Using albums & mosaics to understand data
Gary: We’ve both collected so much data from our practical work now, and it’s time for us to start doing something with it. Where I am now is at the stage of reviewing and sorting from my practice in Hill House. How to make sense of it. What to select? Why? How?
Like many aspects of this project, this new stage has seemed more like an artistic idea shaping-up, rather than following a pre-planned sequence of going from ‘data collection’ to ‘data analysis’, and then to ‘findings’. It’s been very much less neat than that! Rather we’ve tried to let the material tell us itself what it needs doing to it (I know that sounds unscientific, but that’s honestly the way it’s felt).
I also realise that finding ways of working with the data have been inspired by chance aspects of my everyday life (again like an artistic process). For example, I was clearing out a cupboard and came across an old leather-bound photograph album of my grandfather’s. In the 1920s he was a professional pilot in the British Royal Air Force, stationed in various places in the Middle East. The album records sights, incidents, people and objects from this time and place. One particular page struck me:
The top row has two photos of a river in Iraq, whilst in the bottom row my grandfather stands next to a bi-plane; then there’s another picture of planes behind sand-bags, and finally a pelican. I asked myself why my grandfather had arranged these pictures in this way on this page. You could think of several answers: rivers and planes are two ways of travelling; planes and pelicans both have wings, and so on. Our minds naturally start comparing, contrasting, and making patterns and explanations out of a variety of ‘things’. If I read the captions below the pelican photo I get a further layer of meaning: “Our mascot”. But of course the mascot has been chosen because of its resemblance to those early flying machines. Patterns emerge as layers of meaning build up and coincide.
I looked up the etymology for ‘album’ and found that it’s Latin for “white”…. So an album is a ‘white space’ for arranging things. I’d never realised that the Beatles’ White Album was perhaps a joke?
I started making my own ‘research albums’ before I came across this family album, but it made me think further about the process and uses of making albums. I was looking for a way of bringing together bits of written text (my research logs of reflective report on sessions and events, and poems about the work), along with video and audio recordings, still photos, and other ephemera that I’d collected. It struck me that the ubiquitous Powerpoint programme is ideal for this. So that’s what I did. Not only for individual cases, but also for some emerging analytic ‘facets’ we were experimenting with. For example, we’ve made the thought experiment of considering everyone in the care home site as a performing musician. To try out this idea I searched through the data for all the examples of care home residents performing within these musician categories: Players, Singers, Dancers, Listeners, Conductors…. and then compiled Powerpoint albums of examples of these categories using text, photos, audio-video clips, poems….
The example in the photo above is the ‘title slide’ of the album of a woman we’ll call Violet. Her album assembles the key material from our music therapy sessions, and through its arrangement shows how her care for music linked with her care for other things and people in her life (china figurines she’d collected with her mother, her cat, plants) – but also musical favourites like the John Wilson orchestra and the singer Jonas Kaufmann.
Making these albums has been a fascinating and moving process of identifying, collecting, arranging, and editing material. I’ve realised just how much every act of selection and arrangement is itself an act of interpretation and proto-analysis. I’ve noticed how this seemingly practical task has simultaneously involved a further layer of the research analytic process: exploring the diachronic narrative of a single case across varying media; juxtaposing and comparing aspects of sameness and difference within a set of similar examples; testing an analytic facet we are experimenting with; thinking-through what variation of aspect means in relation to an element manifested across the data. What, for example, does it mean to find so many residents conducting music when (for most of them) this had been something they’d never done in their lives before? Is there a commonality beneath their different styles of conducting? In this way the gathering and arranging also became simultaneously an analytic process of exploring and reflecting on the richness of data….
I think, Wolfgang, you’ve found yourself doing something quite similar in relation to your own data?
