Getting creative – a review of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences

creative research methodsCreative research methods have a long tradition in the arts and humanities, but are much less familiar in the social sciences. So I’m delighted to see this new book from Dr Helen Kara offer a welcome insight into the growing field of creative research methods for social science research. The book is a positive romp through a whole range of creative methods and approaches. Inevitably this means that the book is wide in scope rather than deep in detail on any one approach but for me this was a plus. The book feels encyclopedic in the care and attention that has been given to documenting references, case studies and examples, providing a vast range of references to works for you to explore at your leisure in more detail as you want. It’s a timely and much needed prompt to all social scientists about the importance of thinking outside of the box and not being afraid to jump out of our methodological comfort zones once in a while.

I was particularly taken by an early example of the use of crochet to model the geometry of  hyperbolic planes by Latvian mathmatician Daina Taimina. And I was pleased to see concepts like ‘bricolage’ and ‘remix‘ in research being discussed. Creative combinations of methods and reworking established approaches into new and exciting designs are all part of the creative landscape we are encouraged to explore.

The book is really thought-provoking, as I read through its pages I found myself considering a wider range of methods than I might normally and if it has the same effect on others we could be in for interesting times. From innovative uses of ‘conventional’ social science methods like surveys or focus groups, through to creative mapping (see for example this video on using emotion mapping in clinical practice with families), performative research, technology enabled research (good to see the #NSMNSS network getting a shout out too 🙂 ) and the use of graphic novels, it urges us to think differently about what social science research looks like. I also like that the book is clear that not all creative approaches to research will be innovative and that you can (and should?) be creative with tried and tested conventional methods like interviews, focus groups and surveys. This is important, especially for applied researchers where research clients and funders may be less open to the more overtly creative approaches of performance and art-based social research.

Rather than having chapters on specific creative approaches the book is organised around different stages in the research process, providing guidance and examples of how and why creativity can be built into research design, data collection, analysis and writing. It also does not shy away from the thorny issues of ethics and rigour. The book challenges social scientists to reflect on their methods, to try new approaches and apply some creative thinking. But it doesn’t do so mindlessly, it also reminds us to think about the ethics, quality and rigour of what we are doing as we experiment.

I’ll be writing more about creativity later this month seeing as I’m attending a day long workshop on creative leadership this week swiftly followed a day at the Social Research Association’s first conference on creative research methods. But for now, it’s a big thumbs up from me for this book, a great read, one I expect to be dipping into time and time again!

Feedback: a purposeful act of appreciation


I started writing this post a fair few weeks ago in response to Helen’s (aka. @WildFigSolns) call for people to share their thoughts on why feedback doesn’t happen more often. But other things got in the way and in the interim a whole host of wonderful posts have been shared which you can find at the hashtag #feedbackcarnival. As a result I’ve happily scrapped my draft as other bloggers have much more eloquently captured what I was thinking.

For me, feedback is maligned because of how it’s been formalised in so many organisations. When it’s done at best once or twice a year and intimately linked to performance appraisal rather than valued as a living, breathing dialogue then feedback is robbed of much of its potential.

It’s become a thing to fear, or worse be bored by (feedback sandwich anyone?!). As Steve Roesler has commented “The term “feedback” has morphed into “Here’s what you need to correct” instead of “Here’s how I think we’re doing.” It’s become a statement of performance rather than a discussion.

But, done well, feedback can be a dynamo to drive our team’s sense of value, it can propel learning and develop our strengths, it’s so simple but the lack of it is one of most cited reasons for leaving a job.

Simon Sinek has written about leaders creating a ‘circle of safety’ in their teams and this sense of safety has to be built to encourage people to give each other feedback, positive and developmental. Inside that circle we can encourage people to practice daily acts of feedback and to view them as not random acts of meanness or criticism, but as purposeful acts of appreciation for each other’s work. Even negative feedback shows that we care for each other and each other’s work, I care enough about what you do to talk about it with you. Not all feedback will, or should be glowing, but it should all come with a big helping of kindness and understanding.

