Sunday, 15 April 2012

Visual research 'conversations' with Ricoeur's narrative arc

It's about time I caught myself up methodologically. You see, I've been getting on with data collection for my part time PhD which has basically involved at least fifteen years of transcribing sessions. Well, perhaps slightly less that that. For newcomers, my study - in a nutshell - is about how narratives of professional identity and selfhood are constructed and used in the lives of a number of leaders of Sure Start Children's Centres in the UK. The study adopts the use of pragmatic philosophy and the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. I've previously posted about the journey I'm on in using both of these perspectives together, but suffice to say that both emphasise the importance of the social process. As I say to participants, it's not like their narratives just 'pop out of thin air'. So I'm interested in what participants have to say about how their narratives relate to action in the real world. 

I've seen the same wonderful group of individuals three times now since September 2011, with each 'conversation' lasting a couple of hours, which has been intense but wonderfully insightful. I say 'conversations' because the research design emphasises the nature of participation for these individuals. I'm looking at their narratives of identity, action and the 'sensemaking' narratives, those reflections on the process. I support their reflexivity firstly through the nature of conversations I'm having, but also partly through visual methods, specifically, the use of summary cartoons, which 'play back' key statements they have previously made. The thing is, after three sessions - six hours - of talking about quite a specific subject, participants were starting to say things like 'well, like I said last time'. I had no problems coming at issues from different angles, because we often benefit from returning to issues, but a grounded theorist might suggest some aspects of the data were becoming 'saturated'. As per the research design (who knew!), it's time to shift the visual methods up a notch as we jointly reflect on the 'raw material' we have constructed so far. 

There's perhaps a 'right' way and a 'wrong' way to do participatory research into narratives of professional identity. Option one is to say 'well, how did this lot come out of your interactions and symbolic worlds?'. I guess you will realise this won't get me far, unless I want a study of blank faces. These are clever people, but option two is to 'scaffold' the sensemaking process. This is the option that gets me excited, as I'm absolutely passionate about visual, interactive methods and the potential they have to engage and support complex and reflexive thinking. 

So what's the plan? Well, it involves reviewing, selecting and adapting both the 'cartoons' from previous sessions, as well as graphical elements that relate to the 'big stories' (meta narratives) and contexts of those narratives. That in itself I think will be really useful, as I focus on the talk around the process - what gets selected, adapted and so on. Participants will have the opportunity to move elements around in ways meaningful to them. As you might expect, there's a little more to it than that. A second half to the session gets us thinking about how narratives relate to the social worlds and lived experience of participants. The table (see picture) is split into two, with narrative elements on the top and contexts / springboards for these on the bottom. This allows me - in a jargon free way - to superimpose that arc you see in the picture, which represents the three stages of Ricoeur's hermeneutic arc:

  • prefiguration (in brief, how lived experience and communities of relations 'prefigure' narratives in that they provide us with shared symbolic meaning, patterns and so on).
  • configuration (the act of consciously constructing a narrative - for example, by the act of enplotment).
  • refiguration (the act of using narratives to direct or influence new action).
This is where it could become unhinged, but a good pilot session with my second supervisor and a couple of friendly colleagues has refined how I plan to reflect on each stage of the hermeneutic arc operates, with specific attention to the social mechanisms which I argue drive the process (that's for another post). I have learnt over the years of community arts work with adults and children that the most complex questions and issues can be considered if we use meaningful tools. In this case, I've ended up (after some hard work, which is usually needed to make things simple) with a set of 'question cards' which participants can pick and talk about as they feel interested. They do this whilst handling the visual elements and being able to make visual connections. The hope is that this gear shift in the visual methods, which looks deceptively simple, will support some pretty interesting reflective narratives about how narratives relate to action in a dynamic way. 

I think research should be fun, as well as hard work.