on getting out of a stuck place

My academic fan-girling of Pat Thompson continues as she makes me feel better about writing / unwriting / rewriting once more


I’ve recently completed the first draft of (what will appear to the outside world to be) my second book this year. In reality, it’s a book that has been three years in the writing. It’s about the use of a particular social theory in one field of scholarship. There is a lot of work already about the social theorist, so I really feel I need to say something a bit different. No pressure then. But I’ve been stuck in a hard place for a long time. Fortunately, my publishers know me well and have been extremely patient with my tardiness and the academic equivalent of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a draft. But it wasn’t a messy first draft in which everything was roughly in the right place. This was a draft in which one chapter was distinctly out of sorts, and another wasn’t in rude…

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Wellbeing – a doctoral thinking post

It’s an intangible concept, wellbeing… it carries with it notions of happiness or comfort and research in this area is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes and lament what rubbish academia is all about.  However, if my research is connected to wellbeing, I need to have some kind of clarity about the term.  What I am discovering is that no-one can decide (Dodge et al, 2012;  Statham and Chase, 2010; Pollard and Lee, 2003)  – even about its grammatical construction… hyphen, no hyphen? This uncertainty is hardly helping my sense of well,  you know…

Governmental organisations – and not just in the UK – have expressed the need to focus on wellbeing.  Were you aware that it was nearly a decade ago, that David Cameron (2006) gave a speech about his commitment – not to GDP, but GWB – the general wellbeing of the people? (Hmmm, yes, quite).  Perhaps it is inevitable that the terms set out here are related to economics and managing austerity:

“wellbeing evidence can not only help target public spending more effectively at improving people’s lives, but in many cases has the potential to deliver significant long-term savings by reducing demand on public services” (Berry, 2014, p.1)

Wellbeing in the 2014 all-party parliamentary report is posited as an outcome of something financial – a benefit that goes hand-in-hand with a comfortable income and purposeful employment, perhaps as one of the Wellbeing Analysts recommended (ibid., p.3) for each governmental department.  Apologies, my left-leaning petticoat is showing…


Let’s return to potentially safer ground and think about Ancient Greeks for a bit.  Epicurus was the chap who wrote first on hedonia – the reduction of pain and prioritisation of happiness or pleasure, although not necessarily the wild and indulgent behaviour, disregarding of others, which we have been led to understand by this term.  Aristotle appeared more focused on eudaimonia, where complex ideas about fulfillment through practical, rational actions such as supporting friendships perhaps reflect the more nuanced ways we may now perceive wellbeing (Waterman, 1993).


The tensions between these ideas have given rise to some complex and confusing descriptions of what wellbeing may be.  Dodge et al (2012) provide a really useful overview of these debates… is wellbeing a satisfaction with – or quality of – life, the fulfilment of goals, an absence of illness or a sense of ‘normality’?   The definitions become distorted as we grapple with questions of whose perspective? whose values?  Seligman (2011) tried to draw these nuances together in exploring elements such as engagement with others and finding accomplishment in one’s actions, which may not generate ‘happiness’, but are nevertheless important if one is to flourish.  Dodge et al,(2012), in attempting to pin down a formula for measuring a closely defined definition of wellbeing, suggest that the key is an equilibrium or  balance between one’s psychological, social and physical resources in the face of challenge.


The World Health Organisation (2014) has focused particularly on mental health wellbeing – a state in which ‘every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the daily stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’  Some elements here are problematic:   We are not necessarily talented at recognising our own ‘potential’ or the steps we take towards it (and are we ever ‘done’ with reaching it?)  Coping with ‘ordinary’ stresses is also complex – for some, their ‘everyday’ would floor most of us – caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, pressing on with life after a cancer diagnosis or parenting in poverty.  For others, this may mean the courage to simply step outside one’s front door, managing the impact of unseen illness.  Often, working ‘productively’ in a community is an aspect significantly tied to economics and the world of employment and those struggling to find or keep work may feel they therefore do not contribute.  It may take the perspective of a friend or colleague to help us appreciate the contribution we do make – the kind word, the act of generosity, the offer of time to listen.

