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What are research participants doing?

December 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I thought I’d use this blog as an opportunity to ask myself what social research participants are doing in social research when they are clearly doing something other than, or as well as, research. Research participants’ involvement in research is a rather obvious example of the co-research to which the blog title refers. Of course there are research approaches – such as participatory action research, or PAR – which explicitly require and address such participant involvement. But what happens when that involvement is manifestly and necessarily distinct from that of the researcher? And might the answer to this question have something to say about contemporary characteristics of social research itself?

 Recently I have been doing some research with Chila Kumari Burman, Leverhulme Artist in Residence in our School and with the school’s Centre for Narrative Research (http://www.uel.ac.uk/cnr/ChilaBurman-Artistinresidence.htm ) Chila has been running workshops on visual autobiography with groups of people in different East London locations, using life size shapes drawn round their bodies as a starting point, and a mixed media approach involving collage, painting and drawing.  I’ve been doing interviews with the workshop participants afterwards about how they put these visual autobiographies together – what they put in, what they left out, what the process was, what they liked about it, how they might do it differently next time. Cigdem Esin, CNR’s Research Officer, has been helping out, and so has Abu Maruf, a Masters student on our Narrative Research module. You can see examples of Cigdem’s and Maruf’s own visual autobiographies below.

The workshops happened in an art gallery, a cultural center and and a supplementary school in Spitalfields, an area that is economically, educationally, ethnically and culturally highly diverse. A lot of work has already been done on historical, socioeconomic and cultural formations within this locality.  For me, the interest was not so much in diverse participant identities, but more in what participants brought to the workshops from the locality and from outside it, from across the city and across the world. Researching participation in a cultural activity like an art workshop is a good way to go beyond everyday socioeconomic identities because the activity is exceptional; some people will see the workshop happening in their regular environment and ignore it, others will hear about it from outside and travel to it. At the same time, researching, by individual interview, the subjectivities expressed in the images, allows a breaching of everyday identity formations, since a wide range of subjectivities – past, present and future, actual, reconstructed and imagined, your own and those of others close to you, from East London, the whole city, the country and the world – all find a place. 

 What about in the art itself and the making of it? Most people constructed autobiographies mainly within the shape of the body, using materials at the workshop that they liked, drawing, painting and writing alongside and over them, sometimes  – like Cigdem – bringing materials in to add to the images or adding things later at home. Some images  – like Maruf’s – were entirely made up of their own images, written in this case, though using the paint materials in the workshop.

 The most obvious visual difference was in the name and postcode tags that dominated some of the children’s images, picturing a concern with local identities that’s quite common across London and in other cities. Visually, these tags crossed and sometimes completely shattered the boundaries of the body maps, writing names, postcodes and localities around and over individual bodies.

But these tagged images also emblematiseda broader issue: the taking over of the research by the participants. The children who made these images started off following the guidelines for the workshop and then, realising they didn’t have to, invented some of their own, about what to tag, where, and who could tag whose work. Some of them made separate, poster-sized tag pieces as well.

 This kind of journeying away from research within the research itself, is always going to happen to some degree, especially when research is being done in people’s regular leisure, cultural and educational settings. It’s particularly feasible when, as in this case, research piggybacks onto the making of art, which all the participants understood as at least partly their own creation – not subsumed by curriculum or aesthetic tradition. Also, when people work in groups, as here, it’s possible that at times the researcher will become just another citizen of the research world, outnumbered, outperformed and outspoken, in the art and the interviews, by the research participants. And when, as in this case, the research is also supplementary to art, and is happening in educational or cultural institutions, the researcher may even be less researcher, and more a co-citizen of the artmaking, educational or cultural worlds of the research context. The researcher may end up writing the research, but even without PAR the resultant work is going to be determined by contributions not of their making and often not even known about by them.

 It was very clear in the art and the interview elements of this project that people’s participation was functioning in a lot of ways independently of the research and even of the art. In interviews, they said variously – and sometimes self-contradictorily – that in the workshops they were having fun; doing something they were good at; spending time on an activity they used to love but now had less time for; enjoying art in a non-judgemental context, large-scale art, the lengthiness of the project, or materials they hadn’t used before; trying to develop their artistic practice; interacting within families; interacting between friends; exploring the content and histories of their lives; thinking about their futures. Since these participants were so active in determining the research, these participant activities and drives must shape it. But it seems salutary to imagine research itself as a hybrid of drives and activities like these: as fun, as social activity, as historical exploration, and as explorations of the future and of change. One of the children who had made an artwork dominated by name and place tags looked at it later, in the interview, and considered aloud whether that was how he always wanted to draw himself.  This research made me wonder something similar.

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