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How (not) to engage non-academic audiences: Lessons learned from the Arctic Circle Assembly

Written by Brett Lewis

Brett Lewis is a PhD student at Cardiff University. Currently in his first year, he has a background in economics and politics with an undergraduate degree in Economics from Swansea University, and a Masters in International Political Economy from the University of Warwick. Brett’s research interests are in international relations and the Arctic. Initially brought on by a previous dissertation that examined how the Sino-Russian relationship is made complicated and asymmetric due to the Arctic, Brett’s interest in the Arctic is now on the wider role that it has to play in geopolitics.

This past October I attended the Arctic Circle Assembly hosted in Reykjavik, Iceland. I had two simple missions to complete: experience my first academic conference and begin building my network, and to engage with stakeholders in the Arctic region on the matter of research fatigue and how research design can adapt to meet this challenge.

I can confidently say that the first mission was a roaring success. As an early PhD student, my network mimicked the contact list of a new phone without your old sim in it yet; and thanks to my supervisor it began to populate with experts with years of experience. I heard from a range of research backgrounds, discussed my interests with the best discussants I could have asked for, and I came away with much to think about for my own research.

The second mission was a humbling reminder that I am indeed an early PhD student.

Figure 1: Harpa at night

A World Café on Research Design from Perspectives of Non-Academics

I sought to harvest perspectives on research fatigue from non-academic persons to inform research design, particularly on the subject of Indigenous communities in the Arctic. Research fatigue is big issue for researchers both in attaining sufficient engagement for their research goals and ensuring good quality data. A community that becomes over-researched risks becoming disillusioned with research, losing interest in answering questions on their culture or even developing a negative relationship with research and the researchers that bother them (Kater 2022). Arctic communities are the focus of a great deal of scientific interest, and are therefore at elevated risk for becoming over-researched and symptomatic of research fatigue. The potential causes of research fatigue is a long list: the repetition of research methods gradually decreases interest in engagement (Drake et al. 2023), the lack of noticeable change as a result of engagement and failure to achieve specified research goals (Clark 2008), the mismatch between ethical paradigms of the researcher and the community they research (Mandel 2003), to name a few.

Adapting research design with an awareness of research fatigue can improve the ethical principles and quality of your research. Noticing the colonial underpinnings of research, for example, is a key difference that may improve research outcomes in Indigenous communities (Bartlett et al 2007).

While it was possible to extract the academic coverage on research fatigue quite easily, it would be a great opportunity to speak directly to non-academics at the Arctic Circle Assembly and hear their perspectives. This conference brings together over 2000 people from over 60 countries, some of which include peoples from Indigenous communities, various industries, politicians, people with general interests in Arctic affairs, and of course academics. It would arguably be the best opportunity to meet with direct stakeholders, what with the remote nature of the Arctic and all.

A World Café was the chosen approach to engaging these people. The World Café method is a simple way to get people talking and there is a great deal of guidance on how to carry one out. If you venture over to https://theworldcafe.com you can find extensive guidance, examples, resources, and testimonies about the method. Essentially, the method is designed around 7 guiding principles:

Figure 2: 7 Principles of the World Café

A typical World Café has strict—but flexible to the context—parameters that facilitate highly resourceful discussions on concentrated subjects. Perhaps the most common configuration of a World Café consists of a large room filled with small tables with 3-5 seats at each table. A person is designated as a ‘host’ at each table, which simply means that they do not move from their assigned table, while the other participants will move between tables. The session is structured into rounds, whereby a question is posed to the room to discuss at their respective tables, before another round begins. As the rounds change, this is the point that the non-hosts will move between tables. The final round then ‘harvests’ the conversations had in the previous rounds in a big open group discussion. There is a strictness to a World Café that gives it a rigid structure, but the parameters can vary significantly depending on the context of the session you want to run.

Figure 3: Standard Configuration of a World Café

This was a favourable detail of the World Café that worked for me as I did not manage to get a slot in the conference programme, which would have been the ideal setting as it would have granted me access to a large room, with tables and chairs, and it would have advertised my session to every participant. Fortunately, the conference has meeting rooms that are free to book out for several slots throughout the 3 days of the assembly. This brought about the challenge of adapting my World Café to meet the circumstances which was fairly straightforward. While it was not ideal, the maximum capacity of these rooms was 10, they only had one single table, and I would have to manually recruit participants throughout the conference. So, rather than having the scattered small groups, the intention was to split the table into thirds using tape dividers and to designate the first person clockwise of the divider as the host. Then, it would proceed exactly as a typical World Café would: a question would be posed to the groups for which they would have a 15-minute round to discuss, before the non-hosts migrate to another group and begin the next round.

A World Café is highly configurable to meet the circumstances that you have to deal with. With proper planning, it is conceivable that a session can be hosted in most settings with help of the resources on offer on the World Café website.

