AESTHETIC FORMS OF DATA REPRESENTATION IN QUALITATIVE FAMILY THERAPY RESEARCH
Piercy, Fred P
In this article we provide a rationale for using alternative, aesthetic methods of qualitative representation (e.g., creative writing, art, music, performance, poetry) in qualitative family therapy research. We also provide illustrative examples of methods that bring findings to life, and involve the audience in reflecting on their meaning. One problem with such forms of data representation has been that, until recently, there have not been standards with which to evaluate them. We summarize evolving standards and explain when the forms are appropriate and when they are not. We also address issues of legitimacy and conflicting standards held by others.
“The voice of the poet is needed in our prose-flattened world.”
Family therapy researchers can expand considerably the ways in which they represent and share their findings. In this article, we will examine several evocative ways to share qualitative findings that can bring them to life, and involve the audience in reflecting on their meaning.
Eisner (1997) reminds us that most people use a variety of ways to convey what they know-stories, pictures, theater, demonstrations, and poetry-and that most of these approaches are “as old as the hills” (p. 5). So, in a way, our thesis is not as radical or strange as it might first appear. Most forms of qualitative representation have been with us a long time. They simply represent different ways to reflect experience. As Eisner (1997) states:
We report the temperature even when we are interested in the heat; we expect a reader to be able to transform the numbers representing the former into the experience that constitutes the latter. New forms of data representation signify our growing interest in inventing ways to represent the heat. (p. 7)
Some ethnographers use performances (increasingly known as “performance texts”) to capture their findings. For example, sociologists Becker, McCall, and Morris (1989) read a script at a scientific meeting that included themselves and their informants. They adopted a moving, quasi-storytelling format that transformed their work into a collaborative project that gave voice to both participants and researchers. The authors reported that they “felt” the experiences of their participants as they enacted them. This format also made the research process more visible and alive to outsiders; the researchers and participants became real people (Denzin, 1997). Such methods of bringing findings to life are applicable to research topics in the field of family therapy.
For example, a marriage and family therapy (MFT) doctoral student (Karuppaswamy, 2000) conducted interviews with family therapy graduate students and faculty to understand how her disability affected them and their accommodation to her. (Karuppaswamy had polio as a child, and uses a motorized scooter to get around.) She analyzed the data for themes and then wrote a play that captured her findings through movement, dialogue, and story. For her performance of the play, she assigned parts to volunteer students in her qualitative research class. Karuppaswamy played herself, and several students played the voice of the “department” and others played “students.” There was also a “narrator” and “stage manager,” who commented on the cultural and pragmatic issues around the department’s accommodation of her disability, and of her as a person. The volunteers read their parts by using a script, and all quotes were from the actual interview transcripts.
Karuppaswamy (2000) organized quotes according to the themes she found around accommodation. One group of students, for example, she called “waiters” because they were not too quick to offer support; they allowed Karuppaswamy to initiate the contact. One waiter confided, “I was afraid that if I focused on the disability in the very beginning, that you would think I didn’t see the real you inside” (p. 11). Their play allowed the class to know-both affectively and intellectually-more about both Karuppaswamy’s experience and the human process of inclusion and accommodation.
However, Denzin (1997) warns that such ethnodramas (Mienczakowski, 1995) and performance texts, if presented as “Truth,” run the risk of perpetuating the fallacy of early ethnography, in which researchers attempted to capture the “true” culture and represent it as it “really” is. Instead, Denzin suggests a different stance: To use alternative forms of data presentation, such as this play, as postmodern methods that invite and embrace direct experience and multiple interpretations of ethnographic findings. Denzin believes that such alternative forms of presentation can and should engage the audience in the process of reflection and meaning making but avoid the epistemological problems of truth claims.
Similarly, Lather (1997) did not want to privilege any one reality in her portrayal of the experiences of women she studied who were living with AIDS. Consequently, she mixed the narrative accounts of her participants’ stories with “researcher interpretive moves and retraction of such moves, and ‘factoid’ boxes, all juxtaposed with . . . intertexts that bring moments of sociology, history, poetry, popular culture, and ‘determined policy talk’ into a network of levels” (p. 255). That is, she built a complexity intended to invite confusion, reflection, and multiple interpretations. Tierney and Lincoln’s (1997) Representation and the eText addresses such concerns with narrative voice and what realities are represented in textual representations.
