Visualising pasts, futures, and the present: how can creative research methods enable reflection, reflexivity, and imagination?

Dawn Mannay


This introductory section considers the ways in which time acts as a central tool of inquiry in academic research. It sets out how time is explored in different fields and topics of interest in academic disciplines and cultural institutions. It also contemplates time on an individual level, in reference to both participants and researchers. Pasts, presents, and positionalities can impact on research relationships and the data that are generated and analysed, making biography and relationality an important area for reflexivity. Additionally, in terms of practicalities, there is a reflection on the amount of time researchers can dedicate to their projects and how creative methods could be a tool to expand the temporal restrictions of research studies.

Time is of central concern across academic disciplines. As Sandelowski (1999) contends: “while past time is the central concern in history, and past-present-future time is a central concern in narrative study, the politics of time is a central concern in critical theory inquiry” (p. 80). Nonetheless, these categorisations only represent an emphasis and there is always some form of temporal fluidity within disciplinary boundaries. For example, whilst artefacts are the lifeblood of museum exhibitions because of their ability to communicate how it felt to live in particular points in history, curators are keen to engage contemporary audiences with the emotional landscapes of these histories so that the past does not recede from living memory (ToutSmith, 2018).

Museums have also engaged with young people to democratise collections, reconfiguring what counts as knowledge, through co-production and shifting representations of objects to novel re-representations offered by new generations; in this process of “hacking,” traditional understandings are challenged and troubled (McSweeney & Stewart, 2017). In history too, artefacts have been offered a new purpose as tools to improve the emotional health and wellbeing of adolescents. For example, Loughran (2020) drew on photographic and written material from past cultures as a productive and challenging form of stimulus, which offered young people thought-provoking evidence about human practices, yet provided historical distance that enabled conversations to be less focused on individual experiences - and be less intrusive or uncomfortable.

In the field of social sciences, the Timescapes project1 was the first major qualitative longitudinal study to be funded in the United Kingdom (Neale, 2007). Building on earlier work examining the significance of time and temporality in people’s lives (Neale & Flowerdew, 2003), the Timescapes project explored how personal and family relationships develop and change over time. Timescapes included a number of studies that applied qualitative inquiries longitudinally and reflected on key moments, transitions, trajectories, and periods of elapsed time. These studies drew on standardised approaches in longitudinal qualitative research such as time-lapsed repeat interviews with participants; however, they also incorporated creative approaches to explore how participants’ accounts connect with wider patterns of sociohistorical change.

For example, in one of the studies, as well as interviewing fathers at different points in time, Shirani and Henwood (2011a, 2011b) also introduced a creative element to some of these interviews. The fathers interviewed were presented with a range of historical and contemporary photographs representing change in ideals of fatherhood and masculinity. These photographs enabled temporal comparisons to be made more easily in the interviews and facilitated an understanding of participants’ shifting identifications with dominant visual tropes of fatherhood that had altered through historical time, and the ways in which these impacted on their evolving paternal subjectivities.

In the same way that academic disciplines like history, museum studies, and the social sciences illustrate an interest in temporal fluidity, time is equally important on an individual level. As Berger (1972) contends:

[T]he present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but important nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past, which is inseparable from it. “I am” includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.

(p. 370)

Accordingly, in qualitative research, which is interested in the subjective experiences and meaning-making of participants, it can be useful to gain an understanding of their past, their present, and their ideas of possible future selves. For Walkerdine (1997), social science research “provides not only ways of seeing others, but ways of understanding ourselves” (p. 15); and researchers also need to be keenly aware of the ways in which their own pasts and present impact on the research process and be reflexive about their positionality (Coffey, 1999; Roberts, 2018; Sheppard, 2018).

Another temporal aspect to consider is of the amount of time that researchers can dedicate to data gathering, processes of analysis, and the production of research outputs in an academic context of “speeded up time” (Baraitser & Brook, 2019). Universities centralise the importance of dissemination and impact, and researchers are expected to write and to publish at speed to keep their accounts relevant before they become obsolete (Braun, 2020; Mannay & Morgan, 2015). For Mills and Ratcliffe (2012) this focus on efficiency and competitive advantage narrows the opportunity to engender “the unpredictable, the tangential and the creative” - essential aspects of qualitative inquiry - “so that all that remains is ‘methodological instrumentalism’” (p. 152). Accordingly, it is useful to consider how time-bounded projects can make the best use of the time available and use creative techniques to extend the possibilities for evoking nuanced understandings of research topics within these temporal limitations.

