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Jo Richie, Jenni Goricanec and Robert Hoskin
Republished with Permission from New Community Quarterly Journal


The term bricolage (which is a French word ‘tinkering’) can be used to describe a work produced from available products/resources. In social terms, Levi-Strauss (1967) used the term ‘social bricolage’ to describe how societies use resources that already exist in the social consciousness, or the way in which individuals retrieve and use knowledge in new and creative ways. More recently, bricolage has been used by Lincoln and Denzin (2005) to describe the handyman/woman who makes use of the tools available to complete a task. In their understanding, the social researcher pieces together different representations from what may be described as a complex situation using the diverse data collected.

Jo Richie, a participant in the OASES Graduate School of Sustainability and Social Change, investigated whether this bricolage approach could have relevance for her professional practice and in a wider social context, particularly as individuals retrieve and use knowledge creatively. This paper is an account of this exploration and emergent learning through making a ‘quilt’ which involved a process and practice of many layers shaping the eventual outcome. As we discovered, a simple undertaking can lead to complex results, reflecting the initial research design but also the creative play of those involved.

We present this exploration under the following headings:

  • Practice and praxis: an account of Jo’s work practice with reference to processes and the notion of completion
  • Guide to quilt making: an account of initial instructions given and the respective roles of those involved
  • The patchwork metaphor: how a crazy, eclectic patchwork quilt reflects the research bricoleur
  • The process: describing the emergent process of a group activity designed to reflect the crazy patchwork metaphor and the research process and participant responses
  • Discussion: exploring conclusions drawn from the exercise.
  • The wider context: the applicability of this study in the wider context of Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Learning.

This paper is presented for several reasons; the study is an exemplar of the distinctive educational practice of OASES, based on participatory, interactive and emergent approaches to research and learning. It is also an excellent example of social bricolage which has implications for future research methods and ways of investigating community issues and concerns. Further, it is a good example of a deliberative process, which makes it possible to visualise the relative components of the process. In this respect, the study integrates creative practice with theoretical intent.

Practice and praxis

Integrative Conversations (IC2) is a core unit in the second year of the OASES Graduate Program; it is a forum for participants to further develop new thinking and practice, as they contemplate proposals for their Master’s projects. In an exploration of their practice and praxis (reflections on practice), participants were invited to share and explore an example of how they practice in either life or a professional context. Jo chose to explore a piece of work she was completing that had presented her with logistical and methodological challenges.

In February 2014, she was contracted by Grampians Pyrenees Primary Care Partnerships to complete a service mapping and gap analysis to inform and guide the work of Grampians Partners in Recovery (GPIR). The work was in its third month when she commenced and due to be completed in May 2014. GPIR is a commonwealth-funded program aiming to better support people with severe and persistent mental illness and with complex needs, their carers and families, by assisting the multiple sectors, services and supports they come into contact with (and could benefit from) to work in a more collaborative, coordinated and integrated way (Health Department 2014). GPIR works with people with severe and persistent mental illness and a range of complex needs and with those who support them across the Grampians Region (including the Central Goldfields Shire) in regional Victoria. The area extends from Ballan to the South Australian border and covers 48,000 square kilometres.

Jo’s role was to consult with people with a lived experience of mental illness, their families and carers, mental health service providers and other service providers working with/supporting this population group, finding out about ways in which support was currently provided, identify where gaps in support exist and explore opportunities for PIR to work with existing service providers and others who support people with a severe mental illness.

The initial source of data derived from those identified as key stakeholders. Jo and her colleagues spoke with a wide range of people and heard the stories of those with a lived experience of severe and persistent mental illness, family members and carers, service providers (across multiple sectors) as well as regional managers from the Victorian Department of Health. As the stories were collated, the analysis began in earnest, searching for common threads linking the individuals’ stories through their experiences, frustrations and hopes. Jo immersed herself in the stories and began to identify the commonalities between them and derived clusters and emerging themes.

It was only as the themes started to emerge that a current literature review was completed, focusing on recovery-orientated practice. Recovery-oriented mental health practice is a central tenet of mental health reform across Victoria and Australia (Department of Health 2014a, Department of Health 2014b) and is pivotal to GPIR’s work.  Jo compared emerging themes with current literature and policy frameworks, contrasting what the data told her about stakeholders’ experiences with what the current policy directions were advocating. Rather than a judgement, what resulted was a description of what aligned and what didn’t and a series of recommendations GPIR could use to ensure the program continued to meet the needs and aspirations of the people they support.

Process and completion

Logistically, time was a significant challenge; the full report and recommendations were required to be completed in four months with and there was very little scope for extension.  For Jo, one of the issues that arose was a tension between the process of analysis (allowing the themes to emerge) and the capacity to produce a ‘finished product’ that would enable GPIR to meet their funding requirements. The praxis exercise undertaken in IC2 provided Jo with an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the processes she used to analyse data and to explore this tension.


