Poetry in Practice- Catrin Edwards-Greaves

Uses for poetry in research: communicating research findings and aiding reflexivity.

Hello, I’m the new editor of the Methods blog, and in this post I give some insight into the types of methods that I like to use in my own research work.

I may have dropped out of an English degree years ago, but in this blog, I provide some insight into how I’ve kept up my passion for creative writing despite my little detour into social sciences…

I’m an ESRC DTP funded PhD student who has completed the MSc in Social Science Research Methods ( quite a task under lockdown!). My MSc dissertation research explored women’s experiences of community participation during the pandemic, and how they might shed light on policy surrounding the new curriculum for Wales: being an ‘ethical, informed citizen of Wales and the World’ (Welsh Government 2020).

 I used focus groups facilitated through mind-mapping and zine-making, as well as interviews to uncover participants’ meaning making around curriculum policy and their experiences of community participation. I found that the idea of being ‘ethical’ was particularly significant for participants, and they drew on a range of resources such as social identity and global citizenship in making meaning of their experiences in community settings, contradicting the economic focus and sense of national citizenship presented by Welsh Government curriculum policy.

Most of my participants, recruited through organisations involved in volunteering, were unfamiliar with academic research. I wanted to convey my findings in an accessible and exciting way. On way in which I did this was through using visual ways of gathering and presenting data, as it is an accessible format: Visual data should be ‘multivocal’ and therefore able to speak to a range of audiences (Banks 2011:94). I worked with an illustrator to create a zine to distribute to participants, reporting research findings. This meant that the zine was constructed by multiple voices: myself, the illustrator, and participants. Zines can be used to ‘curate ideas and thoughts’, leading to deeper reflection (Vong 2016:63), which was very useful for me in paying attention to my own position within the research process and commenting on my reflexivity in my methods chapter. Within the zine format, I used poetry to serve different purposes over the course of my research, including reflecting on the research process, getting to know my data, and presenting findings to participants.

 Here’s an extract showing how my poetry was incorporated into the zine distributed to participants.

Zine distributed to research participants. The zine was made by myself, Catrin Greaves, and illustrator Gemma Williams, with contributions from research participants.

The zine included two poems which I wrote in response to my research. The first poem, ‘Connections’, conveys my research findings, such as identities that participants drew on (‘feminist, activist’) as well as the significance that they ascribed to connecting with others, reflected in my choice of title, ‘Connections’. To construct this poem, I used data from my interview and focus group transcripts, as a way of including participants’ voices. This was also very useful for me in getting to know my data more deeply. I wrote the second poem, ‘Reflections from a Zoom screen’, as a tool to aid my own reflexivity and learning from this research experience, by incorporating my own words from the data as a way to reflect on how I had conducted the research.

Two poems: ‘Connections’, and ‘Reflections from a Zoom screen’. Data from my research is highlighted in bold.

Connections

Community, connection,

helping

supporting,

belonging

It’s a heart thing.

Informing, working,

learning, caring,

It’s a seesaw

On which we balance

Actions,

Always thinking,

Wanting

 to create change.

A compass to guide us

Into the new and unknown.

Headlines blaring,

Adapting, changing,

Risk taking

Knitting a net

Of conversation,

connecting

Feeling

For family, neighbours,

Friends,

Through fast wires and flickering screens

Part of a whole.

Feminist

Climate Activist

Neighbour, daughter, carer

Acting a role

In our communities, country,

continent

A globe

feverish with crises

But we are wanting

To create change.

It fueled my passion,

I will persist

I realised the power

Of transcending boundaries

Of geography

Through the patchwork squares of a screen-

Words are threads,

Weaving the warm glow

of windows to

 Wales and the world.

It’s great to see you all,

And I feel so happy today.

But,

put your own oxygen mask on first.

Be creative, take care of yourself.

Take time.

Travel back through tides

Reflect,

 learn from those who came

 before us,

Connect

The quiet streets of your hometown

With the wider seas of change

Reflect

On how you belong

How you are part of something bigger.

(Catrin Greaves and research participants, July to August 2021)

Communicating Findings

This poem provides a summary of research findings, including the prominent themes of emotion (‘a heart thing’) and connection, and participants’ references to ‘ethical’ decision making and community participation across areas of social life, including family and community. The use of verbs (‘thinking’, ‘adapting’, ‘changing’) reflects participants’ emphasis on action and active citizenship, including in formal volunteering contexts or in terms of lifestyle (for example, Kayleigh*’s ‘ethical’ shopping for chocolate). I have also included references to identities which were significant for participants: ‘feminist, activist’, which was interesting, as policy focused more strongly on ‘national’ identity. Incorporating metaphors including that of a ‘seesaw’ and a ‘compass’ reflects participants’ awareness of the complexities of ‘ethical’ citizenship including difficulties of decision making. Using the first person, I hoped to elevate participants’ voices within my research, which was significant for my feminist approach, focusing on women, who have arguably been ignored in terms of citizenship research (Lister 2007:53). Ending the poem with the line ‘part of something bigger’, taken from Rachel*’s zine, I hoped to communicate how participants connected their experiences to wider global issues, for example, Angharad* connected her social media volunteering with a gender equality charity to wider issues of gender inequality and violence against women, which had featured prominently in the news around the time of her participation. I next examine how writing poetry helped me in my reflexivity as a researcher.

Reflexivity

Reflections from a Zoom screen

I have been looking at this idea from the curriculum of being an ethical and informed citizen of Wales and the world.

During the pandemic, I got more involved in my community.

 I packed lunches,

 waited in queues for someone else’s medicines,

 added their groceries to my shopping list….

Why did I do this?

I wondered what this purpose could mean

 in our new world of

Lockdown, empty streets,

Thursday clapping for carers,

 Drum beats.

A time of change.

And what has happened to those

Who beat a weekly path?

to charity shops,

 group meetings?

And what is already known about this?

And what does the government say?

But they are still busy

they’ve just found a new way…

So, what I was going to ask you to do was for 5 minutes, make a mind map about what you think about this idea of being an ethical or informed citizen of Wales and the world.  it’s just your initial reactions…. 

Do you think of the headlines blaring from a laptop screen?

Or that press conference from a screen obscuring

the untidy living room

Of a Welsh Senedd member?

Do you think of the warm lights?

of your own home?

Or of clashing cries from

The distant past…

Do you think of a world that’s yet unknown?

Like the reports flashing from the government website?

And what does it mean to be a citizen?

And what kind of participation

Is important to you?

There is no right or wrong way of doing it.  it’s up to you how you organise the words on the page…  if something is particularly important to you, you might want to write more about it…

And I will write down my thoughts

 I want you to have a choice,

 a voice,

But I know it can be hard

to know what to do,

Across the distance of a screen.

When you make a zine, you can include what you want. 

 You can write, or draw, or…

I’m not very good at drawing,

but I want to try something new.

Are you ok, you cut out a bit there…? 

(No response). 

This process has been

Challenging

I’m expanding

My ways of

Constructing

Producing

I’ve found new ways of

Thinking, reflecting,

And

 The time has gone quickly. 

And there’s so much more to say,

It can’t fit into the squares of a Zoom call

But

 If you want, you can send me photos of what you made,

 And I really appreciate your time.  

This process has helped me

in recognising

Empathising

It’s been

Surprising

And I’ve learnt about

History and homes, and creativity and care,

And connecting

the harmonising chords

Between community, country, continent

Between Wales and the World.

(Catrin Greaves, November 2021)

In this poem, I reflected on the research process. I acknowledged difficulties of researching online, using extracts from what I had said to participants during data collection (‘you cut out a bit there’). I considered my learning from this process (‘new ways of thinking’), and how my own experiences steered the directions of the research (‘I packed lunches… why did I do this?’).

