Methods for Lived Experience Research

Note: This post was first published on the SRA blog in November 2021 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and SRA.

In this blog post, Kimberley Neve, researcher at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London outlines different methods for capturing ‘lived experience’. Lived experience is the actual, specific ways in which people experience something, in this case food – access to food, food poverty, food quality, food allergies and many others. Kimberley and other researchers at the Centre for Food Policy specialising in qualitative methods have produced a Brief to give an overview of the range of methods you can use when researching people’s lived experience of ‘food environments’. Food environments are the space in which we make all our decisions about food – what to eat, where to buy it, when and with whom to eat it.

Using qualitative methods to influence policy

As researchers we want our work to have impact. We also want to know that it resonates with people and reflects not only the experiences of the research participants, but also of the general population in some way. For our research to have a positive impact, effective communication with policy-makers, both locally and nationally, is vital. Despite the potential of qualitative methods to inform policy that is effective and equitable for the people it is designed to help, the number of qualitative studies used as evidence for policy remains modest compared to quantitative studies.

We wanted to raise the profile of qualitative research methods among both policy-makers and food environment researchers by demonstrating the range of potential methods and their benefits (and drawbacks), with a focus on how using them can help inform policy. These methods can be utilised in a wide range of research areas – for example local transport, access to outdoor space or crime in local areas – providing in-depth insights into people’s lived experiences and practices that can explain how or why people act the way they do.

In our Centre for Food Policy Research Brief (the ‘Brief’) we initially mapped existing studies capturing the lived experience of food environments, categorising methods and relevant case studies. Following this, we consulted with members of our Community of Practice – experts in qualitative research and food environments – for feedback prior to final edits.

What are the qualitative methods you can use?

The Brief is not an exhaustive list of the qualitative methods available; however, we’ve tried to capture the main methods you can use. For the scope of the Brief, we didn’t include quantitative methods but of course recognise their vital role.

Often, combining quantitative and qualitative methods can yield the most valuable insights.

To make the overview as useful as possible, we categorised the methods in the following way:

  • Group 1 – Exploring experiences, perceptions, beliefs, practices and social networks;
  • Group 2 – Observing practices in situ;
  • Group 3 – Designing policy and interventions drawing on the lived experience of participants.
overview illustration

Which method should you use for your research?

Typically, you’ll be likely to benefit from combining methods to suit your research context. For example, visual methods and observation tend to be accompanied by individual or group interviews to provide a more in-depth exploration. In the full Brief you’ll find an overview of qualitative methods with the key benefits and potential limitations of each. Assuming you know all about individual interviews and focus group discussions already, here are a selection of other methods less frequently used in research projects.

Group 1: Visual methods

This includes photo elicitation, creative arts (where participants create artwork such as drawings, videos or theatre), concept mapping (pile sorting, ranking, mental mapping) and timelines. One study in the US used photo elicitation in urban neighbourhoods to identify community-level actions to improve urban environments in relation to health. The study allowed the researchers to identify that not all food outlets affected health in the same way, and that contextual factors such as crime and safety influence how people accessed food, which had implications for community-level policy.

  • PROS – Group 1 methods work particularly well with young participants or where there are language barriers, as views can be expressed more directly and simply. Participants may also be more willing to share information visually and images can provide insights that may not have been accessible via specific questioning.
  • CONS – Visual data can be difficult to interpret in a way that fully represents the participant perspective, and there is a potential for photographs to be seen as reflections of reality, rather than subjective perceptions that provide insights into reality. Participants could also misunderstand the objective and take photos that do not help to answer the research question.

Group 1: Geospatial methods

Geospatial methods often combine mapping with photography and/ or GPS to create visual data that can then be discussed in one-to-one interviews or focus group discussions for more insights. Methods include spatial mapping, geonarratives and geotagged photography. These methods are relatively new to the food environment literature; however they have been used very effectively to explore how people engage with their environment in general, for example in their green space encounters.

  • PROS – Similar to visual methods, geospatial methods can work well to engage participants in a way that is more creative and encourage them to share information more openly. They also allow for participants to share their knowledge as experts of their own food environments. These methods provide insightful data into the connections between space and place, particularly if combined with interviews or focus groups.
  • CONS – Geotagging requires specific technology that may be expensive and difficult to operate. There are also ethical considerations with mapping someone’s location – when and how this data is collected, stored and used are important factors to specify during the research design.

Group 2: Observation

This involves observing participant behaviour with methods such as go-along tours, transect walks and community group observation. Unlike with non-participant observation (below), the researcher talks to the participants during the activity about what their actions and interactions mean to them. For instance, during a go-along tour in a supermarket (shop-along), the researcher might ask for the thought process behind the decision to purchase a product. Transect walks are go-along tours with the addition of creating a map of the local food environment resources, constraints and opportunities.

