International Creative Research Methods Conference

This may be the most exciting blog post I have ever written. I am founding a conference! This is an audacious move for an independent researcher, and there are several reasons why I have decided to make the leap.

First, I want to go to a conference on creative research methods! I helped to organise one in May 2015, with the Social Research Association and the British Library. It was a one-day conference and it was a great success. We had around 100 submissions for presentations, from four continents – and the creative research methods field has expanded massively since then. But, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been another one since.

Second, I have tried to persuade various organisations and institutions to host a conference on creative research methods, but none of them have been willing and able to do so.

Third, I am confident that there will be enough interest in this conference. There is no conference on creative research methods anywhere in the world. There are a couple of conferences on visual methods, and a few conferences on qualitative methods that will include creative methods. But that’s all. And I know a lot of people are working in this area now.

Fourth, I have saved enough money to take the financial risk of signing a contract with the venue. And this is a risk – it’s a five-figure sum – I do not want to lose that much money, but I could. Yet this is how confident I am that this conference will succeed: I am literally betting on it with my very own cash.

I have spent the summer picking people’s brains and making plans. I have organised events before, so I have some useful experience, but I am also grateful for the input of a whole bunch of people whose advice and support has been invaluable.

It will be a two-day conference at The Studio in Manchester, starting mid-morning on Monday 11 September 2023, finishing mid-afternoon on Tuesday 12 September 2023. Save the dates! And it will be a hybrid conference, so people can attend in person or online.

I am delighted that my first choices of speakers have agreed to give the keynote each day: highly experienced and creative experts Pam Burnard for Day 1, and Caroline Lenette for Day 2.

If you are interested in contributing to the conference, you can download the call for contributions here. The deadline for proposals is 1 December 2022, and all the details you need should be on the call, including an email address for any queries you may have.

I am so excited about this project! It has been such a struggle to keep it secret; I am delighted I can tell the world at last. Please help me pass the word around – and I hope you can join us in September of next year.

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I’m A Lime Green Pencil

lime green pencilI was lucky enough to spend two days last week helping with the Inside Out Autism conference at the University of Kent. This was a new university for me, on a verdant campus with trees and rabbits on a hillside overlooking Canterbury. The weather was beautiful, not that I saw much of it, as the main conference venues were two theatre spaces with no windows. No air-conditioning, either, so the conference was hot stuff in more ways than one.

The first day of the conference focused on autism and participatory research, the second on autism and gender. Around 50 people attended each day; some came for one day or the other, many for both. Most of those present were autistic, and the conference was wonderfully inclusive. Conference bags held fidget spinners, ear plugs, and stickers in green and red to indicate ‘I’m happy to chat but I might struggle to initiate conversation’ or ‘I probably don’t want to talk to anyone right now’, as well as more usual items such as notebooks, pens, Post-Its and copies of the conference programme. There were two seminar rooms upstairs for people who wanted time out, one designated as a quiet space and the other as a chat room. Hand dryers were turned off in the toilets and paper towels provided. People could, and did, dip in and out of sessions as they wished or needed to. There was a single stream of activity throughout, rather than multiple parallel strands, and most presentations were recorded which meant people could catch up later with anything they’d missed.

The quality of the presentations was excellent. None was longer than half an hour, and many were ten-minute ‘thunder and lightning’ sessions – either a thunderous provocation or a lightning report of relevant research. Presenters came from all levels of academia and beyond, including independent researchers and colleagues.  I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of each presentation, because that would be boring, and anyway you can read the Wakelet – several of us were tweeting – and check out the presentations for yourself online. But, truly, all of them were interesting and engaging, and I find that is rare at academic conferences.

One session I enjoyed, that wasn’t recorded, was in fact one I facilitated. There was an exhibition of around a dozen thought-provoking posters and time dedicated for everyone to look at them. After that I asked people to write down any themes they perceived, or other responses they might have, from the exhibition as a whole on Post-It notes and stick them on a wall. Then at lunchtime I took all the Post-It notes and grouped them into categories on five pieces of flip chart paper. From memory, I think the categories were:

  • autistic identity and experience
  • difficulties and challenges
  • questions remaining
  • autistic community, and
  • positive aspects of autism.

