Reflections on our multimodal workshop

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Before a busy summer presenting our work at a number of UK and international conferences, the Energy Biographies team, in conjunction with the Energy and Co-Designing Communities team from Goldsmiths, University of London, hosted an event on working with multimodal methods and data. In thinking about multimodal data, we consider approaches which generate images and sound, amongst other media, and consider how these can productively be invoked alongside or independently of traditional text-based methodological approaches. (Some draw a distinction between multimodal and multimedia – for more detail on this see https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8E72w-dLcKM)

One of the aims of our Energy Biographies project is to consider how innovative methods can help people to reflect on their energy use. Subsequently, alongside biographical interviews we have designed two photograph tasks to prompt different kinds of engagement with energy. These images were used in our research interviews for discussion, but how we might also draw on these images in alternative ways to represent our research to wider audiences was an issue we discussed at the multimodality event. Working with our project images, we explored how they can enable people to create their own stories and understandings of energy. Introducing the accompanying text from the participants who produced the images could be seen as revealing an explanation, or as devaluing the creative potential of the image, now relegated to a textual illustration.

The first day of the multimodality event focussed on working creatively and analytically with multimodal data, with presentations from Bella Dicks, Jennifer Gabrys and Bill Gaver (which can be viewed on our presentations page) and afternoon group discussions, which provided an opportunity to explore some of the issues raised in more detail. For example, we considered whether multimodal research is anything new – could a lot of research be classified as multimodal, it is just that researchers are making different choices about what they represent? If bringing together a range of modalities is seen as offering something more (greater depth and detail?), what implications does moving beyond text have for those researchers who continue to work largely with interview transcripts? Some proposed that multimodality could be differently conceptualised as an openness to what data is, but how do we balance this with meeting the quality criteria important in conducting good research?

The second day considered how multimodal data and methods can be used for public engagement activities. Carl Lavery, Jamie Lewis and Maja Horst discussed their experiences of working multimodally and running public exhibitions. Some of the issues we explored included what kind of publics academics focus on when designing public engagement events – sustainability and art have arguably been positioned as middle class agendas, therefore in bringing the two together are we aiming to appeal to particular groups and do we exclude others? With opportunities and spaces for engagement opening up, it is also important to consider the ethics of public engagement – do we create new forms of data and how do we use this?

At several points throughout the event, the relevance of ‘being there’ for understanding was highlighted. This places importance on the presence of the researcher for added insight in working with the subsequent data, which has implications for secondary analysis. Subsequently continuing debates about multimodal research also have wider relevance for other methodological and analytical approaches.

Members of the Energy Biographies team are now drawing on the insights from this event to design a public exhibition, in conjunction with other energy and communities projects, for 2014.