As outlined, Jo started with participants’ stories and used the analysing process to allow key themes and issues to emerge. Rather than beginning with a distinct framework or concepts, she listened to what people were saying about a particular issue and collated their stories, looking for commonalities or threads that link them together. Her initial exposure to qualitative research was in a Fourth Year Honours Project, drawing on two methodologies, phenomenography and phenomenology. Although separate, both seek to understand the ways in which individuals experience and make sense of their experiences. Whereas phenomenology seeks to understand the complexity of individual lived experience (Schwandt 1994), phenomenography extends this, seeking to discover the ways in which people experience a phenomenon to create a larger consolidated understanding (Tesch 1990).

In exploring her praxis, Jo could determine that she drew from both methodologies in her work as a consultant, relinquishing a prescriptive format but taking care to document the procedure adopted, a technique described by Bowden and Walsh (in Edwards 2006) as legitimate in phenomenographic research.

Having gained confidence in her focus on the participants’ stories, she turned her attention to emerging themes and how they evolved into meaningful units of information that could inform the ongoing development of the service. As indicated, Jo and her colleagues purposely set the literature/policy review aside until distinctive themes and issues had emerged from the data that could be compared and contrasted with current literature and policy directions data. This is not a linear process; O’Murchu (1997:123) describes narrative (here, the key themes of the report) to be ‘like a tapestry in the making: pattern forming and unfolding; different aspects interconnecting as various bits relate to each other: and finally the overall story begins to emerge’. More recently, Sermijn, Devlieger & Loots (2008) used rhizome as a metaphor to capture a similar notion of narrative as a construction that draws from a collection of patchwork thinking and untamed stories. As Jo began to gain a deeper understanding of her processes, she found that the imagery and connotations generated by her language resonated strongly with the concept of bricolage.

Levi Strauss first used bricolage in 1967 as a metaphor to contrast two parallel worldviews (Di Domenico, Haugh & Tracey 2010); in the process of knowledge production, the knowledge producer (or researcher) makes do with what is at hand to (Levi Strauss 1967:17).  Since the concept was first used, bricolage has been espoused by a range of disciplines in many different contexts (Di Domenico, Haugh & Tracey 2010), in social research, ‘bricolage is typically understood to involve the process of employing methodological strategies as they are needed in the unfolding context of the research situation’ (Kincheloe 2005) and Denzin & Lincoln (2005:4) describe bricolage as a pieced-together set of representations that is fitted to the specifics of a complex situation. The concept of bricolage thus aligned closely with the strategies Jo used to analyse, describe and draw recommendations from the complex array of information gathered for the evaluation process.

The notion of completion

The report with a series of recommendations informing the direction and activities of GPIR was completed in July 2014, recommendations to address system design and service provision. It included a wide range of themes and issues as well as a framework that could be used to map the journey of people with a severe and persistent mental illness and the types of services they use over a period of time.  The notions of ‘completion’ and ‘unfinished business’ were a source of frustration for Jo, particularly for one element of the report; as a rule of thumb, her measure of success is to conceptualise and present emergent themes and issues in a way that is meaningful to key stakeholders and assists decision makers in making informed choices in the future. This yardstick had merit when she was required to present a draft of her findings at an early stage of the analysis, but she felt that the findings ‘didn’t appear to tell the committee anything they didn’t already know’ and further analysis confirmed that there was more to her data and that the work was not complete.

As the deadline rapidly approached, however, she became aware that one emerging theme was not as clear as the others; struggling to consolidate emerging ideas and issues with current theory, Jo felt that this one section would not provide the direction it had the potential to. Although time is a precious commodity in any evaluation, the lack of it didn’t seem to be the only constraint in the development of the finished product in this case… despite repeated analyses and searches for theories and models that would help explain what the data revealed, a ‘full’ and cogent elaboration was not forthcoming. The data and other information she had procured within the timeframe was sufficient to explore many of the issues raised and assisted in offering a series of recommendations for the development of GPIR, but Jo remained dissatisfied, feeling that aspects of the report could be further developed.

The patchwork metaphor

Together with the IC2 facilitators, Jenni and Robert, Jo decided to explore the applicability and dynamics of bricolage for social research and evaluation. Reflecting on her praxis, she found herself drawing parallels with her hobby, making patchwork quilts, finding that her approach to the project and the notion of bricolage were consistent with patchwork technique called ‘crazy patchwork;’ working with fabrics, she would look for themes – some complementary, many discordant – and link them together into an overall pattern. The patchwork quilt Jo adopted as a metaphor for her praxis was one of her more adventurous creations, best described as a crazy eclectic patchwork, inspired by a neighbour’s bag of fabric scraps and resembling Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) description of a patchwork quilt: a gathering of disjointed elements; each patch a separate and unique element, but the patches can be combined to form a whole.