When we’re willing to hear feedback ourselves, offer it constructively to others and then sit with it and work through the feelings provoked we can start to make headway. Great feedback provides us with:

  • A sense of belonging – being part of a team that cares enough to share
  • A purpose – understanding why & how our individual contributions make a difference to our colleagues
  • Aspirational goals – something to strive for, fuelling our desire to do things better, improve and develop for the future
  • Trust in each other – good feedback builds trust and strengthens our circle of safety: I start to trust you to let me know where I can be better but also to support me if I take a misstep, and to appreciate & value my contributions.

You know what, you don’t build that deep conversation from once or twice a year reviews. It has to be woven into everyday practice so… Feedback would happen more often if we stopped labelling it appraisal, or review or feedback and just had purposeful conversations with each other. Nothing earth shattering there, just a concerted effort to speak up and to listen, to share and to care, every day.


Praise you

“We’ve come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should.” FatBoy Slim ‘Praise You’

I didn’t intend to write this post just yet but then I realised last night that 18 years ago today I stepped through the doors of my current organisation with no idea that I’d still be here so many years down the road. I joined a month before the Blair government took power in 1997 and here we are just before another election day, just 18 years later. 18 years, I have decided is a mighty long time.

This also means I have been in this job for exactly the same amount of time I knew my Dad before he passed away. Which is a weird coincidence. Or to think of it another way, I’ve worked in one place for the same amount of time it took me to grow from a baby to a young woman. And although I’d worked in other places before I joined my current organisation, I really learnt my craft here and so much more. The last eighteen years has been like growing up too, whether in terms of confidence, skills or just learning how to be alongside people at work, it’s been one long learning curve.

We talk a lot about our volatile and uncertain world which is often depicted by a constant flow of workers and organisational change, structure after restructure. And true I’ve experienced some of this. Along the way some people stay, others move upstream, downstream or along the bank. No decision is less valid, we all have our paths to take. But to my grandparent’s generation this state of flux would be strange. Then it was normal to stay in a single organisation for most of your working life and to move around rarely. 

Times have changed. Long service awards have fallen by the wayside, yet I still remember my grandad receiving his long service carriage clock with such pride from the haulage company he’d worked with for many years. If we take media reports at face value, we’re all now working portfolio careers, or happily being self-employed flitting from one coffee house wi-fi spot to another. Somehow it’s become uncool to be a long serving employee. On occasion, I’ve caught myself colluding in this negativity, wrinkling my nose and shying away from putting a number on the years I have worked for my organisation.

Nowadays it can feel like long service is something to be frowned at, not celebrated. I’m not arguing that we should simply celebrate the number of years passed, but instead that we recognise the vast investment of time, emotion, skills and labour that that length of service represents both from the employee and their organisation. And also the knowledge that comes with that, not facts and figures but an understanding of the organisational currents, ebbs and flows.

A colleague joked last week that 18 years means I’ve served more time than most whole life tariff prisoners do but I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s been a place of adventure and exploration not a space of constriction. Just like a gnarly bit of root that juts out into the river as the flow gushes over and around it, my eighteen years in this particular flow have helped shape who I am, both at work and out of it. And I hope my presence has gently altered that flow over time too. I’ve changed and so has the organisation, we’ve moulded each other.

I’ve laughed and cried with colleagues and learnt huge amounts from the opportunities I’ve had to stretch my wings and experience new challenges and adventures. What I’ve learnt most of all is that being in one place doesn’t necessarily mean stagnation but that the longer you stay the more you have to challenge yourself not to slip into tired routines, old dialogues or set piece reactions. I’ve probably learnt more about myself in the last five years than I did in the preceding decade by pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into new places.

And now this particular learning curve is drawing to a close for me, I’ll be leaving my current job in the summer to start on a new journey, I hope I’ll carry all those lessons & experiences with me as I move into a new chapter. It’s an adventure which would never have been possible without the preceding years. 

So I think it’s time for a little praise for the long serving employee and the companies & organisations that provide opportunities for those people to grow and develop. Every person I have worked alongside over the last eighteen years has prepared me for this next step and for that, in the words of Fatboy Slim, I have to praise you like I should.


