Indigenous Research Methods: Another Reading List

I thought it was time to share more of the books from my shelves. As with my previous post on this topic, this post is a reflection of my personal collection, built from the recommendations of students, colleagues and people on social media, as well as my own explorations. The more I have read and worked with Indigenous scholarship, the more convinced I have become of the importance of including these perspectives in my own work wherever they are relevant. I am glad to be able to use my own power, such as it is, to amplify the voices of scholars who are much more marginalised than me.

Books on Indigenous research methods are very different from books on Euro-Western research methods. Books on Euro-Western research methods are akin to recipe books: combine these things, like this, and you will probably get that result, unless some contextual factor gets in the way. Books on Indigenous research methods don’t start with what to do and how to do it, they start with stories, and thinking, and sharing, and knowing, and learning. One key difference is that Indigenous research is designed to serve existing relationships, and if it is not likely to at least maintain and ideally strengthen those relationships, it is not deemed to be worth conducting. In the Euro-Western paradigm, we teach novice qualitative researchers to ‘create rapport’ with participants, to put them at ease – in effect, to make instrumental use of our friendship skills to obtain information from people we may not ever see again. Euro-Western researchers have begun to question how ethical this is. Indigenous researchers offer us some unmissable clues to the answer.

I am not, and I will never be, an expert on Indigenous research. Since my book on research ethics came out – with its subtitle of ‘Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives’ – I have received several invitations to speak about Indigenous research and to peer-review journal articles written by Indigenous scholars. I always refuse the first, and I only accept the second if the journal editor can assure me that the other reviewers will be Indigenous scholars (which, to date, no journal editor has been able to do). As a white English person I already have too much power in this post-colonial arena. I do not plan ever to use any of it to set myself above or take advantage of the Indigenous scholars who have taught me, and are teaching me, so much through their writings.

These books could be described as more theoretical than practical but, in the words of Kurt Lewin, the inventor of action research, ‘There is nothing as practical as a good theory.’ Lewin was a Jewish German psychologist who immigrated to the US as an adult in 1933, so he had experienced and understood oppression. He was also, perhaps as a result, much more interested in applied research which could make a positive difference to social problems than to research that might generate knowledge for its own sake. In the Indigenous research literature this distinction is not relevant, made or discussed, because knowledge is conceptualised as collectively owned, in contrast to the Euro-Western paradigm where knowledge is conceptualised as a form of individual property.

I could say a lot more about the similarities and differences I perceive, but I need to get to the books! The first is Talkin’ Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. This was recommended by various people on social media, and I didn’t get around to buying a copy until last year, but I’m not sorry because I got the 20th anniversary edition with a new preface. It is a book of relevance to every white woman and anyone who uses feminist theory. Although it was written over 20 years ago, it is still highly, urgently topical. The author explains how white women dominate the feminist agenda; invites us to notice and interrogate our white privilege; and suggests we need to figure out how to give up some of that privilege in the interests of greater equality – which, after all, is where feminism came in.

Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. His book Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism points out how and why Euro-Western social science doesn’t fit with Asian realities. The book covers the whole of Asia and all of the social sciences, and – despite its title – argues that alternative discourses alone are not enough, particularly if they are created in the same mould as the Euro-Western social science discourses so prevalent in Asian universities. Alatas explains in forensic detail how Asian academies are still colonised by Western approaches and curricula. He calls for a ‘liberating discourse’ which will help to popularise Asian ideas and perspectives.

Antonia Darder is a Puerto Rican and American scholar, artist, poet and activist. She has edited a collection called Decolonizing Interpretive Research: A Subaltern Methodology for Social Change. The foreword, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, notes that ‘dominant theories … have spectacularly failed to transform the lives of subaltern communities and have instead reinforced privilege and inequalities across all developed and developing countries’ (p xii). In her introduction, Darder points out that an insistence on empirical evidence is a colonialist approach and, in close alignment with Alatas, calls for a reversal of privilege to foreground Indigenous philosophies and approaches.

Applying Indigenous Research Methods: Storying with Peoples and Communities is edited by Indigenous American scholars Sweeney Windchief and Timothy San Pedro. The editors begin by acknowledging that there is more in the literature about what Indigenous research methods are, and why, than about how they can be applied. This book sets out to correct that imbalance – and says quite clearly on the back cover that it is designed for use and teaching across Indigenous studies and education. Any Euro-Western researcher who is looking for methodological novelty they can use in their own work will not find that here. What they will find instead are inspiring stories of how research can be when it is understood and conducted holistically in and for communities of people who share a system of values which have been developed and tested over millennia.

