Poetic Autoethnographies: Developing Participatory Research through Artist-Practitioner Expertise


The poetic autoethnographies project is led by Dr. Helen Johnson (University of Brighton, England), in association with Prof. Claudia Mitchell (McGill University). It is funded by the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods and the University of Brighton. The project seeks to develop a collaborative, participatory research method, which capitalises on the respective strengths of spoken word artists and social scientific researchers. This method will harness the skills and knowledge of both these groups to produce innovative, creative pieces which enrich our understanding of social scientific issues and help us to communicate this new knowledge in engaging, accessible ways. The approach focuses on expounding the subjective, lived experiences of co-researchers, and thus also harnesses a third base of expertise –that of personal experience. The intention is to develop this method for use with both artists and, ultimately, with members of community groups who do not have a background in the arts.

The research being carried out this July and August at McGill University’s Participatory Cultures Lab acts as a pilot study, exploring how these expert artist/academic groups can work together effectively. For this pilot, we are working with 8 young spoken word poets and 4 spoken word artist-educators to explore issues around prejudice and discrimination. The study will produce creative explorations of personal experiences of discrimination, which are based on a firm foundation of extant academic knowledge and on a robust working knowledge of qualitative research methods.

The co-researchers will be trained in qualitative research methods by Helen Johnson and coached in poetry performance/writing by experienced, local artist-educators, Cat Kidd, Deanna Smith, Tanya Evanson and Chris Masson. They will create a chapbook of social scientifically-informed poems on discrimination, and deliver a spoken word performance at Mainline Theatre on Sunday 14th August.


  • to create social-scientifically informed spoken word poems exploring co-researchers’ experiences and understandings of discrimination
  • to work with young spoken word poets and educators to develop a participatory, arts-based research method which can be disseminated for wider use

Why Arts-based Research and Spoken Word?

There is an ill fit between poetry and social scientific research as it is usually understood; arts-based research (sometimes called performative social science) seeks to close this gap. Researchers (and artists) who take this approach hold that research needs to be more meaningful, more emotional and more engaging. The work they produce typically tries to put the researcher back into the research (acknowledging that we are living, breathing, feeling people), and engage with real people, either as contributors or 'consumers' of the research. Many arts-based researchers also believe that we cannot unearth solid facts about our social worlds, and that we can only ever tell stories about what we think is true. This means that it is up to us to tell the stories we think need to be told and to make the kinds of changes we think need to be made to the world. In this sense, there is actually a very good fit between spoken word and social science research.

Methodological Innovation

This project combines strengths from three different methodologies: (auto)ethnography, participatory approaches (participatory action research/coproduction), and arts-based research/performative social science. Both autoethnography and arts-based approaches use art as a form of data collection, analysis and/or dissemination (Gergen & Jones, 2008; Short, Turner & Grant, 2013). Autoethnography and participatory approaches, meanwhile, share a focus on dissolving the boundaries between researcher and researched, and on approaching qualitative research from a critical onto-epistemological perspective (Durose et al., 2011; Short et al, ibid). By drawing on all three approaches in a single study, this project contributes to several areas of methodological development: innovation in ethnographic approaches (applying critical theory to ethnographies); developing participatory approaches (stimulating more effective dialogue with the arts and humanities); and enriching arts-based approaches (developing a participatory emphasis and more effective inter-disciplinarity/artist engagement). In addition, the project brings methodological expertise from the arts and humanities to the social sciences, by comparing and combining different ways of working with the same community of co-researchers and the same research focus. 

Further Information

For further information or to reserve a ticket for the final performance, please contact Dr. Helen Johnson (née Gregory), School of Applied Social Science, University of Brighton

h.f.johnson [at] brighton.ac.uk / www.hgregory.co.uk

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