The Importance Of Creative Research Methods

me presenting at CRMSS17Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday I was privileged to facilitate the inaugural Creative Research Methods summer school run by Keele University‘s Cultural Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) working with the New Vic Theatre in nearby Newcastle-under-Lyme. Around 40 people came, travelling from America and South Africa, Sweden and Poland, no doubt other countries I’ve forgotten, and all around the UK.

On the first two mornings we were lucky enough to get to work in the theatre’s auditorium, a wonderful space with plenty of room to move around and interact with people in all sorts of ways. On the first day we used pipecleaners to model journeys both literal and metaphorical, and on the second day we explored issues of power in research using Open Space Technology.

For the first two afternoons, we crossed the car park to the theatre’s Workspace rehearsal room, another great space – with a balcony! On the first afternoon we learned about cultural animation, used buttons to create community maps, then added frames and artefacts to help us come up with research questions. Then we devised and performed creative group presentations – that was so much fun! On the second afternoon we mapped pathways through participation in universities, using flip chart paper, coloured Post-It notes and pens, pipecleaners and tape – by now the creative juices were really flowing.

On the third day we were at the beautiful Keele campus, where (as it was a Saturday) we could use some of the university’s technology facilities: the KAVE for virtual reality and gaming, the Claus Moser studio for soundscapes, and the Turing Lab to make digital circuits. In the afternoon we focused on creative academic writing, hearing about ethnography as advocacy for the animals who are often invisible in social research, and geopoetics, before doing a geopoetics exercise.

We crammed in a great deal, yet there was so much else we could have included. Perhaps the richest part of the summer school was its discussions: between any two people, or a group, or all of us together. I was delighted and astonished by the calibre of the students: an enormously intelligent, creative, dynamic bunch; it was an honour to spend three days in their company.

I love to teach creative research methods, and I’m looking forward to my next gig this Friday at LSE for the National Centre for Research Methods (fully booked I’m afraid). I find a lot of my teaching involves giving people permission to work creatively – or perhaps enabling them to give themselves permission – and advising people on how to convince supervisors and ethics committees that it is legitimate to take a creative approach to research. There is a long hard fight ahead to convince people in certain quarters that useful knowledge exists beyond the bounds of academic convention. In this fight, we are on the same side as Indigenous researchers around the world who find their methodologies are sidelined or ridiculed by the academy. Anishnabe researcher Kathy Absolon, in conversation with Plains Cree and Salteaux researcher Margaret Kovach, said this:

If you go on a water walk or quest, that is your methodology. I was reflecting when you were talking about yours [methodology]. If I said I am doing my PhD and my methodology is my dreams, and I am going to go on a fast every year, and after that fast I had somebody come and visit me and talk to me about my fast and take [teachings] with them. I wouldn’t propose that because I wouldn’t want that to [be] measured. I know that is Indigenous methodologies, but I wouldn’t propose it as a methodology within a mainstream setting because I don’t want them to have the power to say that that’s not research. But it is. (Absolon in Kovach 2009:152-3)

There is a parallel here with creative research in the Euro-Western paradigm, where supervisors, ethics committees, journal editors and reviewers, and others have the power to say ‘this is not research’ to people who know perfectly well that their textile art, ice-skating, or poetry, is indeed research. Patricia Leavy has written eloquently of ‘the ache of false separation’ that some people feel when required to keep their art separate from their research work (2010:240).

Some people have said to me that one reason I can write the books I write is that I’m not an academic. As an independent researcher, I have much less power than many academics, in many ways. But I do have the power to say ‘this is research’, and to collect the evidence that this is research, and put it in a scholarly book, so that other people can cite that work, which helps to convince doubting/frightened/threatened supervisors and others. And I will stand with Indigenous researchers, though their methods are not my methods, because I recognise that knowledge comes from more places and in more ways in this complex and beautiful world than those I can access myself.

Still it feels lonely sometimes. So having the opportunity to spend three days with a group of lively-minded people, who are not only open to this but engaging with it, excited by it, and pushing its boundaries in fascinating ways, was an absolute delight.

