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A Practical Guide

This groundbreaking book brings creative writing to social research. Its innovative format includes creatively written contributions by researchers from a range of disciplines, modelling the techniques outlined by the authors. The book is user-friendly and shows readers:

• how to write creatively as a social researcher;

• how creative writing can help researchers to work with participants and generate data;

• how researchers can use creative writing to analyse data and communicate findings.

Inviting beginners and more experienced researchers to explore new ways of writing, this book introduces readers to creatively written research in a variety of formats including plays and poems, videos and comics. It not only gives social researchers permission to write creatively but also shows them how to do so.

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Social researchers of all stripes are, of necessity, also writers. We write research proposals, funding bids, ethics applications; research reports, journal articles, book chapters; theses, dissertations and books; newspaper articles, blog posts and emails; the list goes on. We choose words to put together into sentences and paragraphs that nobody else has written. Whether or not we are specifically using creative writing techniques, this is a creative process. That said, some social researchers write more creatively than others; some social research is more creatively written. Some forms, genres, ways or shapes of writing accord more closely to definitions of creative writing, including Harper’s broad definition that includes writing with both ‘imaginative’ and ‘analytical’ capacities and components (Harper 2019:12).

Writing (more) creatively means looking beyond the orthodox and canonical forms of writing which most of us have learned in study skills and research training courses. It means exploring all the possibilities that are open to us as writers, and resisting the pressure to conform unthinkingly to the default mode. And it means recognising that writing is more than a means of communicating; it is a resource, which remains to be fully tapped. Helen’s teaching is particularly relevant here. In her creative thesis workshops for doctoral students, she has conceptualised writing as teacher, therapist and friend. Like a good teacher, the act of writing helps writers to explore and articulate their ideas (Colyar 2009:425–6). Writing can help us to explore experiences and identify and express emotions, as one might with a therapist. As Pelias (2019:26) puts it, ‘writing allows disorder to find some order; chaos to settle into manageable form’.

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Social researchers are using creative writing in all aspects of their work: from gathering, exploring and analysing data to presenting and disseminating findings. They are doing so in many different forms, including diary entries, letters, stories, field notes, lists, poems, comics, written dialogue, play scripts, screenplays and more. They are doing this through the creative writing they do themselves, which we explored in Chapter 2, and by working with participants, which we move on to examine here in Chapter 3.

This book takes a broad view of social research for creative writing, drawing on a wide range of examples from the literature, and taking inspiration from an array of social researchers. That said, this is a field in which the authors of this book are active, and so we also draw upon examples from our own work. Here, Richard’s research is particularly relevant. Some of this research is collaborative, conducted with fellow researchers who deserve a proper introduction at this stage, since they will reappear in the course of this chapter and later in the book. These researchers include: Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, a writer who identifies as a queer Muslim woman, who facilitated workshops in a project led jointly by Richard and Claire Chambers. Claire teaches postcolonial literature at the University of York, and specialises in Asian and Muslim women’s writing. Nafhesa Ali, the researcher who worked with Claire and Richard to convene workshops in which young British Pakistani Muslims explored and learned creative writing, also contributes a piece of her own to this chapter, exploring research involving creative writing with participants.

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The separation between different ‘stages of the research process’ is quite artificial. Of course, it is useful for purposes of teaching, learning, discussion, and so on. But really all research involves exploring and articulating phenomena.

As we have already seen in this book, creative writing offers opportunities for fruitful exploration and articulation work with participants, enhanced observational research, generating and developing ideas, and many more. This final part looks at how social researchers can use creative writing as we explore our data and articulate our findings. Whereas Chapter 3 drew upon Richard’s research, Chapter 4 is informed more by Helen’s work on writing as a research method. We examine a number of ways or shapes of writing that are particularly applicable to analysis, followed by some others that are associated more closely with dissemination, before bringing these together through the cross-cutting theme of storying.