In a UK study, go-along interviews were used to explore which changes to supermarket environments would support healthier food practices. A key insight from this research was that varied individual responses to the supermarket environment in low-income neighbourhoods are mediated by differing levels of individual agency. Interventions should include an emphasis on factors that increase agency in order to change how people buy food.

  • PROS – Insights into the practical aspects of daily life and routines can be captured interactively with the participant and explored in more detail with further questioning. Power imbalances in research are addressed as participants take more control of the research process.
  • CONS – The researcher’s presence may impact how participants behave or move around spaces, for instance by influencing what they buy in a shop-along tour. It is also quite time-intensive to organise and participate in.
couple shopping photo

Group 2: Non-participant observation

This is where participants are watched from a distance, for instance by video, with little or no interaction with the researcher. This method was used as part of a focused ethnographic study in Kenya along with interviews and cognitive mapping. The aim of the study was to inform policies for improving infant and young children’s nutrition practices. Among other insights, a key finding for policy was that future interventions must consider various aspects of food insecurity to improve conditions in practice.

  • PROS – You can get insights into ‘real’ individual actions, such as shopping or eating practices, without the researcher’s presence influencing the actions. Features of everyday life that may otherwise not be mentioned can be recorded and explored with further questioning. The researcher can also complete a log to provide contextual insights that can explain practices from a more objective viewpoint.
  • CONS – Observation alone, without a follow-up interview or discussion, means the researcher is unable to dig into the reasons underpinning the actions, so the interpretation of the situation can be subjective.

Group 3: Photovoice, co-design, co-creation, systems mapping, group model building

The third group of methods were particularly difficult to classify, as terminology and meanings often overlapped (for instance with co-creation and co-design). These methods place the participant at the centre of the research process and actively engage communities affected by policy decisions (at a neighbourhood, city, county, country level) in the research process. Participants are encouraged to draw on their own experiences, expertise and knowledge of their food environments to think about and propose change, so that policies resulting from the research are relevant and context-specific, and as a result have the potential to be more sustainable.

An example of effective group model building can be seen in a study in the US, where community-based workshops took place with a diverse group of chain and local food outlet owners, residents, neighbourhood organisations, and city agencies.Action ideas were discussed for interventions to promote healthy food access, including funding new stores that stock healthy food options and building the capacity for sourcing local produce in stores.

  • PROS – For all of the methods in Group 3, the ‘hands-on’ nature of research enables participants to generate information and share knowledge on their own terms. Outputs, such as policy recommendations, are created together with the participants to be effective in their local context following an in-depth research process.
  • CONS – These methods all run the risk of being perceived as tokenistic by participants if engagement is not meaningful and genuine.

In brief

Decisions about which methods to select to study live experience depend on the purpose of the study (i.e. guided by a specific research question), the local context, time and resources available, and the benefits and limitations of each method.Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the possibilities of using digital tools and technology as key facilitators for remote research.

As researchers, we not only need to engage participants and design research projects that will yield useful insights; we also have to translate our findings so that these insights can inform the design of effective and equitable policy. By using a range of methods, a more comprehensive and detailed overview can be communicated. Visual materials and stories are particularly effective ways for qualitative researchers to communicate their findings to policy-makers and make a refreshing addition to the more common interviews and focus groups.

Acknowledgements

This blog was written based on the work produced by all authors credited in the full Brief: Understanding Lived Experience of Food Environments to Inform Policy: An Overview of Research Methods

Author biography

Kimberley Neve is a Researcher at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London. She works as part of the Obesity Policy Research Unit, investigating people’s lived experiences of food environments to inform policy in areas such as infant feeding and weight management. Kimberley is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Masters in Global Public Health Nutrition.

Rethinking Vulnerability and Sensitivity

Research ethics committees are very concerned with the potential vulnerability and sensitivity of research participants. So far, so laudable – but I don’t think they show their concern in particularly useful ways. Gaining formal approval from a research ethics committee is a hoop many researchers have to jump through, but then the real work of ethics begins.

For most research ethics committees, vulnerability is an attribute of some groups and not others. Groups who may be deemed to be vulnerable include children, older people, or adults with learning disabilities. These categories are specified by UKRI who oversee government-funded research in the UK. But if you look at this in more detail, it doesn’t stand up. Take children. Say a competent 14-year-old is a young carer for their single parent who lives with severe and enduring mental health problems and drinks alcohol all day. Which of those two people might be better able to give informed consent to the child taking part in research? Conversely, people are not necessarily vulnerable because they are older. President Biden is 79 and I can’t imagine him being seen as vulnerable. Learning disabilities don’t necessarily make people vulnerable either, as some of my dyslexic friends would no doubt agree.