Indigenous Research Methods: A Reading List

Indigenous methods booksLast week I wrote about challenging the dominance of English in writing for research and academia. That theme is also relevant to this post, though here it’s more about challenging Euro-Western epistemologies and methods than the English language itself. Over the last year I have built a personal library of books about, or relevant to, my investigation of Indigenous research methods and ethics. The point of this, for me, is to bring these methods into my scholarship, alongside creative and conventional methods, as appropriate. The point is not to become an ‘expert’ on Indigenous research; for a white British person, that is not, should not be, an option. At the start of this work, I worried about being extractive, but I found comfort in the words of Margaret Kovach, an Indigenous researcher from Saskatchewan in Canada, who encourages non-Indigenous scholars to help make space for Indigenous methodologies and assess their value on their own terms. This is what I am trying to do.

For those who are new to this topic, ‘Indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of colonised lands, such as Aboriginal Australians or Inuit Alaskans, while ‘indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of non-colonised lands. So I am an indigenous Brit who will never be an Indigenous researcher. Some people described as Indigenous are unhappy with the term because they feel that it makes them seem like one homogeneous group, whereas in fact there is tremendous diversity. For example, there are hundreds of tribal and language groupings in Australia alone. However, as it is the term most commonly used in the literature, I’m sticking with it for now.

The first book is the foundational Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori researcher from New Zealand. In fact I bought the first edition of this soon after it came out in 1999, the year I began my MSc in Social Research Methods. The second edition came out in 2012. This book shows how research was used as a tool of imperialism to help subjugate colonised peoples through, among other things, complete disregard for Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples’ own research methods. It highlights the value of these knowledges and methods, and calls for research to be linked explicitly with social justice.

Shawn Wilson is an Opaskwayak Cree researcher from Canada who has also lived and worked with Indigenous peoples in Alaska and Australia, as well as spending time with Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Morocco, and elsewhere. His book, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (2008), is based on his doctoral research and describes a paradigm shared by Indigenous researchers in Canada and Australia. It’s not easy to get hold of; I tracked down a Canadian bookseller who seems to have bought up the last available copies, and I fear it may be going out of print, which would be a great shame as it is readable and insightful. UPDATE: The publisher emailed me in January 2018 to say it’s not out of print (hurrah!) and it is now available through the link above.

Margaret Kovach is a Plains Cree and Salteaux researcher from Canada whose Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts came out in 2009. Her book covers epistemologies, methods, and ethics. It is a work of considerable scholarship that is also accessible and full of wisdom.

Bagele Chilisa is a Professor at the University of Botswana. Her book Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012) gives an uncompromising and international account of some of the theories, epistemologies, ontologies and methods used by Indigenous researchers. While no book on this subject could be completely comprehensive, Chilisa makes a good job of showing the diversity, as well as some of the commonalities, of Indigenous methodology.

Donna Mertens from the US, Fiona Cram from New Zealand, and Bagele Chilisa have edited a collection called Indigenous Pathways into Social Research: Voices of a New Generation (2013). They have contributions from Indigenous researchers from all around the world: Vanuatu, Mexico, Cameroon, Hawai’i, Alaska, Papua New Guinea, and many other countries. These are fascinating accounts, highlighting personal, political, and ethical challenges, and how they have been overcome. They also say a lot about Indigenous methodologies around the world.

Also in 2013, Maggie Walter, a trawlwoolway researcher from Tasmania, and Chris Andersen, a Métis researcher from Canada, brought out Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology. This book demonstrates the pervasiveness of Euro-Western thought in the construction of statistical research, using national censuses for ilustration. It offers a framework for Indigenous quantitative research, nayri kati or ‘good numbers’, which places an Indigenous standpoint at the centre. There is a short video online of Maggie Walter talking about Indigenous quantitative research.

Lori Lambert is a Mi’kmaq researcher from north-eastern Canada who has also worked with Indigenous peoples from Montana, US; northern Manitoba, Canada; and Queensland, Australia. Her book, Research for Indigenous Survival: Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Behavioral Sciences, was published in 2014. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book to position Indigenous methods within a Euro-Western disciplinary category. Like other Canadian writers, such as Wilson and Kovach (above), Lambert includes the voices of people she has worked with alongside her own in her narrative.