The idea of using creative writing in data analysis may at first seem quite contradictory to good-practice maxims of working systematically and with great attention to detail. However, we argue that these approaches complement each other and add richness to analytic work. It is possible to demonstrate rigour in the use of creative writing for analysis by practising transparency: describing the process of sense-making from raw data to findings; giving examples of dialogue and interactions (perhaps from composite accounts); and making visible your own role in that process (Markham 2012). Forms of creative writing that have already shown potential for the analysis of social research data include fiction, poetry, and play or screenplay writing.

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Sociology is anathema to poetry. (Linton Kwesi Johnson, BBC 2018)

Poetry … allows me to be a better social scientist. (Sandra Faulkner, 2019: 222)

Linton Kwesi Johnson read sociology at the University of London before making his name as the inventor of dub poetry. Reflecting on his life and work in the radio interview quoted here, he seems to dismiss his studies as a way of passing the time until he found his real calling: a performance art that brings together words and music.

While Johnson seems to insist that poetry has nothing to do with the study of society, others are not so sure. Sandra Faulkner, a researcher in the field of communication, suggests the opposite: that poetry allows her ‘to be a better social scientist’ (Faulkner 2019:222). Zygmunt Bauman, the influential sociologist, said he had ‘personally learned more about the society we live in from Balzac, Zola, Kafka, Musil, Frisch, Perec, Kundera, Beckett … than, say, from Parsons’ and others who are routinely cited in his academic field (Blackshaw 2002:2; see also Jacobsen and Marshman 2008). Johnson contradicts himself, in any case; he has never stopped examining society, analytically and critically. His poetry speaks of race and racism, class and inequality, and it narrates and explores social conflicts and crises: from police brutality to struggles over public housing. These are the preoccupations of many social researchers, extending far beyond the discipline of sociology to include human geography, anthropology, cultural and religious studies and more, within and beyond universities and academic enquiry.

If poetry and other forms of creative writing were once seen as anathema to social research – and it is a big if – this is no longer true.

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Don’t come to conclusions. Come to other things: inquiry, questions, failure, side roads, off-road. (Waite 2019:48)

In my end is my beginning. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 1944:27)

Creative writing presents social researchers with challenges and opportunities. Writing – more than simply ‘writing up’ – is a form of enquiry in its own right, a means of searching and questioning, exploring and understanding the social world. Moreover, creative writing has radical possibilities for social research, unsettling and as we put it queering our ways of seeing and knowing. We elaborate on these two themes – searching and queer(ing) – in this final chapter. Here, we draw together threads rather than advancing firm conclusions, and we hope readers will pick up and play with these threads and ideas, as we shall continue to do ourselves.

Writing this book, we have struggled and not always agreed about our definitions of creative writing. In one of our writing meetings, Helen argued the case that all writing is creative. Richard felt the need to distinguish creative from other forms of writing, pointing to definitions of the field and practice of creative writing (for example, Harper 2019). We could each see each other’s point; rather than disagreeing, we both had mixed feelings on the subject. We also remain unsure about the term creative writing. Though meaningful and alluring to us, we recognise that this term can be off-putting to some people. The latter include: those who find creativity and/or writing intimidating, seeing it as something for others; those who argue for more critical approaches to creativity (Mould 2018); and those who are suspicious and implicitly snobby towards creative writing as defined and taught in manuals and handbooks, evening classes and university courses.

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In general, the analysis of data may be both the most specialised and the least well understood aspect of making research. A common failing of research reports and journal articles is not to explain the process of analysing data clearly enough for readers to gauge their level of confidence in the findings, or for researchers to replicate the analytic method (Odena 2013: 364).

Like data gathering, data analysis needs careful planning. There are a wide range of methods available to researchers. However, the methods we choose should not be the ones that appeal to us the most, but the ones that are most likely to help us answer our research questions. Other factors in choosing analytic methods are the type and status of the data. These points apply whether we are doing quantitative, qualitative or multi-modal research.