#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014
#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014

I am rather partial to the interpretations of wellbeing proffered by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).  In contrast to the organisational name, elements to support wellbeing appear more to do with one’s spirit  than finance or employed work –  including the need to Connect and enrich one’s experience through social relations, Be Active in anything from walking to dancing, Take Notice, catching sight of the beautiful, Keep Learning, to increase competency, sociality and self-esteem and to Give, sharing in mutual reciprocity (Thompson and Aked, 2011).  This is not merely fluffy idealism.  Wellbeing does have something to do with reflective mindfulness and may not be entirely to do with being ‘happy’ – although anecdotally it probably helps.  Michaelson et al (2009), also writing for NEF, focus on a dynamic approach to maintaining a sense of wellbeing and capacity for resilience through being vitally engaged in activities which make us feel competent.

What this has to do with knit and crochet needs to be explored in more detail for a post over on Recovered Threads, especially as in June I am hosting some ‘sit and stitch’ workshops for the LAHF / RSPH Creativity and Wellbeing Plus Week at Sheffield Hallam University and online… I’ll put a link here when it’s written.  If you are around for the workshops – digitally or physically, come and join the conversation.


Berry, Christine (2014) Wellbeing in Four Policy areas.  Available at: http://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/ccdf9782b6d8700f7c_lcm6i2ed7.pdf

Cameron, David (2006) Speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/may/22/conservatives.davidcameron

Dodge, Rachel; Daly, Annette, P.; Huyton, Jan and Sanders, Lalage, D. (2012) The Challenge of Defining Wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing 2 (3), pp.222-235.

Michaelson, Juliet;  Abdallah, Saamah;   Steuer, Nicola;  Thompson, Sam and Marks,  Nic (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet. Available at: http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org/public-data/files/national-accounts-of-well-being-report.pdf

Pollard, Elizabeth, and Lee, Patrice (2003) Child Well-being:a systematic review of the literature. Social Indicators Research 61 (1) pp.9-78.

Seligman, Martin (2011) Flourish – A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Statham, June and Chase, Elaine (2010) Childhood Wellbeing: a brief overview. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/183197/Child-Wellbeing-Brief.pdf

Thompson, Sam and Aked, Jody (2011) Five Ways to Wellbeing: New applications, new ways of thinking. Available at: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/five-ways-to-well-being-new-applications-new-ways-of-thinking

Waterman, Alan S. (1993) Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (4) pp.768-691.

World Health Organisation (2014) Mental health: a state of wellbeing. Available at: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/

Does Quality Matter?


It fell to me this week to present to our PhD Art and Design seminar group – the topic was to examine notions of quality and ‘yardsticks’ in evaluating exhibited work (or, as I was rather more interested, whether work needs to be exhibited?)

I am, in my lefty, arty way, uncomfortable with the language of ‘quality’ – is that with a capital Q, and therefore bringing in ideas about quality assurance and an established view of what must be best? Am I nevertheless reliant on seeking out signals of ‘quality’ and authenticity, as in marks like this on a Moorcroft vase in my dining room?
John Carey, in ‘What Good Are the Arts’ (2005) articulates my concerns in presenting the problem that “Value […] is not intrinsic in objects, but attributed to them by whoever is doing the valuing” and so we use the same semantic field for the striking sculpture of Barbara Hepworth as for bargain cheese in a supermarket.

We are operating in a complex world of definitions: The root of the word comes from the Latin ‘Qua’ (who?) and from this we have ‘qualis’ or qualitas’ – roughly translating as ‘of what sort’. The Latinate base is still seen in 13th century French, where ‘quality’ indicates a person’s character, disposition or temperament. A century later, it is used for the first time in Old French to indicate social ranking. Varied dictionary definitions now furnish us with ideas about inherent traits or characteristics, special or distinguishing properties – along with a standard, as measured against others, or as a measure of excellence – free of defects.

But we still have to deal with Carey’s challenge of who is doing the measuring – and what influences us in this. For example, here is an exhibited work of art – what do you think?
Do you feel differently about its quality if you know this is a work by Charles Bronson? To what extent does our cultural and social framework affect our views?

