DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2022.15 | Issue 9 | Oct 2022
Belen Febres-Cordero (Simon Fraser University)
Language in practice-based research is often considered as an insufficient medium to explore and share the complexity of human experience. As a result, the potential of writing as a practice-based method, especially when related to non-fiction genres, has not been widely explored. In this article, I take a different stance. Based on the analysis of the process of writing media content in collaboration with 59 internal migrant women and a local communication NGO and community media outlet in Ecuador, I argue that language is not only cognitive, but also mediates affect and is itself affective. Paying closer attention to this intricate relationship between affect and language can turn writing into an embodied and affective practice-based method. When done collectively, this method can be leveraged by community-engaged projects to open an avenue for communities’ self-representation and meaningful participation in all the stages of the research process. As such, collaborative media writing as a practice-based method can strengthen the efforts and increase the impact of community-engaged initiatives aiming to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities and diverse groups.
While practice-based research has been understood and approached in multiple ways, it broadly refers to initiatives where researchers address their research questions by engaging in a creative exploratory process and by making something (Lulkowska 2021; Candy 2006; Gauntlett 2021). Often considering language as an insufficient medium to effectively explore and express the complexity of human experience, practice-based researchers tend to focus on the production of artistic or material outputs. Because of their embodied and affective components, these outputs are often seen as a better alternative than language to ponder on different topics, elicit novel responses, and share diverse experiences in meaningful and engaging ways (Wang et al. 2017; Greenwood 2016). As a result, writing in practice-based research has mostly been approached as a separate step from the creative process wherein researchers embark to address their questions (Tweed 2022). When writing has been used as a practice-based method, the focus has mostly been placed on genres such as fiction and poetry. Non-fiction genres, such as journalism, have not been widely explored (Gale and Wyatt 2016; Leavy 2015; 2013; Chapman Hoult et al. 2020).
In addition, practice-based research has generally focused on the creative process followed by researchers themselves (Gauntlett 2021). However, work from multiple disciplines has increasingly suggested that creative and innovative methods can offer diverse participatory opportunities (Brown 2019a; Brown, Jafferani, and Pattharwala 2018; Butler-Kisber 2008; van der Vaart, van Hoven, and Huigen 2018).
As practice-based research, participatory research has been understood and approached in multiple ways. Broadly, participatory research refers to initiatives that involve community members as active collaborators in the co-production of knowledge with transformative potential for the people engaged in the process (Schubotz 2020). However, the degree of responsibilities granted to participants and the stages of the research process where people are included varies greatly (Brown 2021; Schubotz 2020).
Community members are often invited to the data collection phases but left out of the analysis of such data and the dissemination of research findings, frequently regarded as the competence and responsibility of researchers exclusively. However, approaches addressing participation critically –such as community-engaged research– have maintained that excluding community members from these stages can result in participants’ experiences being understood and represented in ways with which they disagree, and which do not benefit them (CERi 2020).
To avoid this risk, community-engaged research argues that reciprocal, sustainable, and trusting relationships should be the core of research projects (Grain 2020). Following this consideration, it maintains that community members should be involved as equal partners in all stages of the research process –including research design, data collection, analysis, and dissemination of results– and that research methods, outputs, and dissemination channels ought to respond to the needs and interests of the community (Mahoney et al. 2021; Grain 2020). As such, community-engaged approaches encourage researchers to embed dissemination plans throughout the research design and to actively collaborate with community members in the dissemination of research in ways that are meaningful and accessible to the community, which may go beyond traditional academic outlets (CERi 2020; Mahoney et al. 2021). Affect theory could potentially contribute to the achievement of this objective.
Broadly, affect theory argues that life does not only consist of what is palpable and recognizable, but also of a combination of intangible forces experienced by and through the body rather than cognition (Gregg and Seigworth 2010). Although it may comprise them, affect theory’s main focus is not on what is already recognized–such as emotions, moods, or feelings– but on the “porous”, “visceral”, and “felt” embodied sensations, which often remain unnoticed. (Massumi 1995). Affect theory adds to our understanding of life by paying attention not only to what is already cognitively identified, but also to these embodied and affective intangible forces that may have remained unnoticed or rendered as unimportant by other approaches (Timm Knudsen and Stage 2016). In doing so, it shifts the focus on individual experiences to the continuous and relational passage of the intangible forces, which is present in every single one of our interactions (Bissell 2010).
Some authors have argued that these intangible affective forces get distorted or lost once they are brought into consciousness, or when they are described and defined with words. As such, they have considered affect as being inherently separate from language (Massumi 1995; 2002; Thrift 2007; Clough and Halley 2007; Timm Knudsen and Stage 2016, 4). Informed by authors who have rather maintained that affect, embodiment, consciousness, and language are all interconnected realms of human experience (Blackman 2012; Ahmed 2010; 2014; Leys 2011; Wetherell 2012; 2013; Besnier 1990; Ochs and Schieffelin 1989; McElhinny 2010; Wilce 2009; Busch 2020), I resist the distinct separation between affect and language that others have made. Instead, I agree with the consideration that “affect permeates all levels of linguistic and communicative structures, all utterances, and all communicative contexts, but it does so in more or less transparent ways” (Besnier 1990, 437). Rather than considering language as being exclusively cognitive, I see it as a crucial and complex component of our eclectic encounter with life, which both mediates affect and is itself affective. For me, language mediates affect by being one of the channels by which we can reach the embodied and affective intangible forces that move in and between bodies and bring them into full consciousness through description (Wetherell 2012, 19).
