The Personal Is Empirical

Human beings are natural researchers: exploring, seeking and comparing data, testing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. We do this all our lives. One of our first research methods, when we are only a few months old, is to put everything in our mouths. By the time we are a few years old we are asking incessant questions. We are programmed to investigate. As we get older, our methods get more sophisticated – and if we train as a professional researcher, they become more systematic, too.

Do you know the roots of the word ‘empirical’? It is derived from the Greek word ‘empeirikos’, meaning ‘experienced’. It means something verifiable by experiment or experience. So, the personal is empirical.

Autoethnographers know this already. For a generation now autoethnographers have been ‘utilizing personal stories for scholarly purposes’ (Chang 2008:10). Some have put too much emphasis on the personal stories and not enough on the scholarly purposes, leading to accusations of self-indulgence, navel-gazing, and irrelevance. More, though, have worked to link their personal experience with other data and wider narratives, theory, evidence, policy, and practice, in a systematic and rigorous way.

Embodied researchers also know that the personal is empirical. They focus on the physical, sensory dimensions of experience, as part of the data they collect. This subverts the conventional view of scholarly work as entirely cerebral – or, as the embodied researchers would have it, ‘disembodied research’. Embodied research is also open to accusations of self-interest and irrelevance. Yet embodied researchers point out that no research can in fact be disembodied. Even sitting still and thinking is a physical activity; the brain with which you think forms part of your body.

Other researchers draw on the personal in other ways. In my work on creative research methods, I have been astonished by the number of people who combine their artistic skills, or their writing talents, or their aptitude for making, or their technological savvy, or some other personal attribute with their research. This usually results in enrichment and often innovation, yet even now working in these ways can feel like swimming against the tide. The way we try to contain knowledge in silos, and reify specialisation, is not the norm in human history. It is not long since nobody thought it strange for someone to be both weaver and astronomer, doctor and poet, musician and engineer. Why have we forgotten that ‘the more diverse someone’s knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to identify and implement creative solutions to problems’? (Kara 2020:11).

Musing on all of this, I came up with the phrase ‘the personal is empirical’. I tried it out on a group of students last month and it went down well. Then, like a good scholar, I checked to see whether anyone else had used the phrase already. It was used by one US academic, most recently around 15 years ago. She was a feminist too and I guess for her, as for me, the generation of this phrase was influenced by the old feminist mantra that ‘the personal is political’. Nobody owned that phrase, and nobody owns this one either – you’re free to use it if you wish.

In fact, it would be great if you did. Because we need more people to understand that ‘knowledge is worth having, no matter where it originates’ (Kara 2020:11) – whether that is in the body, or someone’s wider life experience, or in a test tube, or an encounter with a book, or a conversation, or an animated film. As a species, as inhabitants of planet Earth, we have a plethora of problems to solve. We cannot afford to reject knowledge, or create hierarchies of knowledge; we need to value everyone’s expertise. And their experience. And experiments, and evidence, and theories – the whole lot. In fact, it is all empirical, but nobody will argue if you talk about empirical experiments or empirical evidence. The personal is empirical? That’s more provocative. So take this toy I have given you, my dear ones; take it and play!

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!

Why Academics Should Publish Journal Articles With University Presses

Last month I wrote about why academics should publish books with university presses. This is a follow-up post explaining why I think academics should also publish journal articles with university presses. Much of the information in this post is taken from the Paywall documentary which I recommend watching if you are interested.

As a whole, academic publishing is quite phenomenally profitable, making a profit margin of 35-40% which compares with 12% for Toyota and 3% for Walmart. Academic publishing profits are in line with those of the biggest social media companies such as Facebook. What do they have in common, you may ask? People provide content and services for them for free, which they then sell on to advertisers and data purchasers (in the case of Facebook) or academic libraries.

Some single academic journals charge thousands of pounds for a university library subscription, and increase their costs by big percentages each year. These costs have been increasing above inflation for decades, and have contributed to the closure of some American universities. Even the library budgets of wealthy prestigious universities such as the University of California in San Francisco are struggling to make ends meet (and that was pre-pandemic; I understand that more libraries are cancelling more subscriptions now). The publishers of these journals also make it impossible to read their content without access through a subscribing university library, thereby creating the scarcity essential for a commodity to become expensive. And they do these things essentially because they can. The sought-after high impact journals are effectively mini-monopolies. Academics provide and review content for free – and these days may even pay to have their freely provided content, based on publicly funded research, made openly accessible. And this puts yet more money in the publishers’ pockets, because there is no corresponding reduction in subscription charges.

