What can be achieved by using creative writing as a social research method? A blog by Harriet Cooper

My project is finding out what a ‘rights-based rehabilitation’ experience looks like, from the point of view of disabled people who have been through this process. So, the issue of how this research can represent disabled people’s voices is central to the work I am doing. Throughout the study, I have addressed the question of why people may be drawn to take part in my research, and what it is that they want to express about rehabilitation. So far, I have been inviting people to express themselves in ways that are seen as more conventional in qualitative social research: through semi-structured interviews and focus groups. For the next stage, however, I am going to invite participants to use a different technique: creative writing.

As someone with a background in the arts and humanities, I have done quite a bit of thinking about the role of art and creativity in life. What is the relationship between our lived experience – including our social life – and the films, books, TV and ‘culture’ we consume? How do cultural life and social life interact with each other, and how are these interactions made available for analysis? Drawing on discussions with the group of disabled people who are helping to steer my project, and on conversations with those using arts-based methods in research, I have devised some tasks to encourage participants to use their imagination, as they reflect on their rehabilitation experience. They will be supported to do this in a creative writing workshop which will be designed to be a safe, friendly and stimulating space in which to explore rehabilitation experiences from new angles.

I am looking at what happens when lived experience is turned into writing. Some researchers have argued that using creative writing can liberate participants from anxiously focusing on producing a ‘true’ account, in such a way as to allow people to focus more clearly on the meaning of the experience (see Leavy 2009; Barone and Eisner, 2012). Can we gain a more nuanced understanding of the rehabilitation experience by inviting participants to nurture and release their creativity? Does the writing process itself produce new insights for participants? Might a focus on writing help to foreground the voices of patients, and to hear something about rehabilitation experience that is not easily accessible via other qualitative methods? How will I analyse and make meaning from the creative writing: what will I be able to say about rehabilitation from this data set? These are some of the questions I am grappling with as I plan the groups, and which I will discuss in outputs from the research. Although my experience of analysing literary texts gives me some ideas about where to start with these questions, I will be keeping an open mind about all of this and starting with what emerges from the data.

Another important set of questions for me has revolved around inclusion. How can I make sure that this approach – creative writing – is as accessible as possible, so that it attracts a wide range of participants? For some disabled people, the physical act of writing may be difficult; for others, processing ideas is challenging. I am aware that writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I want everyone who would like to give it a go, to feel welcome and supported to take part. An impairment which makes writing difficult should not be a barrier to participation. I have co-devised several ways to minimise such barriers. Nor do participants need any prior experience of creative writing in order to take part. Will the creative writing workshops tell me something new about rehabilitation – something I couldn’t capture in my interviews or focus groups? I hope so! I also hope that they will be an interesting and rewarding activity for participants.

The creative writing workshops will take place in March 2019. If you are interested in taking part or would like to find out more, further details are available here .

Rights-based Rehabilitation is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England (CLAHRC EoE) Programme. This is a summary of independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England (CLAHRC EoE) Programme. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.Rights-based Rehabilitation has received ethical approval from the Health Research Authority.

Barone, T. and EISNER, E. (2012). Arts based research. London: Sage.

Leavy, P. (2009). Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (New York: The Guilford Press)

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