Indigenous Canadian scholars Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule and Rochelle Johnston have edited Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships. This also focuses on how Indigenous research is conducted in practice and includes inspiring stories to demonstrate some ways this has been done.

Shawn Wilson, Andrea Breen and Lindsay DuPré have edited Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing through Indigenous Relationships. The editors are two Indigenous researchers and one white settler. They explain the troubled complexity of the concept of reconciliation, which means different things to different people and can be co-opted for colonialist purposes. The editors are overtly working towards twin purposes of creating intellectual discomfort in some arenas and, in others, creating and protecting spaces for researchers to work as authentically as possible. And, again, the contributions are inspiring stories – though sadly, unlike all the others, this book doesn’t have an index.

There are more links between the last three books than their presentation of stories. These books seem to speak to each other, the stories intertwining and sometimes disagreeing, going back and forth and around again but always making progress. Like a conversation. And they are all very readable, written with dialogue and storytelling, poetry and images.

Lastly I am going to mention again a book I covered in my previous post: Indigenous Research Methodologies by Professor Bagele Chilisa from the University of Botswana. I am mentioning this book again because the second edition is now out and well worth buying and reading, even if you already have the first edition.

What Is Data?

Last week, in the context of some work I’m doing for a client, I was trying to find something someone had written in answer to the question: what is data? I looked around online, and in my library of methods books, and I couldn’t find anything except some definitions.

The definitions included:

  • Factual information used as a basis for reasoning or calculation (Merriam-Webster)
  • Information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be used to help with making decisions (Cambridge English Dictionary)
  • Individual facts, statistics, or items of information, often numeric (Wikipedia)

Data is also, demonstrably, a word, and a character in Star Trek. So far, so inconclusive. Yet people talk and write about data all the time: in the media, in books and journals, in conversations and meetings. And they use it to refer to many other things than facts or numbers. Data may be anything from a piece of human tissue to the movement of the stars.

Euro-Western researchers conventionally speak and write of ‘collecting’ data. And indeed some data can be collected. If you want to research beach littering, you can go and collect all the litter from one or more beaches, and then use that litter as data for analysis. If you want to know what differences there may be in how print media describes people of different genders, you can collect relevant extracts from a bunch of articles and then use those extracts as data for analysis. So this is valid in some cases. However, if you plan to research lived experience by collecting data, you are effectively viewing people as repositories of data which can be transferred to researchers on request, and viewing researchers as people who possess no data themselves so need to take it from others. Clearly neither of these positions are accurate.

Some Euro-Western researchers speak and write of ‘constructing’ data. This refers to the generation of data as a creative act, such as through keeping a diary for a specified length of time, taking photographs during a walking interview, or making a collective collage in a focus group. Even conventional interview or focus group data can be viewed as being constructed by researcher and participant(s) together.

Autoethnographers and embodiment researchers privilege data from their own lived experience, though often they also use data collected from, or constructed with, others. But for these researchers, their own sensory experiences, thoughts, emotions, memories and desires are all potential data.

For Indigenous researchers, all of these and more can be used as data, which is often co-constructed with the researcher and all participants working together in a group. This is done in whatever way is appropriate for the researcher’s and participants’ culture. Māori research data is co-constructed through reflective self-aware seminars. In the Mmogo method from southern Africa, objects with symbolic and socially constructed meanings are co-constructed from familiar cultural items such as clay, grass stalks, cloth and colourful buttons, during the research process, to serve as data (Chilisa 2020: 223-4,243). Indigenous researchers in America, Canada and Australia use oral history, stories and artworks as data (Lambert 2014:29-35).

All of this tells us that data is not purely facts and numbers, as the definitions would have us believe. Conversely, we could conclude from the examples above that pretty much anything can be data. This does not mean anything can be data for any research project. You’re not likely to find a cure for disease by collecting bus timetables, or identify the best way to plan a new town by making inukshuk. But bus timetables could be very useful for research into public transport systems, and making inukshuk could be integral to Indigenous research into the knowledge and belief systems of Arctic peoples.