Vulnerability is not an attribute, it is a state we all move into and out of in different ways. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. Quite suddenly we were all vulnerable to illness, perhaps death; to increased anxiety; to fear for loved ones who fell sick; to bereavement. Heads of state were no safer than ordinary people living in apartments or suburbs, and researchers were every bit as vulnerable as their participants. Perhaps one small positive side-effect of the pandemic is this: we can see more clearly that we are all vulnerable to changing circumstances resulting in trouble or trauma. Which does not mean we are all vulnerable all the time – but that any of us may be, or may become, vulnerable at any time. As researchers, I think it is essential for us to be aware of this, and ready to face and manage it when it occurs.

Vulnerability and sensitivity have something in common. Just as it is not possible to predict from group membership who is and is not vulnerable, so it is not possible to predict who will and will not be upset by a topic. Of course some topics are likely to be upsetting: female genital mutilation, suicide, sex work, and so on. And we need to put whatever precautions we can in place if we are investigating topics like these, that are evidently sensitive: to make the experience as safe as possible for our participants, and for ourselves. But we cannot be sure that everyone will find these topics equally sensitive; there are people who can take such topics in their stride.

Conversely, some people may be upset by apparently innocuous topics. Suppose a market researcher is investigating people’s perceptions of homewares. In one interview, the researcher asks their question about teapots, and realises their participant is struggling to hold back tears. The participant explains that the last gift ever given to them by their beloved mother, who died exactly one year ago, was a teapot. Perfectly plausible; impossible to foresee.

So, we can’t always predict everything everyone will be sensitive about, and we shouldn’t pretend we can. But, again, we need to equip ourselves with the mental and emotional intelligence and dexterity to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because if there is one thing we can predict, it is that at times we will face the unpredictable.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How To Find A Collaborator

The question to ask first is, when might you want to find a collaborator? Some work needs to be done alone, such as most doctoral research. Some work is sometimes best done alone, such as writing an opinion piece for a high-profile blog. But some work definitely needs to be done in collaboration. Most research benefits from collaboration. When I am commissioned to do a piece of research alone or with one other colleague, I always recommend that the commissioner set up a small group of relevant people to advise and steer the research project. And writing often benefits from collaboration too. In fact academic writing is always more or less collaborative: even if only one person is named as the author, the work will have been influenced by other scholars, colleagues, reviewers, editors – the list is long. And if more than one author is named, the work is likely to have benefited from the sustained engagement of more than one person.

Some work really needs collaborators. Three colleagues and I wrote Creative Research Methods in Education, and it was a better book, as a result, than it would have been if any three or two of us had worked on the project. I often receive requests to collaborate with others on research, or writing or both. Sometimes they are from friends or colleagues, and I always consider those carefully. Narelle Lemon from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, suggested we work together on the education book when we first met in person. Sometimes requests to collaborate come from people I don’t know. The reception those ones get will vary depending on what the person is proposing and how they put that across. If the email is from a free email provider such as gmail, with lots of spelling mistakes, asking me to collaborate on research to help prove that hemlock cures cancer – and to contribute to the funding of that research – I will reach swiftly for the delete button. Conversely, if the email is from an organisational address, well written, and asking me to collaborate on work that is within one of my areas of expertise, I will respond – and if the enquirer mentions that they have a budget, I am likely to respond positively.

The best collaboration request I have had from a stranger came from Richard Phillips of Sheffield University. His initial message, in July 2018, simply said: “Dear Helen, I would like to explore the possibility of involving you in a workshop on creative writing and social research, and have a budget for this. It would be great to hear from you and discuss. Thanks, Richard.” Short, to the point, and very interesting indeed. I emailed straight back, and in his reply he told me he liked my book on creative research methods. Better and better! We spoke a couple of days later, met a couple of weeks after that, ran the workshop in November 2018, and our book on Creative Writing for Social Research was published in January 2021.

If you want to find a collaborator, the most important thing is to do your homework. If you want someone to co-write a journal article about the role of manicures in ex-convict rehabilitation, you need to find someone who shares that niche interest. And when you do find someone who seems suitable, make sure your potential collaborator likes to write; not everyone does. There should be no need to introduce yourself, because the person you are contacting should be able to find information about you online; if they can’t, they are much less likely to agree to collaborate with you.

