Methodologies of Participation: Shared Anthropology by John Morrison

This article is the first part of ‘Methodologies of Participation: Shared Anthropology, Corporate Parenting and Care Experience by John Morrison. It includes an introduction, an audio recording and a transcript of John Morrison talking through methodologies of participation he is bringing together in his PhD which involve shared anthropology and ethnofiction.  In particular he is interested to explore how these methodologies and techniques might be helpful in creating participatory circumstances for people with care experience to formulate the policy which informs what is being discussed as ‘corporate parenting’.

Jean Rouch
Jean Rouch


John Morrison is someone who works in an epistemologically interesting way. What I mean by this is that he has been very interesting in how he approaches knowledge, knowing and learning which takes into view more than is commonly engaged with in formal education. I have enjoyed collaborating with him over years as the experimental methods that he explores have originated some very useful and powerful ideas which have taken root in Ragged University.


Often people working from within formal education struggle to find ways to value the knowledge and learning which happens outside their context largely due to the administrative constraints put upon them. John, through effort and a natural intrigue in learning, manages to avoid being stranded in one world or another.


It has been useful on a personal level because of the creative educational activities which we have worked on together, but as well as this he has brought thoughtful introductions of the elements of coded into formal education out to the informal via the flexibility which only comes through humanized interpersonal interactions. He is someone who carries his personality with him at all times and therefore manages to be relatable – and have the knowledge he has as relatable.


In discussing methods of exploration and learning over time with him, it has been a pleasure witnessing the openness of his methods. It is obvious if you spend any time with him, that he is on a search for understanding and discovery for something in the educational field which has profound usefulness whilst having that attractive quality of being pleasurable.


One of the many lines of thinking and resources which he has introduced is the book ‘Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future’ by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe which speaks of existing in a time where so much is going on that we have to find new ways of doing things. It is a sort of manifesto for cognicising the changing human habitat and how the human is changing the habitat.


You can see the fundamental elements of the book being discussed in the following video:



This introduces the kind of experimentalism that John is engaging in, whereby in the educational context, I sense he is striving to leave students and readers with instincts rather than blocks of data or rote processes. In Whiplash they speak about “Compass over Map”; only with this kind of approach can we move from the simplistic into the complex terrains that are a reality but our human society does not know how to deal with.


Our world is cluttered with so much backward looking Victoriana to deal with a merging of subjects, cultures, fields, skills, perceptions which does not fit into the categorical templates which education has come to lean on heavily. The world and the demands put on the individual are no longer as recognisable to the specious administrations of how we have communicated knowledge and learning; we are all required to blend computer science with design, chemistry with physics, biology with psychology, and so on and so on and so on….


It is with this spirit that I appreciate the work John does as a part of a manifest Porous University which at this point is only tangible through the acts which an individual like him embodies. The University structures that exist are build more in the spirit of fortresses than as social structures which are capable of bringing in and holding a diversity of culture – as we find in the wild community context.


By his actions the boundaries are returned to their nominal state allowing a living ecology to develop, ideas to spark and intrigues to become cultivated. This I see as the renewal of the institution without which there is no possible future on the same scale or practicality. It signals the transcendence, adaptation or expansion of the hermeneutic loop rather than the development of the hermetic seal.



The Search For New Instruments

The audio recording is of the presentation which John gave to provide a grounds for bringing multiple people and their viewpoints together in a single space. Community partners like Ragged University and people involved in trying to glean a clear and practical understanding of corporate parenting are on a quest to find means of communication out of which useful collaborations can emerge.


The session was not just a presentation on research design but it was also a setting to provoke a dynamic discussion in the room. Worth taking note is the aim to maximise the number of people involved in voicing, rather than the urge and compulsion to pair down and parse the number of voices introducing information into the discourse. As so often happens with the study of phenomena, simplification is used to try and avoid the complex – commonly only complicating the situation by exclusion.


His presentation covers:

Overview of the genesis or origin of the research area

  • Background on the topic – the culture he is exploring
  • This leads to the setting up of a problem area
  • Offering of a potential solution to that problem


“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation” – attributed to Plato, this quote engenders much of the energy and spirit of the research approach John Morrison is developing


Jean Rouch features heavily in the research methodology that John is evolving. He is not trying to reverse engineer Rouch’s approach but instead he talks about ingesting and taking inspiration from it to gain from the insights that the method confers through play and taking in a range of inputs.