Bronson can be considered as an example of ‘outsider art’ – where makers are self-taught amateurs who refuse to fit with conventions of approach or ‘quality’. However, we have also now codified this concept, so there are notions of excellence and meeting a standard… Pearl Alcock is just one ‘outsider’ artist now widely exhibited and positively critiqued.
And don’t get me started on that art / craft binary debate we somehow still keep having. If you look at the work of Jenni Dutton, recently exhibiting at City Hall in London, there can be no question about the quality of the emotive, skilful ‘Dementia Darnings’

and yet textiles is often still viewed as marginal.

I am particularly interested in participatory art – the emphasis being on the creativity of the amateur participant. For me, it is the ‘quality’ of the experience which holds more significance, as people have an opportunity to make something mindfully…
Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema (2009) write on the need to reframe our view of the ‘qualities’ offered through shared critical making and engaging in practice together. Participatory arts, according to Toby Lowe (2015) are perhaps more about ‘equality’ and authenticity, but still grapples with our question:

“However, what is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?”

Stephen Pritchard has also blogged about this dilemma – In a fierce response to Lowe’s work, he examines the dialectic where the ‘quality’ of participatory art is judged – and therefore that there must also be poor or unacceptable outcomes. What impact does facing this have on the fact that participatory art is the new hot potato for economic and cultural policy makers?

The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment.

Eleonora Belfiore, in her independent work (2015) and that with the Warwick Commission (Neelands et al, 2015) is grappling with the problems created by placing an economic value on art – for the purposes of funding and policy making – when cultural aspects of art have the capacity to improve wellbeing and the ‘quality’ of our social lives. However, as these things tend to go, there has also been criticism – for example from Voluntary Arts (2015) – of a focus on established notions of art and ‘quality’ which has left the importance of grassroots, community creativity out in the cold.

It is a Gordian knot, but I think it is important to keep evaluating what we mean by these terms and the impact it can then have on the way we view ‘quality’ in the arts. In my frustrated reading on the subject, I enjoyed this, and so I will leave you with it:

‘Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?’ (Pirsig, 1974. p.184)

Belfiore, E. (2015) ‘Impact’, ‘value’ and ‘bad economics’: Making sense of the problem of value in the arts and humanities.Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2015, Vol. 14(1) 95–110
Carey, J. (2005) What Good Are the Arts . Faber, London
Lowe, Toby (2015) Quality in Participatory Art (online) http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2015/02/04/quality-participatory-art-toby-lowe/
Neelands, J.; Belfiore, E.; Firth, C.; Hart, N.; Perrin, L.; Brock, S.; Holdaway, D.; Woddis, J.(2015) Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. The Warwick Commission, Warwick.
Pirsig, R. M. (1974)Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Bodely Head. Oxford.
Pritchard, S. (2015) Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification? (online) https://colouringinculture.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/quality-in-participatory-arts-fit-for-whose-purpose-in-need-of-qualification/
Ratto, M. and Hockema, S. (2009) “Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden”, in Dekker, A & Wolfsberger A (eds.) Walled Garden, Virtueel Platform, The Netherlands
Voluntary Arts (2015) Response to the Warwick Commission Report #EveryoneCreative (online) http://www.voluntaryarts.org/2015/02/17/response-to-the-warwick-commission-report/

Ethics and materials

I was fortunate to meet John Fass in November, when this was quite new – an interesting reflection on working ethically … as well as a creative way to explore social networks. Enjoy

Research Imagining


I’ve been making a prototype this week for exhibition in a ‘work in progress’ exhibition and thinking about the moral dimensions of material engagement with research artefacts from a few different angles.

My intention has been to integrate the physical social network tiles with the videos I made of participants talking about them. So the idea is that the physical network, and the story of the network are presented in a single experience through an integrated object. By back projecting the video onto a network tile whose nodes are physical buttons that play the various videos, I hoped to make a direct connection between network nodes and network stories. I set out to make a completely new object since my feeling was that adapting, transforming or otherwise changing the original network representation created by a research participant would be ethically unacceptable. My research centres around the use of design as mediative…

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No trolls allowed?