Each piece of flip chart paper was placed across a couple of chairs with a marker pen, and there was plenty of space between them to move around for an open space session of go-as-you-please discussion. There was a helper at each place to encourage people to write down their key thoughts. People were tentative at first, clustering in the doorway or sitting on one of the few seats around the edge. Someone said, ‘We’re not going to do some kind of group thing, are we?’ I reminded them that they could dip in and dip out, and slowly people began to engage with the flip charts, each other, and the whole experience. There were some really rich discussions and the helpers did a great job of encouraging people to record the important points made. At the end we had a feedback session which stimulated some more very useful discussion – and lo and behold, those of us who had chosen to be part of that stage of the process were indeed doing a group thing! I would estimate around 25 people stayed and made themselves comfortable in the space in a variety of ways: sitting or lying on the floor, sitting on chairs or standing or leaning on furniture, facing towards the centre or away.

These discussions, and indeed discussions throughout the conference, held a great deal of nuance. People who used categories such as ‘autistic’ and ‘neurotypical’ took care to acknowledge that this did not imply homogeneity within those categories. In the day on gender, while there was rather more ‘male and female’ type language than I would have ideally liked, there were also several mentions of trans and non-binary people. People talked about class, and race, and intersectionality, as well as autism and gender.

The conference wasn’t perfect. One session should have had a trigger warning, and didn’t; several people pointed this out to the lead organiser who made a thorough apology at the start of the next session. One speaker had a slide which upset some audience members, who raised their concerns in a question. The speaker gave their reasons, apologised for the upset, and asked what they should do differently another time; another audience member made a suggestion, which was accepted. And here’s one of the things I love about autistic people: they move on. They don’t seem to mess about with egos and judgement like some other kinds of people. I find it relaxing to hang out with autistic people because I know that if they have a problem with me, they’re likely to tell me, and help me figure out a solution if I can’t come up with one by myself. And then we all move on.

There was also an unexpected personal outcome. When I first introduced myself at the conference, I said “I think I’m neurotypical, although one of my autistic friends tells me that I’m neither neurotypical nor autistic, so probably I’m in a category that doesn’t yet have a label.” By the end of the first day some of my new autistic friends were questioning this assessment. One person, who I will call Chris, told me that someone else at the conference, who I will call Hardeep, has a form of synaesthesia that enables them to distinguish between neurotypical and autistic people. Apparently, for Hardeep, neurotypical people have a kind of spiky outline, perhaps with diffuse colours, whereas autistic people have definite shapes and colours. I was interested to find out how Hardeep would perceive me, so the next day Chris introduced me to them to find out. “You’re a lime green pencil,” Hardeep said, with no hesitation or uncertainty. “Yep, you’re definitely autistic.” Chris told me there was no doubt in either of their minds.

That was a bit of a shock and it took me a while to process. I’ve been content for a while now to think of myself as neurodiverse, and I wouldn’t have a problem with being autistic. But it seems that to be autistic you need a thing called a ‘diagnosis’. Right now I can’t see what purpose one of those would serve in my life. Also, given that I’ve just spent a lot of time hearing about how difficult it is for women and girls to get such a diagnosis, it doesn’t seem worth the bother to try to obtain one for myself. (Though if I find my disinclination is contributing to the misdiagnosis of other women and girls, that could change my mind.)

One of the presenters said they preferred the term ‘discovery’ to ‘diagnosis’, a viewpoint which seemed to resonate with many people present. So I’ll go with that for now. I’ve discovered I’m a lime green pencil, which makes as much sense to me as any other label I’ve ever been given. More importantly, I’ve discovered that I am welcome in a community of people I respect, and that is worth more to me than any diagnosis.

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The Undisciplined Interdisciplinary Researcher

undisciplinedLast week there was an interesting conference called Undisciplining that I enjoyed following on social media. The conference subtitle was ‘Conversations From The Edges’ and its stated aim included ‘to foster collaborations and dialogues across disciplines and beyond academia’. There was live blogging, a workshop on making sociological board games, a feminist walk, and all manner of other creative ways to promote reflection and discussion at the conference and elsewhere. But although it talked about working across disciplines and beyond academia, the stated purpose of that was ‘to shape the nature and scope of the sociological’.

From what I read about this conference, its participants were keen to consider how sociology might be changed, extended, morphed into anything at all that could be useful in some way – but would still, in the end, be sociology. As the conference was sponsored by The Sociological Review this is perhaps unsurprising. Yet, despite its aspirations to interdisciplinarity – ‘undisciplining’ – it seemed like a disciplinary conference.

