Manchester sociologists pilot sketching as way to unlock new data

Sketching is being piloted as a research tool by social scientists at The University of Manchester.

Researchers are using the technique alongside more traditional qualitative research methods to unlock new data in areas such as studying dementia.

Manchester’s Morgan Centre - known for using innovative research methodologies involving sound, film and photos - researches relationships and personal life.

The Centre has recruited Lynne Chapman who is a well-known children’s book illustrator as their artist in residence to work alongside their team of sociologists to test the potential of using sketching in their research.

She said: “Sketching goes beyond a mindfulness colouring book and many adults tend to harbour a secret passion to do more of it. Whilst we actively encourage our children to draw, it isn’t a focus when you grow up which is a shame because it is a really good way to concentrate the mind, organise your thoughts and communicate emotions.

”One of the first research projects to test the technique is on the ageing brain and is concerned with better understanding the relationship between dementia and everyday life.

Led by Dr Andrew Balmer, the research is seeking to better understand the relationships between people with dementia and their carers and is examining emotions, habits and routines as well as secrets and lies.

Dr Balmer has used the technique during a series of focus group discussions and couples interviews, and found it enables him to more effectively build a rapport with the participants. Using transcripts from previous interviews with dementia carers, people with dementia and healthcare professionals, the sociologist then asked them to add more detail to the transcripts using sketching.

“I found it made the participants more able to communicate some of the more emotional and intimate details about their lives caring for a partner or relative with dementia through sketching. Many of the facets of dementia that sketching helped to elicit are often difficult to articulate in words.

”During the session one woman coloured her transcript in yellows, purples and blues to highlight how fragile and prone to bruising her mother had become, showing how changes in her relationship were related not only to changes in her brain but also to changes in her body."

The sketching also helped the carers to talk about the shifting relationship between a husband and wife when one of them has dementia. Through sketching, some of the participants were able to talk about the new skills they’d had to learn like shaving their partner’s face or managing the household finances.

In one couples interview, a participant began to cry as she sketched some of her mother’s favourite things into the transcript of her conversation. Sketching helped to open up unexpected routes into discussions about relationships and everyday life.

“Drawing can be a useful way to start conversations about the emotional side of the relationship between a carer and the person they are caring for,” said Dr Balmer.

He said that sketching would be difficult to use as a research tool on its own, but used with other techniques it can produce richer accounts of everyday life than interviews alone.

“Sketching has proved to be a really powerful way to bring people into research who might normally feel alienated from the process and to give participants access to their own data as part of its analysis. We have deemed it to be so useful to our work that many of the team at the Morgan Centre are including it as a research tool in many of our future bids,” added Dr Balmer.

Examples of the sketches that Lynne Chapman has captured during her work with the Morgan Centre are being shown during the Unfolding Stories: Sketching the Everyday exhibition which is taking place from 26 July - 1 August and is at Z-Arts in Manchester.The exhibition also gives visitors the opportunity to try some of the sketching techniques being adopted by the sociologists during their research as well as a chance to see some of the sketches Lynne Chapman did during her time at the Morgan Centre.

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