Aura Lounasmaa: ‘To think is to experiment’, 2015

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The 14th To Think Is To Experiment postgraduate day attracted a full room (24) of speakers and participants. Cigdem put together an engaging program and provided lovely snacks. The day began with getting to know each other and setting the scene for a friendly space to share our thoughts and research and learn from each other’s experiences.

Dr. Barbara Droth, ex-CNR affiliated postgraduate student and a personal friend of Siyanda gave this year’s Siyanda Ndvolu Memorial Lecture. Barbara began by noting, that she may be the last CNR graduate to have personally known Siyanda to give this lecture.

Siyanda in one of his papers asked, do we only have language? For Barbara, researching performance art, this is an important question. In narrative research the individual is not lost among the theory. The act of understanding the artist less about cohabiting the space and more about listening to and understanding their stories. Embodied meanings cannot be flattened into text alone. We shouldn’t be caught up in the aesthetics of the surface but to inhabit the space, allow the layers to exist, not to try to explain in words. Discoherence: lack of coherence in life-stories (=/= incoherence). (Fivush 2011). Struggle of constantly becoming, enacting the fragmentation of non-linear lives. Performances make visible an artistic process of self-inspection and self-reflection (Watson 2002). The body as the site of autobiographical knowledge (Smith and Watson 2001). We as the audience share the embodiment and it becomes part of our autobiography. Siyanda talks about the body and how the black body and the white body are not neutral. Neither is the male body and the female body. Artists often feel like outsiders, until they make a connection and begin to belong in the art world. The performance artists bravely inhabit difference, and engage with it, as Siyanda wished we all could do in our lives and our research.

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Noelle McCormack from the Rix Centre at UEL spoke about her research with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). How can people with PMLD be encouraged to tell their own stories? Noelle developed research methods with three families she worked with. How can you record responses that are embodied, non-verbal and often fleeting? Noelle created individual websites as archives of collaborative research, where participants, their families and assistants can view and comment the project. The practice of collaborative research with participants at this early stage has made note-taking, initial analysis and writing more reflective as every word is shared. Only the information that has been recorded in film or field-notes can be subject to analysis. Participants are happy to be involved in research but collaborative research has to take into consideration the time constraints and work load of the processes they are involved in. It isn’t possible to place events in history into separate physical compartments – past and present construct each other. Stories go round in circles (Barbara Meyerhoff).

Lurraine Jones’ (UEL) paper asked what the consequences of diversity training are. Since the death of Stephen Laurence public authorities have an obligation to provide race training and these are compulsory for employees. The space of the training a charged space with the threat of disciplinary action. Race is embodied and emotional for people, a lived experiences, for participants and trainers as well as for the researchers. What are the difficulties of trying to inhabit a ‘race’ they are assumed to have? The training may end up reproducing stereotypes in order to explain what ‘race’ and ‘diversity’ mean. What does diversity training try to do? How does it do it? What is the role of space in diversity training, and what happens when this space is moved online?

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Alice Mukaka, PhD student at UEL spoke about her methodological issues on her research with asylum seekers involved in activism in the UK. Alice is planning to do life-history interviews with activist, semi-structured interviews with asylum seekers, participant observation and archival work. Performance used in groups working with women asylum seekers as therapeutic and as an accessible form to train life skills. Theatre is an emotive means of communicating meaning in women’s lives and as well as important for activism (the play Alice engages with in her research was performed last year at the House of Commons) it provides rich material for research. Alice will speak to her participants about the play as well as analyse the play as a text and as performance.

Sharmini Chaytor (UEL) presented her research on the relationship between MS and stress. Her focus is on uncontrollable stress and research was conducted on online chat rooms and with medical professionals’ blogs. Earlier research shows that emotions and mental well-being are closely linked with the physical symptoms of MS and stress is specifically linked to physical relapses. Sharmini is employing narrative analysis as it helps make sense of the different meanings attached to the links between stress and MS by medical professionals and people living with MS. Sociocultural positioning of narratives: research needs to be aware of the different positioning of speakers and the how the positioning and the narratives born out of that compete with each other and may end up marginalising important viewpoints. Developing a biopsychosocial model could bring together the narratives without marginalising other important narratives about MS and treat people with MS as whole persons.

The final paper before lunch was by Claire Brewis from Teesside University. She talked about the life-stories of adults who have had a brain injury in their adult lives and the occupations and activities they engage in after the event. She interviewed people with acquired brain injury and partners of people with acquired brain injury living in rural areas in the UK, using photos as prompts and as visual data. She conducted her interviews using BNIM. Claire created a method for narrative analysis by reading through narrative texts, keeping in mind the type of data collected, the disciplinary boundaries and focus on the story and its telling. She found her participants’ stories to have an optimistic or pessimistic narrative tone that doesn’t preclude negative and positive life events.

After the break Raquel da Silva (University of Birmingham) presented her nearly finished PhD research into the narratives of politically violent activists in Portugal. Critical theory helps to question official history and hear the marginalised stories. Raquel told us the stories of two violent activists, from opposing political groups, and how they became engaged in the anti-state violence. The stories show us how the participants’ experiences of the colonial wars and the different meanings attached to the brought them to violent political engagement. Instead of reading out the transcripts Raquel performed the stories of her participants in order to convey the embodied experience of listening to the previously unheard stories.

Irene Gantxegi, (University of Deusto, Bilbao) a visiting student with CNR talked about emotional education. For her PhD research she has ran a book club focusing on novels about the violence in the Basque conflict. She collected data about the participants’ engagement with the victims of the novels through diaries, focus groups, questionnaires, creation of reading boxes and one-to-one interviews. Her participants related to victims in the novels differently, but the ideas and understandings changed through the reading, discussing and listening others’ views helped move past the taboos around discussing the violence. Not all narratives changed, but literature facilitated dialogue and gave an opportunity to reflect the issues.

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The next presentation came from Veronica – Ignacio Diaz Vazquez (UEL) on becoming a woman by practicing autofiction. Veronica brings together autofiction and memory work in her PhD research, in which she becomes woman, Veronica, through the act of writing. The two are connected as they bring to the fore memories that are troubled and out of the ordinary. Transactivism and forming assemblages with other becoming-women introduces possibilities of radical futures. Autonomy over imposed heteronomy can only be achieved through wishing to become the minority, against the right-wing government in Spain. Veronica keeps reproducing herself through writing and existing through the act of writing and through the reading and rereading of her texts.

After another coffee break where conversations continued we had two more papers, both from King’s College. David Gates presented on his analytical approaches and the use of small stories-in-interaction in critical reflection in his PhD study with craft artists. He asks how the narrative mode informs change making. David is interested in the ways in which crafts makers narratives about crafts, and he was looking for naturally occurring narratives rather than constructed interviews. In his presentation he discussed the dialogical interaction and tellability of small stories in the narratives of his participants.

The final paper of the day was Thomas Colley’s presentation on power of narratives in shaping the British populations understandings of war. He asked the listeners for help in analysing the information that is missing from participant’s stories. To wake us all up he asked us to list as many wars Britain has been involved as we could think of in two minutes. In his interviews he avoids mentioning any particular conflicts until the participants mention them in order not to lead them, but to let them define conflict in terms of what is relevant to them. But what stories are then silenced, omitted and flattened, what is the significance of this, and how can we analyse it?

Vivid conversation followed over glasses of wine. Thanks so much to Cigdem for putting together a an engaging programme, providing snacks and organising a great research day with warm atmosphere where everyone can share their research, meet like-minded souls and receive helpful comments.

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Published by corinnesquire

Corinne Squire is Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Director, Centre for Narrative Research, at University of East London

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