Activating the research ‘subject’

I’ve been aware of David Gauntlett’s ArtLab project at Bournemouth Media School’s Centre for Creative Media Research for a while, and keep meaning to post briefly on it.

The ArtLab studies represent a new type of research in which media consumers’ own creativity, reflexivity and knowingness is harnessed, rather than ignored. In these studies, individuals are asked to produce media or visual material themselves, as a way of exploring their relationship with particular issues or dimensions of media. Examples, which appear in the projects section, include research where children made videos to consider their relationship with the environment; where young men designed covers for imaginary men’s magazines, enabling an exploration of contemporary masculinities; and where people drew pictures of celebrities as part of an examination of their aspirations and identifications with stars.

It’s an innovative approach to media “consumption” research, and one which in many ways is the natural next step for cultural and media studies’ researchers who really believe in the active audience tradition and want to stop treating audiences as research ‘subjects’ and start treating them as research participants.

Two comparisons occur to me: one is to art therapy, where, through self expression, the subject both “works out” psychological/affective issues and makes them visible to the therapist – similarly, in the artlab projects, the participants “work out” some of their relationships between culture, media and identity through creative practice. These relationships can then be harvested as data, apparently providing some answer to the longstanding problem of how to ‘get at’ media audiences and consumers in something approaching a naturalistic, or at least organic, way.

The other comparison that springs to mind is with “action research”, or ethnographic action research, methods, where the process is designed to have some positive outcome for the participants, and the research is around the process of achieving that outcome. In both the art therapy and action research approaches, there is the assumption that the subject or participant benefits somehow. Likewise, I think it would be interesting for the artlab projects to articulate more explicitly whatever the outcomes (especially unintended ones) seem to be for their participants. There certainly seems to be something implied in the rationale as well as the project descriptions and reports about creative and critical media literacies – if there’s something more elaborated on the website and I’ve missed it, I apologise.

Anyway, these issues are interesting to me because of the important but problematic place that “practice” has in my predominantly cultural studies-oriented research. That is, the small amount of work I do as a digital storytelling trainer and creative practitioner functions not only as an ethnographic instrument, but also as a direct intervention into the field I’m studying. In conducting digital storytelling workshops in the community, I’m not only “observing”, I’m trying to collaborate with the participants to contribute directly and practically, not polemically, to cultural change. This is a challenge that, to be honest, my formal research training in English departments hasn’t really prepared me for at all, but which I welcome as a chance to contribute to the development of a cultural studies praxis that can effectively combine “critical” analysis, participatory research methods, and (yes, I said it) instrumentality.

Back to the writing deadlines…