 Using a range of tools (such as poetry) to aid reflexivity may be particularly significant to feminist and collaborative research, through taking into account ethical considerations such as attention to power dynamics within the research process (Linabary et al 2021: 720). I hoped to demonstrate to participants how I felt about the research as a form of transparency as an ethical obligation of working with young participants who may not be familiar with research processes. Mutual emotions and experiences may be a way of creating connections between researchers and participants (McDowell 1992:405), which was important to me in making participating in the research a fun and rewarding experience for participants. I also hoped that sharing my experience of the research with participants through poetry was a form of transparency, which could also increase engagement with research (Moravcsik 2019). This was important to me because of my research topic of exploring everyday experiences in relation to policy.

I am now in the first year of my PhD. I hope to continue to use poetry or other creative writing to communicate research findings and aid my reflection. I hope to build on this and further embed creative writing into my PhD research. I have started to do this by writing a poem for every chapter of my thesis, as a way of focusing on my structure and communicating the key messages of each chapter. As editor of this blog, I am looking forward to learning about a wide range of methods used across the DTP. Diolch!

If you are interested in contributing to the Methods Blog, please email me: greavescm1@Cardiff.ac.uk.

Reference list

Banks, M 2011. Using Visual Data in Qualitative Research. [no date]. Available at: https://methods.sagepub.com/book/using-visual-data-in-qualitative-research [Accessed: 31 January 2022].

Cahnmann, M. 2003. The Craft, Practice, and Possibility of Poetry in Educational Research. Educational researcher 32(3), pp. 29–36. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X032003029.

Lister, R. 2007. Inclusive Citizenship: Realizing the Potential. Citizenship Studies 11(1), pp. 49–61. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13621020601099856.

McDowell, L. 1992. Doing Gender: Feminism, Feminists and Research Methods in Human Geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17(4), p. 399. doi: 10.2307/622707.

Moravcsik, A. 2019. Transparency in Qualitative Research. Available at: https://methods-sagepub-com.abc.cardiff.ac.uk/base/download/FoundationEntry/transparency-in-qualitative-research.

Vong, S. 2016. Reporting or Reconstructing? The Zine as a Medium for Reflecting on Research Experiences. Communications in Information Literacy 10(1), p. 3. Available at: https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/comminfolit/vol10/iss1/3/ [Accessed: 31 January 2022].

Welsh Government 2020. Curriculum for Wales: overview | GOV.WALES. Available at: https://gov.wales/curriculum-wales-overview.

Online Fieldwork in Conflict Affected Areas

When I started my collaborative ESRC funded PhD in September 2019, I imagined I’d spend many months traveling for my fieldwork. My research topic looks at nonviolent responses to armed conflict, and civilians protecting themselves and each other without the use of weapons in violent conflict. During the first 6 months of the programme, I planned fieldwork interviews and workshops, as well as participant observations in practitioner conferences. Ethical and security considerations limited where I could travel, but as my project was a collaborative one with an NGO in the civilian protection sector, I was able to make contacts and plans for travel relatively quickly. When travel restrictions were first imposed in March 2020, I naïvely assumed that I could wait it out; spend a few months on my literature review before travelling, as planned, for my in-person fieldwork. By September 2020, I realised this would not be possible, and I’d need to make alternative plans.

Zoom Interviews and Workshops

Like many other researchers in 2020, I took the decision to move my fieldwork online. While this limited who I would be able to speak to – access to stable internet connections can be tricky in conflict affected areas – I reassured myself that online research could also be an opportunity to reach more people who would either be too busy to meet with me in person, or located in areas I wouldn’t (for financial or ethical reasons) have been able to travel to. I also organised an online workshop with around 20 practitioners, as I was keen to hear conversations between practitioners in a more relaxed environment than one-to-one interviews. While it was relatively easy to schedule this fieldwork (in comparison to face-to-face), there were a number of difficulties of working online this way that I either had not anticipated, or had underestimated.

(Un)social Distancing

Interviews are always tricky, especially when using a qualitative interpretive methodology where I was interested in how people made sense of their work, rather than extracting objective information. Creating a relaxed environment online, I found, was even more difficult. Telling their stories of living and working in armed conflict was an emotional experience for a lot of my participants, and not being able to give them some privacy as I could in a coffee shop by going to order another drink was difficult and felt unnatural. During one interview, the interviewee had a Zoom filter on to hide their background, and I found it very difficult to get them to relax and talk about their own experiences, rather than their organisation. Around 30 minutes in, their dog jumped up onto their lap, which disrupted the background filter so they turned it off. They then showed me around their apartment, and I showed them around mine while we talked about working from home, loneliness, and our fears during the pandemic. When I restarted the interview, the atmosphere had completely changed. They were far more relaxed and conversational, and even went back to previous questions to tell me different stories relating to them.

I realised then that being able to create a shared space with people was an important part of building a rapport. From then on, I asked interview and workshop participants to along bring objects or photographs that described how they felt about their work, and to talk me through specific memories they had. While this didn’t fully replicate my being there with them, I learned a lot from how participants would describe their towns and villages, and how the spaces they worked in shaped their imaginations of it. These object allowed research participants to talk around difficult subjects, and to show me what it was often difficult to tell with words.

Other Challenges

Another important (if slightly obvious) challenge of online research is failing internet connections. I spent months carefully planning an online workshop with practitioners in South Sudan – even down the composition of each breakout group. When the time came, however, unstable internet connections across three continents derailed my carefully drawn plan. Participants were leaving groups quicker than I could readd them, and halfway through telling an important story, people’s internet would cut out and they would leave the call. Having research assistant’s there to handle some of the technical issues was a great help, but having to abandon a plan I had spent hours agonising over was scary. I made the decision to only focus on two of the four topic areas I had planned with more time for each discussion. This meant that even with the technical difficulties, groups still had time for some in-depth discussions. I also had participants send me photographs and voice-notes on WhatsApp, which I then shared with the group. While the workshop was stressful for me, it was a shared and often fun experience. It gave me the opportunity to follow up informally with participants, laugh about the technical issues, and have more relaxed conversations.

Top tips for online research:

  1. Plan:  Spending so many hours planning gave me the confidence to be able to think on my feet and improvise, without having to consult my plans and notes, as I’d learned them by heart
  2. Abandon the plan: While it might seem scary, knowing when to abandon the plan and improvise is important, because you can never foresee every possibility. Some of my best research findings came this way
  3. Keep a diary: Keep a research diary after every interview/ workshop/ conference/ piece of research you do. I find taking a walk and recording a voice-note on my phone straight after allows me to decompress. Even small reflections that you notice at the time but would usually forget can turn into important ideas if you keep a note of them.
  4. Ask your participants what they want: While planning my workshop, I had many exchanges with participants about how best to design the session. Taking photographs worked really well for some interview participants, but could be dangerous for others so finding multiple ways for participants to engage (beyond traditional interviews) is more inclusive.

Although my research has definitely turned out differently to how I’d planned it in a pre-Covid world and online research has been a challenge, it has also allowed me to interview participants in many more projects than my initial plan of three case studies. It also gave me the opportunity to get creative in my research methods. After two pandemic years I was used to improvising when things didn’t go quite right in my workshops and that’s something that will be useful in all future research. I’m hoping to follow up with people in person after completing my PhD but I will keep hold of some of my online methods, and always ask people to bring along objects that represent themselves. My research didn’t go as planned, but Covid has taught us that nothing ever does!