I was fortunate enough to hear Sarat Maharaj of Lund University (and previously of Goldsmiths) speak recently about art, textiles and knowledge production at the Cultural Threads Symposium at Central St Martins. Included in his ‘haberdashery of ideas’ was the Norwegian concept of the troll as curious and observant – a challenge to the comfortable status quo. This, of course, is in contrast to the image of the faceless, vindictive troll we have seen in social media news from Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez to Gamergate.

It gave me pause to reflect as I have just launched the Facebook element of my research into amateur knit and crochet makers who engage as communities both ‘in real life’ and online. Crafty people are generous, welcoming, affirming and full of admiration for the skills of others. Crafty people are also – well, people… which means some can be thoughtless, mean, narcissistic and vindictive. Trolling on Facebook has affected Attic24 (which I wrote about here) and more recently the ‘Crochet-Along’ efforts of Dedri Uys and Kimberley Slifer. The generous designers – offering free their skills, patterns and time – were broadsided by vitriolic posts which almost brought the 20-week schedule to an early close. Similarly, the inventor and sole Facebook manager of the ‘Big Comic Relief Crafternoon‘ found it necessary to post that she was stepping away from the site temporarily as the trolling posts were too distressing to manage.

Why trolling happens at all is a much bigger conversation than can be had here. The thoughtlessness or sheer horrid wounding involved has something to do with the protection offered by the screen. Yet it is not faceless… people’s avatars, images and names are associated with these postings – observed by strangers and ‘friends’ alike.

A colleague has tried to assuage my concerns by pointing out that any potential trolling in my research group is of academic interest: A pragmatic, detached approach can be taken where I analyse the motivation, message and impact of a negative post. However, this project is about wellbeing and community. There is more at stake than my role as a researcher. I have a moral and ethical obligation to participants that I will protect them from harm.

And so… in these early stages, there is a light touch reminder in the welcoming pinned post about support and positivity. However, there is a draft ready to go regarding a zero-tolerance approach to trolling: Posts will be deleted, posters will removed from the group without debate. I have engaged some trusted friends with ‘Admin’ permissions to help monitor this. It may well mean ‘missing’ some points for research, but protection trumps all.

With these measures in place, I begin this aspect of my research with a hopeful heart.

If you are interested in participating in the research group, the details are here – please feel free to share.

No trolls allowed.


One of the first challenges for this year is a presentation about user-centred or co-design, what it means to design a process with participants and what it may be like for participants to be part of that experience. Not a small topic, then.

A key part for me was to explore what I felt co-design to be about – and why working with participants in the research process was important in the work I am planning. So many conversations, blogs and articles offer different judgements on what co-design ‘means’ – with quite a few claiming co-design as an approach for something which uses data gathering through a workshop or survey to thinly veil a pre-determined direction set by the researcher as expert .

 "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Goldman, William (1973)

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Goldman, William (1973)

It turns out that these arguments about co-design are still pretty ‘zeitgeist-y’… Kevin Gillan blogged a few weeks ago about the needs to move ‘towards an ethic of public sociology’. He highlights the challenge in planning research co-design:
“Scholars need to guard against unwittingly reproducing an extractive mode of engagement with ‘research subjects’ and instead take seriously the idea of co-production of knowledge that recognises the expertise of movement groups involved in the analysis of social problems. Given the inequalities built into research relationships that are often sparked by academics with agendas that have been set already, and in conversation with problems defined in scholarly literature, this is a difficult task that should be embedded in the design of research projects and operate continuously through data collection, analysis and dissemination”.

The AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ project is reflecting on the impact collaborative research has had on the projects undertaken in the last few years. A report from the January advisory group meeting highlighted the benefits for participants, including “new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects”. The winter 2014 special edition of DesignIssues included an article by Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Ilpo Koskinen on developments in co-design and empathic design in the Nordic countries – where perhaps it has been embedded most significantly.