Some of the previous studies discussed have touched on research techniques often used in creative approaches, such as artefacts and photographs, and this chapter is concerned with creative methodologies. “Creative research methods” has become an umbrella term to describe a range of techniques, including photography, collage, cellphilm,2 drawing, sandboxing, zines, and dance. Creative methods feature in a number of academic disciplines, such as visual sociology (Harper, 2012), applied anthropology (Pink, 2007), human geography (Rose, 2016), qualitative psychology (Reavey, 2011), and education studies (Kara, Lemon, Mannay, & Mcpherson, 2020). They can be researcher initiated or utilised in more participatory frames and be used in combination with other qualitative techniques.

The following sections of this chapter will explore how creative methods can be employed in qualitative research and their relationship with different aspects of time. Fighting familiarity will consider the issue of insider research and the importance of both making the familiar strange for the researcher and techniques to engender defamiliarisation for participants, discussing the techniques of drawing, collage, and photo elicitation. Timelining the past in the present will discuss the usefulness of timelines for examining the past, and how knowledge of biography facilitates an understanding of the present in activities involving collage, word bubble activities, and sandboxing. Formulating futures will focus on “possible selves” and the extent to which thinking through the future provides insight into past events and everyday lives.

Fighting familiarity

I was initially drawn to employing creative techniques in my research because of their potential to “fight familiarity” (Delamont & Atkinson, 1995). In ethnographic studies there have been longstanding tensions around the researchers’ memories, perspectives, and over-familiarity with participants, place, or topic overshadowing the fieldwork process (Becker, 1971; Greer, 1964; Morriss, 2016; Sikes, 2006). The research, discussed in this section, was a study of mothers and their daughters in a marginalised locale, exploring gender, generation, and education. I had lived in the area, was a mother of a daughter, and, as I have discussed previously, the connections of place, family and friendship networks, and local community resources meant that our children had “shared playgroups, schools, and packets of crisps” (Mannay, 2010, p. 93). In well-known territory as a partial insider, there was a concern that my findings would be overshadowed by the enclosed, self-contained world of common understanding (Mannay, 2010, 2016), an over-familiarity which I needed to resolve.

Of course, there is no easy insider-outsider dichotomy (Lisiak & Krzyzowski, 2018). My time living in the research site engendered forms of nearness, whilst simultaneously my role as researcher, rather than resident, shifted me into a space of difference. This positioning is resonant of Robert’s (2018) conceptualisation of the “transient insider” who oscillates between positions of distance from and alignment with the research site and its communities. This transience has temporal qualities, the time spent in the research area before becoming a researcher, shared biographies and memories of times and places, and the different conceptualisation of these remembrances through the lens of an ever-shifting present. Nevertheless, these indigenous elements meant that in qualitative interviewing I would interrupt with my subjective recollections, and participants would find my questions puzzling: “you already know that.” Consequently, it was important to find a way to move beyond these webs of familiarity and design activities that could precede my interviews with participants.

Introducing a creative element to the process of data production can potentially provide different ways of knowing and understanding (Gauntlett, 2007). Consequently, the use of creative techniques in qualitative research can be one way to overcome the confines of language, open up experience, and make the familiar strange. In this study (Mannay, 2012) participants were involved in photo elicitation, collage production, and mapping. The photo elicitation activity involved the participants taking photographs with a disposable camera. These photographs were later discussed in an elicitation interview, where the participants’ photographs formed the basis of the interview discussion. For the collage activity, participants curated images from resources including magazines, newspapers, advertising materials, and food packaging, and for the mapping activity they created hand-drawn illustrative pictures. The collaging and mapping activities also formed the basis of an elicitation interview.