In addition, I consider that language is itself affective. Perhaps the most obvious way in which affect is present in language is in its oral form. For example, it is present in our attachment to language (McElhinny 2010, 314), which reflects on the way in which we feel when we speak or listen to a language that we carry close to our hearts. Affect is also present in the communicative activities (e.g., laughing, weeping, silence), non-verbal and embodied cues (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, bodily posture), and acoustic phenomena (e.g., tone, volume, speed) present in speech (Besnier 1990, 425; Ochs and Schieffelin 1989, 11; Wilce 2009, 43–52; Busch 2020, 332–33). Although it may be difficult to translate all these embodied and affective elements present in speech into the written text, I do not consider that written language is devoid of affect by any means. After all, our physical bodies, feelings, emotions, affective sensations, intuitions, memories, and symbolic systems such as identity and sense of self are just as present when we read and write as they are when listen and speak. Hence, I believe that affect connects and moves between senders-messages-channels-receivers- in intricate ways, not only during verbal communication, but also during our interactions with the written text. For example, affect presents itself in the embodied and affective reactions that the process of writing and reading causes in us. It is also apparent in formal and artistic linguistic forms (e.g., poems, songs, metaphors) and in the words that evoke emotions and sensory events (Besnier 1990). Depending on the context and on how and when we use it, affect can also be present in the total stock of words and word elements that compose language (Besnier 1990), as well as in the word order, font, size, color, visual elements, and grammatical and narrative structures that we choose (Wilce 2009, 21; Ochs and Schieffelin 1989, 18–20; Besnier 1990, 425). I would argue that affect is even present in words that we should not pronounce or spell any longer because of the history behind them. For all these reasons, I maintain that, although language is often considered as being exclusively cognitive, it is in fact always entangled with affect in multiple ways. This is true even when this entanglement may not seem obvious at first, such as in the case of traditional media texts.
Bringing together these reflections, in this article I argue that the consideration that language mediates affect and is itself affective offers the possibility of approaching writing as an embodied and affective practice-based method. When done collectively, this method can strengthen the efforts and increase the impact of community-engaged initiatives by opening an avenue for communities’ self-representation and meaningful participation throughout the research process. I build this argument through the analysis of the process of making collaborative media content that I implemented to explore alternative experiences of wellbeing and health with 59 internal migrant women in Quito, Ecuador.
This article is based on a community-engaged communication and research project exploring alternative expressions of wellbeing and health with first- and second-generation internal migrant women in Quito, Ecuador. This project starts from the consideration that the World Health Organization’s current definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” leaves little space for understanding how wellbeing might manifest itself even in the presence of physical (e.g., chronic illness), mental (e.g., depression), social (e.g., poverty), or contextual (e.g., pandemic) factors that may make such a state of complete wellbeing difficult or impossible to achieve (WHO 1948; Godlee 2011; Huber et al. 2011; Crinson and Martino 2017). In addition, this definition of health may be too broad, thus not relevant enough to the realities and needs of specific contexts (Loewenson et al. 2020). Hence, this project asks if wellness can present itself in ways that are outside existing theories of wellbeing and if alternative expressions of wellbeing can offer avenues to leverage individual experiences to identify and address social and structural factors shaping people’s lives and health.
To answer these questions, I collaborated with 59 women who had migrated from other parts of Ecuador to Quito, the country’s capital city, or whose families had done so. Internal migration – defined as the permanent or temporary movement of people within a country (IOM 2015)– is common in Ecuador (Álvarez-Velasco 2012; Velasteguí López and Tuapanta Pilatasig 2018; Jurado, Cevallos Torres, and Mordt 2019; Eguiguren 2017). As the capital city, Quito is one of the country’s main recipients, with 35% of its population being composed of internal migrants, according to the last census (INEC 2010; Redacción El Comercio 2011).
Despite its small size, Ecuador is extremely diverse. It is composed of 24 provinces divided across four distinct regions: the Costa (Pacific Coast), the Sierra (Andes Mountains), the Amazonía (Amazon Jungle), and the Región Insular (Galapagos Islands). There are 18 Indigenous groups and one Afro-descendant group in Ecuador, each with its own cultural identity and systems of social, economic, political, and legal organization. These groups are clustered within 14 ancestral Nations formed earlier than the Ecuadorian Nation-State. Each of these Nations has its own historic identity, language, culture, and territory within what is now Ecuador. As such, 14 different languages are spoken in the country (GoRaymi 2021; FLACSO 2011). Ethnicity in Ecuador is determined by self-identification. According to the last census, 71, 93% of the population self-identifies as Mestizo (i.e., mixed European and Amerindian descent), 7,39% as Montubio (i.e., Ecuadorian of mixed descent from the rural coastal region of the country), 7,19% as Afro-Ecuadorian (i.e., African descent), 7,03% as Indigenous (i.e., Amerindian descent), 6,09% as White-Ecuadorian (i.e., European descent), and 0,37% as other (INEC 2010).