The bag of fabric scraps was given to Jo by her neighbour to pass onto a pre-school teacher friend; it contained a wonderful array of colour and texture and never made it to the pre-school as intended. Delving into the bag, she began to piece the fabric together into an assortment of patches without knowing what the larger construction would be. Over time the design grew, more patches emerged and developed into a quilt top, an approach to quilting new to Jo, requiring her to draw on a range of patch-working skills as well as creativity, problem solving and resourcefulness. Without a master plan, it was a challenging process; at one point, running out of a particular green fabric that had become one of the connecting colours linking the array of blocks throughout the quilt, she returned to the neighbour to see if she had any more of that fabric. The neighbour responded by offering her own creations to cut up for the quilt. Despite its eccentricity (or perhaps because of it), Jo is quite proud of the quilt she created.

Image 1The patches were like the many different stories she had gleaned from interviews and focus groups; she had gathered a large amount of material requiring analysis, using a qualitative process to discover the links, both the complements and the contrasts in the material. This analysis was an emergent, alchemical process not unlike making her quilt: “I don’t go looking for specific things but I know that there is something there to explore”, Jo explained. Just as quilters draw on their knowledge of fabrics, skills and techniques to create an aesthetically pleasing quilt from the materials available, bricolage will employ any means necessary to make meaning and generate knowledge (Kincheloe 2005:332).

The opportunity to explore her praxis and introducing the concept of bricolage enabled Jo to gain a better understanding of her approach to evaluation; at a practical level, she felt better equipped and more confident in conveying to colleagues and potential clients how she undertakes her work. This has been a valuable discovery, as she reflected later: “making this connection has been wonderful, it’s given me concepts and language that I can use when I tell others what I do.”

A Guide to Quilt Making

Jo took the opportunity to ‘test’ her analogy at the OASES annual Integrative Conversations weekend in December 2014, where all participants are invited to offer a presentation reflecting and giving account of their learning(s) over the year. Supported by Jenni and Robert, she devised a group activity designed to offer participants the opportunity to experience bricolage using patchwork as a medium. The initial goal of the activity was to facilitate the construction of a patchwork quilt, whereby participants would be invited to use patches or blocks from a selection of fabrics, piecing them together to form a larger patchwork quilt. It was hoped that participants would be inspired to creatively play with a range of possibilities as different patterns and connections emerged.

The process

Jo began the session by showing the crazy eccentric patchwork quilt she had made, sharing the story of its creation with the 12 participants before inviting them to make a ‘quilt’ together. She had prepared for the session by cutting out 4cm squares from a selection of cotton fabrics and 25cm square pieces of tablecloth paper which had similar properties to cotton fabric. Copies of a nine patch square template were also printed out to use as a guide. Other resources included glue sticks and scissors. Intriguingly, Jo had finished cutting the squares the previous day while listening to others making their presentations. No-one had made the connection that Jo had pre-cut these squares in their midst. After admiring her quilt, the group was given instructions and the ‘parameters’ for the exercise:

Each participant would construct a nine-square patch using the pre-cut squares as in the template (they could use the grid as a guide or not); Each participant could choose a range of colours or repeat colours with one condition – that a green square should be placed in one corner of each block; The nine squares had to be glued onto the white tissue paper and then trimmed; Participants were welcome to make as many blocks as they wanted; The blocks would then be placed by the group into a ‘quilt’ pattern.

A) Description of the process

In the first step, participants made nine square patches from the coloured squares (image 2), participants choosing their own colours and gluing them onto tablecloth paper.

Image 2 - Block MakingThe participants began to form relationships, linking up the squares of nearby participants this which occurred spontaneously, even before Jo had an opportunity to explain the next step, which was to make the ‘patchwork quilt’. As participants moved into step two, they initially tried to make a square quilt similar to Jo’s. This exercise failed as there were insufficient patches to make a square or rectangle.  To capture the experience of the participants, Jo asked each participant to record their response to each step on two large pieces of paper. The two questions associated with step 1 and 2 were:

– What was the relationship between you and the squares/pieces?
– What was the relationship between the pieces during the construction of the block?

Participants were then asked to think about their experience as they constructed the quilt top and invited to answer two additional questions:

What are the relationships between the blocks when laying out the quilt top?
– What was your thinking about positioning the blocks relative to each other?

The group was then asked to continue to arrange to blocks and make more patterns; at this stage the word ‘quilt’ was not used; indeed, Jo had to say few words, because the group was literally doing their own thingImage 3 - Camel, producing a range of patterns including a camel (Image 3).

When the group had settled on one final pattern, Jo invited them to reflect on the process with a final question:

– What was the relationship within the whole process as it unfolded?