Overall, people are more likely to agree to collaborate if you are their peer or above, the work you are proposing is within their areas of interest, and you have a budget. If you have nothing but passion for a project, it is still worth asking suitable people if they are willing to collaborate, but be prepared for rejection. Also, please be aware that offering to collaborate for free could put you at risk of being exploited. However much you care about an issue, it is equally important to take care of yourself.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Indigenous Research Methods: Another Reading List

I thought it was time to share more of the books from my shelves. As with my previous post on this topic, this post is a reflection of my personal collection, built from the recommendations of students, colleagues and people on social media, as well as my own explorations. The more I have read and worked with Indigenous scholarship, the more convinced I have become of the importance of including these perspectives in my own work wherever they are relevant. I am glad to be able to use my own power, such as it is, to amplify the voices of scholars who are much more marginalised than me.

Books on Indigenous research methods are very different from books on Euro-Western research methods. Books on Euro-Western research methods are akin to recipe books: combine these things, like this, and you will probably get that result, unless some contextual factor gets in the way. Books on Indigenous research methods don’t start with what to do and how to do it, they start with stories, and thinking, and sharing, and knowing, and learning. One key difference is that Indigenous research is designed to serve existing relationships, and if it is not likely to at least maintain and ideally strengthen those relationships, it is not deemed to be worth conducting. In the Euro-Western paradigm, we teach novice qualitative researchers to ‘create rapport’ with participants, to put them at ease – in effect, to make instrumental use of our friendship skills to obtain information from people we may not ever see again. Euro-Western researchers have begun to question how ethical this is. Indigenous researchers offer us some unmissable clues to the answer.

I am not, and I will never be, an expert on Indigenous research. Since my book on research ethics came out – with its subtitle of ‘Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives’ – I have received several invitations to speak about Indigenous research and to peer-review journal articles written by Indigenous scholars. I always refuse the first, and I only accept the second if the journal editor can assure me that the other reviewers will be Indigenous scholars (which, to date, no journal editor has been able to do). As a white English person I already have too much power in this post-colonial arena. I do not plan ever to use any of it to set myself above or take advantage of the Indigenous scholars who have taught me, and are teaching me, so much through their writings.

These books could be described as more theoretical than practical but, in the words of Kurt Lewin, the inventor of action research, ‘There is nothing as practical as a good theory.’ Lewin was a Jewish German psychologist who immigrated to the US as an adult in 1933, so he had experienced and understood oppression. He was also, perhaps as a result, much more interested in applied research which could make a positive difference to social problems than to research that might generate knowledge for its own sake. In the Indigenous research literature this distinction is not relevant, made or discussed, because knowledge is conceptualised as collectively owned, in contrast to the Euro-Western paradigm where knowledge is conceptualised as a form of individual property.

I could say a lot more about the similarities and differences I perceive, but I need to get to the books! The first is Talkin’ Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. This was recommended by various people on social media, and I didn’t get around to buying a copy until last year, but I’m not sorry because I got the 20th anniversary edition with a new preface. It is a book of relevance to every white woman and anyone who uses feminist theory. Although it was written over 20 years ago, it is still highly, urgently topical. The author explains how white women dominate the feminist agenda; invites us to notice and interrogate our white privilege; and suggests we need to figure out how to give up some of that privilege in the interests of greater equality – which, after all, is where feminism came in.

Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. His book Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism points out how and why Euro-Western social science doesn’t fit with Asian realities. The book covers the whole of Asia and all of the social sciences, and – despite its title – argues that alternative discourses alone are not enough, particularly if they are created in the same mould as the Euro-Western social science discourses so prevalent in Asian universities. Alatas explains in forensic detail how Asian academies are still colonised by Western approaches and curricula. He calls for a ‘liberating discourse’ which will help to popularise Asian ideas and perspectives.

Antonia Darder is a Puerto Rican and American scholar, artist, poet and activist. She has edited a collection called Decolonizing Interpretive Research: A Subaltern Methodology for Social Change. The foreword, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, notes that ‘dominant theories … have spectacularly failed to transform the lives of subaltern communities and have instead reinforced privilege and inequalities across all developed and developing countries’ (p xii). In her introduction, Darder points out that an insistence on empirical evidence is a colonialist approach and, in close alignment with Alatas, calls for a reversal of privilege to foreground Indigenous philosophies and approaches.

Applying Indigenous Research Methods: Storying with Peoples and Communities is edited by Indigenous American scholars Sweeney Windchief and Timothy San Pedro. The editors begin by acknowledging that there is more in the literature about what Indigenous research methods are, and why, than about how they can be applied. This book sets out to correct that imbalance – and says quite clearly on the back cover that it is designed for use and teaching across Indigenous studies and education. Any Euro-Western researcher who is looking for methodological novelty they can use in their own work will not find that here. What they will find instead are inspiring stories of how research can be when it is understood and conducted holistically in and for communities of people who share a system of values which have been developed and tested over millennia.