There are many ways to analyse any given set of data. Suppose that you hold a focus group with eight first-generation immigrants from different countries of origin. You begin by having each person share some basic demographic data by way of introduction: where they have lived, how old they are, their occupation(s) before and after immigration, who and where their family members are. Then you facilitate a discussion of their experiences of emigration and immigration around themes drawn from the academic literature, including wealth and poverty, coercion and freedom, belonging, emotion, status, togetherness and separation. The resulting data would be amenable to quantitative and qualitative analysis. In quantitative terms, you could do only descriptive statistical analysis, as your sample size and nature would not support inferential statistics.

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Conventionally, researchers speak of ‘data collection’. Another term is ‘data construction’, which refers to the generation of data as a creative act, such as through writing a diary, taking part in an interview or working as a group to make a collage about a research topic. Which term you use depends on your standpoint. As I am writing for people conducting research from a range of standpoints, for the purposes of this book, I have chosen ‘gathering’ as an overarching term. Conventional data collection has involved viewing people as repositories of data that could be transferred to researchers, who themselves possessed no data until they took it from others. The view of autoethnographers is different. They gather data primarily from themselves: their own memories, senses, emotions, thoughts, experiences, relationships, artefacts and documents. Many researchers occupy a loose middle ground, with varying levels of importance being placed on the researcher’s actions and reactions, examined through ‘reflexivity’ (see Chapter 5.) This chapter covers the gathering of arts-based and embodied data; Chapter 7 covers the gathering of data using technology or multi-modal approaches. These distinctions are not hard and fast. For example, photography and video are claimed by both arts-based researchers and those using technology. I have included photography in this chapter and video in the next, which could be regarded as somewhat arbitrary. Also, some of the examples in this chapter could also be classified as multi-modal. The distinctions I draw in this book between different areas of creative research methods are designed to aid thought and discussion, rather than to form some kind of fixed taxonomy.

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All researchers will need to present their research to at least one audience, such as a written report for commissioners, a PowerPoint presentation for stakeholders or a dissertation or thesis for examiners. Presentation is a form of dissemination, but usually requires the researcher to be present, while on the whole dissemination happens through media that people can access independently, ranging from academic journals to art exhibitions to websites. Dissemination will be covered in Chapter 14.

All presentation is embodied; we cannot present research from outside our bodies (Ellingson 2017: 1). Conventional presentation techniques, such as written conference papers read out word for word, can be stultifyingly dull (Cutcher 2013: 39). If we want our research to make an impact, we need to present it in ways that audiences appreciate (Tracy 2010: 838; Kirk 2012: 32; Jones and Leavy 2014: 3). Luckily, there are many creative ways to make research presentations more engaging through visual, performative and other arts-based techniques (Gergen and Gergen 2012: 12, 25–6). However, as with all creative research methods, it’s essential to make sure that you choose methods of presentation that suit your purposes and are appropriate for your audience(s), rather than using a method just because someone you admire has used it or because it appeals to you.

Just as research methods should be chosen because they are most likely to help answer research questions, so methods of presenting and disseminating research should be chosen because they are most likely to help in conveying the key messages of the research to the audience(s) (Kelleher and Wagener 2011: 826; McNiff 2018: 34).

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The distinction between arts-based and embodied is an artificial one because arts practices are embodied practices (Ellingson 2017: 31). In the first edition of this book, this chapter (at that time combined with the next) was called ‘Writing for research’. The new title reflects the development of methods for reporting on research, such that writing is no longer the only option, although it remains the primary choice for most researchers.

This chapter focuses primarily on writing, with other reporting methods such as blogs and video covered in Chapter 11. Here we consider research writing skills and the role of arts-based writing such as fiction and poetry in research reporting. As with the other arts, writing and reading are embodied practices, requiring the use of limbs, eyes, brain and emotions – and therefore the whole of our bodies.

When you reach the reporting stage, you develop a new set of responsibilities: to your potential readers, as well as to participants, researchers whose work you are building on and all the others who hold a stake in your research. For your audience(s), you need to report well and clearly so as to help them understand your work as easily as possible. You need to do justice to your participants by ensuring that you represent your data accurately and interpret your findings fairly. And you need to be fair to researchers whose work you build on, by citing their work correctly and not plagiarising it (Löfström 2011: 263).

There are many ethical decisions to be made in reporting research.

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