Postscript: my brother read this blog and Facebooked me from the prow of the RFA ship he is currently serving on. He reminded me that Grandad’s carriage clock now sits on his mantelpiece and that after 34 years with the RFA he still keeps fresh because of all the change and innovation that goes on around him. Big brothers they always have to go one better!!

What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange: update

Here is the full slide deck from my session at #LT15Uk today and you can see Storify of the Twitter stream here.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and experiences of building communities of practice for learning. Thanks to: Niall Gavin, Con Sotodis, Martin Couzins and Helen Blunden for their input into my thinking:

What makes a great community for learning & knowledge exchange

I’m a big advocate of the potential for peer led networks and communities to help improve performance, build shared understanding and develop professional practice. I’ve written about this before and I’m looking forward to talking about my experiences of building networks and communities in and beyond the workplace at the Learning Technologies conference at the end of this month. I’ll maybe see some of you there, and if you’re coming along you can also pick my brains at an LT eXchanges session on the 28th Jan.

As Julian Stodd has expressed beautifully in his work on the Social Age, agile learning and community building are key to how we can continue to make sense of our rapidly changing world. We have moved on from (or at least we should have) assuming that the classroom or instruction are always the best route for helping our teams make sense of their work, learn new approaches and develop their practice. Communities, and conversations, whether face to face or online, formal or informal, are critical.


Image by Julian Stodd

But where do you start and how can we support communities so that they flourish and grow?

I’ve found networks & communities can be invaluable for empowering staff and appreciating & recognising the expertise already in your organisation. They can also help to expose great work which sometimes get buried within team or departmental silos. I’ve had some really positive experiences watching communities grow and visibly fizz with energy but equally have seen well-intentioned networks and communities start loudly and then fade away.

A sense of shared purpose is important, as is having the right organisational foundations and support, but it’s not always easy especially when everyone is busy and hard pressed for time. Even with the best intentions sometimes communities of practice don’t take off or have the hoped for effect.

I’ll be (attempting!) to tweet the key messages from my slot on the day but I’m really keen to gather other perspectives and experiences for sharing with the audience, I know many of you out there have your own insights and experiences to share so I’m asking for your help, I’d love to know your thoughts on these questions:

  • what makes for a great community of practice?
  • what experiences have you had, good and bad?
  • what advice would you give to someone just starting out with a new community?


Image from

Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’ll share them on the day (with attribution) and here…

Innovations in knowledge sharing, creating a book of blogs

imageIn October 2014 the NSMNSS network published its first ebook, a collection of over fifty blogs penned by researchers from around the world who are using social media in their social research. To the best of our knowledge this is the first book of blogs in the social sciences. It draws on the insights of experienced and well-known commentators on social media research through to the thoughts of researchers new to the field. In this post I reflect on the process of creating that book. A version of this post was also published on the NSMNSS blog.

imageWhy did we choose to publish a book of blogs rather than a textbook or peer-reviewed article?  In my view there is space in the academic publishing world for peer reviewed works and self-published books. We chose to publish a book of blogs rather than a traditional academic tome because we wanted to create something quickly which reflected the concerns and voices of our members. Creating a digital text, built on people’s experiences and use of social media seemed an obvious choice. Many of our network members were already blogging about their use of social media for research, for those who weren’t this was an opportunity to write something short and have their voices heard.

Unlike other fields of social research, social media research is not yet populated with established authors and leading writers, the constant state of flux of the field means it is unlikely to ever settle in quite the same way as ethnography say or survey research. The tools, platforms and approaches to studying them are constantly changing. In this context works which are published quickly to continue to feed the plentiful discussions about the methods, ethics and practicalities of social media research seem an important counterpoint to more scholarly articles and texts.

How did we do it?

Step 1Create a call for action: We used social media channels to publicise the call for authors, posting tweets with links to the network blog which gave authors a clear brief on what we were looking for. Within less than a fortnight we had over 40 authors signed up.

