Visual methodologies, sand and psychoanalysis: employing creative participatory techniques to explore the educational experiences of mature students and children in care


Authors: Dawn Mannay, Eleanor Staples, Victoria Edwards

Year: 2017


Social science research has witnessed an increasing move towards visual methods of data production. However, some visual techniques remain pariah sites because of their association with psychoanalysis; and a reluctance to engage with psychoanalytically informed approaches outside of therapy-based settings. This paper introduces the method of ‘sandboxing’, which was developed from the psychoanalytical approach of the ‘world technique’. ‘Sandboxing’ provides an opportunity for participants to create three-dimensional scenes in sand-trays, employing miniature figures and everyday objects. Data are presented from two studies conducted in Wales, UK. The first, exploring mature students’ accounts of higher education, and the second, exploring the educational experiences of children and young people in public care. The paper argues that psychoanalytical work can be adapted to enable a distinctive, valuable and ethical tool of qualitative inquiry; and illustrates how ‘sandboxing’ engendered opportunities to fight familiarity, enabled participatory frameworks, and contributed to informed policy and practice.

To link to this article click here

The ‘Case of Ethics’: Using creative methods for ethical research practice

ExChange recently welcomed Dr Victoria Edwards to run a practitioner workshop on her ‘Case of Ethics’ research, using creative methods for ethical research practice. The interactive workshop explored participants understanding of ethics in research, how Vicky approached this in her own research, the practicalities of using creative approaches in research and finally for participants to create their own ‘mini-case’.

On the 10th of September ExChange welcomed Dr Victoria Edwards to run a practitioner workshop on her ‘Case of Ethics’, using creative methods for ethical research practice. The interactive workshop explored participants understanding of ethics in research, how Vicky approached this in her own research, the practicalities of using creative approaches in research and finally for participants to create their own ‘mini-case’.

The second group activity involved defining what is meant by consent, confidentiality and anonymity. Participants were asked to consider when they became familiar with these terms and in what context. Discussions around this topic where generated when participants shared their ideas across the room in a ‘snowball fight’. Crumpling up their definitions on paper and throwing them to another table to be read out. Some of the key messages from this discussion highlighted that there can’t be an assumed understanding of these term especially when working with young people.

Having set the scene, Vicky moved on to talk about her own research and how she approached ethics. Her study explored young people’s video game culture across two special schools, one a mainstream school where the young people were part of a nurture class and the other at a college. All the young people involved in her study had some level of additional learning requirements. The study itself used a range of creative methods including, doll creation, video production and t-shirt design as well as some more traditional methods such as a whole school survey and focus group workshop.

When developing her ethical approach to research with this cohort of young people, Vicky drew on wider literature in this area including the work of Professor Emma Renold and Dr Dawn Mannay both Cardiff University researchers. She focused on creative methodologies where ethics are not an ‘add on’ to the process. It is with this in mind that the ‘Case of Ethics’ was invented. Using a second-hand vintage travelling salespersons suitcase with many different compartments, Vicky was able to fill it with objects to start conversations with young people about what they were getting involved with.

The objects included a voice changer, mask, tracing paper and audio recorder. Having the case in the room enabled the young people (and the researcher) to always be aware of the nature of consent and refer to any ideas that were discussed, touched and felt when introducing the work. This was also an engaging and fun way to explain to participants why she was recording information and what would happen to it.

Examples of how the objects reflected conversations about consent and the research;

  • Voices changer: Do you enjoy talking? Who will hear your voices? Why do we alter voices? What is anonymity?
  • Masks: Why do we protect your identity? What happened to the information collected about you?
  • Tracing paper: Why would we want to obscure an imagine in a research project? Where are images kept? Why won’t researchers identify your school.
  • Audio recorder: Why is your voice being recorded? Am I allowed to stop the recording? How do I feel about being recorded?

