Artistic License

Last week’s blog looked at the relationship between art and social enterprise, and what particularly stood out to me was the idea that art can facilitate community expression.

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As academic researchers we may strive to collect information from communities that can be objectified and rationalised, using mediums like interviews, focus groups, or perhaps even a bit of participant observation. The community talks to us, we write it down, then we display this in fancy reports or papers for peer reviewed journals in our quest for institutional credibility. However, the combined effort of using big long words and academic jargon can serve to isolate the very population we may be looking at, and they may be left feeling underrepresented by our own bias. This leaves us asking how we can fully represent communities through our outputs, and who is this for? This is a conversation that keeps springing up between Yunus Centre staff, most recently at the Unusual Suspects Festival and our CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange event.

The CommonHealth projects Growth at the Edge and Age Unlimited will both be applying participatory research approaches (design thinking and action research) to measure the effects that social enterprises can have on health and wellbeing. This will allow the research to be guided by the individuals and communities that we will be working with. In using such approaches we hope to potentially encourage creative thinking and the collection of data and documentation using non-conventional visual models, such as drawing, mapping, photography, and maybe even sculpting things out of plastercine, who knows?! Yet this will be ultimately up to the communities themselves to explore the most appropriate ways to express themselves and communicate with the research team. Of course we will be using interviews and focus groups to provide further data, but one of the most important things is to find ways to incorporate the visual outputs from the community members themselves into our findings.

Some social enterprises in the Highlands of Islands of Scotland, like ATLAS Arts in Skye, exist to allow community members to create art pieces that represent their landscape, histories and traditions. These visual art projects are used as a form of individual expression, and represent a persons’ subjective understanding of their culture and the world around them. Therefore in researching the people within such social enterprises, surely we need to utilise the visual artwork they have produced as ways of understanding their culture and context.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly analyse and disseminate the visual data we may collect. Ethnographers have faced this problem for decades of how to understand and aesthetically interpret tangible documents and art pieces to understand the culture from which they emerged. Visual anthropologists use methods of collecting cultural artefacts such as photographs, films, artwork and sculptures and then allow individuals from that particular society to both describe them and place them within history. This may still be viewed as pretty niche in academia, yet we could learn a few lessons from this approach on a wider level.

In terms of dissemination, it may be questionable whether visual arts have a place in academic conferences, perhaps displayed as ‘pretty posters’ alongside theoretical case studies and novel ground-breaking policy contributions? But this could just serve to further isolate research participants from their outputs. Or should we encourage community members to organise their own events that display the visual arts they produced within research projects, with academics in attendance? Hopefully our own CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange events will encompass this viewpoint going forward.

In terms of my own participatory study and the use of action research, my view is very much that we must work with communities not on them, so in fully engaging with individuals their problems become our problems. This goes all the way to research outputs; my papers become our papers, in the same way their art becomes our art.

 

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Take only notes….leave only memories

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‘Just being there for someone can sometimes bring hope when all seems hopeless’ (Dave G Llewellyn)

The Growth at the Edge project will be measuring the impact that social enterprises have on health and wellbeing in rural communities. In designing a methodology I am becoming increasingly aware of the effect that ‘just being there’ will have on participant’s wellbeing, particularly in areas where community members may have little contact with external practitioners, such as researchers. This led me to ponder further about how open people might be to experiences that may affect their health and wellbeing, and their perceptions of their environment and relationships around them. What kinds of emotional tendencies do people have? What if someone’s life is filled with pessimism and scepticism? But mostly, to what extent can a very small encounter influence someone’s feelings of wellbeing?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that “wellbeing exists in two dimensions, subjective and objective. It comprises an individual’s experience of their life as well as a comparison of life circumstances with social norms and values”. The subjective side of wellbeing relates to how people perceive the quality of their lives; their emotional judgements towards happiness and how content they are with specific areas of their lives. Antonovsky (1967) expressed this with ‘Sense of Coherence’ theory, which describes how feelings of health and wellbeing are underpinned by three main components. Firstly, having a comprehension that things happen in an orderly fashion and life events are predictable; secondly, that life is manageable and you have the support and resources to take care of things; and thirdly, a belief that things are meaningful and worthwhile, giving you a sense of purpose.

My project will be adopting a participatory action research (PAR) approach embedding the principles of design thinking to measure the health and wellbeing impacts of social enterprises. Potentially, by taking part in social enterprise activities, individuals and communities may feel empowered and less socially isolated. Communities may gain collective and individual responsibilities, and work in collaboration with stakeholders to develop and engage in something socially beneficial; the health and wellbeing effects of which could be increased physical, mental and emotional health. I can only hypothesise at this stage.

Nevertheless, in using participatory action research to measure the effects of social enterprise I will be working alongside individuals and communities to co-produce research methods and will allow them to guide the research topics. Individuals will be given the resources and support to engage in issues that are important in their lives; they will be given a voice and will become important stakeholders in the future of their social enterprise. PAR will allow participants to take part in meaningful practices such as workshops, interviews and focus groups, giving them a sense of purpose in the research arena. PAR methods could be as big as organising a community wide photography project, or as small as visiting an elderly community member for a cup of tea. I may form friendships and bonds with participants, much like Clemmie has highlighted in her previous blog https://commonhealthresearch.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/objective-or-subjective/. The very nature of PAR is that it goes straight to the heart of community engagement, much like social enterprises themselves.

