Tag Archives: creative methods

Online Fieldwork in Conflict Affected Areas

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

Zoom Interviews and Workshops

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

(Un)social Distancing

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

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

Other Challenges

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

Top tips for online research:

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

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

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

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

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

(Mouna, 18, 12/07/2019)

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

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

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

Photo Diary Method

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

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

Photo diary process

What did they produce?

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

Concepts for photo diary brief

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

Photo diary image examples

Reflection

Unexpected routes and conversations

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

Challenging power dynamics of researcher/researched

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

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

Challenges

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

Using disposable cameras

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

Flexible, but not too flexible deadlines

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

Photo diaries and participant retention

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

Future plans

ESRC PhD Project with Swansea University and EYST Wales

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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