Interest is not guaranteed

Despite my best intentions, my adapted plans, and my desire to see the World Café through, it didn’t happen.

I employed simple strategies for recruitment for my session: talk with people during and at the end of sessions that were relevant to my World Café topic, or catch people as they moved between sessions and approach them as they enjoyed coffee and lunch breaks throughout the day. There were a few reasons why this didn’t work:

  • Conflicting sessions.

There were over 200 sessions on the programme, and the organisers did an exceptional job of allowing people to attend a diverse range of sessions by allocating a diverse range of sessions in each session slot. If you wanted to attend a session on geopolitics, for example, but also wanted to attend a session on Arctic shipping, you could usually find the option to go to one now and another later. This was not so great for me, as the opportunity cost of attending an organised session with a panel of experts on a topic that was of particular interest to them was usually the more favoured option over my small meeting room, understandably. It was also the case that some people were speakers in conflicting sessions to my slots so it was simply impossible to recruit everyone.

  • Sensitivity of the topic.

People were unwilling to attend a session on a subject matter that they considered to be a sensitive or overcovered topic. To some, this matter was sufficiently well discussed and they felt they had nothing to add to the discussion. To others, particularly those closer to Indigenous communities, the topic of research fatigue is a sensitive topic. As previously mentioned, over-researched communities can develop a hostile relationship with research as they feel that their culture is a scientific curiosity to researchers. Where I was asking them to talk about research fatigue with me, a researcher, I was propagating a negative relationship whereby the over-researched community is yet again the subject of more research.

  • My ability to persuade people to attend.

It sounded like an easy enough task to ask people to attend a structured session and have them talk to each other for a little while. But I’ve never done this before so how do I go about persuading people to attend a session outside of the programme? With me, a 3rd-week PhD student? Ultimately, this was the single biggest hurdle for which I had not accounted for.

In retrospect, a place on the programme would have made a big difference for the odds of success for my session. While it would not have appealed to everyone, it would have been advertised on an equal standing with other sessions and reduced the part I had to play in recruiting participants.

Working the problem

As it became clear that my World Café was not going to happen, a change in strategy became necessary.

While I could not garner sufficient interest to attend a structured session, I could still engage the same audiences in a different manner. I reverted back to my strategies for recruitment and adapted their purpose away from recruiting to harvesting. Rather than pitching my World Café, I was now talking to them directly with the same exact questions I had intended to use previously. In fact, I had unknowingly been doing this already. When I was attempting to recruit people previously, I was gauging their knowledge on research fatigue, research design, and their awareness of Indigenous communities. By the end of the conference I had spoken to more people than I had hoped to have attend my intended World Café in the first place. As they were more focused conversations, I was able to tailor the questions to meet the circumstances of the moment, be it either to the level of awareness on the subject matter of the person or to allow multiple people to speak when I was engaging multiple people at the same time.

What I had ended up doing was effectively semi-structured interviews. While I lost the structure that the World Café might have provided in ensuring crosspollination of ideas, I gained a flexibility that allowed me to have conversations with people in ways which suited them. It would have been preferable to host a World Café and harvest the result of various crosspollinated conversations, but I still managed to collect relevant data that would have gone amiss without a change in strategy.

A key reflection that made the difference between coming away with something or nothing at all, was that it was prudent to anticipate that I didn’t have infinite time to change strategy. I had booked out various time slots on every day for the World Café, but it was during day 2 of 3 where the time slots that were slipping away from me were what I considered to be my ‘best shot’ of a successful World Café signalled that it was decision time. Rather than pinning all hopes on the slots on the 3rd day (which would have amped up the pressure on myself, too) it was a better use of my time to resort to my new strategy.

One issue still stood out that required further adaptation was the sensitivity on the subject matter that some were wary of. It was not impossible to engage with these people on the issue of research fatigue so long as they were guaranteed the condition of anonymity. This was fundamentally important in gaining trust of these people to allow them to open up on the questions I had. Some, however, did not want to engage whatsoever. Unfortunate as this was for me and my goals it signalled that sometimes the best option is to not engage in research as this is what is in the community’s best interest (Sukarieh and Tannock 2013).

Moving on

Hopefully my experience at the Arctic Circle Assembly has brought some useful tips for when things don’t go the way you had hoped. I find that there is much guidance and information on how to carry out a given method but it is not usually discussed what you should do when the circumstances don’t favour the best case scenario.

The funny thing is that you probably have the skills to adapt to the circumstances already. I reflected greatly on the skills and knowledge I picked up on the SSRM, for example. I thought about what I’ve learned about ethics and was sure to include that in my planned routine when introducing participants to my session, but ended up practicing it anyway with my awareness of anonymity as an option for participants. Rather than the method I wanted to use, I drew on the interview block from the qualitative research methods module to structure my discussions with individuals. I also used my recent dissertation as a springboard to start discussions before moving into research design and research fatigue, which also came in handy with engaging with people with interests in Arctic marine spatial planning and therefore gave me unique insights.