Wolfgang: Yes, I’ve experimented with mosaics, or what I call for ´mosaics in motion´ at the moment, as I use pictures that I take from all sorts of data to flexibly arrange and re-arrange them together with the participants of our project. Initially, this part of the project-work was driven by the question of how I could keep and store data from dying people who will most likely not be with us anymore when we present the research. This is not only a question and concern in the Care for Music Project, but a practical and ethical issue of ´user involvement in research´ that’s discussed in the wider palliative care field. So, I felt a need to experiment with approaches to data collection and arrangement that keep those people this ethnography is about still ´with us´ as participants and researchers and suggests a place for them beyond data collection. I also realize in this project (not the first time, but probably more explicitly) that data collection is a process that is also about me. I am a practitioner-researcher in the project who stores and arranges data material that I am often part of myself. Building a mosaic also documents the selection process of what data I choose to include and when I do this. This work might be initiated and led by me, but is potentially co-constituted by patients, their families, friends, and health care workers. The data does not suddenly ´pop up´ or appear ´at once´ from somewhere out there, but rather accumulates over time – even finds me, as I and the participants engage with each other. Not least, I found that building a mosaic can be a reason for me to contact bereaved relatives of a person who has died, and to look at the mosaic together, re-arrange it, and in this way engage in a process of participatory sense-making. (Which leads to the question of who or what determines when data collection and analysis is completed?).
To give an example for my experiment with ´mosaics in motion´ we can look at Mia´s mosaic, which her parents and I are building together at the moment. Picture 1 shows my first sketch of Mia´s mosaic that I drew on paper on a Friday afternoon as an attempt to get an overview over the various data material I had gathered so far.
Drawing Mia´s mosaic on paper however seemed to be far too static. So, I further developed the mosaic-idea, and eventually took photos of the data, which included people (mostly of their hands to protect their identity), a CD cover, a book, and a newspaper that they talked about or gave me as a gift. I took pictures of a plant in their garden, or their pet or instrument at a home visit. I photographed a page of a person´s favorite sheet music, a song text, an image or signature of an artist. I also took pictures of excerpts from an interview-transcript with a participant, notations of their music, an extract of my research log, a still from a video-recording from a music therapy session. I took pictures of people´s living rooms, the hospice room, a church or concert hall where they had listened to music.
I then printed out these photos and spread them out on my kitchen table to view them. Eventually, I cut out a part of each of the pictures, that for me illustrated a particularity of this piece of data (the head of a pet, a snippet of a piece of sheet music, the keyboard of an instrument), and that could become part of a collage for each of the participants (see pic 2).
In this way, I manufactured the first pieces of a jigsaw. From there, the ´mosaic in motion´ idea evolved, meaning that the composition of the pieces of each mosaic, their specific arrangement and re-arrangement could happen in collaborative, co-creative, participatory processes with the project´s participants (sometimes the patients, but more often their relatives and health care workers). Mia´s mosaic is still under construction and being built by me and her parents. Their involvement does not necessarily stop or become less after she had died. Instead, the involvement of the wider group of participants can continue and prolong into data arrangement and analysis.
While talking about this Gary and hearing about you grandfather, it comes to my mind, that I took a lot of pictures in my parent´s house in southern Germany early this year. Photos that I found there in little frames on the walls or on a bookshelf, or in the many photo albums that my parents had made over the years. As you know, my father died unexpectedly at the hospital in February 2021 during the pandemic. No one of us was present and could be with him due to visiting restrictions. Actually, we got hardly information about what was going on and how my father was doing. At least, I could travel from Norway to Germany and be with my mother and my brothers for the funeral. The special circumstances and restrictions that we had to adapt to gave me the feeling of being distant to all that happened to me and my family. So, before I had to return to Norway, I took pictures from some of the pictures in my parent´s house and the photos in the albums. I was not sure when I could be there again, see my mother and brothers, visit my father´s gravesite. I just took a lot of pictures that I then printed out in Bergen when I was back. They are memoires and representations yes, but most of all served my need to keep things together, to stay in touch with them, and to create some kind of continuation and commonality with my family and the places and summer holidays and Christmas Eves we had together. I think that experience influenced the development of the ‘mosaics in motion’…
Gary: What’s interesting in both of our ‘gentle methods’ is the light is shines on the overlapping layers of the qualitative analysis process – which I think is often obscured by thinking of discrete research stages; the idea that there is a kind of abstract ‘processing’ of data that happens before ‘analysis proper’, which in turn happens before the interpretation of findings.
Secondly, what’s interesting is how much our approach relies on an imaginative process – quite literally working with images – and allowing these images (that may include ‘sound images’ and ‘poetic images’ as well) to speak directly to us, to show us something of the underlying pattern that leads them to connect-up at a higher level, and to show us something more fundamental about the overall phenomenon that we’re researching – the mutual ‘care for music’ that people variously and mutually enact in these settings.
