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Using Creative and Visual Methods to Research Across Difference

By Rachel Brooks

I am currently working on a research project that is exploring the different ways in which the higher education student is conceptualised across and within six European nations (see here for further details about the study). We are collecting data from a variety of sources including university websites, newspaper articles, policy texts, interviews with policymakers and higher education staff, and focus groups with students. To help stimulate discussion in the focus groups, we have asked students to use plasticine to make models of how they see themselves and how they think others see them. We have found this an effective means of making abstract concepts rather more tangible – but were initially concerned that such methods might be viewed rather differently in the countries in which we are conducting research (for example, would UK students, many of whom have become used to more participatory approaches within university classrooms, be more favourably disposed to plasticine modelling than their peers in Germany who may have had less exposure to such pedagogies?).

Our reading of the wider literature, when grappling with such issues, indicated that while increasing use is made of both creative and visual methods in social research, to date there has been very little discussion of the extent to which such methods can be used in comparative research. For this reason, we ran a seminar in June 2018 – kindly funded by the International Journal of Social Research Methodology – to explore some of the challenges of using these methods cross-nationally. In particular, we were keen to examine the different cultural associations that may be brought to bear in different national contexts, and how these are accounted for in research design, data collection and analysis. Indeed, a key aim of the seminar was to draw on the experiences of researchers working in these areas, to explore how such challenges can most effectively be addressed. We also wanted to look at approaches that used creative and visual methods to research across difference more generally – for example, across different social class groups within a single nation.

Overall, the day brought together many fascinating accounts of using creative and visual methods in these ways, and provided a forum for both academic staff and postgraduate students, with an interest in these approaches, to share ideas and experiences. Keynote talks were given by Agata Lisiak from Bard College in Berlin and Rita Chawla-Duggan from the University of Bath. Agata’s talk, entitled ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Notes on Creative Methods in Research on Migrant Mothering’ provided a fascinating account of her use of drawings with mothers who had migrated from Poland to Birmingham in the UK and Munich in Germany. She argued, convincingly, that creative methods can help to facilitate what Jennifer Robinson calls ‘a comparative imagination’ and open up new kinds of narrations about migrants’ everyday urban experiences, sense of belonging, and negotiations of motherhood ideologies. A film of Agata’s talk can be found here. Rita drew on her recent experience of conducting research in four different national contexts in her talk on ‘Using Visual Technology in Comparative Studies: Researching Young Children’s Perspectives on Fathers’. She maintained that the use of films (and some other types of visual technology) can help explicate young children’s perspectives of learning as it occurs through interactions with their fathers. However, she also raised a series of interesting questions about this particular methodological approach, such as how we define the boundaries of a visual case study, and how we make comparisons within and between such cases. An audio recording of Rita’s talk can be found here.

Alongside the two keynote addresses, the day included eleven other presentations – from researchers at a variety of different career stages – about how they had employed some form of creative or visual method to research across difference. These included the use of Lego figures (in Jon Rainford’s research on widening participation practices across different higher education institutions), a new visual mapping tool (in Michael Donnelly’s study of the geographic and social (im)mobilities of university students in the UK), art workshops (in Susana Campos and Vicki Harman’s work with female survivors of domestic violence in Portugal and England) and photo-elicitation techniques (in Kate Burningham and colleagues’ research within young people in seven different national contexts). Slides, films and audio-recordings from all the talks given during the day can be found here.

The seminar was successful in bringing together a community of researchers working on similar methodological issues, in different national contexts and at different career stages, and providing a forum for methodological dilemmas in this area to be discussed, and ways forward proposed. We also hope that it will make a contribution – through the special issue that we are in the process of putting together on the basis of the seminar contributions – to both advancing debates internationally about the use of creative and visual methods in comparative research and enhancing the profile of the use of creative and visual methods in such work.

Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey

Notebook

Democratisation vs big data? A dialogue between our editors Ros Edwards and Malcom Williams

Ros Edwards

Democratisation and big data have established themselves as key developments in social research processes. But I’m wondering, are they pulling in opposite directions?  Democratised methodologies immerse researchers within communities, undertaking relational work up close. Big data, on the other hand, has been described as a gaze from 30,000 feet.

