Narrative Storytelling, Creative Flow and Designing a Methodology in Practice-based Research

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2022.05 | Issue 8 | May 2022

Rosemary Joiner (Federation University Australia)


Abstract

This article focuses on my practice-based research which employs the artefact-exegesis model to write my novel, Kristal and Marg, exploring the impact of volunteering. It addresses approaches to methodology design for practice-based research, and the place for theory, practice and reflective evaluation within. It also focuses on creativity and flow and approaches to directing the creative process in practice-based research.


Informed by my own experience in industry and community immersed in volunteering and altruism, my practice-based research looks at capturing the impact of volunteerism through narrative storytelling. This article focuses on what practice-based research allows for that traditional research methods do not, specifically when measuring and exploring the impact of volunteering. The way researchers have measured the impact of volunteerism in the past has varied and the impact of volunteering continues to prove difficult to measure. Attempting to measure the value of volunteering hours in economic terms can be useful, but does it tell the full story? Through practice-based creative research, I have written a novel which attempts to fill the research gaps by telling the real stories of the impact of volunteering.


Introduction

Richard Wagamese said, "All that we are is story. When we … share stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time." My study employs a practice-based creative research approach, using the artefact-exegesis model. I am a writer so part of the contribution to knowledge is demonstrated through an artefact, an original creative work of fiction, a young adult novel, Kristal and Marg. The creative work is accompanied by an exegesis whose role is to explain, demonstrate and confirm the research and ultimately answer the research questions.

In practice-based creative research, academics need to create something as part of their research process. Creative researchers are producing gallery exhibitions, installations, photography, podcasts, poetry, novels and more. By creating art, we are creating new understandings. Practice-based researchers, by nature, work across disciplines. One does not generally write a novel about storytelling or compose a song about songwriting. Practitioners need some expertise on which to focus their research. My area of expertise is volunteerism. In my study, I navigate the interdisciplinary fields of arts and sociology.

In the sphere of academic research into the impact of volunteering, much of the existing research focuses primarily on the economic impact of volunteer work. A secondary focus tends to point to the social impact of volunteering but tends to be limited to a short-term scope. An area that has not yet been explored is the longitudinal impact of volunteering. Another area ripe for exploration is the combined impact of volunteering; on the volunteer, on the immediate beneficiaries of the volunteer work as well as members of the surrounding community. Perhaps the reason these areas have not yet been explored extensively is the ambitious nature of this proposed research. To examine a topic so complex would require an innovative research model.


In her work 'The Creative PhD' (Brabazon, Lyndall-Knight & Hills, 2020,) in which the standards and structure of the creative PhD, and indeed many of academia’s structures, are challenged, Brabazon describes the artefact-exegesis model as “the most unusual mode in which the doctorate exists.” She also describes the turn to creative practice as “one of the most exciting and revolutionary developments to occur in the university within the last two decades.” In this pivotal time in human history, many researchers are seeking revolutionary research methods when faced with complex research problems.


In her article, 'The PhD In Writing Accompanied By An Exegesis', Josie Arnold referred to the artefact-exegesis model as “the exuberant PhD.” Arnold referenced Barrett (2004) who, when exploring the exegesis as a form of creative arts research suggested that a crucial question to ask when engaging in the artefact-exegesis model of practice-based research is: 'What did the studio process reveal that could not have been revealed by any other mode of enquiry?'


Throughout the study, I retained a focus on this question. The practice-based creative research approach needed to reveal things that could not have been revealed by any other mode of enquiry. In my study I am writing a novel which attempts to weave together the enduring impact of volunteering, and all of the aspects that are so difficult to capture and measure when using traditional research methods. I choose storytelling because storytelling is universal to our humanity. Writer Ursula Le Guin said, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Practice-based creative research allows me as a writer and research practitioner to bring together a revolutionary, exuberant research approach with the human sensitivities of storytelling.


