Session 5: Wrestling with an octopus (or writing about our data)

Today’s session, which focused on writing about our data in new ways, generated such wonderful collective insights into some of the approaches, assumptions and anxieties that we bring (often unconsciously) to the process of writing with our data.  Fascinatingly, for each of us this meant something different:  some of us had ‘forgotten’ to bring our data; some had deliberately left them behind; others had beside them tomes of neatly typed pages of transcriptions or screeds of handwritten notes, drawings and scribbles (either their own of those of research participants).

One of the really interesting aspects of writing with our data (in mind) was how despite our different disciplines, topics, approaches to data, and stages of analysis and academic journeys, so many of us came to very similar places when we began to work with  our data ‘freely.’ Central to this was drawing on the awareness of the relevance of ourselves to our writing, and our endeavour to free ourselves from fears of critical imagined audiences and being sufficiently academic/intellectual/scientific.  Having written independently on our own (with the focus on writing with our data in mind) for five minutes or so, we each shared this experience with a partner.  Mine bravely revealed that she had not brought data, had been terrified of her data since returning from the field as an ethnographer, and was actively avoiding ‘confronting’ her data.  However, she described just how ‘freeing’ was the experience of writing with her data in mind without its overbearing physical presence.  This resonated with me.  I had no data with me.  I found myself writing about what it meant not to have data physically, materially, beside me as I wrote.  Did this mean that I had no data?  What is the part of imagining, of recollection, of re-representation freed from the tangible, tactile presence of data? Like my partner, I experienced this ‘setting to oneside’ as freeing, liberating, energizing: an  engagement with unknowing and all the possibilities that that can present.

We hope that group members will add their own thoughts from this week’s session to the blog, in their own words, capturing the flavour, the pooled collective insights into theorising the data analysis process and our own positionalities.  Some of these drew on rich concepts from Maggie Maclure’s ‘shiny data’, for example, as that which glows out at us, demanding to be written about, to the non-shining but nevertheless equally important ‘dormant data’ which one group member referred to.. We pondered the importance to our data writing of finding reflective space, or even paradoxical ‘fertile voids’, expressed fears about ‘killing’ or ‘flattening’ participants’ stories/voices through too sanitised re-tellings in the dominant voice of  the  researcher/writer..  We loved the allusion to the analogy of writing about our data as akin to wrestling with an octopus.

Several of us identified that in writing about our data, some of the same old anxieties emerge concerning what is legitimate.  One group member expressed beautifully his worries about ‘crossing the boundaries’ from the spaces of irrationalized illegitimacy of recollection back to spaces of phenomenological and hermeneutic rigour…We want to hear more!

What we have written here is just a ‘plagiarized’ snap shot of some of our recollections from this fabulous session.  There was so much more from everyone else.  Please do share your insights in the ‘comments’ section below or feel free to start a new blog post.  Whatever you call the post, do refer to it also as ‘Session 5’ so that we keep some sense of a chronological narrative to this blogspace.

Thank-you all for expressing – in different ways – your acute felt senses of the ethical responsibility of the almighty power of the researcher/writer in weaving data into writerly text whether as the teller of stories, or as the decider of knowledges.  Whatever approach we take to our data we clearly engage with this as serious business…

Tamsin Hinton-Smith and Rebecca Webb

Activities for Peer-Led session next week:

We have suggested two readings – an article by Maggie MacLure on ‘‘The Wonder of Data’‘, and an article by our very own Rebecca on ‘What is Data?’?’ to help you think about processes of writing your data into meaning. If it is helpful to do so, the discussion could be themed around the questions:

What possibilities emerge by conceptualising writing as a method of (not simply a tool for) analysis?

What is it that the writing process ‘does’ to data?

What space is there (or could there be) in the thesis for using this ‘writing about data’?

We look forward to seeing you and your reflections and writing in the next session!