Although the current Constitution of Ecuador recognizes this diversity by declaring it a pluri-national, pluri-cultural, and multi-ethnic State (Constitución de la República del Ecuador 2008), racism, discrimination, and structural inequities related to wellbeing and health are still vastly prevalent in the country (LAPORA 2022; Beck, Mijeski, and Stark 2011; Roitman and Oviedo 2016; de la Torre 2011; ONU 2019). The limited existing literature focusing on internal migration in Ecuador has found that these social and structural determinants of wellbeing and health get exacerbated in the context of internal migration in this setting (Álvarez-Velasco 2012; García-Díaz 2016; Velasteguí López and Tuapanta Pilatasig 2018; Eguiguren 2017; Cogle et al. 2021). These studies have suggested that internal migrants often endure pronounced violence, racism, and discrimination, and that they also face increased barriers to access economic and health-related resources, as well as lack of community support due to rupture of social networks following migration. Combined, these social and structural factors greatly impact the wellbeing and health of internal migrant women in this location. However, a deeper understanding of the influences of these factors in the wellbeing and health of internal migrant women in the specific Ecuadorian context is still urgently required (Eguiguren 2017; Álvarez-Velasco 2012). Despite this acute need, the spaces for minority groups to express their experiences, knowledges, and demands in this location are scarce, with the voices of diverse women, including those who have migrated within national borders, being particularly silenced (Barboza and Zaragocín 2021; Valdivieso Vega and Armas 2008; Eguiguren 2017). In Ecuador, hegemonic approaches to wellbeing and health have been imposed onto groups including women and internal migrants, whose perspectives, realities, and unique needs have been largely neglected when implementing wellbeing and health-related policies (Eguiguren 2017; Arteaga-Cruz and Cuvi 2021).
In light of this absence, this project aimed to foster a space for diverse women to meet and share their experiences and perspectives. The 59 women who participated in this project were extremely diverse in terms of ethnic self-identification, language, place of origin, occupation, and age. They self-identified as Mestizas, Montubias, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Indigenous. They spoke three different languages and had roots in 17 of the 24 provinces of Ecuador and three of the country’s four regions. They were leaders, students, heads of household, domestic workers, politicians, communicators, advocates, poets, writers, filmmakers, teachers, educators, university professors, entrepreneurs, photographers, embroiderers, researchers, cosmetologists, acupuncturists, podiatrists, lawyers, nurses, midwives, and healers. The youngest was 19 years old; the oldest, 71; and every decade between these extremes was represented by at least one of them.
The Collaborative Making of Media Content
While practice-based researchers have tended to separate writing from the creative exploratory process they embark on to address their questions, I took a different approach. Following the consideration that language mediates affect and is itself affective, I turned to journalistic writing as an embodied and affective practice-based method and invited participants to explore research questions with me through the collaborative making of media content. But what exactly does it mean to make collaborative media content?
Manufacturing Concrete Outcomes
The verb to make refers to producing, constructing, creating, or building something new, which entails having a concrete outcome (Woodward English 2022). Drawing from the consideration that language mediates affect and is itself affective, in this project we addressed the collaborative writing of media content as an embodied and affective practice-based method, and “Words that Heal”, a journalistic series of feature stories, was our concrete outcome. This series was written in collaboration with all the women who participated in this project and El Churo, a local communication NGO and online community media outlet. It is composed of journalistic articles explaining the current dominant understandings of wellbeing and health, the reasons why we need other ways to approach these terms, the alternatives suggested by the women who participated in this study, and how we created this content.
Initially, this series was published in Spanish (https://wambra.ec/palabras-curanderas/) and English (https://wambra.ec/words-that-heal/) at Wambra (https://wambra.ec/), El Churo’s online community media outlet. However, the consideration that language is itself affective invited us to expand our reach. Paying close attention to the affective elements of language allowed us to recognize the strong affective attachment (McElhinny 2010, 314) that several of the women had to the Kichwa language, one of the 14 languages currently spoken in Ecuador (FLACSO 2011). As Sisa Carolina explained in the account shared below, due to the historic discrimination and erasure that those who speak this language have endured in Ecuador, the Kichwa language often represented a form of resistance and provided a sense of purpose and belonging to some of the women who were part of this project:
My parents decided not to teach the Kichwa language to my siblings and me because they didn’t want us to suffer the horrible acts of violence and discrimination that they have faced all their lives for speaking it. But when I grew up, I decided to learn it anyways. Learning Kichwa has been one of the main turning points in my life. It helped me understand what I want, how I want my life and my family to be, and who I want to be surrounded with. I don’t know how to explain, but I feel so great when I speak in Kichwa. I feel so strong and protected at the same time. It is like Kichwa represents resistance and belonging at the same time. Having learnt Kichwa is definitely one of the brightest lights in my life.
