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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

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