Of course, more positivist qualitative researchers can unapologetically use alternative methods to capture and represent the lived experience of their participants. In fact, we believe that traditional qualitative (and quantitative) researchers should consider alternative ways to present their findings that connect with various audiences on emotional as well as intellectual levels, and reflect the experiences of their research participants. Creative presentation methods are not owned by one particular group of researchers, nor should they be. The researchers’ epistemologies will guide them in explaining their use in either positivist terms (i.e., as reflecting a certain reality) or interpretive terms (i.e., as inviting multiple realities).
There are also similarities between more traditional forms of research presentation and more interpretive, artistic forms. Paget (1990) reminds us that many traditional texts are also interpretive in that the author massages, summarizes, and inductively organizes text in a particular way. Paget (1990) contends that both her analytic text and her ethnoperformances are interpretive.
QUALITATIVE RESEARCH, DATA, AND FINDINGS
Qualitative research itself takes many forms, and the variations of qualitative inquiry are growing. At the same time, certain qualities are associated with qualitative research. According to Gilgun (in press):
“Qualitative” as a term connotes flexibility of design, researchers who value and build upon reflexivity and subjectivity, constructivist assumptions, rich phenomenological descriptions, and implicit appeals to readers’ personal experiences for understanding and interpreting findings. In general, qualitative approaches are thought to be more concerned with what it means to be human-or ontological concerns-and less concerned with epistemological concerns of reliability and validity. (p. 3)
Another area of potential confusion is the distinction between data and findings. If a researcher presents data without analysis, the data excerpts necessarily will be partial, in that they will focus on one aspect of the phenomenon being studied. That is, different data excerpts will tell different stories. The qualitative researcher, in one way or another, usually sifts through, organizes, and presents data in some meaningful way. The sifting-through process (described in different ways by proponents of different qualitative traditions) results in findings that the researcher contextualizes and shapes for the audience. The researcher may, for example, emphasize the emotional tone of the findings (as we illustrate in this article) over the cognitive themes.
We decided to title our article “aesthetic methods,” rather than “alternative methods,” because of our emphasis on methods that connect the audience in a more feeling level to both data and findings. Miles and Huberman (1994) document a variety of “alternative” forms, such as charts, diagrams, and matrices, that the qualitative researcher may use to represent his or her findings. We will emphasize, instead, “aesthetic” methods of presentation that call for a more evocative, interpretive response from the reader or audience, another level of reflection and meaning making (sometimes hand-in-hand with raw data, and sometimes not). We are not saying that one type of presentation method is superior to another. Instead, we believe that researchers and consumers can appreciate research findings at different levels through the various ways in which findings are presented.
THE RANGE OF AESTHETIC FORMS OF REPRESENTATION
Qualitative researchers can capture and share their findings in a variety of ways. For example, Denzin (1997) calls for researchers to use creative writing strategies to reflect the experiences of participants. The family therapy researcher might, for example, create a composite story about an interracial client couple that illustrates many of the findings from the interracial couples he or she studied. Or, the researcher might write poetry, as Poindexter (2002) did to capture the experience of one HIV-positive couple. As Richardson (1997) maintains, good poetry can capture the epiphanies in peoples’ lives and touch the emotional center of the listener. Or, the researcher might write a play to reflect the essence of research findings, as Foster (2002) did in Storm Tracking, her own autoethnographic reflections (c.f., Ellis & Bochner, 2000) on the breakup of her marriage. Characters in her play included her, her husband, and a weather forecaster.
Paget (1990) employed the use of theater students to perform a dramatic rendering of her detailed analysis of a series of interactions between a physician and his cancer patient (resulting in a faulty medical diagnosis). Cancer was the narrator. At one point, the antagonistic dialogue between patient and physician transformed into a tango, as the two danced together. The physician twirled the patient around so fast and long, at one point, that the patient became dizzy and lost her balance. Paget’s performance reflected the essence of her previously analyzed data, but it clearly privileged performance, not text, in communicating it. Such dramatic presentations, like the one Karuppaswamy (2000) wrote, can bring the audience into a direct emotional experience with qualitative findings by reading scripts developed from actual participant comments. Denzin (1997) also suggested slide shows, photos, films, music, and variants of improvisational theater to bring the voices of participants alive to the audience.