16 thoughts on “Session 5: Wrestling with an octopus (or writing about our data)

  1. rinamy74 says:

    I don’t know why but yesterday’s session (Session 5) was one of the best for me. During the 5 minutes free-writing activity, this was what I wrote:
    I think analysing my complex data sets have been quite a messy and unstructured process. It really did feel like I was wrestling with an octopus as I try to sort, organize, read, understand and make sense of it. I began by reading it without any judgment (rather enjoyed that) but it was dangerous too as I got too swayed by the interesting bits. For three whole months I put my PhD on the edge by not realizing that I have veered away from answering my research questions! Hence, now I am more mindful and keep telling myself to move beyond the interesting (not much fun though). It’s never fun when it’s back to business.
    Anyway, once I get refocused, the codings became clearer and more refined. I am now in a place where I know I have things to say (or rather write) about my emerging themes. What surprised me was as I am begin to write my analysis chapters, the octopus is speaking to me in a new language. Writing about it actually allowed my data to give me me new insights and new ideas and this scares me a little bit. Being an ethnography research. nothing is ever fixed and I as the researcher am free (to an extent) to take whatever juncture my data dictates me to – guided by my research questions of course. Oh yes, my data changed some of my research questions too.
    Second 5 minutes free-writing activity:
    It was also interesting when questions about my research from my supervisors, colleagues and research presentation audiences triggered and sparked some ‘dormant data’ in my head. This is so profound because sometimes these dormant data ended up being something quite primary – when it was not even included in any of my data sets to begin with. To date – I am still trying to turn my giant mutant octopus into small bits of yummy tasting calamari. We shall see…


    • rebwebb50 says:

      And Rina,

      ‘Dormant data’ – fabulous. There is so much to work with in this extraordinary expression you have coined. So many possibilities in the yet to be disclosed, gentle awakenings, half remembered and imagines ideas….I love it. Thanks for all your wonderful contributions in the session we shared.



  2. trayfuller says:

    The Fertile Void by Tracey

    Thanks again to Rebecca, Emily and Tamsin for the group this week and for all of the contributions in the sessions and on this blog-its very inspiring- I am just enjoying it so much. Reflecting on my frustration of continually being required to be in two places at once on a Wednesday and having to leave the group early yet again I wrote this piece in response to our second bout of five minute free writing. It’s a reflection really on the importance on having space and having space away from writing about my data.

    In my data analysis there is something central about considering how much reflective space my adult participants have during disclosures and the information sharing process and hence how available they are psychologically for young people. This concept leads me to question how much reflective space I have in my approach to my writing about my data.

    I need space. For me it is a life force and nutrient. It feeds my ideas and helps build connection whilst my brain seems to be in ‘standby’ mode. The importance of walking away from my computer-disengaging from the writing process and then returning and seeing it afresh. In Gestalt theory this is called the ‘fertile void’. It’s an intriguing idea, that a space or time that is empty is also rich and growing. It seems a contradiction-but like winter the cold seeming-absence of growth is as much part of the life-cycle as the rains and greening-up of April.
    For me, voids are vital for growing new insights-new ideas-the fresh shoots of new perspectives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • rebwebb50 says:

      Dear Tracey
      I think your ‘fertile void’ will become one of the phrases that you will have found you have contributed to the PhD Essex House cannon long after this group ceases to meet. Thank-you for your wonderful and evocative contextualization of it.


      Liked by 2 people

  3. Fawzia says:

    Tracey, I love the idea of a fertile void and the space that is required, in order for thoughts to breathe. There is a Latin expression ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ which translates to ‘it is solved by walking’ (dear lord, how did I become so pretentious that I started quoting Latin?)

    Our sessions always give me so much to muse over. I’ve been thinking a lot about what people spoke of regarding the fear of ‘killing’ or ‘flattening’ participants’ stories/voices through too sanitised re-tellings.