As the activity was winding down, several participants stood back to watch the last one or two make final adjustments to the quilt.

B) Account of the process as it emerged

The activity allowed the group to be spontaneous and explore unexpected ways of arranging the squares, the control shifting early from the ‘researcher’ (Jo) to several people in the group taking responsibility, arranging and positioning the blocks as different patterns formed and evolved.

Step 1: Constructing the nine-square blocks

The first thing we noticed as participants were making the blocks was that no-one repeated the same design; 33 blocks were constructed by the twelve participants, each block unique. Only two blocks were very ‘organized’ (e.g. with a distinct cross-shape pattern), there were no distinct patterns or subtle configurations of colours and tones recognisable in the others. Although participants were free to talk openly with one another during this phase, we did not see and ‘collusion’ between participants during this activity. While engaged in the art of creating a block, the main focus was on choosing fabrics, positioning, gluing and cutting them.

Participants’ responses to the first two questions (see A above) reflect the value of allowing individual expression during the initial phase of the activity; people did not respond uniformly to the exercise, choosing their small squares according to their own inclinations. Most participants reported that their initial focus was on the colours and patterns of the fabrics when choosing the squares for each block. Once they began to arrange the fabric squares into blocks, however, their attention shifted to how different fabrics related to one another.

Participants’ initial choice of fabrics appeared to be governed by three distinct processes; almost a third indicated that they did have an intention to create a certain pattern or effect.  For example, one participant recorded that s-he [went] looking for yellows or variations on green. In contrast, another participant was clear about the effect s-he did not want: having straight lines in any patch. Just over a third indicated that the visual appeal of certain fabrics influenced their choice of fabrics, suggesting that the perceived aesthetic quality played a role, one participant noting s-he was loving the spots and yellow and oranges and greens.  Finally, two participants left the selection of fabrics to chance, one recording: I closed my eyes and risked.

The process did challenge participants in different ways; two participants noted the condition that a green square should be placed in one corner of each block, both of whom had to ‘remember’ to place a green square ‘in the corner’. The response of another participant suggested that s-he was challenged as well as delight(ed); s-he felt overwhelmed with a tinge of confusion associated with the goal of getting the best combinations. Although the placement of a green square was the only expectation, this response suggests that participants may have carried additional expectations.  There was a distinct shift from the focus on individual pieces of fabric to the way in which they were to be assembled; one participant captured this shift, recording that:

[I] liked how patterns could be created; [I] loved the patterns for each square and the relationship of putting them together piece by piece – square by square.

Again, there was no uniformity in how participants contributed to the assemblage of their blocks, most using a rule (e.g. colour theory) or order to inform the placement of the fabrics in the blocks, one using a motif in the fabric as a centrepiece for their block while another made an effort to have no two squares the same. Two participants relied on aesthetics and visual appeal to inform the construction of their blocks:

[I] created a pattern that was pleasing to my eye… I chose pieces that were beautiful and caught my eyes…

One participant was influenced by the imposed order: ‘having’ to remember the green corner whilst others experimented with order and randomness, two of them taking the opportunity to use different strategies to construct separate blocks:

The first pieces were hit and miss, [I] then tried to match the colours/rhythms and patterns, the other being more circumspect about the nature of their intended randomness:  First time round, [I] created a pattern pleasing to my eye, the second time [I] chose randomly to see what has emerged, on reflection I introduced order.

This was in contrast to another participant who described his/her approach as plain experimentation.

Step 2: Forming the first arrangement of the blocks

Once participants had constructed their blocks, they were asked to trim their squares and assemble them to make a larger construction. It was noted, however, that the participants began to do this spontaneously, forming two or three constructions around the table before instructions were given.

Image 9: Spontaneous grouping of blocks

Once construction began, it soon became apparent that the group was working with the idea of the quilt; we noticed that participants would ‘team up’ in twos and threes of their own accord, arranging their blocks to make squares and rectangles. At one stage, a group of four participants were working together with a focus on aligning the green corners. The question was asked: “What about the odd ones?” as one patch had no green corner, but was made with variations of yellow and another had a distinct pattern, tending to stand out where-ever it was placed.

Jo had to interject and formally invite people to make the overall pattern, using the term ‘quilt’ as reflected in the group’s initial attempt. Working together, participants initially tried to make a square reflecting the basic quilt-top shape, but it wasn’t long before one person recognised a difficulty and asked aloud, “how do we put this together?” drawing the group’s attention to the fact they were three blocks short of a 6 x 6 block square.

The initial response was to improvise so that a quilt top (a rectangle) could be completed, removing three blocks from one edge, creating a 5 x 6 block rectangle. Rather than remove the three extra blocks, a participant placed them on top of the quilt to embellish the design.