Indigenous Canadian scholars Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule and Rochelle Johnston have edited Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships. This also focuses on how Indigenous research is conducted in practice and includes inspiring stories to demonstrate some ways this has been done.

Shawn Wilson, Andrea Breen and Lindsay DuPré have edited Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing through Indigenous Relationships. The editors are two Indigenous researchers and one white settler. They explain the troubled complexity of the concept of reconciliation, which means different things to different people and can be co-opted for colonialist purposes. The editors are overtly working towards twin purposes of creating intellectual discomfort in some arenas and, in others, creating and protecting spaces for researchers to work as authentically as possible. And, again, the contributions are inspiring stories – though sadly, unlike all the others, this book doesn’t have an index.

There are more links between the last three books than their presentation of stories. These books seem to speak to each other, the stories intertwining and sometimes disagreeing, going back and forth and around again but always making progress. Like a conversation. And they are all very readable, written with dialogue and storytelling, poetry and images.

Lastly I am going to mention again a book I covered in my previous post: Indigenous Research Methodologies by Professor Bagele Chilisa from the University of Botswana. I am mentioning this book again because the second edition is now out and well worth buying and reading, even if you already have the first edition.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Data Dreaming

Inspired by my last post on What is data?, a researcher – who needs to remain anonymous – has written this guest post for my blog.

As an interdisciplinary researcher working in arts/health/humanities contexts, I am interested in the language used to discuss data: terms such as ‘rich’ and ‘noisy’ refer to ‘evidence’ that is complex or messy. Data can take many forms as Helen Kara’s blog (and books) articulate, and can also carry different values. The power practices played out between qualitative and quantitative research paradigms are also evident in the history of arts-based practice research as a poor relation to written outputs. We are on a long journey towards recognition and understanding of arts paradigms in terms of audits, funding and, most importantly, knowledge.

Last Thursday (17 March 2022), academics in receipt of grants from UK research councils were busy submitting their annual outputs to ‘Research Fish’, a reporting system for the outputs of grant funded projects. The research leads are required to complete online forms with details of all the material that has been produced that is associated with the grant. Reports are required while the research is ongoing and for five years after funding has ended. For arts-based researchers, this exercise can feel like a process of putting a square peg in a round hole due to the scientific bias of the reporting format and categories. Even the section on the impact narrative seems to offer limited opportunity to discuss how research can positively impact on individuals; I found myself ticking the ‘other’ box rather too frequently after wrestling with the different categories offered on the form. I even wondered whether the timing of the Helen Kara’s blog addressing the vexed issue of ‘What is data?’ had been deliberate or a happy/unhappy accident in view of the deadline that day for the Research Fish audit.

Fishing completed, I returned to my emails to find an urgent message about one of the funded projects I’d just reported on. This research grant was in its final year and involved a team of arts practitioners facilitating creative workshops to explore questions about adolescent identities and mental health. A query had been raised by the funder during an audit of expenditure and I was informed that a consumables cost had been removed as it was deemed ineligible due to not being ‘directly related to the research being carried out’. The items identified were tote bags and their contents: journals, badges, craft materials and sensory tools (fidget toys).

The justification we provided was that the items were being used to support the practical workshops in schools and were part of the data collection. Participants used the journals during the workshop, responding to prompts and tasks through writing or drawing (giving us insights into their thoughts, feelings, experiences through creative processes); hence these were an important source of data contributing to our analysis. The bags contained pens, badges (used for communication preferences as well as names), arts materials for making activities and what are known as ‘fidget or stim toys’ (for sensory play/stimming). These ensured participants had access to the same set of resources, which is important for parity and inclusion. The stim toys were particularly valuable and popular with our neurodivergent participants, enabling the researchers and teachers to understand more about the role of stimming for this population (regulating emotion, facilitating focus, supporting processing). This was also important to creating a sense of group identity as the stim tools were something the participants used to interact with each other as well as individually. One participant described the resource as ‘my little bag of heaven’. The impact narrative for this project referred to a headteacher describing it as ‘changing lives’ due to the impact on individuals and the school as a whole.

There is pleasure and joy through the learning co-produced in these rich interdisciplinary research environments; the activities can produce tacit knowledge and felt understanding, the ‘moments of being’ Virginia Woolf describes, in which we perceive a new reality working in the arts/science interface. However, the query about the research rationale for these materials (and their relevance to the data) reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s fishing analogy in her essay ‘Professions for Women’ and her description of a young girl writing in contexts where a dominant authority stifles the work of an/other:

The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men. The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say.’

