The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Keele University have a lively postgraduate community and many of our PGR students are involved in Engaged Research. In this series of blog posts, postgraduates reflect on their how their work engages with publics, uses co-creation and creates impact. In our second post, Psychology PhD student Angela Blanchard reflects on her use of co-creation and creativity in her work.
I’d like to tell you a little about who I am as a person before I tell you about my research. I’m a mother of four (ranging in ages from 25 to 15 years), a wife, a sister and a daughter. I’m also a therapeutic counsellor in private practice and a voluntary bereavement and loss supporter for a local charity…and I’m a full-time PhD candidate in the School of Psychology. I’m writing an autoethnography of the experience of childhood emotional neglect, which means that I am using my own subjective experience as a positive and conscious act. I am in my research, and my research is in me.
There is already a tradition of co-creation, especially mental health research, where the experience of the service user is recognised as crucial to a good research project. Some approaches go further, involving the service user in the project from the start – not just to answer questions, but to decide what questions should be asked in the first place.
The experience of childhood emotional neglect is by its nature disempowering, so a method that is consciously empowering feels like the only choice. I see the participants as co-researchers, or co-creators of the research. I don’t structure the interviews according to themes from the literature; I use unstructured interviews, inviting participants to tell me what is important to them. Afterwards, I send them my analysis, and invite their comments, so that together we work towards an understanding of the phenomenon.
Co-creation is not without challenges, though; once, when I referred to research participants as ‘co-researchers,’ the responses from a senior academic was: “If your participants are co-researchers, whose PhD will it be?” Of course, the answer is that it will be mine, because I have overall responsibility for the research project and the writing of the thesis; but I see ownership of the story as being shared with the participants.
Public engagement: “How to keep a secret from me”
Dissemination is especially important for personal and reflective research, which, if not communicated to others, may remain ‘personal learning’ rather than research. Dissemination is certainly my mission as I feel strongly that I am researching a hidden story that needs to be told. However, so far I have achieved only a narrow definition of dissemination or public engagement. I have talked about my research wherever possible, to anyone who will listen; I’ve talked informally to friends and family and counselling colleagues as well as fellow researchers, and presented posters and papers at the postgraduate research work-in-progress forum and conferences and symposiums both at Keele and at other universities (see photo, left, at the KILAS conference, April 2016). In June this year I presented at an international conference at the Centre for Research into Families and Relationships at Edinburgh University. The final speaker at this conference had a sobering message for the gathered researchers. Under the heading, “How to keep a secret from me”, Helen Chambers, Head of Strategy and Delivery at Inspiring Scotland, described the ways that researchers fail to get the message across to people like her:
- Publish in an academic journal (On my to-do list)
- Speak at an international academic conference (this got a laugh – as most of the audience had just presented at this international conference)
- Blog on a university/research institute website (Check!)
- Tweet (Done that, too)
- Send an email/hard copy report
However, that’s not all; as she explained, “It’s not just how you get it to us…” Much research, she complained, is (among other things) ‘inaccessible’ or ‘impenetrable.’
I found Helen’s message both hard to listen to and encouraging. One of my aims in using a methodology which blends creativity with scientific rigour is to make my research more accessible to a wider audience beyond academia. I hope to develop a performative element, in the form of poetry to be read aloud or a dramatization which could become a YouTube video.
Creativity is not only a way of communicating my research, however; it is an essential part of the research process. Spending time with images and metaphors enables me to reach new layers of meaning previously hidden from me. In preparing for the conference in Edinburgh, I decided to use old family photographs to illustrate my slides. I chose a photo of the family looking for shells on the beach to accompany the theme of ‘intergenerational aspects.’ As I looked at the photo of us searching, I reflected on the intergenerational theme, and the participants’ stories. While I was looking and thinking, almost in a meditative state, it occurred to me that I hadn’t identified the ‘intergenerational’ theme, it was the participants – my co-researchers – who had identified this in what they had chosen to tell me of their own stories.
For me, one of the challenges inherent in creativity is that my fear that it won’t sound like ‘real’ research. Being creative involves a certain amount of being, rather than doing; it involves waiting for knowledge to distil, rather than actively pursuing it; it requires the researcher to risk uncertainty, act on hunches or intuition, accept the possibility of many answers rather than a single ‘truth.’ I worry that I might not be taken seriously; I might find myself ‘locked out of the ivory tower’.
In terms of impact, there is an indirect link between my research and my practitioner role as a therapeutic counsellor; my practice informs my research, and my research informs my practice. There are parallels, too, in the methodology. As a person-centred counsellor I work with the subjective realities of my clients, accepting their perceptions as their ‘truths,’ just as I accept the research participants’ perceptions of childhood emotional neglect as valid. In my counselling practice I strive to maintain a ‘non-expert’ position, seeing myself as a ‘co-investigator’ alongside my clients as we explore their world and try to make sense of it together, much in the way that I strive to make sense of the experience of childhood emotional neglect alongside my research participants.
I have chosen to work with a methodology that embraces co-creation, creativity and performative elements because that is the best ‘fit’ for me as a person. Yet even if the methodology didn’t call for it, the story of childhood emotional neglect demands that I get the message out beyond the field of psychology, beyond the research community at Keele, beyond the academic world. I owe it to my co-researchers, the individuals who have courageously shared their painful, hidden stories, to make sure that those stories are finally heard in the world.
 Faulkner, A (2102) Qualitative data collection: asking the right questions. In D Harper & R Thompson (Eds) Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy; a guide for students and practitioners. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
 Sanders, P & Wilkins, P (2010) First steps in practitioner research. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books
 Kim Etherington, Keynote Speech, ‘Creativity and Research: How do they go together?’ Keele Counselling Conference, 2016