How it began

The way researchers have measured the impact of volunteering in the past has varied and the impact of volunteering has continued to prove difficult to quantify. Attempting to measure the impact of volunteering in economic terms can be useful, but it does not always tell the full story. I have worked in the volunteering and community engagement sectors for over 15 years and I have come to understand volunteerism and borne witness to its impact.

My research study was prompted by considering questions of value. When working closely with volunteer programs in aged care, I began to consider the value of the time a volunteer spends with an isolated aged care resident in their final months of life, when otherwise that older person would have died alone, the value of the time a volunteer spends helping an aged care resident with dementia to take part in a bingo activity, when otherwise that aged care resident would have been simply observing.


When working closely with volunteer community sports programs I began to consider how sports stars at elite levels repeatedly tell us that they would not be where they are today if they hadn’t got their start in grass-roots sports programs that wouldn’t run without volunteers. How do we measure that early fostering of future stars?


When closely observing volunteer firefighter services in the community I began to consider the question: if a volunteer firefighter saves the life of a child, what is that worth?

Essentially traditional research methods can fall short of telling the full story. The industry benchmark for measuring the impact of volunteering is to approximate the cost to the economy of replacing volunteers’ labor (Mayer; Knapp; Gaskin.) In the 'State of Volunteering in Victoria 2020 Report', this method was used to determine that the value of volunteering to the state of Victoria, Australia was $58.1 billion in 2019. A 2011 report found volunteering to be worth more to the Australian economy than the mining sector. These are big numbers. But what do they really mean? And do these numbers tell the full story?


The studies that reach these findings and calculate these figures are carried out for good reason. Researchers attempt to measure the impact of volunteering so as to create metrics with which to advocate for support for the volunteering sector and shine a light on its value. However, as soon as such studies are published, discourse begins into what meaning exists within the numbers. We know that some forms of value are easier to measure than others. If an elderly person’s life has been saved by a Meals on Wheels program delivered by volunteers, if the life of a child has been saved by a volunteer firefighter, if lives are being transformed daily by the work of volunteers, can those lives be quantified by a number like $58.1 billion? When measuring the impact of volunteering using economic metrics, does the question, and the answer to the question, begin to lose its meaning?


Practice-based research allowed me to utilize narrative storytelling as a means of illuminating issues through narrative, through constructions of empathy with characters, and through the way situations unfold in storylines. This allowed for the demonstration of the short, medium and long term impact of volunteering, and its tangible and intangible value, in ways traditional methods cannot. Ultimately, this approach allowed me to seek answers through my practice, weave those answers into my artefact and provide audiences with engagement with the research issues through the emotional connection that comes through creative fiction. This was made possible through the design of a meaningful methodology and through directing the creative process and allowing for creativity and flow. We will re-visit these issues of methodology and creativity and flow in later chapters.


The writerly experiment

The artefact-exegesis model in practice-based creative research sees the development of an artefact (a creative work) and an exegesis (a thesis) developed by the research practitioner. The role of the artefact is to bring together the theory and practice of the study in a creative work. The role of the exegesis is to contextualise the creative work, situate the project in its research field, and answer the research questions. The artefact in my study, Kristal and Marg, tells the story of teenager Kristal who, in order to meet her obligations in her failing secondary school studies, is required to undertake volunteer work at her local aged care home, at first begrudgingly. Through this volunteer work she meets Marg. Their friendship takes time to grow. But over time they come to have a transformative effect on each other’s lives.


The transformative nature of volunteer work, both immediate and long-term, is explored through the character arc of the protagonist, Kristal. From a dysfunctional household, at the beginning of the novel, Kristal is withdrawn and isolated from everyone in her life. Once introduced to the aged care home, the mutual benefits of her growing friendships there, her various learnings and the various activities she takes part in, all contribute to Kristal’s growth. This leads to a number of changes in Kristal, including changes in her plans for the future.


The value of social connections made through volunteering is illustrated through the relationship of the two lead characters. Secondary benefits of volunteer work are explored through the stories of additional characters in the novel, including other residents, and other volunteers, within the aged care home, and other connections in Kristal’s life.