You can contact and follow Louise’s PhD journey using the icons below:

Home in 27 Exposures: reflections on the use of photo diaries with young migrants living in Swansea

With my mum she was born [in Iraq] but she left when she was a baby. She came to Britain but she still has that feeling that it’s her home. You don’t have to have just one home there can be multiple homes… I think that home isn’t where you live, it’s how you live in a way.

(Mouna, 18, 12/07/2019)

In my master’s research I explored the multiple ways that home is expressed and understood by young, Asian migrants living in Swansea. As the above quote demonstrates, home can be something more-than the ‘four walls’ you live in. Home can be where you are from, where you are, and where you are going. Home can be felt, sensed, and experienced in a complicated and messy way.

As home can be difficult to represent, to pinpoint on a map, or to contain in a structure, I chose to adopt a research method which allowed for expressions of home as dynamic, fluid and emerging. Using photo diaries allowed for incomplete and flexible examples of home to emerge for young migrants, exploring home as beyond ‘four walls’ and opening up novel ways to approach home.

Through this blog post I will show the usefulness of photo diaries as a way to articulate things that sometimes escape representation, such as feelings and affects. Reflecting upon the pros and cons of this research method, I will also outline future hopes for building upon the photo diary method in my PhD research.

Photo Diary Method

Using photos in social research is not a new concept. For the past few decades, photography has been used to understand, evidence and document phenomena. In recent years, however, the photo method has slowly shifted away from professionals, or researchers, behind the camera (Kolb, 2008). There are more and more examples of research participants being trained and taking ownership of taking photographs (Bignante, 2010; Lykes, et al., 1999; Prins, 2010), particularly within participatory action research methodology. The participant generated photo-elicitation method is utilised by researchers to “engage people in processes that enable their participation and personal growth” (Olsen, 2012, p. 99).

My study engaged with 20 research participants utilising two research methods: interviews and photo diaries. Of the participants, 12 were interviewed, and the remaining 8 were asked to produce photo diaries.

Photo diary process

What did they produce?

Eight research participants produced a total of 136 photos. Each participant created their own paper A5 booklet showcasing their stories of home. The only criteria was to annotate each photo with a few words, or sentences, linking to themes, such as how they felt when taking the image. The flexibility that they were given resulted in a wide array of photo diaries, some with annotations, drawings, front cover designs, as well as carefully constructed chronologies of photos to show their stories of home.

Concepts for photo diary brief

Once complete, I arranged a mutual day and time to meet with participants, in a one-to-one setting, so they could talk through their photo diaries with me. Having already briefly seen some photos when I took them to get developed, I felt excited to know more about their rationale for taking these images in relation to home. There were many images that, out of context, really intrigued me to know more – everything from Teletubbies to cups of coffee and Shisha pipes!

Photo diary image examples

Reflection

Unexpected routes and conversations

This flexible and participant-led approach enabled me to build upon my initial concepts and ideas, especially the concept of ‘home as emerging’. Home was photographed as something spiritual, using landscapes such as beaches, which allowed me to develop my analysis in this area, which was unexpected at the outset of my data collection.

Challenging power dynamics of researcher/researched

A key strength to using this method was in its ability to shift power to the participants in sharing their stories. Many of those involved with the study voiced their doubts at the outset about whether they could actively contribute, whether they could answer my questions, whether they were able to articulate what they wanted to say – particularly in the case of those who spoke English as an additional language. Through inviting participants to take their own photos in their own time, to construct their photo diaries by putting them together, and to take a lead in explaining the images to me, I felt this process not only encouraged investment, but also encouraged participants to use their voice to shape their narratives of home.

Opposed to more established, and traditional research methods, such as structured interviewing, this approach allowed a conversation to explore the meanings and understand anything that wasn’t clear. It also posed opportunities for myself as a researcher to be challenged by the participant, and to begin the process of analysis by working through the photo diary together, at the same time.

Challenges

Aside from the depth and richness of data that was produced from the process, there were, of course, many challenges when using the method. Namely, time, logistics, and the sheer amount of data that was produced – 136 photos in total! It was the first time I had used this research method and some aspects provided unnecessary delays:

Using disposable cameras

Disposable cameras are a fantastic tool to encourage participants to think about photos before taking them. With only 27 exposures, participants know the value in taking each shot. The downside was issues arising from faulty disposable cameras, many of which you didn’t know were faulty until photos were processed. Some photos were sadly lost in this process. As the art of film processing declines steadily due to the rise of digital cameras and smartphones, it was very difficult to find independent photo shops in Swansea with efficient turnaround times – most took just under two weeks to develop photos.

Flexible, but not too flexible deadlines

It was difficult to find a balance of being prescriptive with the timeframe with the freedom to create images that were meaningful for the participant. The initial brief provided to each participant allowed two weeks to take images, meaning there was a few days of flexibility, such as if the participant didn’t feel like taking an image on one day they could skip it and make it up later on. It is important to note, however, that sometimes ‘life happens’, and participants needed more time to complete their tasks. Sometimes procrastination, as with many of us, can result in delays for participants to provide their photo diaries. I found that by ensuring good communication with participants it was helpful to check in once after a week to see whether they were facing any challenges which may delay the final photo diary.

Photo diaries and participant retention

In particular, I think due to its time intensity, this research method is not going to be appropriate for all research settings. Due to my prior relationships with young people, I felt able to use my skills, knowledge, and connections to develop this method. I didn’t feel concerned about losing retention of participants once they had started the process. Upon reflection, however, I can see many more issues that could have arisen which would have resulted in lost, unfinished, or a lack of data from participants.

Future plans

ESRC PhD Project with Swansea University and EYST Wales

I intend to take away key advantages and disadvantages of using the photo diary method, in order to build upon this approach within my PhD research study, called ‘Sensing Wales’. In a TED talk, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the ‘Danger of the single story’. With this in mind, this project will hopefully provide a diversity of ways for young people to express their complex and multifaceted experiences, to overcome stereotypes of ethnicity, religion, gender and migration experience.

Please feel free to get in touch if you would like to have a chat about using this approach or more broadly about this upcoming PhD project. I am more than happy to share ideas and resources 🙂

Bibliography

Bignante, E. (2010). The use of photo-elicitation in field research: Exploring Massai representations and use of natural resources. EchoGéo, 11, 1-20.
https://doi.org/10.4000/echogeo.11622

Kolb, B. (2008). Involving, Sharing, Analysing – Potential of the Participatory Photo Interview. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3), Art. 12.
https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-9.3.1155

Lykes, M.B., Mateo, A.C., Anay, J.C., Caba, A.L., Ruiz, U. & Williams, J.W. (1999). Telling stories-rethreading lives: community education, women’s development and social change amongh the Maya Ixil. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 2(3), 207-227.
https://doi.org/10.1080/136031299293039

Olsen, W. (2012). Data Collection: Key Debates and Methods in Social Research. Sage Publications Ltd.
https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781473914230.n17

Prins, E. (2010). Participatory photography: A tool for empowerment or surveillance. Action Research, 8(4), 426-443.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1476750310374502

Rose, G. (2016). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials (4th edition.). SAGE Publications.

Van Liempt, I. & Bilger, V. (2009) The Ethics of Migration Research Methodology: Dealing with vulnerable immigrants, Sussex Academic Press.

Creative practices of research and practices of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers in rural Wales.

 

I am researching practices of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers in rural Wales – which often centre on activities such as cooking, walking, dancing, events, and outings. It looks at how people encountering each other through these groups, connect across very different experiences of migration and of language, and very different senses of familiarity with being in rural Wales, and how they make meaning and tell stories around migration, welcome and belonging through the activities they participate in.

