Creative Research Methods in Education

This week marks the publication of Creative Research Methods in Education: Principles and Practices, which I have co-authored with Narelle Lemon, Dawn Mannay and Megan McPherson. The book was Narelle’s idea, and she floated it when we met in person in Derby, England, in May 2017. To begin with Narelle and I were working with another co-author, Katy Vigurs, who had to drop out after a few months due to unforeseen personal and professional pressures, but remained supportive of the book and its authors. Katy also played a significant part in shaping the book and I’m glad to be able to give her credit for that here. After Katy told us she needed to step back, Narelle and I discussed whether to go ahead as a duo or recruit other co-writers. We both felt the book was likely to be better with another author or two, and decided to approach one colleague each: I asked Dawn from Wales in the UK, and Narelle asked Megan from Australia. To our delight, they both agreed to get involved, and work began in earnest in October 2018.

As Narelle is also from Australia and I am from England in the UK, our team had a delightful symmetry. Megan is a practising artist, and Dawn is the author of Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods: Application, Reflection and Ethics. Narelle has co-authored several other books and I have also written and co-written several books. And we are all professional researchers too, so between us we have a lot of useful experience of research, writing, and related topics.

Creative research methods in education aren’t all that different from creative research methods in other disciplines, but we knew education-specific advice and case studies would be helpful for education researchers, whether they were new to research or more experienced, to help them understand how the methods could work in practice. And we also knew case studies would not be hard to find, because education researchers often take a similarly creative approach to research as they do to education. I had showcased the work of several education researchers in the first edition of my book on creative research methods, and I knew more examples would have appeared since I worked on that back in 2014.

Narelle has blogged elsewhere about why and how education researchers – and other researchers too – might use creative research methods. I’ve written about that on this blog, too; for more information click on the ‘research methods’ tag in the sidebar.

Our book is not the first book on creative methods for a particular discipline, though I think it is the first to be authored rather than edited. Creative Methods for Human Geographers is an edited collection from SAGE which came out in January 2021, and Creative Research in Music, an edited collection from Routledge, came out around the same time. I don’t have a copy of the Routledge book yet, but I do have the SAGE book. It covers a lot of the same principles and several of the same, or similar, methods to our book, albeit from a slightly different disciplinary viewpoint. It is interesting that the other two are both edited collections while ours is a co-authored book. I can see the point of an edited collection, because you can recruit contributors to write directly about the methods they use, but on the other hand, with a co-authored volume you get a more coherent narrative. I’m not sure one is ‘better’ than the other; I think either is justifiable.

I wonder which discipline will be next – and which will be after that… watch this space!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $85 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $85 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Coming Out As Autistic

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I received an informal diagnosis of autism in July 2019. Initially, I didn’t plan to seek a formal diagnosis, but then I learned about the “lost generation” of autistic people, mostly women, who were not diagnosed in childhood because the way their autism manifested didn’t fit the diagnostic criteria which had been developed from observing some autistic boys. As a lifelong feminist, I decided I needed to find out for sure so that, if I did receive a formal diagnosis, that would, if only in a very small way, help to redress that imbalance.

So I went to my GP in August 2019, armed with a copy of Camouflage: The Hidden Lives of Autistic Women, an excellent graphic novel by Sarah Bargiela and Sophie Standing. I had also taken the AQ10 test and scored 9 out of 10. My GP was kind, understanding and knowledgeable; he told me he had been through the process with other people. In September 2019 he sent me a 50-question test which I completed and sent back, though parts of it seemed rather out of date (Q: “Do you remember all the phone numbers you use?” A: “I used to but I haven’t had to dial a number in years, have you not heard of mobile phones?”)