Some universities spend millions of pounds each year on journal subscriptions. This causes higher tuition fees for students, leading to personal sacrifice, debt, and misery, exacerbating social problems of poverty and mental ill-health. It also prevents access to the latest medical information for some doctors and other health workers, and for patients and their carers. This causes more sickness and grief.

Academia is culpable here too because of the emphasis on publishing in high impact journals as part of the research assessment process. This approach to publishing is subject to gaming, nepotism, and fraud, plus it maintains structural inequalities by being more accessible to insiders and professors than to outsiders and early career researchers. Also it wastes people’s time, as high-impact journals are more likely to reject publishable work which then has to be resubmitted elsewhere. The innovative online open access journal PLOS ONE was set up in 2006 to stop the cycle of wasting authors’, editors’ and reviewers’ time at the expense of research and society. We know, now, that open access journal articles get more views and more citations. Surely that constitutes higher impact?

Some influential people think so. In 2013 the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was published. This aims to stop using the “impact factor” as a measure of research quality. At the time of writing, DORA has been signed by over 16,500 individuals, and over 2,000 organisations. These include publishers of all kinds, libraries, learned societies and universities. In 2019 the Netherlands launched a new national system of recognition and reward for researchers based on the DORA principles.

So far, so good. But most journal publishers still charge their authors for open access publication, often a four-figure sum per article, which is a barrier for authors with no access to a budget for such payments. Imagine if the profit made by academic journals was not diverted into shareholders’ dividends but put back into the system, to make study more affordable, support research that could not otherwise be funded, help marginalised writers to publish their work, equalise access to that work. You may say I’m a fantasist. I say look at university presses.

Publishers are vital and in my view some are more vital than others, primarily those that help to democratise information and promote equality of access. This is important because, as you may have noticed, there are big global problems we need to solve. Expertise can exist anywhere in the world. The best minds need access to knowledge – and those minds are not all in academia. Collaboration is essential to solve such problems, including other thinkers and scholars as well as academics. University presses promote these kinds of working practices. And any surplus they make is reinvested into their work rather than disappearing into the pockets of shareholders.

Again, UCL Press is doing well here: all but one of their journals are free to publish in, and the one that isn’t free has a low publication charge. Other university presses offer free publication for some marginalised authors, such as those from countries in the “low human development” category of the UN at Bristol University Press. Cambridge University Press has ‘Read and Publish’ agreements which allow for some articles to be published at no cost to the author, though this is a rather more complex system. Some for-profit publishers also offer waivers for certain groups, such as Elsevier – and so they should – but at present they are in the minority. However, if you have no budget but have written an article which is a good fit for a particular open access or hybrid journal, it is always worth asking the editor whether they can waive the APC; they might say yes. And in general, if you can, please consider publishing your articles in university press journals, because overall they are rather more ethical than other types of publisher.

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 $67 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $67 – 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!

History, Truth, Research and Choices

I didn’t get on too well with history at school. It was all about kings and queens and battles, people and events I couldn’t identify with. I enjoyed historical novels if they were about times that had relevance for me, e.g. the first world war (in which my maternal grandfather fought) or the second world war (in which my paternal grandfather fought). But in general I preferred the contemporary world I knew, and books and films set there.

In the late 1980s I discovered revisionist history. I loved The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles (later rebranded as Who Cooked the Last Supper?), which was an eye-opening book, clever, funny, and a welcome counterpoint to all the male-dominated history I’d read. I was fascinated by Peter Fryer’s books Black People in the British Empire, which demonstrated that the British empire was based on exploitation and oppression, and Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, which showed how Black people had been present and influential in British society for two thousand years. (The link is to a recent edition of this book with a new foreword by Gary Younge – if you haven’t come across it and you’re interested, I would recommend a read.)

More recently I have read Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor (2017), An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014), and The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (2013). I would recommend each of these books for their perspective, dignified approach, and eloquent writing.

