“I want to break things”: Post-qualitative co-produced research during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What is that we are doing when we co-produce research with the young people and communities with whom we work? As I wrote in a paper on the ‘co-productive imagination’ (Duggan, 2020), there are various rationales for participatory or co-produced research, from empowering participants, contributing to social justice or enacting democratic or equal relationships within the project. An underpinning logic is that the greater the intensity and extensity with which what were participants are included in research activities is expressive of research co-production. I do not question that participating in research activities is indicative of more equal relationships and more empowering but there is a risk this equates research with the delivery of projects, which are troublingly managerialising way of organising inquiry and thinking. A further concern emerges from the post-qualitative critique which reminds us that conventional qualitative social science research methods were ‘made up’ in part as a way of justifying qualitative research in the ‘Paradigm Wars’ and the ascendance of all things quantitative (St. Pierre, 2011, 2018). What therefore are we empowering or including non-academics in when we co-produce research projects? And, if we know and practice conventional research methods, even if we are developing interesting and unconventional research methods, then what other ways of knowing and taking action in the world are we circumscribing? 

I worry that when we invite people to participate in research projects that the world of research seems somehow duller and less vital than other scenes or practices in which they might be involved. As academics we might get a pass because we are anything from boring nerds to doing serious work. I’ve been thinking how we might remake research in relation to community imaginaries and practices, specifically the community of Hulme. In a forthcoming paper with Dayo Eseonu, I say, 

“These orientations [those of a hip-hop scene] create a series of expansive and emergent drives and loops of socio-material practices. The party needs a DJ, music, lights, fliers, a crowd, drinks, marketing, security, recycling and on and on. These are the youth cultures and processes of worlding that we as researchers try so hard to attune to and communicate in research yet arguably absent from our processes of research co-production.”

I am still thinking about this but it seems to me that as researchers we might use a zine as a media format to share research, which is great, but these zines are not those of the punk scene as interpreted by 

“It was incredibly varied: zines came in more shapes, styles, subjects and qualities than one would imagine. But there was something remarkable that bound this new world I had stumbled upon: a radically democratic and participatory ideal of what culture and society might be… ought to be.”  (Duncombe, 1997:2) 

It is a tall order to expect research to match the cultural vibrancy and invention of the punk scene but I still think we can learn from the worlds we encounter and seek to experiment with these processes of worlding in our research.  

While developing the Left on Read project I was keen not to include young people in (my) research but instead support them to develop inquiries that expanded from their concerns and ways of thinking and inquiring. The aim of the project was to work with a group of young people to co-produce arts-based and creative resources for other young people to encounter in line with the conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown to explore loneliness and isolation in safe and productive ways. During the project I was working with 42nd Street’s Creative Agents group. We met online throughout the project, exploring different arts practices, sharing what creative things we had done or hoped to do, waiting for us each to find something to develop. 

I one session, Jolene exclaimed, “I’m angry. I have this rage. I just want, I just want to break things.” Rod Kippen (42ndStreet) connected this to action art, citing the documentary Cutie and the Boxer about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara whose art involves, for example, punching paint onto canvases in boxing gloves. This developed into the Action Art Room, in which Jolene and two peers wrote insults they had suffered on the walls, threw paint at the walls, and had a lot of fun. 

The next phase of the research was to disassemble and explore what was happening in this form of action art as catharsis. We wanted to take this process, encounter and experience and reassemble it in forms that other young people could experiment with, without the opportunity to throw paint around their parent’s house. Drawing on her design skills, Jolene developed an amazing resource which walks the reader through from understanding emotions to doing action art practices that might help them move through difficult feelings.  

I think it is more than simply personalising inquiries to the interests and preferences of the people we work with. Design, and a particular form of design, away from university and in a space where she was taken seriously (42nd Street’s Horsfall Gallery) helped her express her feelings. She hoped it would help her make her way in the world. It was a space and set of practices that buzzed with excitement and possibility. Probably the same as I feel about research when the mood takes me

James Duggan

For more information on the loneliness research visit Loneliness Connects Us

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