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POETIC INQUIRY AND EVALUATION: DOES THE CURRENT FASCINATION WITH DATA VISUALISATION EXTEND TO POETIC REPRESENTATION OF DATA?

9 April 2018

 

Creative data collection and presentation

A well-known creative data presentation option is data visualisation. Where creative data visualisation was previously the exception, it is fast becoming the norm.

Data visualisation can be equated to a language available to researchers and evaluators, and competence in the language of data visualisation comes progressively and with practice and critical self-assessment and feedback. As in any language, competence is made up of the ability to understand the language, to convey ideas through language construction and the ability to analyse the content and meaning of the language.

Creative Consulting & Development Works introduced a short course on data visualisation in 2017 which is based on transferring key concepts and principles underpinning data visualisation, to enable participants to “learn the language” of data visualisation.

Poetic inquiry, for example, may be perceived as a somewhat “stranger” concept, and further removed from hard data than data visualisation.  Resistance to the use of poetry in qualitative research and/or evaluation may stem from negative associations with poetry based on negative experiences with poetry at school and feelings of inability to make sense out of poetry. There may also be a perception that poetry is simply too ambiguous and emotionally laden to be useful in a research and/or evaluation context.

Science, evidence, reality and knowing  

The quest for hard, scientific evidence seemingly opposes consideration of poetic inquiry as a credible research and evaluation method. Science is about understanding the world and discovering and knowing the truth. “Social research aims to generate knowledge about the social world… by describing, explaining and evaluating phenomena in the social world (Mouton, 1996: 46).” This appears to be a simple statement, but there is a slight problem – there are multiple interpretations of what the “social world” is, and how it should be described and defined. These interpretations also influence how the social world is interpreted, and different interpretations of the social world are often contested.

This brings us to what Mouton (1996:46) calls social ontologies. ”The term ‘ontology’ literally means the study of ‘being’ or ‘reality’.” In the field of evaluation, key questions regarding ontology are: “Is there one reality that I can discover? Or are there multiple realities that differ, depending on the experiences and conditions of the people in a specific context (Mertens & Wilson, 2012: 36)?”

Social scientists also have to consider the kind of knowledge that can tell us more about the social world, and what the relationship between the “knower” and “that which would be known,” is. This is the epistemological question, which can be formulated as follows: “How should the evaluator relate to the stakeholders? Do you stand apart from the stakeholders, or do you engage with them in deep conversation and in their activities (Mertens & Wilson, 2012: 36)?” For the purpose of this discussion, suffice to say that different evaluation paradigms provide different answers to these questions.

Ontology, epistemology and poetic inquiry

Counter-questions can be an apt response to questions about the “knower” and “knowing”, specifically questions such as: “Can hard quantitative scientific data adequately describe the social world?” Generally, and particularly in evaluation, there is a realisation that mixed methods, which include both quantitative and qualitative data, are very useful in evaluation as the limitations of the one are often covered by the strengths of the other.

Image Credit: @MattPLavoie | Source: http://www.inspeier.com/blog/2016/3/4/using-qualitative-and-quantitative-research-in-cx

Another question to be considered is: “Is the typical methodological toolbox of social scientists (researchers and evaluators), which typically consist of a combination of surveys, key informant interviews and focus group discussions, sufficient to collect data on complex phenomena and experiences in the social world?”

The epistemological question is closely related to the preceding question, and without elaborating on the issue of objectivity, it can safely be stated that in a post-modern world, objectivity may no longer be the holy grail it was, when the social sciences were guided by the positivistic paradigm. Similarly, the social sciences have become more confident about qualitative research and the need for research to transcend numbers.

Art-based research

Art-based research (ABR) and art-based evaluation (ABE), which use creative data collection and presentation, is mostly qualitative. ABR and ABE occupies the space which is sometimes called the “borderland space” between science and art.

Arts-based research includes: visual arts, performance arts, creative writing, music, textile arts and crafts.

Poetic inquiry is regarded a methodology that is able to reflect the existential reality and lived experiences of research participants and evaluation stakeholders, which also recognises their ownership of the data. Poetic inquiry, with its ability to reflect the raw reality of testing situations and deep emotional experiences, is a form of push-back against over-reliance on thematic analysis, and synthesis which can appropriate and overpower the voices of participants. It is “embodied research” which honours the subjective experience of the individual taking part in research or evaluation and allows for “the heart to lead” when “sensemaking of numberless things” are required.