Another essential text, though not specifically about research methods, is Southern Theory by Australian academic Raewyn Connell (2009). This book is subtitled ‘The global dynamics of knowledge in social science’ and in my view is essential reading for anyone engaging with social theory. During my MSc, I was taught social theory as the preserve of dead white men, and I am sure this is still being taught in many Euro-Western universities today. Connell’s book gives the lie to this approach.

This list is not exhaustive; it is just my personal library. One limitation is that I can’t afford expensive books. While I was writing this blog post, I had a message from my friend and colleague Roxanne Persaud, alerting me to Susan Strega and Leslie Brown’s edited collection Research as Resistance: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Practices (2nd edn 2015). I would love to read this book, but even the paperback is over £60 which puts it out of my reach.

These books are not comfortable reads for Euro-Western scholars, but they are hugely important. We need to know how research has been, and is, misused by Euro-Western cultures in order to learn how to use it better. Indigenous scholars are extraordinarily generous in their assessment of the potential value of Euro-Western methodologies, even those methodologies that have been instrumental in stealing their lands and their cultures and traumatising generations of their peoples. Yet most Euro-Western researchers either ignore Indigenous research entirely, or conclude that Indigenous peoples must have picked up a few tricks from the colonisers. I’m not sure which is worse. Indigenous research methods pre-date Euro-Western research methods by tens of thousands of years, and there is a great deal that Euro-Western researchers can learn from these approaches.

The Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let’s Talk About Research Misconduct

detective-152085__340Research misconduct is on the rise, certainly within hard science subjects, quite possibly elsewhere. Researchers around the world are inventing data, falsifying findings, and plagiarising the work of others. Part of this is due to the pressure on some researchers to publish their findings in academic journals. There is also career-related pressure on researchers to conduct accurate polls, produce statistically significant results, and get answers to questions, among other things. Some clients, managers, funders and publishers have a low tolerance for findings that chime with common sense or the familiar conclusion of ‘more research is needed’. They may expect researchers to produce interesting or novel findings that will direct action or support change.

Publishers are working to counteract misconduct in a variety of ways. Plagiarism detection software is now routinely used by most big publishers. Also, journal articles can be retracted (i.e. de-published) and this is on the increase, most commonly as a result of fraud. However, the effectiveness of retraction is questionable. The US organisation Retraction Watch has a ‘leaderboard’ of researchers with the most retracted papers, some of whom have had more papers retracted than you or I will ever write, which suggests that retraction of a paper – even for fraud – does not necessarily discredit a researcher or prevent them from working.

Some research misconduct can have devastating effects on people, organisations, and professions. People may lose their jobs, be stripped of prizes or honours, and be prosecuted in criminal courts. Organisations lose money, such as the cost of wasted research, disciplinary hearings, and recruitment to fill vacancies left by fraudulent researchers. And whole professions can suffer, as misconduct slows progress based on research. For example, in 2012 the Journal of Medical Ethics published a study showing that thousands of patients had been treated on the basis of research published in papers that were subsequently retracted. Retraction Watch shows that some papers receive hundreds of citations even after they have been retracted, which suggests that retraction may not be communicated effectively.

Yet even the potentially devastating consequences of misconduct are clearly not much of a deterrent – and in many cases may not occur at all. Let’s examine a case in more detail. Hwang Woo-Suk is a researcher from South Korea. In the early 2000s he was widely regarded as an eminent scientist. Then in 2006 he was found to have faked much of his research, and he admitted fraud. Hwang’s funding was withdrawn, criminal charges were laid against him, and in 2009 he received a suspended prison sentence. Yet he continued to work as a researcher (albeit in a different specialism) and to contribute to publications as a named author.

Closer to home, a survey of over 2,700 medical researchers published by the British Medical Journal in 2012 found that one in seven had ‘witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication’. Given the pressures on researchers, perhaps this is not surprising – though it is deeply shocking.