In these activities, participants visually relayed aspects of their households, their local area, and the individuals, activities, and material possessions that were important in their lives. There was also a “possible selves” activity, which I will return to in the later section: Formulating futures. The activities were completed by participants in their own homes to quieten the intrusive voice of the researcher. This absence provided an element of freedom for participants to direct their creative outputs, however, there were often other forms of intrusion from friends or family members that impacted on what was and was not represented (see Mannay, 2013a). The activities were loosely structured, as participants were asked to represent things in their lives both inside and outside of the home, and participants created their responses over a number of days or weeks.

This enabled time for participants to be free from research questions and the researcher, as a strategy to fight familiarity, which was the key purpose of introducing creative elements of data production. As noted, there were some constraints evoked by the presence of others, which were explored in the following elicitation interviews. However, overall, this approach facilitated more time for participants to consider their everyday lives, facilitating space for reflection and a process of defamiliarisation for participants.

For example, as illustrated in Figure 7.1, one participant included an image of her two daughters in her hand-drawn map (see Mannay, 2010, 2016). In our elicitation interview, she said that she deliberately altered the alignment of this aspect of the drawing because in creating the map she came to realise how one daughter was taking all her attention, whilst the other daughter was pushed into the background - and that this was something she wanted to address going

An image of two daughters

FIGURE 7.1 An image of two daughters

forward. This may already have been “known,” yet pushed out of consciousness in the business of everyday life; but it is in the act of reflecting and representing these relational aspects that this comes to the forefront and is more deeply acknowledged and felt. The activity facilitated an opportunity for the participant to be reflexive about how she spent her time as a resource of care, and the ways in which this privileged one of her daughters. Importantly, this time to reflect was engendered by the making process as the participant constructed their hand-drawn map and considered how its contents could and should be represented.

Although drawing is primarily regarded as an appropriate method for working with children, there are now “multiple examples and considerable interest in how drawing can help open up new territory and facilitate the production of new insights with a wide range of participant groups” (Lyon, 2020, p. 306). The very process of drawing can be integral to knowledge discovery and development (McGuirk, 2011), and in this study (Mannay, 2012) these elements were not confined to drawing but were demonstrated by participants using collage and photo elicitation. For example, a 15-year-old participant came across a picture of prison bars in a magazine and used it in her collage. In the elicitation interview the participant explained that she was not looking for an image of a jail, but that the process of looking through magazines generated new ideas. Discussing her collage, she explained how this particular image resonated with her everyday experiences: “I feel like I’m in jail because I’m never allowed out” (Mannay, 2010, p. 102).

In relation to photography, a participant in her early 20s had attempted to take a photograph of her car from her living room window but the separating glass pane acted to reframe the subject so that the viewer was presented with participant’s hands and the camera inside her home (see Mannay, 2014). As the camera used was disposable it was not apparent that the image had “gone wrong” until the elicitation interview. However, the image lead to conversations around positioning of “inbetweenness,” and the conflict between loyalties to home and the working-class area, and aspirations for social mobility. As well as the participant’s journeys between home and a local university, as a commuter, continually entering and re-entering different physical and psychological spaces. The car, purchased with a higher education funding grant, is out-of-reach and made invisible in the photograph, replaced with the participant within the maternal home - and it is the grammar of the image leads to these conversations.

The potential of drawing, collage, and photography to fight familiarity, enable defamiliarisation, and open up space for reflexivity has been reported in a number of studies (see Burge, Godinho, Knottenbelt, & Loads, 2016; Culshaw, 2019; Richardson, 2015). Time is central in these processes because engaging in creative methodologies extends the time that participants reflectively engage with the topics under study. However, it is important to consider that participants’ time is valuable, and they may not want to or have capacity to engage in creative activities prior to an interview. For this reason, participants’ time should be respected, and a choice should be provided for participants to engage with creative activities or to only take part in an interview if this is their preference.

Nonetheless, the hours spent by participants looking, making, and interpreting what has been created can develop a foundational base to consider in the accompanying elicitation interview. In this way, data production is not constrained to the limited timeframe of an interview, rather the interview is the collaborative space in which participants’ wider engagements with data generation are shared and explored. The examples presented in this section have been orientated around participants’ reflections of the “here and now” but, as will be discussed in the next section, creative techniques can also be used to examine the past and the intricacies of biography.