Qualitative software, such as ATLAS.ti (http://www.atlasti.de/), allows researchers to organize and analyze not only text documents, but also hyperlinks to audio, visual, and internet data, pictures, news clips, websites, and videotapes of interactions (Fielding, 1995). The Ethnographic Laboratory (E-lab) of the University of Southern California (http://etext.virginia.edu/VAR/), for example, regularly uses computer software to support their multimedia visual anthropology projects. Although computer software applications that manipulate visual data are becoming more common, the use of visual representation of qualitative data is hardly new (e.g., Heider, 1976; Loizos, 1993).
STANDARDS FOR AESTHETIC DATA REPRESENTATION
One problem with such aesthetic forms of data representation is that, until recently, there have not been standards with which to evaluate them (Richardson, 2000a). In her review of the validity debate in evaluating interpretive inquiry, Angen (2000) talked of two ends of a continuum regarding how to determine whether or not qualitative research is valid. On one end of the continuum are realist methods, which mirror more positivist quantitative research. These methods, such as member checks, triangulation, persistent observation, audit trails, peer review, negative case analysis, and careful inductive analysis are ways to provide both rigor and credibility to qualitative research (Angen, 2000; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The problem with these methods, from an interpretive perspective, is that truth is not dependent on an external reality, but on a reality that is socially constructed through intersubjective experiences within the lived world (Kvale, 1996).
If interpretive reality is socially constructed, how does the interpretive researcher tell good research from bad research? Inteipretivist researchers are beginning to use standards of validation that evaluate interpretive research in terms of pragmatic and moral concerns. Does the research support positive change? Is it catalytic, liberating, transformative? Does it empower? In Boal’s (1979) and Fox’s (1994) use of unscripted theater, for example, the representation itself is a form of intervention. So are many forms of participatory action research (Piercy & Thomas, 1998). Also, does the researcher follow a moral compass? Kvale (1996), for example, believes that beneficence should be the most basic guideline of interpretive research. Conquergood (1985) speaks of performance as a moral act. Similarly, referring to the field of music therapy, Bruscia (1998) calls for (among others) standards of personal and interpersonal integrity.
Interpretive researchers also ask whether the work resonates with the intended audience; is it compelling, powerful, and convincing (Osborne, 1990; Smith, 1984; van Manen, 1990)? That is, does it have verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real? Finally, does it answer the “so what” question. That is, is it worth doing to begin with? According to Angen (2000), we have a moral obligation to research topics of practical value.
Richardson (2000a) states that these alternative forms have challenged disciplinary rules and boundaries on ethical, aesthetic, theoretical, and empirical grounds. Increasingly ethnographers want to write ethnography that is both scientific-in the sense of being true to the world known through the empirical senses-and literary-in the sense of expressing what one has learned through evocative writing techniques and forms. Richardson (2000a) suggests standards by which to judge the merit of interpretive ethnography. We believe that these standards are also applicable to other methods of data representation we discuss in this article. The important questions to ask are: (a) Does it make a substantive contribution?; (b) Does it have aesthetic merit?; (c) Does the author locate him/herself in the text?; (d) Does it have impact? (i.e., Does the work affect me emotionally? intellectually? Does it generate new questions? Does it move the audience to action?); and (e) Does the work seem credible? (i.e., Does it seem to capture lived reality?)
Similarly, Ellis (2000) asks whether the work is evocative. Does it engage both sides of the brain? Does it help the reader understand some social process or experience? Finally, does it employ the standards of good writing (i.e., Does it paint vivid pictures, sounds, smells, and feelings? Does it show versus tell? Does it create dramatic tension?)
Denzin (2000) maintains that qualitative interpretive writing about culture, beyond meeting aesthetic criteria, should be judged in terms of the critical, moral discourse it produces. That is, consistent with Denzin and Lincoln’s (2000) seventh movement in the development of qualitative research: A text should be judged on its ability to point to a better world, one where democracy, empathy, and social justice prevail over oppression and marginalization.
These standards for alternative, aesthetic ways to represent qualitative research are evolving. The researcher, however, is still responsible for producing and representing credible data. According to Bruscia (1998), “Researchers have to hold themselves accountable not only to the scholarly community, but to themselves, the phenomena, the participants, and all other parties involved in the study” (p. 193).