Voices advocating radical challenges to traditional research practice through democratisation have questioned the model of research that positions the people who are the focus of study as subjects, and those who research them as experts who can analyse and evaluate.  Under the democratisation paradigm, research seeks to serve the needs of those who’ve traditionally been excluded from positions of power, to highlight the voices of those who are disenfranchised on the basis of their gender, race/ethnicity, disability or other characteristics, and to further human rights.  Democratised methodologies are concerned with ensuring that people who experience marginalisation influence research at every level of the process, to identify what it is that’s important to research, and how the community may benefit from involvement.  

The other development, the increasing availability and use of big data, potentially creates critical tensions for democratising research methodologies and knowledge production.  The potential (and seduction) of big data is the scale and availability of large sets of data that may be analysed; it promises easy access to massive amounts of data.

On the one hand, this may make access to data more democratic, with marginalised groups able to obtain material relevant to topics they have identified as important to them, and to engage in analyses with transformative potential.

On the other hand, while big data gives the illusion of providing unmediated and direct access to people’s beliefs and experiences, in fact it’s just as socially mediated and constrained as any other form of data. Indeed, the background frameworks structuring what knowledge gets collected in the form of big data and how it’s analysed may hide the transparent interpretation of human experience that’s central to democratising methodologies.  

But can and how might democratisation of the research process and big data fit together? As big data enables new methods in knowing and defining social life, these new ways of knowing need to be critiqued for their limitations as they emerge. Perhaps it’s here that democratising methodology can step in and enable marginalised groups to have an input and make a difference.

Malcolm Williams

I’m not sure that I would entirely agree with you because I would pose a different question – who is research for?

I don’t think democratising methodology is a one size fits all. At the level of community research, action research etc. where the methods and choice of methods is relatively accessible, then I would agree with you. But when we get to complicated, highly technical statistically sophisticated methods/methodology then this is a bit like democratising high energy physics.

But it is at the level of what we ask and for who we are asking it, some level of democracy is appropriate. What do we research and why? Can the results be made more open and accessible? Even then, I worry that democracy can itself be destructive of well being when people vote or choose in a knowledge vacuum.  I think we have a home grown example in Brexit.

The problem with big data is not method or methodology (well it might at a technical level), but who owns it, who interrogates it and who gets to choose the questions.

Ros Edwards

I can see the strength of the points that you are making, and I wouldn’t disagree with all of them all of the time! I agree that the research questions asked of big data and who chooses them are central issues, but most democratising approaches wouldn’t draw a distinction between that and methodology – where methodology is an understanding of how we can go about gaining knowledge about how the world works, and thus how research should be carried out.

I also want to stress that the background to this is inequality and power and how it relates to methodology. There’s a long history of marginalised communities who have been problematised and stigmatised through the damaging assumptions embedded in the methodological approach and the methods used by social researchers. There is the potential that democratised research (just like democracy generally) may produce knowledge that’s problematic or skewed, although probably in different ways to traditional approaches, and that knowledge is open to challenge. But there’s just as much, maybe more, potential that it produces greater illumination.

There’s a tendency to see uses of ‘big data’ in social research as somehow antithetical to democratised research but I’m asking whether and how the two may be brought together. Attention to methodology seems to me to be an entry point.

Malcolm Williams

I absolutely agree with your second point, but how to get there? Firstly, I’d reiterate we are at one in respect of participatory research, action research etc. Methods and methodology, should and can be democratised. ‘Big data’ and (say) complex administrative datasets do present a bigger challenge. In respect of the former, a current methodological question might be is the general linear model still an appropriate methodological framework? The debate on this is technical and statistical and one I find challenging, but it makes a profound political difference to what is asked and how it is asked. So, how can we improve the links of accountability and decision making between that data scientists and the public, in order to avoid dangerous assumptions/ stigmatisation etc?

The answer, for me, is threefold: firstly we can and should democratise data in society, through more informed critical reflection in the media and promote a better understanding of data in government and the third sector. School students must study English (or French, Spanish, Chinese, etc) and mathematics, but they also should study data in society to enable them to have a critical understanding of how data are used to persuade or govern.

Secondly and inevitably, at the technical and operational level methodological and methods choices must be made by a trained cadre of professionals. To deny this begs the question of why do we have social science degrees, PhDs etc? However, we should resist any shift to wholly methods and methodological training in social science at the expense of scholarship and critical reflection. It seems obvious, but all social scientists should have a critical understanding of the ideological and political context of data, methods and methodology. In the UK, at least, the danger is that universities and the ESRC are often dangerously focussed on measuring impact within a very narrow normative ideological agenda. So what we do and how we do it is so often decided by those who fund it!

