Using creative research methods in evaluation

Dr Helen Kara looks at how and when evaluators should use creative research methods in evaluation

Research bookCreative research methods have a lot to offer evaluators. I've always used them, whenever appropriate, in my own research and evaluation. 

Creative methods should only be chosen if they're most likely to help provide an answer. An interesting new method may seem tempting, but it's never good practice to be seduced by an attractive young method when an older, more familiar one would serve you better.

Four creative research methodologies

Writing my book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, involved reading over 800 reports of research. 

About 500 made it into the book, and just over 100 were showcased as examples of creative research and evaluation. 

In the process of my book research, I realised that creative research methods could be grouped under 4 headings:

Arts-based methods include visual and performing arts, creative writing, music, textile arts and crafts. Any art form can be used in the service of research and evaluation.

As researchers, we all use technology and have done for centuries. But technology advances offer new opportunities.

We can now use apps, mash-ups, data visualisations and APIs (application programming interface). Although this proliferation excites some people, it's daunting for others.

Mixed methods research is the most firmly established area, with many dedicated books and journals.

Transformative research frameworks include participatory, decolonising, activist and community-based research and evaluation. 

These are overarching frameworks designed to reduce power imbalances within the research process and, ideally, to affect structural inequalities more widely. They are challenging to implement, requiring more time and resources than more traditional research frameworks but, when used well, they can transform aspects of society for the better.

Creative research in action

The 4 areas of creative research are not mutually exclusive.

I conducted an evaluation of a Midlands Sure Start programme in the 2000s that mixed arts-based methods and technology within a community-based framework. The evaluation design was discussed, amended and approved by a community-led steering group.  

I conducted photo-elicitation interviews with parents and nursery-age children. Primary school pupils did “draw and write”, secondary school pupils took photos and made posters, and parents asked local residents to complete questionnaires outside the local supermarket. At a fun day, we set up a “Big Bothered diary room” to collect video evidence from children and parents, and a “wish tree” where people could post their wishes.

Analysing the visual and video data took time and plenty of head scratching - but the most challenging part was when the steering group asked me for a research output they could read with their children at bedtime.

It took me longer to produce their 20-page photo essay than the 80-page report I wrote for the evaluation commissioners, but they liked it, and it is one of the pieces of work I am most proud to have produced. We launched it at an exhibition of the pupils’ posters and drawings, attended by the Mayor and the press.

The potential of mixed methods

People often think in terms of gathering data using both quantitative and qualitative methods. But, there is even more scope for mixing methods, from using different theoretical perspectives to inform the same piece of research to multi-media presentation and dissemination.

Mixed methods are particularly useful where the research or evaluation question is too complex to be addressed using one method alone. 

Risks of mixing methods

The risks, as well as the potential, of mixing methods are still not fully understood by researchers.

Mixed methods do require more resources, and where people want to mix methods with very different underlying value systems, this can cause difficult clashes for researchers and evaluators to navigate. Like mixed methods, arts-based methods and technology can be used to support each stage of the research or evaluation process (though this is not to say they should be used at every stage).

Awareness of the possibilities offered by these methods should enable researchers to consider them, and to select methods - whether creative or traditional - most likely to help answer the research or evaluation question.

One step at a time

Creative research methods can seem quite intimidating, particularly en masse.

Not every researcher can – or wants to – plan their project diagrammatically, gather data from social media, analyse both textual and visual data and disseminate their work through a multimedia arts installation.

But always remember that your non-research skills may be useful in the service of research and, if you want to expand your methodological repertoire, you can do it one step at a time. 

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