[Review] ‘Free your mind’ – and your research

Anna Pilson

Recommended Citation: Pilson, A. (2019). ‘[Review] ‘Free your mind’ – and your research’, entanglements, 2(2): 115-121


‘Free your mind’ – and your research: Reflections on the ‘Collaborations, Creativity and Complexities: developing networks and practices of co-production with children and young people’ conference

Manchester Centre for Youth Studies
Manchester Metropolitan University
26-27 June 2019


Figure 1: Poignant/apt graffiti message ‘Free your Mind’ near Manchester Metropolitan University.



The inaugural Collaborations, Creativity and Complexities conference aimed to highlight and celebrate valuable participatory research projects involving children and young people as knowledge-generators, organisers and commentators. With its threefold focus on collaboration, creativity and complexity, the conference embraced the central tenets of, and key interlinking influences of, both theory and practice in co-production with young people in academic and community-based research. Co-production as a methodology aims to foster active participation and empowerment of young people in the research process. Young people are enabled to circumvent their traditionally passive research positions and gain ownership of the direction of a project (O’Kane, 2000), overcoming power dynamics, and achieving a collegiate state of mutual learning between all members of the research collective (Cornwall and Jewkes, 1995).  Research was shared from disciplines including (but not limited to) Youth Justice, Social Work and Education, often straddling the “activist-scholar hyphen” (Sandwick et al., 2018, p. 474) . The conference’s multidisciplinary approach (both in terms of modalities of research and make-up of participant cohort) was indicative of the conference’s inherent philosophical adherence to one of the fundamental principles of co-production – valuing a wide array of knowledge and lived experience as expertise.


This conference was of particular interest to me as a PhD student researching educational inclusion via a Critical Disability Studies lens. I felt that the myriad of methodologies presented could offer me practical inspiration for working collaboratively with young people. I was keen to learn about and from projects in which young people were positioned as knowledge producers and potential change agents, a positionality which inverts established narratives and expectations of the power and potential of young people.


The three conference themes were used to organise the panels and special events.  My re-view will consider the research provocations that arose in relation to each of these elements, via discussion of some of the presentations that were the most personally impactful.



The keynotes on each day embodied the spirit of collaboration in research, both as a means of appreciating the fullness of life and embracing the heterogeneity of participants and their stories. Dr Kirsty Liddiard of University of Sheffield presented the work of the ESRC-funded ‘Living Lives to the Fullest’ project. Via arts-informed creative and virtual methodologies, young women with life-threatening or life-limiting conditions have co-produced holistic narratives of their lived experience. The young women involved are positioned as analysts and theorists, their embedded research roles going beyond a tokenistic gesture and truly representing a democratisation of the research process. This centring of humanity and inclusivity within the research ethos was echoed by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Dr Deborah Jump’s overview of the ‘Getting out for Good’ project. Created to support girls in Greater Manchester at risk of criminalisation, at the heart of the project is the aim of self-empowerment for participants. The project evidenced how multifaceted approaches to trust-building, based around the participants’ own interests, are crucial for successful collaborative work.



The entanglement between research practicalities, boundaries and theory often renders the ethical permission process complex. Dr Elsie Whittington of MMU and Dr Camille Warrington of University of Bedfordshire facilitated an active and engaging session on ethics, to help researchers consider and navigate such intricacies. Positioning participatory research and co-production as a rights-based approach, they asked participants to consider traditional definitions of risk perpetuated by institutional ethics review boards. Risk usually has negative conceptual connotations in these contexts, synonymised with hazard (and potentially liability) and therefore academics can feel pressured to delimit, or even nullify its presence in the research process during the ethics application procedure.


During the  session, we were asked to invert such conventional notions, and consider exposure to and calculated management of risk as a means of generating protective knowledge for young research participants. The avoidance of risk may explicitly safeguard children in the present, but it may also close avenues for potential future learning opportunities. Thus, if young people are supported in exploring risk in a safe and managed way, they may develop experiential learning that will feed into future independent decision-making processes. This approach is particularly pertinent to my own research with young disabled children, because in this context to avoid risk would mean that in all likelihood my study would (un)wittingly perpetuate ableist views and perspectives. Risk avoidance in this context is an essentialist phenomenon. Rather than being a measure of safety, it could end up functioning as a device to normalise experiential expertise and ways of thinking, rather than to accept and value individual ways of doing. We were encouraged to manage and hold risk within our research process, rather than actively avoiding it. This approach supported my own sense of risk-avoidance being complicit with silencing of marginalised voices, which is surely the very antithesis to the aims of qualitative research.