“By taking inspiration from Jean Rouch and other very inclusive approaches the aim is to generate new insights to the real and perceived barriers to participation in higher education among care leavers and those from widening participation backgrounds to support sustainable change, to inform policy that can help corporate parents to better support people to navigate complex power structures on the next step of their journeys”.


This is his key statement which pertains to the module he is teaching and also the thesis that forms the core of his PhD. Key themes include identity, otherness, the empowerment of the people involved, emancipation of the people involved, representation, court empathy, ideas about family, corporate vs normal parenting….


The allegory of the research design he makes is the setting out of a blueprint of a house where the philosophical foundations are laid on which you build out from. The philosophical foundations he articulates are based on constructivist values which espouse the nature of reality is multifaceted, and that we experience reality from multiple perspectives, and by that nature it is dynamic.


The way that we come to know aspects of people working would be interpretivist – which is contrasted with more positivist with dimensions of natural science based research. Contrasting the positivist approach with that of the interpretivist, John suggests that interpretivism takes on the perspective that it is much more likely that there will be multiple agents involved and the research strategy is building out from that idea.


The Research Questions

The research questions related essentially to an investigation of shared anthropology – a kind of recovery of Jean Rouch’s approach taking into consideration how the lens based technologies of today can influence each aspect of that approach.


He is also exploring how useful it could be for corporate parents and how it could apply knowledge which is gained from such processes and methodologies.


The research strategy John describes as participatory action research. If you were thinking of different models of research design, pure research would be exploring something creating new knowledge within itself; applied knowledge where the emphasis is about actioning change. John explains that he wants to be actioning change with the people he is working with at each stage.


Alongside this, the research is grounded. Rather than imposing a theoretical model on the people and context, he is starting with data which is existing and informing a qualitative strategy. Shared anthropology – as informed by Jean Rouch’s influence – is very compatible to that.


Specific Methods

Starting with sequential narrative based interviews, borrowing from the HEI talk aloud methods to create a sort of autoethnographic account as he progresses through the research project. This provides a documentary of the process he is living with others using some of the digital media which is being explored as a medium.


There are three lenses we can come to understand the research design through:

  • Sociological – the people involved in the study
  • Methodological – the methods employed with the people, the form of engagement
  • Technological – the specifics of the technology and the role that each one plays


John explains that for him the sociological is a misrepresented and underrepresented group of young people in Scottish Higher Education – young people who are care experienced as well as some of the widening participation students. The methodological part is recovery of the participatory aspects of Jean Rouch’s creative practice. The technological part is having a look at how the affordances of digital media can build out on aspects of shared anthropology.


One of the key parts of the participatory design is that young people are not just involved in the acquisition of data but in the coding stages and the sharing and distribution of that data as well as the ownership of it afterwards.


The Sociology of Young People Who Are Care Experienced

Definition brought from corporate parenting training given by Peter Tormey who is chair of the Corporate Parenting Group at Edinburgh Napier University. This borrowed from Care Scotland’s work around this.


Care experience is used to describe a person who has been looked after by the state. There are a few ways which that can happen. In Scotland we are talking about less than 1% of the population that are care experienced – approximately 15,000 young people.


The types of care which people can go into is varied. Roughly it is 35% of young people who are in foster care from that less than 1% of total population. 10% of those are residential and living in a children’s unit or house; about 28% are in kinship care which means living with friends or a relative; 25% are at home – living with parents but with involvement from social services; and 2% is other, where they may be living with a different community.
Foster and kinship represents the largest proportion.


John clarifies when he talks about misrepresented and underrepresented. There is stigma around the label and the ‘Who Cares? Scotland’ project highlights the idea of “needs not deeds”. The reason for people going into care in 90% of the cases are in ‘need of care and affection’ as opposed to any deed or offence which they may have committed themselves.


What percentage of 19 year old care leavers enter higher education in Scotland ?


Most people working in a university will appreciate that we are comparing 40% of young people who are not care experienced go into university. The Scottish government quotes figures of something like 5% however, if you dig a little deeper into that flaws are in the data. It is not as black and white as it may seem, like many statistical figures.


Essentially they were taking out data from when people were leaving school at the stage when they were saying ‘where do I go next ?’ – what kind of positive destination are people going into ?… So in actuality the number could be a lot less, and in actuality, the people who are self declaring in Edinburgh Napier University is less that 1%


So we have an underrepresentation in higher education and we have a scarily bent over representation in the homeless and prison populations. So here we can see that 33% of young people in prison and 33% of adult prisoners self report as having previously been in care in Scottish prison services. Again, the data probably doesnt show the full extent.