THE FIT OF CRITERIA TO THEORY AND PURPOSE
There are many forms of qualitative research. Patton (2002) emphasized that criteria for judging qualitative research should flow logically from the theoretical underpinnings and purposes of that research. For example, qualitative researchers who hold to a more realist theoretical orientation (i.e., reality can be captured) detail elaborate methods for assuring the reliability and validity of their data (e.g., triangulation, audit trails, member checks, etc.). Social-constructionist researchers, in contrast, are more interested in interpretive methods and in assuring that their interpretations are credible and trustworthy. Critical theorists, such as feminist family therapy researchers, use research methods to critique society, raise consciousness, and bring about change. Qualitative researchers committed to the use of art, music, creative writing, and performance value affective knowing as well as intellectual knowing, art as well as science (Patton, 2002). According to Patton (2002), “Artistic criteria focus on aesthetics, creativity, interpretive vitality, and expressive voice” (p. 548). The credibility of findings takes on a feeling dimension. For example, Ensler (2001) based The Vagina Monologues, her one-woman play, on over 200 interviews with women about their vaginas. She presented their words as theater, and the result is a moving production that audiences relate to on a variety of levels. Although one could certainly debate whether The Vagina Monologues should be considered qualitative research, few would deny the power of its performance. Similarly powerful is The Laramie Project (HBO Films, 2002), about the killing of Mathew Shepherd, a gay male from Laramie, Wyoming, which is also based on interviews, but presented as theater. The “truth” value of these productions relates as much to the audiences’ affective reaction to the participants’ stories as to the intellectual understanding of them. And both have a powerful believability.
It is important, then, for qualitative researchers who use artistic forms of data representation to be clear about their purpose and theoretical orientations so that others do not judge their work by criteria better applied to a different type of research. For this reason, some mention in the methods section of the researcher’s paper would help the editor and/or reader to have the appropriate lens on when judging the research. For example, Ricci (2003) clarifies the intent of his poem about growing up in two cultures this way:
Ethnography, by its simplest definition, is the practice of attempting to discover the culture of others (Patton, 2002). Autoethnography, then, must be the practice of attempting to discover the culture of self, or of others through self. (p. 4)
Ricci (2003) also addresses possible criticisms in his limitations section. For example:
The use of self as a sole source of data has been questioned (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Sparkes, 2000). One could argue my design lacks rigor. To that I would reply that were a researcher to spend as much time collecting data from his/her subject as I did with “Ronnie” (Ronnie is the author), I daresay his or her rigor would not be in question, (p. 6)
Ricci (2003) is explaining and supporting his use of a poem as an autoethnographic form or research. Until such methods of research and data representation are better understood, those who choose to use alternative forms of data representation would do well to explain their purpose, and provide an intellectual context for their work.
Of course, distinctions among qualitative research methods are not always as clear as we present them. For example, feminist family therapy researchers who are committed to critique and change, can use art, creative writing methods, or theater to represent their findings. Similarly, ethnographers or phenomenologists may conduct fine research without ever using any of these alternative forms of data representation.
EXAMPLES OF AESTHETIC FORMS OF DATA REPRESENTATION
My wife (an audiologist with a hearing loss) and I (FP) have talked to professional audiences about couple communication when one partner has a hearing loss. Before we present research-based suggestions about what family therapists might do to improve couple communication, we pass out about 20 cards to members of our audience. The cards have on them statements from hard-of-hearing people about the effects of their hearing losses on their lives. Here are a few examples:
I can’t hear my own grandchildren. It’s getting so they don’t even try to talk to me anymore. (Audiology patient of Susan Piercy’s, personal communication, November 12, 2001)
Remember when you asked me if I heard the birds singing outside? I said ‘yes.’ But I couldn’t hear them. . . . You know how we all laughed at the comedians on (TV)? I never heard them either! Remember when you asked me if I liked school. I hated school! . . . Everyone expected me to be normal. I’m not. I’m hard-of-hearing. I’m not a bad person, I’m not a stupid person, I’m just hardof-hearing! (Harvey, 1998, p. 21)
You know, my dad and 1 camped together, ran together, drank beers together. He took me to my first Red Sox game-I was only five years old. I remember when he gave me his old hunting knife, it was all rusty, dirty. I still have it. . . . We never stopped doing things together, you know? But after I lost my hearing we never again looked each other straight in the eyes. I not only lost my hearing, I lost my dad, too. (Harvey, 1998, p. 45)
Members of the audience read, in turn, their particular card as if it is they who had the hearing loss. Invariably, many are moved by the statements on the cards. Also, the readings often elicit memories of a family member’s challenge with hearing loss. The research and clinical information we then share with them has a context in their own experience.