At the start of lockdown, some kind neighbours along my street set up a book exchange for our community outside their house. A few weeks ago I found a copy of The American Future by Simon Schama, a high-profile and respected British academic historian, award-winning writer and broadcaster. This book has four sections:

  1. American War (civil war, World War Two, Vietnam)
  2. American Fervour (religion – mostly Judeo-Christian)
  3. What is an American? (immigration, primarily of Germans, other Europeans, Mexicans and Chinese people)
  4. American Plenty (shift in mindset from infinite to finite availability of land and resources)

With my new awareness of the position of Indigenous peoples in the US, thanks to the work of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Thomas King, I wondered what Schama said on the subject. The subtitle of his book is A History From The Founding Fathers to Barack Obama, which didn’t fill me with optimism. And sure enough, Indigenous people barely feature in sections 1-3. There is a brief acknowledgement in the prologue on page 14 that ‘Native American tribes’ in Iowa might have had a different viewpoint from ‘Canadian troopers’ on whether Iowa had ever experienced war. There is a brief mention on page 114 that in the late nineteenth century, the army was involved in ‘finishing off Native Americans’. And other such mentions in passing – until section 4, pages 316-330, a subsection called ‘White Path 1801-1823’, which tells the story of the Cherokee people in Tennessee. Schama evidently attempts to use a reasonably even-handed approach: he acknowledges the Cherokee perspective and recognises at least some of the injustice done to them through broken promises, land grabs and forced relocations. He describes president-to-be Andrew Jackson as ‘unexpectedly brutal’ and says that ‘extinction’ [of Indigenous peoples] ‘was an actual policy determined by actual men’ (322). Schama also describes Jackson as ‘the ethnic cleanser of the first democratic age’ (326).

The story of American history from the late 18th century to the present day is told very differently by Dunbar-Ortiz. She acknowledges Jackson as ‘the implementer of the final solution for the Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi’ (96). She points out that ‘In the 1990s, the term “ethnic cleansing” became a useful descriptive term for genocide.’ (9) And she identifies ‘four distinct periods’ where documented policies of genocide were created by US administrations. The first is the ‘Jacksonian era of forced removal’, and then ‘the California gold rush in Northern California; the post-Civil War era of the so-called Indian wars in the Great Plains; and the 1950s termination period’ (9).

Having already read Dunbar-Ortiz and King, the way Schama tells the story seemed to me to involve a lot of erasure of Indigenous peoples. And sometimes, due to his narrative choices, his writing seems quite tone deaf. ‘The dream of American plenty for the ordinary man was born from Andrew Jackson’s determination to evict tens of thousands of Indians – Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek as well as Cherokee – from the only homelands they had ever known, because they happened to be in the way.’ (323) Recognition of Andrew Jackson’s atrocities doesn’t hide the division Schama draws between ‘the ordinary man’ and ‘Indians’. That raises a whole bunch of ugly questions. He doesn’t engage with any of them.

Dunbar-Ortiz writes about the impact of history itself as its scholars work to protect ‘the origin myth’ of the Founding Fathers and independence. That origin myth ‘embraces genocide’ (2) which is ‘often accompanied by an assumption of disappearance’ (xiii). I see this in Schama’s engaging, entertaining, readable writing: the overall message is that some Indigenous people were badly treated, a long time ago, in a sub-plot to the major storyline of independence and democracy in a nation of immigrants. A Spectator review on the back of the book reinforces this point by claiming that Schama is ‘weaving the immediate present with [America’s] earliest history’. That ‘earliest history’ is somewhere around 1775. Dunbar-Ortiz, meticulously and forensically, establishes the existence of sophisticated societies and cultures in America thousands of years ago.

Schama’s book was first published in 2008, Dunbar-Ortiz’ in 2014 – but most of her sources are pre-2008, so they would also have been available to him. It is both fascinating and nauseating to read these two very different accounts of what is ostensibly the same history. The authors have completely different perspectives and narratives. And this, for me, is the key learning point. When we conduct research or scholarly work, we bring a perspective and we choose a narrative. Dunbar-Ortiz is open about this, talking about starting a dozen times before she settled on a narrative, and outlining where she sits within relevant debates around Native American scholarship (xii-xiii). Schama simply launches in to an authoritative tale.

The narratives selected by researchers and scholars both reveal and conceal. It is not possible to tell everything that could be told. With this comes huge responsibility. We need to tell the most important, most necessary stories – but that in itself raises new questions. Most important and necessary to whom, for what, and why? Which other stories could we tell? How do we know those stories are not every bit as important and necessary? With the story we choose to tell, how can we acknowledge what we are leaving out as well as what we are focusing on?

This is a complex business and there are no easy answers because each case will be different. What is essential is to be aware of the issues and to use our authorial power as wisely as we can.