Data can be documents or tattoos, poems or maps, artefacts or photographs – the list is very, very long. And of course a research project may use different kinds of data, which could be collected, or constructed, or some of each. The question we need to ask ourselves, at the start of any research project, is: what kind(s) of data are most likely to help us answer our research question, within its unique context including any constraints of budget and/or timescale? In the end, for some projects, the answer will be facts, or numbers, or both. But if we assume this from the start, we close off all sorts of potentially interesting and useful options.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Ethics Codes and Guidelines

Last month I was involved in the final review meeting for the PRO-RES project. This is a project funded by the European Commission to create an ethics framework for all non-medical researchers. I worked on this project from 2018–2021: I have written about the experience here, and about some of the resources we created and curated here.

One key resource is a collection of research ethics codes and guidelines. We also conducted five case studies of very different approaches to developing and implementing codes and guidelines. These were from:

The International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)

The United Kingdom Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in the UK (ARMA)

The Social Research Association (SRA)

The Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

The Croatian Agency for Personal Data Protection

INGSA has around 6000 members from more than 100 countries, and they are not just government science advisors (as the name suggests) but a much wider group. INGSA acts as an informal network of key actors who help to build evidence and provide advice for policy-makers. It works to ensure that the evidence used by its members is scientifically robust and ethically sound. Its global and transdisciplinary work is too complex and multi-faceted to be managed through a written ethics code or guideline. Instead, it focuses on training advisors to identify robust and ethical evidence.

UKRIO and ARMA worked together to create a common framework for ethics support and review for UK universities and other research organisations. The aim was to support best practice and common standards, and the framework was co-produced by ethicists, research ethics committee chairs, and representatives of universities, research funders and learned societies. The framework was published in 2020, is explicit and detailed, and is freely available online. It is now being used by many universities and research organisations.

The SRA has recently updated its ethical guidelines, which are widely used by researchers from a range of sectors. The SRA is a small charity run by volunteers, and the update was also done by volunteers, which meant it took quite a long time. The pandemic slowed the process even more. In retrospect, they would have benefited from paying someone to do the initial drafting with input from a group of volunteers. They considered looking for another organisation’s guidelines to adopt, but decided that could be just as difficult and might prove impossible. So they pressed on and finished the job. The guidelines were published in early 2021 and are freely available online.

The Estonian case study researched the process leading to, and following, the signing of the national Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2017. The process of developing and signing the code took 18 months and involved universities and research organisations, plus consultations with partners from research and development institutions and with the wider public. After the code was signed, the process of implementation began, with debates around committees for research integrity and different universities applying the code in different ways. The Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science are reorganising relevant legislation to align with the code, and monitoring its implementation.

The Croatian case study focused on personal data protection in academic and research institutions throughout the country, before and after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. The number of reported personal data breaches in Croatia increased dramatically after the implementation of GDPR, but very few of these related to research. Hundreds of data protection officers across Croatia were found to have little knowledge of personal data protection or its relationship with ethics. Ethical issues around personal data protection were also found to be problematic at EU level. Each of these aspects of the case study were written up in open access journal articles.

These case studies may seem quite disparate but, collectively, they offer some useful lessons. First, when creating frameworks for ethics and integrity in research, there is a clear need to balance ethical ideals with what is possible in practice. Second, being prescriptive is not possible because of the constant changes to research contexts and wider society. Third, delegating responsibility for ethics to a specialised team such as a research ethics committee leads to compliance, not engagement. (I have written more about this elsewhere.) Fourth, sanctions and incentives can help to deepen commitment, but are only appropriate for some discrete elements of research ethics such as GDPR.

I also found it interesting to observe the discussions during the PRO-RES project. I learned that a number of ethicists yearn for a common ethics guide or code: ‘one code to rule them all, one code to bind them,’ as I sometimes enjoyed misquoting. I also learned that institutions, organisations, nations and other groups feel a strong need to develop their own code, with nuances and emphases that reflect their own ethos and vision. The PRO-RES project initially aimed to create a common framework for all non-medical researchers. And indeed it has done so, though how widely the framework will be taken up and used remains to be seen.

A central part of the framework is the PRO-RES Accord, a concise statement of ethical principles which was widely consulted on during the PRO-RES project. Over 1000 people, across Europe and beyond, gave feedback on draft versions before the accord was finalised. Signing the accord means you agree to abide by its principles; endorsing the accord means you commend its principles and will strive to promote them. Anyone can download, sign, and/or endorse the accord, either as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Perhaps you would like to do so yourself.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

Asset-Based Research

For me, one of the greatest developments in research methods so far this century is the genesis and expansion of asset-based research.

