Methods for Change team profile: Laura Pottinger

29th September 2020

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

In this second Methods for Change team profile, we meet Laura Pottinger who is one of the main researchers on the project team. The first piece introduced Amy Barron and the next will focus on Ulrike Ehgartner.

Laura explains her motivation for joining the Methods for Change project, the value of social science methodologies and how this project will seek to make a difference in terms of how these methodologies can add value to non-academic sectors.

What’s your background and what was your motivation for getting involved in the Methods for Change project?

I’m a human geographer, interested in exploring everyday forms of social and environmental activism using ethnographic and participatory methodologies. Before undertaking my doctoral research, I worked with a youth leadership organisation in Manchester. This galvanised my interest in developing methods that could simultaneously be used to understand the role of young people and other stakeholders in instigating change in their own communities, and to support them in their aims. Some of the most interesting work I’ve been involved in occupies a space between academic research and the work of activist groups or charities aiming to transform society. There is great potential for social scientists to work towards shared goals in collaboration with organisations, and Methods for Change offers an exciting opportunity to explore these connections and relationships further.

What do you think social science methodologies can bring to non-academic sectors?

Social science methodologies are incredibly diverse and can be adapted to a vast array of different settings and research problems. They are particularly useful for understanding complex systems, and for uncovering what makes things meaningful to people. Social science methods can also provide the tools to look beyond linear, simplistic or surface explanations for problems and phenomena, to understand lived experience in rich detail. In my own work, I’ve seen how social science methods can be used as a vehicle for creating change throughout the entire process of research. Participatory methods, for example, can involve researchers working alongside participants to design methodologies, collect and analyse data, and share findings, providing opportunities for individual and collective transformation and growth at each stage of the research.

Why are they not currently having the impact that they should?

There is a need to raise awareness of the value of our methodologies and to communicate them more effectively and accessibly. To do this, we need to think creatively about developing opportunities for businesses, charities, or public sector organisations to find out about the range of approaches that exist, and to visualise how they can be applied in practice. As academics, there is more that we can do to actively understand the requirements of non-academic partners, and to think about how our methods can be adapted to ensure they are relevant and user-friendly.

We also need to make a case for social science methods – particularly those that are creative, innovative and experimental – as robust, effective ways for creating knowledge. They are equally valid tools for understanding complex topics as more tradition methods, such as surveys or interviews, and in many cases will yield much richer data. However, because social science research deals with complexity, it can be messy! One of our challenges as researchers on this project is how we communicate research methods and approaches that are difficult to delineate neatly.

How will the Methods for Change initiative make a difference in this area?

Our project is designed to address these issues by identifying, distilling, and showcasing innovative and cutting-edge methodologies. Working with over 30 social scientists from across the Aspect network and their non-academic partners, we are producing accessible ‘how to’ guides aimed at industry, business, charity and public sectors. These guides will outline the fundamentals of each method, with examples for their application in a range of different contexts. Some early method examples include photo- go-alongs, creative and interactive interviewing, discourse analysis, object oriented participatory ethnography, and mobile methods, to name a few.

We are also experimenting with creative approaches for communicating these ideas. Contributors are collaborating with designers, artists, and filmmakers, to produce a series of creative works, including comics, posters, short films, animations and podcasts. Shared widely, these outputs will highlight the value of social science methods and the types of societal change they can leverage. In November, along with our academic contributors, the Methods for Change team will host a series of free online workshops as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2020. Focusing on visual, participatory and policy-led methods, these sessions will explore how social science research methods can be used to transform institutions, communities and society, and we will share early outputs and findings from the project.

What types of research methods do you use in your own work?

In my own work, I’ve used what I have termed a ‘gentle methodology’, inspired by feminist, participatory and ethnographic approaches, to explore practices of consumption and cultivation, sharing economies, and young people’s politics. Drawing together a suite of different methods, this approach recognises the research process as a reciprocal endeavour. It tends to be slowly paced, and is concerned with sensory, material and embodied ways of understanding the world. My PhD research looked at community seed saving in the UK, following seeds and plants as they were cultivated, swapped and shared amongst allotment holders and gardeners. Methodologically, this involved ‘going along’ with everyday gardening activities including walking, weeding, and eating together in gardens, taking part in organised seed swap events and networks, and saving seeds on my own allotment. Recent projects have involved experimental youth-led participatory workshops and writing sessions as methods for researching young people’s involvement in political processes such as Manchester’s devolution, resulting in a co-produced academic article and toolkit.

How will being part of the Aspect network support the work you’re planning to undertake?

In my research, using ‘gentle methods’ helps shed light on the passions and motivations of participants, capturing a level of detail that other approaches may miss. This has also enabled me as a researcher to contribute, in modest yet meaningful ways, to the goals and priorities of the organisations that I work with. I am keen to explore how this type of approach could be applied more widely and to understand the challenges of adapting methods for different sectors, which ultimately could lead to more impactful research in the future. The connections that Methods for Change is already developing between like-minded academics across the Aspect network provides an excellent platform for this.

Read our first project profile with Amy Barron here

Find out more about Methods for Change.

Image credit: Markus Spiske via Upsplash

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