Image 10: Using up the blocks

On reflection, Jo later stated that she might have challenged the group at this point to continue creating different constructions/designs, but she did not need to say much at all to redirect the activity because the group was already exploring other options. It wasn’t long after the 5 x 6 rectangle was created (Image 10) before other observations were made.  Someone noted that there was no green on the outside suggesting that the design could be changed. Another participant then singled out a particular block saying “that’s a beautiful one! So let’s put it in the centre”, redirecting the group’s attention to alternative designs.

As the group continued working with the blocks, one participant stated that “We don’t have to make it square” the group agreed and set about exploring other patterns, one participant observing that the strong colours are on one side of the table and the lighter colours on the other, which alerted the group to possibilities for arrangements not yet considered.  As the activity continued and different suggestions were made one participants joked, “You are not doing what I told you to do” whilst there was no direct response to the comment, its rhetorical nature did generate amusement and banter as the group continued to explore other ways of arranging the blocks.

Jo reflected: “I felt like I didn’t need to be there, it was going ahead without me and it was moving in the direction that I wanted it to. I was comfortable with where it was moving”. The process seemed to move of its own account, it had internal energy as people were interactive, everyone involved around the table. The methodology used by Jo encouraged the group to take responsibility for the process and the goal of exploring and creating which has implications for future research processes as discussed below. It was around this time that the participants were invited to respond to a third question.

3. What are the relationships between the blocks when laying out the quilt top?

When participants responded to the third question, we noticed that a blue pen was passed around; people seemed to shift from a focus on their individual intentions and shift to the forming of a collective process as they also began to lose sight of their ‘own’ blocks and look at the relationship in the whole. Some noticed that leaders/initiators were stepping up and taking responsibility and the presence and power of the facilitator/researcher diminished as several people found their own power and involvement. One person began to offer judgments and sounded them out in the group; there was laughter and jokes were made by several participants: “I am an initiator and you are an autocrat” and similar sentiments were expressed and recorded by three participants. One response was written using a red pen rather than the blue pen everyone else in the group used. A fourth participant record took a similar view but used very different language: “People wanted to rush in but the wise people didn’t.”

Not all the comments recorded were about the dynamics within the group. Two participants identified a tension they experienced when presented with the opportunity to construct/create, using language depicting a force that inhibited their ability to freely act:

I became immobilized with possibilities/choice… [I was] strangled by the tension between creating/finding order and disorder…

A third person added ‘x2’ to the comment about feeling immobilized, indicating that s-he had a similar experience. In contrast, another participant reported feeling excitement at [the] limitless possibilities.

Step 3: Exploring other options

Image 4 - Dog and Humanoid DancerInitiated by one participant by saying”I thought I would make it a camel”, a camel took shape (Image 3), the group responded by producing several variations on a camel shape before it transformed into a dog (Image 4) and then became a humanoid and someone made a few more adjustments to make it the dancing person (Image 4).

Jenni had been given the task of photographing the evolving patterns; afterwards, she commented that “It was very hard to photograph because it kept changing at a rapid pace”. Importantly, one person alerted us to the fact that the shape or form of the’quilt’ had ‘taken over’ from the relationship between the pattern and colours of the fabrics. Suddenly, the group was realizing that there were other ways of viewing the potentials of the ‘quilt’, a shift which has profound implications for future research processes and will be discussed below.

Disrupting the new trajectory, the blocks were spread out eliminating the evolving forms and the participant who suggested this challenged the group to use the space rather than the form.

At this point, a participant took a few pieces off the table, held them to her body saying, “these are mine”; turning to the group (and the camera), she stuck her tongue out, drawing the attention of the group and resulting in more mirth and laughter. She returned the blocks to the table where another participant had started experimenting with a three- dimensional form, which took the construction to another level. At this stage, many participants had stepped back and were watching the new creation emerge whilst Jo talked about a three-dimensional patchwork ‘chook’ which she had made and used as a doorstop. The group’s attention returned to the three-dimensional form that was still being formed; one participant observed that the pieces looked like waves reflecting the water theme that s-he had spoken about in an earlier presentation (Image 5).

Image 5 - Three Dimensional Waves

The group continued to observe the construction of the three dimensional waves, one or two participants assisting with the process whilst the majority stood back watching the process.

Step four: Reflection on the activity

As the final creation wound down and the process appeared to have come to its end, Jo asked all participants to reflect on the activity as it unfolded, in particular the relationships they experienced throughout the activity on a whole .

4. What was the nature of the relationship within the whole process as it unfolded?

People found that not only was the activity fun, it was also a journey with a forward moving trajectory; some words used by participants included revelation, discovery, emergence and possibilities. One participant described it as ‘A joyous journey of discovery and emergence,’ whilst another recorded that not only did they have an opportunity to witness the creativity, responses and interactions of others, they also had the opportunity to experience these processes within their self.

