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Using creative methods to research across difference

By Rachel Brooks

Although there is now a substantial literature on the use of creative methods within the social sciences, relatively little work has explored the value of such approaches to researching across difference, specifically. Our interest in this topic came about during a project we were working on (Eurostudents), which involved conducting a plasticine modelling exercise during focus groups with undergraduate students in six European countries. We were concerned that differences in academic culture might have a bearing on participants’ willingness to engage in the modelling, and perhaps also on the type of models produced. While our fears were, in the end, unfounded, we began to think more about the ways in which differences by nationality – but also by other social markers – may affect the use of creative methods. To this end, we organised a seminar, held in June 2018 at the University of Surrey and kindly funded by the IJSRM, to bring together scholars who were using such methods to research various aspects of difference, and reflect on the associated challenges and benefits.

The special issue of IJSRM, published recently, is based primarily on the papers given at this event. A number of authors tease out various practical and ethical issues that they encountered, which were brought into sharp relief because of the cross-national context (see those by Burningham et al. and Harman et al.). In other respects, however, contributors suggest that the use of creative methods can help to overcome some of the challenges of working across different countries. Chawla-Duggan et al., for example, contend that their use of filming helped to alleviate some of the linguistic barriers that emerged from working across four different countries. Moving on to examine other aspects of difference, Donnelly et al.’s contribution explores the extent to which a sense of intra-national geographical difference (here, discussed primarily with reference to the UK) affected educational decision-making, while Bernardi’s research (conducted cross-nationally) focusses on a group of children who are often positioned as different (by virtue of their autism), and Rainford’s contribution foregrounds institutional differences instead. Lažetić’s critical appraisal of website analyses focuses on both institutional and national differences, and outlines an agenda for further developing work in this area.

Together, the papers demonstrate how a wide range of creative methods (including filming of participants; analysis of visual material on public websites; photo elicitation; facilitation of art workshops and activities; Lego modelling; and geographical mapping) can bring new insights to researching across difference with respect to various substantive areas of enquiry including education, family, violence, youth studies, childhood studies and disability.