Sisa Carolina Guamán, 27 years old
Determined Kichwa Otavalo-Kitu Kara woman
Like Sisa Carolina, several women felt that being able to speak Kichwa was a fundamental factor of their wellbeing in the discriminatory Ecuadorian context. Because of this affective attachment that participants had to this language, we decided that it was crucial that we disseminated the research in Kichwa as well. As a result, we created graphic story in Kichwa (https://www.instagram.com/p/CXUgSViN0Hb/), Spanish (https://www.instagram.com/p/CWbDb8-L8pE/), and English (https://www.instagram.com/p/CXeAdIrrzj8/) that became part of the series. To increase our reach, we shared the three versions of this graphic story through Wambra’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, along with an invitation to visit Wambra’s website to read the complete series.
Although far from perfect, the “Words that Heal” journalistic series of feature stories is a concrete outcome that contributed to this community-engaged project by becoming an avenue to embed dissemination efforts throughout the research design and implementation; collaborate with participants in the preliminary analysis of results; and share research findings in ways that are meaningful, affective, and relevant to them (CERi 2020; Mahoney et al. 2021). In addition, it is a visible product that reflects participants’ contribution to the project, which can support the creation of reciprocal and trustful relationships in the research process. Hence, it simultaneously adds to relationship building and dissemination efforts, both of which are crucial components of community-engaged research (Mahoney et al. 2021; Grain 2020).
Handling the Materiality and Affectivity of Words
The contributions of the “Words that Heal” journalistic series of feature stories is not only related to the final product described above, but also to the creative and affective exploratory process undertaken to write it, which was enriching in multiple ways. This process started with the consideration that making something requires tangible materials. It would be possible to think that these tangible materials are not present in writing, often considered an exclusively intellectual activity. However, our bodies and affective elements are still present in the writing process, even when we are not paying attention to them as we write. For this reason, I decided to approach writing not only as an intellectual, but also as an embodied and affective process (Elliot 2017; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Probyn 2010; Gibbs 2015; Escrituras Colectivas 2022). I saw words as the raw materials I was working with in this process. As such, I imagined them having the capacity to be malleable, sculpted, carved, and reshaped, just as –for example– wood or clay.
This required me to reconsider conventional methods of journalistic writing. Traditionally, media content is written by a single person: the journalist. In this case, I used my background in journalism to write the first drafts of the “Words that Heal” series. These drafts were based on one-on-one interviews and group gatherings where participants, members from El Churo, and I met to explore women’s experiences of wellbeing and health through different affective methods (Febres-Cordero, forthcoming), and on individual interviews that I held with migration and health experts who offered contextual information.
Drawn by the consideration that language mediates affect, while writing these drafts I paid close attention to the embodied and affective elements present during the verbal interactions that I had with participants –such as laughing, weeping, silence, facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, tone, volume, speed – and tried to transcribe them into the text, as I describe in detail elsewhere (Febres-Cordero, forthcoming). I also paid close attention to the affective words evoking emotions and sensory events from women’s accounts, as well as to the embodied and affective reactions that they elucidated in me during the writing process. Even more, driven by the consideration that affect has the capacity to move between senders-messages-channels-receivers- in intricate ways, I strived to create an affective atmosphere when writing (Escrituras Colectivas 2022). I played the recordings of my fieldwork in the background while I wrote, and I placed on my desk the objects that I collected during this time. I also wore the earrings and necklaces that some participants and collaborators gifted me, and I often drank the tea and coffee that I bought during my fieldwork. With these efforts, I strove to approach the writing process not only as a cognitive activity, but as an embodied and affective endeavour as well, hoping that at least some of the affective forces present in my fieldwork encounters would travel from these interactions to the version of myself involved in the writing process, and from there to the text.
Once I had the first drafts ready, I circulated them among the members of El Churo and with each of the 59 women who participated in the project through WhatsApp Messenger. To make sure that everyone felt comfortable with making changes to these documents by adding, deleting, or moving content around, I explained that I saw these drafts only as the raw materials that we would use to create the final product together.
All participants in this project knew how to read and write, but they had different levels of literacy comfort. Hence, they offered me their feedback either by writing in the drafts that I had shared with them or by telling me the changes that they wanted me to make via WhatsApp voice notes. Once I had all their feedback, I incorporated all the changes into a single document, which was the final product and the published version of the series.
This embodied and affective process felt very similar to solving an extremely large and complicated puzzle for me. It took a total of nine months (April 2021-December 2021) from when I started writing the first drafts until the version in each language was published. Working with all the people involved in the creation of these publications while incorporating the feedback of the members of El Churo and each of the 59 women who participated in the project required high levels of commitment, organization, and attention to detail. Making this deliberate decision to prioritize the co-creation and co-dissemination of knowledge beyond academia delayed other aspects of the research process, such as the writing and publication of more traditional academic outputs.
