucy is the ethics lead for the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth. Lucy and I both help our respective associations’ members with real-life ethical dilemmas (and trilemmas, and quadrilemmas). We have both found that the emphasis of the ethical review process on data gathering and participant well-being leaves researchers ill-equipped to cope with ethical difficulties at other stages of the research process. Overall, the ethics literature is similarly skewed, with most articles and chapters focusing on data gathering and participant well-being. Our aim was to produce a special issue that would help to shift this balance. We wrote one of the articles, on the ethics of presentation and representation, and of course the editorial. Other articles cover the teaching of research ethics, the ethics of recruitment and sampling, working ethically with participants who have profound intellectual disabilities, what to do when ethics committees’ stipulations prove irrelevant in the field, and some of the ethical issues raised by cross-cultural research. There is also a useful review essay of three recent books on research and social justice.

We are proud that our authors are truly international, hailing from New Zealand, Australia, Finland, America and Thailand as well as the UK. The journal is paywalled, but there are 50 free downloads of every article, so get in quick if you don’t have access.

 

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.

 

  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.

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.