Creative research methods: the story so far

NCRM news
Helen Kara, We Research It Ltd

Creative research methods are often treated as though they are new, yet people have always used creative ways of solving problems. We say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ and indeed all research methods were invented once. Some research texts write of methods as if they are static and fixed, but this is far from the case.

Creativity is closely linked with problem-solving and with uncertainty, both key elements of research. Any research project is made up of hundreds or thousands of decisions and each decision holds space for creativity. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is also evidence of a close relationship between ethical decision-making and creative thinking1.

So all research is creative. We talk about ‘doing’ research as if it was like doing the dishes, but I would argue that we make research as if it was like making a tapestry. Having said that, some research projects are more creative than others. Creativity in research can be stifled by regulations, constraints of time and budget, lack of knowledge, skill, or courage. Some of these factors are easier to influence than others, and perhaps the easiest is the knowledge factor. I have always used creative methods in my own research, wherever I was able to do so and it was appropriate for the work in hand. This is a crucial point: methods must flow from the research question, and should be those most likely to help provide an answer. Newly learned methods may seem very tempting to try out, but it is never good practice to be seduced by an attractive young method when an older, more familiar one would serve you better.

In early 2012 I was considering how to address a particularly complex research question, and I began to think I might not have enough tools in my methodology box. I went looking online for a book on creative research methods. Surely, I thought, someone must have written one by now. It would be really useful... I searched and searched, until a realisation crept over my skin and into my brain: if I wanted to read that book, I was going to have to write it first.

As usual, writing involved reading. Lots of reading. I read over 800 reports of research, in journals and books; about 500 made it into the book, and just over 100 were showcased as examples of creative research. As I read, I slowly came to understand that creative research methods could be conceptualised under four broad headings: arts-based methods, research using technology, mixed-methods research, and transformative research frameworks.

Arts-based methods include visual and performative arts, creative writing, music, textile arts and crafts – pretty much any art form can be used in the service of research. In fact, the arts and research are closely linked, as artists of all kinds use research in support of their work. And arts-based methods, like all creative methods, apply to both quantitative and qualitative research. One of my favourite examples is that of a mathematician researching hyperbolic geometry, i.e. the geometry of frilly things like lettuce and jellyfish. Male mathematicians had tried and failed to model this for centuries, and it wasn’t until the American mathematician Daina Taimina was musing on the problem while crafting that she realised it could be done using crochet. I recommend her TED talk.

As researchers, we all use technology, and have done for centuries. But technological advances offer new opportunities. We can now use apps, mash-ups, data visualisations, APIs – though while this proliferation excites some people, it is daunting for others. Some fear that technology will change their research practice, and it will, though this seems to me not a cause for fear, but for care and thought.

Mixed methods is perhaps the most well established area, with dedicated books and journals. But the potential – and the risks – of mixing methods are still not understood by most researchers. People often think in terms of gathering data using both quantitative and qualitative methods, but there is so much more scope for mixing, from using different theoretical perspectives to inform the same piece of research to multi-media presentation and dissemination.

Transformative research frameworks include participatory, decolonising, activist and community-based research. These are frameworks designed to reduce power imbalances within the research process and, ideally, to affect structural inequalities more widely. They are challenging to implement, requiring more time and other resources than more traditional frameworks for research, but when used well they can indeed transform aspects of our society for the better.

Of course these four areas are not mutually exclusive. There is exemplary research using them all, such as the work of Ashlee Cunsolo Willox and her colleagues in Canada2. They worked within a decolonising community-based framework to investigate the effects of climate change on Inuit people in Rigolet, a small settlement in northern Labrador. The method was digital storytelling, developed in week-long workshops which involved discussion, concept maps, interviews, art, music and photography.

Creative research methods, particularly en masse, can seem quite intimidating. Not every researcher can – or wants to – plan their project diagramatically, gather data from social media, conduct metaphor or life course analysis, and disseminate through a multi-media arts installation. But there are two key take-away points. First, any non-research skills you have may be useful in the service of research. Second, if you want to expand your methodological repertoire, you can do so one step at a time.


1 Mumford, D. et al. (2010) Creativity and Ethics: The Relationship of Creative and Ethical Problem-Solving. Creativity Research Journal, 22:1, 74-89

2 Willox, A. C. et al. (2012) Storytelling in a digital age : digital storytelling as an emerging narrative method for preserving and promoting indigenous oral wisdom. Qualitative Research, 13:2, 127-147