Then I heard nothing for a year. I suspect the pandemic didn’t help. By summer 2020 I was getting antsy, and an autistic friend of mine referred me to an autistic friend of hers for advice. We chatted on WhatsApp and my adviser said she was sure I was autistic. She suggested I read two books: Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg and Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism edited by Michelle Garnett and Barb Cook, to ‘find the fruits in my personal autism fruit salad’. This is an ongoing process, but so far I have identified:

  • A degree of alexithymia (impaired awareness of emotions)
  • Sensory processing problems (all sorts of ‘normal’ things I can’t stand: nightclub environments, labels in my clothes, jewellery hanging off me and clanking, the sound of a tap dripping, the feeling of most synthetic fabrics – I could go on)
  • Information processing problems (I have great difficulty in staying engaged with talk radio, audiobooks, podcasts etc; even if it’s something I want to listen to, I can’t concentrate and my thoughts drift off elsewhere, and I find TV boring)
  • Co-ordination problems (my balance is not good and I’m very clumsy; I need to investigate the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, and interoception, to see if I can figure out why).

Also I have a couple of the auto-immune health conditions which are common in autistic people – in my case, asthma and fibromyalgia. And there’s plenty else besides: literal thinking; ability to focus intensely on a task of interest; inability to remember left and right, or which way to turn a screw to tighten or loosen it; plain speaking; strong dislike for bright lights and loud music; repetitive thoughts (they can be really annoying); silent counting (that’s very soothing); very acute sense of smell (not always a blessing); and lots more.

My adviser also suggested I join a couple of Facebook groups for autistic women. She explained that self-diagnosis is accepted in the autistic community – I later discovered this is not least because some people in some countries can’t get an actual diagnosis, e.g. because it’s not covered by health insurance (oh I do love the NHS). So I joined the groups and found them hugely helpful, though ironically I haven’t been on FB in recent months, because I can’t stand the new design, because, yes, I’m autistic!

The assessment was done by the Adult ADHD and Autism Service of my local NHS Healthcare Trust. The process began in early December with a phone appointment which, to my surprise, was a battery of personal questions. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) Tell me about your family, your early childhood, your schooling, your friendships… The woman asking the questions was very kind, but it was, as one friend said, like therapy without any actual therapy. Then the Service emailed me a form for ‘someone close to me’ to fill in, which asked about my ability to engage socially (not bad in some circumstances), whether I take things literally (hell yeah, gets me into all sorts of trouble), my response to changes of plan (noooooo!!), and so on. The form was completed over the winter holiday and sent back at the end of December.

Then on 22nd February I had a video appointment with a mental health nurse. He told me the assessment was multi-disciplinary and that, although in this appointment I would only see him, he had consulted with his colleagues. Then he asked me another whole bunch of questions, some of which I had already been asked by the woman on the phone, and finally told me I am autistic. “There is no doubt,” he said. He also explained that they don’t give classifications, just a diagnosis, but I don’t care what kind of autistic I am, it’s enough to have a word to explain a whole lot of things I have spent my life being unable to understand.

Over the last couple of weeks I have come out in person to my family, friends, and colleagues. A few people knew I was going through the assessment; most didn’t. I know I have been extremely lucky that almost everyone reacted positively and supportively. Several friends said things like ‘I don’t know anything about autism but I know you and I love you and please tell me all about it when we speak’, which was fine by me. Many were genuinely interested, which was nice. And some colleagues floored me with the level of their support and care.

Now I am coming out in public. I am happy and proud to be autistic.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Dealing With Unsolicited Emails

I get so many emails. GDPR has helped a bit; the number of unsolicited emails from random businesses has dropped, and those I get usually have an ‘unsubscribe’ option. Some of the emails I get are emails I want, such as emails from clients, publishers, family, and friends. In an average working day, depending on what I’m dealing with at the time, I am likely to send 30-60 replies myself; on a busy day it can be over 100. I know some people receive and send many more emails than I do, but for me this is a lot, and the number has grown gradually over the years. Back in 2009, when I was also busy, I was sending 10 replies on an average day.

For years now I have received increasing numbers of messages from readers, and students, and others who want my help. They send me emails, and Twitter DMs, and Insta DMs, and messages on ResearchGate and LinkedIn, and probably messages on Facebook too but I never did sign up to Messenger so I don’t know about those ones. I like to help, when I can, and often I am able to answer a question or point to a useful resource. But the volume of messages has reached the point where I need to change my approach.

