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!

An Embarrassment Of Books

This week I find myself promoting one forthcoming series of books I’m co-editing, another series which is underway but we’ve only just started the promo, a sole-authored second edition which will be out next month, and two co-authored books which will be out in January.

How did this happen, you may well ask? Let me explain. Three years ago Pat Thomson recruited me to co-edit the Insider Guides to Success in Academia, short books for Routledge. I also co-wrote the first in the series, Publishing From Your Doctoral Research, with Janet Salmons, and that was published last December. Now there are six books in the series, available to buy or for pre-order, with several more in the pipeline.

The other series happened much more quickly: it’s made up of the Policy Press innovative Rapid Response e-books which address issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote a post on this blog in May about research methods to consider using in a pandemic. My commissioning editor at Policy Press read the post and contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in editing a short e-book on the subject. I recruited Su-ming Khoo and we put out a call for chapters – and got 104 submissions, many of which were excellent. So now we’re co-editing three short e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID-19. Volume 1 is on Response and Reassessment, Volume 2 is on Care and Resilience, and Volume 3 is on Creativity and Ethics. Each book contains 11 chapters by researchers from around the world: UK to Tonga, South Africa to Peru, New Zealand to India. The e-books are very affordable at £6.99 (or equivalent) and best of all, until 31 August you can get a 50% discount on each book by emailing the address on the web page.

Then for most of last year I was working on three full-length books. The second edition of my book on Creative Research Methods has five new chapters and over 200 new references. That alone was a mammoth task – much bigger than I expected when I started work. And it was sole-authored, unlike all of the others where I had collaborators to help when the going got tough. This book is available for pre-order now and will be out next month.

Then I was also co-writing a book on Creative Writing for Social Research with Richard Phillips. He asked me to work on this in mid-2018, we co-facilitated a two-day workshop on the subject in November 2018, and began writing together in early 2019. It was a complex project, with workshop participants contributing short creative pieces of various kinds that we had to work into the book as examples while maintaining some level of coherence – though we drew on queer theory to underpin the importance of valuing an element of messiness. Our collaboration was an absolute joy and I cherished the opportunity to bring together two of my great loves, creative writing and social research.

The other book I was co-writing was Creative Research Methods in Education, with Narelle Lemon, Dawn Mannay and Megan McPherson. This was Narelle’s idea and she pitched it to me and Katy Vigurs, on a hot day in May 2017, when she was visiting the UK. We were keen and started work on it but Katy had to drop out for personal reasons and it took a while to regroup with new colleagues. The work got going again in mid-2019, exactly the wrong time for me because I was already working on two books and a series, but I wanted to work on this book too and I didn’t want to delay it further. So I gave up having weekends off and we got it all done. Luckily all three books were with the same publisher and the commissioning editor was hugely helpful in timetabling the projects so that, for example, I could work on one manuscript while another was being peer reviewed. I really do not advise working on three books at the same time but, if you have to, I recommend them all being with the same publisher. I think if it had been different publishers it would have been very much harder.

So there we are. After this lot I’m only working on two books, one co-edited and one sole-authored, and I’m not taking on anything else until those are done. Apart from anything else, I think I’ve written quite enough books for the time being!

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 $53 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $53 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Decolonising Methods: A Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $54 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $54 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How To Respond To A Call For Chapters – Twelve Top Tips

callingI recently put out a call for chapters for an edited collection on research methods in times of crisis, together with my co-editor Su-ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland. We received an astonishing 102 proposals in response, and selecting chapters for publication was a really tough job. It also taught me a lot about what works – and what doesn’t – when responding to such a call.

We made our requirements very clear (if you want to take a look, you can download the PDF here). The call was circulated via social media and our own networks. Proposals began to arrive within hours, though over half arrived in the 48 hours before the deadline. I have learned a lot from this process and I’m happy to share it here.

