Does collaborative working have a bias in favour of ‘safe’ subjects and questions? Hastings Bites Back taster workshops 2015

This post is shared by BSUFN member Abigail Wincott of the University of Brighton.

This weekend, Bella Wheeler from the University of Sussex and I ran creative research workshops with members of the public, at the Hastings Herring Fair. As well as raising awareness about social and cultural research into food, the activities were used to generate ideas for a new collaborative food research project in Hastings – Hastings Bites Back.

boy_box_twitter wideWe demonstrated three creative techniques used in generating ideas and working through them during research projects. With a sizeable pile of magazines, old books, catalogues and adverts, some glue sticks and scissors, we asked visitors to create collages to express what interested them about food.

We also had a big roll of wallpaper lining paper and some marker pens, for mind-mapping using words. Both mind-maps and collage were used by the Art on the Breadline project in Brighton this year, to generate and develop their ideas. Jotting down words on the mind map was by far the most popular technique with visitors.

And finally we had a props table with a treasure chest, full of ornaments, toys and other assorted objects. The aim of this table was to get people to think about who and what were involved in the food networks or food stories they were starting to think about, and about how they are linked to each other. This activity was developed from ideas I encountered at the AHRC Connected Communities workshop in Newcastle-Under-Lyme last year.

I waherring_fair_blog1nted to be as open as possible at this stage. To find out what other people wanted to research not just what I thought would be interesting. It seems that one of the main points of going to the trouble of involving complete strangers in research collaborations is that they think of things you would never think of, or think about familiar ideas in ways that feel fresh to you.

That’s why I chose the joke false teeth and a stick of Hastings rock for the project publicity materials – to avoid labelling the project in advance as ‘healthy eating for kids’ or ‘local heritage’. With that in mind, we still knew we had to prompt people with some questions, so we chose ‘What food issues are important locally?’ and ‘What do we need to know more about?’

But what came out of the exercise couldn’t be described as fresh. The questions themselves load the dice in favour of certain themes of course, because of their attempt at neutrality. The word ‘issues’ conjures up all the ‘issues’ we hear reported in the news, or by health workers or teachers. And ‘important’ seemed to tend to nudge people to saying what they think is widely perceived to be important. Obesity. Sustainability. Local.

Alison James’s wonderful 1982 study of children’s subversive sweet-eating culture* would surely rarely come out of such a brainstorming activity?

By saying as little as possible to steer fellow participants, we actually bias the project from the outset in favour of the usual palette of topics and questions found in government or NHS literature, celebrity chef campaigns and the news headlines: healthy eating, obesity, how can we make people cook ‘properly’, sustainability, local and seasonal.

As amind_map media studies person, I was aware of how few people thought a research project might subject sources of information to scrutiny, or seek out under-represented or under-examined cultures and practices.

Actually, in spite of this, some people at the fair did propose less popular themes like convenience and finding the time to make food. Someone wrote ‘ideology of education’. One woman was interested in combining her knowledge about nutrition education with a passion for expressive dance. But it’s generally very hard for us to ‘think outside the box’ and perhaps even less so, when we’re trying to think collectively, and trying too hard to choose what we think everyone else will agree matters most.

Surely the best social and cultural research challenges and questions, draws out things we had neglected to notice, or throws our comfortable assumptions up in the air. At the very least, it is always an inquiry, and never just an opinion. Yet most of the visitors shared views, rather than questions.

The issue for future workshops is to find techniques to encourage us all to go beyond our well-rehearsed opinions, to stop us privileging dominant ‘issues’ when generating ideas for research. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with experience or ideas in this area. They could feed into plans for our coming project workshops, when we’ll choose what to research and how to go about it.

*James, A. (1982) Confections, Concoction and Conceptions, in B. Waites, T. Bennett and G. Martin (Eds) Popular Culture: past and present. London: Croom.

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