classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
2.4 Rigour and impact 1 Rigour in my PaR
The nature of PaR is inherently challenging to positivistic research ideals of validity, rigour and abstractability, and it repositions concerns around the researcher’s reflexivity in the very centre of the work. Moving on from debates as to the strengths and weaknesses of ‘insider’ research (outlined in Greene 2014), PaR starts out from a belief in ‘the particularity and embodiment of all vision’ (Haraway 1988:582) – the understanding that all knowledge is situated. Nonetheless, Greene (2014) reminds ‘insider’ and practitioner-researchers of the necessity to remain aware of the potential for bias, and develop strategies to mitigate it. A rigorous approach is vitally important if such research is to avoid solipsism, be convincing, and have social value, as explored in my discussion of ‘counsel’ (section 2.2.4). Nelson offers valuable guides to what such rigour might look like in PaR: it may consist in ‘the worked- through-ness of ideas in process’ (2013:75), in ‘making the tacit more explicit and in
establishing resonances between “know-what” and “know-that”’ (52), and in finding verbal correlates for the knowledge gained. Crucially, however, none of these conceptualisations involve leaving behind one’s own subjectivity; rather, they are about bringing it into dialogue with the external world.
Indeed, my experience is that a practitioner’s embedded, ‘partial perspective’ (Haraway 1988) has its own mechanisms to check any too-neat analyses of practice: each time I have found a mode of storytelling practice that ‘works’ in a particular setting, I have been unsettled again by a change in dynamics which has called this into question (see for example ‘Not about the story at Maple House’). This slow and painful learning of humility and wisdom feels itself to be a kind of rigour. Further, working in a wide variety of settings (educational, therapeutic or artistic) has prevented me from becoming fixated on the conditions pertaining to each, and enabled me to find a broader understanding of storytelling with this age group. Complementing these inherent correctives are the research practices outlined throughout this chapter which I have employed to counterbalance the risk of circling around my own preoccupations ‒ from reflective dialogues with collaborators, to testing my findings in blog posts and papers, to the systematic mining of my processual writings.
Yet clearly, I do not wish to suggest that these devices of rigour are sufficient to remove the risk of bias, even as this may be understood within a PaR orientation. My syncretic approach to literature, seeking resonances and following what felt like productive threads, may have generated its own confirmation bias that a more systematic and discipline-based programme of reading may have prevented. It is also likely that my practice was dictated by the bounds of my own comfort zone as well as by a spirit of enquiry. An obvious example is that all the settings where I have managed to develop a long-term practice have been institutional and of a certain intimate nature – small school classes, a residential unit, an established youth theatre. More informal adolescent settings have proved resistant to long-term involvement in
storytelling, or at any rate to my practice of it (further discussed in Chapter 5.3.4). Thus the conceptualisations I have reached of storytelling with adolescents may be heavily rooted in a certain kind of context within which I can work more easily.
The question could be posed as to why I did not introduce some more ‘objective’ measures of the effects on young people of my storytelling practice, such as standardised psychological measurements, in order to test the rigour of my research and perhaps increase its persuasive impact by generating headline figures. I decided against such measures because, as my research progressed, I felt that the potential gains would be outweighed by the reframing they would bring about of the relationship with my participants as ‘I/It’ instead of ‘I/Thou’ (see
Chapter 3): presenting them with questionnaires purporting to monologically assess their ‘progress’ would undermine the spirit of open-ended, voluntary, artistic collaboration I sought to build with them.
2.4.2 Osmotic impact and the advocacy of the private
This decision requires further defence. As Eleanor Belfiore and Oliver Bennett (2010) have discussed, such disengagement of arts researchers from measurements easily comprehensible to policymakers leaves the field free for those with a narrowly positivist outlook to dominate public discourse. Moreover, my research was perhaps yet another step removed from traditional approaches to achieving impact, because, whereas the learning of PaR projects is often communicated via public performances, the majority of my practice was (typically for applied work) process-based, occurring within ‘closed’ workshops (Thompson 2011). However I would now like to draw on recent theorists of applied theatre, and on well-established understandings of policy processes, to argue that the impacts of this research have been better realised through what might be called an ‘osmotic’ understanding of impact and policy. This calls for an amplified understanding of the praxis cycle, beyond the ‘private’ sphere of my practice.