  1. Address the editors politely and personally. Dear Dr Kara and Dr Khoo – fine. Dear Dr Helen and Dr Su-ming – also fine. (In some countries the former is commonly used, in other countries the latter. They’re both polite.) Hi Helen and Su – we were OK with this too as informality is increasingly acceptable by email. Dear Sir Or Madam – very much no. To Whom It May Concern – also no. If the editors’ names are on the call, use them.
  2. Don’t bang in something you wrote for another purpose in the hope that it will pass muster. It won’t. Take the time to prepare a proper proposal.
  3. Think about topics and themes that are likely to be common in the responses, then write something different. (We had a lot of proposals from researchers who wanted to write about how they had planned in-person interviews or focus groups, and now they were conducting interviews or focus groups online. This is understandable, but no editor is going to accept more than one of those.)
  4. If the call states a word count, stick to it; it’s there for a reason. (In our case, we knew the word counts for the chapters would be tight, so we needed to see that potential contributors could write effectively to a tight word count.)
  5. Use all or most of the allotted word count, especially if it’s low – unless you really can say everything that needs to be said in fewer words. Only one of our contributors did this effectively. Others submitted proposals around half of the length of the word count we specified. We have no idea why. Maybe they were trying to impress us, but it didn’t work, as they were unable to tell us enough about their work to give us confidence that it would make a good contribution to the book.
  6. You don’t have to include references in the word count – but in most fields we would suggest you reference lightly, if at all. Remember you’re only writing a proposal for a chapter, not the chapter itself. (I am grateful to my co-editor Su-ming Khoo for the latter point, and for approving the rest of this post.)
  7. If you want to reference the work of the editors, do so sparingly. Peppering your proposal with their names will not increase your chances of success. In fact, they are likely to read your work even more critically.
  8. Do not try to get around a word limit by adding extra information in the body of your email. The editors are unlikely to take it into account.
  9. In fact, keep your email brief and business-like.
  10. If the editors ask for specific information, provide it in your proposal; they are asking for a reason. For example, we asked for the location of the research, so we could ensure a good geographical spread. Some people responded with statements such as ‘online worldwide’, which was perfectly acceptable. Others didn’t state any kind of location which was unhelpful.
  11. There may be something relevant to your research that the editors haven’t asked for. If so, work it into your proposal. For example, we didn’t ask for information about the use of theoretical perspectives, because (a) we’re creating a practical methods book and (b) many methods can be used with more than one theoretical perspective and vice versa. (There’s a longer discussion here about the relationship between theory and method – and, indeed, practice. I’ll write about all that one of these days.) Even so, some contributors told us how they were using theory. That was useful, though never the deciding factor.
  12. Meet the deadline.

If you do all that, you are maximising your chances of success. That said, there are never any guarantees. We had to reject over 50% of the proposals we received, for a number of reasons; ‘didn’t meet the submission requirements’ was rarely the only reason. Sometimes we had two or more good quality proposals featuring much the same method, or approach, or participant group, or theme, and we would have to find other ways to choose between them. We spent hours on Zoom weighing up the pros and cons of different proposals and combinations of proposals. We spent more time negotiating with the publisher, Policy Press, to find ways to accept as many proposals as we could. The good part, though, is at the end of all this we’ll have an excellent book – or three!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!


Call for Chapters

undefinedI am delighted to be working with Su-ming Khoo, from the National University of Ireland, to co-edit a book on Research Methods in Times of Crisis for Policy Press.

We put out the call for chapters last Thursday and we have already had several submissions.

This is no doubt in part because this is a fast-tracked book which will be swiftly written and produced, initially as an e-book. However, there is still plenty of time to respond to the call; the deadline is not until 15 June. So please click on the link above if you want to find out more, or download the PDF here.


Not Spock! The myth of “objectivity” damages public trust in science

Dan Cleather cover kdpI am happy to host this guest post by Dan Cleather, a lecturer at St Mary’s University in London.

Public perception of the nature of science and scientists is neatly encapsulated in the portrayal of scientists on the big and small screens. It is a well worn trope – the scientist is a highly intelligent but eccentric character who struggles to understand human problems and to fit into society. Some of film and television’s most popular fictional characters are cast in this mould: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in Star Trek, Dr Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, the Ghostbusters, Sheldon and the gang in the Big Bang Theory, Jeff Goldblum in almost all his films…

These characters suggest that scientists live in ivory towers where they seek to solve abstract problems without ever considering the human condition. Science is a complex game with little relevance to real life. As a scientifically literate, but admittedly weird, kid, I experienced the effect of these prejudices first hand. “Yes Dan, you’re very clever, but you have no common sense…”

Scientists often reinforce aspects of these stereotypes. Many scientists believe that science is objective – that they are engaged in a pursuit of universal truth and are unaffected by bias. Most scientists would consider this objectivity to be a hugely important, positive characteristic of science. In particular, they think that their objectivity and ability to impartially weigh the evidence should lend authority to their opinions on key issues of public debate like climate change or vaccine hesitancy.

