I have been a social researcher for a good many years but I’ve rarely been as excited about what’s happening in the field as I am now. This is due to a number of things which have happened over the last few months.
Bridging the divide
I’ll start off with the most recent event. A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference organised by the newly established Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University.
I’ve been very impressed by the work conducted by the people behind CASIC and this was a great opportunity to hear from them, and from others, trying to bridge the divide between researchers and communities through the use of creative and engaging research methods.
Based on an innovative research approach – jointly developed by Professor Mihaela Kelemen from Keele University and Sue Moffat, director of the award-winning New Vic Borderlines – CASIC challenges traditional models of producing knowledge; by placing dialogue and exchange at its very heart, using cultural animation techniques.
These techniques help participants to articulate ideas and views through the creation of cultural artefacts such as poems, puppets and performances.
Having worked with Mihaela and Sue on a project called Untold Stories of Volunteering a little while back, I saw for myself how powerful these techniques could be, particularly with people who may not engage with more conventional research methods.
My colleague Deb James has just completed a report looking at the legacy of several projects run by CASIC, her report effectively highlights how these techniques can be used to work more closely with communities, exploring the opportunities as well as the challenges.
Engaging with communities creatively
The CASIC projects I’ve mentioned are part of the Connected Communities programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This research programme designed to examine the changing nature of communities, has also sought to connect communities with research, and more specifically to look at the potential of the arts and humanities to support community-engaged research.
It has already awarded funding to over 280 projects involving more than 400 community partners and organisations. I would strongly encourage you to explore this programme, particularly the huge diversity of what is being covered and how many of the researchers involved are indeed ‘doing research’ differently.
Beyond the Connected Communities programme, there certainly seems to be a growing appetite for creative research methods at the moment. In May we saw the publication of a book dedicated to creative methods by Helen Kara, who also organised a one-day conference with the Social Research Association on this very topic.
Whilst it’s very clear that the use of these methods may not always be appropriate, they may help us to investigate complex issues and they seem better adapted to research projects which seek to connect with communities in a more engaging and meaningful way.
Changing the knowledge landscape
Lastly, I want to mention the keynote speech by Julian Corner, chief executive of Chase Lankelly, at this year’s Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference. Julian’s speech was incredibly well received by conference delegates (mostly researchers working in voluntary organisations and academics).
I can’t do justice here to the richness of his reflections on how research can influence practice and policy. But one of the main messages of his speech, which struck me and chimed with some of the points I made earlier, was about the need for more connective research which draws together multiple perspectives on equal terms and allows people to relate and connect to each other.
He hoped to see a ‘shift from people and communities as distanced objects of evidence, to people and communities as connected generators of evidence’ in the 21st century.
The projects conducted by CASIC and by other Connected Communities partners, which put so much emphasis on bringing people together and sharing, have given me hope that we may be moving in the right direction.