Creative methods: How to capitalise on creativity in participatory research

NCRM news
Lenka Janik Blaskova, University of Exeter
An illustration of the human brain with colourful patterns on the right hemisphereAn illustration of the human brain with colourful patterns on the right hemisphere

How can creative methods be presented as a valid tool in participatory research? And what are the empirical implications? If these questions draw your attention to creative methods, you will feel inspired by the second Critical Conversations meeting of NCRM’s Collaborative and Participatory Methodological Special Interest Group. Before discussing some of the critical issues, we started by acknowledging the benefits of creative methods for their potential to:

  • fight familiarity – participants use creativity to show their unique views, and equally, they may gain new perspectives about their own lives
  • move research beyond the academic article – visual artistic outputs (for example, word clouds, posters, poetry, music, film) make research accessible and create connections with public
  • take researchers to new directions linked with unintended outcomes. In an example shared during the event, participants were drawing stars and the moon during interviews about education and employment and it was felt by the researcher that the night sky gave a participant an escape. Although the researcher would not have asked about a night sky, this illustration opened new directions of researching ‘means to escape’ in their study.

Our focus on creative methods in participatory research brought up invigorating discussions that can inspire your approach to adopting or evaluating creative methods in research. There were too many avenues to explore in this one session alone. Instead, I will now briefly introduce the debates that stick with me. Warning: the following content may not hold answers but will likely pose more critical questions instead.

What is the role of art in creative methods? Is it purely to give stimuli, or can it be interpreted into findings, and to what extent?

These questions are essential for delivering a rigid creative methods study while avoiding the underrepresentation of the creative work. We discussed whether it is even valid for researchers to introduce their own analysis of a creative piece of work and how we can make analysis rooted in views of those who have participated. We considered the following options of how creative methods can be applied in research:

  • Researchers can include creative methods in elicitation interviews and meaning making. In this case, they would conduct a content analysis of what participants say about their work. More specifically, researchers would examine different aspects of participants’ creations and explore the meanings and associations participants share about these aspects (for example, participants may associate the colour blue with sadness or peace). To do this, you may want to have an interview schedule designed with prompts enquiring about the meanings and creative aspect relevant to your research question.
  • Creative methods can be part of the research dissemination. For example, the creations can be published in videos or compilations of photos. Alternatively, researchers can describe pictures or enter them in reports and academic publications to let the creations speak for themselves. There are visual studies journals that look for the outputs of creative methods.

How do you overcome the resistance to eliminate the barrier between art and science?

This is a very legitimate question. As you know, some researchers who describe themselves as positivist in their understanding of social science may feel that ‘art’ and ‘creativity’ offer limited, if any, contributions to the methods of research. The critical conversation group agreed on two important points that will aid your work.

The first of these was that we should focus our energy on finding our own tribe, so that we can capitalise on the strengths and insights of other creative methods researchers. We should collaborate, build something new together and be more creative and accountable.

The second point was to spend time meeting with those who disagree, listening and taking note of their expertise and insight. We should also read broadly across methodological literature so we can challenge collegially and also defend in good grace.

How do you eliminate the power-dynamics and related barriers, especially when involving children and young people in studies?

I should note here that many participants in the discussion group were interested in hearing from young people; hence, the focus on this population. However, before we start in engaging with them, we need to recognise the power-dynamic and consider what it means to be a participant in an action-research project.

First of all, let it be clear that using creative methods does not automatically mean removing the power-dynamics between researcher(s) and participant(s). In simple terms, a researcher’s agenda to use creative methods may not sit well with the participants. To illustrate, sometimes young people prefer talking. Even if researchers may want everyone to draw (for example), the participatory approach should take priority over creative methods. To tackle this situation, consider:

  • having a number of creative tools ready (for example, sandboxing, collage making, photovoice) and letting participants decide on their preferred creative method;
  • demonstrating and/or joining the creative activity to eliminate participants’ possible perceptions that ‘art’ is what you are looking for;
  • conducting an interview without any creative methods – be prepared for this scenario (for example, prepare an interview schedule and discussion or activity prompts to ensure you can engage the participants in the research).

To use ‘art’ or ‘creativity’ for removing the potential power-dynamics, you could consider young people as collaborators and not participants. This is especially important for action research, where the researcher and co-researcher(s) need to be deemed as partners.

Lightening talks

As usual, these critical conversations started off with lightening talks that introduced speakers. Topics were then elaborated on in separate Zoom rooms, where guest speakers introduced us to a variety of fascinating approaches.

Tyra Amofah-Akardom’s discussion was on the use of storytelling, art and film as methods in the topic of Black Feminist Activism. She shared insight from her own work and research undertaken at the University of Cambridge, itself a place worthy of critique through the lens of intersectional Black Feminist Activism.

Dawn Mannay talked about the use of unusual forms, such as word cloud, posters, poetry, music and film, which can be used to elicit data from individuals and connect with public at the dissemination stage.

Martin Robertson and Katey Warran described their powerful experience of matching creative processes with the needs of those being researched. Being diagnosed with dementia and having joined a dementia study as a participant, Martin revealed that you don’t need to be artistic to join research.

Gil Dekel offered insights from conducting studies with individuals with autism. Gil’s work seeks to understand how autistic people get into the zone of creativity. What do they see and feel. How do they come back? Importantly, Gil highlighted the value of engaging in conversations with people who disagree with the view that creativity is a useful research tool.

Bridget Handley gave an illustration of a creative research output based on creative data: poems. Bridget played her film of a poem, which was an output of data coming from her participants, who are seeking wellbeing and mental health support.

With such a colourful selection of discussions on offer, it was almost impossible to decide which to join. In the end, I went for Bridget’s room, as the theme of wellbeing and mental health was the closest to my own work and interests. If you’d like to look at the ideas presented in the remaining lightening talks, check the Padlet. You can also catch up on our first critical conversation meeting by reading the blog post or checking out the Padlet on ethics in participatory research.