The examples given in this article are from hard science rather than social research. Evidence of misconduct in social research is hard to find, so it would be tempting to conclude that it happens less and perhaps that social researchers are somehow more ethical and virtuous than other researchers. I feel very wary about making such assumptions. It is also possible that social research is less open about misconduct than other related disciplines, or that it’s easier to get away with misconduct in social research.

So what is the answer? Ethics books, seminars, conferences etc frequently exhort individual researchers to think and act ethically, but I’m not sure this provides sufficient safeguards. Should we watch each other, as well as ourselves? Maybe we should, at least up to a point. Working collaboratively can be a useful guard against unethical practice – but many researchers work alone or unsupervised. I don’t think formal ethical approval is much help here, either; it is certainly no safeguard against falsifying findings or plagiarism. Perhaps all we can do at present is to maintain awareness of the potential for, and dangers of, misconduct.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

How Independent is an Indie Researcher?

independent womanI have always loved being independent. My parents like to tell the story of the time when, soon after I learned to walk, they took me for a picnic in a local park. My father put me down on the grass, and I got to my feet and toddled away. My mother looked anxious, and my father said, reassuringly, ‘She won’t go far.’ But his confidence was misplaced, because I headed determinedly off into the wide green yonder, and he had to do a quick sprint to bring me back before I came to grief.

When I began researching, I called myself a freelance researcher, or a consultant researcher. I didn’t start calling myself an independent researcher until Immy Holloway told me I should, at a terrific research methods conference in Bournemouth in 2006. (The same conference where I met the incomparable Ken and Mary Gergen, as a result of which they kindly wrote the foreword for my creative research methods book.) As soon as Immy suggested the phrase, I took to it immediately. It seemed to suit.

I love working independently. Particularly at the moment, when I’m mostly home-office-based and writing – though after a few weeks I’ll be pleased to have the meetings and teaching that are scheduled then. But for now, I’m really happy sitting alone at my desk, looking out at the garden growing into spring, listening to the birdsong and the squeals of next door’s children on their trampoline, and writing this blog post.

You know, though, I’ve been thinking recently that despite being officially an independent researcher, I’m actually very dependent. For example, I am completely dependent on others for my income. If nobody chooses me, or not enough people choose me, to do available work, I will go under – particularly as there is so little research funding for which indies can apply. Also, I often need to ask for favours, from small (please can I put your name down as a referee for this research tender?) to large (please will you write a foreword for my book?). As an independent writer, I am dependent on readers for reviews, whether official written ones on websites or in journals, or unofficial verbal ones – the coveted ‘word of mouth’ (at least, it’s coveted if the words are complimentary). More worryingly, I am also dependent on readers to help get my books translated into other languages. My publisher tells me that this usually happens when a bilingual academic makes a proposal to a non-English publisher and offers to support the translation. I am only fluent in English, and although I have good international networks, they’re mostly in English-speaking countries. Unlike institution-based scholars, I have never been able to afford to go to a conference outside the UK where I might make contacts with bilingual academics who could help with translations, perhaps in return for other favours. As a result, I know very few people who I can ask to help with translations. (If you know anyone in the social sciences, arts, or humanities who might help, do tell me please!)

I remember when my supervisor and I were planning my viva. I knew who I wanted for my external examiner, but my supervisor over-ruled me, because she didn’t know the person I wanted, and she did know someone else who she thought would be good (and was). She said she was sure he would do it because he owed her a favour. I have learned since then that a lot of academia seems to work through giving and calling in favours. In such an environment it feels odd to call myself ‘independent’.

The book I’m writing is on research ethics. In the Indigenous research paradigm, reciprocity between researchers and participants is a key ethical principle. However, in the Euro-Western paradigm, researchers have found that attempting such reciprocity where there is an imbalance of power is difficult and can even have dangerous consequences (Israel 2015:137-8). I can’t find much work on reciprocity between academics, and what I can find addresses reciprocity between countries or disciplines and doesn’t say much about power imbalances. I haven’t found anything about reciprocity across the walls of the academy, where there is undoubtedly a power imbalance. I’m glad to say that, in my own experience at least, academics have mostly been courteous and often generous with their help and support for my work, even though, as an indie, I can’t reciprocate in all the same ways that I could if I was based in an institution. This potentially makes me even more dependent, because I have less to offer than salaried mid-career academics. As I progress in my work, will this power imbalance grow? Will it adversely affect the reciprocity on which my entire career depends? Or am I needlessly worrying about something because it feels insecure, when in fact it doesn’t really matter?