While I was pondering on this, my attention was drawn to a blog post by Ayona Datta about why she supports early career researchers. This sentence resonated with me: “Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work.”

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, few psychologists were experimenting with qualitative research, so my degree was entirely quantitative. What I learned in my first degree influences me today, yet I’m neither a psychologist nor a quantitative researcher. I studied social research methods for my masters’ degree which was mostly taught by sociologists and anthropologists. My PhD was cross-disciplinary, with one supervisor from social policy and the other from the business school. Today, I think I am a researcher without a discipline. Perhaps I am an undisciplined researcher.

But research is a topic, not a discipline. So does this mean my work is interdisciplinary? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, my main topics of interest, i.e. research methods and ethics, are interdisciplinary. A geographer might invent a new method, which is then adapted by an anthropologist, reshaped by a poet and used by a lawyer. Research ethics don’t vary much across disciplines either. Second, I read across disciplines, like a magpie, searching by topic, picking out the texts that look shiny and passing over the dull ones. I don’t have a disciplinary imperative to keep up with this journal or that blog. I began to read like this as an undergraduate, pre-internet, finding that tracking trails of interest through bibliographies in the library was far more interesting than trudging through the prescribed reading list (though sadly it was less use when it came to writing assignments).

I’m not anti-disciplines, though, as such. I think perhaps there is merit in learning and thinking within particular fields for some purposes. But I am anti-disciplines when they constrain thought and action. To help avoid this, I think discipline-based researchers and scholars should make regular visits to other disciplines, such as through reading, collaborating, or attending conferences. During my undergraduate degree, every student was expected to take a module outside their core subject. I learned a lot from studying anthropology, sociology, and literature, which enhanced my learning of psychology. (I was amused to find that this approach has been introduced as an ‘innovation’ by another London HE setting recently. My cackling splutter of “LSE did that in the early 80s” received a frosty reception.)

Academics often tell me they can’t work in this kind of way because of constraints which, to be fair, often seem more institutional than disciplinary. So is the problem here that disciplines serve the needs of the institution? Was the Sociological Review able to sponsor a conference more radical than some because it is a publication, not an institution? Is it, as many have suggested and I myself suspect, because I work outside an institution that I can do truly interdisciplinary work?

Being a researcher, I generally have more questions than answers. I wonder, though, whether interdisciplinary work holds dangers for those in power. I wonder whether this is why independent researchers are not able to write for The Conversation or apply for funding from research councils. I suspect my forthcoming book, Research Ethics in the Real World, which certainly is interdisciplinary, is going to annoy some people. More than one academic has told me they wouldn’t have been able to write it from within academia.

I would have loved to go to the Undisciplining conference, but I couldn’t afford the cost plus the unpaid time to attend, so I’m glad they did so much on social media. I will try to do my part on that front at the Research Methods Festival in Bath next week. That’s a truly interdisciplinary conference, with geographers, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, health researchers, artists, economists, and many others too. I’m running a workshop on writing creatively in academia, which means I get a sizeable discount plus my travel paid, which means I can attend the rest of the conference. I can’t wait!

How To Chair An Event

chair 2You may be asked to chair an event such as a meeting, conference presentations, panel seminar, or even a whole conference. If you haven’t done this before, the prospect may fill you with dread. You’ve seen other people who have made it look easy. But nobody has ever told you how to chair an event; it’s as though you’re supposed to have learned it psychically or by osmosis or magic.

There is a difference between chairing different types of events, but there are also similarities. As a chairperson, your job is to help the event run smoothly; to encourage participation; and to be self-effacing. You are not on show, to impress or even to be noticed; you are there to serve. Your greatest achievement, as a chairperson, is to be the forgotten facilitator of an incredibly memorable event.

Helping an event run smoothly involves good preparation and timekeeping. Find out as much as you can, ahead of time, about the purpose of the event, who will be involved, the venue, and so on. For a meeting, make sure the agenda is timed and that all the papers are sent out far enough in advance to enable everyone to read them before the meeting. One potential booby-trap is the Any Other Business agenda item. There are two good ways I know to deal with this. You can ban it altogether because, as the chairperson, You Have The Power! Or, at the start of the meeting, you can ask who wants to raise what under A.O.B. This should be very quick items such as announcements or corrections. If someone mentions a topic that you think is likely to generate discussion, you can suggest that it should be an agenda item for the next meeting. Or – if it is urgent – rearrange the agenda for the current meeting to accommodate it, perhaps by deferring another item to the next meeting.