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 $57 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $57 – 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!

Decolonising Methods: A Reading List

decolonising booksA couple of years ago I compiled a reading list on Indigenous research methods which proved surprisingly popular. So here’s a follow-up, focusing on decolonising methods and methodologies. Again, it is what I have on my shelves; books I have read, used, and found worthwhile. I am not presenting this as any kind of an exhaustive or authoritative list. It doesn’t include some books I would love to have, because they are too expensive. As an independent researcher with no academic library nearby, I do buy books regularly, but my budget is limited so I have a ceiling of £30 or equivalent per book. Also I prefer not to buy secondhand as I know how much hard work goes into writing a book and how little authors make from their books; I don’t want to make that ‘little’ even smaller. On the plus side, I now write for three academic publishers which means I get author discounts. So, from one of them, I have ordered the second edition of Bagele Chilisa’s Indigenous Research Methodologies, as well as a book recommended by a commenter on my previous reading list post, Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science by Syed Farid Alatas. Also, I just broke my own rule! Ever since it came out I have wanted a copy of Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices and Relationships, edited by Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule and Rochelle Johnston. But it’s over £60 everywhere, so I scrolled on by. However, I just had another look and saw that it’s 950 pages long – which is at least three books, right? So now that’s on order too.

All of which means there will be another update to this reading list in time to come. But now, back to this one. As I’m focusing on decolonising methods this time, I’m not only featuring Indigenous literature, but also subaltern literature. ‘Subaltern’ is used in post-colonial theory to mean individuals and groups who do not hold power. So, it could be said that Indigenous peoples are also subaltern, but subaltern peoples may not be Indigenous. Please note that this is only one option: these terms (like all those in this field) are contested, and self-definition always counts for more than externally applied categories. What this does illustrate is that decolonising methods is a project that implies scrutinising and decolonising a whole load of other things too, because methods don’t exist in isolation.

I’ll start with Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability by Leigh Patel (2016). This is a beautifully written book which interrogates the ways in which Euro-Western educational systems support colonialism. Patel demonstrates that even apparently ethical concepts such as social justice can ‘become a vehicle for settler logics and heteropatriarchal racist capitalism’ (p 88). She shows us how to imagine possible futures and assess them for settler or decolonising qualities, in the interests of focusing education right back on learning.

An edited collection follows: Decolonizing Interpretive Research: A Subaltern Methodology for Social Change, edited by Antonia Darder (2019). This builds on the work of Patel and others. Darder introduces the key concepts: how a decolonising methodology and ethics can work, and the importance of centring subaltern voices and naming the politics of coloniality. Then five chapters by current or former doctoral students from subaltern groups serve to exemplify these concepts in practice, and a useful afterword by João Paraskeva pulls together the themes of the book.

Another edited collection is Research as Resistance: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Approaches (2nd edn) edited by Susan Strega and Leslie Brown (2015). This was also outside my budget (Canadian books are so expensive!) and was bought for me by Christine Soltero whose daughter reads my blog. I’m hugely grateful to her because it’s a very useful book. The only annoying thing about it is it doesn’t have an index – I wish academic publishers wouldn’t do that… Anyway, the chapter authors are Indigenous, feminist, and community-based researchers, and the editors promote the idea of a move from resistance to resurgence ‘of knowledges founded in a diversity of spiritualities, philosophies, languages and experiences’ (p 12).

A third edited collection is Research Justice: Methodologies for Social Change edited by Andrew Jolivétte from the US (2015). The cover design includes these words, in a circle: ‘Research justice is achieved when communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and marginalized groups are recognized as experts, and reclaim, own and wield all forms of knowledge and information.’ The first chapter is by the editor, and focuses on radical love as a strategy for social transformation. The second is by Antonia Darder, and all the contributors reflect usefully on how research methodologies can contribute to social change. I wrote a full review of this book for the LSE Review of Books in 2015.

And a fourth edited collection is Towards a New Ethnohistory: Community-Engaged Scholarship Among the People of the River, edited by Keith Thor Carlson, John Sutton Lutz, David M. Schaepe and Naxaxalhts’i (Albert “Sonny” McHalsie) (2018). Ethnohistorians work across the disciplinary boundary between anthropology and history, two disciplines that have tarnished records in the colonial past and present. This book covers a new, decolonising approach that has been used for over 20 years in the lower reaches of the Fraser River which runs through the city of Vancouver to meet the Pacific Ocean. In this approach, academic staff and students work with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous peoples to forge new ways of undertaking community-based ethnohistorical research.