I tweeted about this last week and was surprised by the number of replies – and, in some cases, the content. One person suggested that this may be due to supervisors or lecturers or managers suggesting that novice researchers should network in this way. If you are a supervisor, lecturer, or manager who is doing this, please stop it immediately! It places a huge and inappropriate burden on people.

The most common suggestion on Twitter was ‘delete and move on’. That surprised me too, though I can understand why people do this; there are times I have been tempted. But I don’t feel comfortable with this option, so I’m going with another suggestion: the template reply. Here is what I plan to write:

I receive too many requests for help and advice to answer them all individually, so I have created this standard response.

A significant proportion of the questions that come to me could be answered by using a search engine. For a mainstream search engine, I recommend duckduckgo as an ethical option. For scholarly search engines, the Directory of Open Access Journals is useful, or of course Google Scholar.

Many of the other questions I am asked are about independent research or academic writing. I put information about these and related topics on my blog. My blog is searchable for specific terms, and also has more general tags you can click on such as ‘independent research’ or ‘writing’ to bring you all the posts on that topic.

The answers to a small number of questions can be found in one or other of my books. I realise these are not a free resource unless you can get them through a library, but they are all affordable by Euro-Western standards, and you can check the contents on the publishers’ websites.

So why am I posting this here, you may ask? Because now I have a link I can share in response to the Twitter DMs, and the Insta DMs, and the messages on LinkedIn and ResearchGate, and no doubt other messaging systems tech companies will devise in the future.

I am sorry to have to do this, and I have held out as long as I could. But I can’t cope with the current level of demand, and I know it will only continue to increase unless I take action.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Why We Need To Cite Marginalised Writers

I have been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It is a carefully researched, intelligently structured and well-written book, and I am a lifelong feminist, yet I find it difficult to read. Its subtitle is Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For Men and it sheds light on areas of discrimination I hadn’t even considered, like the design of outdoor spaces. And with the areas of discrimination I had considered, after reading this book I have to acknowledge that I hadn’t considered them enough or worked hard enough to tackle them. This is thoroughly uncomfortable, and I value the discomfort for helping me to think and act.

Having said that, it is not always easy to know where and how to act – or to act effectively even if you do know. I have witnessed prejudice and thought ‘I should challenge that’ but not figured out how to do so effectively until after the event. Sometimes I have challenged prejudice and that challenge has been ineffective. Understanding all the different forms of discrimination, and how they manifest, is probably impossible, particularly as knowledge in these areas is developing all the time. And the structural fault-lines of inequality that run through our societies are too big for any individual to change; those need collective action. But there are actions we can make as individuals, safely and effectively, which will make a difference.

In Euro-Western academia, the upper echelons are dominated by white, middle-class or upper-class men (that’s on p 95 of Invisible Women, not that I think anyone disputes this any more). There is tons of research to demonstrate that people of other genders are disadvantaged in academic careers, particularly if they choose and are able to have children. Even if they are performing well, academics who are not white men are less likely to get jobs, have their work cited, gain promotion or tenure (pp 95-6). And we know it’s not just academics from non-male genders and/or working class backgrounds who struggle, but also academics of colour, disabled academics, queer academics, Indigenous academics, unemployed academics, trans academics, and so on. We also know about intersectionality, so we understand that an academic may be working-class and disabled and trans, and that their struggle will be even harder.

I am not in a position to give work to an academic who needs it, or to bestow promotion, or tenure, or employment rights. But one thing I can do is read and cite work by marginalised scholars. And so can you. This is particularly important if you are a white middle- or upper-class male, because your work carries more weight whether you believe it, or like it, or not. But it is very much worth doing whatever your own attributes.

If you haven’t thought about this before, analyse your most recent bibliography. How many of the people you cite are men? How many are middle- or upper-class white men? How many are women, people of colour, disabled, queer, trans? This may take some time as it will not be obvious from people’s names alone. In some cases you are likely to know the answers, in others you may have to do some digging online. You’re not likely to find all of the relevant information, but you should be able to find much of what you need.