While you are chairing a meeting, you need to keep one eye on the clock and the other on your colleagues. It is your responsibility to keep everyone to time which is not always easy. It is also your role to help the shy and quiet people to speak, and encourage the verbal gerbils to give space to others.

At conferences and seminars, you need to introduce the event or the session, and again this involves good preparation. Get hold of speakers’ biographies in advance, and prepare your introductions: to yourself (briefly), to the event or session, and to the speakers. Find out how to pronounce any unfamiliar names. Make sure you and the speakers understand the format and the time allocations. Ideally sort this out by email ahead of the event or session; failing that, meet with the speakers ahead of the start time. Arrange a signal you can use to let speakers know that they have, say, five minutes left. If speakers want to use slides, make sure you see them in advance, in case they have prepared, for example, 38 slides for a 10-minute talk. In such cases, you need to be firm. One slide every two minutes is a good rule of thumb. Make sure slides are loaded and audio-visual equipment is working properly.

When you are introducing an event, it can be helpful to set some ground rules for the audience. I often say that I will welcome questions as long as they are actual questions, but if people in the audience have lengthy speeches to make, perhaps they could save those for the refreshment break. That usually gets a laugh as well as making the point. It is also worth saying that you will keep speakers punctual to ensure everyone gets their fair share of the available time.

When the event is underway, listen to the speakers and come up with a couple of questions to ask. You can do this beforehand if you are knowledgeable enough about the topic, but even then it’s worth listening to make sure your questions will fit. Make sure they are open questions, e.g. ‘Can you explain why you decided to do X?’, to encourage speakers to talk.

Be firm if a speaker over-runs. It really is unfair to the others, or – if the last speaker – to audience members who want to ask questions. When the last speaker has finished, thank the speakers for their interesting and thought-provoking talks, and then invite questions from the audience. You may see hands going up straight away, or there may be a pause, in which case let it run a little way past your comfort zone before you ask a question of your own. Your question is likely to get the audience going. Don’t allow any audience member to get into a discussion with a speaker; two exchanges is enough. If they look set to go on, suggest they meet for further discussion at the end of the session. If lots of hands go up, try for a good balance of gender, ethnicity, age and so on.

Another option, after you have thanked the speakers, is to ask the audience to have a quick chat with their neighbours about what they took from the presentation, what they would like to know more about, anything they disagreed with, questions and thoughts they may have. Give people a few minutes of discussion, then ask for questions. This can be very stimulating and lead to richer interactions with speakers.

Ask questioners to state their name and affiliation before they pose their question. Conversely, if there really are no questions, facilitate a discussion between the speakers. Engage with their themes, draw them out, and encourage speakers to interact with each other. If all else fails, go to the break early; nobody ever minds that.

If you’re chairing a whole conference you will have some extra responsibilities. There will be people to thank, such as the conference hosts, and perhaps sponsors, or volunteers who are helping on the day. You will have to cover ‘housekeeping’, i.e. where toilets and fire exits can be found, whether any fire drills are expected, and where the gathering point is in the event of an evacuation. There may be a hashtag to mention and social media reporting to encourage. You will be introducing, and timekeeping for, plenary speakers; it will be necessary to set ground rules and devise questions, as above. At the end of each session you may need to signpost the audience to what will happen next.

When time is up, thank the speakers again – and, if appropriate, the organisers – and lead a round of applause. Then you can have a big drink. You’ve earned it!

Chairing isn’t particularly difficult. However, it is tiring, because you have to pay attention all the time. There is no option to daydream, play on your phone, or whisper to your neighbour. It is, in some ways, a fairly thankless task. But it is also an essential role which helps to make meetings, sessions, and events run smoothly.

The Art Of Asking

theartofasking_imageFollowing on from last week’s blog post, I’ve been reflecting on the art of asking, why it can be so difficult, and how to make it easier.