A sole-authored book is Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit by Jo-ann Archibald aka Q’um Q’um Xiiem. For many Indigenous peoples, stories are a key teaching tool. Stories also have a potentially wide range of roles to play in research. This book outlines those roles and advises on how stories can be used effectively and ethically, using the seven principles of storywork: ‘respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, inter-relatedness, and synergy’ (p ix). For the Stó:lō and Coast Salish peoples of Western Canada, these principles form a theoretical framework for making meaning from stories.

The final book in today’s list is Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, by Clare Land (2015). This book from Australia is by an Indigenous ally and supporter, about being an Indigenous ally and supporter, for Indigenous allies and supporters. It is based on the author’s doctoral and other research and activism, and offers a moral and political framework for non-Indigenous peoples’ solidarity with Indigenous people.

I am also committed to citing these works whenever they are relevant, to do what I can to amplify Indigenous and subaltern voices. However, I hadn’t realised, until I pulled together this list, how biased it would be towards Canadian literature. Another recommendation from a commenter on my previous reading list was the work of Aileen Moreton-Robinson, an Australian Indigenous academic. I want to read her books too, and lots else besides. I am not and never will be an expert on these topics, I am a student of this literature and these methods and approaches. So if you have other works on decolonising methods to recommend, please add them in the comments for everyone’s benefit.

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 $54 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $54 – 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!

 

How To Prioritise

prioritising

Laurie Prange is Professor of Business and Management at Capilano University in Vancouver. She and I have been talking online for some years, and last year I was lucky enough to meet up with her. She treated me to a wonderful brunch at Aphrodite’s Organic Café, and then we took a stroll to look at the beautiful Kitsilano houses by the ocean. Also, we talked non-stop.

Our online talk is more intermittent. Here’s an example from last week:

 

Laurie’s question got me wondering whether people are having difficulty in prioritising during these lockdown times, particularly those who are not used to home working. I had a look round the blogs I’ve taken to checking before I write a post, in case the topic has already been covered: the Thesis Whisperer, the Research Whisperer, Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega. I found quite a lot of advice about planning, but very little on prioritising. And they’re not the same thing.

Planning is, of course, essential. You need a plan before you can prioritise. So this post assumes you have a plan. Some people need detailed long-term plans and Raul Pacheco-Vega offers lots of good advice on how to construct and manage this kind of plan. Others can manage with a pen and the back of an envelope. And others still – like me – take an in between approach. I have a top-level to-do list of all my current projects: research work for clients, teaching and speaking engagements, writing and publishing projects. I use that to create a lower-level list of what I need to do each month, then use that list to figure out what I need to do this week, and refer to that list each day to write my daily to-do list. This may sound like a cumbersome approach but in practice it takes just a few minutes each day. I write my weekly to-do list on a Friday evening for the following week, which helps me to put work down for the weekend in the knowledge that come Monday morning, I won’t have to think about what I need to do, I’ll only have to prioritise.

Prioritising is micro-level planning: it’s about what you do first, what you do next, and why. The former US President Dwight D Eisenhower coined a helpful principle. He said that it is necessary to understand the difference between urgent and important tasks. Those that are both urgent and important take top priority. Then – and this may seem counter-intuitive – the second priority goes to the important non-urgent tasks. This is because important tasks are those which help you move towards your goals, while urgent tasks may not be urgent to you but only to someone else. Of course to that other person the task may be both urgent and important – but if a task is not important to you, it should take a lower priority in your life. This is linked with the vital task of saying ‘no’. Then tasks which are neither important nor urgent take the lowest priority.

More things to consider when prioritising are your own energy level and working style. There are three good options for what to do first in any given day. One is the most urgent and important task on the day’s list; if something is screaming ‘now now now!’ then get it done first. Another option, particularly on a day when you don’t feel so good or you’re struggling with motivation, is to do a small easy task to give yourself a sense of achievement. The third – and the one I use most often – is to ‘swallow the frog’. This expression comes from a saying by the American humourist Mark Twain, who said that if the first thing you do each day is eat a live frog, then for the rest of the day you can have the satisfaction of knowing that the day’s worst experience is already behind you. This jest has become a useful metaphor in prioritising, summing up advice given to me as a child by my mother: do the thing you least want to do first of all or, at the very latest, second. It’s tempting to do the easier or more enjoyable tasks first, and work up to the more demanding jobs. But that can quickly turn to counter-productive procrastination, as the more demanding jobs are even harder later in the day when you’re tired.