In most fields it is reasonably easy to find work to cite by women and by academics of colour. It can be more difficult to find work by others such as Indigenous academics, particularly in some fields, and trans academics. Every citation counts. Of course their work does need to be relevant to yours; I’m not suggesting you perform scholarly contortions to ram in a citation. Having said that, though, reading beyond your own field or discipline can be surprisingly useful. And the work of marginalised scholars may be invaluable for the insights only they can generate and the connections only they can make.

A lot of marginalised scholars, understandably, work on their own area. So to find disabled academics you could check out disability studies, and trans studies for trans academics, and so on. But then, crucially, investigate the scholars you find there to see what other work they are doing. And when you find marginalised scholars doing work that is relevant to your own, use your authorial power to amplify their voices.

There are many more marginalised scholars around than you would think from reading the standard literature, and the numbers are growing. In a 2019 article Emmett Harsin Drager said they were a member of a Facebook group with over 500 other trans-identified doctoral students, some of whom will now be post-docs – and no doubt that Facebook group is larger now.

Citations are not the only way forward. If you have the power, it is also useful to invite marginalised scholars on to panels, in to study groups, or in research teams (as paid staff, not volunteers). There are some useful articles here on how to include Indigenous researchers and Indigenous knowledge in academia/research. But citations are a way in which every single one of us can take action.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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 Ethics of Writing

An earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA). The SRA has its own blog with topical peer-reviewed articles by and for researchers. They are also interested in contributions from readers so, if you fancy writing a guest post, you could give them a try.

Most professional writers believe that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write, and understand that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others. We need to become, and remain, aware of this, or we risk misusing our authorly power.

A generation or so ago, English terminology in common use reflected the dominance of men in Western society. A woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant as late as 1978, and UK pubs could refuse to serve women as late as 1982. But at the same time, women had begun to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, in the late 1990s, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served.

There were fierce arguments between those who did not accept that language influences thought (still a contentious hypothesis), and those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo and therefore should be challenged. Some people went further than I thought was sensible, such as by replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that kind of change in some circumstances, but the etymology of ‘history’ suggests it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world.

However, there is some newer terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. For example, in the Guardian a couple of years ago the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. He showed how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (itself an unfashionable term these days), enables some people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone else. Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as somehow poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations. And several chaps of my acquaintance have objected to ‘mansplaining’, not being proponents of the phenomenon that clumsy construction purports to name.

Terms like these swiftly become stock phrases, akin to clichés. And clichés are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes writing for research. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes involve a lot of decision-making. Researchers of all kinds earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy clichés and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. My examples have focused on gender, socio-economic status, and age; other terminology can be demeaning to different groups such as people of colour or people with mental health problems. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that supports any discriminatory actions or practices.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me more than one working day per month to post here each week, run the Twitterchat and produce content for YouTube. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Open Access Research Methods Resources

Last week Anna Fazackerley wrote an article in The Guardian about the current price-gouging practices of some academic publishers who have hiked the price of e-books used by university students, in some cases by around 500%. I was aware of this from discussions on Twitter, though I am glad to say none of my own books are affected; they are all reasonably priced.

I realise, though, that my idea of a reasonable price for a book will be completely unaffordable for many people. So I thought I would gather some of the excellent open access resources from my field of research methods.

The National Centre for Research Methods, here in the UK, has a large and growing body of searchable open access resources on their newly revamped website. This covers quantitative and qualitative methods, conventional and creative methods – not quite every method under the sun, but close; an excellent collection that is well worth exploring.

The Global Social Change Research Project curates a lot of open access resources, more on quantitative methods with some qualitative methods. It is searchable and the links down the left-hand side of the page are also useful for navigation.

The British Library’s Social Welfare Portal is very useful for anyone interested in UK social policy: its development, implementation, and evaluation. You can search for ‘downloadable content only’, which should be OA, or ‘all social welfare content’, which is likely to include some paywalled items.

Then there are a whole bunch of open access research methods journals, covering quantitative, qualitative, and creative methods.

