Data Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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