I used to find it difficult to ask for help. I am naturally independent, and grew up on second-wave feminism which preached self-reliance. Asking can be hard because it’s a risk: you’re making yourself vulnerable, exposing your wishes or your needs, and the person you are asking might say ‘no’. You could experience that ‘no’ as a rejection or a slap in the face, as derogatory to your very being in the world. Alternatively, you could reflect that nothing major has changed, you’re still in the same position you were in before, and you have lost nothing. Or you could land up somewhere in between.

Asking can be easier in professional than personal contexts. Asking a librarian to help you track down a book, or the IT support desk to help you solve a techie problem, should be stress-free. You’re entitled to ask and it’s their job to help. But when you’re an indie researcher, those organisational networks of obligation don’t exist. So asking for things in professional contexts can be weird, even paralysing: why would anyone want to help me? Why would anyone be willing to put themselves out on my behalf?

I found myself on a steep learning curve in asking when I developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple of years ago and needed help with opening jars and bottles, moving furniture, doing DIY etc. The writer Laura James expresses the necessity of this eloquently and, like her, I have become shameless about asking for help. This has probably helped me learn to ask in other areas. Amanda Palmer’s wonderful book also provided a timely shove in the right direction.

I’ve learned other things as a result of learning to ask for help. For example, some people are incredibly helpful. Professor Rosalind Edwards is one of these people. I met Ros at a conference in Leicester in early 2014 (which, incidentally, I got to go to because I asked, on Twitter). The previous week I’d been to a meeting at the British Library, where I’m on an advisory panel for the Social Welfare Portal, and Ros’s name was mentioned as someone we could ask for help with publicity through her role as Co-Director of the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). So when I realised she was at the conference, I went to ask her for help on behalf of the Portal, and found out that she’s warm and helpful and funny. We chatted on Twitter in the weeks and months following the conference. Another kind and helpful person, Kandy Woodfield, invited me to be on a panel at the 2014 Research Methods Festival, which Ros helps to organise, so we met again then and had a lovely chat on a bench in the sunshine.

A couple of months ago I decided that I would really like to be a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. I had a look online, but couldn’t find evidence of any opportunities. So I asked Ros. She said NCRM didn’t have visiting fellows, but they’d been thinking about whether to start. I said was there any chance they could start with me? She went away and talked to the other directors, and they said ‘yes’.

They said ‘yes’!

So as from this very day, I am a Visiting Fellow at NCRM. Because I asked. I wouldn’t be one, otherwise.

Another incredibly helpful person, Gemma Noon, is currently Impact Evaluation lead at Calgary Public Library. I met her online in the noughties, we met in person once before she emigrated from the UK, and we’ve kept in touch. She stunned me by inviting me to give a keynote in Canada, all expenses paid – my first international speaking engagement! I didn’t even ask! But I did ask Gemma whether she had any contacts with local universities, and she put me in touch with Carol Shepstone at Mount Royal University, and I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for them while I was in the area, and she said ‘yes’. Then, at the creative research methods conference a couple of months ago, I saw Barbara Schneider present her excellent research. Barbara works at the University of Calgary, so I asked her whether she would like me to do any work for her while I was in the area – and she said ‘yes’. So in late October I’m off to Canada, to work for the library service and two universities in Calgary.

They said ‘yes’!

Some of this, of course, is sheer luck, and being in the right place at the right time. And there is an old saying: ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’, and I do work hard, so I figured that was the other influencing factor. I sent Ros a draft of this post, as a courtesy because it features her, and she told me firmly that my analysis was incomplete. She wrote,blush

“Of course, we don’t just give out fellowships because we get asked, and I bet you wouldn’t be invited to Calgary if it wasn’t because people think you are rather good at this research thing. You miss that bit of the story!”


Even so, if I hadn’t asked for help, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m also finding that the more I practice asking, the easier it becomes. I now regularly ask people for help: old friends and new, professional contacts, random strangers on Twitter. Of course they don’t all say ‘yes’ – but a surprisingly large number of people are able and willing to help.

If the prospect of asking repels you, ask yourself this: how do you respond when someone asks you for help? Are you generally willing to help others? I bet you are; it probably makes you feel good. And if that’s the case, why aren’t you willing to give other people that feel-good sensation by asking them for help in turn? Go on, give it a try – the results can be surprising and delightful.

How to get into conferences for free

burglarI picked up a blog post from Twitter yesterday that left me very cross. I decided not to retweet it, mainly because I couldn’t fit all my crossness into a one-word comment on the original tweet, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was condoning the views expressed by the blogger.