    Ruth Behar, author of ‘The Vulnerable Observer,’ writes the following: ‘Nothing is stranger than this business of humans observing other humans in order to write about them. James Agee, sent by Fortune magazine on a mission to bring back an enticing story about dirt-poor farmers in the American South during the Depression, furiously wished he could tear up a clump of earth with a hoe and put that on the page and publish it.’

    I’d like to smear some of the red dirt of my fieldsite onto the pages of my thesis. Bind it together in together with the barbed wire that littered the landscape. I’d like the examiner to be eating KFC when he/she reads my work because every time I listen to one of my interviews, I can smell the fried chicken in the air and my throat remembers the taste of flat, lukewarm Coke, shared in 40 degree heat.

    Words seem like such a poor substitute for being there. I fear that I either romaticise my participants, or run the risk of making them so 2D that I’ve failed to do any justice to all the onion layers of their lives that they revealed to me (yes, that is a reference to Shrek….gotta counter the Latin earlier). Can there be colour, and texture in language…and if so, how far do we run the risk of losing ourselves in the poetry and fail to relay the politics? (Clifford and Marcus muse about this in ‘Writing Culture’).

    Rina, I am so exicted that you have visual depictions of your fieldwork, it makes it so alive somehow. I also resonate with Gill’s idea of capturing our ‘feelings’ of the data through ‘voice’ before attempting to put pen to paper. There is an immediacy to this, a rawness, which might be useful in the process of making meaning from speaking, prior to writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • rebwebb50 says:

      Fawzia, I love the urgency and tensions you are exploring. But – for me – your writing is so wonderfully evocative and full of smells, and grubbiness. You are so right to be wary of srcubbing the page too clean.

      Wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Rebecca


  4. Perpetua Kirby says:

    I was late for the writing group today, my apologies again to you and I am sorry to have missed such a valuable space in the week to pause, connect and reflect. Forgetting the time, I had been sitting reading my fieldnotes in a cafe, once again captured by what the primary school children had shown and told me. Like the re-discovered moment on the second day of my fieldwork, when five year old Jai ‘comes up to me with a crisp packet around a little weed; with the green leaves showing and the packet pulled tight in his hand, as if holding a bouquet. I tell him I like it and ask where he got the packet and he says he’d found it. It strikes me as beautiful but pitiful, as he draws my attention to how little there is with which to create in this tarmacked playground. I’m amazed he found even a crisp packet and the weed must have been discovered in a crevice somewhere.’ During my year in the field I observed repeatedly how children are skilled at exploring cracks in the school day, with its emphasis on discipline and skills based curriculum, to actively transform their landscapes. My job now is to excavate these moments. In the hands of a child a sapling becomes a full bloom. My concern is that in my heavy-handed grasp I may deaden and flatten my data, like a flower pressed between heavy books for too long, leaving little trace of the depth and subtle hues of colour. I am troubled by the ‘ethics of reducing fear, pain, joy, urgency in people’s lives to analytic categories (Patti Lather, 2007, Getting Lost, p. 41), but also by the aesthetics of representation; how to ensure my audience similarly feel captured by these children’s lives and take the time to listen. I like the idea of smudge of dirt on the page, Fawzia, or perhaps in my case a patch of the abrasive classroom carpet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • rebwebb50 says:

      Hi Perpetua
      We all forgive you for being late and producing this gem. Stick with this beautiful tautness in your tender analytic, Perpetua and your readers will be mesmerized.


    • trayfuller says:

      Ahh Perpetua such beautiful and evocative imagery. I guess there something here about how creativity and self-expression always finds its way despite the strength of the constraints. A lesson for us perhaps on writing our thesis. Wonderful stuff -your research is so important I am in awe.