We noted that the process involved a movement from a tight square approach, mirroring (or trying to mirror) Jo’s quilt, into a letting-go with lots of movement, shifting and forming and finally breaking out of the confines of colours and patterns, into form/shape and – lastly – a three-dimensional creation. The responses and the observations we made suggest that play was an important element in this experience; one participant appreciated not being “limited by a square/grid form” and another commented on the evolutionary nature of the activity.

Being able to play enabled the group to literally think outside the square and play with different possibilities; play enabled the group to form its own response not only to the initial instructions, but to the process involved. It encouraged people to participate, find their energy and enthusiasm for the task and problem solving that eventuated. In a later discussion with her co-authors, Jo admitted that she had no idea of how this process might develop and what outcome might emerge. On further reflection, these feelings weren’t too different from the tensions described by some participants when asked to begin making the initial construction, another ‘finding’ with profound implications for research methodology.

Discussion: The quilter, the social researcher and the bricoleur

Resources, theory and context

As Jo, Jenni and Robert began to reflect on the process and its outcomes, they became acutely aware of the importance and role of the initial choices given to individuals and the group; facilitators or researchers can knowingly or unknowingly influence a group to reflect his/her assumptions. The initial choices given obviously affect the final form that might arise; for example, Jo could have set up a process which would have led to the exact number of blocks to form a perfect square and she added the disruptive instruction that a green colour be in corner of the grid. Even the use of the word quilt had an effect on the result – even though she had thought that she had removed reference to this word (apart from presenting her own quilt), she found that it had ‘snuck back’ in and undoubtedly prejudiced the initial actions of the participants.

Thus, if a facilitator intend to promote creativity and play, or a researcher is encourages participants to truly tell their story about their lived experience, it could be argued that the initial parameters or guidelines could be considered starting points rather than attempts at shaping or containing the process. Social research offers new insights and understandings through collection and organisation of data and theory in the context in which the research takes place (Koelsch 2012); grounded in hermeneutics, the bricoleur maintains that making meaning cannot be quarantined from where one stands or is placed in the web of social reality (Kincheloe 2005:342).

The data that Jo and her colleagues collected for the GPIR Needs and Opportunity Analysis utilised a series of 5 or 6 open questions, used to prompt participants to talk about their own experiences. The large geographical region and the inclusion of people with lived experience, their families and carers and service providers meant that no one participant could be expected to assess the effectiveness and availability of supports for everyone; to expect that would be an ineffective use of resources as participants are more likely to offer insights from their own experiences rather than comment on policy frameworks. By using an open research design, Jo and her colleagues were able to capture stories and anecdotes providing a broader range of data that could be used to identify issues, compare them with the recovery-orientated paradigms and develop the recommendations.


Extending the contextual nature of social research, hermeneutics employs qualitative research methods to establish context and meaning about what people do (Patten 2002). This is rarely a tidy process; Sermijn, Devlieger & Loots (2008) use the metaphor of the rhizome to capture the many entryways, multiplicities and connections that can be and are used to understand the narrative of selfhood.

Just as Jenni, Robert and Jo observed, even in this ‘simple’ exercise, many ways in which participants might be influenced by presentation and context of the activity are present; however, participants are also influenced by what they ‘bring’. The individual choice of fabrics and placement of blocks were influenced by their own experiences, perceptions and associations. Jenni illustrated this point when talking about an experience she recalled when selecting the fabrics; she was exposed to a saturation of the colour yellow, which, despite being her favourite colour, led her initially to recall the less alluring smell of baby poo! The construction was also influenced by the experiences of participants; the shift to a three-dimensional design was initiated by a participant who earlier that day had presented on water and the waves of the ocean. Several participants commented on the connection between the waves he was building and the waves he had spoken about earlier.

Another influencing factor was the ‘determined presence’ of one of the blocks across the process and its manifestations; initially labelled by one participant as ‘that pretty one’, in contrast to all the other blocks with three or more colours, it was a checked pattern of two colours, purple and green. As indicated in image 17, this particular block stood out from the rest regardless of the overall shape and design of the evolving ‘quilt’. It refused to ‘blend’ with the others and as the photos suggest, it was always one of the later blocks to be positioned, often being placed on the outside of the evolving forms.

Interestingly, the participants choose not to reject this or other blocks in an effort to create forms despite the disruptive effect this block and others had on the evolving forms. For example, in the group’s initial attempt to construct a 6 x 6 quilt, they did not choose to ‘remove’ the three extra blocks, so a 5 x 6 rectangle quilt shape could be completed. There was a brief attempt to use the ‘extra’ blocks to embellish the design; however, the group recognized the disruption and quickly moved onto other ideas and constructions rather than dwell on the incomplete quilt. Kincheloe (2005:332) asserts that the bricoleur exists out of respect for the complexity of the lived world; in fact, Blommaert (in Kincheloe 2005) suggests that to not recognise the complexity of the object of inquiry will result in a more reductionist understanding of it. If the group would have decided that the three blocks preventing the construction of the 5 x 6 quilt were superfluous and remove them, not only would the activity have been shortened, the opportunity for play and exploration of more complex constructions would have been lost.