Up to the end of the last century, research was almost entirely based on deficits. What we studied were problems, lacks, difficulties, deficiencies, gaps. This is understandable: people generally do research to try to improve matters, so starting with something that needs improvement makes sense. However, we were missing a big trick.

Around the turn of the century, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi founded the positive psychology movement. Before then psychologists had exclusively studied topics such as memory loss, criminal and deviant behaviour, attachment disorders, psychopathology and the like. The positive psychology movement chose to study topics such as happiness, resilience, well-being and so on, to find out what we can learn from people who are flourishing and how we might be able to extend some of that to others.

Organisational researchers David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva were taking a similar approach. They developed the method of Appreciative Inquiry which begins by looking at what an organisation does well and is proud of, and then considers how it can improve in the light of its successes. And researchers from various disciplines around the world have been drawing on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to consider what Indigenous and other marginalised people can and do contribute to their communities.

Asset-based research is also beginning to be used in other fields, including Autism research. I am proud to have made a small contribution to this process myself, through a journal article Aimee Grant and I wrote which was published in Contemporary Social Science last month. The article is called Considering the Autistic advantage in qualitative research: the strengths of Autistic researchers. Much Autism-related research has been conducted by neurotypical people based on a view of Autistic people as deficient. By contrast, in our article, Aimee and I demonstrate that Autistic people like us have a lot to offer to qualitative research teams. We have also formulated some guidance, for teams with a mix of neurotypical and neurodiverse people, to facilitate effective inclusive working.

I am delighted to say the article is open access so you can all read it! I am also delighted that it has generated a lot of interest, with over 2,500 views in its first three weeks. And I feel proud to have been able to make this contribution within nine months of my own Autism diagnosis. Though I should acknowledge that I couldn’t have done it without Aimee, who was an excellent collaborator. Also, we had fantastic support from the journal editors and the anonymous reviewers. If you are looking for a home for an article on researcher experiences and research methods, or would like to propose a special issue, I would encourage you to consider Contemporary Social Science. It is the journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, of which I am a Fellow, but you don’t need any links to the Academy to submit work to the journal. They publish four issues a year, of which only one is open access at present, but that may change in time.

Anyway, if you find our article helpful or interesting – or disagree with the points we make, because all reasoned debate is useful – then please let us know, either here in the comments or over on Twitter.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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 Research Trajectory

I have been talking about the research trajectory with my students for years. I describe my conception of this trajectory, which I call ‘The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research’. I often use this conception to help me explain why it is usually not a good idea, when data analysis is challenging, to decide that all problems will be solved by throwing in a few extra methods – gathering more data, reading a new body of literature, and so on.

It occurred to me that manifesting the image I see in my head might be entertaining for me (it was!) and perhaps useful for others. So I made a graphic. Here it is. Does it resonate with you?

The Helen Kara Inverted Bell Curve Of Research

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. 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!

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!

Research and Stories, Part 2

My recent post Research Is All About Stories got a big reaction on the socials. I encouraged people who tweeted me to add their comments to the blog, which several of them did. They made some really useful points that I’m going to amplify in this post. Also on Twitter Hoda Wassif recommended The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr which I am now reading. It’s an excellent book and quite an eye-opener, even to someone who has been interested in stories and storytelling for many years.

In my last post I said that stories are used all around the world, and I stand by that, but I have learned from Storr’s book that there are cultural differences in the types of stories which are told. Stories told in Europe (and therefore, by extension, stories told by European settlers and their descendants in the US and Canada) generally focus on a courageous individual who can create change, and have a clearly defined ending. Stories told in China usually focus on a group or community, involve multiple perspectives, and have an ambiguous ending which the reader can figure out as they please. European readers take pleasure in a story’s resolution; Chinese readers take pleasure in deciding on their preferred solution to narrative puzzles.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are elements of ambiguity to the ending of some European stories, and I would suspect there are elements of resolution to the ending of some Chinese stories. And other cultures treat stories differently again. The Indigenous writer Jo-ann Archibald/Q’um Q’um Xiiem, in her book Indigenous Storywork, tells us that in the oral traditions of Indigenous peoples, stories are used for many purposes, such as education, entertainment, healing, ritual, community, and spirituality. A storyteller will select a story for a particular occasion and reason, and will tell it in their own way, as honestly and clearly as they can. The listener is expected to listen fully, engaging their emotions as well as their cognition, and visualising scenes and interactions.

