I attended the BERA Early Career Researcher (ECR) Network symposium with a view to discussing the ethics and practicalities of moving an in-person study onto an online platform. What emerged was a richer dialogue around the shared experience of uncertainty and adaptation that has been engendered by the current context of Covid-19. The opportunities this lived experience provides for reimagining research methods and establishing more collaborative relationships with participants became central to the discussion. This highlighted limitations and missed opportunities of trying to ‘move’ previously planned in-person research online without due consideration of how figural the current context is in the research process.
My presentation introduced a planned in-person study using a creative research method known as ‘sandboxing’ (Mannay, 2016). The aim was to explore individual perspectives of work-related risk and protective factors that may contribute to ‘burnout’. Sandboxing has evolved from the therapeutic technique of ‘sandplay’. This technique allows conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings to be projected onto and explored through symbolic objects placed in a standardised tray filled with sand. As a research method, participants can be invited to create a three-dimensional scene in the sandtray with the aim of facilitating individual and collective insights about a given subject. It is the participant’s self-directed discovery of meaning and insight that is the central consideration, not the interpretation of the image by the researcher.
Through the symposium discussion an acknowledgment of shared narratives of uncertainty, loss of containment and the reverberating impact of the pandemic on personal and professional life emerged. In this context, it seems inevitable that the risk factors associated with burnout and moral injury will take on a deeper, systemic and multidisciplinary relevance. The space between the participant and researcher has also potentially altered as wider shared realities influence the landscape and parameters of the research relationship.
‘It seems inevitable that the risk factors associated with burnout and moral injury will take on a deeper, systemic and multidisciplinary relevance. The space between the participant and researcher has also potentially altered as wider shared realities influence the landscape and parameters of the research relationship.’
Rather than be consumed by the practicalities of recreating plans for in-person research online, I became curious about working more with the unknown and the present. Offering a more flexible approach to how participants sourced, created and engaged with the creative process offered a pathway to more autonomous, inclusive, participant-led research. In doing so it acknowledges the boundaries of the individual’s lockdown space and provides a window to their world as it is experienced in the ‘here and now’. This active contextual awareness also opened up the ethics of undertaking this type of research with practice-based professionals, in their home and online during a pandemic.
A diminished sense of professional identity, purpose and autonomy alongside a relationally demanding role are central risk factors in experiencing symptoms of both burnout and moral injury (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). This highlights some of the current escalated risks to wellbeing for those working relationally during the pandemic. The way the discussion unfolded led me to reflect on the need for research involving frontline practitioners –including those in caring and educational roles – to prioritise participant wellbeing throughout the research process. Perhaps this can be taken a step further, for research to not only ‘do no harm’ but actively counteract stress and depleted agency that professionals in these roles may be experiencing? This has confirmed my commitment to a more collaborative participant-led approach (Kara & Khoo, 2020). I am hopeful that the engagement with the creative process itself at this intensely stressful time can also be of active benefit to participants.
The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to begin a dialogue about the shared reality of Covid-19 and its implication for practice-based research. As an ECR, this occasion allowed a reflexive exploration of the challenges and potential opportunities for reimagining methodologies in response to the current context and its influence on the research process. In doing so, a symmetry with my research subject and a renewed focus on increasing participant agency and choice at a time of diminished control and certainty has been highlighted. The experience has also emphasised the value of being part of a wider research community at these times of uncertainty and change.
This blog arose from the January 2021 symposium in the series ‘Overcoming challenges in educational research’, run by BERA’s Early Career Researcher Network. A further seven symposia on this theme are planned across 2021, with the next coming up on Monday 19 April. Click here for more details.
Kara, H., & Khoo, S. (2020). Researching in the age of Covid-19. Volume 3: Creativity and Ethics. Bristol University Press.
Mannay, D. (2016). Visual, narrative and creative research methods. Application, reflection and ethics. Routledge.
Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G, A. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue: A review of theoretical terms, risk factors, and preventative methods for clinicians and researchers. Journal of Best Practices in Mental Health, 6, 57–68.