New research method: developing metaphors

This post was originally published as a news item by the DLP.

An original research method developed by IHSSC research fellow Dr Gillian Fletcher is included in a new handbook for social science researchers published this month.

Author Dr Helen Kara uses Gillian’s work with metaphor elicitation as an example of creativity in research in Chapter 5 of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide published by Policy Press, Bristol. The book will be launched at a conference on 8 May hosted by the Social Research Association at the British Library, London.

Gillian developed her thinking on using metaphors while working and doing research in Myanmar. In the first phase of her research there on HIV prevention, she realised that the standard, technical ways of talking about this work – for instance, saying that HIV prevention work should be ‘peer education’, involving ‘two-way communication, not teaching’ and ‘participation’ of community members – were deeply ingrained. People struggled to describe what actually happened in HIV prevention sessions without resorting to these set words and phrases. So Gillian asked field workers to describe their HIV prevention work as a metaphor.

The results were striking. For example, one field worker who had earlier described his work in terms of participatory peer education (‘like friend talking to friend’) developed a metaphor that described a rather different process, in which he was a potter and the participants were inert clay to be shaped into useful vessels.

Another, who also saw herself as a peer educator, came up with a metaphor in which she was ‘a mother hen’, looking after baby ducklings. Although the mother hen could not swim and never went in the water, she told the ducklings what to do. Those who did not listen to her would not survive to grow up, she said.

Other field workers developed metaphors in which they were a family authority figure, telling younger member of the family how they should behave. In all but one of the field worker metaphors, community members were represented as passive and ignorant of both factual knowledge and knowledge of how to behave.

This was despite the fact that the community members Gillian interviewed as part of her research all held vast reserves of emotional and experiential knowledge in relation to HIV and AIDS. Some of them sold sex and had frequently been told about HIV and AIDS by their customers; others were already HIV positive; everyone interviewed had been told that condoms prevent HIV ‘so many, many, many times, we cannot count’.

This research demonstrated that there was a big gap between what was said about HIV prevention in Myanmar and what was done. It also showed that the experience and knowledge of community members was not being used. The findings are relevant for all HIV programme funders and implementers.

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