There is no pretence of “independence”, “objectivity” or “generalisability”. Are these draw-backs? Definitely not. Consider the following poem from Brady (2009), about the value of poetic inquiry.

Now that you have found my unfaced place

in the census count

                   and pulled me up as a person,

and thus have heard my heartbeat,

and had a glimpse of the interior of my soul,

How will you deal with living a life

that includes rape, murder, bigotry,

bombs, beatings,

                 and the stoning to death of children,

among other things that cannot be re-presented

as numbers in a survey?

And if you cannot empathize with these things

slicked up wet by floods of blood and tears,

how will you ever deal honestly

                  with the enthrallments

and ecstasies of life that erase the pain

reported so dutifully by your local poet?

Am I you?

Can you find yourself in me?

                What is my number now?

 (Brady, 2009 in Van Rooyen, 2017: 12)

The observant reader will notice that in the poem above, the researcher is also fulfilling the role of poet. Poetic inquiry does not only lend itself as a data collection method through which the voices of research participants and evaluation stakeholders are heard.  It also provides opportunities for the researcher/evaluator to engage in poetic sensemaking of data, and for representation of synthesised data in poetic format, which is equipped to communicate meaning and depth of emotion.

Suitable contexts and the body of knowledge

As with any methodology, data collection tool and presentation format work better in certain situations than others. Poetic inquiry has been used in research in certain fields, such as education, social work, nursing, psychology, feminist research and social justice research. In some contexts, poetic inquiry has a dual or multiple purposes: in psychology, it also serves a reflective and therapeutic purpose; and in feminist and social justice research it does not apologise for taking on an advocacy, or political dimension.

Poetic inquiry also resonates with the notion that engagement with the social world through research, or evaluation, impacts in some or other way on that which is being researched, or evaluated. Further, the interactive relationship of poetic inquiry with the evaluation context and its transformative potential reminds of the characteristics of action research.

Every methodology has advantages and disadvantages.   Knowing the usefulness and challenges of poetic inquiry is essential to ensure that it is used appropriately. Some of the advantages and challenges of poetic inquiry are captured below.

 

USES AND ADVANTAGES  of poetic inquiry Challenges
 Encourage multiple ways of expression Elicit new perspectives on a theme or topic  Outputs are by nature difficult to interpret
Express complex idea  Could be difficult to disentangle multiple standpoints presented
Generate rich data Technical challenges could occur, e.g. level of artistic skills, which are not always required in evaluation processes
Encourage participants to share their feelings Resistance from participants and other stakeholders
Empowering participants
Embrace the idea that we are all creative beings Potential conflicts between informed consent and artistic values
Build on the creativity fostered in the project. Recognition of authorship and confidentiality
Lay the ground for more in-depth responses  Time-consuming
  ·        through questionnaires or interviews · ·        Give a quick snapshot of where a group is at · ·        Generate materials (poems, drawing, collages, etc.) to be used in final reports Enhance dissemination
·        through questionnaires or interviews
·        Give a quick snapshot of where a group is at · ·
Generate materials (poems, drawing, collages, etc.) to be used in final reports
Enhance dissemination
Sources: CC&DW, Charlton, (n.d.); Daykin (n.d.)

Guided by research and evaluation questions

Poetic inquiry may not be commonly used, but it has been around for a more than a decade. Since 2007 a total of six biennial international Poetic Inquiry Symposiums have been held in North America, with the 7th scheduled for October 2019. A substantial body of knowledge exists in the form of academic publications, journal articles and conference and symposia papers (see references and links below). Experimenting with creative research and evaluation methodologies should not be done for the sake of methodological experimentation, or as an attempt to do something different.  The research or evaluation question(s) should always be the determining factor.  Researchers/evaluators should select the best possible methodologies and tools to find the answers and the (often multiple) truth(s) related to these questions. Researchers/evaluators may want to consider adding poetic inquiry to their toolboxes, so that they are able to adequately access the depth of experience of research participants or evaluation stakeholders, particularly in contexts where depth of emotions is key to understanding a situation. The flip-side of this statement is that researchers/evaluators should avoid using the “same old, same old” conventional tools, when they are simply not sharp enough to answer the research or evaluation question in a context where creative methodology should be used. We hope that our fellow researchers/evaluators will have cautious and thoughtful explorations of possibilities regarding ABR and ABE.

REFERENCES AND USEFUL LINKS

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