I am exploring the idea of seeing these activities as ‘literacies of doing’ and how this relates to language understood by Pennycook, Simpson and others as a social participation. I’m interested in how communicative repertoires of both spoken and unspoken language, are assembled in improvised and creative ways and how this can shift away from the dominance of English language seen as a fixed entity, and competence in it used as signifier of belonging and test for citizenship. As the study progresses, ideas around language seem to be as significant in the research practices as they are in the encounters of welcome themselves, and so I’ve become interested in the interplay between the two.

For one case study I re-connected with some participants for a project based on their experiences of staying in a domestic, home environment here in a village in rural Wales.  As we couldn’t meet, we created and exchanged postcards.  Postcards worked as small, easily available, mobile objects carrying meaning through a combination of image and a short chunk of text, enabling people with a wide range of language and literacy skills in English to participate. I was struck by Pennycook (2010) using the example of writing a postcard to elaborate on the idea of language as a social practice, as ‘a set of bundled activities There is the obvious moment of writing the card – but it’s also about images, feelings, knowledges, memories, anticipations, connections between people and ‘multifaceted relations to place’ (Pennycook 2010 p3).

Other communicative practices grew around the postcard exchange – a WhatsApp group and a creative card making Zoom session enriched the repertoire of resources available for a shared language of participation. Boundaries between spoken, written and visual language, working with technology and with paper, being in physical and digital space, were broken down as people seemed to combine and switch frequently and easily between them. The card I made was of the Zoom screen. 

There was something, for me, particularly affecting about the material aspect of the postcards, the textures, the mark making, the packing and unpacking and the unexpected intimacy of handwritten text. As these objects moved between us they narrated our experience in a different mode to the immediacy of spoken dialogue. There were pauses while we waited for a reply, time to dwell on cards received and consider our response. We had a chance to say things that we didn’t say at the time of the encounters we shared. 

The current phase of research is with a local Town of Sanctuary group I’m involved with. Conversation Café is a weekly meet up originally organised as a space for families resettled here to practice their English. Two of these sessions were used to do some making  with images and text, based around people’s experiences of the Town of Sanctuary activities. I guess I was mistakenly hooked on what would be produced, while actually, what was happening in the room around the making was what I needed to pay more attention to. As Hawkins puts it – ‘sitting with the process rather than the output’. 

The collage on the left shows pics of the making and some of the finished work, but threaded between the images, I’ve noted the live conversations and actions running through the practice as, rather than incidental, these seem just as significant as the images that we were aiming to produce. 

Without trying to make it fit too neatly, I would say that some of the creative research methods and experiences echo what happens in the interactions of welcome which are the focus of the research. The assembling of improvised communicative repertoires of spoken and unspoken language through creative practices of ‘doing’ takes place in both. Some of the ideas that circulate around both are to do with the way connections and meanings are formed through a mix of deliberate and improvised activities and the significance of the incidental as well as the planned. This links to questions around how stories emerge from practices that are more organised, controlled, and reflective or more chaotic, immediate and spontaneous. So, when thinking about ways in which narratives about migration welcome and belonging are created through practices of welcome, it seems important to pay attention to what has come up through the process, not just the results.

Overall, I’m looking for ways to piece things all altogether. I’m drawn to using fragments, mosaics, patchwork; intersected or layered with language. I think this also reflects what happens more generally in the encounters of welcome themselves, not just this research context – the spaces where spoken and unspoken language practices blend in small scale, quite transient fragments of people’s lives. 

This collage is one I made from some of the material produced in the postcard project with fragments from the text overlaying the images. I’m hoping to assemble the collection of cards from this project into a small mobile exhibition, firstly here in the village hall in Llanvapley. I’ve found myself thinking ahead to how they could be arranged or assembled – thematically, or as conversations. I considered whether to indicate the authors of the cards as refugees, other transnational migrants, volunteers, workers, researcher, or combinations thereof or leave them completely uncategorised. This visual and spatial thinking has been helpful in considering how to talk and write about the project – to narrate the human stories circulating around the cards as artefacts. Trying to find ways to let the cards speak for themselves but also extend the conversation through engaging with theory and scholarship around mobilities, welcome, belonging, and rurality. But obviously I need to shape things into a PhD study too, so I guess I’m also looking for a suitable language practice and communicative repertoire myself, in order to do that, and to do justice to what participants have produced.

Bibliography

Hawkins, H. (2019) Geography’s creative (re)turn: Towards a critical framework. Progress in Human Geography 43(6) 963-984

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as a Local Practice Routledge, Oxon, NY 

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and mobility: Unexpected places. Multilingual Matters Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto

Simpson, J. (2015) English language learning for adult migrants in superdiverse Britain. In James Simpson & Anne Whiteside (Eds) Adult Language Education and Migration Challenging agendas in policy and practice Ch 15 200-2013 Routledge, NY and Oxon

Semi-Structured Interviews and Participatory Analysis in the Times of Zoom

In the midst of the first COVID19 lockdown, I accepted an offer to move across the border to start my ESRC funded 1+3 PhD programme, exploring youth entrepreneurship in the Western Balkans. This came off the back of a few years working intermittently within this area, both in a research and project management capacity, and seemed like a natural next step to progress my career – plus, what else is there to do in a global pandemic besides dedicate your life to research? However, the very pandemic that pushed me to pursue my PhD, also (not surprisingly), placed numerous barriers on my ability to conduct research for the +1 parts (SSRM) of my ESRC funding, resulting in my research being conducted across June-August 2021 through Zoom.

            My SSRM thesis focused on the role of social capital in young people’s (between the ages of 18-30) experiences of entrepreneurship in Kosovo, in which three key thematic areas were explored: institutions, education and personal networks. Previous studies more generally exploring entrepreneurship in Kosovo highlighted the role of weak institutions, outdated education systems and not ‘knowing the right person’ as being some of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurship, therefore, I wanted to explore these factors within the specific sub-domain of youth entrepreneurship. Young people are more recently out of the education system, therefore could better attest to the strengths or weaknesses of the current systems in place and are assumed to generally have less experience navigating the institutional environment, and to have lower levels of social capital than their older counterparts. Therefore, a series of semi-structured interviews were scheduled for July 2021, and a comprehensive interview guide with enough questions and follow-up questions to last a lifetime was drawn up and approved by my supervisory team.

Semi-Structured Zoom Interviews

            We’ve all possibly got to the point of Zoom fatigue now, where staring at our reflections as we speak into the void on endless calls in the corner of our living room has lost its novelty (if it ever had any to begin with). Due to an inability to fly out to Kosovo, due to COVID19 and ethical restrictions, I had to develop a research design that was compatible with the digital world I needed to navigate, could get me the information that I needed and the ability to probe further, and fit into the hectic schedules of the young entrepreneurs involved in this study. Semi-structured interviews are used for the ‘recording and analysis of the participants’ subjective perspectives’, and for collecting ‘everyday theories and self-interpretations in a differentiated and open way’ (Hopf 2004). I was able to recruit twelve participants for hour-long Zoom interviews, in which we discussed the intricacies of the entrepreneurial experience for young people. Participants recounted tales of endless bureaucracy, outdated education systems and the strengths of networks and connectivity in times of struggle and reflected on the ways they were using their own experiences to help upcoming and aspiring entrepreneurs to navigate the same entrepreneurial environment they themselves have been navigating. Whilst conducting Zoom interviews didn’t allow me to garner the same rapport that meeting over a cup of coffee in a local café would have allowed for, it did allow me access to young people I possibly would never have spoke with if I had conducted research in-person – young people from rural areas of Kosovo, or young people who fit our interview into their car rides between meetings as their schedule was too hectic to afford for anything else.