Timelining the past in the present

Timelines can be introduced to participants to facilitate a recollection and sequencing of personal events denoting the “lived through life.” They have been used to examine particular life events or sequences of time (Adriansen, 2012; Mannay & Creaghan, 2016; Sheridan, Chamberlain, & Dupuis, 2011) and to explore wider biographies from early remembrances to the present day (Berends, 2011). They can be facilitated through a simple line foundation to be marked with text (Adriansen, 2012; Mannay & Creaghan, 2016), annotated with photographs (Sheridan et al., 2011), or use more complex and metaphorical images as in the “rivers of experience” approach (lantaffi, 2011).

Used as the basis for an elicitation interview, timelines can be useful tools “to transform the event-as-experienced into the event-as-told” (Sandelowski, 1999, p. 83). Returning to the points around fighting familiarity raised in the preceding section, timelines aid the exploration of data as they do not constrain the participants to a set of questions, which can often produce a narrow set of answers and are constrained by the familiarity of the researcher (lantaffi, 2011). Additionally, comparisons of interview data in the same study of interviews and interviews guided by timelines found that when timelines are included, interview discussions were longer and included additional topics of remembrance (Milosevic et al., 2020). Furthermore, as this section illustrates, in generating an overview of the past, timelines can also facilitate more nuanced understandings of participants’ subjective meaning-making in the present.

In work with colleagues (Mannay et al., 2018) interested in experiences of pregnancy and motherhood as critical periods of transition in the life course, we drew on the technique of timelining to facilitate life history interviews. The study worked with ten mothers who were less than 30 weeks pregnant in their initial interview, with a follow-up interview conducted before the birth. Prior to the first interview, seven of the women created a timeline that reflected on their lives from childhood to their current pregnancy. The timeline template was a simple line design, but participants were also provided with emotion stickers (see Gabb & Fink, 2015) to reflect how they felt at different points in their biography.

The emotion stickers were coded by colour and included options such as happy, sad, angry, and calm.

Participants were provided with materials and completed timelines individually in their own homes, which were then shared in an elicitation interview. The timeline activity extended the temporal constraints of the project as it enabled participants to: “construct a biographic self reflexively, in their own time, and then share this with the researcher to offer a more nuanced understanding of ‘the now’” (Mannay et al., 2018, p. 770). The initial interview centralised the timelines and this was followed by a second interview. In preparation for the second interview, participants were provided with a collage kit (card, scissors, glue, and other materials to create a collage), which four completed, and a word bubble activity (a photograph of a pregnant individual with empty word bubbles to annotate), which six completed. These activities were introduced to represent participants’ feelings around their pregnancy. After discussing the collages and word bubble activities, participants and researchers engaged in a sandboxing activity.

Drawing from the psychoanalytical therapeutic tool, the “world technique” (Lowenfeld, 1950), sandboxing is the distinct development of this approach as a tool for qualitative research inquiry (see Mannay, Staples, & Edwards, 2017). The sandboxing technique enables participants to create three-dimensional scenes, pictures, or abstract designs in a tray filled with sand and a range of miniature, realistic, and fantasy figures, and everyday objects. The activity facilitated reflection on the impact of pregnancy on participants’ everyday lives, but researchers also engaged with sandboxing to reflect on their experiences of pregnancy. The shared experience of motherhood enabled a discussion between two women, researcher and participant, about their differential understandings of this shared physiological experience. These differential understandings had temporal elements as, at the time of the interviews, one researcher was pregnant and still anticipating the role of mother that the participants represented, whilst two of the researchers had grown-up children and were able to reflect on and compare their experiences which had occurred more than two decades earlier.

“The body imprints its own emplaced past into its present experience” (Edwards, 2014, p. 180) and timelines enabled an understanding of participants’ subjective meaning-making in relation to their pasts. However, the timelines also served to provide a more nuanced understanding of participants’ present experiences; and the ways in which their presents were inflected by their pasts became evident through the collage, word bubble, and sandboxing activities. For example, one participant included a model of a tiger in her “sand scene” in the sandboxing activity. The discussion around these figures was focused on the participant’s need to protect the new baby, and later child. In analysing the interview data, these conversations became more poignant in relation to the participant’s timeline where she has discussed being bullied herself as a child.

