Thursday, 4 July 2013

Creative Research Methods

I rarely use Twitter but by hap, it was during one of my intermittent visitations that I spied an advert for Creative Research Methods Workshops (see here), run by Professor David Gauntlett (University of Westminster, see here) and Amy Twigger Holroyd (Birmingham City University, see here), a collaboration between Birmingham City University and the University of Westminster (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council- AHRC). Obviously, I immediately signed up as there was no doubt in my mind that this was something that I would adore.

Broadly speaking, creative research methods are those that employ a creative activity or shared experience ('creating' a memory, I suppose) with the aim that the participants are brought into a new space, in which they are not only free to enjoy the research process, but also to respond more fluidly to the research question. To put things more succinctly, a quote straight from the horse's mouth (aka the Creative Research Methods blog),

"Creative research methods are approaches to research where participants are invited to express themselves in non-traditional ways, such as through making a physical object or collage, or sharing an experience." (Creativeresearchmethods, 2013).

The two workshop sessions were designed to enable us to understand what creative research methods are, to experience some for ourselves as participants, to explore how they could be used to their best advantage, and whether they have associated pitfalls.

Certainly for the academic, creativity can successfully be employed when one encounters a mental block. Reading too many papers and working solely with black and white text sometimes produces a banging-head-against-brick-wall-effect. Scrawling and doodling ideas or thinking down on a big sheet of paper with coloured pens can help to see where the research is heading:- as seemingly random thoughts gain coherency, and flawed or missing research areas may be highlighted. Likewise, walking, dancing, music listening or making could similarly 'shake things up'. 


Workshop days in Birmingham and Westminster

Our first session involved bringing an object along which represented our research and then talking about this object. Predictably, I brought along my knitting. We found that holding an object served as a focus and made the process of explaining our research to strangers slightly less tricky. We then discussed creative research as a group and collectively doodled on big sheets of paper, to make 'posters'. They didn't necessarily 'look' like a conventional poster, but the process was fascinating and I think, extremely productive. Ideas and conclusions easily emerged from a previously blank sheet. By lunch time, a general consensus was reached:- that creative research methods embodied risk (these methods often start with seemingly 'nothing' but the hope that 'something' will emerge throughout the process); are often very enjoyable for researcher and participants alike; may even give the participants a heightened sense of awareness; and certainly break the ice most effectively. 


Impressive entrance to Birmingham City University, originally home to the Birmingham School of Architecture.


Participants discussing objects and how they can be used in research.


After lunch, we tested out walking as creative research in a session led by Zoƫ Millman (Birmingham City University, see here) and we went off (generally individually) around Birmingham for half an hour, recording our experiences and thoughts onto a MiniDisc (or similar device). Many participants reported an almost meditative, heightened sense of awareness; a feeling of having had 'thirty minutes fully to themselves' (a rest if you will); and others noticed that speaking into a microphone made them aware of thoughts they were not always so conscious of. We also noticed that we censored some thoughts, which was an interesting twist. Meanwhile, other participants shared a session led by David Gauntlett, who got them to make a Lego figure of their 'worst ever boss'. I wasn't there so can't comment much but caught wind of agreement that the session was very enjoyable and that the ephemeral nature of a Lego model fostered an easy creativity- one was not too het up on whether one was creating something completely 'perfect' or not.


Collaborative response.


As a geographer informed by feminist analysis, the most valuable aspect of using creative research methods is that because the sessions are participatory and the researcher becomes as involved as the participants, a shift in the power dynamic occurs:- researcher and participants 'meet half way'. The researcher is much less an 'expert' than with some other methods. In other words, this is a practical way that the researcher can 'spend' some of the 'male privilege' Butz and Berg speak about in their essay, 'Paradoxical Space: Geography, Men and Duppy Feminism' (see my previous post here).


A month later, I attended the second workshop day, this time at the University of Westminster. In the morning, we answered the question, 'What brought you to creative research methods?' and I found myself 'viewing' my PhD from a refreshing angle. The day culminated with a group knitting session led by Amy Twigger Holroyd. Amy provided us with a massive knitted I-cord, upon which were periodic 'knitting stations'. Those who could already knit helped those who had not tried it previously and at the end of the session, everyone tied a brown luggage tag to the work with a few surmising thoughts. I think it is safe to say that one surprise was how much people enjoyed this activity and it was noticed that because the participants were busy knitting, eye contact was broken, which helped people to feel more at ease. 


The question was, 'What brought you to creative research?'.


Communal knitting session as creative research method.


Individual 'knitting stations' along the I-cord.


Creative research as risky and dangerous?

Over the two days, the words 'risk' and 'danger' were sporadically banded about, so in the afternoon of the last session, we asked how 'risky' this activity might be? There was the worry that participants might become too relaxed and share more than they had bargained for. Of course, experiences that may produce a heightened sense of awareness could also draw hidden aspects of the psyche to the surface, but then again, this could happen in other, more conventional research settings, as participants talk about their experiences. Participants might not enjoy the research process, if for instance they found a certain activity upsetting and triggering:- for example, some have bad associations with drawing, making, singing, dancing and so on. It was agreed that transparency at the onset is a good measure; 'Don't get involved if you hate drawing so much that this will be distressing', sort of idea. In all however, we kept agitating about the 'risky' factors throughout the two days and eventually almost shrugged them off, as it was clear that most people present had simply had too much fun engaging with familiar and unfamiliar activities amongst a group of strangers! Of course, one risk identified was that creative methods were unconventional and new thus, less predictable than tried and tested methods such as questionnaires- here the risk is perhaps mainly to the researcher themselves. However, to counter this argument, it was very much agreed that these methods, whilst still developing, are fantastic at tapping into knowledge which otherwise might stay hidden. 

As researcher, I found these sessions invaluable. When I arrived at Birmingham, my research was suffering from hiatus and I did find it unsettling to actually confront this in the first session and tell the other participants about my woes. Following on from this, things improved not only dramatically but swiftly, and I can confidently say that a whole new lease of life and confidence has been breathed into my PhD research. I am also deeply inspired to have been given practical examples of how one might be able to reduce the privilege of the researcher and thus change dubious power dynamics.

I would like to sincerely thank all those who shared the two days with me, be they organisers or participants: I had a great time!


 Twitter hashtag: #creativemethods




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