Despite this limitation, this approach created an extremely enriching process that embedded dissemination efforts throughout the research project and bent the boundaries between data collection, analysis, and dissemination. As such, it provided participants, the members of El Churo, and myself with the opportunity to explore the research questions together beyond our synchronous encounters and to continue to strengthen the affective relationships that we had built in previous stages of the research process. As recommended by community-engaged and action-oriented research (Grain 2020; Reynolds and Dobson 2022), this method also contributed to challenging the power dynamics often present in research initiatives by inviting participants to be active agents in the data analysis and dissemination phases of the project. Overall, as Yenny Nazareno Porozo, one of the women who participated in this project expressed, this approach offered an effective and affective medium for self-representation:
Sometimes you talk to journalists or people doing research and then you never find out what they did with what you said, or they write things that you did not say at all, but in this case, I feel happy because I see that the words shared here truly reflect my feelings and my views. They say exactly what I wanted to say. These words are really my own.
Yenny Nazareno Porozo
Reconsidering Established Approaches and Practices
In practice-based research, questions tend to be addressed by researchers alone (Gauntlett 2021). As a participatory and community-engaged communication and research project, my goal was instead to explore research questions together with participants, and to co-create a space to share, discuss, and communicate the diverse experiences and perspectives of the community involved. This goal required me to critically question several topics and established practices.
Objectivity – which has been a topic of interest both in journalism and in research – was one of the subjects that I needed to reassess. Both researchers and journalists have traditionally considered that objectivity, neutrality, and detachment from participants and information are required in order to study or tell the ‘truth’ (American Press Institute 2022; Letherby, Scott, and Williams 2013). However, new approaches in both areas have argued that these are, in fact, unattainable and unrealistic pursuits given that both endeavours are conducted by humans with their own perspectives, conscious and unconscious biases, opinions, values, and interests. For this reason, some researchers and journalists have concluded that recognizing these preferences openly and reflecting on their possible impacts on an ongoing basis might strengthen rather than hinder their efforts towards creating rigorous and accurate information, which –far from detached – should be deeply committed to generating positive impact in the communities involved (Headlee 2021; Finlay 2002; Behar 1996).
I followed these considerations when writing the “Words that Heal” series. All the accounts and information included in this journalistic series of feature stories are factual. At the same time, this series is a mosaic that expresses the experiences, perspectives, and affective sensations of those who created it. Informed by affect theory’s focus on relationality (Bissell 2010), I recognize that my own positionality is inevitably part of this endeavour, and that it is impossible for me to be detached from it (Finlay 2002; Grain 2020; Behar 1996). For this reason, I decided to include some of my own perspectives in the texts, and we also added quotes from the members of El Churo who co-facilitated the gatherings with me. By doing so, we acknowledge that we are all part of the process and that our presence in the project impacts it in multiple ways (Jacobson and Mustafa 2019; Finlay 2002). Approaching the process of making collaborative media content in this affective way did not only allow me to explore research questions together with participants. It also provided me with the ongoing opportunity to critically consider my own positionality in relation to both participants and the project, and to continuously reflect on how I simultaneously affect and am affected by research and research interactions (Febres-Cordero 2021; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Bissell 2010).
The process of making collaborative media content also raised critical considerations regarding authorship, anonymity, and consent. I did not want the participation of the women to be reflected only in the texts that we wrote together. I considered it crucial for the time that they spent collaborating on the project and the knowledge that they shared to be explicitly acknowledged in the credits as well. However, this conflicted with some established practices.
Traditionally, authorship is granted to a single person, anonymity is assumed as the norm, and consent is obtained once before starting research activities (Grain 2020). Yet, this approach did not respond to the collective process of co-creation of media content followed in this project, nor to the values and priorities of some of the women who participated in it, who often had a more community-oriented view of authorship and wanted their collective effort to be publicly recognized. For these reasons and again keeping in mind the recommendations of community-engaged research, I took a different route.
To acknowledge the combined work of everyone involved in the creation of the “Words that Heal” series, we adopted a collective rather than individual authorship, and we signed on as a group. While this collective signature challenges the more common practice of individual authorship of both journalism and research, it better responds to the communal view that most participants held of knowledge itself and of the knowledge creation process.
