A landscape shaped by research participants.

The Tyne bridge and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

The Tyne bridge and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

A few weeks ago I was working in Newcastle upon Tyne, a city I lived in for 15 years and the place where I did my PhD. Driving back into the city I found myself on one of the routes I used to take to visit one of the ladies who participated in my fieldwork. Every time I return I do this drive and every time I pass within a few streets of her home.

I see her face,  I remember the numerous occasions she made her son walk me to the bus stop on a dark evening as she wanted to make sure I was safe.

I was privileged to work with a group of women living with rheumatoid arthritis over a period of two years, visiting their homes on a regular basis to conduct 1:1 interviews and then finally working with them in a couple of focus groups. Not just the usual cross sectional single interview but a longitudinal qualitative design and not just interviews either, for certain periods they kept diaries as well. They were amazing women of different ages and from very different backgrounds. Over the course of my fieldwork they welcomed  me into their homes, shared their experiences, challenges and aspirations and aspects of their family life.

When we read methods textbooks we read a lot about the impact of the researcher/participant relationship and how it shapes the data we collect and the interpretations we arrive at. We read less, I think, about the impact that the people who take part in our research have on our lives and especially our lives as clinicians.

Having supervised healthcare professionals undertaking both Masters and PhD dissertations I have heard versions of this story recounted on numerous occasions.The common thread running through supervisory meetings is, “I learnt so much that I didn’t know”.

On a personal level some of that learning was about how an impairment is only one facet of the rich tapestry of people’s lives and how when its management is located within this context there is a shift in emphasis that is missing from clinical encounters.

The women who participated in my PhD changed the way I work and think. My interactions with them took place over 20 years ago but they are still very alive to me and even more so when I return to Newcastle.  I wonder how their families are doing, sons and daughters are now probably married, some of them will probably grandmothers. I wonder how they are and whether they have been able to achieve some of the things we talked about.

Fieldwork and data collection may end but if, as qualitative researchers, we really are generating in-depth data with people the depth we go to will mean that the people we research with become a part of our lives, they shape aspects of our thinking and, if we are healthcare professionals, they inevitably shape the way we practice. We may ‘leave the field’ but the field does not leave us.


Losing words: writing qualitative research for publication.

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

There has been a theme running through the last few days of needing to loose words. I am working with a colleague to prepare a paper derived from a project we have just completed evaluating a dental outreach service for people from ‘hard to reach’ communities. Many of the service users are homeless and have complex needs and this service has evolved to try to address some of the challenges they face with dental care. So much to say.

There was a bit of a heart sink moment when we thought we had around 5,000 words to play with and then, looking at the author guidelines, we realised that, for this particular publication, the limit is actually 3,000. Two thousand words to cut, and we thought we were doing well to get it down to 5,000!

Writing within word limits is one of those things which for many of us challenges not only our language skills but our ability to ‘bottom line’ our research. Whether it is a 250 word abstract we are preparing to submit in response to a conference call or a 3,000 word limit for a paper word limits force us to make pretty fundamental decisions about how to piece together the key points, stay true to our findings and present a structured narrative which makes sense to the reader.

This is an even greater challenge, I think, when your world of research revolves around words. As a qualitative research my research is grounded in words: the stories people tell; how and where they tell them; the things they write about; the words I use to build the context, describe people, settings, emotions. If you then add to this the need to convey to the reader the credibility, trustworthiness and generalisability of your work – yet more words……..

We are walking a tightrope between providing enough information to assure reviewers and readers that our work is robust and trying hard to convey the depth of data we have gathered. Why is it that the quotes which eloquently convey a specific point are often the longest?

A while ago I wrote about bottom lining your research and the challenges of conveying a PhD in a tweet, well I guess we’re back in that territory again. Writing within any word constraint forces us to journey into the essence of our data. When push comes to shove what are THE most important things emerging from our data that we want to convey. It is a reductionist process and one that leaves me feeling frustrated about what has been left out. The colour is reduced to primary colours and the subtleties of shade and detail are missing.

The possibilities for communicating research are growing rapidly and a ground swell of researchers are exploring the potential of using multiple channels to talk about their research not only at the end of a project but across the whole trajectory.

A world of possibilities not only in terms of what we communicate but also how we communicate. Freedom to choose different styles of writing, to reach different audiences. If you are interested in exploring this world more then the LSE impact blog is a really great place to start; providing thought provoking posts and links to resources to take you on a journey of exploration.

Of course whatever form of communication we use we will always have to function within word limits, whether it is 140 characters or 3,000 words. So I’m off to loose some more words today.