Mixed-Methods Data Analysis

concentric circles slide 2Following my post last month about using concentric circles for gathering research data, I had a question from a reader. Nieky van Veggel asked me, “How would I analyse the outcomes of this method?” This is a good question and, like many good questions, it has more than one answer.

First, you can do quantitative analysis: counting and measuring. If you have the participant at the centre, you can count the number of people, agencies, or whatever it is that they have drawn or placed around the concentric circles. Then in either system you can measure the distance, or distances, between the fixed central point and the drawn or placed point(s) chosen by the participant. Once you have the raw numerical data from your counting and/or measurement, you can use statistical calculations as appropriate to your sample size and sampling technique.

Second, you can do qualitative analysis. You can look at the types of relationships depicted and sort those into categories and themes. You can cross-tabulate relationships with other participant attributes, e.g. age or gender. You can also cross-tabulate with any other data you have collected to see if there is a relationship.

Third, you can do both. Then you can synthesize your qualitative and quantitative analyses – or, at least, you can try. There are too many ways of synthesizing data to give full details in a blog post, but you can find more information, references, and examples on pages 106-109 of my book on creative research methods. This post is designed to give you an overview of the subject.

Data synthesis, or data integration as it is also known, can be useful in a number of ways. For example, it can be used to triangulate your data, or to enrich your analysis, and it can yield results which could not be obtained through the analysis of any single dataset. The findings of each single dataset will help to answer your research questions up to a point, but bringing those findings together may give a fuller explanatory narrative. However, integrating findings from different datasets can be one of the most challenging aspects of mixed-methods data analysis. Therefore, it makes sense to have a rationale for doing this, rather than trying to do it for its own sake.

Broadly, when you try to integrate your data, one of three things can happen:

  1. The findings from the different datasets agree. Sadly this is not as common as you might think.
  2. The findings from the different datasets agree in some respects but not in others. This is probably the most common outcome, and requires hard thinking and more analysis to try to resolve the disagreements as far as possible, with further research required where resolution cannot be reached.
  3. The findings from the different datasets do not agree at all. This almost certainly indicates a need for further research – which is not always a palatable message for research managers, commissioners, or funders.

When you write up your data integration process and findings, you need to show how each element relates to the others. The danger with this is it can make your article or report rather ‘methods-heavy’, so be concise where you can.

Australian researchers Reesa Sorin, Tamara Brooks and Ute Haring did some research into children’s understandings of their physical environment. In the process, they developed an analytical procedure using three different methods to analyse a dataset made up of children’s artworks and stories. They began with a quantitative technique: content analysis. This involved identifying the main features of children’s drawings and putting them into categories such as animals, houses and trees. Then they counted the number and frequency of items in each category, reasoning that the more frequently something appeared, the more meaningful it was to children. The other two methods were qualitative. One was interpretive analysis, in which they identified more categories, this time based on the presentation of each drawing, its mood, and the messages in the story the child had told about their drawing. The other qualitative method was developmental analysis, which suggests that stages in the development of children’s artworks can be correlated with their ages. So the content analysis outlined the features of the drawings, the interpretive analysis added depth by showing multiple meanings, and the developmental analysis added ages and stages. The researchers concluded that this combination of analytic methods can ‘provide deep insights into young children’s understandings’ (Sorin, Brooks and Haring 2012: 29).

Data analysis is at the core of our interpretive work as researchers, yet it is rarely discussed and often misunderstood. You can’t learn how to analyse data from a blog post, but it may help you to figure out what some of your current questions are. And I hope, Nieky van Veggel, that this post will provide a step on the way to ticking off another item on your impossible list. Good luck!

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.
  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.

