Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

By Thea Soltau, PhD Candidate HCRI, The University of Manchester

As a fledgling researcher, my attention is almost equally divided between my research interests and the research methodology itself. With a background in theatre, education and community arts I am particularly interested in the experiences of academics and practitioners who are employing creative methodologies to conduct their research. The intention of this blog is to reflect briefly on some of the challenges which were raised by the panel entitled ‘Creative Methodologies’ at the Migration Lab’s recent World on the Move conference.

In a conference which focussed on exploring why and how people migrate and cross boundaries I valued the opportunity to learn from more experienced practitioners whose research has migrated from more traditional methods to cross boundaries in collecting, analysing and presenting data. My own creative practice is primarily informed by Freirian pedagogy and the learning process. Focussing on how we are learning, what is being taught and who is learning from whom.  A primary aspect of Freirian pedagogy[i][1] is the focus on addressing inequalities, in for example, education and learning. The discussion reflected a combination of pedagogic disciplines applied by the panel which have successfully maintained a balance between the creative process and rigorous academic and creative integrity.

Chaired by Jenna Murray de López (lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at HCRI) the panel was representative of creative practitioners from around the UK and Europe. Papers were presented on using sound-art practices, research-based theatre, performing arts practices and documentary film making.[ii] A number of issues were raised in the presentations.  I would like to reflect on these and the discussions which followed.

It was noted that the nature of this panel demonstrates we are now applying more creative approaches to collecting data. In the light of this, however, it was asked if we should now be challenging ourselves to think about how creativity is applied throughout the research process as a whole, including how data may be analysed and presented.  This first challenge of data analysis was highlighted with an example about participatory arts research, performance and the potential limits of audience data or feedback.  Liam Harte (University of Manchester) briefly discussed the practice and challenges of using questionnaires to adequately analyse audience responses together with the challenge to ‘tick boxes’ regarding research impact and evaluation.

It was also acknowledged there has definitely been a shift in what people are responding to in terms of how data is presented. In this instance the ‘how’ was represented in research based/documentary theatre, film and sound-scape. Which challenges, for example, the primacy of text over alternative forms of data representation which may be deemed less authentic.

Also observed by the panel is the shift in who is responding. Given the background of the panel, focussing on ‘who’ is responding is likely to be something creative practitioners may focus on since they are applying community engagement and audience development experience within a research framework.  Taken within this context, such practitioners would naturally be asking who is the intended audience when presenting research findings, for example.   Academics?  Policy-makers?  In addition to any communities and participants with whom we may be working.

I found myself considering this particular aspect of the panel’s discussion when attending the performance of ‘Be/Longing’ later that day.  In particular, how performance and installation has, within this conference, worked hand-in-hand alongside more ‘traditional’ forms of research and presenting data.  I have attended a number of performances recently which have focussed on narratives of migration and asylum. This performance and installation was noticeable in its creative integrity to share stories of those seeking asylum and those held in detention outside the UK.

Looking round at the audience I reflected on the second point I highlighted earlier, that of ‘who’ is responding to performances and installations etc. I may previously have been primarily concerned about ‘preaching to the converted’ regarding members of the audience.  I am now, however, more aware of those who are the ‘subjects’, the ‘focus’ of our research who are attending performances about asylum and migration. Importantly, this would widen the gaze to include how those whose stories we are telling feel about how they are being represented in performance.

[i]  Freire, P  (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Classics


Panel papers:

Responding to migration: sound art practices promoting social transformation’ Manuella Blackburn, Liverpool Hope University.

‘Think emigration, think famine – that was me!!’: exploring aspects of the Irish migrant experience through research-based theatre, Liam Harte, University of Manchester.

Art, migration and activism, Janis Irene Jirotka, Hamburg University.

Documentary film as a gesture of grounding. On Pierre Schoeller’s different approach to represent life in the Kawergosk refugee camp. Eugenia Stamboliev, University of Plymouth.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.