Researcher and practitioner reflections…

Gayle: As a feminist sociologist, and a methodologist, I have long been concerned with the relationship between the process and the product of research: how what we do impacts on what we get. Thus, in addition to an acknowledgment of the significance of the personhood of the researcher I have been concerns with issues of power, emotion and embodiment in research both for researcher and researched and the relationships between them. Recently I have also become more and more interested in the value of creative methods and approaches not least because performance, whether visual, verbal or written:

“is a way of knowing. This claim, axiomatic for performers, rests upon a faith in embodiment, in the power of giving voice and physicality to words, in the body as a site of knowledge . . . it insists upon a working artist who engages in aesthetic performances as a methodological starting point” (Pelias 2008: 186).

Increasingly creative methods are being used both in the collection and presentation of data in social research and when Julie asked me to work with Sarah Hodge to facilitate the first three days of the residential I was keen for us to explore what it might ‘feel like’ to be involved in such practices. Participatory research of any kind necessitates an empathic relationship between all concerned and therefore ‘playing’ with the approaches that we as researchers ask respondents to engage with can only be beneficial in our understandings of the research experience for all. For me this is still a fairly new way of working and I learnt a lot from working with Sarah Hodge who helped me to think differently about how to ‘be creative’.

The actual experience of making individual and group collages (zines) was, I believe, valuable in many ways. In creating pieces that reflected our auto/biographical private and public selves, we were each able to reflect on the images and words that felt significant to our interests, values and passions. As we searched and shared and cut and placed and edited and finally pasted we talked about our lives at home and at work and about the construction of our pieces. We also at times worked in comfortable silence. One of my roles during the three days was to chair the talks given by our invited guests. All of these were emotional as well as instructive. Working alongside each other on a creative activity gave us the space to express some of our, at times differing, reactions to the talks but was also a safe space for each of us to work quietly if we wanted to. As such, as several members of the group said, it felt therapeutic. Such creative practices can themselves ‘be the data’ or may be accompanied by verbal or written reflections. Like any other method they represent a ‘snapshot’ of time(s) whether used as a one off or part of a longitudinal study and work well within a mixed-methods study. Additionally, as our experience demonstrates, such activity can strengthen research team collaboration and cohesion.

Leaving the residential I felt enriched by the experience and hope that others felt similarly. Such positive learning experiences are essential, I believe, for our continued positive development as workers and researchers with populations of peoples who may in some ways, at some times, be or feel vulnerable.

Reference: Pelias, R. (2008) Performative inquiry: Embodiment and its challenges. In J. Knowles and A. Cole (Eds.) Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research, (pp. 185-193). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jon: As I negotiated the familiar yet unsteady step between the platform and the train at Plymouth rail station as we set off for the week-long independent social research residential at Girton College Cambridge, I could not resist feelings of slight trepidation at being asked to participate. Substantively my research-to-date has been in the area of critical disability studies, and the primary focus of the residential was collaborations in research with ‘offenders’. I was not sure I had sufficient expertise in research and practice with ‘offenders’ to make a telling contribution to discussions. However, it was within the methodological approach to research where there were some commonalities between my research (critical disability studies) and working with ‘offenders’. The focus of the week was largely on recognising largely transformative potential of participatory styles of research, which I largely believe is about researching ‘with’ rather than researching ‘on’. There are many different tools we can select to enact our research and research can be enacted within many disciplines, but one way commonalities can be recognised is by examining the methodological choices (which are always political) of researchers. In retrospect, I feel this is where I contributed to the residential.

The first day of the residential consisted of an exercise whereby each member of the residential brought an object of relevance to their own lives and discussed this with the group. I found this to be a rewarding task and it without doubt reminded me of the importance of the experience the researcher brings to the research process. We moved on to a discussion surrounding an article (Hockey et al. 2013), which focused on the how identity is enacted through mundane items such as shoes. This exercise further impressed on me the way that our aspects of our identities can be captured and represented by seemingly mundane items such as shoes. The focus of the day was the personal experiences that researchers and practitioners bring to their work, and this was continued by the final activity for the day which was to create a collage which represented ‘the things that define me’. This was certainly an interesting and rewarding process which enabled us to further ‘get to grips’ with each other’s identities.

Day’s two and three were filled with presentations from invited speakers (Nik Hardwick, Erwin James, Nicola Harding, Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludow, and Fergus McNeil). Each presentation bought a different and interesting perspective to the subject of the use of participatory methods in criminology research. In addition to these talks there was a task where the group had to split into groups of 2/3 and created a zine representing what we had learnt from the residential. This was not without its challenges, as I have relatively poor dexterity in my hands which impairs any attempt at creative endeavours. However, my fellow group members were extremely aware of this and attempted to include me at all times. This for me is something that I will definitely take home from the residential, as despite the different way our bodies (and life experiences) dictate our identities, there is often a way of carrying out research or practice which encourages inclusivity. Striving to find a way to include the experiences of all research participants, is for me the key to engaging in participate styles of research.

Reference: Hockey, J., Dilley, R., Robinson, V., and Sherlock, A., (2013) Worn Shoes: Identity, Memory and Footwear, Sociological Research Online, 18 (1) 20.

Julie: The week began with discussions around terminology. The proposal for the residential made reference to ‘participatory approaches to research’, which was replaced with ‘collaborations-in-research’, as this more accurately reflected the focus of the week, with ‘working together’ key, as this is different to and more than merely ‘participating’. The use of the terms vulnerable, marginalised, hard-to-reach and ‘offender’ were also questioned. In essence, there was an acknowledgement that creative collaborations can work for everyone, (with limitations) and for those who are socially excluded, by wrapping them back into the community through creative/arts based practices.

