It has always struck me as odd that people don’t recognise writing as a research method. I doubt there is a single piece of formal research in the Euro-Western world which doesn’t involve writing. Yes, we can make all our reports with video, but those videos need scripting and that requires words. As researchers, writing is one way in which we exercise our power. You may not think of yourself or your writing as powerful, yet writing is an act of power in the world. I was reminded recently by a colleague that my words on this blog are powerful. I’d forgotten. It’s easy to forget, but we need to remember.
Writing, in Euro-Western research, is universal. It’s the one method used regularly by both quantitative and qualitative researchers. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t recognised as a method, because it unites us rather than dividing us. But it is a method, and I would argue that it is a qualitative method. We can’t do research without writing, and how we write affects the ways our work is understood and used by other people.
I’ve been interested in the terminology around the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think provides a useful example. Last week I wrote a post about self-isolation. Following a lot of travelling the previous week I’ve been voluntarily staying at home, seeing only my partner and a couple of delivery people. One friend challenged my use of the term ‘self-isolation’, saying that in their view I was doing social distancing because I wasn’t sleeping separately and staying 2m away from my partner or using separate washing facilities, and I was still taking deliveries in person. I could see their point, though I know others are using the term ‘self-isolation’ in the same way as me. My view of social distancing is that it is more about literally keeping our distance from each other in public places. But these are new terms and we’re all trying to figure this whole thing out while it’s happening.
However, neither of them are particularly lovely terms, and I have appreciated the appearance of alternatives. The first I saw was I think an FB post taken from Instagram (I can’t remember who generated either post now – my apologies; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment below and I’ll edit to credit). The post suggested that we’re not doing social distancing, we’re doing physical distancing for social solidarity. I really liked that concept. Then yesterday Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland (and a doctor), spoke of cocooning, and I heard that Americans were talking of ‘shelter in place’.
While I have no evidence for this beyond my own reactions, I suspect that more positive terms are likely to lead to more acceptance. Asking someone to isolate themselves has connotations of loneliness, sadness, and prison (which also has associations with the term ‘lockdown’ currently in use around the world). Physical distancing sounds easier and more accurate than social distancing, and coupling it with social solidarity makes it feel stronger and more righteous. Cocooning makes me think of cosiness and warmth, plus it rhymes (or almost) with other gentle words like soothing and crooning. Asking someone to shelter in place has connotations of home, familiarity, and safety.
As researchers, we often have new information to impart and we sometimes arrive at new concepts which need to be named. There are a whole bunch of words and phrases for us to choose from in writing each new sentence. The words and phrases we use can make a great deal of difference to how our work is received. This means we need to take care in choosing our words and phrases, and in putting them together to make sentences, and in putting sentences together to make paragraphs. These tiny laborious steps are like the strokes of an artist’s brush or the stitches from a crafter’s needle: the beating heart of the writer’s art.
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