Most children loved using tactile materials but other didn’t like them at all – what works for one person can be very different for another. The key was showing understanding and being open to discussions. As an example, using the case highlighted the wished of one of the young people named Terry. Terry had a physical reaction to the felt in the case, he jumped back from the table saying, ‘I can’t touch that’. Whilst most of the young people really enjoyed playing with the voice changer Terry though it was horrible. These reactions allowed Vicky to talk to Terry about how he felt about being recorded and taking part in certain activities. She found out that he was fine with recording and transcribing the interview but didn’t want to hear it back, and later on he didn’t want to have his voice included in any video work. Vicky highlights that discussing these issues with objects adds real meaning than merely trying to explain the process may miss.

Next it was time for workshop participants to start thinking about a project they were working on and coming up with some objects to put into their own mini-case of ethics. Participants were tasked to draw or write on a piece of paper an object/objects that could be used to introduce their project or activity. This was put into their mini-case and shared with the person next to them. From here their partner would spend some time coming up with some questions based on the object and thinking about what the project might be about. This was an opportunity for participants to try out developing a creative representation related to their project and start reflecting on how things are introduced or explained. Vicky also encouraged participants to consider how it might feel be exploring projects and activities in this way.

Finally, the workshop concluded with discussions around the barriers to ethical encounters and coming up with solutions. Some of the discussions included resources, time and having the confidence to be creative. A key point raised was the fine balance between ongoing ethical discussions and recruiting enough participant to complete projects in tight timelines.

Many thanks to Vicky Edwards for a thoroughly enjoyable workshop. I left with my own mini-case of ethics and lots of creative ideas to engage young people in ethical discussion about my work!

How might we work more ethically with children and young people: The ‘Case of Ethics’

The thorny issue of ‘informed consent’ can present challenges to those of us researching with children and young people. This holds particularly true in educational or institutional settings where young people may have limited experience when it comes to opting out of the activities they are tasked with (Renold et al. 2008). Engaging with the ethical reflexivity of researchers committed to working creatively with children and young people (see Renold 2016; Mannay 2015) and adapting some of their ideas I developed the ‘Case of Ethics’ as a way to materialise consent in my research with young people in special school settings.

The case, once belonging to a travelling salesperson, is comprised of 12 small compartments and each one holds a carefully selected ethical object. The intrigue generated by the large, battered suitcase gave way to explorations of the compartments’ contents opening up a space for discussing what each might mean.

An electronic voice changer, for example, started conversations about what happens to audio recordings, what transcription is, in what way identities can be protected and why that might be important. Similarly, a camera sparked conversations about why I was taking photographs, what I hoped to capture in them, what I would not share and why. Using masks helped us to explore what anonymity means and why researchers might feel this is important. Using the Cardiff University logo, I was able to talk about what a university is, what researchers do, why they investigate things and what a research project is. All of the objects were used to have a discussion about what anonymity, consent and confidentiality mean, if the young people could take back things they had shared and how only a concern for welfare would break confidentiality’s bind.

I also included one red and one green, laminated sheet of A4 paper adapted from the Agenda Wales resource ‘Stop, Start Plates’ activity. Young people could touch, hold up or write on the green sheet if the pace of conversation was too fast and they felt they would like to linger a little longer on a topic or to contribute more. The red sheet could be used to immediately change the topic of conversation without needing explanation.

While I don’t have the space to talk about all of the objects here, I have included a range of images of them and would welcome any questions and comments if you want to get in touch.

Victoria Edwards, Cardiff University


Mannay, D. 2015 Visual, narrative and creative research methods: Application, reflection and ethics. London: Routledge

Renold E., Holland. S., Ross, NJ. And Hillman, A. 2008. ‘Becoming Particpant: problematizing ‘informed consent’ in participatory research with young people in care. Qualitative Social Work 7 (4): 427-447

Renold, E. 2016 A Young People’s Guide to Making Positive Relationships Matter, Cardiff University, Children’s commissioner for Wales, NSPCC Cymru/Wales, Welsh Government and Welsh Women’s Aid.

For lots of ways to work creatively and ethically with young people, I highly recommend the work of Professor Emma Renold, particularly the Agenda Wales resource which inspired the case.