  5. emilydanvers says:

    I am so inspired by the concept of ‘fertile void’ you bought us Tracey, especially in avoiding feelings of guilt when it seems as if you aren’t doing anything ‘productive’. Having/making space for thinking about writing is incredibly important in order to give our thoughts time to generate. I remember someone telling me at a women’s empowerment course that once a day when boiling the kettle (I know, women/making tea – you can just imagine) you shouldn’t do anything else other than think and breathe. I remember at the time it feeling a bit naff but now I’m re-conceptualising it otherwise! x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gunjan says:

    This session was useful for me as it gave me a chance to think about my data reflexively and also a bit about the data collection process. Having a particular set of data and my researcher diary next to me was ever so helpful as it gave me a sense of direction on what to do next. In the first bit of free writing, I wrote about the different stakeholders of my research including myself and a sentence on what each of them had said to me (I tried to recollect one verbatim quote from each group). Writing this down I realised (I have always known but the realisation of it came in late!!) that none of these quotes were in English and yet each of these were so powerful (‘shiny’) that translating them in to English would be loosing essence, flavour. And (how) will I ever be able to do justice to their meaning(s) through my translation, my interpretation? Or should I just use these as it is? Here talking to my partner came in handy, as she’s using verbatim quotes to build her analysis chapters and shared ways of using relevant literature in framing/weaving these ‘juicy bits’ in to a story (I find these one-to-exchanges after our free writing of immense help).

    My second bit of free writing gave me a roadmap (unexpectedly) to the next course of action I needed to undertake with my ‘writing into meaning’ of my data process. After struggling for about a week on what to do next, it was surprising how the ideas were all there and all I needed to do was put them to paper and talk to someone going through a similar churning. My partner and I discussed here the ‘flip side’ (if there is any) of reflexivity, of reflecting / thinking too much esp about the data and how far was too far, of voids both fertile and infertile and a demarcation between these two.. We both felt that at times we were (perhaps) assigning/ascribing very different meanings to words, phrases, incidents of our research and the joys, wonders as well as risks of doing the same.


  7. gl205 says:

    Seconding everyone’s feeling that last week’s session was incredibly helpful.

    Here’s what I wrote during my freewrite:

    I’m reading over P17’s first interview with me, and I’m drawn to the moment when she starts crying.

    It was quite unexpected for me. Normally I get a sense early on in an interview about the emotional character of that person’s story, and can predict who might have difficult emotions to process and who won’t.

    But P17 made me reflect on the fact that that isn’t true at all. She wasn’t someone I predicted would cry. She spoke very calmly and comfortably, quite matter-of-fact. She didn’t indicate at all that she had any negative emotions associated with her termination.

    But suddenly, she said something which made her burst in to tears. In that moment, I felt my understanding of her story shift, as it appeared to me that she hadn’t had the chance to tell her story in full to anyone and this was a cathartic experience for her.

    So I was then surprised when she indicated to me later that she didn’t feel that way at all. She hadn’t been needing a space to tell someone the full story, she hadn’t felt the need to talk it through. From her perspective, it was just a moment where she felt a bit sad.

    So in a way she shifted my understanding twice. First, her outburst of emotion I interpreted as an eruption of some undercurrent, another story hiding under her matter-of-fact-ness, a cathartic moment. Then by denying this reading, she shifted my understanding again, and forced me to consider why we had such different interpretations of the same event.

    I wondered if I’d make the mistake of placing too much importance on her tears. My analytical eye is drawn to it because I remember what it felt like when we were in the interview. But in drawing attention to it, am I not reinforcing the very ideas that I’d been meaning to challenge, which is that not every abortion is experienced as a tragedy, and complex emotions around a termination don’t mean regret?

    I was reminded of Maggie McClure’s concept, ‘shiny data.’ That moment glows for me, and I’m drawn to it. There was an embodied understanding of that moment as significant that I felt in situ, but that now, reading the transcript with some distance, I am doubting. If this were secondary data and I didn’t have that physical memory of responding to someone’s tears, would I still ascribe the same importance to it? Which reading is more justified? Is my embodied understanding invalid? Can I justify including it in my analysis chapters, and if so, how?



  8. Andy C says:

    Behold the sparkly!