Unfortunately, in today’s “post-truth” world, the expert opinion of scientists is increasingly marginalised. A key factor in this is a lack of public trust in scientists. In 2019, the Wellcome Trust published a survey of global attitudes to science and health which was based on responses from more than 140,000 people in over 140 countries. They reported that globally, only 18% of people had a high level of trust in scientists and 54% a medium level of trust. Only 40% of people believed that science benefits most people in their society.

The public’s perception of scientists is clearly a key factor in whether they will trust them or not. The problem here is that we would trust Sheldon Cooper to fix a mobile phone, but we wouldn’t let him look after our children. If people see science as clinical and soulless, they don’t believe that it will properly capture and reflect the human considerations that are important to them.

Dan Cleather Star_Trek_Spock

Both scientists and their opponents revel in the supposed difference between science and common sense. Scientists like it because it suggests that they have rarefied skills that aren’t available to the common person. For science deniers, a perceived lack of common sense serves as a useful cudgel with which to attack scientists’ positions.

The myth of scientific objectivity defines these debates in a similar way. Scientists consider that they have truth on their side, and thus have little patience for debate. Science deniers are suspicious of scientists’ claims to objectivity and believe that the stance serves to disguise some type of hidden agenda.

But is science objective? Of course not! We all have conscious and unconscious biases that affect the way we think. One key strength of science, however, is that we study our biases. The naive scientist believes that this process allows them to eliminate bias. Better scientists try, instead, to understand how their biases affect their thinking.

The apparent dichotomy between science and common sense is false. Both forms of thought are based on reason, and on using evidence to understand the real world. Scientific training is simply based on refining these skills and understanding how bias can mislead us.

The solution to vaccine hesitancy or climate change scepticism does not lie in disenfranchising science deniers because we believe they have an inability to listen to reason. For instance, public health messaging is more effective when a sustained effort is made to listen and respond to public concerns.  Scientists need to demonstrate how they use evidence to arrive at their positions. They need to show how the human factors that preoccupy science deniers are also captured within scientific debate, and that scientific consensus does account for their concerns.

It is disingenuous to claim that science is objective, and the public can see through this claim. Rather, scientists need to be honest as to the strengths and limitations of science, and be open to alternate points of view. Who knows, if we listen to the concerns of science deniers we might learn something that can help us.

As Spock himself put it, “”Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end”.

Dan is an affiliated researcher with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. His new book, “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist” (geni.us/Subvert), is out on 14th May 2020.

Creative Research Methods – Second Edition!

Creative research methods (Second edition) [FC]My book on creative research methods was launched almost five years ago, at a conference on creative research methods at the British Library. The book has been well received worldwide and has had some excellent reviews. Around 18 months ago my editor and I decided it was time to start thinking about a second edition.

The field of creative research methods is exploding, and the changes to the second edition reflect the speed and extent of the field’s development. Almost all of the first edition content is still present, apart from a few edits and one or two citations which have been superseded by later work. And there is a lot more. Five new chapters, over 35,000 new words, and over 200 new references. And a new cover – isn’t it gorgeous?

Also some of the emphases within the book have been rebalanced. One proposal reviewer said they didn’t think there was enough in the first edition about research using technology; another said they would like more on creative approaches to quantitative methods. I wanted more examples from the global South. These have all been addressed.

The attentive reader may notice that the title has changed. The first edition was called ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide’. That title always annoyed me; it should really have been ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities, and to some extent STEM subjects as well’ but that was too unwieldy for a book title. This second edition is truly interdisciplinary so we’ve dropped the ‘social sciences’ tag, but we’ve kept the subtitle because the book is as practical as ever. It won’t answer all your questions – no book could do that – but it offers a fairly thorough guide to the options available, and is carefully referenced to help you find more information on topics of interest.