Participatory Data Analysis

            Considering my positionality as an ‘outsider’ was important to my research design, as my position as someone with lived experience and practitioner experience in entrepreneurship in the UK context would inevitably skew my own understanding and perceptions of the entrepreneurial experience that many of these young people have gone through. Therefore, upon conclusion of the data collection and transcription stages of my research, I decided to conduct a participatory data analysis. According to Abma et al (2009), participatory research seeks to represent ‘silent and silenced’ voices to a range of audiences, creating a shift from participants being the ‘object’ of research, to participants becoming partners in the research process. Initially, participants were invited to participate in a one hour zoom call, where we reviewed the transcripts and thematically coded the findings together, however, participants were busy (such is the nature of entrepreneurship in a pandemic), and it became difficult to schedule this call in with many participants. Instead, participants were sent my analysis of the interview transcripts, mess and all, in which I explained the process and the key points I had pulled from our interview, and participants were given the chance to correct my analysis, so it accurately reflected their experiences and opinions, and not my own biases. Participatory analysis demands a suspension of the search for a ‘singular knowledge’ owned by ourselves, and focuses attention on reflexivity and performance, rejecting a ‘single voice’ and avoiding claims of a ‘dominant knowledge’, such as that created by a singular researcher (Sims-Schouten et al 2007). This process allowed me to see the key areas where my biases had impacted by analysis, and empowered participants to make sure their story was being told in their own words, and to add any additional thoughts and feelings that had been missed first time round.

Reflections, Lessons and Moving Forward

Conducting interviews virtually enabled me to reach people that I never would have reached and provided both interviewer and participants with the comfort of being in a familiar, homely environment whilst exploring the intricacies of our own entrepreneurial experiences to-date. It allowed me to look into the lives of my participants in a way that a formal café meeting may not have allowed for, with participants showing me personal items on their desks that kept them motivated and pushed them to work harder – such as a chessboard, family photos and inspirational quotes. Participatory analysis allowed me to better represent the views of my participants and allowed me to see my own shortcomings due to my own biases surrounding entrepreneurship. A few participants contacted me after the study to discuss how the participatory analysis component made them feel like they had a voice in the way that they were represented, which spoke more to me about the merits of participatory research than the many theoretical debates I had encountered when choosing to embark on that approach.

For my PhD research, I am now focusing on the specific experiences of young digital-social entrepreneurs and will continue to incorporate interviewing and participatory analysis as my key research methods. Whilst I am aiming to conduct interviews in-person, I will also keep the door open for virtual interviewing due to it’s ability to connect me with young people from towns and cities and levels of ‘busy-ness’ that I might not be able to schedule into a fieldwork trip. Participatory analysis strengthened my connection to my participants and provided them with the opportunity to correct any biases I had, empowering them to represent their own voices, therefore, this will be a central component to my research going forward. I will specifically seek out the time to conduct more intricate participatory analysis with my participants, scheduling in Zoom meetings to screenshare and discuss my analysis with each of my participants to ensure that I am fairly and truly representing their lived experiences in the work that I do.

Bibliography

Abma, T. A., Nierse, C. & Widdershoven, G. A. M., 2009. Patients as partners in responsive research: methodological notions for collaborations in mixed research teams. Qualitative Health Research, 19(3), pp. 401-415.

Hopf, C., 2004. Qualitative Interviews: An Overview. In: U. Flick, E. v. Kardorff & I. Steinke, eds. A Companion to Qualitative Research. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 203-209.

Sims-Schouten, W., Riley, S. C. E. & Willig, C., 2007. Critical realism in discourse analysis.. Theory & Psychology, 17(1), pp. 101-124.

“Been there, run that!”: Reflecting on the pandemic

I’m writing this fresh from a crisp Winter jog near Pontyclun. I moved to the area recently and, not knowing many places to explore, tried a run that I’d seen others complete on a well-known activity tracking App.

Someone commented that the route was deceptive, but with a steady pace and the top in sight I thought to myself, “that wasn’t so bad!”. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ‘summit’ I’d reached (picture, right) was fake news – and several bigger climbs were needed. Three miles later, my beetroot face and I finally reached the top.

On my plod back home, I was thinking about how my morning summed up a typical PhD journey. After all, we sign up for a PhD despite people eagerly pointing out how strenuous the route is. However. we’ve not run a ‘normal’ post-doctorate challenge; the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to tackle some of the trickiest elevations and undulations. As we continue to work from home, many of us still need to juggle our academic endeavours with other uncertainties. As a part time PhD candidate with a young family, I’m still ‘dealing with’ unforeseen childcare needs and competing pressures from my non-academic employment. However, I press on because of my wish to make a difference in a subject area that’s of long-standing interest – investigating the nature and organisation of waste crime in Wales. You can read more about my research here.

My interest in this area comes from my non-academic work for the organisation responsible for regulating the waste industry in Wales. With these connections you’d assume that my methodological approach is straightforward, even in these uncertain times, on account of an ‘insider’ status benefiting access to data and participants, and the development of professional experiences that enable strong challenges and opinions.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple. Waste management has been affected enormously by the pandemic, with huge increases in waste production (especially clinical waste), household recycling centres being closed for long spells, and regulators modifying the way they police the industry to ensure staff work safely and in line with Government restrictions. These factors are all seen as causes of increased illegal waste activity during the pandemic… something I’ll look to explore!

However, from a methodological viewpoint these developments have completely changed the nature of the industry, the validity of regulatory data and the availability of participants. I’ve also seen first-hand the pressure on regulators and policy makers to respond to the pandemic, whether by publishing temporary regulations to act to certain matters, by coping with staff shortages, or by needing to support mutual aid requests from other agencies. These factors, combined with key contacts juggling their own complex personal circumstances, have (understandably!) put my PhD way down their list of priorities.

In the early stages of the first lockdown, I used my time to discuss plans, and potential alternatives, to address these setbacks. As time’s passed, I’ve come to realise that the changes we face aren’t temporary, and our challenges aren’t going to be resolved by simply extending our deadlines. It’s been important for me to move beyond the “list of worries” or anxieties over the future of my project, towards a state of mind that looks to find alternative perspectives on the challenges I’ve faced academically. In doing this, what I’ve realised is that running isn’t just analogy for the PhD. There are many things enshrined in my weekly routine as a runner that have helped me.

I thought I’d share three key ones with you.

  • Run a different route

When the Welsh Government restricted the amount of time we could exercise, it meant that I was forced to find shorter, more local runs. While completely understandable, there was a frustration that I couldn’t safely continue my status quo. In fact, these different routes have greatly improved my running experiences – so whilst being creative and going out of my comfort zone, I was still achieving the outcomes I wanted: fresh air, a clear head and fitness. Within the context of my research, I’ve taken new paths to address my research questions. I’ve scrapped plans to ‘get out’ in the field, deferred data requests to ease pressures on key staff in participating agencies and staggered my interviews. I continue to make changes to my research questions – even in year 3 – so it really is never too late to think about a fresh perspective or element for your project. Have a chat with your supervisors and read as broadly as you can around other methodological techniques.

  • Don’t train alone

On a race day I rely on so many people: spectators, fellow runners, volunteers and pace setters. Ultimately, we can only perform at our best when surrounded and supported by others. Our research is no different. In a post-doctoral environment, it can be hard to ask for help when we’re struggling, particularly when working virtually and dispersed. However, we’re all surrounded by understanding research participants, inspiring peers and supportive supervisors, so make sure you learn from – and encourage – the people around you. Pose questions. Test ideas. Ask for advice. And don’t forget… there are still loads of opportunities to discuss your ideas with others. I recently presented my progress to the Cardiff Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, which was the perfect way to get fresh ideas for my project, practice presenting some results and plans, and get feedback on them.

