Poetry as a Research Tool

The power of a good story, or even a rather mundane one, is truly phenomenal.  In it are wrapped up the hopes, dreams, symbols, and significances that shed light on who we are as individuals and as members of a culture.  But the real power comes not from the explicit statements that emerge during, say, interviews, but from the subtext and patterns of meaning people assign to objects, relationships, and thoughts as they are created by participants through narrative.

Some time ago I was struggling with a particularly vexing problem.  We were dealing with a topic that tends to garner yawns from participants, namely how people do their taxes.  Now, while this may be a topic of hot debate on the campaign trail and amongst Tea Party activists these days, it is not a topic that people get particularly excited about when interviewed. The fieldwork yielded good information, but it was difficult to tease out and even harder to craft into something easily digested by the client. I kept thinking about how to put more meat to the topic and decided to see what happens if I asked participants to write poems about the topic, giving each a week to complete the poem.  Yes, most looked at me like I was mad or laughed. But the outcomes were extraordinary.

What participants put together involved a great deal of thought. As people read them to me (and I read them to myself), it became clear that there was a great deal more wrapped up in how people think about and do there taxes than they initially thought.  The act of condensing and assigning meaning meant structuring their thoughts around metaphors and symbols that would speak to some deeper truth.  Not everything can be expressed as matter-of-fact discourse, especially things that are on the surface so terribly mundane.  Process and step can be conveyed easily, but the underlying meanings and association are much harder to get at.

I then wrote the requisite report about the field observations, direct quotes, etc.  But I also wrote about poetic definitions of taxes, quoting extensively the poems themselves and showing the imagery that participants frequently drew, painted or pasted on the page. The insights gleaned from this exercise and the response it produced in the client were far more than I expected at the outset of the project. I have been using poetry as a means of gathering insights ever since.

Why? Because these things concern the creative aspects of the cultural context of belief, symbol and organization. Complex concepts can be tedious for people to recount, but that doesn’t mean they don’t contain elements of deeper, underlying truths.  Poetry, and art in general, gives people the “right” to render emotion on the page, setting aside conventions of rationality.  Poetry, like painting and story telling, is ancient and speaks to the deepest contrivances of the human condition.  People may say they don’t like poetry, but they know what to do with it nonetheless, when given the opportunity.

Traditional cultures are quite literally story telling cultures.  People tell each other stories and share experiences through myth, folklore or even a tale about the day’s events. The act of telling as story is a ritual in many cases – it sets the stage and tells the listener that what is about to come is important. Telling and listening to stories allows us to create culture, which is the crux of how we construct our world, including things as seemingly mundane as taxes.  Poetry is simple a more condensed, raw, distilled version of the stories we tell.

In my research I often use fictional narrative as a means to explore deeper meanings of things, but poetry has become another avenue that results in more visceral responses. When we use poetry construction as a research tool, we ask participants for a creative construction of the topic – not a laundry list of attributes or feelings, but a storyline and expression of what the topic means to them. We also ask them to work on it over the course of a week, rather than simply churning out something quickly.  This method consciously goes beyond interviewing or realist storytelling. Its purpose is to play with ideas and discover the cultural context through a creative outlet. It is aimed at encouraging the respondents to play with, explore and invent invent imagery about a given topic.  The participants construct the plot as they wish, including whatever language or artistic embellishments they think will flesh out the poem.  For the participant and the researcher alike, the goal is to enter the domain of the shared cultural and social imagination.

After the poems are completed, they are typed based on themes and sub-grouped by plot and symbolic representations.  Participants are then invited (during a subsequent visit) to view other poems and the analytical grouping into which they have been placed. The result is a co-constructed sense of meaning out of which insights arise, even for the least exciting of subjects.

Clearly the technique is not for everyone, but for those willing to experiment and those tasked with uncovering deep meaning about a product or brand, the results of poetic creation are stunning.

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4 thoughts on “Poetry as a Research Tool

  1. I have long been amazed by the power of the creative effort required for storytelling in its various forms. Often when people have told me of their troubles, I have asked them to tell me the whole story. Then, at some point during their narrative, I have stopped them with the question, “Did you hear what you just said?” Usually they could not recall what they had just said – but when I repeated it back to them, they discovered that they had found the solution to their difficulty – all they had to do now was to act on their own good advice.

  2. I have long been amazed by the power of the creative effort required for storytelling in its various forms. Often when people have told me of their troubles, I have asked them to tell me the whole story. Then, at some point during their narrative, I have stopped them with the question, “Did you hear what you just said?” Usually they could not recall what they had just said – but when I repeated it back to them, they discovered that they had found the solution to their difficulty – all they had to do now was to act on their own good advice.

  3. I find this very interesting and a very creative and unique way to measure banal aspects of life.

    In regards to your vignette about the study about taxes, I was wondering if you could provide more details about the methodology of that study? For example, what was your principal mode of data collection (paper surveys, online, etc)? Who was your population? I would imagine this would create much more respondent burden than the standard questionnaire and I am curious if you saw any difference in your response rate.

    Thanks in advance!

  4. Thanks, Gavin, for this innovative and insightful idea. As a qualitative researcher, I’m very sensitive to new ways to explore and deepen the consumer’s mind, and enrich the information gathered in a relevant way. I will certainly experiment this technique as soon as the oportunity arrives.

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