Arts practices are embodied research approaches, requiring arts materials to ‘probe the dark places where the largest fish slumber’. I can only dream of a future heaven where this is no longer ‘unfitting’ for us as researchers to say, but instead is understood and valued as data.

What Is Data?

Last week, in the context of some work I’m doing for a client, I was trying to find something someone had written in answer to the question: what is data? I looked around online, and in my library of methods books, and I couldn’t find anything except some definitions.

The definitions included:

  • Factual information used as a basis for reasoning or calculation (Merriam-Webster)
  • Information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be used to help with making decisions (Cambridge English Dictionary)
  • Individual facts, statistics, or items of information, often numeric (Wikipedia)

Data is also, demonstrably, a word, and a character in Star Trek. So far, so inconclusive. Yet people talk and write about data all the time: in the media, in books and journals, in conversations and meetings. And they use it to refer to many other things than facts or numbers. Data may be anything from a piece of human tissue to the movement of the stars.

Euro-Western researchers conventionally speak and write of ‘collecting’ data. And indeed some data can be collected. If you want to research beach littering, you can go and collect all the litter from one or more beaches, and then use that litter as data for analysis. If you want to know what differences there may be in how print media describes people of different genders, you can collect relevant extracts from a bunch of articles and then use those extracts as data for analysis. So this is valid in some cases. However, if you plan to research lived experience by collecting data, you are effectively viewing people as repositories of data which can be transferred to researchers on request, and viewing researchers as people who possess no data themselves so need to take it from others. Clearly neither of these positions are accurate.

Some Euro-Western researchers speak and write of ‘constructing’ data. This refers to the generation of data as a creative act, such as through keeping a diary for a specified length of time, taking photographs during a walking interview, or making a collective collage in a focus group. Even conventional interview or focus group data can be viewed as being constructed by researcher and participant(s) together.

Autoethnographers and embodiment researchers privilege data from their own lived experience, though often they also use data collected from, or constructed with, others. But for these researchers, their own sensory experiences, thoughts, emotions, memories and desires are all potential data.

For Indigenous researchers, all of these and more can be used as data, which is often co-constructed with the researcher and all participants working together in a group. This is done in whatever way is appropriate for the researcher’s and participants’ culture. Māori research data is co-constructed through reflective self-aware seminars. In the Mmogo method from southern Africa, objects with symbolic and socially constructed meanings are co-constructed from familiar cultural items such as clay, grass stalks, cloth and colourful buttons, during the research process, to serve as data (Chilisa 2020: 223-4,243). Indigenous researchers in America, Canada and Australia use oral history, stories and artworks as data (Lambert 2014:29-35).

All of this tells us that data is not purely facts and numbers, as the definitions would have us believe. Conversely, we could conclude from the examples above that pretty much anything can be data. This does not mean anything can be data for any research project. You’re not likely to find a cure for disease by collecting bus timetables, or identify the best way to plan a new town by making inukshuk. But bus timetables could be very useful for research into public transport systems, and making inukshuk could be integral to Indigenous research into the knowledge and belief systems of Arctic peoples.

Data can be documents or tattoos, poems or maps, artefacts or photographs – the list is very, very long. And of course a research project may use different kinds of data, which could be collected, or constructed, or some of each. The question we need to ask ourselves, at the start of any research project, is: what kind(s) of data are most likely to help us answer our research question, within its unique context including any constraints of budget and/or timescale? In the end, for some projects, the answer will be facts, or numbers, or both. But if we assume this from the start, we close off all sorts of potentially interesting and useful options.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers

My new book on Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers was published last week. It came about in an odd kind of way. Some conversations online, mostly with members of the Women in Academia Support Network, plus various comments in client meetings, and a few things I’d read, coalesced in my head into an idea. Then it just so happened that I was at a meeting for the PRO-RES project, in London, in November 2019, and also present was Katie Metzler, a vice-president of SAGE Publishing. I had met Katie before and we had chatted on Twitter. While we were catching up over pre-meeting coffee, I told her of my idea. The next thing I knew, she had whipped out her phone and asked a commissioning editor to work with me on the book.

It was an interesting book to write, tracing a journey I had made myself – if I hadn’t, I don’t think I could have written the book. My first degree, a BSc in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, was pure quantitative research. One of the things I most enjoyed was following reference trails down interesting paths in the library, and during one of these intellectual expeditions I found out about qualitative research. It fascinated me even then, and I asked if I could do a qualitative dissertation in my third year, but the answer was a resounding, rather shocked, and very firm ‘no’.

