Creative Writing for Social Research

Today is the official launch day for Creative Writing for Social Research, the book Richard Phillips and I have written, with 14 short contributions from other creative scholarly writers. I am so proud of this book! It is not perfect – no book is perfect – but I think it is the book I am most proud to have written. We will be on Twitter for much of the day: you can find all the launch information via #CreativeAcWri.

Every book has out-takes; good sections that, for sensible reasons, don’t make the final cut. To celebrate the launch of this book, I thought I would share one of its out-takes that I drafted, and was – am – fond of, but which just didn’t fit. It is about field notes, and centres on an excerpt from Eating Soup Without A Spoon by Jeffrey Cohen. That is an ethnography I love because, unlike most anthropologists, the author discusses his methods.

Here is the out-take:

“Ethnographers, who might spend years living with the people they are studying, were the first social researchers to use their own field notes as data. In the early 1990s, the American anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen and his wife Maria spent a year living in the rural village of Santa Ana del Valle in Oaxaca district in Mexico. Cohen writes eloquently about the complexity hidden by the glib term ‘field notes’ (2015:39-40):

Each night found me sitting at my desk writing notes; in fact, most nights found me writing at least two and sometimes three different kinds of notes.

The first notes, to which Maria contributed as well, were daily diary-like entries recording observations and exploring our experiences as we were introduced to village life. We wrote about shopping, about social life and the gendered divisions that defined what men and women were doing in their lives and around their homes, managing kitchens and the challenge of keeping a house clean.

I also described our home and the houses we visited, noting the physical trappings of life such as the layout of compounds, what people owned, and what luxuries were present.

A second set of notes was anthropological. Although they also explored our experiences in and around the village and market, they were organized around critical themes in anthropological theory… I would use these notes to think about economic change… family cooperation and reciprocity… the efforts to… not simply survive but thrive in the changing world… in my notes I could explore how [these efforts] worked, how they failed, and how they matched up to my expectations and training.

The third set of notes was much more personal and reflected my sense of self and my own experiences. On occasion I wrote letters to long-dead ancestors in anthropology. Looking back on that odd process, I can see it was one way I was able to deal with the ghosts of anthropology’s past that haunted me.

This is a lovely depiction of writing in practice as a method of turning experiences into data. It is also a clear illustration of writing as friend, teacher, and therapist. In the first set of notes we can see writing as a friend to whom Cohen recounted daily events, in the second a teacher showing Cohen how to think about his work and link theory to practice, and in the third a therapist who helped Cohen manage his feelings of being haunted by anthropological ghosts.

This kind of creative ethnographic writing can generate lots of rich data. The downside is the huge amount of work resulting at the analytic stage. For some people, this is so overwhelming that they never complete their research (Cohen 2015:150). Even for those who do find a way through the analytic morass, it will be ‘hard, exhausting work’ that is incredibly time-consuming (Cohen 2015:149). Though again, here, there are creative writing techniques which can help, and we’ll be highlighting some of those later in this section. However, unless you are doing this kind of ethnographic work, we would advise you to limit the amount of data you generate. Working with creative writing can be fun and interesting and so it’s tempting to keep on going. But as we’ve seen, this can present considerable difficulties for analysis, so we recommend resisting any such temptation.”

That should have given you a flavour of the book Richard and I have written. I use the conceptions of writing as ‘friend, teacher, and therapist’ in teaching creative and productive thesis writing to doctoral students. I tell them writing is a teacher; we learn as we write, often surprising ourselves. Writing can be a therapist: obviously an actual therapist is, generally speaking, more use, but if you have a distressing or complicated experience during research, writing about it can be cathartic and help you process your feelings. And writing is always there for you; sometimes annoying and disappointing, but reliable and reasonably predictable, like a good friend.

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