4. Appendix 1: Methodology
4.1 The Research Process
The project was based on a small qualitative study that took place over three months. The study had two aims (1) explore the use of stories to communicate complex phenomena and (2) use stories as a research method to explore the concept of social capital.
The first phase of the project involved a literature review on the use of stories and narrative approaches within policy making. A literature search was conducted with support by the government’s library team. The search strategy can be found in the appendix.
Once it was determined that stories might be a suitable research method we made contact with four organisations and four researchers whose work was relevant to community wellbeing, social justice or narrative research. We hoped to be able to discuss with organisations and researchers their use of qualitative methods, in particular stories, and to talk about their understanding of social capital.
Organisations were chosen that worked across different areas and with different communities to reflect different experiences. Contact with two individuals, who agreed to share their personal stories, was made through existing links with policy and research teams.
The aim of the stories was to illustrate unique perspectives of social capital – highlighting context and interdependence. Thus, the aim was to illustrate and not to generalize or offer a representative view. The stories may not be representative of other people’s experiences and the involvement of further communities and organisations will be of benefit to add to a nuanced and rich view of social capital. Our project aims to begin an exploration of what social capital means for different communities and to explore if a narrative approach might be helpful to facilitate a more in-depth understanding. Starting the project with a small number of selected researchers and organisations will not exclude others to be involved in the future.
Conversations with all individuals who took part in the project included loose questions about (i) social capital and about (ii) stories. Questions about social capital were framed around the four dimensions (social networks, community cohesion, social participation, empowerment) and the social, physical and economic environment. In most cases, the open question, ‘Can you tell me about your community or the communities you work with?’ facilitated conversations in which the above mentioned dimensions of social capital came up naturally.
Conversations with researchers focused to a larger degree on the benefits and limitations of using stories as a research method and way to communicate complex phenomena, while conversations with organisations and the two individuals had a stronger focus on social capital. However, there was overlap as three of the researchers had been involved in extensive fieldwork around social justice and community wellbeing and all organisations reflected that they used stories in their work with different communities to either evaluate their services or to promote self-reflection and creativity.
Most conversations were recorded and transcribed after. No identifiable information was included and audio files and transcripts were deleted once the report had been completed.
Reflections on writing the stories
Because social capital is a multidimensional concept we decided early on that it might be helpful to write stories relating to different levels. After initial discussions we then decided to write two stories from the perspective of individuals, one story about communities and one about spaces. Three stories were written based on transcripts and notes from conversations, while the story about spaces needed a different approach. Inspired by ethnographic writing and the book ‘Palaces for the People’ we identified two community spaces and asked if it was possible to spend some time at the building. The Pyramid and the Eric Liddell Centre agreed to take part and I spent half a day in both buildings. Conversations with visitors were not recorded and the story was completely based on conversations with organisations at both places and notes I took during my visit.
It was challenging at first to sit down and find a way into writing the stories. I went back to the literature review, listened back to my conversations with people and examined existing examples of good practice. This helped me to identify four techniques and characteristics (see figure 1) that I wanted to incorporate into the stories, weaved around the dimensions of social capital.
Figure 1: Writing stories of complexity
Movement and context
When writing each story I started by thinking about its flow and structure. I used the transcripts and notes to identify main points of the conversation and then highlighted those relating to social capital. I paid particular attention to connections and looked for sequences and references to one area influencing another to build movement. This is how the middle part of the stories was written. Writing the beginning and end was more difficult. After my conversations with researchers, I decided to start stories by offering a description of the physical space to give readers an orientation. All stories start, albeit in different ways, with a physical description and orientation of space and circumstance.
Space for reflection and questions
I was hoping to find a way to connect all four stories and after some thought I felt that I myself was the most obvious connection between the stories. A number of examples that I had identified during the literature review also utilised this technique: writing yourself into the story. This felt uncomfortable at first but it also felt truer, offering a true reflection of the research process. Furthermore, reading and listening to similar examples I realised that by writing myself into the story, my voice could build a bridge between the reader and the stories and I could use it to offer reflections and pose questions.
Emotional content in simple language
Allowing readers to connect to the stories on an emotional level was one of the aims of the project. Therefore bringing in people’s and my own emotions and feelings was important. At the same time we did not want the stories to seem ‘cheesy’ or theatrical. Making reference to emotions while using a simple and ‘matter of fact’ style of writing seemed to be a technique used by many authors.
The end of the story
The ending seemed to be the most important and powerful part of the story, this would be the point that would stay with readers the most. Two researches asked me to think about what seemed to be the most important part for the person I had talked to for the story. What was the main thing they would like to bring across. This informed my choice of ending the stories. For example, in James story I originally ended the story with his experience of the black cloud, as I felt it was a powerful image. But looking back at our conversation I realised that it had been more important for James to look at the efforts that were made by people in the community and how he was concerned with moving forward and I re-wrote the ending.
Each story was sent to the people who participated in them (organisations in the space story) and in some cases people made suggestions to change parts. Three of the stories underwent a process of co-editing the story and sending drafts back and forth.
The small stories of social capital were developed out of extracts from the conversations. Extracts were identified that described one or more dimensions of social capital.
The project highlighted a number of important ethical considerations. As with any other research study issues around anonimity and confidentiality were taken into account and an internal ethics application was submitted before the start of the study. However, two concerns were identified that require further discussion:
(1) Ownership of stories, and
(2) Future use of stories.
The project was an initial exploration of the use of stories and as we have discussed in the recommendation section, we suggest for future stories to be written with local people. Participatory research does not only relate to the process of data collection but researchers will need to think about how to involve people in the design of the study, in the analysis and in the dissemination phase. It will be important to involve local people and organisations at the outset and to discuss how they would like to be involved in the different phases of the research project.
Within research on community wellbeing we envision that it will require careful consideration to think about what counts as a ‘community’ and who is able to represent groups or communities.
Whose story is it?
Questions around the ownership of results has been identified as one of the most problematic areas within participatory research (Quigley, 2006; Durham community research team). Stories protray personal expriences and we suggest that it is important to ensure that people feel able to have ownership of their stories and to be able to share them with others outside the project. While the stories might be written for a particular purpose, e.g. for a report, from the perspective of the policy research team, they might be valuable for people on other levels. Yet, this might raise issues around confidentiality and anonimity if stories are written from the perspective of more than one person and if the self-identification of one person (this story is about me) compromises the anonimity of others. It will be important to reach an agreement with organisations and local people at the start of future projects.
What will happen to my story?
Towards the end of our project, one person felt hesitant about how her story might be used in future reports. She was concerned that her story might get fragmented and future reports or media coverage might selectively use quotes from the story. She felt that it was important to honour the full story and to stick with its complexity, as a fragmented version would not give a fair reflection and findings could easily be misinterpreted. Working on the draft stories with people and organisations showed how small changes to sentence structures, or the choice of a word, could make a big difference. We therefore added a statement before the stories to stress that the stories should be read in full and not split into smaller sequences in any future publications.