Finally we should resist the colonisation of the analysis of big data by those without a social science background, for at best their questions may be trivial, but at worst informed by whatever is the current ideological fashion or project of government or big business.

Notebook

Utilising and Developing the Skills of Early Career Researchers: The Reviewer College

By Roxanne Connelly and Siobhan Dytham, University of Warwick

Peer review is at the heart of the journal publication process. Yet our experience is that the process through which we initiate research students and early career researchers into the peer review system is often haphazard. Early career researchers are under increasing pressure to publish in highly ranked journals, yet opportunities to develop an understanding of the peer review process are rare.

The Reviewer College

Recently the International Journal of Social Research Methodology introduced a novel initiative, the Reviewer College. The Reviewer College is a board of reviewers comprised of early career researchers. For most college members this is their first experience of being involved with a journal, and they are provided with supportive guidance on the review process, and how to produce their first peer reviews. When places become available, members of the reviewer college can ‘graduate’ to become members of the main editorial board.

Benefits to Early Career Researchers

The Reviewer College has produced benefits for both the journal and the reviewers. The early career researchers are developing their reviewing skills, and deepening their understanding of the research and publication process. We have found reviewing articles for the journal has improved our own research by better understanding the shortcomings of rejected papers, and appreciating what makes accepted papers stand out. Whilst college reviewers are usually allocated articles within their immediate field, reviewers also benefit from reading a range of papers which they may not usually pick out. The exposure to these papers makes us better rounded researchers, more aware of the wider field, and has also sparked our interests in methodological issues which we have not previously considered.

Benefits to the Journal

The journal has found that reviewers from the college members are of very high quality. The extra support required to aide early career researchers is outweighed by the careful reviews which have been received. The reviewer college also provides the opportunity for the journal to foster the upcoming community of researchers in the field who will be future authors and expert reviewers for the journal in years to come.

The Reviewer College has been mutually beneficial. Reviewers have gained valuable career experience, but equally we have been able to call on a poll of new and fresh thinking methodological talent. The standard of reviews has been excellent, such that several members of the College have been promoted to the Editorial Board. These scholars have become valued Board members, because they are already familiar both with the kind of papers we receive and the day to day workings of the journal.

Roxanne Connelly is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick. She a member of the Editorial Board, and a former member of the IJSRM Reviewer College.

Siobhan Dytham is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick. She joined the IJSRM Reviewer College during the final year of her PhD, and became a member of the Editorial Board in 2016.

Announcements

‘Democratising Big Data’ workshop

‘Democratising Big Data’ workshop

28th-29th June 2018, Digital Humanities Lab, University of Sussex

Participants are invited to register for a free two-day workshop at the University of Sussex’s Digital Humanities Lab, funded by the International Journal of Social Research Methodology’s seminar competition 2017/18 and hosted by the Sussex Humanities Lab.

Registration: https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/_L62CmZ2EotjWz3r1cLhoTn?domain=eventbrite.co.uk

More information: http://democratisingbigdata.wordpress.com

The rise of ‘big data’ has posed new challenges for research practices across the social sciences, with researchers divided over its methodological value and contribution (Halford & Savage 2017). Recent studies have drawn attention to the unethical and undemocratic ends that big data, and associated methods of data mining and scraping, can be directed towards (Eubanks 2018; Zimmer & Kinder-Kurlander 2017). Nonetheless, a recent wave of citizen data science and participatory action research has begun to explore the potential ways that big data can be used in studies orientated to societal and community-based challenges (for example the Public Science Project at CUNY). These studies use big data tools as resources to support individuals and communities in researching the social, political, environmental and structural circumstances of their lives – seeking to provide opportunities for collective reflection and social action through collaborative research.

This two-day workshop aims to explore the potential of big data in transforming participatory and action research approaches in the social sciences, examining the tensions, opportunities and challenges it presents for participatory, democratic and community-based models of research. This workshop is open to participants from across the social sciences, social care, education, computing and humanities interested in exploring participatory and action research approaches to big data. Places are limited and catering will be provided on both days.

Invited speakers include:

  • Graham Lally (Director of the OCSI).
  • Dr Helen Pritchard (Goldsmiths, University of London) from the Citizen Sense project.
  • Dr Jennifer Pybus (Kings College London) from the Our Data Ourselves project.
  • Dr Jonathan Gray (Kings College London) from the Public Data Lab.
  • Dr Claudia Abreu Lopes (University of Cambridge).
  • Prof David Weir and Jack Pay (University of Sussex) from the TAG Laboratory and Sussex Humanities Lab.