Photovoice, applied theatre, film-making, rugby, Grime music, picture books, zines and collaging were just some of the creative methodologies presented at the conference that constitute parts of the rich methodological bricolage of co-production. The creativity aspect of the conference provoked in me a consideration of the concept that embracing multimodality in research may constitute the creation of an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987), in terms of acknowledging and embracing that research does not need to progress in a predictable, linear pattern. It may embrace multiple, heterogeneous influences and it is the dance between these influences that can result in the most powerful outcomes.


Because a key aim of my PhD study is to provide opportunities for my research participants to consider their multiple and interlinked identities, the conference led me to believe that by adopting an array of creative methods, a lived experience may be elicited organically, as well as thoroughly, and that interwoven influences, experiences and beliefs can be illuminated. I believe that multimodality in research is crucial to elucidate a holistic understanding of a lived experience, event or situation. Using a variety of research methods allows us to consider our research topics from different angles, which may challenge and extend a singular understanding of reality. Research conducted in this way is able to illuminate and explicate participants’ relational status to wider societal systems and to invoke multi-layered analysis. Therefore, it may also promote socio-ecological understandings of life (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), something that is a central aim of my own research.

Figure 2: Collage message in the art space.




Returning to my own theoretical field of Critical Disability Studies, Goodley et al (2019, p. 988) utilise the beautifully sensorial notion of leitmotifs in their summation of provocations for critical disability studies. I have also drawn upon this concept in my own encapsulation of the outcomes of the conference. The emerging themes were entangled, demanding increased versatility and multiplicity in both my thinking and my research practice. Therefore, my key conceptual leitmotifs were that creative methods are not only useful but necessary for research production and engagement with children and young people. Their multimodal manifestations and flexible application sow seeds of sustainability in both research and relationships, by embedding opportunities for project pathways to diversify and continue beyond their traditional end-points. Additionally, if academia embraces the key aim of co-production to redistribute power from conventional sources in research, it can learn from “an alternative, legitimate expertise to that of academic researchers” (Nind et al., 2012, p. 660), and thus democratise its own hierarchical inequalities, as well as the research process itself. Therefore, academia must engage in a multidirectional knowledge exchange that is almost osmotic in nature – if the Academy makes its walls porous, then it can absorb as much expertise as it produces.




Bronfenbrenner, U., 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments in Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cornwall, J. & Jewkes, R. (1995). What is Participatory Research? Social Science and Medicine, 41(12), 1667- 1676.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F., 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Liddiard, K. and Runswick-Cole, K., 2019. Provocations for Critical Disability Studies. Disability and Society, 34(6), pp. 972-997.

O’Kane, C. (2000) ‘The Development of Participatory Techniques. Facilitating Children’s Views about Decisions which Affect Them’. In P. Christensen and A. James (Eds.) Research with Children, Perspectives and Practice (pp. 136-159). London/New York: Falmer.

Nind, M., Wiles, R., Bengry‐Howell, A., & Crow, G. (2012). Methodological innovation and research ethics: forces in tension or forces in harmony? Qualitative Research, 13, 650 – 667.

Sandwick, T., Fine, M., Greene, A. C., Stoudt, B. G., Torre, M. E., & Patel, P. (2018). Promise and provocation: Humble reflections on critical participatory action research for social policy. Urban Education, 53(4), 473-502.



Anna Pilson is a 1st year PhD student at Durham University School of Education. Her ESRC-funded research is a participatory action research model that positions
children with a vision impairment as knowledge producers. This research draws upon her professional background as a Qualified Teacher of Children with a Vision Impairment and is supported by collaborative partner RNIB. Twitter: @pilsonanna     Web: www.dur.ac.uk/education/staff/profile/?id=17507