One final reflection is that my supervisor played a key role in supporting me throughout my experience at the assembly. The encouragement and advice he offered kept me steady as I faced the challenges throughout the conference. No man is an island, as they say.

To sum up:

  • Sometimes your best-laid plans just don’t work out, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be adapted to meet the circumstances of the occasion. Spending some time on contingencies will be something I will incorporate into future research excursions.
  • The World Café is a solid method for data collection of a diverse range of perspectives. Hopefully next time I’ll have that data to report back on.
  • Challenges are to be expected in research. Adapting rather than accepting is much more favourable. Make sure to consult your supervisor when things go wrong, as they are there to support you.
  • Learning when not to research sounds counterintuitive, but it is sometimes in the best interest of the participant not to pursue research.
  • Building your social skills is—at least in my opinion—as important as knowing the method.

Figure 4: Reykjavik from Harpa


Bartlett et al. 2007. Framework for Aboriginal-guided decolonizing research involving Métis and First Nations persons with diabetes. Social Science & Medicine, (65)11, pp. 2371-2382.

Clark, T. 2008. ‘We’re over-researched here!’: Exploring accounts of research fatigue within qualitative research engagements. Sociology, (42)5, pp. 953-970.

Drake et al. 2023. Bridging Indigenous and Western sciences: Decision points guiding aquatic research and monitoring in Inuit Nunangat. Conservation Science and Practice, (5)8, pp. 1-22.

Kater, I. 2022. Natural and Indigenous sciences: Reflections on an attempt to collaborate. Regional Environmental Change, (22)109, pp. 1-15.

Mandel, J. L. 2003. Negotiating expectation in the field: Gatekeepers, research fatigue and cultural biases. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, (24)2, pp. 198-210.

Sukarieh, M. and Tannock, S. 2013. On the problem of over-researched communities: The case of the Shatila Palestinian Refugee camp in Lebanon. Sociology, (47)3, 494-508.

Figure 1: Harpa at night (Brett Lewis, 2023. Pictures of Iceland).

Figure 2: 7 Principles of the World Café (https://theworldcafe.com Licensed under Creative Commons) Available at https://theworldcafe.com/tools-store/hosting-tool-kit/image-bank/book-images/

Figure 3: Standard Configuration of a World Café (https://theworldcafe.com Licensed under Creative Commons) Available at https://theworldcafe.com/tools-store/hosting-tool-kit/image-bank/book-images/

Figure 4: Reykjavik from Harpa (Brett Lewis, 2023. Pictures of Iceland).

How my relationship with my disabled identity influences my research methods.

Anneka Owens
To mark the end of Disability History Month, I have written this blog on my relationship with my disabled identity and my research methods. It maps the road to acceptance and how that has brought my research methods closer to the person being researched.

A bit about me
I am a third year 1+3 ESRC funded PhD student at Cardiff studying equality and access to justice in Wales. I was diagnosed with a limiting health condition the day before starting the SSRM. Interestingly, as my relationship with my new disabled identity changed, so did my research methods. This was subconscious at first but became more conscious as my identity strengthened. This blog takes you on the journey that I’ve faced from denial and detachment to pride and full incorporation.

The Social Science Research Methods Dissertation
During the SSRM, I hadn’t fully embraced my identity as a disabled person and instead focused upon somehow returning to the ‘norm’. My desire to keep pace with the standards set for people with no limiting health conditions was because I was still ableist in my views. My health condition was the problem that had to be overcome and I just had to somehow achieve the same standards and timescales as everyone else no matter what – my illness would not deter me from my goals. This was an attempt to detach my illness from my sense of self.

Distancing of illness from the person was also subconsciously reflected in my chosen research methods for my SSRM dissertation. I chose to study equality and access to justice in Wales by undertaking a secondary analyse on a leading legal needs survey from an equality perspective. This is arguably one of the most detached method for analysing equality.

My research found that representation of vulnerable groups was too small for accurate analysis and even pooling surveys did not substantially improve the situation. What did become known was that disabled people in Wales face legal disadvantages at a disproportionate rate compared to their English counterparts. Despite these findings for disabled people in Wales, I still didn’t identify as belonging to this group.
The findings from my Masters dissertation helped shape my PhD research design. The initial research proposal detailed a mixed methods approach – more secondary quantitative analysis followed up with a small number of interviews to provide case studies on the experiences of disabled people in Wales.