The post was published anonymously by someone calling themselves ‘Weasely’, who complains about the cost of a recent four-day conference priced at £120 for early birds or £150 for late bookers (£100/£130 for postgraduates), plus a year’s membership of the British International Studies Association (BISA) if you’re not already a member (£30). Weasely thinks that if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you should simply gatecrash – he or she suggests that forging a badge would be helpful – and take everything you can while you’re there, including food and drink for later. Carry tupperware and flasks for this purpose, advises Weasely, and help yourself to a bottle of wine from the wine reception. Get your tenured friends, or those with permanent posts, to help you gain illicit entry. The blog post is titled ‘Steal This Conference’.

The conference Weasely complains about was run by BISA which, like the Social Research Association (SRA) on whose Board I sit, is a learned society and a registered charity. The Boards of these organisations are made up of volunteers who work hard in their own time, alongside a small number of paid staff to put on events like these – who, because they are very dedicated people, also work in their own time as well as their paid time. BISA has one full-time member of staff, the SRA has the equivalent of approx 1.5 full-time staff, and these people are not highly paid. Also, learned societies, being registered charities, are not for profit. If we’re lucky, we do make a surplus from our events, which is used to support our other activities for public benefit, and to build up reserves against the times when we’re not so lucky and we make a loss.

Attending a conference without paying either reduces the surplus or increases the loss. This practice would push up costs. Even Weasely’s suggestions are likely to have that effect, as learned societies will now have to consider buying more expensive badges, perhaps with bar codes or holograms and the equipment to read them.  They will also have to consider paying people to monitor entry to individual sessions as well as to the conference as a whole.

I don’t know why Weasely thinks it’s OK to steal a conference place, food and drink etc. His or her commenters are more measured. One uses shoplifting as an analogy, which seems quite reasonable in the circumstances, and Weasely responds rudely with the view that ‘shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you’. I don’t agree with the tone or the content of that comment. Debate is vital; rudeness is neither necessary nor collegial. Conference attendance is not essential for survival, even in career terms. Asking for help can be essential for survival; shoplifting is stealing. Stealing is rarely defensible, and stealing from volunteer-led charities is despicable.

I think BISA did really well to keep the price of their conference so low. Postgraduate members were being charged £25 per day, which has to be a loss leader as that wouldn’t cover the cost of venue hire, food and drink, let alone the delegate pack, admin support, and all the other costs. I suspect there was a great deal of work behind the scenes, e.g. to attract support from sponsors, persuade suppliers to offer discounts, and find funding for speakers. But I do realise that even such low costs are out of reach for some people – because I am one of those people. As an indie researcher, I would have to pay at least £150 (early bird booking fee plus a year’s membership) plus travel and accommodation, which hikes the cost dramatically, and be prepared to spend four days not earning any money. That is often the clincher.

But sometimes there are conferences I really want to go to. So I’ve found out how to go to conferences for nothing, and do so ethically: offer to volunteer. Conference organisers often need people to do all sorts of things: staff reception desks, babysit important speakers, run around at plenary sessions with roving microphones. If you have the skills, you can convene or chair a panel or two. And, as with festivals, helping for some of the time gets you free entry the rest of the time, often with travel and accommodation thrown in. Plus you get to meet the organisers who are often influential people. So all I have to contribute is my unpaid time, and that feels like a fair exchange to me.

This isn’t widely advertised, and may not be available at all conferences, but it isn’t hard to ask. For me, asking would be easier than stealing. So if you want to go to a conference, but the cost is more than you can afford, give the organisers a call or drop them an email. Explain your predicament, tell them about your skills and abilities, and ask whether you can offer your services in exchange for a conference place (and, if necessary, travel/accommodation). Do this as far in advance as you can – though it’s always worth a try, even if you only find out about a particular conference at the last minute. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t receive a sympathetic hearing at the very least, and you might well find yourself with a good deal and some new friends into the bargain.

Creative Research Methods conference – 8 May 2015

This SRA conference, where my latest book was formally launched, was a wonderful gathering of diverse researchers. We had academic researchers, government researchers, researchers working in research companies and charities and other organisations, and independent researchers. There were researchers from North and South America, Canada, and other European countries as well as the UK. And we had researchers from across the arts, humanities, and social sciences: from media, design, law, sociology, psychology, and geography, among others. This diversity made for an incredibly stimulating environment. A delegate commented to me that the conference could easily have run over three days, not one, and I think they were right.

