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As academics, our methodological conversations are often pragmatic, focused on using certain approaches for certain aims, and less focused on deeper exploration of ways of ‘doing’ methods. In this blog post we explore our recent experience of creatively discussing methods within our department, the Manchester Institute of Education. We reflect on how outside-the-box thinking and collective methodological discussion can encourage self-interrogation and shared understandings across multi-disciplines. Specifically, we explore what happened when we asked colleagues: ‘If your method were an animal, what would it be?’

This activity was developed within the Methods for Change project led by colleagues within the University of Manchester (Barron et al., 2021; Pottinger et al., 2022). Reading about this, we could see potential value in this ‘animal’ question as an outside-the-box methodological conversation for our large, multi-disciplinary department, housing colleagues using both research and scholarship methods spanning epistemologies and paradigms. Various teams have reflected on how collective reflexive discussions can extend shared methodological understanding (see for example Siltanen et al., 2008), including through creative approaches (such as theatrical approaches, see Leggatt-Cook et al., 2011), and we were interested in its usefulness in our context.

After discussion with the original team, we posed this question to colleagues across two breakout sessions at our departmental ‘away day’. We anticipated a productive discussion but were apprehensive. Would people find it ‘gimmicky’, or shy away from self-interrogation? Instead, colleagues came together in rich, enthusiastic discussion. We expected colleagues to match methods to animals with shared characteristics (ethnography as chameleon, statistics as owl, and so forth). Instead, colleagues largely discarded formal ‘methods speak’ and turned to a shared language – they dug into how animals represented their values, processes, epistemologies, and more. Bees working collaboratively; dogs warmly interacting with families; fawns being cautious but observant. It was therefore revealing to hear colleagues find common ways of talking about their work beyond our shared structures.

‘Colleagues largely discarded formal “methods speak” and turned to a shared language – they dug into how animals represented their values, processes, epistemologies, and more.’

Discussions led eventually to critical reflections. Colleagues acknowledged differing levels of comfort with pinning down identity, and recognised tendencies to gravitate towards agreeable animal features while implicitly overlooking less-appealing features. Many animals scavenge, sting or hunt; perhaps we need to discuss methodological aspects that create discomfort. Colleagues questioned what it means to be an animal within a department zoo where this means gatekeepers, caged away from ‘real’ spaces, and centring some animals more than others; a monkey, for example, as large-scale statistical work is often given more attention in the zoo and by contrast some creatures are not ‘zoo-worthy’. Colleagues considered what it would mean to throw the gates open. Instead of a zoo, could we be an ecosystem?

We expected to explore our department’s methodological pluralism. Instead, we saw groups engage in critical, powerful self-interrogation. We emphasise the value of this activity in generating shared language and vision among colleagues with diverse methodologies. Through exploration of animal metaphors, colleagues seemed to crystallise thinking about methods both individually and as a group. Other teams have similarly reported such value in reflexive discussion across diverse teams, but usually with specific projects or ways of working in mind (Brew et al., 2013).

Colleagues left these sessions in animated discussion, approaching us for weeks after to revisit points they had continued to think about. Several reflected that these discussions often happen with doctoral students, but that over time our reflections on methods can become more individualised, project-specific and constrained to mentoring. Infusing playful, creative methods into these conversations, as in the Methods for Change activities and other researcher groups’ experiences (Chamberlain, 2015), brings another dimension of sense-making. Creating such space in groups beyond our day-to-day teams gives rise to explore not only our methods but our values, identities, contexts, and more. We highly recommend that others consider these kinds of creative, playful activities for reflexive exploration of our work. And so, we ask you, and encourage you to ask others – if your method was an animal, what would it be?


Barron, A., Browne, A. L., Ehgartner, U., Hall, S. M., Pottinger, L., & Ritson, J. (Eds.) (2021). Methods for change: Impactful social science methodologies for 21st century problems. University of Manchester.

Brew, A., Boud, D., Lucas, L., & Crawford, K. (2013). Reflexive deliberation in international research collaboration: Minimising risk and maximising opportunity. Higher Education, 66, 93–104.

Chamberlain, K. (2015). Reflexivity: Fostering research quality, ethicality, criticality and creativity. In M. Murray, Critical Health Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 165–181). Palgrave Macmillan.

Leggatt-Cook, C., Sheridan, J., Madden, H., Cain, T., Munro, R., Tse, S.-C., Jeon, H., & Chamberlain, K. (2011) Collective reflexivity: Researchers in play. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 8(3), 223–246.

Pottinger, L., Barron, A., Hall, S. M., Ehgartner, U., & Browne, A. L. (2022). Talking methods, talking about methods: Invoking the transformative potential of social methods through animals, objects and how-to instructions. Geography and Environment, 9(1), e00107.

Siltanen, J., Willis, A., & Scobie, W. (2008) Separately together: Working reflexively as a team. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 11(1), 45–61.