Another thing that can help with prioritising is to eat a healthy balanced and regular diet. I can hear you asking me, Helen, what on earth has THAT got to do with it? Stick with me, reader; this is evidence-based. The psychologist Roy Baumeister used empirical research to demonstrate a link between willpower and blood sugar. Doing unappealing tasks takes willpower, which requires good blood sugar levels. This does not mean you should eat all the chocolate or snack throughout the day; that poses a particular danger in these lockdown times when the fridge is close at hand. It means you should, whenever possible, eat three healthy meals a day. If you have a low patch – for me it’s around 4 pm – add in a healthy snack; my go-to options include a cup of cocoa with no added sugar, or some carrot sticks and hummus.

It is also necessary to be flexible. Prioritising is not a one-off task; it needs regular revision in the light of external changes. The need to make changes can make people feel as though they are poor prioritisers, as if their prioritising techniques are at fault because they haven’t been able to stick to their original micro-plan. Don’t fall into that trap; recognise that changing circumstances require us to reprioritise, and be ready and willing to do so. Use good time management techniques, though, such as batching tasks and minimising distractions, to help you recognise the events that mean reprioritisation is needed. Don’t let your micro-plan be knocked off course by every incoming email.

And finally: always, always, prioritise self-care.

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!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

please do not disturbWe’re all quite distracted at the moment: by world events, changes in routine, the needs of family members and friends, and our own emotions. Yet many of us still have writing work to do. And it’s hard. Writing is hard anyway, and in this time of massive uncertainty it’s harder than ever.

I have been thinking about this a lot as I have a whole bunch of writing on my to-do list right now. I’ve also been watching and participating in online conversations about the difficulties people are experiencing when they’re trying to write. And I’ve tried out a few strategies of my own in recent days. So here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Don’t expect to do as much work as you usually would. We are all anxious and, at some level, grieving. Be gentle with yourself, and cherish what you do manage rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t achieved.
  2. Establish a writing place in your home. It doesn’t need to be solely devoted to writing – it could be one corner of the sofa, or of the dining table – nor does it need to be large.
  3. Plan a swift pre-writing ritual e.g. making a ‘writing drink’ – hot or cold, whatever your preference, but the same one each time. This all helps to reinforce the message that you’re about to write and it’s important.
  4. Get a routine going. Many of us have less structure in our lives than usual, and routine is often helpful for writing. Write at the same time each weekday, or on the days that are best for you. Or, if your routine is irregular, e.g. due to shift work, plan your writing times in advance and stick to them.
  5. Use sound or silence in the way that helps you most. Some people like to write to music, others prefer soothing sounds like waves or rain – there are plenty of options on YouTube. If silence works better for you, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  6. If you’re writing first draft material, set yourself small daily goals: half an hour of focused writing, or a few hundred words if you respond better to word count goals. If you’re at home alone with children, unless they’re too young, set a timer so they know when they can interrupt you again (barring emergencies of course). If there’s another adult in the house, do a deal with them so you get time to write and in return they get time to do whatever they need to do.
  7. Break down your writing jobs into small chunks. Usually I regard ‘edit book chapter’ as a single task. On Tuesday I scrolled aimlessly around in the text of a chapter I needed to edit, wondering how on earth I could tackle the work in front of me. In the end I wrote myself a list: add bullet points to the end of section 1, check case study on page 3 against citations elsewhere to ensure a smooth flow, write reflective questions – that kind of thing. Then I found I could deal with each small job in turn, albeit more slowly than usual.
  8. Renegotiate deadlines if necessary. Supervisors, editors, and other such people are likely to be sympathetic to the need for extensions. Try to be as realistic as you can about how much extra time you need, and then aim to stick to your new deadline.
  9. Restrict your consumption of news websites and social media. At present, they increase anxiety. I’m now looking at the news, briefly, just a couple of times a day; I have mostly stopped using Tweetdeck with the rolling feed that I usually love, and am using my Twitter notification page instead; and I’m spending less time on Facebook and Instagram. This is helping.
  10. Join and use a virtual ‘shut up and write’ group or book a virtual writing retreat. New ones are springing up all the time at present and you can find them by searching online. Writing with others can help you to focus, even if you’re with them virtually rather than in person. If you don’t fancy a group or a retreat with strangers, maybe you have a colleague/peer/friend or two who you could write with online.
  11. Five minutes of freewriting can help you to get going. Set yourself a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘What I want to say is…’ Then set a timer for five minutes and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping or editing or censoring yourself. If you pause, or get stuck, write the prompt again, as many times as you need until it takes you somewhere else.
  12. Take as good care of yourself as you can in this unprecedented situation. When possible, do things that soothe you and take your mind off your troubles: hot baths, making, exercise, gaming – different things work for different people. Looking after yourself will help you maintain the resources you need to write.