Quantitative journals include the Journal of Modern Applied Statistical Methods, the Journal of Methods and Measurement in the Social Sciences, Survey Research Methods, Survey Methods: Insights From The Field and Survey Practice. The first four are peer reviewed while Survey Practice is editor reviewed.

Social Research Practice is the peer-reviewed journal of the Social Research Association, and it includes all kinds of methods.

Then there are three good qualitative journals, which also include reports of creative research methods. They are Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS), The Qualitative Report, and Qualitative Sociology Review. The first two are multi-disciplinary, and all are peer reviewed.

Art/Research International is a multi-disciplinary peer reviewed journal focusing on arts-based research.

The publishers I work with are Routledge, SAGE, and Policy Press. They represent a cross-section of academic publishing. Routledge is part of Taylor & Francis which is part of Informa, a global multinational. SAGE is an independent publishing house. Policy Press is an imprint of Bristol University Press (BUP). Routledge’s profits mostly go to Informa’s shareholders, and BUP is not for profit. Nevertheless, BUP creates open access resources such as a blog, podcasts and webinars – but these understandably focus on all the topics it publishes, not only research methods. SAGE majors on research methods and reinvests some of its profits into resources for the communities it serves. It offers loads of free resources on research methods, an online research community called Methodspace, a research methods resource centre, and lots more which you can access through those links.

So although some publishers are shamelessly taking advantage of the pandemic, others are working hard to help those affected. No doubt there are more resources than those I have listed here. If you know of others, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $74 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $74 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Why Secondary Data Should Come First

The argument put forward in this post has been brewing in my mind – and being put into practice in my research work – since some time before COVID19 appeared in our midst. The pandemic has accentuated the point I want to make.

Essentially, my argument is this: researchers should make as much use of secondary data as possible before we even think about gathering any primary data.

Most novice researchers are taught that new research requires primary data; that original research requires data gathered for the purpose by the researcher or the research team. Most research ethics committees focus most of their efforts on protecting participants. We need to change this. I believe we should be teaching novice researchers that new/original research requires existing data to be used in new ways, and primary data should be gathered only if absolutely necessary. I would like to see research ethics committees not only asking what researchers are doing to ensure the safety and wellbeing of participants, but also requiring a statement of the work that has been done using secondary data to try to answer the research question(s), and a clear rationale for the need to go and bother people for more information.

I believe working in this way would benefit researchers, participants, and research itself. For researchers, gathering primary data can be lots of fun and is also fraught with difficulty. Carefully planned recruitment methods may not work; response rates can be low; interviewees often say what they want to say rather than answering researchers’ questions directly. For participants, research fatigue is real. Research itself would receive more respect if we made better and fuller use of data, and shouted about that, rather than gathering data we never use (or worse, reclassifying stolen sacred artefacts and human remains as ‘data’ and refusing to return them to their communities of origin because of their ‘scientific importance’ – but that’s another story).

Some people think of secondary data as quantitative: government statistics, health prevalence data, census findings, and so on. But there is lots of qualitative secondary data too, such as historical data, archival data, and web pages current and past. Mainstream and social media provide huge quantities of secondary data (though with social media there are a number of important ethical considerations which are beyond the scope of this post).

Of course secondary data isn’t a panacea. There is so much data available these days that it can be hard to find what you need, particularly as it will have been gathered by people with different priorities from yours. Also, it’s frustrating when you find what you need but you can’t access it because it’s behind a paywall or it has an obstructive gatekeeper. Comparison can be difficult when different researchers, organisations, and countries gather similar information in different ways. It can be hard to understand, or detect any mistakes in, data you didn’t gather yourself, particularly if it is in large, complicated datasets. Information about how or why data was gathered or analysed is not always available, which can leave you unsure of the quality of that data.

On the plus side, the internet allows quick, easy, free access to innumerable quantitative and qualitative datasets, containing humongous amounts of data. Much of this has been collected and presented by professional research teams with considerable expertise. There is scope for historical, longitudinal, and cross-cultural perspectives, way beyond anything you could possibly achieve through primary data gathering. Working with secondary data can save researchers a great deal of time at the data gathering stage, which means more time available for analysis and reporting. And, ethically, using secondary data reduces the burden on potential participants, and re-use of data honours the contribution of previous participants.