Capturing and Presenting Qualitative Findings Through Metaphors and Pictures of Metaphors
Arthur, Hale-Life, and Reigle (2002), interviewed 13 graduate students to better understand their experience of power and control in graduate school. They identified categories of control and wrote an article asserting both research and clinical implications of their findings. One of their research questions, however, captured the imaginations of the participants. This question was, “Share with me a metaphor or picture that would describe or illustrate (your) experience.” Several of the metaphors included:
An hourglass . . . never having enough time . . . always watching the time and knowing it will run out before I can finish. That is what graduate school has been like for me. (p. 12)
Dogs jumping through hoops, (p. 12)
I feel like one of those cabbage patch kids that’s stuck in the garden and they (the professors) get to choose, who does the best here. And so they come through and they just pick them out by their cabbage heads . . . (p. 11)
A miner digging in a dark cave . . . with this dull tool everyday, everyday, digging, digging, digging. You can’t really see what you are doing, but you’re working very hard . . . (p. 11)
The researchers sought out pictures of each metaphor through Internet photo sites and printed 9″ × 12″ photos of each (e.g., a dog jumping through a hoop, an hourglass, a miner digging). When they presented their research results they asked their audience to form small groups to discuss which of the pictures “fit” the audiences’ experience, and what suggestions the audience might have for these graduate students. The metaphors, and their representation in picture form, served to bring their research to life in a way that a verbal summary of the results could not.
Similarly, in Bischof’s (1999) phenomenological study on the experiences of family therapists working in medical settings, he asked participants for a metaphor that represented their work as medical family therapists. The resulting metaphors are what I (FP) remember most about his results. They included trudging through sand, tag team wrestling, whitewater rafting, being the first mate on a ship, cheerleading, and even marriage.
An Autoethnographic Poem
The area of research interest of Love-Norris (2002), a graduate student, is caregivers’ experiences working with patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Her interest is an outgrowth of caring for her uncle, who has Alzheimer’s. Imagine an audience’s connection with Love-Norris’s research if she firsts shares an autoethnographic poem, such as the one below about her relationship with her uncle.
A Performance Play
Joyce Arditti and her research team (Arditti, Lambert-Shute, Joest, & Walker, 2001) recently presented a performance text of the results of extensive interviews with family members waiting to see their loved ones at a county jail. After presenting the purpose and procedures of their study in a traditional manner, they positioned themselves in different parts of the room. As statistics and themes were projected onto a screen, the researchers read entries from their field notes. Here are illustrative examples from Arditti (2003):
Statistic (presented on screen): 87% Cumulative Distress (p. 124)
Field Note Entry (Read by research team member): It was like the family was in mourning. . . . If (the incarcerated family member) had died then they could grieve publicly and get the support needed. But when someone goes to jail you lose them from your daily life, almost like a death, you cannot grieve out loud, you have to grieve silently or else risk shame, (p. 128)
Statistic (presented on screen): 72% Problems Waiting to see Family Member (p. 124)
Field Note Entry (Read by research team member): There were long lines today to sign in and the 3rd floor was closed and people who had already been waiting 30 minutes to sign in were denied their visit, (p. 126)
Statistic (Presented on screen): 74% Problems with Lack of Privacy (p. 124)
Field Note Entry (Read by research team member): Since it was crowded, all the chairs were used up and people were standing all over everyone else-there was no privacy whatsoever, (p. 126)
The juxtaposition of facts and experiences provided a powerful reminder of the people and the pain behind the statistics. The researchers then talked about their own experience of meeting with the families at the jail, and through their reflections, the audience was drawn into the experience themselves.
A Performance Text
In a recent qualitative research class, I (KB) created a performance text that challenged graduate students about their own assumptions regarding sexual orientation. I gave each student a “respondent statement” that related to same-sex sexual orientation. The students were arranged in a large circle so everyone could see each other. Audience members went around the circle and read the quotes, which included such comments as:
God condemns homosexuals.
I love working with kids and babysitting, but I am afraid that their parents might find out and accuse me of being a freak. I’ve heard stories like that.
It’s creepy when somebody flaunts being gay.
I’ve always pictured myself married with a regular family-married with kids and a dog.
I have always been a regular person. White, upper-middle class. It was strange that as soon as I acknowledged my sexual orientation I was part of this oppressed minority group. It made me appreciate the privilege I had always known growing up.
