Epistemic freedom, creative research methods and ethics


The word ‘epistemic’ comes from the Greek for ‘relating to knowledge’. Knowledge is usually thought and spoken of as something neutral, but the way knowledge is used is often far from neutral. Knowledge and its use – or misuse – can contribute to justice or injustice, freedom or subjugation, violence or peace. The concepts of epistemic injusticeepistemic violence and epistemic freedom have been around for decades, yet are still not widely known or understood.

Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni describes epistemic freedom as ‘fundamentally about the right to think, theorize, interpret the world, develop own methodologies and write where one is located’ (2018, p 3). When I read that sentence, I thought “this is what I have been working towards these last 25 years.” My book on creative research methods doesn’t mention epistemic freedom as such, mainly because I didn’t know the term when I was working on the last edition in 2019 (it will certainly feature in the next edition). Yet the concept suffuses the book, and my teaching and wider work, too.

You may be wondering: how can knowledge cause injustice, subjugation, even violence? Those of us brought up on ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’, or its grown-up equivalent ‘the answer to speech we do not like is more speech’, may struggle to understand this.

Consider the unjust idea that there is a hierarchy of race. If a white person believes that white people are superior to black people, that white person could feel justified in mistreating black people in all sorts of ways, from ignoring them to genocide. I am sure you can think of many instances from history and the present day where this idea has caused, and is causing, great harm. And that is just one idea of countless ideas in the world. Not all forms of knowledge can cause harm, and of those that can, not all do. But some can, and some do. Epistemic harm is real.

I have been working behind the scenes on four sizeable and related projects over the last year or two, all of which are designed to (among other things) foster epistemic freedom. These initiatives encourage people to move beyond disciplinary and institutional constraints. They support researchers to work individually and collaboratively in developing our own methods and interpretations, and to make our own judgements about the quality and usefulness of those methods and interpretations.

The first project I have been working on is the International Creative Research Methods Conference which I founded at considerable financial risk and which was first held in September 2023. Fortunately it went really well, and it was, in one sense, a celebration of epistemic freedom. Contributions covered yarning and making, games and poems, performance and collage, analysis software and even hairdressing as research methods, plus many more. Several presentations were given with participants, including participants with intellectual disabilities. Some took delegates out into the city to practise research methods on the move. Contributors and delegates came from a wide range of locations, cultures, and ethnicities, and included people with physical disabilities and neurodivergent people. The conference will be held again in September 2024; the call for proposals [233 Kb PDF] is out now (deadline 15 December 2023).

Another is the International Journal of Creative Research Methods, which I have founded with the help of Policy Press and the three editors-in-chief: Sophie WoodwardSu-ming Khoo and Harriet Shortt. We are currently looking for a diverse group of active editorial board members, so if you’re interested, the call for editorial board members is out now (deadline 30 November 2023).

I am glad to have founded this journal because there is no journal for creative research methods and, to date, it has been difficult for people using creative methods to find places to publish their work. Also, without a dedicated journal, it is difficult for people wanting to learn more about the latest advances in creative research methods to know where to look. There are some journals that are open to publishing information about creative research methods but they are quite scattered and not always easy to track down.

Another publishing opportunity for those interested in creative research methods is my series of short books, again with Policy Press: Creative Research Methods in Practice. These are books of 30-40,000 words, each of which will offer practical guidance on using a creative method across disciplines. The first titles – Photovoice RemaginedDoing Phenomenography and Fiction and Research – will be published in 2024, and there are several others in the pipeline which I am longing to see into production.

Last, but emphatically not least, is the Independent Research Ethics Committee, aka IREC. This is hosted by Just Reasonable Ltd, a non-profit disabled people’s organisation here in the UK. While the IREC can’t give formal ethical approval, we are recruiting a panel of people who can review applications and give their expert ethical judgement. What’s more, they will be giving judgement on the ethical aspects of each research project from start to finish rather than (as many institutional review boards and research ethics committees do) focusing primarily on participant welfare and data storage. People using creative research methods may find IREC particularly useful as some institutional review boards and research ethics committees still do not understand these methods and may reject applications through ignorance and risk aversion. We are currently recruiting panel members; – you can find more information here.

Long after I started working on these projects I realised the common thread that links them is epistemic freedom. The ‘hierarchy of evidence’ view, which held the randomised controlled trial to be the best research method for almost any research question and context, is now an outdated form of epistemic control yet still carries a lot of weight in some arenas. My own views on research methods currently look something like this:

  • The more researchers know about methods, the better the choices we can make.
  • No research method is better than another in itself; the quality of research methods depends on the research question and context (a randomised controlled trial wouldn’t work for insider research into a subculture; ethnography would be little use in testing a new pharmaceutical drug – though swap those two methods over and you would have much more sensible propositions).
  • Research methods should be chosen carefully: method(s) most likely to help answer the research question while also being practical for use in the research context (types of potential participants, budget, timescale, researcher capacity, etc).
  • Knee-jerk methods choices – “we need some data, let’s do some interviews” – should be avoided.
  • Existing methods can be adapted or remixed and new methods devised.

An open-minded approach to research methods, and a holistic approach to research ethics, can help us aim for epistemic freedom. That said, researchers will never be 100% epistemically free, because research always needs to be culturally appropriate, systematic, rigorous and so on. But within these good practice constraints, researchers need to be able to use our cognitive and emotional intelligence, imagination, senses, creativity, empathy, skills, knowledge and experience in our work. The positivist view that research is a purely cerebral activity also still carries weight, but this too is outdated. Bringing the whole of ourselves to our research work helps us towards epistemic freedom.

One big caveat though: Research has been used, and is being used, to cause epistemic violence around the world. The Australian census, which uses coercion rather than informed consent, contributes to the subjugation of Indigenous peoples by asking them different questions from those asked of non-Indigenous people. Ethics dumping occurs when a research project that does not receive ethical approval in the minority world is conducted anyway, somewhere in the majority world where research ethics governance is weak or non-existent. In the US, many human remains are classified as ‘data’ by institutions such as universities and museums, which use that classification as an excuse to keep those human remains instead of returning them to their communities of origin for culturally appropriate rituals. There are many, many more examples. We need to work hard and thoughtfully to avoid being part of this problem and, instead, become part of the solution.

Author Bio: Helen Kara FAcSS has been an independent researcher since 1999 and an independent scholar since 2011. She is a visiting fellow at Swansea University in Wales and at ANU in Australia.