Step 2 Decide on the editorial control you want to have: We let authors know that we were not peer reviewing content, if someone was prepared to contribute we would accept that contribution unless it was off theme. In the end we used every submitted blog with one exception. This was an important principle for us, the network is member-led and we wanted this book to reflect the concerns of our members not those of an editor or peer-review panel. The core team at NatCen undertook light touch editing to formatting and spelling but otherwise the contributions are unadulterated. We also organised the contributions into themes to make it easier for readers to navigate.

Step 3Manage your contributions: We used Google Drive to host an author’s sign-up spreadsheet asking for contact information and also an indication of the blog title and content. We also invited people to act as informal peer reviewers. Some of our less experienced authors wanted feedback and this was provided by other authors. This saved time because we did not have to create a database ourselves and was invaluable when it came to contacting authors along the way.

Step 4 – Keep a buzz going and keep in touch with authors: We found it important to kp the book of blogs uppermost in contributors minds, we did this through a combination of social media (using the #bookofblogs) and regular blogs and email updates to authors.

Step 5 – Set milestones: we set not just an end date for contributions but several milestones along the way tgo achieve 40% and 60% of contributions, this helped keep the momentum going.

Step 6 – Choose your publishing platform: there are a number of self-publishing platforms. We chose to use Press Books which has a very smooth and simple user interface similar to many blogging tools like WordPress. We did this because we wanted authors to upload their own contributions, saving administrative time. By and large this worked fine although inevitably we ended up uploading some for authors and dealing with formatting issues!

Step 7 – Decide on format and distribution channels – You will need to consider whether to have just an e-book, an e-book and a traditional book and where to sell your book. We chose Amazon and Kindle (Mobi) format for coverage and global reach but you can publish into various formats and there are a range of channels for selling your book.

Step 8 – Stick with it… when you’re creating a co-authored text like this with multiple authors you need to stick with it, have a clear vision of what you are trying to create and belief that you will reach your launch ready to go. And we did, we hope you enjoy it.

Watch a short video featuring a few of the authors from the Book of Blogs discussing what their pieces are about.
Join the conversation today use #NSMNSS or follow us on Twitter @NSMNSS and you can buy the e-book here all proceeds go towards network events.

PS – special thanks are due to David De Souza (@dds180) who started this ball rolling with his innovative curation of the HR book of blogs vol. I & II. Humane Resourced & This Time it’s Personnel.

It started with a tweet…

This blog was originally published on the NatCen blog here.

image It started with a tweet, a blog post and a nervous laugh. Three months later I found myself looking at a book of blogs. How did that happen?! Being involved in the NSMNSS network since its beginning has been an ongoing delight for me. It’s full of researchers who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries, question established thinking and break down a few silos.

When I began my social research career, mobile phones were suitcase-sized and collecting your data meant lugging a tape recorder and tapes around with you. That world is gone, the smartphone most of us carry in our pockets now replaces most of the researcher’s kitbag, and one single device is our street atlas, translator, digital recorder, video camera and so much more. Our research world today is a different place from 20 years ago, social media are common and we don’t bat an eyelid at running a virtual focus group or online survey. We navigate and manage our social relationships using a plethora of tools, apps and platforms and the worlds we inhabit physically no longer limit our ability to make connections

Social research as a craft, a profession, is all about making sense of the worlds and networks we and others live in, how strange would it be then if the methods and tools we use to navigate these new social worlds were not also changing and flexing. Our network set out to give researchers a space to reflect on how social media and new forms of data were challenging conventional research practice and how we engage with research participants and audiences. If we had found little to discuss and little change it would have been worrying, I am relieved to report the opposite, researchers have been eager to share their experiences, dissect their success at using new methods and explore knotty questions about robustness, ethics and methods.

image Our book of blogs, available as an ebook here, is our members take on what that changing methodological world feels like to them, it’s about where the boundaries are blurring between disciplines and methods, roles and realities. It is not a peer reviewed collection and it’s not meant to be used as a text book, what we hope it offers is a series of challenging, interesting, topical perspectives on how social research is adapting, or not, in the face of huge technological and social change.  I want to thank every single author from the established bloggers to the new writers who have shared their thoughts with us in this volume. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed curating it. All proceeds from book sales will go towards network events which are otherwise unfunded.