A point of dramatic tension in the story is the presence of Michael, a visiting consultant, who seeks ways to reduce costs for the home and considers shutting the volunteer program down. Another point of tension is explored through the character of Kiran, the manager of the home. As Kiran is required to record volunteer hours as part of his monthly reporting, he reflects on the impact Kristal’s volunteer work has had on Marg, the other residents, the staff, and on Kristal herself. After some time spent struggling with the task, effectively attempting to measure the impact of volunteering by placing numbers in a spreadsheet, Kiran ponders the futility of the exercise. These narrative points attempt to illuminate the questionability of using arbitrary reporting metrics for areas of our society where value and impact is longitudinal. Volunteering is one of these areas. The arts is another. In this way, the narrative storytelling approach allows for key points of dramatic tension to be explored through storytelling.


The friendship of Kristal and Marg takes time to develop and does not begin well. This is reflective of what is common in the volunteering sector; that is, that connections are not always made instantly, but that additional effort is worth the reward. The connection made between Kristal and Marg leads, in turn, to Marg spending less time self-isolating, and making further connections with other residents in the home, even at times when Kristal is not there. This is reflective of what is common in the aged care sector; that is, that connections made through volunteering lead to sustained flow-on effects of reduced isolation. As their friendship grows and they share common stories, Marg shares stories of time spent in volunteerism and activism in her younger days and the transformative effect this had on her.


In act 2, I considered the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on volunteering, and how the volunteering sector responded to and contributed to the pandemic. When a lockdown saw Kristal unable to visit Marg, she was moved to display reassuring posters for Marg and the other residents to keep their spirits up until she could visit again. This showed how much Kristal had grown since the beginning of the novel, and attempted to reflect the myriad of ways volunteers worked to contribute to their communities and combat isolation during hard times during the pandemic (Gubrium and Gubrium, 2021).


Act 2 also saw Kristal, while hurt by Marg’s delirious outburst, put her own feelings aside to consider what Marg may have been feeling during her delirium and what may have been behind her words. This plot point sought to reflect how acts of benevolence can lead to increased generosity and selflessness in people who volunteer. (Haski-Leventhal et al., 2011).


We also see Kristal and Marg sharing quiet conversations which, with the absence of grandparents and well-equipped parents, had been missing from Kristal’s life and which would lead Kristal to understanding herself better. In turn, these conversations helped to fill a void for Marg which existed with her own children and grandchildren living interstate. This is reflective of the “surrogacy effect” that volunteering can provide. The conclusion of the novel sees Kristal, at the end of her graduating year, planning optimistically for her future, changed from who she was a year before. This is reflective of the transformative impact of volunteer work. (Ronel et al., 2009 and Haski-Leventhal et al., 2011).


I aspired to apply the study to frame a conceptual understanding of how storytelling can synthesise a creative manifestation of the realities that exist within research gaps. The practice-based creative research approach allowed for the impact of volunteering to be measured and explored through narrative enquiry. This method allowed for documented, observed and anecdotal truths to be recorded and contextualised in the artefact leading to insights and knowledge and an artefact which can be a meaningful accompaniment to traditional research.


Approaches to methodology design in practice-based research

Designing a methodological framework in an emerging field holds unique challenges. Practice-based researchers draw from the guidance in their field when designing research methodology. In pondering my research problem to look beyond traditional metrics it became clear that an innovative research model would be required. This led to the consideration of practice-based research. I would write a novel accompanied by a thesis. For a creative writer, many opportunities were evident. In time the research question (among other critical questions) emerged: “In what ways can a practice-based research approach be used to measure and explore the impact of volunteering?”


In designing my methodological framework, four works have been important to my study. These works provided context for understanding the balance between theory, practice and reflective evaluation in practice based research and may prove useful for other creative practice researchers when designing methodologies. These works are Kara (2020), Skains (2018), Smith & Dean (2009) and Candy (2006).


These works vary in their approaches and their scopes and many contrasts exist between them. The most important commonality though is the triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation that each work purports. Kara, Skains, Smith & Dean and Candy each assert, albeit in their own ways, the fundamentality of these elements and the importance of observing the way these three elements interact with each other. This triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation is central to practice based research.