In terms of anonymity, the women who participated in this project had varied perspectives. While some regarded anonymity as a protection of their privacy, others considered it as an erasure of their contributions to the project. For this reason, I decided to ask each of them how they wanted to be identified, after explaining the possible risks of revealing their identities and participation in this project. Some women chose to remain anonymous or to use a pseudonym, others used only their first names, and yet others chose to use both their first and last names. Some participants also chose to include their ethnicity, age, occupation, and/or other personal characteristics along with their quotes, and I respected the individual decisions that each one of them made. As Killari Guamán, one of the participants in this project explained, this was particularly important in the deeply racist and discriminatory Ecuadorian context:
I would never choose to use a name other than my own. Here, people see that you are wearing your traditional clothing, and they automatically start calling you ‘María’, even when that’s not your name. In that context, ‘María’ has a racist connotation because they don’t even bother to call you by your real name, with respect. They feel entitled to call you whatever they want. You simply become ‘María, the Indian’. It’s racist and sexist at the same time. That’s why, for me, my own name is so important, and it represents wellbeing, because I am the one who decides what to be called.”
To make sure that participants agreed with how they were being identified throughout the different stages of the project, I did not approach consent as a single event, but instead as an ongoing process. Before each interview and group gathering, I explained that we were going to write a journalistic series of feature stories and that they could choose whether to participate or not in that phase of the project. In addition, I asked women how they wanted to be called both before starting the activities and again at the end once they knew what we had talked about. Once the interviews and gatherings ended, I asked participants if they wanted me to include parts of our conversations in the journalistic series, and if they agreed to be contacted again to partake in the collective creation of this content. When I reached out to them for this objective and I shared the texts and their quotes with them, I asked them once more how they wanted to be identified in these outputs, if at all. In this way, I tried to make sure that women’s participation throughout the project was recognized in a way that felt safe, comfortable, respectful, and appreciative to each one of them.
Producing an Affective Reaction
All the considerations and steps described above were intentionally employed with the objective of producing an affective reaction, which is another important component of making something (Woodward English 2022). While traditional journalism aims to report issues in a detached and emotionless manner (Headlee 2021; American Press Institute 2022), emerging initiatives coming from community, alternative, and feminist media –informed, to an extent, by affect theory– have sought new and creative narrative techniques to communicate factual and accurate information in a more connected, affective and engaging way (Wambra 2022; Muntané 2019; Zobl and Drüeke 2012; Feminist Media Studio 2022; Febres-Cordero 2015; 2017). Following this approach, we did not want to appeal only to the reader’s reason, but also to their embodied and affective responses in order to increase the impact of the stories shared. To achieve this goal, we addressed the narrative structure in an affective way as well.
In this project, we were not looking to simply replace existing understandings of wellbeing and health with new ones. Instead, we wanted to explore a great array of diverse experiences and perspectives on wellbeing and health, and to keep them diverse. In other words, we were not striving for homogeneity, but for a celebration of diversity instead, which again, is informed by affect theory’s insights (Beasley-Murray 2010; Williams 2002). This is particularly important in the context of Ecuador where the voices and experiences of diverse groups, including women and internal migrants, have been historically silenced (Arteaga-Cruz and Cuvi 2021; Eguiguren 2017; Barboza and Zaragocín 2021; Valdivieso Vega and Armas 2008). This pursuit presented the question of how to avoid reducing the diversity of experiences shared by participants to a single voice when aiming to craft a comprehensible narrative. Due to the great diversity of perspectives and life trajectories of the women who were part of this project, this was not an easy task. To honour and reflect this diversity, we resorted to affective and creative modes of storytelling. We wrote all the stories of the “Words that Heal” series in the first-person plural voice, weaving this narrative with individual quotes from each participant.
We included an average of three quotes per participant throughout the series. Inspired by the work of other practice-based researchers (Brown 2019b), I let the process of deciding which quote to choose from each participant to be embodied and affective as well. As I read the transcripts of women’s accounts, I paid close attention to embodied and affective reactions that their words elicited in me, and I chose the quotes that moved and affected me the most and that I felt better portrayed the main message that each person wanted to share. Once I had chosen the quotes from each participant, they became part of the raw materials that I shared with each one of them so that we could work on them together, as previously described.
To make the stories easier to read while including multiple quotes from each person, we incorporated text boxes with several quotes throughout the articles. This technique allowed us to include the different voices of the women who participated in the project while writing understandable stories. Our hope with this narrative structure was to show that collective stories are an amalgamation of individual experiences, all equally valid. Again, we paid close attention to the embodied and affective reactions that the individual stories elicited when put together. Based on affect theory’s emphasis on relationality (Bissell 2010), we considered how these individual quotes related to one another not only from a cognitive, but also from an affective perspective, and we put them together based on that. We also complemented participants’ accounts with quotes from poems and songs that we believed contributed to increase the affective reactions that the text could bring, and this was present right from the start in the narrative structure. Even the title “Words that Heal” is based on a local song that we felt encompassed much of what we wanted to share.
