Harnessing creativity in participatory research – the tension between process and product

Louise Phillips, Maria Bee Christensen-Strynø and Lisbeth Frølunde

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Arts-based co-production in participatory research: harnessing creativity in the tension between process and product‘, part of the Special Issue on Creativity and Co-production.

In participatory research, researchers share the ideal of democratising knowledge production, on the basis of an expanded understanding of what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts. People with knowledge based on their own lived experience take part as co-researchers in processes of co-producing knowledge together with academic researchers. This process of harnessing the knowledge of people with lived experience can make a valuable contribution to the transformation of health and social care practice, as well as to the research field.

Arts-based research methods are often used to draw out the personal knowledge of co-researchers, including the emotional and aesthetic dimensions. But the use of arts-based co-production in participatory research does not easily get rid of the difficulties of putting the principles into practice – due to the tensions that arise between cultivating the collaborative, creative process and generating specific research results.

In our Evidence & Policy article, we offer a theoretical framework for analysing arts-based co-production that homes in on those overarching tensions – via an analysis of a participatory research project which focused on the experience of people with Parkinson’s and their partners taking part in dance activities.

Despite the increasing traction of the ideal of democratizing knowledge production, and despite participatory approaches being given increasing emphasis (ostensibly) in formulating policy, traditional knowledge hierarchies still dominate in academia, and in social and health policy. Consequently, arts-based co-production is embedded in a contested territory. Here, it is embroiled in struggles for legitimacy, revolving around what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts. In the positivist scientific discourse, researchers maintain full control of the research process. And in the technocratic modus 2 discourse, “co-production” is seen as no more than a tool, that is as a means to solve pre-defined problems and arrive at pre-set outcomes.

In contrast, in the democratic, dialogic discourse, “co-production” is understood as emergent, relational practices and the university researchers relinquish full control of the research process. Tensions arise in co-production, as knowledge is negotiated to varying extents within and across these different understandings of “co-production”. When art meets research in arts-based co-production, these tensions come into play in the overarching tension between cultivating the collaborative, creative process and producing specific research results.

To illustrate our theoretical framework for exploring how embodied, emotional and aesthetic knowing is elicited in the tension between process and product, we present an analysis of collaborative storytelling workshops in a participatory research project. The project is about dance for people with Parkinson’s and their partners in the Copenhagen area in Denmark. The project has two aims. One is to create knowledge about people with Parkinson’s disease and their spouses’ experiences of dance as part of their everyday lives. The other is to create knowledge about the possibilities and challenges that arise in the tensions in co-production in participatory research.

First, we participated in, and observed, dance classes; and carried out interviews with 43 participants in dance classes about their experiences of Parkinson’s dance and life with Parkinson’s. Then 27 of the dancers took part as co-researchers in two sets of collaborative storytelling workshops, which represented the project’s main sites for the co-production of knowledge. In the first set of workshops, co-researchers analysed material from the interviews in creative exercises using the arts-based research methods of collaborative writing (postcards and haiku poems), podcasts, dance improvisation and role-play. The point of using the interview material was to anchor the co-production of knowledge in the co-researchers’ own experiences of dancing with Parkinson’s.

These workshops were followed by a second set of collaborative storytelling workshops with the co-researchers, in which we all built on the knowledge from the first workshops in order to co-create a graphic novel. We chose the graphic novel format as it has the potential to communicate embodied, experiential knowledge in ways that resonate with readers’ own lives and move them emotionally.

The first of our two analyses explores an episode in a workshop in which co-researchers collaboratively analysed the meanings of dance and music. As creative outputs, the co-researchers wrote postcards individually and haiku poems collaboratively. Our analysis shows that co-researchers attributed what they judged to be the high aesthetic quality of the products – haikus – to a creative process that they understood as simultaneously emergent and open-ended and structured and purposive. Thus, the quality of the products validated the process.

This form of validation belongs not only to the democratic, dialogic discourse but also to the technocratic modus 2 discourse with its instrumental understanding of “co-production” as a means to obtain pre-set outcomes. Our second analysis (of a different workshop episode) demonstrates a tension that arose as methodological choices based on the democratic, dialogic discourse were contested by the positivist scientific discourse with its conflicting understandings of the research process, knowledge and outcomes.

These insights have clear implications for the standing of arts-based co-production in the struggle for legitimacy revolving around what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts. Through its emergent, open-ended character, arts-based co-production furthers the heightened negotiation of knowledge across voices. Thus, it carries the promise of radically destabilizing traditional knowledge hierarchies and generating knowledge that may contribute to research and social and practice transformation. But the very strength of arts-based co-production – its capacity to elicit multi-voiced embodied, affective and aesthetic knowing – is also what makes it difficult to generate clear-cut research results in the form of specific, clearly delineated knowledge-claims that can contribute to both research, policy and practice.

Louise Phillips is professor of communication and coordinator of the Dialogic Communication Research Group at the Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Denmark. Her research is on dialogic and participatory approaches to producing and communicating knowledge, including approaches to collaborative research.

Lisbeth Frølunde is associate professor of communication and member of the Dialogic Communication Research Group at the Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Denmark. Her research is in the fields of visual communication, narrative inquiry, arts in health, and arts-based research.

Maria Bee Christensen-Strynø is an assistant professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her research traverses the fields of critical and cultural disability studies, visual culture, and dialogic communication.

Image credit: Authors’ own. The image reproduces images from, and the graphic design of, the graphic novel which is a main product of our research project’s collaborative processes: Frølunde, L., Christensen-Strynø, M.B., Kelter, H., Lundin, G., Mengel, L., Phillips, L., & Rasmussen, R. H., Eds. (2021). Mens vi bevæges: En samskabt grafisk fortælling om at danse med Parkinson. Illustrators: Jetsmark, C. & Vium, T.. Copenhagen: Fahrenheit Press. The graphic novel is due to be published in English with Peter Lang as As we move along: A co-created graphic novel about dancing with Parkinson’s.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Phillips, L. Christensen-Strynø, M.B. and Frølunde, L. (2022). Arts-based co-production in participatory research: harnessing creativity in the tension between process and product. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16445103995426. OPEN ACCESS

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

He Ture Kia Tika/Let the Law Be Right: informing evidence-based policy through kaupapa Māori and co-production of lived experience OPEN ACCESS

Creative processes in co-designing a co-design hub: towards system change in health and social services in collaboration with structurally vulnerable populations OPEN ACCESS

Creative and collaborative reflective thinking to support policy deliberation and decision making OPEN ACCESS

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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