At this point, my disabled status was still separate from my identity but I was more accepting of my condition and the limitations I was experiencing. However, Covid changed my research method and my relationship with my disabled status…

The unexpected impact of Covid
The challenges that came with Covid were extreme and hastened my acceptance of my disability but it also exemplified more than ever that my health was not the only disabling factor. People’s attitudes towards reasonable accommodations magnified any limitations that I had and truly left me feeling isolated from society and disabled in an insurmountable manner. My experience during Covid was an exemplar of the social model of disability. I have an impairment as a result of my health condition but I am disabled by societal structures. This realisation, and frustration with the system, embedded my identity as a disabled person and became a source of strength and pride. I no longer wanted to detach myself from the community I was researching as it is my community and disabled people deserve a voice and control over their lives, including research conducted in their name.

The strong belief that my community (disabled people) deserve a voice meant that when I had to alter my research proposal to compensate for lost time due to Covid, the disuse of quantitative methods was a natural choice. At the time I felt that the method was too detached from disabled people and treated disability as homogenous. Nor did the homogenous approach reflect lived experience and the social model of disability.
As my research progressed it became clear that there was no need to be conducting the interviews with disabled people in Wales. However, my identity as a disabled person and the conviction that disabled people need to be included in decisions that affect them, resulted in interviews remaining and instead of case studies on a few people, interpretative phenomenological analysis would be undertaken to provide a deep dive into the experiences of disabled people in Wales and the disabling barriers they face by society. I also want their feedback on the framework that I am designing to analyse equality in Wales so that I could include the people who the framework is designed to help. Co-production could not be achieved, but I could achieve a deep level of engagement with my participants.

ESRC DTP Wales Welsh Government Internship

Just when I had begun to reject the utility of quantitative methods for analysing disability, an internship was posted that was a replica of my SSRM dissertation but this time involving secondary analysis using the National Survey for Wales. Part of the internship’s remit was to produce recommendations for the improvement of how equality data is captured and presented for the newly established Equality, Race, and Disability Evidence Units (the Units). I was fortunate enough to secure the internship and I have just one week left in the 6 month placement.

I honestly thought that the National Survey data would not provide any new avenues for exploration of disabled people in Wales. Like nearly all household surveys, disability is treated as a binary output so provides limited scope for change or innovation, or so I thought!

The National Survey recorded respondents’ illnesses, allowing up to six to be detailed. The National Survey groups these illnesses based on the chapters of international diseases. Forty-one variables are created from these illnesses that relate to various parts of the body. This approach does not reflect how I identify as a disabled person nor does it reflect the social model of disability.

Luckily, the National Survey team and the Disability Disparity Evidence Unit let me experiment with a novel approach that matched my beliefs and reflected the lessons learnt from lived experience. The illnesses listed by respondents could be recoded into impairment categories. People who had physical, mental health, cognitive including neurodiverse, and sensory and communication impairments could be analysed in the National Survey data offering brand new insight on existing data. This approach better reflects the social model of disability and evidence how much society disables people with different types of impairment. The findings were illuminating and have been passed on to the Disability Rights Taskforce.

Where I currently stand
Over the course of my PhD journey, my identity has influenced my methods multiple times and the internship is another example of this. No method need be dismissed for researching disability as long as it is not constructed through a complete detachment of the subject matter especially if the researcher does not have lived experience because this knowledge matters when constructing questions and categories. Co-production is a key part of including lived experience, even within the most detached of methods. Achieving this level is difficult but it is an aim I work towards as it closely aligns my methodological choices with my strong identity as a disabled person and the commitment to full inclusion that stems from this identity.

Currently I proudly identify as a disabled person and use this as a source of inspiration, but as I’ve explored, my identity constantly evolves and this may result in a further evolution of my research methods.

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.


Community, connection,




It’s a heart thing.

Informing, working,

learning, caring,

It’s a seesaw

On which we balance


Always thinking,


 to create change.

A compass to guide us

Into the new and unknown.

Headlines blaring,

Adapting, changing,

Risk taking

Knitting a net

Of conversation,



For family, neighbours,


Through fast wires and flickering screens

Part of a whole.


Climate Activist

Neighbour, daughter, carer

Acting a role

In our communities, country,


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.


put your own oxygen mask on first.

Be creative, take care of yourself.

Take time.

Travel back through tides


 learn from those who came

 before us,


The quiet streets of your hometown

With the wider seas of change


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.


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


I’m expanding

My ways of



I’ve found new ways of

Thinking, reflecting,


 The time has gone quickly. 

And there’s so much more to say,

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


 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


It’s been


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


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.


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 🙂


Bignante, E. (2010). The use of photo-elicitation in field research: Exploring Massai representations and use of natural resources. EchoGéo, 11, 1-20.

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

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.

Olsen, W. (2012). Data Collection: Key Debates and Methods in Social Research. Sage Publications Ltd.

Prins, E. (2010). Participatory photography: A tool for empowerment or surveillance. Action Research, 8(4), 426-443.

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.


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.


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.


  • 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.