Both Gareth White (2015) and James Thompson (2011) emphasise that the effective power of applied theatre cannot be understood separately from its aesthetic dimensions, troubling the distinctions between ‘process’ and ‘performance’, the ‘private’ and the ‘public’. Thompson argues that, while the ‘micro-practices’ of applied theatre may not directly bring about strategic change, work conducted within private workshops is thoroughly permeated with the social and cultural discourses of the public world, and influences them complexly and
osmotically in return (2011:17). For example, it may result in shifts in self-perception or interpersonal dynamics that may play out in the relationships between participants and the institutions to which they belong.
I follow Thompson, however, in finding this insufficient, given the challenges imposed by society on many of the young people with whom I have worked. He also sees a mechanism by which these micro-practices of applied theatre may enable and motivate practitioners
themselves to engage more overtly in advocacy and policy processes. He roots this in
Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of the ‘face’ of the Other, and the infinite ethical demand it makes on us to be of service to them. The intimate encounter of the workshop allows practitioners to feel the full force of this demand, by overcoming our learned indifference to others, and the
aesthetic beauty of the art-making process enables us to bear it. By extension, paraphrasing Simon Critchley (2007), Thompson sees the potential for a ‘meta-political ethical moment’:
The small act of accepting that another person makes an ethical demand […] extends to a universal […] We might work with some street children in a short-lived project but the experience is felt as a demand that all children should have the right to a decent place to live. (Thompson 2011:169)
This, argues Thompson, then confers an ‘additional responsibility on applied theatre practitioners’ (39): ‘an advocacy of the private (a politics of the intimate) and a critical encounter with the public’ (34).
I read this as a call to practitioners to enhance the ‘natural’ processes of osmosis; to
incorporate engagement in public discourse into their research praxis itself. Two examples will clarify how I have sought to do this:
a) In the area of young people’s mental health provision, opportunities have arisen around the redesigning of regional CAMHS services, responding to national policy from which arts provision is noticeably absent (see Department of Health/NHS England 2015). I have brought the insights of my practice with young people into fora of practitioners and policymakers informing this process. Those projects within my practice which did result in performance or digital outputs enabled me to bring young people’s own direct or oblique expression of their views before policymakers – presenting an extract from Wormwood in the Garden alongside young collaborator Imogen Godwin at Higher York’s ‘Everybody’s Business’ conference on young people’s mental health; and co-presenting The Story of Rob(i/y)n with two young Maple House residents at a recommissioning consultation event.
b) Incorporating Storyknowing into the structure of the research was a further vehicle for facilitating dialogue and sharing practice learning. Indeed, this symposium was itself positioned as a collaborative practice-as-research exercise, bringing into conversation the perspectives of researchers, arts practitioners, mental health and youth workers, teachers, and young people, and synthesising their insights into a short documentary film.
Insights from policy studies suggest that such ongoing interaction with communities of practice, incorporated within the research praxis itself, may have as much influence as generating evidence of impact through standardized measures. Studies reviewed by Carol Weiss suggest that the policy process is much more discursive, rhizomatic and nonlinear than is widely
believed. While decision makers believed that they were influenced by policy-oriented research,
Often they could not cite the name of any particular study and many of them could not even remember reading a research report. But in circuitous ways research findings came into circulation and ideas from research percolated into the policy arena […] and people had the sense that they had heard generalizations from research and that these ideas had influenced their thinking. (Weiss 1995:141)
Further underlining this is Rebecca Sutton’s (1999) contention that policy in the real world is iterative and multi-directional, not separated into moments of policy-making and
implementation. The artful ways in which individuals pass the various expressions of policy handed down to them through the filter of their own values and practices, in turn, influence the policy landscape.
This picture of a complex policy ecosystem leaves little scope for me to claim direct impacts for my research. However, in Chapter 5 I will attempt to draw out the kind of traces I feel my work may have left on individual young people, collaborators, institutions and relationships, or indeed on communities of practitioners. Such traces are not sealed off from ‘policy’, but nor are they ‘effects’. Rather, they are unfathomable marks on the selves of all those involved in the collaborative artistic encounter, and like a story, they may influence their future actions. They are intersections of my PaR cycle with the lives, practices and advocacy of others.