Talking, Walking, Drawing

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Field Research
Participants working on the beach

Well, waking early on Saturday morning my hopes for reasonable weather for the day’s research activities were dealt a blow. I knew before I opened my eyes that it was  raining, as I could hear water spilling from a newly discovered overflowing blocked gutter outside the bedroom window. The rain continued while I walked my dog, and continued as I made my way up the A12. Shortly before I got to Wrentham the rain eased up but the weather remained gusty and the sky stayed leaden.

The weather didn’t help the nervous feeling I had as I waited for the person with the hall key to arrive but wasn’t completely to blame. The biggest source of my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the event, far greater than the worry of not having ever chaired a focus group before, or the fear of terrible weather disrupting the outdoor aspect of the day, was the thought that on the day my participants wouldn’t turn up. I am working to such tight deadlines that at this late stage recruiting new participants, booking a new venue, organising new research days really isn’t an option.

So it was just as well that by 10:30 all my participants were in the kitchen area of the hall getting to know each other and drinking tea and coffee!

The Focus Group Interview

I can’t go into too much detail of the focus group interview here for fear of biasing certain activities that are planned for next Saturday, but, listening to the discussion at the time, and later on listening to the recording at home, I realised that the participants had covered some interesting areas. Two of these which caught my ear were:

  • Nature/Culture distinctions and our human relationships with the nature and environment.
  • The coast as a site of conflict, both in terms of the inherent natural processes and in the terminology deployed to describe coastline management.

In a related but separate part of my studies I have been thinking a lot about the writings of Barbara Adam on Nature/Culture distinctions. The dominant discourse (certainly in the Western industrialised world) insists on a separation between humans and nature, underlined by the thought that we can overcome and triumph over all things natural. This worldview obscures and ignores the fact that as humans we are inextricably linked to, and depend upon, nature and environment for our survival. So for the participants to end up discussing whether erosion is a process that we learn to accept and live with, or whether it is something for us to overcome, was very timely.

My role in the Focus Group was to pose questions or suggest themes for discussion, by mostly I was able to sit back and observe interactions and dynamics. There were times when I would try to prompt participants, or ask them to expand on a point, or even to try to bring someone quieter into the conversation, but in general, I was willing to see where the conversation would go. The group seemed to click well, there were very few silences, and the silences that we did experience seemed to be due to the participants waiting for me to say something.

The focus group ran for around an hour an a half, after which we broke for lunch for 45 minutes before heading to the coast for the walking and drawing activity.

Participatory Field Research

 

Participants making their way down to the beach
Participants making their way down to the beach

While the interview was going on, the weather had quietly been improving. Until we had lunch. Then it got worse, and worse, until by 12:30 the rain was torrential.

I was considering our options. Could we walk in the rain and not draw? Could I ask participants to come an hour earlier on the 17th so we could walk then? I didn’t really know what to do. To change the plan was to fundamentally change the research. Not much time to make a decision.

And then a small patch of sky, a pale blue, appeared in the grey. And gradually got bigger. By 13:00 it was breezy but gloriously sunny. We were saved. I was saved.

Dodging the deeper puddles, participants gathered round, I handed out the sketchbooks and art packs much discussed in my last post, and we set off for the beach. I planned to hang back from the group, and let them make their own decisions as to the direction they went, when they stopped, how fast they walked, whether they stayed together or split up. My main tasks for the afternoon were to observe the way the participants decided to work, how they interacted with each other, how they engaged with the landscape and to make notes on my own thoughts regarding the progress of the field research.

Facing south towards Southwold - Participants working
Facing south towards Southwold – participants working

Once again, I can’t go into specifics at this stage for fear of influencing later activities, but I made some interesting observations relating to the different approaches to mark making, and the different approaches to positioning themselves in relation to the landscape, and the reset of the group. After an hour and a half on the beach, heavy clouds began to blow in from the south-west so I explained to the participants that we might like to consider packing up and making our way back and out of the elements.

Fine weather looking North...
Fine weather looking North…
...more dramatic weather looking South.
…more dramatic weather looking South.

Driving away from Covehithe, I passed through yet more torrential rain. The only two sunny hours of the afternoon had coincided with our visit to the beach. Perhaps I should take that as some kind of positive sign for the future of the research.

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