  • Measure your progress positively

I regularly scroll through my activity tracking App to check the progress I’ve made. The issue is I only really focus on two measures – the number of miles I’ve run and the pace I’ve set. The same can be said for our research. We always seem to focus on the number of hours we’ve sat at your desk or the number of words we’ve written.

For anyone reading this who’s new to the PhD I’d encourage you to look beyond this kind of #GoHardOrGoHome progress monitoring. After all, the pandemic continues to generate more significant and long-term realities for us. So it’s vital we focus more on things like the quality of our outputs, on our creativity and innovation during challenging times, and on the skills, expertise and academic nous we’ve picked up along the way. You never know, the latter point might come in handy… as when the time comes to justify our methods and approach to external examiners, the effects of the pandemic on our work, the mitigations we’ve chosen and our justifications for these will surely be the perfect answer.

Mentioning ‘external examination’ has probably made us all daydream about our post-doctoral finish lines. This is some way off for me, but I hope that this blog has helped to remind you that, in spite of the unique, challenging and sometimes overwhelming nature of our PhD journey at the moment, the sense of achievement and the experiences gained at your end point will be a sure way of forgetting the slog…

Pob lwc a dal a ti pawb. Good luck and keep going everyone!

Martyn Evans
Cardiff University
Twitter @MartynEvansNRW

Creative Solutions: Using creative activities to facilitate online focus groups during the pandemic.

In this blog, I recount my experiences of conducting online focus groups with young women as part of my Social Science Research Methods MSc dissertation research investigating relationships between Welsh Government education policy and experiences of community participation. Creative activities including mind mapping and zine-making enabled me to more deeply explore participant experiences.  I offer some top tips for working with participants using these methods, based on my learning from this experience.

Before starting my ESRC DTP studentship in Social Sciences at Cardiff University, I led a very different life: not working alone in a library, but talking to all sorts of people in public buildings. I worked as a tour guide at the Welsh Parliament and as a workshop facilitator at the National Museum of Wales. These roles sparked my interest in relationships between government, civil society, and everyday life. As a graduate in Social Anthropology, I became increasingly interested on turning the lens on Wales as my own country, as opposed to Aboriginal mythology, or Papua New Guinean rites of passage. I’d also worked as a tutor for home educated children, sparking an interest in learning outside of school and the application of the curriculum to contexts outside of formal education. These experiences culminated in my SSRM dissertation topic, exploring a purpose of the new curriculum for Wales, which is currently being designed and implemented.

 This purpose is: ‘Ethical, Informed Citizens of Wales and the World’: Yes, I wrote my whole dissertation around exploring these eight words. I studied how women make meaning of them, and how they might be evident in participants’ discussion of experiences of civil society participation during the pandemic. Having constructed my data, I considered the implications of my findings for Welsh Government policy.  My research demonstrated that participants’ meaning-making around the curriculum purpose contradicted elements of policy literature, including government focus on  ‘national’ citizenship and the future of the economy. My participants instead drew on a range of contexts for discussing ethical behaviours in community contexts, and used historical examples of discrimination against specific groups to discuss contemporary ‘ethical’ behaviour. ‘Cultural’ citizenship was more prevalent than ‘national’ citizenship, with participants drawing on a range of resources to make meaning of citizenship (Swidler 1986).

Getting Creative

I identified that this kind of research into meaning-making required a qualitative approach  (McLeod and Thompson 2009).I wanted to go beyond interviewing, giving participants opportunity to express their experiences in different ways. I had originally wanted to conduct ‘in-person’ focus groups, but like all of us, I was forced by the pandemic to research online. I tried to embrace this opportunity to research in a different way, as my previous research had used good old-fashioned anthropological ethnographic methods.  Focus groups enabled me to gain insight into collective views and meanings (Gill et al 2008:291), and acknowledge my active role in creating group discussion for data collection (Morgan 1996:130). This was significant for my feminist approach working with women participants, as feminist approaches prioritise reflexivity (Bozalek and Zembylas 2017:114).

I decided to use creative methods to facilitate focus group discussion (via Zoom) because such multimodal methods can ‘go beyond’ verbal communication, affording deeper insight into experience (Dicks et al 2013:656). Visual methods specifically  can be a tool of ‘defamiliarisation’ (Mannay 2010), meaning that this could help participants to think about their experiences in different ways.  Specifically, I used mind mapping to explore relationships between concepts within the curriculum purpose. Mind mapping can ‘ aid reflection and individual meaning- making as well as exploring relationships between concepts’ (Wheeldon and Åhlberg 2012). The mind maps enabled me to gain insight into relationships between concepts, such as Christine’s connections between ‘local and global’ through the news: ‘ localised global’.

Christine’s Mind Map

I chose to ask participants to create zines, as zines have potential in identity expression (Gabai 2016) and self-representation (Ramdarshan Bold 2017), and I was interested in exploring the curriculum purpose, which could relate to Welsh identity or citizenship identities. Using zine-making enabled me to gain insight into participants’ experiences. For Lily, online contexts were significant in connecting with her Cornish identity. Discussing her zine revealed that she felt was an ‘ethical’ duty, in terms of preserving a minority language.

Lily’s Zine

Following the focus groups, I used interviews to ‘clarify, extend, qualify or challenge data collected through other methods’ (Gill et al 2008: 293). The interviews uncovered deeper insight into participants’ meaning-making, such as elements of the zines which were the most significant to participants. Rhian drew a sanitary pad to discuss campaigning around period poverty, and the significance of gender equality issues to her community participation.

“And I did one (page) about ending period poverty, because we did a lot of campaigning around that. I’ve drawn a (sanitary) pad.. It’s something that excites me because I don’t think you see that often, as an image. It’s probably my favourite page.”

 Rhian, student and gender equality charity volunteer.

So, what did I learn from my experience of facilitating creative workshops online? Using creative methods online worked well in some ways. Participants reported that it enabled them to express themselves freely without pressure from others to draw ‘ well’, and created a relaxed atmosphere. However, some participants struggled with the possibilities of zine-making, which can include poetry, comics, illustrations and more.  Some felt that they would have preferred more specific directions. Additionally, of course there were the usual issues around ‘technical difficulties’!

Top Tips

Here are my top tips for getting creative over the internet with young women participants.

1.- Make it simple as possible: don’t overwhelm participants with lots of instructions.

2- Build in flexibility, enabling participation in different ways (take breaks, use different media for creative data construction),  but consider how you will balance this  with thorough data collection and comparison between participants, if this is part of your analytical strategy.

3- Consider the types of  data collection afforded by using Zoom-  in the form of screen shots, chat discussions, and so on, not just audio transcripts.

This has been a valuable experience in learning how creative methods can work well online, helping to gain insight into participants’ experiences and meaning making, whilst creating a comfortable atmosphere for participants who may not be familiar with research processes. But, I have also learnt how I would improve this practice going forward, including making the most of the online medium for data collection, and streamlining and simplifying the process to improve accessibility.

Reference list

Bozalek, V. and Zembylas, M. 2017. Diffraction or reflection? Sketching the contours of two methodologies in educational research. International journal of qualitative studies in education: QSE 30(2), pp. 111–127.

Dicks, B., Mason, B., Coffey, A. and Atkinson, P., 2005. Qualitative research and hypermedia: Ethnography for the digital age. Sage.

Gabai, S.2016. Teaching authorship, gender and identity through grrrl zines production. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1909&context=jiws

Gill, P., Stewart, K., Treasure, E. and Chadwick, B. 2008. Methods of Data Collection in Qualitative research: Interviews and Focus Groups. British Dental Journal 204(6), pp. 291–295.