That seemed illogical to me, and slightly annoying, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t realise I had been caught up in the paradigm wars until I learned about them, much later, when I was doing an MSc in Social Research Methods in the early 2000s. The MSc covered both quant and qual methods, and you could specialise in either or both. It also taught social theory and the relationship of theory to research and research to practice. This time, my dissertation was qualitative, and I am still in touch with my wonderful dissertation supervisor Maggie O’Neill.

My PhD was mostly qualitative though I sneaked in a few bits of quant – my doctoral supervisors weren’t keen, but I have never seen the point of sticking to one or the other exclusively when some of both could work better. In the early 2000s I regularly met methodological opposition in my commissioned research. My own non-disciplinary and pragmatic approach to methods and theory is to use what is likely to work best to help me answer my research question, within the constraints of budget, timescale and so on. But some people are attached to specific methods or theories, whether through disciplinary or individual preference. I have long thought it is unnecessary and unhelpful to limit your options in that way.

In the later 2000s and early 2010s I observed little increases in flexibility here and there, such as some clinical researchers becoming more amenable to the occasional qualitative element, and some qualitative evaluators conceding that numbers could come in handy now and again. Further into the 2010s this began to pick up pace, and towards the end of the decade I noticed quantitative researchers discussing how difficult they found some aspects of qualitative research. Some comments I saved from online discussions included:

As a medic, I found some challenges personally conducting quali research – I come from a more quant background.”

I’m a biomed scientist who wants to learn and do mixed methods research. We’re not bad people but (gasp) have never been told any other method than the scientific method exists.

I was trained a positivist marine biologist and am now a marine social scientist… the field of social science has multiple philosophies that as natural scientists we rarely get to hear of, let alone understand.”

“I am also biomedical by background and have just started to use mixed methods/qual stuff. I am STRUGGLING it is really hard to wrap your head around if you’re just used to p values.”

I thought I could write a book to help people in these kinds of situations. So I did. And I’m delighted to say the finished book has already had some very good reviews. I am proud of what I have achieved with this book, and I hope it will help a lot of researchers.

By the way, if you’re interested in this subject you might want to join my Qualitative Research for Quantitative Researchers course at the Methods at Manchester summer school in June.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ethics Codes and Guidelines

Last month I was involved in the final review meeting for the PRO-RES project. This is a project funded by the European Commission to create an ethics framework for all non-medical researchers. I worked on this project from 2018–2021: I have written about the experience here, and about some of the resources we created and curated here.

One key resource is a collection of research ethics codes and guidelines. We also conducted five case studies of very different approaches to developing and implementing codes and guidelines. These were from:

The International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)

The United Kingdom Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in the UK (ARMA)

The Social Research Association (SRA)

The Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

The Croatian Agency for Personal Data Protection

INGSA has around 6000 members from more than 100 countries, and they are not just government science advisors (as the name suggests) but a much wider group. INGSA acts as an informal network of key actors who help to build evidence and provide advice for policy-makers. It works to ensure that the evidence used by its members is scientifically robust and ethically sound. Its global and transdisciplinary work is too complex and multi-faceted to be managed through a written ethics code or guideline. Instead, it focuses on training advisors to identify robust and ethical evidence.

UKRIO and ARMA worked together to create a common framework for ethics support and review for UK universities and other research organisations. The aim was to support best practice and common standards, and the framework was co-produced by ethicists, research ethics committee chairs, and representatives of universities, research funders and learned societies. The framework was published in 2020, is explicit and detailed, and is freely available online. It is now being used by many universities and research organisations.

The SRA has recently updated its ethical guidelines, which are widely used by researchers from a range of sectors. The SRA is a small charity run by volunteers, and the update was also done by volunteers, which meant it took quite a long time. The pandemic slowed the process even more. In retrospect, they would have benefited from paying someone to do the initial drafting with input from a group of volunteers. They considered looking for another organisation’s guidelines to adopt, but decided that could be just as difficult and might prove impossible. So they pressed on and finished the job. The guidelines were published in early 2021 and are freely available online.

The Estonian case study researched the process leading to, and following, the signing of the national Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2017. The process of developing and signing the code took 18 months and involved universities and research organisations, plus consultations with partners from research and development institutions and with the wider public. After the code was signed, the process of implementation began, with debates around committees for research integrity and different universities applying the code in different ways. The Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science are reorganising relevant legislation to align with the code, and monitoring its implementation.

