Visual methods in participatory research with adults experiencing multiple disadvantages

Sharon Jones is a PhD student in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education and her use of visual participatory methods was particularly relevant for our Participatory Inquiry Forum on creative methods. Her research uses critical ethnography and a Marxist theoretical framework to explore the experiences of five working class adults living in an English town that has been flagged up as having multiple disadvantages. These disadvantages affect people throughout their life course to systematically limit opportunities. For example, educational performance is a major factor for future life chances, but the education system has inherent constraints for working class children and also produces a certain expectation for what these children can achieve.

Sharon designed and implemented an arts-based intervention using a style like Augusto Boal’s forum theatre. This began with freeze frames to identify common issues and themes across their experiences, leading on to drama and other arts areas such as poetry, art and music. From this, a film showing the challenges to the participants social upward mobility was developed and is currently in a stage of critical review.

As adults are not always comfortable with performing, Sharon uses freeze frames as a technique to encourage people to analyse a common issue or topic or interest. Each group must think of their issue/theme and what it would look like in action. They must then freeze at a certain point as if someone has pressed the pause button. The freeze frame conveys the issue/theme and any issues to others without sound or movement. This builds their confidence in using their bodies to communicate and opens up further discussion about the issue/theme as the other group/s are invited to critically interrogate the action as they see it, therefore opening dialogue in a way that is different to just getting people in a room to communicate.

Drama and theatre can allow one’s mind to open; it is a form of knowledge that could and should be used as a way of transforming society.

Though drama was the main art form used, the participants did not want to perform in front of an audience, and it was also important for them to be able to see the issues they were portraying themselves, so using poetry, music and drama they produced a participatory film. Most had no experience of using a camera or being filmed, so camera and editing workshops were held and the group planned how to put their points across in a powerful way to cover the major themes they had explored. There are both advantages and disadvantages of using visual methods, but film has become popular in recent years as it goes beyond the use of still images that provide only a snapshot of the situation.

Our group discussion reflected on how moving and powerful the film was in highlighting these issues that people are living with all the time. The collective experience was considered, as through the process of developing and critically reviewing the film the participants have become more aware of the issues faced by others in the group and how they might be able to help each other. Participants had been involved throughout the research, for example editing their own transcripts and building on the thematic analysis through group sessions.

Reaching a consensus around the interpretation of themes was not always easy as everyone had different views and circumstances, however it was part of the research process to deal with these divergent ideas. The next step will be to decide as a group how they want to use the film going forward as the current agreement is not to share it publicly apart from for academic purposes.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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