Josie Phillips has recently graduated from her third year of a sociology degree at Cardiff University. This summer, Josie undertook a research placement at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD), assisting Dr Esther Muddiman with a project about the passing on of values between family members.
As my third year of university was coming to an end and the sheer panic of real life began to set in, I knew I had to do something to have the best chance of finding a job I will truly love. Postgraduate study simply was not an option financially, so I knew gaining real experience was going to give me my strongest chances of finding a job in research.
I was lucky enough to earn a place at WISERD on a five-week placement, working on a project concerning intergenerational value transmission between grandparents, parents and children. I focused mainly on the 976 participant questionnaire completed by 13 to 14-year-olds across seven secondary schools in south Wales over the last 12 months.
During my time with WISERD, I had the freedom to explore a variety of innovative and intellectually stimulating tasks such as coding, cataloguing, analysing both quantitatively and qualitatively, and looking at fascinating concepts such as marginalia.
What really appealed to me, and has driven me to pursue a career in research, was being given the opportunity to go out into the field and trial an innovative research method – inheritance mapping. The project team wanted to find a way to trace the values that are transmitted between family members and note the direction of flow that occurs – it was up to me to bring this idea to life by creatively piloting inheritance maps and exploring their potential as a new research tool.
Intrigue surrounding the visual dimension of social life has deepened significantly, and many recognise that visual methods can enable a more detailed enquiry of social contexts and relationships: “we are visual beings in a world which is a visual array of meaning” (Spencer, 2011:1). As such, participant-led visual data production can be seen as advantageous in providing opportunities for acquiring rich, qualitative data. This method was highly creative and I worked with an open and flexible brief.
Figure one is an example of an inheritance map co-created with a family. The maps were constructed using coloured felt tips and participants were allowed to experiment with a variety of stickers. The lines are colour-coded to represent themes, with solid lines representing strong beliefs and strong transmission, and dotted lines representing weak beliefs and weak transmission. Crosses depict where parents have tried to transmit particular values but these have been rejected by the participant.
Although quite basic in its appearance, alongside the interview recording, this research tool can allow for fantastic qualitative data. I found the map acts as a rapport builder; it mediates between the researcher and participant and combats the awkwardness of a face-to-face interview with a stranger when talking about meaningful and sometimes sensitive topics. This method proved extremely useful and aims to abide by the premise of giving the participant a more prominent voice within the research, which is beneficial in terms of assessing power relations that can construct the research relationship (Mannay, 2013).
I experimented with a number of different approaches to the mapping, including a traditional family tree layout, which turned out to be quite chaotic and confusing. I fed this back to the project team, advocating circular mapping (as seen in figure one above). I also explored the benefits and challenges of individual and group-based mapping activities.
The mapping process is a time-consuming one. There is also the risk of causing upset to participants when discussing the sensitive areas of family relationships as they inevitably arise, therefore ethics need to be considered. However, the process allowed participants to be expressive and take control of the method, resulting in multitudes of analytically interesting points from the interview data itself as to how and why particular faces were placed in specific locations. This revealed that visual and creative methods led by participants can prove extremely useful in allowing the participant to tell their own story.
This placement has broadened my knowledge substantially, given me real career experience and is already benefitting my future, with potential employers finding the tasks I have completed extremely impressive. WISERD has been fantastic in reigniting my passion for research.
Josie worked alongside another placement student, Louise Taylor, who was also involved in the inheritance mapping project, read Louise’s blog here.