The Croatian case study focused on personal data protection in academic and research institutions throughout the country, before and after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. The number of reported personal data breaches in Croatia increased dramatically after the implementation of GDPR, but very few of these related to research. Hundreds of data protection officers across Croatia were found to have little knowledge of personal data protection or its relationship with ethics. Ethical issues around personal data protection were also found to be problematic at EU level. Each of these aspects of the case study were written up in open access journal articles.

These case studies may seem quite disparate but, collectively, they offer some useful lessons. First, when creating frameworks for ethics and integrity in research, there is a clear need to balance ethical ideals with what is possible in practice. Second, being prescriptive is not possible because of the constant changes to research contexts and wider society. Third, delegating responsibility for ethics to a specialised team such as a research ethics committee leads to compliance, not engagement. (I have written more about this elsewhere.) Fourth, sanctions and incentives can help to deepen commitment, but are only appropriate for some discrete elements of research ethics such as GDPR.

I also found it interesting to observe the discussions during the PRO-RES project. I learned that a number of ethicists yearn for a common ethics guide or code: ‘one code to rule them all, one code to bind them,’ as I sometimes enjoyed misquoting. I also learned that institutions, organisations, nations and other groups feel a strong need to develop their own code, with nuances and emphases that reflect their own ethos and vision. The PRO-RES project initially aimed to create a common framework for all non-medical researchers. And indeed it has done so, though how widely the framework will be taken up and used remains to be seen.

A central part of the framework is the PRO-RES Accord, a concise statement of ethical principles which was widely consulted on during the PRO-RES project. Over 1000 people, across Europe and beyond, gave feedback on draft versions before the accord was finalised. Signing the accord means you agree to abide by its principles; endorsing the accord means you commend its principles and will strive to promote them. Anyone can download, sign, and/or endorse the accord, either as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Perhaps you would like to do so yourself.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Asset-Based Research

For me, one of the greatest developments in research methods so far this century is the genesis and expansion of asset-based research.

Up to the end of the last century, research was almost entirely based on deficits. What we studied were problems, lacks, difficulties, deficiencies, gaps. This is understandable: people generally do research to try to improve matters, so starting with something that needs improvement makes sense. However, we were missing a big trick.

Around the turn of the century, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi founded the positive psychology movement. Before then psychologists had exclusively studied topics such as memory loss, criminal and deviant behaviour, attachment disorders, psychopathology and the like. The positive psychology movement chose to study topics such as happiness, resilience, well-being and so on, to find out what we can learn from people who are flourishing and how we might be able to extend some of that to others.

Organisational researchers David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva were taking a similar approach. They developed the method of Appreciative Inquiry which begins by looking at what an organisation does well and is proud of, and then considers how it can improve in the light of its successes. And researchers from various disciplines around the world have been drawing on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to consider what Indigenous and other marginalised people can and do contribute to their communities.

Asset-based research is also beginning to be used in other fields, including Autism research. I am proud to have made a small contribution to this process myself, through a journal article Aimee Grant and I wrote which was published in Contemporary Social Science last month. The article is called Considering the Autistic advantage in qualitative research: the strengths of Autistic researchers. Much Autism-related research has been conducted by neurotypical people based on a view of Autistic people as deficient. By contrast, in our article, Aimee and I demonstrate that Autistic people like us have a lot to offer to qualitative research teams. We have also formulated some guidance, for teams with a mix of neurotypical and neurodiverse people, to facilitate effective inclusive working.

I am delighted to say the article is open access so you can all read it! I am also delighted that it has generated a lot of interest, with over 2,500 views in its first three weeks. And I feel proud to have been able to make this contribution within nine months of my own Autism diagnosis. Though I should acknowledge that I couldn’t have done it without Aimee, who was an excellent collaborator. Also, we had fantastic support from the journal editors and the anonymous reviewers. If you are looking for a home for an article on researcher experiences and research methods, or would like to propose a special issue, I would encourage you to consider Contemporary Social Science. It is the journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, of which I am a Fellow, but you don’t need any links to the Academy to submit work to the journal. They publish four issues a year, of which only one is open access at present, but that may change in time.

Anyway, if you find our article helpful or interesting – or disagree with the points we make, because all reasoned debate is useful – then please let us know, either here in the comments or over on Twitter.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Research Trajectory

I have been talking about the research trajectory with my students for years. I describe my conception of this trajectory, which I call ‘The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research’. I often use this conception to help me explain why it is usually not a good idea, when data analysis is challenging, to decide that all problems will be solved by throwing in a few extra methods – gathering more data, reading a new body of literature, and so on.

It occurred to me that manifesting the image I see in my head might be entertaining for me (it was!) and perhaps useful for others. So I made a graphic. Here it is. Does it resonate with you?

The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!