People get beat up for being gay.
My parents freaked out when I tried to tell them. They said I would never be the same in their eyes. They said many hurtful things to me and wanted to know where they went wrong. Am I really damaged?
By the time we got to the last person, students vicariously experienced the discrimination, fear, and conflict reflected in the statements. One said, “I experienced how trapped someone might feel to be gay in our society.” We also reflected on the lives of those whose statements we read. Were they mostly male, female, gay, straight? What was their religious affiliation, their social class? The group concluded that the research participants were likely from a variety of family types with various religious beliefs, and were both gay and straight.
I (KB) then shared that all the quotes were actually the internal conflicts of one person-me. They were my thoughts during the process of discovering, coming to terms with, and coming out as a lesbian. At the same time, my statements represented those of many who struggle with their sexual identity and orientation. This activity helped the group understand some of the struggles gay and lesbian individuals face when they confront messages from their religion or families of origin. The class responded with insight, empathy, and support. We talked about differences and the need for mutual respect.
This activity was an autoethnographic (Patton, 2002) performance text in that it engaged the audience in a deeply personal account of my own experience. At the same time, the activity served as cultural criticism. It led to the critique of a cultural norm, moved the audience to greater awareness of the personal effect of our society’s specifications around sexual orientation, and challenged the group’s assumptions about being gay. One audience member replied, for example, that he had never considered that a gay person might have the same life-long ideals he had about having a family.
About a month later, my instructor invited me to do the same activity for a local church group exploring ways to be more welcoming to people of all sexual orientations. I was nervous, because I had not attended church regularly since coming out, perhaps because of the fear of being judged. Also, there is a difference between conducting an authethnographic presentation in an academic setting like a classroom and a nonacademic setting like a church. One difference, Conquergood (1985) notes, it that academic audiences may resonate with the ideas behind the presentation on a theoretical and personal level in a way that the general public may not.
As it turned out, many in the church members were moved by the activity. They asked questions and expressed concern about my personal battles with coming out as a religious person. They wanted to know what they could do to reach out to other gay or lesbian individuals. I know I would not have been so well-received by all church groups. But that was not my goal. The goal of my autoethnographic activity was to portray my experience in a way that would invite the audience’s direct involvement. Different people will undoubtedly have different experiences as they reflect on-and vicariously experience-my own.
A Multi-Method Computer Assisted Autoethnography
Saliha Bava (2001) recently completed a virtual, completely-on-line dissertation at Virginia Tech. Her dissertation was an autoethnography of her research and personal experience during her family therapy internship at the Houston-Galveston Institute. She immersed herself in and reflectively explored both the culture of the Institute, and her experience of it. She used many alternative forms of data representation-poetry, colors, animations, multiple conversations (with others, herself, and the literature), split dialogues, and other methods to bring her findings to life. Her styles of narration (words, graphics, prose, poetry, first person conversational texts, narratives, and collages) blurred the boundaries between academic writing, literature, and art. At the same time, she used hypertext to ground her own experience in relevant literature. She also had her committee reflect on their experiences of reading her dissertation (in a “reflections” section of her dissertation), and then responded to these reflections. In postmodern fashion, she built into her dissertation both recursion and reflection.
Pros and Cons of Using Aesthetic Forms of Representation
Just because we can do something does not mean we should do it. Why should a family therapy researcher want to use artistic, literary, or performance methods to present qualitative findings, and what are the down sides?
On the positive side, performance is immediate and evocative. It can shake the audience out of passive complacency. It can also illuminate. The audience (be they clinicians, researchers, the general public, or journal editors) can gain empathy for the lives of participants when the researcher captures their struggles through art, music, or theater. As Behar (1996) suggests, if social science doesn’t break your heart, it isn’t worth doing. With a performance or dramatic text comes a sense of authenticity. The experience, like Karuppaswamy’s disability or a wife visiting her husband in jail, becomes immediate and real. Indeed, many of these methods of representation accomplish important goals of good ethnography: To capture lived experience and to make another world accessible to the reader (Richardson, 1997).
These methods appear to be a good fit for the field of family therapy. The practice of family therapy itself is personal and human. We study our clients moving accounts of pain, revelation, and healing; we examine interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions, and the drama that comes with them. And our work is ironic, tragic, and comical, sometimes simultaneously!