The key point for us, as researchers, is to understand that if we are using stories with participants and/or audiences from a variety of cultures, they may have a different understanding of what constitutes ‘story’ and what stories are for. We need to know about this if we are to do our work effectively.

In response to my last post on stories, Pauline Ridley helpfully questioned my assertion that ‘we all do know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth’. She pointed out that ‘Unfamiliar stories, outside the listener’s experience, may take longer to penetrate before they ring true.’ This chimes with the information I have gathered about the different ways in which stories are told and used within different cultures. I should know better by now than to treat anything as widespread as stories as a single homogenous category, but clearly I have some way to go!

Damian Milton and Olumide Adisa on Twitter, and Hala Ghanem on the blog, all made the important point that we need to consider who is telling a story and whose stories are being told – and heard, and acted upon. Storytellers have power, and for some years researchers thought a good, ethical, use of our power was to use our stories to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people. More recently we have begun to see this as paternalistic and to recognise that others’ voices are not ours to bestow. Marginalised people already have perfectly good voices, which researchers might usefully amplify at times, by helping to ensure those voices are heard by people in power. One reason stories are useful for research is that a story poses and investigates a question. So does a research project, albeit in a different way, but the parallel is clear. Stories are useful for research in a multitude of ways: on funding applications, as data, in reports and presentations, among others. I’m not sure it would be possible to complete a research project without involving a story somewhere, somehow. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to try. My human brain is hardwired to create stories; I would rather recognise and acknowledge this, and work with it rather than against it. Bring on the stories!

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 Is All About Stories

My assertion that research is all about stories is probably less divisive and controversial now than it was 15 years ago when I was finishing my PhD. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of researchers who would disagree. Let me put my case and see whether I can convince some of them to come over to the fun side.

Stories are a key part of how human beings interact. To the best of my knowledge, there is no human community or culture in the world which does not use stories to communicate. We also use stories for entertainment – skilled oral storytellers and story singers have been popular entertainers since time immemorial, and the huge popularity of more recent media such as books and films speaks for itself.

I have argued earlier on this blog that stories are also valuable for learning. Communication and learning are central to research, and there is a role for entertainment, too. So we can see that stories might be a good fit. But, Helen, you might be saying at this point, shouldn’t research be about facts and the truth? Well now, let’s think a little about truth. In the English oral storytelling tradition, a teller will sometimes close a story with a short rhyme:

The dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by,

I told you a tale, my tale is a lie.

But heed to me closely, fair maiden, proud youth,

My tale is a lie – what it tells is the truth.

In a journal article I wrote with Lucy Pickering on the ethics of presentation, we said something very similar in a more academic way. Drawing on the work of Bakan and others, we distinguished between ‘literal’ truth and ‘real’, or authentic, truth. The former deals with facts, the latter deals more with feelings; what ‘rings true’, to use a metaphor whose source seems lost to history. Blacksmiths? Musicians? Campanologists? Who knows?. But we all do all know, when we read or hear or watch a narrative, whether it tells a truth.

Lucy Pickering and I argued that research needs an appropriate balance of literal and authentic truth. That balance will shift between topics and disciplines, but there always needs to be some of each. Even in the most quantitative research, a story is still necessary; the researcher can’t simply present pages and pages of tables, calculations, graphs and charts without a written narrative directing the reader to the salient points – how this calculation was chosen, why that outlier is important, the implications of the significance level for practice and policy.

Scholars of story Louise Phillips and Tracey Bunda, in their excellent book Research Through, With And As Storying, suggest that stories can be experienced as theories. I agree with this, and would extend it to suggest that theories can be experienced as stories. In fact I could go further and say that theories used and/or developed by researchers, whether formal or informal, are stories: stories about how the world can be shaped and about how we see the world.

In Unflattening, Nick Sousanis describes stories as ‘that most human of activities, the framing of experience to give it meaning’ (p 95). Which is exactly what researchers do, especially if they are using qualitative techniques.

Asking ourselves the question, “What’s the story here?” can be helpful at many points in research work. We should have a clear story to tell of why we are doing our research, and another to explain what the research is about. When we come to report on our research, whatever the medium – written, presented remotely, presented in person, video, animation, multi-media, whatever – we should be using stories. Stories are engaging, informative, and memorable. Surely that’s exactly what we want our research to be.

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!