In the sandboxing activity, another participant engaged in discussing the researcher’s “sand scene” but did not place any figures in her own sand tray.

Instead, the participant used the sand as a canvas to etch out a single word representing her current pregnancy and being a mother to her four-year-old and 17-month-old children: “complete.” This was a poignant representation of being pregnant from “a participant whose biography had been characterized by schoolbased bullying, abusive intimate relationships, and a series of three miscarriages” (Mannay et al., 2018, p. 771). The participant had also faced barriers and disappointments in terms of educational achievement and employment, which were set out in the timeline and annotated with emotion stickers. However, she felt confident in her role as mother, and this new pregnancy was represented as a life event that helped her to feel “complete.”

Introducing creative modes of data production, timelines, collages, text bubbles, and sandboxing acted to broaden and deepen the data set of a relatively small-scale study. The initial timeline activity generated accounts that were biographical; this overview of the past enabled a more nuanced understanding of the participants’ current meaning-making and approaches to motherhood. Returning to the work of Berger (1972) set out in the chapter introduction: ‘“I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical” (p. 370) - these methodological techniques facilitated an insight into the “I am.” As well as considering the past, the present, and the past in the present, it is also important to think about the role the future, and the part thoughts of the future play in participants’ subjective meaning-making, which will be the focus of the following section.

Formulating futures

Although there are exceptions (Valtonen & Veijola, 2011), qualitative researchers appear to have devoted relatively little attention to the area of sleep in their research practices and their own sleepwork - where brain activity continues (see Gilliat-Ray, in press). However, sleep is important as it is where we dream - and dreams provide an insight to our hopes, our fears, and the limitations of what we regard as possible. This was illustrated in a study by Perez (2007) which took a participatory approach and coproduced data with participants that later featured in text-based and film outputs. The topic of dreaming was selected by participants as dreams offer a simple and graphic way of illustrating the distance that both separates and unites communities. The study demonstrated the contrast between the dreams of those who have access to basic resources and those who do not, communicating how some individuals dare to imagine a better future and struggle to achieve it, whilst others dare not even mention desires that are unattainable - yet dream of not losing their dreams. In my own work, I have asked participants to explore their futures not through dreaming, but in relation to the conscious dreams, aspirations, hopes, and fears of future “possible selves.”

The earlier section in this chapter, Fighting familiarity, set out how participants engaged with photo elicitation, mapping, and collaging to discuss their everyday lives. However, in that study (Mannay, 2012), to move beyond the everyday and examine intergenerational continuities and discontinuities it was also important to develop a research approach that engendered attention to temporality. I drew on the work of Markus and Nurius (1986) who provided a conceptual link between cognition and motivation by exploring individuals’ possible selves: their “ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming” (p. 954).

Although influential and frequently employed (Chang, Chen, Greenberger, Dooley, & Heckhausen, 2006; Guimond et al., 2007), the approach established by Markus and Nurius’ (1986) early work has been criticised for the forced choices presented in their questionnaire, which limit participants’ responses to the categories offered by the researchers. More recent qualitative work has demonstrated how orientation to the future occurs within a certain social, geographical, cultural, and historical context that acts as a “straitjacket” on our ability to envision and realise future possibilities (Casey, 2008; Fletcher, 2007; King & Hicks, 2007; Lobenstine et al., 2004; Susinos, Calvo, & Rojas, 2009). These more compatible approaches were considered to design open “possible selves” activities in my research where participants could respond with written narratives, collages, photographs, or drawings (Mannay, 2012, 2014).

The “possible selves” activities were part of the study discussed in the section Fighting familiarity (Mannay, 2012), and they were introduced to explore how ideas of the future can be understood in relation to the present and the past. Daughters in the study were asked to write a narrative or create a visual representation of their “possible self,” reflecting on the positive possible self they would like to become and the negative possible self that they would want to avoid becoming. Mothers of the daughters were asked to engage with the same task and an additional activity where they also produced accounts of positive and negative “possible selves” but from the reflective perspective of how they thought they would have completed these when they were the same age as their daughter was at the time of the study. This provided some insight into the ways in which mothers’ hopes and fears for their futures had changed or demonstrated continuity over time, and the extent to which they framed mothers’ ideas about the futures of their daughters.