Mannay, D. 2010. Making the familiar strange: can visual research methods render the familiar setting more perceptible? Qualitative research: QR 10(1), pp. 91–111.

McLeod, J. and Thomson, R., 2009. Researching social change: Qualitative approaches. Sage publications.

Morgan, D.L. 1996. Focus Groups. Annual review of sociology 22(1), pp. 129–152.

Ramdarshan Bold, M. 2017. Why Diverse Zines Matter: A Case Study of the People of Color Zines Project. Publishing research quarterly 33(3), pp. 215–228.

Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies. American Sociological Review 51(2), pp. 273–286.

Wheeldon, J. and Ahlberg, M.K., 2012. Mapping mixed-methods research: Theories, models, and measures. Vis Soc Sci Res, 4, pp.113-48.

Stigma and Research Design: Promoting the Participant’s Voice in Qualitative Research on Stigmatised Matters

With the value of lived experience being realised in qualitative research, promoting the voices of participants was essential to my research (McIntosh and Wright, 2019) as it would not only acknowledge my participants as the real experts in the area but would also allow for the findings to be more grounded in and applicable to their work. However, as my research explored personal tutoring staff’s opinions of and experience with student sex work, I knew that stigma would be a significant issue throughout the research process.

Although my work specifically navigated sex work stigma, I feel that my reflections on the process could be generalised to other forms of stigma (particularly moral stigma) and could also be used in wider research on professional or busy populations. In particular, these reflections will relate to method selection and data collection as the relationship between stigma and research design could easily become a series of blogposts given how complex the matter. Before this discussion can begin, stigma will first be defined as well as the potential impact it can have on participants.

The Many Faces of Stigma

As previously said, stigma can come in various forms. These were categorised by Goffman (1963) and described by Cook (2012, p.334) as: bodily (relating to physical problems), moral (perceived flaws in the person’s character) or tribal (perceived familial or lineal flaws of the person). These types of stigma can then be further categorised as being experienced first-hand or by association (for example see Hammond and Kingston 2014 and Ahearne 2015).

While these categorises can be helpful in planning your conduct during your research as well as the research itself– such as, in my research, it was important to emphasise to participants that I was not there to cast moral judgement but to more objectively analyse their reactions and actions as part of the wider institutional response of their university – it is important to acknowledge that they are not rigid and should be approached with caution as defining such complex matters requires much nuance and flexibility.

This need for caution is also essential to your research design as qualitative methods like interviews have been found to act as concentrations of wider social processes and so can intensify experiences of stigma and make participants uncomfortable (Cook, 2012). This discomfort comes from the methods interrogating ‘the perceptions of individuals and the consequences [of them]’ (Link and Phelan 2001, p.366). This can then cause your participants to answer less openly and can be a hinderance to researcher-participant communication. For this reason, stigma needs to be a key consideration in your research planning as you need to go beyond complying with ethical guidance and ensure that sensitivity and nuance are at the heart of your approach.

Navigating Stigma in Your Research Design

Although other methods may have also been suitable, the methods I chose to gather data from my participants were self-administered online surveys (which contained vignettes and a series of open-ended questions) and follow-up semi-structured Zoom interviews. Despite these decisions being made for practical reasons such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and being a sole-researcher with a small amount of time to work with, they also had several benefits when it came to navigating stigma and enabling participant communication.

The first of these methods was the survey which catered to the needs of my busy sample by allowing them to complete the survey when it suited them as well as the added benefit of giving an increased sense of privacy during the completion of the survey and providing them with room to reflect on their answers (Sierles, 2003; Braun et al, 2020). This reflective element would be extended on in the later interviews (which not all of my participants completed) but due to the long-form and open-ended nature of the survey, it allowed me to gather data so detailed that interviews would not be a necessity for all. However, the most important aspect of these surveys, I believe to be the vignettes. The vignettes allowed participants to explore the topic in a more hypothetical manner that reduced the chance of their discomfort whilst providing them with ample room to create responses around their interpretations of the scenarios (Barter and Renold, 1999). The final part of the process was a semi-structured interview on Zoom which were flexible in terms of scheduling and increasing the comfort of my participants. Additionally, the semi-structured nature of the interviews provided opportunities for greater reflection, further questioning of their responses by myself and presented them with a more casual chance to ask me any questions they had related to the research and anything they thought I may have neglected.

This combination of methods not only encouraged an open and comfortable setting for data collection but also allowed for sex work stigma to be acknowledged and for this to consciously influence the data. This decision to acknowledge stigma I found to be incredibly effective and, despite it not being an original part of my research plan, I believe it improved the experience of data collection and helped to actively destigmatise sex work even in such a small setting which ultimately, I argue to be the point of research on stigma in the first place.

In conclusion, methods that prioritise openness and reflection prove ideal for promoting participants voices on stigmatised matters especially when more private options are also available. However, what the most important things to bring to your research on such subjects are sensitivity, understanding of your participants and a willingness to confront the discomfort head on. Without these elements, real progress towards destigmatisation cannot be made.

References:

  • Ahearne, G. 2015. Between the Sex Industry and Academia: Navigating Stigma and Disgust. Graduate Journal of Social Science 11(2), pp.28-37.
  • Barter, C. and Renold, E. 1999. The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research. Social Research Update 25.
  • Braun, V. et al 2020. The Online Survey as a Qualitative Research Tool. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 23 pp.1-14.
  • Cook, KE. 2012. Stigma and The Interview Encounter. In: Gubrium, JF. and others. eds. The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: The Complexity of the Craft. SAGE Publications, pp.333-344.
  • Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Touchstone.
  • Hammond, N. and Kingston, S. 2014. Experiencing Stigma as Sex Work Researchers in Personal and Professional Lives. Sexualities 17(3), pp. 327–347.
  • Link, BG. and Phelan, JC. 2001. Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology 27, pp. 363-385.
  • McIntosh, I. and Wright, S. 2019. Exploring what the Notion of ‘Lived Experience’ Offers for Social Policy Analysis. Journal of Social Policy 48(3), pp. 449–467.
  • Sierles, F.S. 2003. How to Do Research with Self-Administered Surveys. American Psychiatry 27, pp.104-113.

A reflection on the use of in-person, telephone and virtual interviews.

Aimee Morse
Countryside and Community Research Institute
aimeemorse@connect.glos.ac.uk
@06aims

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic I had been planning to carry out in-person interviews with farmers and land managers across England to discuss their experiences of the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund. The easing of restrictions from July 2021 meant that this was still a possibility; however, I offered alternative types of interview to ensure my participants could take part according to their preferences.

The relative merits of face-to-face, virtual (Zoom and similar platforms), and telephone interviews are examined in numerous studies which employ qualitative methodologies (e.g. Carr and Worth, 2001; Glogowska et al., 2010; Trier-Bieniek, 2012; Archibald et al., 2019; King et al., 2019). Though I was aware of the pros and cons of each interview type, I felt my new approach allowed me to explore participants’ experiences of the interview itself in the context of my work. I drew on Holt’s (2010) work with participants in telephone narrative interviews and included reflective questions at the end of my interviews.

Results

46% of my participants were happy to have their interview in person. Several felt strongly about this, stating that it was much better to sit down face to face to discuss their experiences as they felt more comfortable doing so:

Participant: I feel more comfortable talking face-to-face. I think you get better dialogue.

This was largely as a result of being able to read cues throughout the conversation, which provide richness and nuance for researcher and participant:

Participant: This is much better! Yeah, I can react to people, for instance if you give a smile every so often you think ‘I must be doing alright!’ Whereas you just hear sounds on the phone and you’ve got no idea.

Some participants also appreciated being able to point out specific documents and areas of their farm that were relevant to our conversation, something which others felt they were not able to do virtually or over the phone:

Participant: I expect that everything would be more illustrative and so more meaningful.

