by Phil Jones
20th August 2020

Language matters. Describing something as a ‘lab’ gives it an air of legitimacy and significance, particularly if you work in a science-led department. I established the Playful Methods lab at the University of Birmingham in 2016 to create a brand for the work I’d been doing for many years around the creative turn in social sciences. Having a ‘lab’ puts me on a more equal footing with my physical science colleagues, not least when it comes to bidding for new pieces of equipment from internal funds. It is also a good way of attracting a team of students at different levels to work on related topics, which has pedagogic benefits in terms of building collaborative skills. This work can lead to joint publications meaning that a lab approach can help to deliver genuinely research-led teaching.

The creative turn in the social sciences has legitimised research techniques that once sat firmly at the practice-led end of the humanities. More performative, embodied approaches, the use of different art forms and creative practices have all been increasingly employed within the social sciences over the last two decades. I’ve done research projects alongside artists working in different media and am always struck by how engaging with their way of seeing the world creates insights that you simply don’t get through conventional qualitative methods. Such approaches are particularly good when working with communities, creating more opportunities for co-constructing research, moving away from doing research ‘on’ people, toward doing it ‘with’ them. These ideas were at the core of the AHRC’s Connected Communities scheme. Indeed, the research team on my Cultural Intermediation project, funded by Connected Communities, reflected on these approaches at length in an edited collection that came out last year.

The creative turn isn’t just about working with artists, however. The main focus of my work is in developing new ways of gathering research materials. This said, for me, the most important point in methods work is to choose the most appropriate technique for gathering the data or research materials that you need in order to answer your research questions: if a questionnaire or an interview will do the job, why mess around working with an artist or a new piece of equipment? Nonetheless, there are lots of exciting opportunities for creatively developing new approaches to research that might help us to answer the research questions we hadn’t previously thought of.

‘Playful methods’ can be summarised as trying out different techniques and seeing what works. In some cases this is as simple as borrowing approaches or pieces of equipment from other disciplines and seeing how they might be used in new ways to answer critical social science questions. Indeed, I spend a lot of my time playing with new pieces of technology and thinking about the novel methods they can enable. This draws on my unashamed love of tech but also reflects the fact that previously very expensive and complex pieces of equipment will sometimes become cheap and ubiquitous. The smartphone is the most obvious example of this, allowing us to do all kinds of things (photography, video, audio recording, even transcription) much more easily and cheaply than was once the case. To take one example of this revolution, as a geographer I’ve been particularly interested in how mapping has gone from being a niche pursuit to near ubiquity because GPS satellite tracking is built into every smartphone. As a result, it’s now possible to get community groups involved in grassroots mapping projects simply by asking them to walk around their neighbourhood taking photographs that are automatically geotagged by their phones.

Another great example of this is virtual reality (VR). Prior to the launch of the Oculus Rift in 2016, VR was an expensive and unreliable experience that had great potential but was not viable as a methodological tool for all but the most specialist researchers. Today, however, VR is considerably cheaper and more polished. As a result, my team in the Playful Methods lab has been exploring different ways that critical social scientists can engage with highly embodied and immersive VR experiences. From undertaking content analysis of existing VR materials, creating our own VR content and developing approaches to working with participants in VR, it has been very exciting to examine the methodological potential of this new technology. Along with Tess Osborne and students from the Playful Methods lab, I’m currently writing up this work for a forthcoming research ‘short’.

Playful methods is about seeing what can be done, what works effectively and what is the most straightforward way of building new approaches into existing research practices. This inevitably involves a great deal of trial and error, which can be problematic. As I discuss in my book Bodies, Technologies and Methods (Routledge, 2020), it is much easier to do this kind of work from the security of a tenured academic position because your job isn’t on the line if something you try doesn’t work out. For early career scholars, however, a failed approach can be high risk, no matter how useful it might be as a learning process in the longer term. Nonetheless, as the value of playful and creative approaches is increasingly acknowledged within the sector, so it becomes easier for scholars to begin to employ them with less risk of hostility from their employers. This means that many more researchers are able to benefit from the interesting new insights they offer, which in turn enriches our understanding of the world.

Phil Jones is Reader in Cultural Geography in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK. He is the author of the forthcoming Virtual Reality Methods: A Guide for Researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities, along with Tess Osborne, Calla Sullivan-Drage, Natasha Keen and Eleanor Gadsby, publishing with Policy Press in summer 2022.

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Image Credit: Tess Osborne