    Is it me, or does “Tambecca” (as a hybrid name) sounds better than “Rebesin”?

    I wish that opening line had more relevance to this, my modest contribution to the discussion, but I suspect it is really no more than a frivolity.., thought there may be a chance that it will turn out to be a poignant example of the formation of in-language within the gently forming habitus (our system of embodied dispositions, tendencies that organize the ways in which we perceive the social world around us ) of the “Writing into Meaning” group. If the later; bring on the privilege, say I. (Joke.)

    Nevertheless, thank you Rebecca and Tamsin for recording your snap shot of the last session. May I lay claim to prompting the sentence that records thoughts (né worries) about: “…‘crossing the boundaries’ from the spaces of irrationalized illegitimacy of recollection back to spaces of phenomenological and hermeneutic rigour…” ?

    There is a richness, or at least a complexity, in the sentence, which might become clearer if I indulge in a little recollection of how the ‘worry’ came to be articulated into our discussion space?

    One observation I made, in my own free writing, was to note how my, er, buzz-partner, when confronted with the unfettered opportunity to reflect freely on “about her data” was able to access an incident in her own experience that had some meaning to her. ‘When we embrace the freedom,’ I scribbled, ‘we get to that which is most important to us ‘of the moment’’.

    She recounted reliving an interesting instant in her data collection where an unexpected show of emotion by her informant changed her understanding of what her informant was saying. (Granted, in her story, that meaning changed back again soon after.., but that is by-the-by.) Me? Of the places I went to, in our buzz, the two that were most relevant to this conversation are: one about how the action of free writing had given rise to a meaningful awareness, and one about the correlation, or not, between rational and significant.

    In our discussion, my buzz-partner shared the term “shiny data”, a moving and poetic term which seemed to nicely encapsulate the way, as a researcher, we might draw out richness from the otherwise inconsequential in the data. “I am a magpie; behold the sparkly!” This led me to reflect on the way meaning making is legitimised in science. I’d inhabited a field-work world of many different groups exploring, through action, the processes of co-producing knowledge. In doing so I had seen times when that which was held to be meaningful by one group could so easily be seen as incomprehensible and therefore meaningless by another. There is a boundary there to be crossed, and the exploration of which is promising to be fruitful for my own study.

    However.., and please follow me on this, what I focused on here is not our representation of our informants (or in my case participants) but on a concern about how we might legitimise our own leaps of connection from the ‘shiny’ to the revelation, i.e. to the finding.., such that it is defendable within the academic realm.

    The “spaces of irrational illegitimacy” may be better understood when we acknowledge the agency in the space; in whose perception is something irrational? And being irrational, in what world does the irrational automatically be illegitimate? Quite possibly our world.

    There is acknowledgement of such things as intuition, inspiration, hunch and felt-sense (Van Manen, Moustakas, Merton and Gentlin are my current go-to for citations about these, other scholars are available). And there is discussion about seemingly successful irrational decision making and seemingly unsuccessful rational decision making, (of the many citations I could go to, perhaps Sutherland’s book “Irrationality” (1988) is a fun place to start). Nevertheless, as researchers, bastions of rigour and veracity, how often is our legitimacy founded on articulating that which is in the eponymous “black box” of analysis? The system of our systematic and the working of our worked-out approaches? And yet, there is recognition of, and a call for space to us to be able to make meaning through hard to articulate, seemingly irrational and highly subjective processes. I go back to the shininess of Maclure to support that statement.

    I may not have an answer for this, though, given my embracing of Van Manen’s thinking about Lived Experience (1990) and Moustakas’ thoughts about heuristic inquiry (also 1990) I want space for the intuition, the wild and hopefully surprising leaps from my own mind-body system in my analysis.

