Tuesday, 28 November 2017

VAW2017: Narrative and arts-based approaches to explore experiences of Gender-Based Violence

by Julie McGarry
Gender-based violence (GBV) may be described as a sensitive topic for a number of reasons. These include the emotive and challenging nature of the topic for all of those who are engaged in this area, including practitioners, clients and patients, researchers and research participants. However, arguably for those who are engaged with survivors of GBV in both practice and research environments, a sensitive approach to the process of enquiry is also required in order that experience does not become, in the words of Frank (2002) “an object to be measured and thus objectified” (p12). This involves a consideration of the approaches that may be used to capture the perspectives of individuals in their own words, rather than that which has been produced through the conduit of the ‘expert’ or researcher.

Relatively recently there has been a growing interest with regard to the possibilities of creative approaches to research and practice, including narratives across a range of subject areas. Fraser (2004) suggests for example [in a general sense and not directly related to GBV] that “with the greater acceptance of postmodern research methods, personal storytelling is now seen as a valid means of knowledge production” (p180). Fraser further suggests that narrative approaches have "much to offer" professions in practice [in Fraser’s example, social work] in terms of moving beyond a dialogue that is often structured around the perceived ‘expertise’ of the professional and a ‘problem focused’ approach to one which acknowledges context, interactions and ‘meaning making’. This approach arguably also has the potential to be relevant for those working with survivors of GBV. Whereby, as noted by researchers, there is often “limited understanding among professionals regarding why women may not be able to leave an abusive relationship (Lapierre, 2010) and the associated emphasis placed on mothers in terms of a ‘failure to protect’ children within the family (Hester, 2011)” (cited in McGarry & Watts, 2016). 

For individuals themselves, the use of narrative and creative approaches may perhaps also offer a means through which participants feel “empowered to share their experiences through their own accounts” (McGarry & Bowden, 2017). For those who have experienced GBV this can be pivotal to facilitating the conditions whereby voices that have all too often been silent have the opportunity to be heard. Moreover, personal experiences and the impact of GBV for survivors may be difficult to fully articulate through more traditional research methodologies. For example, Renold (2017), in her research with teen girls and sexual violence, highlights that “not all ‘felt effects’ can be articulated through words. Some experiences form part of an "unthought known" (Bollas, 1987) – that is, they can be felt corporeally, but are too painful to talk about” (p9). 

 The use of creative and narrative approaches are not without methodological and practical challenges, not least challenges from and to established evidential paradigms. However, there is also huge potential and this is worthy of further exploration and debate.


Bollas, C. (1987) The shadow of the object: psychoanalysis of the unthought known. New York NY: Columbia University Press, Free Association Books

Frank, A. (2002) At the will of the body: reflections on illness. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company

Fraser, H. (2004) Doing narrative research: analysing personal stories line by line. Qualitative Social Work. 3: 179-201

Hester, M. (2011) The Three Planet Model: Towards an Understanding of the Contradictions in Approaches to Women and Children’s Safety in Context of Domestic Violence. British Journal of Social Work. 41, 837 – 853

Lapierre, S. (2010) More Responsibilities, Less Control: Understanding the Challenges and Difficulties Involved in Mothering in the Context of Domestic Violence. British Journal of Social Work. 40, 1434 – 1451

McGarry, J & Bowden, D (2017) Unlocking stories: older women’s experiences of intimate partner violence told through creative expression Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing.

McGarry J and Watts K (2016) Strengthening Interventions to Reduce Domestic Abuse (STRIDE) Project Report Executive Summary

Renold, E. (2017) ‘Feel what I feel’: making da(r)ta with teen girls for creative activisms on how sexual violence matters. Journal of Gender Studies.

Dr Julie McGarry 
Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham

Julie is an established researcher with expertise and professional background in the field of safeguarding (adults and children), gender-based violence and intimate partner violence/domestic violence and abuse with a focus towards survivors' experiences and the development of effective health/social care professionals' responses. Julie also has a well-established background in participant led research exploring effective approaches to domestic violence identification and management through co-production of arts based narrative projects with survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) and domestic violence and abuse. Julie has initiated multi-agency collaborative scholarly partnerships on both international and national levels through leading the successful inception of the Integrated Domestic Violence and Abuse Research Group and Seminar Series within the Social Futures Centre of Excellence, Institute of Mental Health. Julie has published widely, disseminated her work through national and international conferences, and invited keynote speaker presentations. Recent co-production e-learning arts based resource 'Unlocking Stories: Older Women's Experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse told through Creative Expression' can be accessed here: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/helmopen/rlos/safeguarding/unlocking-stories/

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