Of course there’s a long tradition in ethnography and other qualitative research approaches of designing and working with ‘facets’ of the core phenomenon through a variety of methods (Mason 2011). In particular I’ve become interested to explore one of the ‘ancestors’ of qualitative research – Goethe’s scientific methodology, which he called ‘gentle empiricism’ and which best illustrates this ‘living’ continuity of working with data material and analytic ideas at the same time (Seamon & Zajonc 1998). There’s a growing literature that shows what a hidden influence Goethe’s perspective has had on philosophers and sociologists in the 20th century (Dodd 2008; Vine 2015), and I’ve been pleased to find a recently-completed doctoral study by a community musician and scholar, Ruby Swift (2020), who uses ‘gentle empiricism’ to guide her study of music with couples at home living with dementia. This also does many of the things we’re describing here, both in terms of treatment of material, and the continuity between data gathering and analysis.
I’m wondering whether the way that we’ve both approached this task has something to do with our own former experiences of ‘delicate empiricism’ in action – those formative experiences we both had in clinical and research epistemology when in the 1990s we both worked as music therapists at the Gemeinschaftskrankenhaus in Herdecke, Germany. There we experienced the Goethean-based method in action when we sat in medical case conferences or talked about research with colleagues. I realise how much I learned from their Goethean phenomenological method of first collecting together examples of the therapeutic work of a patient – their musicking, their art, dancing, sculpture – and then arranging and exploring this diverse material in such a way that it speaks of a larger meaning in relation to their personal style of illness and health. What do you think?
Wolfgang: Yes, I think the time in Herdecke was really defining for me as well, and in particular for the development of a culture of person-centeredness. Just thinking about the time we could spent every week for the interdisciplinary meetings you mention with the idea that every colleague could hear and see what was ´there´, in the music or painting or sculpture of a patient. And always with a focus on the process of formation, on how a person plays, moves, paints. Actually it was also a care for finding words to describe and capture as many details as possible in a dialogue with each other. And with a focus on a person’s resources and how these could become part of their health promotion and coping processes. So, the mosaics probably refer back to this Herdecke-style, collecting and showing parts of a person´s life, so that we than can further engage with within therapy.
I realize that with the mosaics I also experiment with my transition from a music therapy practitioner working in palliative care since 2014, to a practitioner-researcher and ethnographer in the Care for Music project. In this transition process I feel that engaging with mosaics and the process of building them serves several purposes: Firstly, as mentioned earlier, it helps me to gain and keep an overview of the data material that I am myself part of. It confirms how data collection is a process over time and not separate from the events or materials it shows. As a practitioner-researcher I feel I do research from inside the practice. When I meet people, talk and make music together with them I also generate, discover, document and collect research data. To me, the mosaics are a way of ´visual memoing’, as Butler-Kilber (2018) suggested it, that allow me to present and organize data in a kind of visualized case studies, and at the same time show how they are built and change over time.
Secondly, building mosaics is a dialogical and co-creative process, that invites the variety of people involved in a case to engage with each other and with the material. ´Mosaics in motion´ have a low threshold to join in, and a strong performative element that is with people not about them. Like in music therapy improvisation, building mosaics invites people to play around, experiment and try out things. In other words, the qualities and features of the artistic processes generating the material in a music therapy session also informs the arrangement and analysis through the mosaics. The mosaic pieces can easily be moved around by all participants, but probably more important and interesting from a methodological stance, the participants themselves can also physically move them around, and are themselves moved emotionally while engaging with the material and each other. This opens up a discovery of several perspectives on the material, how to re-see and re-model it, providing multiple potential insights. I would say that this haptic, playful, potentially open-ended re-search process invites all people to a participatory sense-making process. It can help bereaved people to find words for what they see and hear in a ´mosaic in motion´, something that might otherwise still be difficult for some to express or talk about.
Back to the ongoing work with Mia´s mosaic. I showed first ideas of her mosaic to her parents when we met at my office, the pieces in front of us on a table. The three of us stood there and looked at them. Eventually Mia´s mother took some pictures of the mosaic with her mobile phone. While looking at the mosaic, we got up from our chairs and moved around the table and changed places from where we look at the mosaic. Mia´s parents started a conversation about single pieces and the stories related to them. They linked some of the pieces together with their own stories and added new information to the existing one. In this building process, more pieces were gradually added to the mosaic. However, this did not just increase the amount of data material, but also initiated dialogue about why and how some of the pieces might belong to each other, revealing the stories ´between them´. While there in my office, the three of us started to re-arrange the pieces, moved them around and grouped them, brought some closer to each other, and some other ones more to the periphery. To me it seemed that we engaged in a process of meaningful arrangement of Mia´s mosaic. This shows a step from data arrangement to analysis with some first assumptions and hypotheses of what and how we made sense of the data (see pic 3).