Many family therapists also resonate with social-constructionist perspectives. Consequently, our practice and our research lend themselves well to aesthetic and artistic renderings. Family therapists are inclined to study topics that personally connect with themselves-moving experiences and “epiphanous moments” (Denzin, 1989). Such personal subject matter invites the use of artistic modes of expression. Also, much of our field is based on artistic or literary foundations-narrative therapy, family sculpting, and the strong tradition associated with the aesthetic in our work (e.g., Keeney, 1983).
There is also a fine tradition of powerful evocative writing in family therapy research, from Napier and Whitaker’s (1978) Family Crucible, to Minuchin’s (1984) Family Kaleidoscope, to Bowen’s (1978) classic anonymous paper on differentiating from his own family of origin. Consequently, because of our field’s rich aesthetic traditions, artistic, evocative approaches to representing qualitative research will not be foreign to many family therapists. They also promise a means of making research findings accessible to family therapists who are overwhelmed by statistics-heavy reports.
Clients and the general public also tend to resonate with dramatic presentation approaches. For example, moving interpretive stories, plays, or poetry can bring the drama of family therapy to a wider audience. Alternative methods of representation will allow our research to reach others in ways that bring our work to life and make it understandable to nontherapists.
Aesthetic forms of representation can also generate what Eisner (1997) calls “productive ambiguity” (p. 8). That is, because the material is evocative, it may actually generate more complexity than closure-multiple perspectives and new ways of seeing things.
These forms of data representation also will appeal to some who do not appreciate more literal or quantitative representations of data (Eisner, 1997). Those with a creative, artistic bent will find joy in transforming data into aesthetic form. Richardson (1993), for example, reflects the satisfaction of such work in her process journal about creating a poem about the experience of an unwed mother from her in-depth interviews:
I like it. I love this work. I feel I am integrating the sociological and the poetic at the professional, political, and personal levels. I love what I am doing. I love the process. I am showing a different way of displaying a life. I am deconstructing the formats sociologists have chosen. I’m not just talking strategies: I’m showing them . . . Bliss, (pp. 696-697)
The strengths of alternative forms of data representation also have their shadow side. Explanations and certainty may not be forthcoming. And consensus is unlikely when we encourage everyone to place their own interpretations on the findings. Also, some undoubtedly will see performance texts and other artistic representations of qualitative data as strange, even bizarre. Others will see them as lacking the rigor of “real research.”
When Richardson (1993) presented her poem about the unwed mother, Louisa May, that she based on her field notes, one audience member stated:
What about the reliability and credibility of the original experience? You have collapsed three moments of doing research into one. Because of what you have done, we cannot accept your findings as an accurate story. . . . If you want to display originality, then how can we trust you? What is the truth here? How do we know that you haven’t made the whole thing up? (pp. 699-700)
Clearly, this audience member is basing his critique on realist criteria that are quite different from the criteria that Richardson (2000a), Ellis (2000), and Denzin (2000) call for. Without being explicit about interpretive or evocative criteria from the beginning, the researcher may be judged on criteria more appropriate for more traditional research.
Other audience members responded to Richardson’s (1993) poem in a manner more consistent with the criteria we are advocating in this paper. For example, one stated, “I saw a dramatization of the Ollie North trial, and through it I could see Ollie North differently. That is what the poem is doing. We see unwed mothers differently. We see beyond the veil of data” (pp. 701-702). Another audience member stated, “You brought life into the room, dispelling weight and negativity. We could breathe. I want to do work where we can breathe” (pp. 702-703).
Another risk of alternative forms of representation is that they may not meet the standards of either good science or good art. Some poetic representations of qualitative findings are contrived, pedantic, sappy, and downright bad. As opponents to the National Endowment to the Arts are fond of saying, just because something is art does not make it good. According to Eisner (1997), we need to be sure that we “are not substituting novelty and cleverness for substance” (p. 9). In fact, cleverness can sometimes hide substance. Dramatic forms that do not include the methods and data that lead to the particular conclusions risk being seen as propaganda (Seale, 1999). Many readers, according to Seale (1999), may have trouble believing this type of reporting. Others of course, will give credence to dramatic or artistic interpretations of findings. One alternative for family therapy researchers to consider is to discuss the rigor behind the performance-how their data were collected and analyzed (or at least have these procedures available)-when they use alternative data presentation methods.
