Realising the Potential of Collaborative, Arts-based Research

Dr Helen Johnson
University of Brighton


This research seeks to develop and realise the potential of a ‘collaborative poetics’ methodology, through the activities of an inter-disciplinary working group of: scholars from the social sciences, arts, humanities and business; independent arts practitioners; and representatives from local government and third sector groups.  Collaborative poetics was founded in a promising National Centre for Research Methods-funded pilot at McGill University, which used poetry to enrich understandings of discrimination experiences (Johnson et al, 2017 a,b).  It is a transformative, participatory, arts-based research method, which draws on expertise from artists and academics to facilitate participatory research.  Co-researchers use the approach to explore and illuminate real-world social problems, in ways which are theoretically/methodologically robust, innovative and accessible/meaningful to a wide audience. 

Collaborative poetics has generated widespread interest amongst scholars, artists,  community organisations and business professionals, and a corresponding demand for materials which enable the method to be applied by individuals from different (academic and non-academic) backgrounds, working with a range of problems, communities, and occupational groups.  This research addresses this demand by developing and piloting a flexible, robust and accessible resource pack that transcends multiple divides. 

Central to this are three action-oriented, collaborative workshops addressing: knowledge/skill/resource sharing; network development; research design and strategy; material development/testing; and research evaluation.  These workshops will be supported by an external pilot of the resources with two divergent groups: families affected by substance abuse issues (Young Oasis) and professional executive developers collaborating as a community interest group (Mindfulness, Integrated Works!).

The research aims to:

1) Produce resource packs which enable collaborative poetics to be applied effectively, disseminating these freely/widely

2) Identify the potential transferability of collaborative poetics into new business and community contexts

3) Gain insights into effective collaborative working across wide-ranging disciplines, fields and sectors

The Research Idea

This research will further the development and application of the collaborative poetics method, established through a recent National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) funded study.  The interest this research generated has prompted a demand for materials facilitating the application of collaborative poetics within diverse contexts, fields, communities and organisations.  This research addresses this demand by developing a flexible, robust and accessible resource pack.  The pack will be distributed amongst a network of scholars, practitioners and community groups accessed through research partners and the University of Brighton’s Community University Partnership Programme.

The research is underpinned by three networking and development workshops involving academics from multiple disciplines, arts practitioners, and representatives of local government and third sector organisations.  The workshops will adopt an action-oriented, collaborative approach, embodying collaborative poetics’ principles and practice.  This will eclipse a simple ideas exchange: facilitating research design/evaluation work; sharing tools, techniques and skills; developing resource packs; and testing materials in group activities.  An analysis of this practice will shed valuable insights into effective collaborative working across wide-ranging disciplines, fields and sectors. 

The workshops will be supported by additional resource development/dissemination, including piloting of resources with two divergent groups: families affected by substance abuse (Young Oasis) and professional executive developers collaborating in a community interest group (Mindfulness, Integrated Works!). The pilot will be carried out by the PI and results fed back to the working group to provide valuable insights into the transferability of the method and a wider evidence-base on which to ground the resource packs.


This research integrates several disparate bodies of literature:

1) Arts-based research, including poetic inquiry, autoethnography and performative social science, which produce innovative, accessible texts, that seek, not just to communicate knowledge differently, but to transform knowledge, enabling an exploration of narratives which are emotional, fluid, multiple, and often unspoken/liminal (e.g. Galvin and Prendergast, 2016; Leavy, 2009).

2) Participatory approaches, framed by critical community psychology, feminism, queer theory and critical race theory, which seek to empower/give voice to participants, and create meaningful social change within communities (e.g. McCoy and Rodricks, 2015; Kagan et al, 2011). 

3) Research on arts interventions in health and education, which demonstrate that the arts can be effectively used with marginalised and disadvantaged groups to improve wellbeing across a range of measures (e.g. Allan and Killick, 2000; Gregory, 2015).

