Creative Methods in Research & Community Engagement
This database of methods is intended to help action-researchers put creative inquiry and engagement methods to practical use. It provides a compendium of detailed methods, but is also meant to inspire users to adapt them for their context and create their own.
Creative methods engage participants outside the parameters of traditional qualitative data collection and analysis. They often include empathetic, artistic, narrative, or aesthetic expression as the basis for investigating, intervening, creating knowledge, and sharing information. Such methods are intended to evoke deeper research insights and richer or more nuanced interpretations. They can facilitate meaning making and highlight alternative types of knowledge and ways of knowing.
It is widely agreed that new ways of thinking and doing can create new constellations of possibilities for change. Thus, in our collective work towards more just, sustainable, and regenerative societies, creative methods can support transformative practices on multiple levels. For example, they can:
- support more inclusive engagements by making sure that a wide range of voices are heard and valued.
- spark disruptive ideas and imaginaries through lateral thinking and radical speculation
- evoke mental models by highlighting metaphors and narratives that are aligned with people’s deepest values.
What are creative methods?
In order to access or communicate information and knowledge not easily attainable through traditional methods, creative methods use:
- lateral & metaphorical thinking
- arts-based, aesthetic, or "maker” approaches
- storytelling/affective narratives (visual, verbal, or other)
The creative or artistic dimensions may be used during data collection, analysis, interpretation, and/or dissemination.
Why is Recoms focusing on creative methods?
The Recoms research network is focused on supporting vulnerable communities to become more resourceful and resilient by strengthening people’s capacity to adapt and transform in the face of social and ecological crises.
Generative forms of inquiry, a strong emphasis on inclusivity, and a commitment to co-production and action-learning (learning by doing) can all contribute to this goal.
Creative methods have the potential to help uncover and nourish the inherent resourcefulness and wisdom already existing amongst groups of people.
They can do this by creating the conditions to deepen reflexivity and openness to new perspectives and possibilities as well as draw greater attention to the process of knowledge creation as developed within specific social-ecological-cultural contexts.
Why use creative methods?
- Engage diverse people with different styles of learning and participating
- Flatten hierarchies, encouraging all voices in the room (and sometimes outside the room!) to be heard and valued
- Expand spheres of empathy (i.e. for other humans, for non-humans, and for future generations)
- Co-create knowledge
- Uncover and make visible hidden elements of systems and structures
- Bring to light beliefs, values, worldviews & paradigms
- Reveal and engage with emotional and affective dimensions
- Acknowledge and give space to uncertainties
- Disrupt habituated ways of thinking and doing
- Evoke cognitive frames that open new spaces of possibility (i.e. more than human perspectives, complexity thinking, expanded sense of time)
- Imagine new futures
- Inspire creative and innovative ideas and solutions
- Address complexity and support complexity thinking
- Creative practices can open new spaces of possibility, which can support new pathways of action.
- They can help people confront and process the realities of social-ecological crises, not just intellectually, but also emotionally and affectively.
- Creative practices can be used to access hidden layers of emotion and meaning and create context for people to surface unspoken issues or fears, which then leads to increased capacity for action.
Criteria for selection of methods
- Methods which have the potential to flatten tacit hierarchies and create space for diverse voices and methods in which all people can participate equally were prioritized.
- Most methods have both an inner focus (quiet solo work) and an outer focus (sharing and discussing) in order to energize people who think best alone and those who think best in dynamic interactions.
- Methods that target a range of learning and expressing styles. Different people will shine or feel empowered by different forms for reflection, analysis, and communication. For example, some people thrive in debate and linear analysis, others through visualization and visual communication, others through insights gained through creative/ lateral & metaphorical thinking.
- Methods selected are relatively simple, short, and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.
- Methods were designed to leave tangible (written or visual) records that can be useful for sharing insights with broader communities and for data collection and analysis.
Note: It is important to remember that not all people will like all methods, just as not all people like the standard “business as usual” format of brainstorming and planning meetings
What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was developed by David Cooperrider of Case Western University as a way to build on and strengthen what people are already doing well in groups, communities, or organizations. It starts with the premise that people will benefit from a strengths-based or affirmative approach, as opposed to a deficit-based approach, which emphasizes what is wrong or what needs to be fixed. AI assumes that each human system has a positive core of strengths and that the values, beliefs, and capabilities of the system when it’s at its best can be nurtured and expanded.
The AI framework offers a semi-structured process for creating a collective understanding of the groups positive core and using that as a basis for visioning and planning and acting. It consists of five phases: Define, Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny, all which are fed by the Positive Core of the process.
Appreciative Inquiry Framework
- Define: These methods help clarify the collective topic of inquiry or the scope or intention of work. Why are we doing this work? What is the purpose and what needs to be achieved?
- Discover: Methods in this category can help participants rediscover, remember, or uncover the group or community's successes, strengths, resources, and periods of excellence. The idea here is to appreciate and acknowledge the best of what already exists and what already works.
- Dream: These methods help people express their dreams for the future of a community or organization, based on strengths and past successes.
- Design: In this phase, dreams are refined and grounded and the group converges on a specific vision or visions.
- Destiny: These methods can help people creatively figure out a concrete path forward - how, in concrete terms, to embed new designs into the community, group, or organization.
- Positive Core: A cornerstone of AI is maintaining and feeding the underlying positive energy of the people involved with the project or initiative. These methods should help “excite, empower, and engage” participants.
Search Category Descriptions
When to Use
Warm-ups are intended to set the tone of the event, to engage people in the topic at hand, and align with and evoke the deeper values and principles of the group. They are an opportunity to start an event with coherence between goals, theory, and practice.
These methods can be used to generate many ideas from multiple perspectives. Often the wilder, the better, as diversity and far-flung imaginative ideas can provoke new and unexpected insights. It is important to be clear that one’s critical voice should be suspended in this generative stage, and saved for the converging, or decision making phase of the workshop.
The act of taking a structured pause to reflect and process input and information is often missing from collective engagements, which tend to leap straight from discussion to solutions or action. Giving time, space, and loose structure to periods of reflection throughout engagement processes can result in deeper and more transformative insights and commitments. New ideas or practices have a chance to root and disrupt habituated ways of thinking and doing.
During a workshop many different outputs emerge: ideas, insights, stories, key points, actions, accountabilities, resources needed, resources available, etc. A good harvesting method can capture these outputs and process to share with others, as a reminder for oneself, as a collective record, for future analysis, or to facilitate future action. The harvest should be designed to be integrated into the structure of the engagement, rather than as an add-on. Harvest methods can be fun and creative.
These methods can be used to converge upon a plan of action, a narrower theme of inquiry, or other decisions. At this stage, the method should ensure that all voices are heard and valued, rather than defaulting to the loudest voice in the room.
including materials and time
Can be done with a range of materials and preparation, depending on adaptation.
little to no advanced preparation.
some simple materials and preparation of slides and/or instructions.
require facilitator to gather materials, print documents, prepare graphics, do advanced research, etc.