The above concerns notwithstanding, both researchers and journal editors should take seriously the validity tests that the general public makes on dramatic and literary representations of lived experience-similar to what lawyers call the reasonable person test. That is, does the artistic rendering seem real? Is it compelling? Is it interesting? Is it worth the time it takes to read or watch it?
Of course, the evolving standards for aesthetic data presentation go further than this. To paraphrase and integrate the criteria previously cited by Denzin (2000), Ellis (2000), Richardson (2000a,b), Angen (2001), Bruscia (1998), and others, family therapy researchers, editors, and consumers should keep these questions in mind when considering the value of alternative, more artistic forms of data representation:
1. Does the work have aesthetic merit? (Does it meet the standards of good art, writing, or drama?)
2. Is the work credible? (Is it convincing? Does it seem to capture the lived experience of those it presents?)
3. Does the work have an impact? (Does it help the audience understand some social phenomena better? Does it provide a social critique? Does it move one to constructive action?)
4. Do the work and its author reflect integrity? (Is it true to and respectful of those studied? Does the audience become more sensitive to the participants? Does the work provide sufficient context to understand the phenomena?)
5. Does the researcher locate him/herself in the work? (Is the researcher visible or invisible? Does the researcher make his or her opinions transparent?)
6. Is there rigor behind the work? (Were sufficient data collected and analyzed? Can we trust the procedures used?)
7. Does the work point us toward a better world? (Are important issues tackled? Is the research worth doing?)
8. Is there room for multiple interpretations? (Does the work support reflection, comment, audience involvement?)
Accountability should also be part of the planning for alternative forms of presentation. As a researcher develops a play, poem, or dramatic reading, for example, the researcher might use standard forms of establishing trustworthiness (e.g., peer debriefing, member checking, triangulation) to see if the above standards are, in fact, being met. The researcher might also use, for example, qualitative evaluation methods such as focus groups (Piercy & Hertlein, in press) to improve the performance’s dramatic appeal (using focus group participants from the general public) or assess the correspondence of the performance to the original data (using focus group members who are social scientists).
Similarly, certain basic assumptions related to these multiple forms of representation beg to be studied. For example, a researcher who employs aesthetic forms of data representation would probably assume (as noted above) that they would help the audience or reader to become more sensitive to the thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences of the participants. Professionals may wish to pursue this assumption through future research.
More collaboration with colleagues in the arts will increase the quality of aesthetic representations. Richardson (1997), for example, enrolled in a poetry class and developed a group of supportive poetry critics before she attempted to use poetry. Paget (1990) used drama students to increase the quality of her dramatic performances.
What Can Happen When Evolving Standards of Representation Meet Current Standards of the Academy?
It is all well and good to suggest aesthetic ways to present qualitative data. But what about more traditional graduate committee members, journal editors, and academic departments? How safe is it to divert from the accepted standards of research? Richardson (1997) reports that, because of using poetry, she was labeled an “antirationalist,” exploitive, even deceptive. Will researchers be marginalized if they wander too far from the center? Will they marginalize themselves by adopting the practices we discuss in this article?
Not necessarily. The researcher can integrate the methods we describe to various degrees depending on his or her context and comfort level. One option, of course, is to not use them at all. However, we believe that even the best quantitative researchers can benefit from complementing traditional presentation methods with engaging aesthetic methods to invite a fuller and deeper understanding of their research findings. The methods we discuss in this article can support a more holistic understanding of both quantitative and qualitative research and help the researcher connect with the audience’s hearts and spirits, as well as their heads.
Of course, in more traditional settings the researcher may wish to choose more traditional presentation methods. The same researcher may wish to use dramatic, musical, or artistic means to present findings to the public or to an undergraduate class, who might resonate more with these methods. In other words, until the evolving standards of more aesthetic methods of representation are widely accepted, it is probably safe to consider your audience and accepted standards within your present context.
Readers, of course, must decide for themselves when and where and how to use aesthetic methods of representation. Simultaneously, it is up to all of us-researchers, journal editors, professors and other gatekeepers of the profession, as well as consumers of qualitative research-to expand our understanding of these forms of representation to better appreciate their goals and whether the authors have achieved them.
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Fred P. Piercy and Kristen Benson
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Fred P. Piercy, PhD, and Kristen Benson, MS, Department of Human Development, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
We have received author permission to use the unpublished works to which we have referred or have quoted in this article.
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Fred P. Piercy, Department of Human Development, 366 Wallace Hall, Blacksburg, Virginia, 24061. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Jan 2005
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