There are lots of resources available on using quantitative secondary data. I’m also happy to report that there is now an excellent resource on using qualitative secondary data: Qualitative Secondary Analysis, a recent collection of really good chapters by forward-thinking researchers edited by Kahryn Hughes and Anna Tarrant. The book includes some innovative methods, interesting theoretical approaches, and lots of guidance on the ethics of working with secondary data.

Some people think that working with secondary data has no ethical implications. This is so wrong it couldn’t be wronger. For a start, it is essential to ensure that informed consent for re-use has been obtained. If it hasn’t, either obtain such consent or don’t use the data. Then there are debates about how ethical it is to do research using secondary data about groups of people, or communities, without the involvement of representatives from those groups or communities. Also, working with secondary data can be stressful and upsetting for researchers – imagine if you were working with historical data about the Holocaust, or (as Kylie Smith does) archival data about racism in psychiatric practice in mid-20th century America. Reading about distressing topics day after day can be harmful to our emotional and mental health, and so to our physical health as well.

These are just a few of the ethical issues we need to consider in working with secondary data. Again, it is beyond the scope of this post to cover them all. So working with secondary data isn’t an easy option; although it is different from working with primary data, it can be just as complex. I believe novice researchers should learn how to find and use secondary data, in ethical ways, before they learn anything about primary data gathering and analysis. This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $70 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $70 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Let’s Talk About Self-Care

This has been such an unkind year that those of us who can practise self-care need to do so more than ever. I say ‘those of us who can’ because practising self-care requires resources in itself – time, at least, and often money too – and so is a manifestation of privilege.

With privilege, I believe, comes responsibility. This is often construed solely as responsibility to care for others. Yet I argue that self-care is also part of that responsibility, particularly for those on whom the responsibility to care for others falls more heavily, such as women, and for those who face daily oppression, such as people of colour and trans people.

Self-care is also part of our responsibility as researchers. Research work can be enormously stressful, and researchers are not often well supported. Research ethics committees rarely consider researcher well-being, an omission I regard as quite unethical. Also, researchers often work alone, gathering and analysing data, which may involve hearing and revisiting distressing stories or phenomena, and is always a mentally taxing business even when it’s not emotionally draining. We are the people who know what we feel and experience, and what we need by way of support and help. It is our responsibility to look after our own wellbeing.

My colleague and friend Dr Petra Boynton has written a really useful book for anyone who is at all uncertain about how or why they might take care of themselves. It is called Being Well in Academia but it has relevance far beyond the ivory towers. The book’s subtitle is Ways To Feel Stronger, Safer And More Connected, and those are topics in which we all have an interest. Petra offers a huge amount of guidance, support, and resources in her concise, readable book, which I recommend highly.

There is a potential problem with emphasizing self-care if it is hijacked by the neoliberal agenda and used to supersede the importance of combating structural inequalities. And there is a potential problem in the opposite direction too, if we pour all our resources into combating structural inequalities and so burn out. For me, self-care and activism need to go hand in hand: if we take good care of ourselves, we will have more energy for working to dismantle structural inequalities. Also, we will be better able to care for others. You have probably heard the saying ‘put your own oxygen mask on before helping others’ – it refers to a drop in aeroplane cabin pressure, and is now used as a metaphor for the importance of self-care.

For much of this year I did not practise what I’m preaching. This has been partly due to circumstance: the first three months of the year were very busy with work including a lot of travelling, then the pandemic put paid to holidays I had planned, and losing my mother to the virus threw everything out of whack. As a result I took my eye off the self-care ball, and so had a big health dip in the autumn. That is now resolved and I’m back to more diligent self-care. So over the next few weeks I will be taking a break from creating content in particular and being on social media in general; I do this every year and it always does me good. I’ll be back the second week in January. This holiday season will be difficult for many people and I would encourage you all to take whatever steps you can to care for yourselves. And remember, here in the northern hemisphere, this time next week the days will be getting longer. The wheel of the year continues to turn, bringing the hope of warmer, sunnier days ahead. I wish you all as happy a holiday as possible, whatever and however you celebrate.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!