Following the consideration that language is itself affective once more, we also paid close attention to the font size, color, and visual elements that went together with the written text. We accompanied these words with the illustrations made for the series by a community member, Andrea Venturini. As shown in the examples below – which are excerpts from the “Words that Heal” series – these images worked together with participants’ quotes and the ways in which they chose to describe themselves to increase the affective reactions on readers engaging with the series. As shown below, this method allowed us to discuss and affectively communicate some of the main intersecting social and structural factors that the women who participated in this project felt hindered their wellbeing and health the most in the context of internal migration in Ecuador. In line with what the albeit scarce existing literature focusing on internal migration in Ecuador has found so far (Eguiguren 2017; Velasteguí López and Tuapanta Pilatasig 2018; Álvarez-Velasco 2012; García-Díaz 2016), some of the intersecting social and structural factors shaping wellbeing and health more often described by women in this context were: rupture of social networks following migration; lack of access to resources; patriarchy and hegemonic gender roles; violence; and discrimination and racism. These elements were prevalent both as push factors driving them to migrate from their places of origin and as barriers to wellbeing and health that they faced in their lives as internal migrant women in the capital city:
I was born in Quito, but my mom is from another province in Ecuador’s Highlands. She has always felt like a tiny tree that, because of life’s circumstances, was ripped from its soil.
Paula, 27 years old
I was born in a rural community in Ecuador’s Highlands, where I attended school until my mother could no longer pay for it. Out of nowhere, one day, my mom came to my sister and me, changed our clothes and shoes, and led us out onto the street where a pickup truck had parked. It was my uncle. He looked at us and said: ‘OK girls, ask your mom for her blessing,’ which we did. He then ordered us to get on the back of the vehicle, and he drove each of us to a different house and left us there to work as maids. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us. Back then, some parents gave up their little girls just like that. We were just given away.
Linda Mariana, 71 years old, brave woman
I come from an impoverished family. We had very little to eat. Sometimes, we had water with a little something to bite into and nothing else. As soon as I finished primary school, my father told me that he could no longer afford my education and that I needed to go to work to contribute to the household economy, and that’s how I got sent to Quito. I cried and explained to him that I had many dreams and that I wanted to study, to which he answered: ‘You are a woman. You don’t need to study anymore. There’s no money to pay for your education; besides, you will probably get married someday!” But I decided to study. I decided to get ahead despite everything. This is why for me, being an Indigenous woman means to be a warrior and to fight; to constantly fight in every possible way. To clear the path amid so many obstacles and to be able to emerge has not been easy for me.
Margarita, 49 years old, Kichwa Otavalo warrior woman
I came to Quito to pursue a university education. My mom and dad brought me here, but when it was time for them to leave, and I saw them take the bus back home, I felt my heart dry out and shrink like a small raisin. It is extremely tough to adapt to a life of loneliness that only you understand. You open the door, and you have no one there. I was suddenly alone. No nephews or nieces were saying: ‘Hello, auntie.’ No mother was inquiring if I’d eaten yet. I would video call my family and see them all eating supper together at the dinner table while I sat alone on the other side of the phone. It was a horrible experience for me. It got to a point where I would play anything on the computer or the TV just to listen to people talk and try to forget the fact that I was utterly alone. That’s how I coped with loneliness.
Mestiza, humble, sensitive, spontaneous, and very friendly woman
When I was a child, there was so much violence at home that I ran away. I was walking by the bus terminal when I heard the driver yell: ‘Going to Quito, to Quito,’ and I just hopped aboard. I had never travelled anywhere before, not even to nearby places, but I could no longer bear the violence, so I left. I didn’t have any money on me, not even for the bus ticket, and no other clothes than what I was wearing.
I came running away from my husband. He was chasing me to kill me.
In Quito, you live with racism ingrained in your life. You’re constantly being observed and judged. When you are looking to rent a room, they tell you: ‘We don’t rent to Black people.’ You go to a shopping mall, and you overhear people saying things about you. You’re in a line at the bank, and they ask you to keep your distance, but they ask this only of you; they don’t say anything to anyone else.
Marisol Zova, Afro-Ecuadorian journalist
Ignorance leads them to view us as insects, as if we were trash to them.
Racism is like diminishing a person, and that’s what hurts the most. You can’t walk in peace because there’s always someone who doesn’t want you to come near them or who makes you feel like you annoy them, as if you were contagious and as if you were going to transmit them some disease. You genuinely feel awful because it feels like they are judging you, and no one likes to be treated with such contempt. They know nothing about all that you carry in your heart, and still, they judge you like that. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through because I know how difficult it is to experience this kind of rejection. It’s preferable to receive a slap in the face than this tremendous humiliation.
It is really sad because our roots are from right here. Indigenous Peoples, Black Peoples, Montubios, we are all from here, and it is painfully hard to be seen as ‘the other’ in our own land.
As hopefully shown with these examples, all the steps followed to make the “Words that Heal” series worked together to produce an intellectual, affective, and embodied reaction in readers, thus increasing the possible impact that the stories shared could have on them. We believe that we achieved this goal to some extent because of some of the comments that we received from readers, such as the one shared below:
The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa used to say that literature should be poisoned with life, and that is what I feel with this work. It distills experiences, humanity, emotion, energy, and reality. You have managed to write something of great quality, and I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart because your words have moved me in a way that I haven’t been moved by other texts in a long time. This is not something that is seen or read every day.