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

The keynote speaker was Professor David Gauntlett. He spoke about the ethical imperative of reciprocity and dialogue in research, and how making and discussing metaphorical artefacts could provide a positive experience for participants. David often uses Lego, but on this occasion he used the pipe cleaners in delegates’ packs to involve us in a participatory demonstration, asking us to build a metaphor of our feelings on our journey that morning to the British Library conference centre. This short exercise was entertaining and instructive, and David built on that to show how making things and talking about them could yield richer data for researchers than simply asking questions. His presentation was dynamic and set the tone for the day.

The morning and afternoon workshop presentations made up a wonderful patchwork with 24 vibrant blocks of colour. They were in four concurrent streams, which regular readers of this blog will recognise: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed methods research, and transformative research frameworks. Presentations included:

This is only a small selection, chosen because they had further information online that I could link to for anyone who wanted more than just a headline. Details of all the workshop presentations can be found in the conference storify which was ably created by our official live-tweeter, Annika Coughlin. The presentations I went to (in the transformative research frameworks stream) were excellent, and I gather from those in other workshop streams that the quality was consistent throughout.

One of the most exciting moments for me came just before lunch, when I discovered the conference hashtag #CRM15 was trending on Twitter! After lunch Jude England, Head of Research Engagement at the British Library, gave a talk on ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Digital’. She encouraged researchers to find, use, and reference secondary data, and gave some good tips on how to do this, as well as explaining how the Library works and how it can help researchers.

At the end of the conference, I gave a short speech to launch my book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. This was immediately followed by a celebratory wine reception, kindly sponsored by my publisher Policy Press. Overall it was a wonderful and inspiring day. I can hardly imagine a better conference, or a more enjoyable book launch.

Creative Research Methods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Write A Killer Conference Abstract

The LSE blogs recently published an ‘essential ‘how-to’ guide to writing good abstracts’conference presentation. While this post makes some excellent points, its title and first sentence don’t differentiate between article and conference abstracts. The standfirst talks about article abstracts, but then the first sentence is, ‘Abstracts tend to be rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a conference.’ This, coming so soon after the title, gives the impression that the post is about both article and conference abstracts.

I think there are some fundamental differences between the two. For example:

Article abstracts are presented to journal editors along with the article concerned. Conference abstracts are presented alone to conference organisers. This means that journal editors or peer reviewers can say e.g. ‘great article but the abstract needs work’, while a poor abstract submitted to a conference organiser is very unlikely to be accepted.

Articles are typically 4,000-8,000 words long. Conference presentation slots usually allow 20 minutes so, given that – for good listening comprehension – presenters should speak at around 125 words per minute, a conference presentation should be around 2,500 words long.

Articles are written to be read from the page, while conference presentations are presented in person. Written grammar is different from spoken grammar, and there is nothing so tedious for a conference audience than the old-skool approach of reading your written presentation from the page. Fewer people do this now – but still, too many. It’s unethical to bore people! You need to engage your audience, and conference organisers will like to know how you intend to hold their interest.

The competition for getting a conference abstract accepted is rarely as fierce as the competition for getting an article accepted. Some conferences don’t even receive as many abstracts as they have presentation slots. But even then, they’re more likely to re-arrange their programme than to accept a poor quality abstract. And you can’t take it for granted that your abstract won’t face much competition. I’ve recently read over 90 abstracts submitted for the Creative Research Methods conference in May – for 24 presentation slots. As a result, I have four useful tips to share with you about how to write a killer conference abstract.

First, your conference abstract is a sales tool: you are selling your ideas, first to the conference organisers, and then to the conference delegates. You need to make your abstract as fascinating and enticing as possible. And that means making it different. So take a little time to think through some key questions:

  • What kinds of presentations is this conference most likely to attract? How can you make yours different?
  • What are the fashionable areas in your field right now? Are you working in one of these areas? If so, how can you make your presentation different from others doing the same? If not, how can you make your presentation appealing?

