Monthly Archives: January 2022

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:

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.