Creative Enquiry: Story Specimens and Chemistry

Talk Code: 
Caroline Sanders
Author institutions: 
University of Manchester

Primary Care Research has a long tradition of highlighting stories of patient experience as important for research and practice. Such stories collected via qualitative methods have been woven into multi-disciplinary research as a means of adding a crucial body of evidence, and as voices to inform ‘narrative based medicine’. Additionally, capturing stories of patient experience in feedback for service improvement, and embedding stories of experience via Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) illustrate the valorising of stories for primary care research and practice. Yet, relationships established through collaborative research and Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) bring greater proximity between researchers and participants. This also raises new issues regarding responsibility, ethics, and reflexivity.

This collection of photographs and objects reflect my creative enquiry and critical reflection on my work as a primary care researcher.  I depict some parallels between what medical scientists and professionals have historically done to develop new medical knowledge in laboratory sciences, and what qualitative researchers do in collecting and analysing stories. I created a lab in which the stories can be viewed as specimens that are dissected and displayed in petri dishes or jars, just as medical scientists have done with organs and tissues taken from individuals. Just as the use of human specimens raises ethical concerns, there are ethical issues to consider in how we collect and use stories in qualitative research and PPI.

Where the pratice of chemistry focuses on the properties and reactions between elements to form new substances, the analysis of narratives can be viewed in the same way. The word ‘chemistry’ is sometimes used to denote the complex emotional interactions between people, and this is also apparent when people share stories in research. Additionally, stories are not just about text, they are sensory, visual and material. The open wooden case shows a collection of snapshots based on my experiences of leading and facilitating public involvement in research over a one year period. It was a year when some difficult things happened, including the deaths of two members of a public involvement group during a project researching how to use stories to improve services for people with mental health problems and other long-term conditions. During the year, some people told me about their experiences of being made to feel like specimens by medical professionals. Some people have also talked about the value of sharing their experiences for the benefits of research, but how they can sometimes feel ‘taken advantage of’. These are some of my inspirations, along with previous work by feminist researchers who have drawn attention to the ‘ethics and politics’ reflected in relationships created during research.

I will present the images and allow people to explore the petri-dishes displayed.


V different ‘poster’ for me at this year’s @sapcacuk #sapcasm - my creative enquiry on ‘story specimens’ - how we collect and use stories @CLAHRC_GM @PrimaryCareMcr @PSTRC_GM

— Caroline Sanders (@carolin_sanders) July 12, 2018