We we will be running more online & offline events this year so do follow the network and join in the discussion @NSMNSS, #NSMNSS or at our blog

My year of blogging tentatively…

The stats monkeys kindly prepared an automated 2014 annual report for my blog. Hopefully this review tool won’t cause WordPress the same headache Facebook’s year in review triggered. I’m in two minds about these auto generated reviews of the year generally. But it was good to see this one because it prompted me to reflect on blogging and what it’s meant to me this year. Last Christmas I took the plunge and decided to give blogging a serious go and whilst I haven’t blogged prolifically I am pleased with how it’s gone so far, it’s a work in progress like most things in my life! I’ve really enjoyed having the space to work out my thoughts and importantly to engage with those who’ve been kind enough to read and comment on a range of topics including learning & development, ethics and social research.

It’s been fascinating to reflect on how my relationship with blogging has evolved during the year. I definitely suffered from stage fright at the beginning, over thinking how people might react to posts, there were lots of drafts left hanging as I prevaricated! Slowly I found my feet and part of that was realising that when I wrote it should be about things that are important to me, I can’t blog to order it seems to cause the metaphorical ink in my pen dry up when I try. I think my better posts this year have been inspired by things I feel passionate about or am genuinely intrigued by and that’s how it should be, like in life. There were points towards the end of the year when I couldn’t post because life got in the way and I was surprised to find I missed the thinking process, the musing, and crafting words to express germs of ideas. So I’m looking forward to writing more again in the New Year, but I’m also conscious that I don’t want blogging to become another item on my To Do list, whenever it started to feel like a chore it lost it’s sheen for me and I found myself unable to write. I admire bloggers who post weekly (some daily) but it doesn’t work for me (perhaps that should be yet!?). For me blogging is another way to engage, take part in conversations and play with ideas with a wider range of folks than I see on a daily basis, it’s about learning & experimenting & some deeper thinking…

I’ve really learnt about the power of blogging this year for forging ideas, relationships and connections. It’s a form that can be incredibly powerful for giving a wide range of people a voice and a platform. Blogging & reading others blogs has opened my mind to new ideas and novel ways of approaching old issues. For me it’s become an important way to make sense of my professional practice and to expose myself to different ways of thinking. No one was more surprised or delighted than me to find that this initial post led to a deluge of people wanting to be part of a book of blogs on social media research.


It was a roller coaster ride but that community of bloggers, some established, some novices, created something very special, published in October a mere four months later the book stands as an example of how blogging can push the boundaries.

Here’s an excerpt from that report on my year of blogging tentatively:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report  I hope to share a cable car with you sometime soon!

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read or comment and encourage me in my baby blogging steps, it’s meant the world to me. And a huge thank you to all the bloggers who’ve kept me intrigued, puzzled and curious this year with your posts. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversations here, on Twitter and in person.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year, see you in 2015. 🎉🎊

In the margins


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Some people write in their books; others view this as desecration. The practice of adding handwritten notes, or marginalia, to books has been going on for centuries. (The Evolution of Marginalia: Kiri L. Wagstaff)

Our love affair with the e-book is showing no signs of abating but like many people I’m still attached to real books and have shelves (and boxes) full of books I can’t bear to part with. Books have been a huge part of my life, I’ve always been an avid reader and novels have often been a refuge for me, a place to lose myself for an hour or two or three.

When e-books came along I swore I’d never convert but one Kindle app and three years down the road almost every novel I read now is read on Kindle, and for me it’s joy to walk around with an endless library on tap. But I still find it difficult to read anything other than novels, newspapers and magazines online. If I have to work with a text, rather than just read it for pleasure, wherever possible I work with a real book.  In a similar way, I still find it difficult to adapt to digital note taking, I have tried and failed to ‘get’ Evernote. I still carry around a leather notebook that jostles for space with my iPad in my bag. For me there’s something about the physical act of writing, turning pages, and taking notes that helps my concentration and ability to absorb ideas and concepts. It is how I learnt to learn and so far has been quite impervious to change. And one other thing hasn’t changed, I still wouldn’t dream of writing notes in the book itself.