Research methods to consider in a pandemic

methodsSince lockdown began, researchers have been discussing how best to change our methods. Of the ‘big three’ – questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups – only questionnaires are still being used in much the same way. There are no face-to-face interviews or focus groups, though interviews can still be held by telephone and both can be done online. However, doing research online comes with new ethical problems. Some organisations are forbidding the use of Zoom because it has had serious security problems, others are promoting the use of Jitsi because it is open source.

I’ve been thinking about appropriate methods and I have come up with three options I think are particularly worth considering at this time: documentary research, autoethnography, and digital methods. These are all comparatively new approaches and each offers scope for considerable creativity. Documentary research seems to be the oldest; I understand that its first textbook, A Matter of Record by UK academic John Scott, was published in 1990. Autoethnography was devised by US academic Carolyn Ellis in the 1990s, and digital methods have developed as technological devices have become more available to more people through the 21st century.

Documentary research is also called document research or document analysis. Interest in this approach has been growing recently, with two books published in the last two years in the UK alone. The first is Doing Excellent Social Research With Documents (2018) by Aimee Grant (with a gracious foreword by John Scott). The second is Documentary Research in the Social Sciences (2019) by Malcolm Tight. These books demonstrate that documents can be used as data in a wide range of research projects. Of course some documents are only available in hard copy, such as those held in archives or personal collections, but a large and growing number of documents are freely available online. A range of analytic techniques can be used when working with documents, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or narrative analysis.

Autoethnography is ethnography written by, about, and through the researcher’s self (just as autobiography is biography written by its subject). In some quarters autoethnography has a bad reputation as self-indulgent navel-gazing. And of course, like all research methods, it can be poorly used – but when used well it has great potential for insight. I am seeing signs that there are going to be a lot of COVID19 autoethnographies, so I would recommend steering away from this, but there may well be other aspects of your life that could become a fruitful basis for research. Using autoethnography well requires the researcher to make careful judgements about how much of their self to include in the research as data, what other data to gather, and how to analyse all of that data. Also, good autoethnography is likely to have a clear theoretical perspective and implications for policy and/or practice. Texts I would recommend here are Autoethnography as Method (2009) by Korean-American academic Heewon Chang, and Evocative Autoethnography (2016) by US academics Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis.

Digital research or digital methods are terms that have come to encompass a wide range of methods united by their dependence on technology. Although this is the newest of the three approaches I’m covering today, it is also the most complex and changeable. Many pre-digital research methods can be adapted for use in digital ways, and the digital environment also enables the development of new research methods. Documentary research in lockdown will be mostly, if not entirely, digital, and there is also scope for digital autoethnography. Texts I would recommend, again both from the UK, are Understanding Research in the Digital Age by Sarah Quinton and Nina Reynolds, and Doing Digital Methods by Richard Rogers. One thing to remember when doing digital research is that inequalities also exist in the digital environment; it is not a neutral space. I can recommend a couple of texts on this topic too, both from the US: Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble, and Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin.

Doing research in a pandemic also requires considerable thought about ethics. I have long argued that ethical considerations should start at the research question, and I believe that is even more crucial at present. Does this research need doing – or does it need doing now, in the middle of a global collective trauma? If not, then don’t do that research, or postpone it until life is easier. Alternatively, you may be doing urgent research to help combat COVID19, or important research that will go towards a qualification, or have some other good reason. In which case, fine, and the next ethical question is: how can my research be done in a way that places the least burden on others? The methods introduced above all offer scope for conducting empirical research without requiring much input from other people. Right now, everyone is upset; many are worried about their health, income, housing, and/or loved ones; increasing numbers are recently bereaved. Therefore everyone is vulnerable, and so needs more care and kindness than usual. This includes potential participants and it also includes researchers. We need to choose our methods with great care for us all.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. 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!