The key discovery is that one cannot anticipate the final product or what people will bring together in such a process; even the need for order or predictability is questionable, as a participant suggested at the end of the process: “We try to create order and certainty to alleviate our anxiety”.

It was crucial that the GPIR project completed by Jo and her colleagues recognised the complex and contextual nature of the many factors that can support or hinder the recovery of a person with a severe and persistent mental illness (Department of Health 2014). To ensure this, a broad range of stakeholders were engaged in the consultation process ensuring that the fullest possible range of issues was identified and reinforced by the nine areas of recommendations:

The range of themes and issues that emerged during the consultation phase encompassed a broad spectrum and proved challenging to unpack, capture and present in a way that adequately reflected the diverse range of voices that participated in the consultation process and the experiences that they shared (Grampians Partners in Recovery 2014:16).

Power and influence

Despite the mirth and enjoyment, power emerged as a significant theme in the patchwork quilt activity; actions observed and written responses indicated that an imbalance existed between those who initiated new designs and others who may have been reluctant or preferred to contemplate options before moving the blocks around. A bricoleur recognises the relationship between power and knowledge; Kincheloe (2005) asserts that the bricoleur recognises that the act of research itself has the capacity to either exclude or reward particular ways of seeing and specific activities. The range of responses illustrated how an action can be perceived as autocratic, a display of initiative or a legitimate act of leadership. The bricoleur would be aware of these divergent views and explore the dynamics between these voices and those that are unheard (Kinsella 2006).

Power and the empowerment of consumers is an important element of the recovery-oriented model currently influencing mental health policy across Australia. Traditionally, a strong demarcation between mental health professionals and consumers existed; in the asylums of the past, those who ‘cared’ for people with mental illness were custodians, becoming ‘experts’ knowing what was best for the ‘patient’. The recovery-oriented paradigm seeks to correct this imbalance, challenging this notion by recognising the value of lived experience and bringing it together with the expertise, knowledge and skills of mental health practitioners, many of whom have experienced mental health issues in their own lives or in their close relationships (Department of Health 2014 a:2).

A crucial element of the analysis completed for GPIR was the inclusion of as many voices as possible including those with a lived experience of severe and persistent mental illness, family members and carers. It also identified and articulated the dynamics service providers are struggling with.

The notion of completion

For Jo, the exercise including the development of this paper, has alleviated her concerns about the ‘incompleteness’ of the GPIR report, reconceptualising her understanding of knowledge production. As a quilter and a social researcher, she has claimed her role as the theory builder and ultimately responsible for the final quilt, but the materials are bounded. Rather than discovering absolute facts, a social scientist can be seen as constructing theory out of disparate information including participant data, pre-existing theory, and self-reflexivity. Theory does not develop out of an isolated mind’s interaction with an inanimate environment; rather, the researcher collects and organizes data and theory (Koelsch 2012:824). As a bricoleur, she recognises that the uniqueness of a patchwork quilt is in its construction; the quilter’s [Jo’s] skill level, the available materials, and the assumed purpose of the quilt limit it (Koelsch 2012:824); she has gained a new appreciation of the contextual limits of the work she does.

The wider context:

This bricolage process opens the door to many research possibilities and, of course, raises questions for the future research design; the exercise of inviting a group to make a ‘quilt’ enabled us to explore the relationship between the researcher’s intentions (and initial instructions) and the eventual outcomes. We were alerted to the many layers underlying the emerging patterns; the individual presuppositions as people chose colours and placed them in relation to one another; and the group process that eventuated together with the initiative/leadership of particular individuals. Thus, research is bounded (Fig. 14) by the limitations imposed by the researcher and the freedom given to participants to deviate from them or add their own creativity.

image 13

This process raises questions of the limitations to be imposed by a researcher to make research viable and meet requirements imposed by available resources and some internal consistency, versus the need to encourage group participation and freedom of expression. For example, participants in a mental health study may consciously or unconsciously feel the restraints imposed by the sponsoring institutions leading to answers made in accordance with these expectations.

In the case of the quilt exercise, key aspects of the research design included:

An emergent process. Though delineated by the facilitator, it could not be fully anticipated; e.g. the group contributed to the process, in a spontaneous and unexpected way, raising the question, “To what extent should the facilitator set up a process to allow group members power to influence the process”? In this respect, time is critical, as sufficient time must be given for the group to find its own involvement and explore their unique approach to the questions raised. The process moved “beyond the square”, incorporating unexpected thinking and ways of viewing the ‘problem.’ Perhaps a key criterion for future research might be to assess its validity according to the question: “To what extent does the group reflect on unexpected discoveries and ways of viewing the problems?”