Kara (2020) emphasizes the importance of creative thinking and reflexivity in the research process in her work Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Kara encourages the researcher to step back and think about what they want to know about their work with a critical lens and lists sample questions the researcher might ask themselves as part of their methodological reflexivity. She also encourages the researcher to ask themselves when is the right time to focus on reflexivity. This understanding of timing is crucial to practice based researchers. Creative practitioners naturally develop an intuition for creative flow. In creative research, an intuition usually develops for knowing when to allow creativity and flow to run free with no boundaries and when to temper and guide the flow like water in a stream. This is an intuition for timing. An intuition for holding on and letting go. Kara considers a number of elements unique to practice-based research including the idea that creative practice research tends to “acknowledge and respect creativity” in a way that is unique, and encourages researchers to brace for these unique elements stating “practicing reflexively can be an uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking experience, requiring a high level of tolerance for uncertainty.”


Kara explores creativity as a central ingredient of thinking and encourages researchers to allocate time for valuable creative thinking. An analysis of slow and fast thinking, and convergent and divergent thinking speaks of the need for creative researchers to be comfortable with uncertainty. To Kara, "research with soul in mind" is a more holistic and experiential discipline than traditional research and speak of the necessity for researchers to be open to the unexpected.


Based on Kara’s observations, I embedded a degree of tolerance for uncertainty in my methodological framework which allowed for various forms of thinking throughout the study. A holistic approach to the triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation, which allowed for the allocation of time for each of the three elements, while being open to the unexpected, ensured a more experiential discipline was applied. When working on my novel, I used a different form of thinking, and entered a different form of creative flow, to when I am working on my thesis. When undertaking critical evaluation, I used a different form of thinking and a different form of creative flow again. Initially I saw this movement between different forms of thinking as something to be tolerated as per Kara’s observations. Over time though, patterns emerged and the process took on a holistic rhythm. In practice based research, acceptance of uncertainty becomes a certainty in itself and, once familiar, brings with it a sense of comfort.


Like Kara, Lyle Skains considered methodology in depth in the popular thesis 'Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology'. Skains (2018) highlights how in practice based research, the creative act is designed to answer a directed research question which could not be explored by other methods. This was pivotal to my study. Before I was familiar with Skains’s work, I was exploring my research problem. If I was going to move beyond traditional research methods in my field, I was going to need to approach it in a new and innovative way. That was how I began to consider practice-based research.


Skains is a proponent of reflective evaluation for practice-based researchers, encouraging the use of research logs and observation notes, which she calls “in situ utterances,” which can be retrospectively analyzed, a process which offers opportunity for insight and nuance into the creative practice through a subjective record. Skains also highlights the importance for researchers to carry out reflective evaluation during, not after, the creative process. In observing the problematic nature of relying on memory, Skains says conducting reflective evaluation “after the creative act rather than during (or as close to as possible) can be an unfortunately fallible method, and often fails to offer insights into the cognitive processes of creation.”

Based on Skains’s points, my methodology saw the artefact and the exegesis developed concurrently, with a dialogue existing between the two components. I created a framework for my theories in the exegesis, tested those theories in the artefact, then returned to the exegesis to consider further theory. In this way, the artefact-exegesis model allowed for a robust research approach.


Smith and Dean (2009) too reflect on the complex characteristics of practice-based research in their book Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice In The Creative Arts. Smith and Dean turn to Peter A. Corning of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems for his itemized definition of complexity. Corning’s definition articulates the following: complexity often (not always) implies the following attributes: (1) a complex phenomenon consists of many parts (or items, or units, or individuals); (2) there are many relationships/interactions among the parts; and (3) the parts produce combined effects (synergies) that are not easily predicted and may often be novel, unexpected, even surprising (Corning 1998). In the words of Smith and Dean “These attributes are certainly consistent with practice-led research.”