It is estimated in the corporate parenting plan from Police Scotland that it is probably higher than that. 30% plus of homeless people have experienced the care system. So starting off where there is a need not a deed, there is clearly plenty of room for improvement in looking after the young people who are in this category of facing a duty of care by the government.


Now I am going to show you a short clip from Lemn Sissay’s TED talk. He is a playwright and also an actor who talks very openly about his care experience. There is an important part here which leads us onto the next part of the talk.



“….It seems that writers know that the child outside of family reflects on what family truly is, more than what it promotes itself to be. That is, they also use extraordinary skills to deal with extraordinary situations on a daily basis. How have we not made the connection ? And why have we not made the connection ? How has that happened between these incredible characters of popular culture and religions, and the fostered, adopted or orphaned child in our midst ? It is not our pity that they need, it is our respect.”


I think that segways quite nicely into this section where ‘labels are meant for jars and not people’. That represents quite nicely this post-positivist domain that this research is fitting into. The first time I came across that was from a Ragged talk and it was something that really resonated.
So if we dig a bit deeper into care leaver identity, when I was doing my teaching certificate at Edinburgh Napier, it was the first time I came across the term and I was working with George Wilson who at the time was the named person for care experienced people at the university.


We created a blended online course and we were exploring how potential uses of online technology could be useful for hard to reach learners and we looked more deeply at young people with care experience.


So the research problem around aiming to generate new insights into real and perceived barriers for participation of young care leavers in higher education in Scotland from widening participation backgrounds – including their perspective in policy was my aim.


This is someone we interviewed in that post grad teaching certificate. She was telling us that in her study she was actually the first recipient of the Lemn Sissay Scholarship grant, so she was looking at the transitional challenges that young people are facing in higher education when coming from care.
She was saying that one of the key themes was what was ‘corporate versus normal parenting’, which is what I wanted to have a little bit of discussion around at the end of the day. So that was the kind of starting point for my grounded approach for talking to other people.


Another interesting thing which came out of the data element is that teachers are cited as being looked after by young people as the most influential and consistent in their lives. I think this is an important point.


In the modules that I have been teaching, I have been teaching a design thinking module. My post grad degree was in product design and service design, and so I was applying aspects of shared anthropology through the prism of service design which involved working with 3rd year students who were direct entrants onto our degree program who faced different challenges for assimilating into a different environment. They could also be the first from their family going into university.


So they were quite familiar with the ideas around care experience going into university, and this is some of the campaigns which they produced at the end of that module.


This one I especially liked. This is just a picture of a paramedic on the site. It is about challenging the negative stigma around care experience; it says “this person saves lives; this person person has dedicated their life to helping people; this person was told they would never amount to anything; this person was in care until they were 18. Help care leavers to find their way into higher education and maybe one day they will help you”.


And the other project we worked with was Striather Castle where students created a touch activated poster in digital ink where there was sound recordings put into the posters. So they were capturing some of the ideas which were challenging some of the stereotypes around the labelling of care experienced young people.


Methods Section

Digging a little bit deeper into shared anthropology, this quote becomes important: “Whatever you do for me but without me, you do against me” – Mahatma Gandi


It is quite an extreme statement but we can see how important it is to include young people in the design of policy which is essentially being created for them. This was something which was reflected very deeply into the DNA of shared anthropology. Let me give you a quick overview of Jean Rouch’s approach and show you how I was taking inspiration from that while working with the students in the early stages of the PhD.


The PhD is part time and I have just transitioned into the second year so it is an early stage and my idea was to work with Edinburgh Napier students to begin with, learn lessons about the approach, working with the students, and then take that knowledge outside and start working with some outside organisations.


Jean Rouch described himself as a poet and engineer, so there is something interesting about the science and the art coming together which I think is very well represented in digital media in interactions. Quite a French juxtaposition – one which continues to fascinate me since discovering this about him.


I came across Jean Rouch initially in a symposium during a film festival by Dr Andrew Irvine of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology and I was explaining the energy of the PhD, and he said that ‘you should check out some of the films of Jean Rouch’ and some of the research they were doing there around contemporary visual ethnographic approaches.


So if we have a look at some of the influences of Jean Rouch himself he acknowledges the fictional uses of documentary film making, so we see Robert Flaherty’s ( influence; Soviet Futurist Dziga Vertov ( and the French writer Andre Breton’s surrealist manifesto


Manifesto of Surrealism
Click to Download a Copy of ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’

So there is quite a mixture of different things which are going on there, and you could spend a whole lecture on just picking up on aspects of these which are fascinating.


Read Part Two