The reinforcement of creative expression. The use of coloured squares and grid patterns provided a visual component to the research. This naturally enabled the participants to use other mental facilities in responding to the questions/issues at hand. Such an approach suggests that word only research procedures are limiting as they only involve a small aspect of a person’s mental emotional functioning. The use of visual and creative techniques adds a complementary dimension to words, which allows for unexpected results.

An integrative procedure. The above process included integrative questions at key steps, enabling participants to draw breath and step back from what they were doing or contributing. It also led to new insights and ways of operating/sharing. Any future research process might include such integrative questions enabling the researcher to understand the context behind the answers given to more formal questions. At OASES, we stress the importance of praxis, a reflective process on one’s professional or life practice in the world. This understanding may be helpful for a future research process to enable participants to reflect with the researcher about the process that is being introduced, rather than assuming that they have little to contribute in this regard.

The importance of transformation. In the process outlined above, the resultant ‘shape’ went through many changes, square, camel, dog, human, dismembered form, to eventual settle into a 3D water pattern. These many forms raise the question as to what constitutes an agreeable outcome and who is to organize this. In our process, many outcomes are possible and the arrangement comes from the group, not the facilitator. This is an important point; in the mental health study, the final report was compiled by Jo as the researcher. Should this be the case in the future, or can the compilation of the report be the responsibility of participants? Furthermore, should the report be given in a form responsive to the needs of the institutions involved and their ways of communication, which may be remarkably different to those of participants?

This research stressed participation of those involved. Again, this is a key aspect of OASES’ approach to learning; we advocate a shared approach to learning, so that it is natural to express this in our research practice. The validity of such an approach does not rest on its repeatability or replicability, as each encounter will be different according to the unique personality and expressions of those involved. We believe that the validity of our study is dependent on the emotional investment of those involved and their capacity to share in its design and outcome. As noted above, the exercise moved in its own accord, with different people contributing in various ways at different times. We did wonder whether it might have been radically different if people would have brought their own fabric. In terms of future research, the process needs to encourage people to share in their own language and experience and rather than being forced to adopt the language, concepts and world view of researcher or sponsoring institutions.


We conclude that this approach to research is participative, emergent, learning, active, experiential, integrative, transformative and reflective. In some more conventional research circles, such words are seen as fraught, particular the experiential and emergent. We want to resist a controlled approach to research because we believe that we bring our unwritten and often unknown assumptions to the task and they inevitably affect the research outcomes.  Research into the lived experiences of people with severe and persistent mental illness demands the involvement and participation of many people in many different ways, not only in sharing experiences, but in the analysis (or discovery of themes and relationships) and final presentation of the results. In this paper, we challenge the need to employ research paradigms encouraging an ‘objectivity’ gap between researcher and the ‘subjects’ involved.

Finally, we argue that research incorporating a creative visual element not only stimulates participation but offers non-verbal and visual ways of responding to issues and problem solving. Such approach assists in stimulating an emotional response which may lead to unexpected outcomes.

Jo Richie (April 2016) (2)Jo Richie is a Master’s Participant due to graduate from OASES Graduate School in December 2016.  This article was published in the New Community Quarterly Journal Vol 13 Num 4 Iss 52 in May 2016. Republished with Permission.

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Autumn Gratitude


I’m grateful for the autumn kettle and

Its promising hum of warmth and cosiness

I stand – cup in hand – looking,

Grateful for the view through my kitchen window

Greeted by the day, its sounds and colours, its hue and mood

We are together again in the web of life

Like an old couple

Tenderly light with each other

My gaze touches the familiar shapes outside

My ‘Green children’, I have nursed them all

In my garden lives my past and reflects back to me

How much I have to learn.

I have gratitude for the cockies

Screeching energy into the air for the tasks of the day ahead

I have gratitude for the currawongs

That have come from the highlands

To call autumn.

I’m grateful for the little earthen path

That my feet have worn

In my frequent visits,

A visible umbilical cord that connects me

So most intimately

Mary Zettl, 2016

Gathering the OASES Harvest

Thank you for expressing a desire to share in the OASES Harvest project.

We feel that it is important to document the OASES harvest. Making visible and sonic what may be dormant allows us to share together and celebrate and reflect. It is also important organisationally if we are to continue our learning and assist in the emergence of something new.

Our intention is to create an online presence for this material which we will work with over the next few months and share with you as part of our day of Celebration, Sharing, Harvesting and Reflection on Saturday October 22nd (10am-3pm).

Please send all submissions for the online Harvest to [email protected]