As per the first section of Corning’s definition, indeed practice-led research does consist of many parts, which need to be navigated simultaneously. When producing a creative work (or works) in a multidisciplinary environment, accompanied by a thesis, researchers require unique skills, approaches and understandings in order to reveal new understandings through their study.


As per the second section of Corning’s definition, there are many interactions among the parts contained within practice-based research. Interaction takes place among the spheres of the researcher’s theory, their practice and their reflective evaluation. Interaction takes place between the creative work and its audience. Interaction takes place between the artefact and the exegesis.


Lastly, as per the final third of Corning’s definition, in practice based research the parts produce combined effects that are not easy to predict and are often novel, unexpected and surprising. It is this final point which is key. As in Kara’s observations, this definition encourages the researcher to embrace the unexpected and surprising.


Smith and Dean go on to provide clear context for the artefact in creative research, proposing that the artefact “provides evidence of the knowledge discovered” is available as a future reference for further investigation and verification, demonstrates the theory and makes the ideas explicit. The artefact also provides a stimulus for engagement with the knowledge gained. They echo the thoughts of Patricia Leavy in her Handbook of Arts Based Research when they suggest that the artefact makes the theory available to a wider audience who might otherwise not engage with knowledge in the abstract. We will re-visit Leavy’s view in later chapters.


Smith and Dean discuss the way reflection can help find patterns that can bring meaning to personal knowledge and understanding, stating that theories can be associated with patterns of usage, or practices we use regularly. These regular patterns of usage can indicate areas of particular interest in our work. In turn, these patterns of usage can find their way into our theoretical practice, our creative practice as well as our reflective practice.

Based on Smith and Dean’s observations, I honed my understanding of the role of the artefact and embedded a degree of tolerance for uncertainty in my methodological framework which allowed for various forms of thinking throughout the study. A holistic approach to the triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation, which allowed for the allocation of time for each of the three elements, while being open to the unexpected, ensured a more experiential discipline was applied.


For a more concise approach, many turn to Linda Candy’s 2006 guide Practice Based Research: A Guide which aims to characterize practice-related research for the general reader and research student. Since its publication it has surely provided a reference for many a supervisor as well. Candy begins with key definitions in the field and historical background of practice-based PhDs. The guide includes a section on how we approach knowledge in research, and the reliability of knowledge therein, then gives a useful outline of thesis sections and a questions and answers chapter.


In considering how we approach knowledge, Candy states that “one can argue that action, cognition and perception must be considered together” and that “research about human interaction with art works … must try to capture information about all three aspects and unify them in some way.” In unifying action, cognition and perception in the way we consider them together, research practitioners can simultaneously unify their own thoughts and practices, and can consider their audiences’ action, cognition and perception.

Within Candy’s questions and answers chapter, she makes special mention of keeping a written record in the form of a research log. Indeed, Kara quotes Candy in stating “Reflexivity is increasingly used by creative arts practitioners, for whom it ‘validates their intuitive instincts within a framework of reflective enquiry’". Candy’s suggested list of questions a researcher may ask themselves was a stimulus for my reflective practice methodology. Questions like “What stumbling blocks arose and how they were addressed?” and “Did the solutions work well, if not why not?” led to insights, revisions, re-visits and contemplations which in turn led to deeper understanding within the study. Importantly, Kara, Skains, Smith & Dean and Candy all encouraged the use of a research journal as part of the research project.


So, in practice-based research, the triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation, and observing the way these three elements interact with each other, is fundamental to a research methodology. In addition, identifying subjective ways to use a reflective journal as part of the research methodology, can frame theoretical and creative practice, identify meaningful patterns, offer insight into the research process and validate the researcher’s intuitive instincts.


Creativity and flow: directing the creative process

Writing a novel as part of my research requires an exploratory and creative approach. The concept of creative flow as part of original expression is intrinsic to the arts. Academic writers of any discipline understand the need to enter “the zone” when writing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recognized and named the psychological concept of "flow" as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. in his work Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (2013) he interviewed almost one hundred subjects, including biologists, physicists, politicians, poets and artists, to explore the creative process, creative flow and experiences during which individuals are fully involved in the present moment. Csikszentmihalyi’s findings included the observation that creative individuals tend to operate at the extremes and that to creative individuals, the creative process is “recursive, not linear.” As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “mental meandering” is an essential part of the creative process to allow for the co-mingling of ideas.