For some, their preference for speaking in-person was a result of negative experiences during telephone conversations, particularly through cold calls and when the conversations were of a serious nature. Several commented that they had appreciated meeting me at a group event prior to the call, as it gave them an idea of who I was and the work I was completing . This highlights the importance of building rapport with participants, regardless of the interview type.

Though several authors found that telephone interviews were more likely to be shorter than those conducted face-to-face, this was not my experience. In fact, some participants found that, because they could continue with their daily tasks while talking into the phone, they were able to talk for longer than if they had put time aside to sit down for an interview:

Aimee: Was it more convenient to talk over the phone
Participant: Yes, I’m sorting me dinner out!

This raises questions about how focused participants were during the interview; however, telephone participants did not need significant prompting in order to answer a question, nor did they need the questions repeating any more frequently than those who were interviewed virtually or in-person. A preliminary analysis of interview data also shows their answers to be related to the questions being asked.

Virtual interviews were felt to be the best of both worlds, saving time but also offering the visual cues those conducting interviews in-person found so valuable:

Participant: From my point of view it saves time and I much prefer it to a phone thing because being able to see you and speak to you, it’s as good as being in the same place.

Participants who completed an interview virtually did so as they felt comfortable using the tools, and we did not experience any technical issues during the calls. This highlights the importance of a reliable broadband connection and the need to become familiar with virtual tools. Participants noted that not everyone may be familiar with these tools, and recognised that frequent interruptions could have an impact on the interview quality.

Future use

As researchers, we should continue to recognise the value of carrying out interviews in person. Meeting face-to-face allows us the opportunity to build rapport with our participants and provides nuance which may be lacking in other types of interview. However, there is value in considering the other types available to us, for reasons other than cost and efficiency!

Offering participants the opportunity to take part in the type of interview which works best for them can make the research process more accessible and inclusive. Several of my participants also noted the reduced climate impact of virtual and telephone interviews, something which may become an increasingly important ethical consideration in research projects of all kinds.

Bibliography

Archibald, M., Ambagtsheer, R., Casey, M. and Lawless, M. (2019) ‘Using Zoom Videoconferencing for Qualitative Data Collection: Perceptions and Experiences of Researchers and Participants’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919874596

Carr, E. and Worth, A. (2001) ‘The use of the telephone interview for research’, Journal of Research in Nursing, 6(1), pp. 511-524, https://doi.org/10.1177/136140960100600107.

Glogowska, M., Young, P. and Lockyer, L. (2010) ‘Propriety, process and purpose: considerations of the use of the telephone interview method in an educational research study’, Higher Education, 62, pp. 17-26.  

Holt, A. (2010) ‘Using the telephone for narrative interviewing: a research note’, Qualitative Research, 10(1), pp. 113-121, https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794109348686.

King, N., Horrocks, C. and Brooks, J. (2018) Interviews in Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, London: SAGE.  

Trier-Bieniek, A. (2012) ‘Framing the telephone interview as a participant-centred tool for qualitative research: a methodological discussion’, Qualitative Research, 12(6), pp. 630-644, https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794112439005.

The First Alarm: A Homeless Hostel’s Response to its First Potential Case of COVID-19

Ethnographic storytelling uses literary techniques ‘to construct from fieldnotes a narrative that will interest an outside audience’ (Emerson, 2011: 202). The resulting narratives have been praised for creating a ‘more public, engaging, affective, and panoramic sociology’ (Watson, 2016: 431). As such, this blog post tells the story of the first potential COVID-19 case at a 93-bed homeless hostel.

Today the atmosphere had changed. One-word responses from staff, ever-increasing posters urging you to “WASH YOUR HANDS!”, and a constant disinfecting of door handles. The residents were aware that something was up, taking a pump of hand sanitiser as they left the building, propping doors open with their feet, and using sleeves as makeshift facemasks.

But despite the tension in the air, there were tasks that needed to be done, and today Lisa was carrying out room checks. With the fourth floor checked off, she made her way down the off-lemon corridor and knocked on room 37, “Hello! Staff!”, she called twice before letting herself in. After scanning the room – clothes piled on the floor, cigarette butts on the bedside table, a few flies – she identified no major concerns, so gave it a ‘green’.

As Lisa scribbled down this result, a door clunked open behind her. She turned to see a resident hovering in the doorway of room 39, mouth buried in the crook of his elbow, “I’ve just been told to self-isolate”.

The words that everybody had feared.

“Stay in your room!” insisted Lisa as she ran towards the stairwell. Gloves discarded and hands washed several times over, Lisa knocked on the managers’ door, hurriedly recounting the last few moments.

Charlie sighed, “here we go”. His shoulders deflated. Armed with gloves and a mask, he went to speak to the man himself.

His short trip to room 39 filled him with disbelief. As he returned to the safety of his office, Charlie began mulling the conversation over; how could they advise him to go to the GP for testing? That goes completely against government guidance.

This couldn’t be right, there must be a solution to this testing conundrum. Though after the sixth phone call and at least 40 minutes of hold music, it dawned on Charlie that there was no solution: 111 didn’t answer, 101 said that it wasn’t their issue, and 999 refused to come out for testing. He took a moment to silently process this, before facing his staff.

Handover was often an orderly, mundane affair, a summary of the day’s events. But not today. Today, the small office resembled a stock exchange, a sporadic voicing of questions and concerns:

“But he’s on a methadone script. It’s daily pick up, how can he isolate?”

“And what about people with alcohol dependency? If they stop drinking, they could die!”

“Lots of our guys have health conditions, they could be really vulnerable, especially here.”

“I’m vulnerable too.”

“My wife has COPD. I don’t want to take it home to her.”

“If it gets in then we’re all screwed.”

“So, if one person isolates, would they all have to?”

“They won’t all go for that, too many are focused on their next hit.”

“They can’t stay in their rooms anyway; they share a kitchen!”

“There are rumours going around that people have it, some of the guys are really worried.”

Charlie scribbled down these concerns then addressed the room, “all we can do for now is log any residents who present with symptoms on the system, I’ll pass this on to Public Health England and hopefully they will be in touch, we should be a priority after all.”

Elizabeth interjected, “room 15 complained about feeling hot and sweaty earlier, but he gets like that after using anyway, so I don’t really know what to do”.

Charlie, “can you get him to call 111?”

Elizabeth, “I tried, but he hung up, didn’t want to wait in the queue.”

Adrian chipped in, “he’s got to self-isolate then, he can’t be walking around like that!”

Elizabeth, “but what am I meant to do? I can’t force him to stay in his room.”

Returning to his office, Charlie confided in Lisa, “the government haven’t thought about our residents; the general advice is meant for a nuclear family not a 90-bed hostel! It just won’t work for them”. He logged onto his computer and was greeted by an overflow of covid-related emails.

There was a loud knock and Elizabeth poked her head around the door, “room 39’s gone to his GP for a test”.

On 23rd March, just three days later, England went into a national lockdown. Forced to continue my ‘fieldwork’ at home, I turned my attention to secondary sources. Keen to read the government’s advice on managing COVID-19 within a hostel setting, to see whether it would address the staff’s many concerns, I visited the government’s website on a near daily basis. What I was greeted with, rather than solutions to script collection or isolating in a congregate setting, was a simple message promising to provide guidance ‘as soon as possible’. This message, shown below, was in place until 5th August 2020, when the government finally published their advice.

Bibliography

Emerson, R. Fretz, R. and Shaw, L. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Watson, A. 2016. Directions for Public Sociology: Novel Writing as a Creative Approach. Cultural Sociology 10(4), pp. 431-447.