The backstories of research

Mosaic in Manchester Victoria Road Station

Mosaic in Manchester Victoria Road Station

Another day in Manchester and another route into work. If you follow this blog you will, over time, become quite familiar with the city centre. It is one of the places I love exploring and drawing inspiration from. Yesterday an earlier train brought me into Manchester Victoria Station rather than Oxford Road.

A wonderful building undergoing massive reconstruction but still retaining some of its Victorian magnificence. The old wooden facades to the ticket offices and amazing mosaics on the interior walls retained in the midst of new modern structures.

Another route into work to be explored and other choices to be made.  A choice between busy streets lined with the usual chain stores and hustle bustle of people en route to work or the twists and turns of smaller unfamiliar back streets, quiet places, small independent shops. Two different perspectives, different stories residing in each, waiting to be shaped depending on a turn to the left or a turn to the right. And yes of course another analogy with research waiting to be made.

This one stems from many conversations I have had over the last year but more recently by a conversation I had several weeks ago with Rob Young, screenwriter, photographer and a great guy. Rob spent time with our team and he and I were talking about something I have written about before (the heart language of research). As we were talking I was describing my interest in the backstories of research and how they are heard rarely in the public domain but are the stories which cut to the heart of what is means to do research.

What are backstories? Well, slight artistic licence being taken here, but for me the backstories of research are  the stories we tell each other about what takes place in the background of research. They are not the main story which gets published in journals and presented at conferences or the sanitised stories about how to ‘do research’ presented in textbooks. They are the real stories about what it means to do research.

Not the story that takes you through the different stages of doing an interview in someone’s home but the one which tell of adventures and exploits when trying to locate a house in some far-flung destination; of tussles with digital recorders; the dilemmas about how to get the TV turned off without causing offence; how to deal with squawking parrot completely obliterating all signs of audible conversations; how to deflect attention away from the ‘extra family member’ who decides to stay in the room.

These are the stories that are shared with colleagues, in supervision (sometimes) and when researchers come together. They are the stories which, as researchers, make us laugh, cry, raise our eyebrows in exasperation. But, unless you are part of the community, they have a tendency to remain unheard. If you were a phenomenologist you would collect them to understand what it means to ‘do’ research.

The interns I have been working with recently have been on a journey of discovery and, coming from a clinical perspective, started their internships with a perception of what it means to ‘do research’. Over 30 days they were immersed into the day to day world of researchers. They discovered the backstories of research grounded in the lived experience of researchers and it was these stories which helped to inspire them, to challenge them and ultimately to shape their thinking around whether or not to pursue a career in research.

The backstories of research are powerful, and are the stories people interested in research want to hear. They give voice to experience and are authentic. If you want to really know what its like to do research these are the stories to seek out and explore

An important question to ask at a conference.

DSCN2574Having just checked my Twitter timeline I’m seeing lots of tweets from colleagues attending the College of Occupational  Therapists annual conference in Brighton. Pictures of sunny blue skies and the sea, ( I’m sure someone is attending workshops) and lots of happy pictures of people standing beside their posters, receiving awards, giving presentations and of Ruby Wax delivering one of the keynotes.

So much going on and so much to do! Conferences are a fantastic way of developing networks, making connections and extending thinking. Of breathing life back into you and energising and connecting with the heart language of your profession. If you are heading off to a conference, any conference, before you throw yourself into the whirl of workshops, poster sessions and socialising what kind of preparation do you do each day? Check the timetable, make plans for meeting up with people……..

It is so easy for the time to fly by catching up with friends and old colleagues, being tempted to attend the sessions they are attending rather than being Billy no mates and going to a session on your own. The late nights of socilaising up might make that early morning session you were intending to go to feel like a bit of a challenge and conference fatigue might make the lure of the early train home feel tempting.

So here is a question to ask yourself at the start of each new conference day? Rather than what do I want to do how about……..How do I want to BE at conference?

Why? Because the answer to this question with frame your day and your experience. Do I want to be energised, corageous; curious; reflective, challenging; sociable; full of life, creative………..

Before you head off for the day spend a few minutes getting in touch with that way of being. Take yourself to a ‘peak experience’ a time in your life when you felt that way and relive it. Where were you, what were you doing, how did it feel? Were you on your own or were others with you? In being this way what were you saying yes to? Really connect with how it felt.

And then take that feeling with you to conference and live it. Maybe being brave or courageous for you means having the confidence to ask the question you really want to ask but feel nervous about. Maybe it’s about standing up and giving your first ever presentation. Perhaps being sociable means putting down your mobile and talking to the people sitting next to you.

Give it a try and for those of you in Brighton however you are being – have a fabulous day!