The ‘bring an object’, ‘collage’ and ‘zine’ activities served to develop a group identity, whilst simultaneously providing a vehicle for individual expression. We were learning about and from each other through making/creating and sharing. Although, there is an element of dexterity required in cutting and sticking, which might be considered exclusory. As the week progressed we realised that we should have asked the presenters to bring an object of significance as well, Nick Hardwick said he’d have brought a small statue from home, consisting of a man, woman and child, Fergus McNeill a pebble from the beach. Presentations ran over two days, bookended with our co-creative activities. Nick Hardwick’s presentation included his experiences as Chief Inspector for Prisons, and he queried whether there should be a specific code of ethics for prisoners as researchers. Indeed, researchers tend to be overlooked by research ethics committees, whose main focus is the potential harm to the respondent/participant. Interestingly, the British Sociological Association (BSA) has just revised its statement of ethical practice: Erwin James’ talk was self-reflective and personal, although both Erwin and Nick agreed that there was a ‘crisis’ in prisons and more needed to be put in place to safe guard prisoner health and wellbeing. Moreover, the mechanisms for successful resettlement were woefully inadequate, if none existent in some parts of the prison estate.

Nicola Harding focussed on some of the benefits and dis-benefits of using creative/arts-based methods. Some of her participants were uncomfortable taking photographs with disposable cameras, they felt conspicuous in ways they did not when using a mobile phone. There were also tensions around which photographs they wanted to share and/or identify as theirs to the rest of the group. Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong’s presentation was about “making us into we” through their ‘Learning Together’ programmes. They charted how they had developed evaluative tools to reinforce the collaborative nature of this learning community. They identified how creativity troubles power dynamics and how community stories become group property, which raises ethical questions and leads to disruptions in the power structure.

Fergus McNeill discussed his ESRC funded Distant Voices project and introduced us to some of their co-created songs. He said that collaborating in making music was a means of countering a “hermeneutic injustice” or textual power. That the “Arts are open texts, looking for interpretation and representation” backed up with a quote from Hannah Arendt:

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it” (Arendt 1967:105).

So, whilst Fergus was wary of the potential for “affective manipulation”, as the audience he encouraged us to became collaborators, listening to the songs without a-priori knowledge of how or why they were created, or seeing the words, instead engaging in co-creative deliberations around meaning. Finally, he said:

“Art creates the spaces where dialogue can happen, particularly when exploring the lived experience of punishment”.

This is certainly something I have learned through my work at LandWorks, and also through the creative collaborations with colleagues throughout this week. It was a privilege, thank you.

Reference: Arendt Hannah (1967), Men in Dark Times, London: Harcourt Publishers.

Sarah Hodge: Through cutting and sticking, listening to inspirational speakers, and talking about shoes, I’ve learnt quite a bit about myself this week… I’ve considered the area where my personal and professional self/selves meet, how I found myself in this creative/participatory setting, reflecting on what works well, and new considerations for the future.

At LandWorks we create a safe space for people to be vulnerable, as Fergus McNeill described: “creating an environment where emotional vulnerability is okay”. The team at LandWorks have discussed primary and secondary desistance, where in order for the first stage of desistance to occur and act needs to take place which forms a non-criminal identity, while secondary entails an identification of the self as non-criminal, often helped by positive feedback from others. Fergus McNeill spoke about tertiary desistance, which is relational, being about belonging. I believe this happens at LandWorks too, for people often describe the team as a kind of ‘family’. However there comes a time, usually after six months, when participants move on, and whilst they nearly always remain in contact with LandWorks, and have some support beyond the project in terms of accommodation, employment, and future learning opportunities, I will consider further the impact of endings on individuals when they form such a strong sense of belonging within the project.

The question of “what is creativity” came up many times, with answers ranging from “realising what we are or aren’t in control of” to “making community together”. I agree with both of these statements, and others around the notion of problem solving, and imagining new identities. On our last day we discussed as a group the themes we thought had arisen during the week, which included: inclusivity, managing expectations, the difference between methodology (which is effected by who we are) and method, with some suggesting creativity is the tool which aids the methodology, rather than being a methodology itself. One member mentioned “the dark side of creativity” – that creativity doesn’t always lead to empowerment, it can lead to disempowerment, giving the example that some members found the ‘blank page’ scenario when creating the collages a challenge, and that they may have preferred to work in another medium, for example clay. Whilst there are limitations to what is possible in terms of sourcing materials, logistics, and time during a residential, this could be overcome with involving participants at every stage – even if the discussion just acknowledges the limitations, which come back around to managing expectations. This notion I will take back with me to my professional work: being clear on setting expectations together, from the outset.

Ethics and well-being were also identified as key themes, for both researchers and participants. Nicola Harding mentioned there was little support from the institution for her as researcher, when she in effect took on the role of a support worker when working with vulnerable women. The question of how data is used and how long for is also worth considering at LandWorks – participants may be happy for photographs to be used now, but at what point might this change and do they know how to voice a change of opinion?

This week has solidified my professional and personal beliefs, and given food for thought around the topics of what creativity means to each person I work with, what empowerment looks like, managing expectations, and considering ethics in more depth. I will also be discussing the idea of making a LandWorks zine with the current group.

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