Concentric Circles for Gathering Research Data

concentric-circlesMost people, when they think about gathering primary data for research, think of the ‘Big Three’ methods: questionnaire surveys, interviews, and focus groups. This is rather limiting when there are so many other methods that can help to answer research questions. One example is concentric circles. They are used quite frequently in market research, and have also been used in social research for several decades, yet I am frequently surprised to come across people who have no knowledge of this approach.

Concentric circles are generally used to investigate people’s relationships with other people, objects, or phenomena. There are two main ways to use concentric circles. One way is to put something at the centre – in market research, usually a product or brand – and ask the participant to make a cross, or drag-and-drop a digital image, to a point within the circles that they feel represents their closeness to that product or brand. So, for me, if the brand was Nestlé I’d put myself right on the outer edge, whereas with a product such as the Co-op’s fairly traded wine, I’d be close to the centre.

The other option is to put the participant at the centre, and ask them to use the concentric circles to map relationships such as the people or agencies who support them, with those they feel closest to placed nearest to the centre and vice versa. This can be done in evaluation research as part of a pre-post design to document changes. For example, if part of the point of a service is to act as a gateway or signpost to other relevant agencies, it might be useful to ask users of that service to map their relationship with other agencies at the first point of contact, and again after a suitable period of time. That would help to assess the impact of the service in increasing users’ links with other agencies.

The concept of this is easy for participants to grasp, perhaps because the circles provide a recognisable structure but are not prescriptive. They are appealing because they give the participant a lot of choice and flexibility in how they respond. This avoids difficulties that can be raised by a standard type of research question such as, ‘How supportive is your spouse or partner?’ Some participants would find a question like this difficult to answer, say if their spouse or partner was unsupportive, or abusive, or recently deceased. If such a participant met this question in a survey, interview, or focus group, at best they would provide no or inaccurate data, and they could suffer serious embarrassment or upset. However, with the concentric circles, a participant can choose which of the people in their lives they include in the discussion.

Perhaps because of their ease and sensitivity, concentric circles have been used effectively in research with children, the elderly, and people with learning disabilities, among other groups. They are rarely the only method used, but they add an interesting and useful dimension to an investigation. In fact, the potential applications of concentric circles are many and varied. For example, they could be used in:

  • Nutritional research to explore people’s relationships with different foodstuffs
  • Tourism research to investigate people’s relationships with different modes of travel
  • Sports research to assess people’s relationships with different types of exercise

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Completed concentric circles can provide powerful illustrations for research reports and presentations, although care should be taken to ensure that participants and others who may be mentioned cannot be identified as a result. One option here is for a researcher to recreate a participant’s concentric circles with different names and/or with changes to other identifying details.

I’ve just put in a proposal to a potential client including concentric circles. I hope they like the idea. Do you use concentric circles? Or do you think you might use them in the future?

Devising Your Own Research Method


yesI’ve had several emails recently from people asking whether they can devise their own research method. The answer is yes – in the right circumstances.

If you’re an undergraduate or a Masters’ student, you’ll have difficulty convincing your tutors that it’s a good idea for you to devise your own research method. They’re likely to say, with some justification, that you need to learn about existing research methods and practise doing research first. The possible exception is if you’re studying for a Masters’ degree in research methods and you want to use your dissertation to try out something new. But otherwise you probably need to leave the devising of a new method for your doctoral study or professional research.

Devising your own research method very rarely means creating a whole new method. Mostly it means tweaking an existing method, or layering two methods together, or some other form of adaptation. For example, Jacqueline Belzile and Gunilla Öberg, from the University of British Columbia, took a new look at focus group data. They found that it was usually treated in the same way as interview data, i.e. the content of the text was the focus of analysis while interactions between participants were generally ignored. Belzile and Öberg came up with new ways to analyse interactions in focus group data, and so moved analytic methods forward.

This usefully demonstrates that devising your own research method does not and need not apply only to data gathering. You can also experiment with writing, as I have done alongside many others, and there’s loads of room for creativity in presenting and disseminating findings. Art installations, theatrical performances, interactive multimedia – these are just a few of the options available to anyone who wants to go beyond the conventional conference presentation, thesis, journal article, or research report.

