We have been looking forward to sharing our second Friday guest blog post with you. This one comes from Alison Mayne.
Part of what ‘stitches’ us together in this network is the belief, understanding and experience that working with participants in textile making has the potential to open up remarkable conversations. Network members including Emma Shercliff, Fiona Hackney and myself have written about how hand crafting with others often a creates a safe space in which to disclose reflective thinking and personal narratives. There are multiple circles here – that created as group members sit together around a table, others by the posture of heads and eyes cast down to work in the hands or the gesture of fingertips holding a needle – which would be recognised in Buddhist culture as a sacred space. Whether one believes this notion or not, we recognise that in participatory stitching research we are gifted – and perhaps burdened – with emotionally charged and significant communications that participants share in this space.
In workshops and over coffee or dinner at the first Stitching Together Network event, many of us repeatedly turned to this issue. We felt well-versed in the ethics of managing such personal, emotive or traumatic reflections for participants – where to pass on to other organisations, recommending other support, identifying boundaries for what should or should not be used in research outcomes. However, the impact of receiving and holding such reflections and the toll it may take on the researcher was something none of us felt we managed well.
Some of this is also connected to ethical protocols in research institutions. Research ethics are so much more than a form completed before engaging participants: it is an ongoing, reflective process from planning stages to dissemination and a crucial part of contemplating our work in action. The demands on a researcher of being engaged in sensitive research areas or in encountering participants who may share distressing accounts can be considerable but usually are left to the management of the researcher alone. It is appropriate that this should be integrated into the institutional ethics process, recognising that participatory stitching research may place researchers in emotionally challenging circumstances.
Generally speaking, this is not the case – higher education institutional ethics protocols are often based on assumptions about positivist and empirical approaches and therefore definitions of ‘protection from harm’ may be quite narrow. Good practice in ethics applications will identify the challenges of participatory stitch activities having the potential to open up spaces for participants to share sensitive or emotionally challenging material; even better practice would identify how the researcher as well as participants may mitigate for such disclosures and any vicarious trauma they experience. Dr Kay Guccione and the Emotionally Demanding Research Network have been leading on this in their work for University of Sheffield, who have published guidance on Emotionally Demanding Research: Risks to the Researcher. The document is highly recommended for Stitching Together members, in providing a range of strategies and protocols including boundary setting, debriefing meetings and peer support approaches.
I reflected on these thorny issues through the workshop led by Sarah Green (Loughborough University) at the launch event of the Stitching Together Network. Encouraged to think about text, perhaps from song lyrics in our printing and sewing, I remembered the beautiful folk music and spoken word performance A Pocket of Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart and her song Labouring and Resting. She describes the flight path of geese over her home, as the birds share the burden of wind resistance by taking turns leading the skein (another lovely textile connection) and then returning to the protection of the group. As I embroidered bird wings over the lyrics of
Stepping up, falling back, labouring and resting
I determined that I will pay closer attention to supporting wellbeing for all those engaged in future participatory stitch research planning – participants and researchers alike. This simple work is now framed above my desk as a reminder.