In this post, physiotherapist and educator Wenche Bjorbækmo writes about the art of presenting qualitative research.
The first time I saw the film The Cost of Living, by DV8 Physical Theatre (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZTMyWt50kk), it made an indelible impression on me. Over the course of a few late summer days in an English seaside resort, two out-of-work street performers — Eddie and David — encounter a variety of other people on the fringe of society. Dave, a double amputee, is determined to hold on to his independence, while tough, aggressive Eddie is a stalwart defender of justice and respect. The play presents a sequence of human tableaux that challenge our understanding of body, movement, behavior, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality, human relations, the social cultural gaze, the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’.
I have showed the film to master students in interdisciplinary health science and to colleagues working in children’s rehabilitation as an introduction to discussions concerning the above mentioned phenomenon. To my experience seeing the video do something to people – and the discussions afterwards to be humble, inquisitive and open minded in ways that introductions by reading different ‘ordinary scholarly literature’ about different understandings of body, movement, disability and diversity do not create in the same way. How come?
As a phenomenological researcher I have long been concerned about the challenges I experience when attempting to express or present lived meanings of a phenomenon. Trying to convey what friendship means, for instance, or getting a sense of what it might be like to exist outside a ‘standard’ involve experiential quests with bottomless layers of truth and meaning (van Manen 2016). In The Cost of Living, the situations and meetings enacted by the artists create a main story which teems with questions about contemporary understandings of a range of issues. Who is disabled? What skills are involved in movement? Who should be considered to be competent movers? What is fellowship? What about respect and the need for variations, for complementary ways of being and for inter-linked corporality?
As I watch the film, I feel drawn into the story and touched by it; I believe in the created realities into which the production takes me. At times I become angry or sad; at other moments I find myself smiling happily. When the mechanical movements of one of performers suddenly become expressively alive, I participate in the joy of moving, if only in my mind.
In his wonderful essay Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty (2000/1964) writes that ‘science manipulates things and gives up living them’. Drawing a contrast between the approach of science and that of the visual arts, he argues that ‘it is by lending the world his body that the painter transforms the world into painting’. Maybe the phenomenological researcher also needs to ‘lend her body’ to the research in order to ‘live the things’ she examines. If so, what might it mean to lend one`s body to research?
Certain discussions in which I have participated have stressed the importance of scientific texts differentiating themselves from fiction by not ‘seducing’ readers. This had led me to wonder about the possibility of sharing heartfelt experiences in a sober, scientific way without losing the lived aspects that make the experience vividly meaningful and significant. If I — as researcher, reader or observer — experience moments when my rationality and logical understanding are infused by a sense of felt engagement, should this be termed ‘seduction’?
Does not the art of seeing and gaining insight include feelings, emotions and engagement? Are these not appropriate when it comes to research? Max van Manen (1990; 2014) holds that the qualitative researcher borrows other people’s experiences. How can I borrow someone’s deep felt experiences without being touched or stirred? How can I with scientific credibility omit to convey participants’ expressed feelings in the way I am able to understand and capture them?
Following Merleau-Ponty (2000/1964), it can be argued painters are sovereign in their interpretation of the world. They perform their interpretation with no ‘technique’ other than that acquired by their eyes and hands through incessant watching and observation. The secret science they possess and develop is not one geared to making the world its object but rather one that can follow the world in its emergence. I think there may be parallels here with qualitative and phenomenological research, in particular the way a researcher lends her body to the project in hand. This is done not only to provide insights concerning dimensions of lived experiences but also to do so in ways that move, stir, provoke and touch you, the reader. Through this, new insights get under your skin or enter your body, igniting a never-ending process of asking and wondering.
While seldom themselves philosophers or artists, qualitative researchers in the field of physiotherapy have much to gain by borrowing understandings from philosophy and the arts. Such borrowing might help us develop our language and individual capacity for expression so that we can better present the experiences children and adults share with us during interviews and observations. In the absence of such endeavors, our research presentations may continue to show insufficient respect for the complex dimensions of lived experience our participants share with us. We need to strive to develop our language and capacity to be expressive in order to generate research that is not just reliable and scientifically acceptable but also vivid and moving.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2000). Øyet og ånden (Eye and mind) (Mikkel B. Tin Trans.), Pax Forlag A/S, Oslo.
Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching Lived Experience (Vol. 1). New York: State University of New York Press.
Van Manen, M. (2016) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nhs.12274/full
 The physically integrated dance movement is part of the so-called disability cultural movement, which recognizes and also celebrates first-person experiences of disability. Through creative means the movement conveys to audiences different lived experiences. See also Petra Kuppers and her performance research projects, The Olimpias (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~petra/).