However, my inbox suggests that data gathering is the phase where people are most inclined to be experimental. And by ‘people’, I mean doctoral students. When I was doing the background reading for my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, I found that a surprisingly high proportion of papers on innovative methods were written by people who had developed those methods during their doctoral studies. This applied right across the methodological spectrum, from people developing new scales or algorithms, apps or computer games, or ways of mixing methods, to people developing new arts-based techniques. I myself developed a new method of gathering data using oral storytelling during my own doctoral studies. I guess this is at least in part because doctoral study provides enough time to research and develop methods – for those who have the inclination.

Some doctoral students find that their supervisors are nervous about the idea of a new method. The key to soothing supervisory anxiety is to construct a solid argument for the methodological move. So, let’s say a student, Ali, wants to research the effect of living close to mainline railway lines on outdoor social opportunities. Ali decides to create two three-dimensional models of small towns, identical except in one respect: one of the towns has a mainline railway running through the middle while the other has a stream with a path alongside. Ali also makes a collection of small figures and objects (barbecue, picnic blanket, bicycles etc) that participants can place on the model to show what kinds of outdoor social opportunities they would expect to see in which locations. However, Ali’s supervisors favour traditional methods of data collection such as interviewing. Ali needs to come up with some kind of precedent to demonstrate that the plans are viable, but there is no direct precedent – in fact, Ali can’t find anything anywhere in the methods literature about people using three-dimensional maps or model towns for qualitative research.

This means Ali needs to do some lateral thinking. There is some information in the methods literature about using maps with research participants, and there is also information about using objects to support interviewing. Ali collects and reads both sets of literature and uses the arguments therein to build a new argument in support of the planned method. Very sensibly, Ali also identifies some potential weaknesses of that method, and outlines plans to pilot and review the method as the first stage in its development.

So, if you want to devise a new method, whether for academic or other research, start by reading widely in the methods literature. Be prepared to think laterally, and to use a variety of search terms. At the methods frontiers, terminology is often unclear, and it would be embarrassing to claim you’d invented a new method then find several other people had invented it first but called it something different. Also, allow enough time to test your method thoroughly, through a pilot or a series of pilots, before you use it for real.

Devising a new method of gathering data – or, more likely, extending the boundaries of an existing method – is not for everyone, and it is certainly not necessary to do this to gain a doctoral qualification. But it can be great fun and very satisfying.

Research Ethics – Can You Help?

telephoneDear Internet

I wonder whether you can help me. I need people, from outside the UK, to talk to about research ethics. They can be academics or practitioners, from any discipline or field, and they need to have some interest in research ethics. If they fit that specification, and they’re based outside the UK, I’d like to talk to them.

This is for my next book which will be on research ethics. I’ve done a bunch of interviews with people from the UK, but I want to take a more global look at the topic. I’ve asked everyone in my networks but I’m getting nowhere, so I’m throwing this out to you in the hope that you may know one or more people who might be willing to talk.

Interviews are taking about an hour and can be done by phone or Skype. The interviews will be kept confidential, and I’m happy to email over my questions for someone to look at before they decide whether or not they want to take part. I won’t use anyone’s name in connection with the book. I am compiling a list of the roles and countries of origin of the people I’ve spoken to, to give my readers some idea of the breadth of contributions, with interviewees choosing their own designation e.g. ‘senior lecturer in social work, British university’ or ‘independent researcher, UK’, but if someone doesn’t even want to go that far, that’s OK with me. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have held several roles in connection with research ethics but have chosen to speak to me from just one of their roles, which is fine. Some have chosen not to answer all my questions, or to answer several in one; that’s fine too.

I would be particularly interested in talking to people doing, or who have done, research in countries with authoritarian rather than democratic governments – though I’d also love to talk to Australians, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on. In fact I’d like to talk to people from pretty much anywhere outside the UK, though I only speak English.There’s no big rush; I’m hoping to get the interviews done some time in the next 3-4 months.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect you to give me someone’s contact details, but if you know people you think might be willing and able to help, perhaps you could draw their attention to this post and then, if they want to get in touch, they could email me through the contact form.

Here’s hoping…