Sorting out the new structure was a massive headache and it took a few iterations before we arrived at the final result. The first part of the book has expanded from four chapters to five, with a new chapter on ‘transformative research frameworks and Indigenous research’. The second part has expanded from five chapters to nine. Data gathering, data analysis, research reporting, and presentation now each have two chapters, one covering arts-based and embodied methods, the other covering technology-based and multi-modal research.

As this suggests, my conceptualisation of the field has also changed in the light of recent literature. The first edition identified four ‘pillars’ of creative research methods: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed-methods research and transformative research frameworks. The expansion of the field over the last five years has led to the inclusion of embodied research as a fifth ‘pillar’. These are not mutually exclusive; creative research often falls into more than one, but they offer a useful way to help us think and talk about a highly complex interdisciplinary field. Also, thanks to the suggestion of an anonymous manuscript reviewer, the term ‘mixed-methods research’ – with its implication of quant data + qual data – has been replaced by ‘multi-modal research’. This term reflects the point made in the first edition, and now more widely understood, that methods may be combined within quantitative or qualitative research alone, and at any stage of the research process.

I’m really excited about this second edition and I hope you are too. It will be published in September and is available for pre-order now. I have developed a two-day course based on the book’s content, in conjunction with the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods, which we will run when everyone can move around again. Also, I am currently developing online versions in collaboration with universities in the UK and Australia. If you are at a university which would like to book me for a course, do get in touch.

Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Writing Is A Research Method

writing on keyboardIt has always struck me as odd that people don’t recognise writing as a research method. I doubt there is a single piece of formal research in the Euro-Western world which doesn’t involve writing. Yes, we can make all our reports with video, but those videos need scripting and that requires words. As researchers, writing is one way in which we exercise our power. You may not think of yourself or your writing as powerful, yet writing is an act of power in the world. I was reminded recently by a colleague that my words on this blog are powerful. I’d forgotten. It’s easy to forget, but we need to remember.

Writing, in Euro-Western research, is universal. It’s the one method used regularly by both quantitative and qualitative researchers. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t recognised as a method, because it unites us rather than dividing us. But it is a method, and I would argue that it is a qualitative method. We can’t do research without writing, and how we write affects the ways our work is understood and used by other people.

I’ve been interested in the terminology around the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think provides a useful example. Last week I wrote a post about self-isolation. Following a lot of travelling the previous week I’ve been voluntarily staying at home, seeing only my partner and a couple of delivery people. One friend challenged my use of the term ‘self-isolation’, saying that in their view I was doing social distancing because I wasn’t sleeping separately and staying 2m away from my partner or using separate washing facilities, and I was still taking deliveries in person. I could see their point, though I know others are using the term ‘self-isolation’ in the same way as me. My view of social distancing is that it is more about literally keeping our distance from each other in public places. But these are new terms and we’re all trying to figure this whole thing out while it’s happening.

However, neither of them are particularly lovely terms, and I have appreciated the appearance of alternatives. The first I saw was I think an FB post taken from Instagram (I can’t remember who generated either post now – my apologies; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment below and I’ll edit to credit). The post suggested that we’re not doing social distancing, we’re doing physical distancing for social solidarity. I really liked that concept. Then yesterday Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland (and a doctor), spoke of cocooning, and I heard that Americans were talking of ‘shelter in place’.

While I have no evidence for this beyond my own reactions, I suspect that more positive terms are likely to lead to more acceptance. Asking someone to isolate themselves has connotations of loneliness, sadness, and prison (which also has associations with the term ‘lockdown’ currently in use around the world). Physical distancing sounds easier and more accurate than social distancing, and coupling it with social solidarity makes it feel stronger and more righteous. Cocooning makes me think of cosiness and warmth, plus it rhymes (or almost) with other gentle words like soothing and crooning. Asking someone to shelter in place has connotations of home, familiarity, and safety.

As researchers, we often have new information to impart and we sometimes arrive at new concepts which need to be named. There are a whole bunch of words and phrases for us to choose from in writing each new sentence. The words and phrases we use can make a great deal of difference to how our work is received. This means we need to take care in choosing our words and phrases, and in putting them together to make sentences, and in putting sentences together to make paragraphs. These tiny laborious steps are like the strokes of an artist’s brush or the stitches from a crafter’s needle: the beating heart of the writer’s art.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!