Given a chance, writing itself can become a useful distraction. I wrote this while intensely worried about the health of two people, one family member and one friend, both of whom are very unwell. It took my mind off everything for a little while. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

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 $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – 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!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

blurbThe ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book’s cover which tells you what the book is about. It’s not simply a description, though; it is also a sales tool. For this reason some people find blurbs difficult, even distasteful to write.

Do you want to know a secret? I love writing blurbs. This is partly because I love writing and I always enjoy a different and interesting wordsmithing job. It’s also because I enjoy a chance to show off. For the same reason, I like being interviewed for contracts, giving keynotes, and running workshops. Generally speaking, showing off is regarded as bad form, but these are situations where you’re supposed to show off. And so is writing a blurb.

I do understand why blurb writing can feel difficult and distasteful for some people, particularly academics who are trained not to over-claim – and so may spend much of their time actually under-claiming in their efforts to follow academic convention. Generally speaking I think that’s a good thing, but when you’re writing a blurb, you need to use a different register. If you’re one of the people who finds blurb-writing difficult – or perhaps you’re coming to this task for the first time – these tips should help you to write an irresistible blurb.

  1. Start by studying some blurbs of books in your field. Take note of what appeals to you, what puts you off, and in particular what might encourage you to open the book and start reading.
  2. Go back to your book’s proposal and manuscript reviews and pull out every complimentary word, phrase and sentence into a new document. Think about which of these you could use in your blurb, and how.
  3. Revisit the proposal you wrote for your book. Look for ideas or wording you can use in your blurb.
  4. Explain as clearly as possible what your book does that no other book does.
  5. Use strong language. I don’t mean swearing (unless you’re in a very particular kind of sub-genre), I mean words like “first”, “brilliant”, “ground-breaking” – especially such words that were used by your reviewers and/or in your proposal. This kind of language inspires curiosity in potential readers.
  6. Specify who your book is for. This could be by category of people (students, teachers, early career researchers) or by interest (e.g. anyone with an interest in urban design and planning).
  7. Work hardest on the first sentence; it’s the most important. Make it as compelling as you can.
  8. Work almost as hard on the last sentence. Fiction blurbs often use a cliff-hanger (“Will Curtis ever recover from his terrible ordeal?” “Can Lila catch the serial killer before more nurses die?”). Academic books can rarely do this but at least we can try to be intriguing.
  9. Make every single word count. Blurbs are usually limited to 100-150 words so there’s no room for waffle.
  10. Expect input from your publisher’s marketing people. They’re good at this kind of thing. For example, the second sentence of the blurb for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners says “Brilliantly attuned to the demands placed on researchers, this book considers how students, academics and professionals alike can save time and stress without compromising the quality of their research or its outcomes.” I have to credit Kathryn King, marketing manager at Policy Press, for most of this sentence, perhaps all, and certainly its opening.
  11. If you don’t get input from your publisher – or even if you do – test out your blurb on a few friends or colleagues who you can trust to give you honest constructive feedback.
  12. Be prepared to revise and revise and polish and polish and revise some more.

One piece of advice often given to blurb writers is to be sure to use your own voice. I only agree with this up to a point, because it’s not like any of us only have one voice. Think how you might talk to a tired two-year-old or to a police officer who has just stopped you in the street. Different voices, right? And so it is with books and blurbs. In the book, you’re talking to your reader; you know they’re there with you. In the blurb, you’re trying to persuade them to join you. Again, think how your voice might differ in equivalent real-life situations: perhaps where you’re chatting to a friend over a table in a coffee shop, versus standing in the street trying to persuade your friend to join you for a coffee when you really want them to say “yes”.

Ultimately, that’s what your blurb needs to do: persuade potential readers to say “yes”, to become actual readers, to take your words and ideas along with them.

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 $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – 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!