These observations were relevant to the experience of my study. In the writerly experiment, creativity and flow must be allowed to run free with no boundaries to allow for true artistic freedom and inspiration. However, it is important that at times the flow be tempered and guided like water in a stream to allow for outcomes to be achieved and deadlines to be met. This requires balance, focus and vision. Of course, it also requires that ever-present requirement; a strong, communicative supervisory relationship.


Brabazon et al (2020) is clear on what the artefact-exegesis model is not, noting that creative quality alone is not research. One is not earn a PhD by writing, painting or composing something profound alone. This means that, should the research-practitioner produce their Wuthering Heights or their Midnight’s Children, but fail to answer the research questions in their thesis, they will still have failed to meet their research goals. As creative practitioners we can naturally become caught up in our creative endeavours and lose sight on our academic ones. Our challenge is to consistently maintain the required balance.


In summary, the challenge for creative research practitioners in directing the creative process is to balance creative flow with outcomes and deadlines, keeping sight of academic focus as well as creative focus.


The character of audience and questions to ask as research practitioners

All research requires the consideration of audience. Practice-based researchers must consider the audience for their creative work and their academic work. In her book Handbook of Arts Based Research, Patricia Leavy spoke of studies which showed 90% of papers published in academic journals are never cited and as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors (Meho, 2007). She compared this with creative practice research where a gallery exhibition, theatre performance or creative novel may attract an audience of twenty or fifty or one hundred or more and explored the intellectual and engagement process each audience member may experience with the creative material and the research questions. Arts-based research, Leavy argues is “likely to reach a larger audience, to prompt visceral and emotional responses, and with some forms there can be an immediacy.” (Leavy, 2017.) This was used as an argument for the value of creative practice research based on its audience scope.


Research is not just for academics. It should benefit society. Questions about research audience can be challenging. If one of the benefits of the practice based research is the accessibility that comes with it, that benefit deserves exploring. As practice-based research is still considered an emerging field of research, it is the responsibility of all practice-based researchers to consider the future of the model and where their research fits within it.


Questions we must ask ourselves include: What might practice-based research in my field look like in the coming decades? If practice-based research is currently largely applied in the fields of arts, humanities and social sciences how might my research contribute to practice-based research being applied in broader fields of research in future? What does the practice-based research approach reveal that could not have been revealed by any other mode of enquiry? And while seeking new knowledge in interdisciplinary ways, how can we be sure to contribute to knowledge and increase understanding in multiple directions, modalities and disciplines? And how can we evidence the impact of research on my audience, and more broadly? These are among the many questions practice-based researchers must ask as we navigate research in an emerging field.


Conclusion

My study sought to measure and explore the impact of volunteering using practice based research and gain new knowledge into both the impact of volunteering and the nature of practice based research itself. Kristal and Marg allowed aspects of the impact of volunteering, including its longitudinal impact, which has not been fully achieved using traditional methods, to be demonstrated through narrative storytelling. The study led to insights and knowledge and an artefact which can be a meaningful accompaniment to traditional research. This was enabled through the design of a thoughtful, tailored research methodology and supported through the use of a reflective journal.


Benefits can be found for practice-based researchers in directing the creative flow and keeping sight of academic focus as well as creative focus, and asking meaningful questions of one’s self, including about one’s audience, as we navigate research in an emerging field.

Fundamental to designing a research methodology in practice based research is the triad of theory, practice and reflective evaluation, and observing the way these three elements interact with each other.


In addition, identifying subjective ways to use a reflective journal as part of the research methodology, can frame theoretical and creative practice, identify meaningful patterns, offer insight into the research process and validate the researcher’s intuitive instincts.


Acknowledgements

This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Fee-Offset Scholarship through Federation University Australia.


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