I listened to R3 programme on marginalia earlier in the year, the practice has been going on for centuries and is a well established focus for historical research. Most e-readers now allow you to mark up and make comments digitally, and whilst some people are worried about how these digital marginalia can be preserved for future generations, software developers are busy adding functionality to our e-readers to enable us to share our mark ups, comments and reflections.

I find this whole topic fascinating and challenging. As someone who’s always been fanatical about not marking books (I used to have a whole selection of bookmarks to prevent page folding) the concept that another reader’s written annotations could add value rather than detract from a text was a bit of an anathema to me. I admit I find other people’s scribbling distracting, it leads my eye and without great attention I’m pulled into the previous reader’s slipstream taking their ideas, questions and interpretations rather than forming my own. 

But the programme challenged me to think again. As have various posts and articles I’ve read about the topic. One researcher, Cathy Marshall explored the value students drew from using second-hand annotated text books. Unlike me these students were drawn to  marked up copies in libraries for the handed down wisdom of former readers. When I’ve discussed this with other people, they’ve often felt the same, for them annotations add something new to the reading exprience.

This got me thinking, aren’t annotations on texts similar to shared wikis and collaborative blogging?  They’re really not that different to digital curation and the collective sense making we co-create in digital spaces which I’m all for.  So I’m intrigued by why I’m so uncomfortable with making or seeing annotations in the margins of my books?

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect.  I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up. If you’re interested, these posts all discuss the value of historical and digital marginalia. 

Despite all of this I still find myself loathe to pick up that pen and highlighter! 

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you feel about people writing on books? Does it make your blood boil or fill you with curiosity to see what marks have been left for you the future reader?

Just like starting over…

So this weekend I’m packing my husband into a car and waving him off hundreds of miles up the country to spend a year at University. He’ll be back for holidays and some weekends but essentially after many, many years of living together we will be living apart for the next year. This isn’t the place to write about how proud of him I am (though I am hugely) but I do want to share how this process is forcing us us both to look afresh at how and in what ways we take each other for granted. We’re seeing how over the years our behaviours have moulded into a set of well worn practices and adjustments. Over time in a relationship our actions (& inactions) become unspoken, implicit, and the familiarity of our reliance on one another often forms a ring of care around us which is loving and comfortable.

Yet at the same time familiarity can breed contempt, or less harshly, we take each other for granted. So whilst it’s going to be a huge change for both of us I’m also eager to see where it will take us. I have a feeling it’s going to be good for us. It’s making us reflect on the things we do for each other and the emotional support we give one another. Rather than staying in that comfortable safe pattern we’ll be able to explore new experiences, our relationship will have a new rhythm to shake it up. And I’m betting we’ll learn to appreciate each other all over again and for different things.

Our life together is so precious together,
We have grown – we have grown,
Although our love is still special,
Let’s take our chance and fly away somewhere alone,

It’s been so long since we took the time,
No-one’s to blame,
I know time flies so quikly,
But when I see you darling,
It’s like we both are falling in love again,
It’ll be just like starting over – starting over

And it’s got me wondering about what we miss out on by not shaking the tree occasionally.

At work, as at home, it’s easy to slip into our comfy slippers and relax into well worn roles. Who in your team is doing what they’ve always done because they’ve always done it? I bet there’s someone who is always there with a kind word and thoughtful touch, do you and the team take that emotional support for granted?

What might happen if you shook things up and found new roles and challenges for everyone? What latent talents, enthusiasms might be hidden by the comfort of routine, what new beats might the team move to if you suggested you listen to something new for a change, or try a different approach. We all like to think we’re moving and shaking with the best of them but I reckon most of us default to the norm more often than is healthy. As a manager, as a colleague, I think part of my role is to shake that tree and make sure that no one is being left under a shady spot without enough light to help them bloom.

So just like we’re doing at home I’m going to spend some time thinking about the teams I work with, do some checking in with them and make sure people aren’t taking each other for granted or making assumptions about who does what and why. It could be just like starting over..