So going back my original question- to what extent can a very small encounter influence someone’s feelings of wellbeing? What if the processes involved in participatory action research has more of an effect on individual’s wellbeing than the actual social enterprise itself? How do we unpick this, and should we unpick this?

The answers to this may be as simple as explicitly stating what I am aiming to measure from the outset, and asking participants to only comment on the social enterprise. Yet one cannot foresee the impact the presence of the researcher may have on the social enterprise itself.

The web continues to weave.

Objective or Subjective?

                                    

Objectivity is the hallmark of quality research for many. However, those of us that rely more on qualitative methods often have to question this assumption and think more carefully about the value of objectivity and subjectivity, and the overall position of the researcher in the writing and analysis.

I’m in the process of writing up my PhD at the moment, it’s a hard slog but I’m enjoying getting words on the page and feeling like I’m making some real progress. The difficulties come when I’m writing about one of my research participants and trying to introduce her experiences into my description and analysis. How can I be objective when I’ve shared tears, joy and cups of tea (sometimes all at one!) with the subjects of my writing?

As I write I can feel those I’ve worked with looking over my shoulder and I worry about what she is thinking as she reads her words and my reflections upon them. She has given me consent in the ticking of boxes, her signature on a piece of paper and in a verbal agreement. Sometimes she has asked me not to report on something she had told me, so I think she understands what it means to be part of this project. What I didn’t give enough attention to is how I would represent her within my final write up. At that stage I didn’t know what she would tell me, where my analysis would take me, or how much I would come to care about her. Now it’s starting to feel like a big responsibility to find the most appropriate way to represent her and what she’s about, what if I come across as patronising, resorting to stereotypes or just plain wrong?

I’m secure and confident in my analysis and the claims I am making but I want to be sure I don’t fall into lazy or condescending cliches when I’m describing those who have spent so much time and energy talking to me about their lives. It’s challenging me to be thorough, thoughtful and clear in my writing. I’m considering and reconsidering each word: What do I mean by that? Is that what I want to say? How could that be misunderstood? To me this is an important process in honouring the stories I’ve been told and the women who have told them.

This process is teaching me that research ethics have to be considered long after the collection of signed consent forms and that the role of objective researcher is not one that I can be expected to play within the type of research I have undertaken. Equally I can’t make this all about me, that has not been the point of my research and I doubt I’d make an interesting subject for a PhD thesis! It’s a fine balance that I think many researchers have to consider; how do I create a persuasive and well researched piece of writing without ignoring my own subjectivity and close involvement with the research participants? It’s something I’m still working on….

Rambling and subjective -the stuff of History?

A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories
A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories

My previous post may have suggested that I spend all my time in archives working on my academic pallor, this was slightly misleading, occasionally I venture out into the world and talk to people…

 Recently I’ve been recording oral histories with people who have made their careers in the field of social enterprise. Recording someone’s personal memories and experiences so they can be stored and revisited by subsequent generations is a daunting task for both researcher and participant. Participants often worry about how valuable their testimony will be for historical research, which has left me wondering how best to reassure them that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Oral history is the process of recording someone’s life story so that it can be stored as a historical record. This technique was established in the latter decades of the twentieth century as groups of historians turned increasingly to social history and the study of the lives of the working class. It has often been advocated as a useful technique for capturing the testimony of those whose lives are overlooked in the great sweeps of History and has been an important part of the development of women’s history and studies of migrant people.

Today, oral or life history interview techniques are not only used by historians but by many other researchers interested in collecting qualitative interviews. The appeal of this form of data collection to researchers is its aspiration to let participants talk as freely as possible, for them to lead the interview, and have the opportunity to have their views and experiences recorded. I use the term aspiration, because the researcher always has a role in shaping this encounter and pointing the participant in certain directions. Researchers are likewise aware that interviewees want to do a good job and that may also shape their responses on tape.

This brings me to my recent work. I do my best to reassure oral history participants that I’m interested in their experiences that an oral history interview is not a test of how well they remember recent history. However this often does not put people’s minds at ease. One participant, on reading the transcript of their interview replied that it was ‘difficult to understand how something so rambling and subjective can be of value’ to research. In turn I replied that rambling and subjective was perhaps a good description of History.  Upon reflection, it may have been more accurate to say that I think historians should take more notice of the rambling and subjective. That the most valuable testimony for researchers is not succinct answers to the questions posed, but the answers that meander and deviate and ultimately open up new questions. It is precisely the point of doing oral history, that we don’t yet know what will be important for the telling of history in the future, but we should have access to a range of voices in order to being to piece together the story.

Perhaps this tells us something of people’s perception of History, that it remains in their minds the story of kings and queens, and lists of dates, rather than the story of people just like themselves that we can all claim to be part of and even direct.