This collaborative arrangement of data together with Mia´s parents is an example for what Laura Ellingson (2017) calls a ´becoming analysis´ where, from an embodiment perspective, the sensorial, relational and doing of analysis is in the foreground. Mia´s parents and I moved the pieces around, and we also moved ourselves around my office table while doing this. We touched pieces of the mosaic, took some of them up and moved them to explore and show each other meaningful arrangements that sometimes provided us with new insight. We commented, laughed, confirmed, and complemented each other in this ´becoming analysis´ – what I would call a participatory-sense making process. While doing so, Mia´s father told that his daughter had never thought to get to play herself on a Kantele in one of the music therapy sessions at the hospice. Her fingers were damaged by the side effects of the chemotherapy and she was afraid to use them, but had found ways to pluck the strings of the Kantele with the forefinger and thumb of her right hand, and to perform a piece of self-made music. Three weeks before she passed away, Mia became a composer, performer and entertainer, presenting herself with ´multiple bodies´ as Di Paolo, Cuffari and DeJaegher (2018) suggest, yet unfinished and ready to expand and grow, rather than solely the one of a terminal ill patient that needed hospice care.
Gary: I was talking to the music therapist and researcher Cochavit Elefant about this work on albums and she made an interesting comment that as method it sounds like an extension of the Participatory Action Research that she’d worked with in an earlier project. But for us the participatory aspect is also taken explicitly into the analytic stage where we find ways of continuing to participate in the original material and phenomena – not letting this be replaced only by abstract representations that are then analytically ‘processed’. Cochavit’s thought seems true to me. It again links to the Goethean ‘gentle empiricism’ – not ‘letting-go’ of our participation until this is really necessary and prepared – at which point there is indeed often a ‘conceptual leap’ to the level of idea and insight.
Wolfgang: There is one more aspect that the ´mosaics in motion´ provide for me in the transition from a practitioner to practitioner-researcher, in particular with respect to data analysis. Mosaics serve as a kind of ´visual hermeneutics´, meaning that they invite to a back-and-forth movement not within a written text but within visual material, between details and the whole of a mosaic – as a way of conducting analysis and gaining more understanding of the material. A mosaic presents an overview of a person´s music throughout her life, albeit never a complete one. At the same time, it offers possibilities for zooming into a piece to explore what constitutes it. It’s like in Tia’s earlier ´drawing-in´ blog in which she shows how she does this with drawings of details, a hand, a movement, a sight on a nano-level.
Gary: I increasingly find that there’s a rich heritage behind working and thinking in this way; that there’s value in approaching the understanding of a phenomenon in a less linear way; not trying to achieve a full picture, but allowing us to work from fragments, and from various angles in the gradual ‘collating’ of an idea or understanding. Wittgenstein for example wrote of his Philosophical Investigations:
“The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of long and meandering journeys […] The same or almost the same points were always being approached from different directions, and new sketches made. So this book is really just an album.”[§3e]
It seems we’re in good company in this project of edging towards understanding through a mode of data presentation that is not abstract and transparent, but rather what Walter Benjamin called a ‘constellation’ of material, from which what matters and what is significant can shine out.
Wolfgang: Well, to me this work appeals to my own creative engagement and curiosity as researcher. I think these features that are core to my therapeutic work can now become more visible and comprehensive in the research as well. Moreover, I see that the mosaic experiment brings a freshness to data collection and analysis that enables the involvement and participation of vulnerable people in a way that I have not expected beforehand. I did not plan this, but rather followed my wish and concern to stay in touch with the people and the vitality and presence of the original material; to discover and understand and to avoid to let go of ‘the phenomenon’ during the process of analysis.
Of course, our experiments with albums and mosaics are in their beginnings, and I think this kind of ´visual inquiry´ does not aim to present a ´truth´, but rather shows ideas of how our data material could be understood and make sense.
When I shared details from the mosaic with Mia´s parents her father commented with the words: “I am still grieving. But I start to feel gratitude for all Mia has given to us. And looking at this mosaic, her music, talking about it, hearing how you describe it, makes me grateful”.
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