Co-design has to be more than user-centred, where there is participation and consultation, but the focus remains with the researcher. Instead, co-designed research should be about a dialogic process: ‘Co’ indicates something which is about community, equality, empowerment and collective creativity; something sustainable, shared, active and social. Co-design is democratising and a political statement about challenging those “inequalities” of the research relationship.

This is, of course, not without difficulty. Many feel concerned about the abrogation of responsibility in research design. How can the researcher manage unexpected provocations, trajectories and outcomes? How can we behave ethically in gaining informed consent for an organic process from which unanticipated data may spring? There are other questions about providing an authentic voice for research outputs co-created with participants outside the academy. Don’t get me started on the anxieties surrounding academics’ personal competencies such as emotional intelligence and sensitivity.

Co-design is a very messy process – it demands lots of fuzzy discussion before a clear line of thought and organised, collaborative outcome can be reached. I am trying to put into practice Kevin Gillan’s points about embedding ethically considered co-design in my research project. This may mean lots of unexpected direction – participants may want to consider different issues to the ones I am anticipating; constant review of what informed consent means will be necessary; finding the right voice and format for dissemination cannot be decided yet because my research collaborators need to discuss that at length. Readjusting and reframing will be demanding, but social, creative, authentic – and worth it.
yarn barf

Learning from Vanilla Ink

Inspiring, reflective blog post from Mike Press…

Mike Press


So Vanilla Ink – the unique Dundee based jewellery start-up incubator and general creative powerhouse – is to shut up shop in the city; for a while at least. Kate Pickering has driven forward Vanilla Ink from an initial hazy notion of what she would have liked to have seen supporting her when she graduated as a jeweller a decade ago, through to being the creative exemplar cited in just about every talk and article about Dundee’s creative economy. Well, in mine anyway.

For Dundee this is an important moment – perhaps more important than we recognise, given the significance of design to the regional economy and to the future that we are seeking to create for ourselves. Personally it’s significant, in that I have worked with Kate in a very modest way over the last few years to support her in building her vision. Some reflection is therefore in…

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Catching up with ‘many things’ (12-19, in fact!)

So, real life has intervened and I have been madly busy recently, neglecting the recording of my ’23 Things’ development! Having said that, I was engaged with lots of ‘things’ I would not have discovered if I hadn’t been part of this…

I attended the PhD By Design conference at Goldsmiths, London – all about the ‘messy business’ of practice based PhD research – and tweeted throughout the 2 days. I found this a really useful way to try and capture key moments in each day and used Storify to reflect on the whole: PhD By Design
Tweeting this enabled me to follow and be followed by a wide range of people who were either interested or attended and Sum All allowed me to track this as my most ‘successful’ week in online participation.
I also used Prezi (Thing 15) to give my first significant presentation outside my own HEI as part of the proceedings: ‘Wellbeing in the personal identity and collaborative communities of yarn-based craftswomen’

Through picking up the details on Twitter, I also gained a place on the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Crowd-sourcing the Anniversary’ workshop at the Digital Humanities Hub at The University of Birmingham. This was a really exciting day where 50 Post Grad and Early Career Researchers explored the values of the AHRC, shared projects which had supported these values (like the British Library crowd-sourced ‘Geo-referencing‘ mapping project) and then pitched ideas for the 2015 anniversary activities as well as other projects which could develop in the future. I used Storify again as a personal reflection tool and to draw together ideas shared especially in the group I was working with: #AHRC10
You can follow the progress of the project using #AHRC10 (Bonus Thing week 5).

There are other elements over the past week or so which I haven’t explored: Podcasts (‘vlogging’, anyone?) scare the b’jesus out of me and I am programmed from teaching for so long that Wikipedia is in fact ‘wrong-ipedia’. I am similarly scared of data visualisations, but have begun to play with some different software and sites where I can be mildly more interesting than Excel pie-charts when the need arises.

Happily, using and annotating through Refworks, Creative Commons and blogging / tweeting / posting about links are things that I have already started to play with as part of the ’23 Things’ programme. Does that mean I am assimilating these digital tools? Hope so…