Tuesday, 5 December 2017

VAW17: Arts-based research and transitional stories of domestic violence

by Jamie Bird

The aspect of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) that I wish to discuss in this blog is to outline what I think is an important component of how people move away from violence and abuse towards a safer future that they have control of. The following thoughts are primarily based on doctoral research I conducted alongside women who had experienced domestic violence. Using an arts-based methodology I explored how imagination could be a way of understanding how women’s journeys’ away from violence were constructed. These stories indicate what was important for women and how the past, the present and the future fit together to form what I have termed ‘transitional stories’.

Starting with the relationship between the past, the present and the future, what the transitional stories showed was that the way in which women managed their past will influence their view of the future. This might be in terms of how ways in which they built resilience to survive living with violence and abuse can be re-employed to gain agency in the present after leaving. It might also emerge in how the idea of a good relationship and family still exists and can form the basis of hope for such things in the future. What I found to be really interesting was how the sense of an imaginary and fantasised family home or family seemed to survive experiences of domestic violence. So for example, the idyllic image of the cosy home with a pretty garden was something that existed before experiences of violence and abuse, and formed the basis for what women hoped to attain in the future. This notion of the idyllic, and very often imagined, past forming the basis for hopes for the future also extended to how women thought about important relationships and family connections. This led me to work of philosopher Susan Brison (2002), who has put forward the idea that for some aspects of life we imagine the past and remember the future. This is a counter-intuitive idea but makes sense when we start to consider how memory can be unpredictable and easily manipulated by later experiences, or shaped by cultural representations. In turn, ideas about the future are based on that imaginary past. In such cases the future has the flavour and shape of a memory. This is a helpful concept in terms of working with women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse to think through what they want in the future, and how that might be helped or hindered by what they imagine or remember.

Another interesting element of transitional stories is that everyday acts can come to symbolise agency and reclaiming control. This seems particularly relevant when considering how women represented the way in which they decorated their homes or prepared food or created a garden. Again, this was relevant in the present and in the future. Through these acts, abstract concepts such as agency and resistance start to have very real and embodied manifestations. Nature, for example, appeared to have strong associations with harmony and freedom, and so access to nature became important for the women who took part in the research. That might be through gardening, or it might be through going for walks in the countryside or visits to the coast.

By combining these various elements of memory, imagination and embodiment together it is possible to state that the management of the physical home becomes a manifestation for agency, resistance and the expression of a hope for a more harmonious life. To help make sense of these ideas the work of Venessa May (2011) and the concept of belonging proves to be very useful.

This work has been developed for publication (Bird, 2017) and my plans are to explore in greater detail how imagination and belonging shape the experiences of moving away from domestic violence abuse. This will involve working with a wider range of participants from different backgrounds and locations.


Jamie Bird is an HCPC-registered art therapist and an arts-based researcher based at the University of Derby, UK. Up until recently he was leading an academic department that delivered education and training in the fields of occupational therapy, counselling and psychotherapy, and the arts therapies. He now works solely within the research centre in the College of Health and Social Care at the University of Derby. His role involves developing his own research, helping others in the research centre and across the college to develop their research ideas, and assisting with the operational running of the research centre. The University of Derby aspires to enhance its REF output and all aspects of his role contribute to that vision. His personal areas of interest include issues of concern around asylum and refuge, domestic violence and abuse, and developing a quantitative evidence base for the arts therapies so as to help with the commissioning of arts therapies within health and social care. Much of his methodological experience has been centred on using the creative arts to engage the imagination of participants, researchers and audiences. In terms of philosophy, that methodology is founded upon the principles of phenomenology and the politics of emancipation and social action.


Bird, J. (2017) Bird, J. (2017) Art therapy, arts-based research and transitional stories of domestic violence and abuse. International Journal of Art Therapy

Brison, S. (2002). Aftermath: Violence and the remaking of the self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

May, V. (2011) Self, Belonging and Social Change. Sociology, Vol.45, No.3, pp.363-378

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