Collaborative poetics confronts several limitations within these fields, by: addressing the power imbalance within much arts-based work; broadening the ethnographic lens to illuminate multiple subjectivities (and inter-subjectivities); infusing research with an explicitly political, community-oriented agenda; and acknowledging the specialist craft required to produce high quality creative pieces. 

In addition, the external pilots allow for a developing discourse with:

4) Emerging literature on the use of creative methods/autoethnography/storytelling and poetry in organisations and coaching practice to build resilience (Broussine, 2008; Chapman-Clarke, 2015, 2016, 2017; Gash, 2016).

5) Literature on addiction recovery, which challenges the dominant biomedical paradigm, arguing for a more holistic model that incorporates psychological, social and other factors (e.g. Best, 2012; White, 1996).

The Focus

This research provides a fresh approach to real-life problems by:

  • Opening up multidisciplinary/transdisciplinary areas of enquiry
  • Pioneering developments in arts-based/participatory research
  • Sharing knowledge/skills and cultivating working relationships across sectors
  • Exploring effective collaboration across wide-ranging disciplines, fields and sectors
  • Producing socially-relevant knowledge, impacting a range of service users, citizens and workplace contexts

This potential for impact is supported by an analysis of audience and co-researcher feedback from the NCRM pilot, which indicates that collaborative poetics has an ability to transform participants’ focus, exploration and communication of difficult social issues, and to encourage individuals to challenge social injustice in their daily lives (Johnson et al, 2017 a,b).  This pilot also demonstrated the method’s ability to facilitate effective knowledge/skill exchange and collaborative working, the mechanisms of which will be explored further in this research.

For this to be translated into practice, it is necessary to provide potential researchers with guidelines, activities, and other resources which concretise the method and lead them through the research journey.  Accordingly, the research also contributes to solutions for real world social problems by:   

  • Providing accessible, flexible and robust resources to enable the application of an innovative research method across a range of groups, participants and problems.

Finally, piloting the resources with families affected by substance abuse issues and professional executive developers will help to enhance the wellbeing and developmental potential of these diverse participant groups, strengthening links within and between communities/groups and facilitating creative, informative and empowering articulation of individuals’ lived experiences.

Theoretical Novelty

This research brings together diverse bodies of literature from across the social sciences, business, arts and humanities.  These approaches combine to present a holistic account of individuals’ lived experiences: exploring the interplay of social, psychological and biological factors (addiction recovery literature); emphasising the importance of individuals’ lived experiences, and locating these within a broader social context (critical and community psychology approaches, recovery literature); empowering participants to make meaningful social/personal changes (critical community psychology, work/organisational psychology, coaching); and embracing interaction with non-academic audiences (critical community psychology, arts-based research). 

It strengthens these combined approaches by developing a clearly-articulated model through which social/individual change can be enacted.  Thus, key principles, practices and tools from arts-based and participatory research are introduced into this dialogue to address gaps in the literature around precisely how we can: help individuals to deal with difficult emotions and clarify their thinking in a way which is inclusive, empowering and participant-led; effectively engage a wide-ranging, non-academic audience; and inform/challenge this audience, with a view to tackling inequalities and strengthening connections between/within communities.

Accordingly, this methodological approach presents a rich and complex framework, through which to deepen our understanding of the lived experiences of co-researchers, to improve the wellbeing of members of these communities, and to tackle broader issues of social justice.  This will have impact far beyond the participants with whom the resources are piloted, benefitting a wide range of other community groups within the existing and expanded collaborative poetics networks.


Arts-based research entails a productive cross-fertilisation between social scientific theory/research methods and artistic knowledge/methods.  This has the potential to disrupt existing explanatory frameworks, presenting new perspectives on longstanding social (and subject) problems, and new understandings of what research is.  ‘Collaborative poetics’ enriches this emerging field by developing a collaborative, participatory method, informed by artists’ expertise in writing/performance, and co-researchers’ expertise in their own lived experiences.  Researching through (poetic) practice will enable us to create and communicate innovative, accessible texts, which speak to audiences both emotionally and intellectually, conveying narratives with a sensitivity, intensity and emotional depth lacking in much research.  Methods/literature from across the social sciences, meanwhile, will ensure that the process is systematic, thorough, authoritative and framed by current theory and research. 