There may be clues in the call for papers, so study this carefully. For example, we knew that the Creative Research Methods conference, like all general methods conferences, was likely to receive a majority of abstracts covering data collection methods. So we stated up front, in the call for papers, that we knew this was likely, and encouraged potential presenters to offer creative methods of planning research, reviewing literature, analysing data, writing research, and so on. Even so, around three-quarters of the abstracts we received focused on data collection. This meant that each of those abstracts was less likely to be accepted than an abstract focusing on a different aspect of the research process, because we wanted to offer delegates a good balance of presentations.

Currently fashionable areas in the field of research methods include research using social media and autoethnography/embodiment. We received quite a few abstracts addressing these, but again, in the interests of balance, were only likely to accept one (at most) in each area. Remember that conference organisers are trying to create as interesting and stimulating an event as they can, and variety is crucial.

Second, write your abstract well. Unless your abstract is for a highly academic and theoretical conference, wear your learning lightly. Engaging concepts in plain English, with a sprinkling of references for context, is much more appealing to conference organisers wading through sheaves of abstracts than complicated sentences with lots of long words, definitions of terms, and several dozen references. Conference organisers are not looking for evidence that you can do really clever writing (save that for your article abstracts), they are looking for evidence that you can give an entertaining presentation.

Third, conference abstracts written in the future tense are off-putting for conference organisers, because they don’t make it clear that the potential presenter knows what they’ll be talking about. I was surprised by how many potential presenters did this. If your presentation will include information about work you’ll be doing in between the call for papers and the conference itself (which is entirely reasonable as this can be a period of six months or more), then make that clear. So, for example, don’t say, ‘This presentation will cover the problems I encounter when I analyse data with homeless young people, and how I solve those problems’, say, ‘I will be analysing data with homeless young people over the next three months, and in the following three months I will prepare a presentation about the problems we encountered while doing this and how we tackled those problems’.

Fourth, of course you need to tell conference organisers about your research: its context, method, and findings. It will also help enormously if you can take a sentence or three to explain what you intend to include in the presentation itself. So, perhaps something like, ‘I will briefly outline the process of participatory data analysis we developed, supported by slides. I will then show a two-minute video which will illustrate both the process in action and some of the problems encountered. After that, again using slides, I will outline each of the problems and how we tackled them in practice.’ This will give conference organisers some confidence that you can actually put together and deliver an engaging presentation. four leaf clover

So, to summarise, to maximise your chances of success when submitting conference abstracts:

  1. Make your abstract fascinating, enticing, and different.
  2. Write your abstract well, using plain English wherever possible.
  3. Don’t write in the future tense if you can help it – and, if you must, specify clearly what you will do and when.
  4. Explain your research, and also give an explanation of what you intend to include in the presentation.

While that won’t guarantee success, it will massively increase your chances. Best of luck!

Creative Research Methods Conference – Great News!

I blogged about this conference when we opened for bookings, fireworksand now I have some fantastic news to share. Last week was the deadline for the call for papers. This is always a bit nerve-racking in a ‘is anyone coming to our party?’ kind of way. We’d had quite a few abstracts in before the deadline – almost enough to start feeling confident – but on the deadline day the abstracts were piling in and the conference email inbox was red hot.

We’ve counted them now. There are 90 abstracts! NINETY!! To fill 24 presentation slots. I understand this has smashed all previous records for a conference organised by the Social Research Association. And people were still emailing this week to ask if they could make late submissions. (Sorry, no; we have more than enough.)

This means several things. First, we’re going to have to disappoint a lot of people. I feel really bad about that; it’s not what I would choose. Second, it’s going to be a helluva job deciding which to include and which to leave out. People often say ‘it’s a really difficult decision’ even when it isn’t: to be tactful, or to make people think their conference (or recruitment, or whatever) is in demand. But these decisions actually are going to be really difficult, and I’m very glad to have the help and support of experienced volunteers from the SRA’s events group. Third, the event will be popular; we may well run it again in future years. Fourth, this conference is going to be EXCELLENT.

Talking of which, it’s at the British Library Conference Centre, on Friday 8 May 2015, and booking is open now with early bird discounts available until 31 January 2015. In the circumstances, I suspect it will sell out fast, so do book soon if you want a place.

I am so looking forward to this conference!! And not just because my next book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, will be launched there – although of course that is a part of it, for me. But I think it’s going to be a fantastic day, with loads of opportunities for learning and networking. I can’t wait!