    Legitimate findings? “Because I say so” is not going to cut it in my viva. And whilst I remain relatively incoherent about the mechanics of this part of my approach to analysis (able to describe the affect, but not the workings) I confess I am currently looking to pragmatism for an answer. That of fitness for purpose, underpinned by what Braun and Clarke call the “vivid and compelling” (2013:251) use of (shiny) data. “See! See!” I proclaim, “it does work!?!”

    (But that too is fraught.., when we consider agency in the “vivid and compelling”, and role of disagreement and of the heretic in the evolution of human knowledge… but that is another blog… for another day….

    I stop here. Thank you for reading.

    I look forward to your thoughts.., and I apologise for the length of this contribution; as George Bernard Shaw allegedly once wrote, sadly “I did not have the time to be brief.”


  9. Andy C says:

    A content-free writing buddy scheme for procrastinators and intermittent writers.

    Rebecca and I developed this in 2013.
    It was developed to address the problem of losing momentum in writing; especially if you are trying to stay motivated whilst attended to other activities such as earning money, dealing with family issues, defending the Earth from sporadic alien invasion, whatever. What I found is that without the structure provided by daily immersion in a work based setting I had become very susceptible to pontificating and distraction 😦 boo. (Granted some of which was hard to avoid; family illnesses and all that, but my response to the other distractions had worried me greatly.)

    Our solution:

    Following a discussion with Rachel Thomson I had become aware of just how much I had appreciated an externalized location for an impetus to ‘get on’. Hence looking for a ‘writing buddy’.
    By writing buddy we did not mean:
    · Editor or reader who will provide formative feedback
    · Proofreading buddy, or even
    · Mentor.

    Rather we were thinking more in terms of a comrade whose presence would help:
    · Maintain focus
    · Maintain motivation
    · Avoid procrastination
    · Increase / maintain productivity, and
    · Provide an external reference point for self-management.
    (Other benefits are a bonus.)

    I think of a story often told about charity workers stationed in places that have suffered great famine. With all that hunger and starvation all around, it can be very easy for workers to stop eating. So what they do is they pair up as eating buddies. They arrange it so that they never eat alone (or have the chance to starve themselves alone). Rather they each provide a reminder to a colleague in a similar situation to stay alive (for the greater good). Whilst what we are doing is I hope nowhere near as life threatening, there is a danger of ‘starving’ ourselves of ‘the writing’ in environments where the that writing is in famine… hence having a writing buddy.

    Thus we sought to do this as a shared act of reciprocation.

    So on to how:

    At the start we envisaged the mechanics of “writing budding” as being something like this:
    · A sharing of ‘writing’ plans (and renewal as needed)
    · A regular and often (as needed) sharing of specific targets (this could be as detailed as a statement that ‘I will now write the first 20 words to convey this specific idea’, or ‘I will now get this citation sorted.’), and
    · A Later feedback on degree of achievement towards that target.

    · A reciprocated acknowledgement of that target, and recognition of degree of completion
    · Other communications as appropriate, and
    · A review (after an agreed period of time) to look at the effectiveness and refinement of process

    A writing plan might allocate certain days to ‘writing’, certain (as realistic as possible) tasks to that day (broken into small lumps).

    Checking in with your writing buddy at the start of each allocated session, and at each restart if need be.., and in report on achievement at the end. And, of course, acknowledge your buddy’s starts with ‘best wishes’, ‘good lucks’, and ‘up and at’ em’ hurrahs and other positive statements. And congratulation / commiserations at each report as appropriate.

    Rebecca and I did this via email.

    Please feel free to use it as the basis of, or inspiration, for whatever structure works for you.


    • rebwebb50 says:

      Hi Andy
      I was so impressed that you had kept this! It was an incredibly supportive interaction that kept by writing rolling on. I seem to recall that it was really the discipline of the ‘checking in’ that was most conductive to the writing. There was something important – too- for me about having this contact ‘long distance’. It was my one – and only ‘checking-in’ device for sometime (a period of 3 moths or so). I was away from my supervisor and my family and this was guiding source of legitimacy.

      Thanks again, for providing this Andy.



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