The first day of the workshop will explore the inherent challenges and tensions of ‘democratising’ big data in research, drawing on perspectives from inside and outside of the social sciences, and from inside and outside of the academy. The second day will involve creative group activities aimed at mapping tensions and opportunities for participatory and action research, and exploring potential interdisciplinary projects.

Early Career/PhD Funding: We have capacity to fund one doctoral or early career researcher’s travel and accommodation from within the UK. To be considered for this, please send a short email to Dr Liam Berriman (l.j.berriman@sussex.ac.uk) by the 1st June 2018 outlining how the workshop’s themes connect with your research.

For more information visit https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/odzWCn5Yzpc7mv2YluKbcnf?domain=democratisingbigdata.wordpress.com or contact the organiser Dr Liam Berriman (l.j.berriman@sussex.ac.uk).

Calls

Call for Reviewer College Members

The International Journal of Social Research Methodology set up its Reviewer College in 2014. The journal is committed to supporting social researchers and methodologists who have recently entered the profession and indeed values the new ideas and approaches they bring.  

The College has been seen as a positive career experience by its members and several College members have become full board members. Membership of the College is open to social scientists in the early years of their career. They may be currently PhD students, recently graduated PhD students or early career researchers/ academics. Members may work in academic institutions, the private, public or third sector. They may be resident in any country. IJSRM publishes articles that cover the entire breadth of quantitative and qualitative approaches. We are always interested in those with expertise in areas where there are skills shortages, and at present we particularly welcome members who have experience in the following areas: experimental methods and complex interventions, sampling, evaluation methods, data visualisation, indigenous methods, co-production and participatory methods.

College Members receive a discount voucher for Taylor and Francis products for each review they undertake.  They will be expected to review up to three papers per year.

If you would like to apply please send a CV and supporting email to Malcolm Williams WilliamsMD4@cardiff.ac.uk

Announcements

The International Journal of Social Research Methodology is sponsoring a key lecture at the ESRC Research Methods Festival again this year

We are delighted that Professor Nancy Cartwright (Durham, and California San Diego) has agreed to give the Journal lecture this year.  She will discuss causal inference and evidence for the single case. Her talk will cover a catalogue of types of evidence that can argue for/against causation in the single case, irrespective of counterfactuals, and offer a systematic account of causal modelling that shows why these are legitimate sources of evidence.

The Festival is organised by the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods and is a unique biennial celebration of cutting edge development in research methods.  You can book to attend the Festival at: https://www.ncrm.ac.uk/RMF2018/home.php

At previous Festivals, the Journal has sponsored talks by Professor Andrew Abbott and an ‘in conversation’ with Professor Emeritus Aaron Cicourel.  Videos of these events can be accessed at the NCRM YouTube channel.

Announcements

CfP: Using Creative & Visual Methods in Comparative Research

A one-day seminar funded by the International Journal for Social Research Methodology

Friday, 15th June, University of Surrey

CALL FOR PAPERS

Keynote speakers: Agata Lisiak (Bard College, Berlin) and Rita Chawla-Duggan (University of Bath

Increasing use is made of both creative and visual methods in social research. Nevertheless, to date there has been very little discussion of the extent to which such methods can be used in comparative research. This seminar will explore some of the challenges of using these methods cross-nationally, examining the different cultural associations that may be brought to bear in different national contexts, and how these are accounted for in research design, data collection and analysis. It will also draw on the experiences of researchers working in this area, to explore how such challenges can most effectively be addressed. We welcome papers that address any aspect of using creative and/or visual methods in comparative research, or across spaces of difference more broadly defined (e.g. with groups from different ethnic or social class backgrounds).

Abstract Submission: Please send abstracts of up to 250 words by 14th April 2018 to Rachel Brooks at the University of Surrey: r.brooks@surrey.ac.uk. (There will be no charge for attending the seminar as all costs are kindly being covered by the International Journal for Social Research Methodology.)

Seminar Organisers: The seminar is organised by the Eurostudents research team at the University of Surrey (Rachel Brooks, Jessie Abrahams, Predrag Lazetic and Anu Lainio). Further details about the Eurostudents project can be found at: www.eurostudents.net.