We have agency over our own interpretations of events and are not victims of our own biographies (lantaffi, 2011), yet the “specificity of place and politics has to be reckoned with in making an account of anybody’s life, and their use of their own past” (Steedman, 1986, p. 6). In mothers’ accounts, the retrospective “possible selves” narratives from the perspectives of being their daughters’ age were constrained by the circumstances of past events. One mother wrote about and discussed how the domestic violence she grew up with meant that she had wanted to be a nurse as adult, as a response to this violence and the need to make things better. The ambition to go into nursing was not fulfilled but the past violence remained in the participant’s account of possible future selves from the perspective of the present. As de Beauvoir (1949) argues, for women, the future is often haunted by phantoms of the past and in this participant’s discussion ofa future self, attention was paid to her own daughters’ lives and bringing them up in a way that would mean that they would not accept any forms of domestic abuse.

Everyday life, then, represents a constant and continual state of fluidity in an ever-changing landscape of who we might have been and who we might still become. A continuous fluidity that Ringrose and Renold (2011) argue is intensified in the lives of girls and women; therefore, both continuities and contradictions arise between past, future, and present selves (Mannay, 2013b). The use of a “possible selves” framework can provide an insight into participants hopes, dreams, and aims, and at the same time offer a platform to consider how what they can imagine for their futures is informed by past events and the context of the lived present.

Concluding thoughts

For Baraitser and Brook (2019) time “is not the backdrop to social life, but produces the political and social realities in which we live” (n.p.). Consequently, time is a central aspect to all qualitative social research. For the researcher, time that can be spent working on projects may be limited and it is important to consider how temporal boundaries can be negotiated by the use of particular qualitative approaches. Similarly, participants may not always have time to reflect on their everyday lives, pasts, and futures, and methodological techniques need to be able to provide time and space for reflection and reflexivity.

This chapter has proposed that creative methods can be one way of addressing these temporal issues. It has explored how collage, mapping, and photo elicitation can fight familiarity and engender defamiliarisation, the ways in which timelines can provide insights into life histories and lived presents, and the opportunities for future-oriented possible selves narratives to highlight aspects of the past. However, it is imperative to note that not all participants will have the inclination or time to engage in creative activities, and there should always be some flexibility in the research design to enable elements of choice in terms of the techniques of data generation.

It is also important to appreciate that participants will engage with activities differently. The chapter introduced the example of a participant who wrote the word “complete” in their sand tray. This response could have been interpreted as a rejection of the sandboxing activity, yet in using the sand to write a simple word the participant communicated a poignant representation of her present that was intricately connected to her biographical journey. Additionally, the space of creativity is worth considering as participants can generate materials at home as a strategy to quieten the voice of the researcher; however, others in the home can influence what is produced and silenced in domestic settings. The process of making can, and should, be discussed in the later elicitation interview but there are necessary advantages and limitations to how, where, and with whom creative data is produced.

Creative approaches then are not a panacea for solving all temporal issues or understanding the intricacies of time, they can be unpredictable and sometimes unsuitable, and engender openness or reticence; and an awareness of the value of participants’ time and the extent to which the researcher can expect extended involvement is a question of both practicalities and ethics. However, “any knowledge is inevitably situated in a particular place and moment . . . always changing and emergent” (Harris, 2007, p. 4), and if qualitative research is interested in the subjective meaning-making of participants then it should consider a methodological toolbox that can unpick the intricacies of time. In terms of visualising pasts, futures, and the present, creative research methods can enable forms of reflection, reflexivity, and imagination that help to unpack the temporal aspects of qualitative inquiry.


I would like to acknowledge all of the participants and co-researchers in the projects discussed in this chapter. I would also like to thank the organisers of the Sixth Annual Qualitative Research Symposium: Tick Tock: Unpacking Temporal Aspects of Qualitative Inquiry for inviting me to contribute to this edited collection and the reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions to develop the initial draft of this chapter.


  • 1 Further information about the Timescapes project can be found at www.timescapes.leeds.
  • 2 The term cellphilm refers to using a mobile phone to make short films (see for example, MacEntee, Burkholder, & SchwabCartas, 2016).


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