‘Collaborative poetics’ responds to calls by scholars like Denzin and Lincoln (2011) to produce more deep, holistic narratives, which place the voices, emotions and lived experiences of researchers/participants at their heart, and by scholars like Jones (2012) to take seriously the competences of artists when carrying out arts-based research.  The method also draws on participatory approaches, in which participants are treated as equal status co-researchers, and on critical, community psychology frameworks, which emphasise the embedded, embodied, political and socially constructed nature of social research.  Thus, the approach aims, not just to communicate academic knowledge to new, broader audiences, but to transform the nature of the knowledge created.  It also aims to make concrete social changes, which are meaningful to the communities at the heart of the research.

Work Plan

The project covers three stages over ten months, including three day-long workshops, and several key outputs (see asteriks):

1) Project design and initial development of materials (months one-three)

• Workshop one:

   -Finalise project design and timetable

  -Knowledge/skill exchange

-Develop initial ideas for resource packs’ format, aims and contents

• PI work:

-Set up project website*

        -Initial development of ideas from workshop one for draft resource pack

• Collaborative work:

-Compile list of relevant organisations/individuals for dissemination of project findings/resources

-Contribute to project website

2) Piloting of draft resource packs (months four-seven)

• Workshop two:

-Testing and feedback on draft resources

• PI work:

-Production of draft resource packs

-Working with Young Oasis and Mindfulness, Integrated Works! to pilot resource packs

-Evaluation of external pilot (field notes, reflective diary and focus groups)

-Draft presentation for University of Brighton Festival of Social Science*

-Website development/promotion

• Collaborative work:

-Feedback on draft resource packs

3) Development and dissemination of final resource packs; evaluation (months eight-ten)

• Workshop three:

-Response to evaluation of external pilot

-Recommendation/testing of resource pack revisions

-Discussion of dissemination strategy

-Drafting plan of action for collaborative poetics development and future funding

• PI work:

-Production of final resource packs*

-Distribution of resource packs amongst working group

-Draft presentation for Community Psychology Festival*

• Collaborative work:

-Dissemination of resource packs in electronic and hard copy

-Continued online development and promotion* via website and social media


This development, application and dissemination of collaborative poetics will provide academics, artists, communities and organisational groups with a means of creating transformative, interdisciplinary outputs, which produce novel solutions to real-world problems.  There is increasing evidence for the efficacy of such outputs and a high demand for resources which facilitate their creation.  Indeed, calls for a collaborative poetics resource pack have been received from academics across the social sciences, business, arts and humanities, from community groups working in a variety of education, health and professional contexts, and from numerous arts practitioners.   

Accordingly, this research is expected to impact a range of communities and groups, providing them with the means to apply an innovative method which:

– Helps co-researchers handle/express difficult emotions

– Helps co-researchers clarify, deepen and communicate their thinking

– Empowers co-researchers, by providing platforms through which they can communicate their experiences, and by strengthening their sense of authority/ownership over these experiences

– Encourages co-researchers to continue addressing issues of social justice which impact them personally

– Produces evocative, authoritative texts, which offer others profound insights into, and an emotional connectedness with, co-researchers’ lived experiences

We intend to develop this further through:

– Continued dissemination of the resource packs via social media, the project website, partner websites and email 

– Drafting two journal articles, focusing on the two resource pack pilots and on the group processes underpinning the collaborative workshops respectively

– Developing a large-scale funding application, using the resource packs to facilitate more in-depth research with families in recovery.


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Best, D 2012, Addiction recovery: A handbook: A movement for social change and personal growth in the UK, Pavillion Publishing, Brighton.

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Chapman-Clarke, MA 2015, Mindfulness at work pocketbook, Management Pocketbooks, Alresford.

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