Discussion and Concluding Remarks
The consideration that language is insufficient to address and communicate the complexities of human experience has left the potential of writing as a practice-based method largely unexplored, particularly when done collectively and when related to non-fiction genres, such as journalism. In this article, I have argued that exploring the intricate relationship between affect and language can expand this perspective with positive outcomes. Specifically, I have maintained that the consideration that language mediates affect and is itself affective can open the possibility to approach collaborative media writing as an embodied and affective practice-based method that can be leveraged by community-engaged projects to open avenues for communities’ participation and self-representation, thus strengthening the efforts and increasing the impact of these initiatives. Yet, to discover the full potential of this approach, several careful reflections are required.
Using written words as raw affective materials in the co-creation of media content has both challenges and strengths. For example, while my understanding of language includes oral, written, and sign language, in this article I focus on written and oral language exclusively because I do not know sign language, and neither do the people with whom I collaborated to undertake this project. I see this lack of attention to sign language both as a limitation of this work and as a potential route for future studies.
Another limitation of this method is that it can only be employed with literate people, which restricts the population groups with whom it can be used. To abate this difficulty, creative ways of collaborating with participants with different literacy levels can be explored. Offering the option to participate orally instead of by writing –or creating podcasts or radio content instead of texts– can be alternatives to consider.
Another limitation of this method is that the people involved need to speak the same language, while other non-verbal mediums may not face these linguistic boundaries. To diminish this challenge, it is possible to translate content into multiple languages. Yet, this can be difficult due to time and resources constraints. At the same time, language is easier to ‘transport’ than other materials often used in practice-based research, which can contribute to disseminating the research and its findings simultaneously and across geographic boundaries.
However, to fully unlock the potential of affective collaborative non-fiction writing as a practice-based method, the boundaries of what counts as knowledge, who gets to disseminate it, and through which mediums must continue to be pushed in both journalism and academia (Brathwaite 2021; Tweed 2022). Due to their participatory nature and often innovative approaches to content creation and dissemination of information involving underrepresented communities (Febres-Cordero 2017; 2015; Lewis and Lewis 2015; Manyozo 2012; Atkinson and Dougherty 2006; Zobl and Drüeke 2012; Feminist Media Studio 2022; Muntané 2019; Gumucio-Dagron 2004), alternative, community, and feminist media outlets could be suitable options to publish affective and collaborative content. For their part, researchers could consider open access journals in addition to non-academic publications, and could participate in both academic and non-academic conferences, conventions, festivals, or exhibitions (Reynolds and Dobson 2022). In addition, they could contemplate not one but rather a collection of outputs (Tweed 2022), such as blogs (Febres-Cordero 2021), multiple journalistic publications in national and international media (Febres-Cordero 2022b; 2022a), and collaborations with museums, to name a few. They could also try to share research findings in various languages to increase their reach, especially among the communities they work with. Finally, they could consider creating their own outputs (Tweed 2022). Some of these could include media outlets or academic journals that challenge current understandings of language as an exclusive intellectual endeavour and embrace it as an affective, embodied, and complex component of our eclectic encounter with life.
Moreover, making collaborative media content in a feasible, safe, meaningful, and respectful way demands constant self-reflexivity, creativity, and flexibility. As stated by community-engaged research (Mahoney et al. 2021), it also entails balancing academic requirements with the needs and interests of the community, which could conflict in some instances, such as timelines, priorities, and ethical perspectives on topics such as authorship, anonymity, and consent.
Yet, the strengths of this method make it rewarding to look for avenues to overcome these challenges. One of its strengths is that by using words, which are already familiar and widely used by researchers, this method can open the possibility for scholars like myself who do not feel comfortable with implementing other arts-based methods to explore and experience the potential of practice-based research.
In addition, the collective making of media content blurs the boundaries between data collection, analysis, and dissemination, and challenges existing practices and power dynamics in research. In doing so, this approach can become an effective channel to build and maintain equitable relationships in research projects, work alongside communities in all the stages of the research process, and disseminate research findings in ways that are meaningful, relevant, and impactful for communities, researchers, and audiences alike. As such, collective media writing as an embodied and affective practice-based method can potentially strengthen the efforts and increase the impact of community-engaged projects aiming to encourage the active participation and self-representation of diverse groups, especially those most historically excluded from existing research and communication platforms.
I deeply thank all the women who participated in the project on which this article is based. I am also thankful to all the people who collaborated in the collective creation of the “Words that Heal” journalistic series of feature stories, my colleagues and friends from El Churo, and Dr. Katherine Reilly, my senior supervisor. Finally, I am grateful to Jennifer Raguž for proofreading the English version of the series and this article.
This project is supported by two Graduate Fellowships from Simon Fraser University (SFU), SFU’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative (CERi), SFU’s Student-Community Engagement Competition Award, William & Ada Isabelle Steel Memorial Graduate Scholarship, IODE Seaman Morley Scott Memorial Graduate Scholarship, Emergency Preparedness Conference Scholarship in Emergency Communications, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship.
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