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The Maker Researcher – A Different Perspective to a Thesis

April 17, 2020
Michael James
The YEG Makers

One of the greatest parts of going back to school is relearning how to learn.

I am 42 years old (almost 43) and I returned to school in September 2018, after not being in school since graduating from Public Relations in 2005. Focusing on family and career for 13 years made it really scary to dive back into anything academic—especially a master’s program. As I immersed myself in academic studies, I began learning in the scholastic sense again, and it was exciting. What surprised me was the interest I had in communications and cultural theory, and research. I had full intention to take all course-based work and focus on getting the degree completed through what I thought was the most direct path - chipping away course by course until I could put MA at the end of my name.

The YEG Makers - Michael JamesAs I explored more and more theoretical concepts and applied them to my field of study, I saw the value of research. I had not been exposed to academic research before, so it was exciting to see the parallels of academia and my chosen communications profession. As well, a very inspiring professor opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done in cultural research. As she pointed me in certain directions, my earlier focus on that course-based path began to shift. I looked to the maker movement and began to see opportunities that ignited my passion and gave me a topic I could relate to.

At first, I was looking at exploring research in a more traditional sense—through a research paper. Royal Roads University offers the option of doing an in-depth research paper give students a glimpse into the academic research process; the only caveat is that you cannot use human subjects. Being a maker myself, I felt I could examine something within the maker movement and be engaged enough to do a really terrific job on the paper. However, as I considered the maker movement and started to develop the ideas around my research, I felt a nudge toward involving other makers in my research. So, I made the hard decision to do a full-blown thesis.

Diving into the work

Once I made the decision to pursue a thesis, I outlined what I wanted to do and then submitted my application. It was a simple one-page outline of what I wanted to explore. At that point, it had to do with makers and where they get their creativity from—I wanted to try to understand why makers make. After my application was accepted, I was paired with a supervisor and a second reader. I was excited to get two professors I respected and had interest (albeit different interest) in my thesis. My supervisor provided me with a few simple things to get started and told me to start reading. These were the books Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (Ingold, 2013), Method Meets Art: Arts-based Research Practice (Leavy, 2015), and a yet unpublished article called Artisanal Ethnography: Notes on the Making of Ethnographic Craft (Vannini & Vannini, 2019) (this article has subsequently been published in Qualitative Inquiry). These three writings changed my perspective on making, my thesis, and then defined my new approach to research.

As I began to read Ingold, I started to see how making involved more than just the final product. I already knew this but I could never articulate it. Ingold’s philosophy of making gave me the words I needed to explain my own process of making; there was something that connected me to the pieces I made but struggled to explain that to others. As a result, I realized I needed to look in to rather out from making. Most academic research on making, craft, and the maker movement is from the perspective of the completed object or what we can learn from the maker themselves and apply it to another area of life. I realized that I needed to look at making. I wanted to look at how the maker makes, not why the maker makes. What tools do they use, what materials do they select, and what processes do they go through to get to the final piece.

The second book by Leavy opened my eyes to arts-based research. This is where my background and my academic adventure collided. I did not have to write a long paper that would potentially never be read once defended (as happens with many theses). I could use my background in photography, audiovisual communications, and social media to bring my thesis in front of as many interested people as possible. This project was really shaping up to be something special for me.

How it works

I interviewed ten Edmonton artisans that each volunteered to make a specific object for me during the interview, and I recorded their audio while they worked. Once completed, each artisan loaned their handmade object to me until my thesis is complete. In addition to their made object, each artisan has a page on my website that houses a brief write-up about them, images of them creating their object, images of the object itself, and a link to podcast of the interview. To involve myself in the research, I am building a cabinet that will house all the artisan’s objects and allow others to experience my piece and the pieces from the other makers. As I build this cabinet, I am blogging about my experience and taking photos to support that blog. Both my work and the work of the other makers is also showcased on social media.

Where am I at now?

Over the past year, things have changed for me significantly from what I originally planned on researching to where my research question ended up. From what I understand now, that is part of the process. Now, in the month of March, I have completed all my interviews and started collecting the handmade objects that the makers created. At the same time, I have been writing about my experience making a cabinet. As I listen to the audio of the maker’s interviews and try to edit it into a podcast, I am struck by how much each one of them has taught me. Not only have they shown me how they work, the tools they use and the materials they select, but they have reinforced why I create my own work and my own drive as a maker. It has been a challenging but rewarding experience.

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Ingold, T. (2013). Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Leavy, P. (2015). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice (Second). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Leavy, P. (2018). Handbook of arts-based research. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Vannini, P., & Vannini, A. S. (2019). Artisanal ethnography: Notes on the making of ethnographic craft. Qualitative Inquiry.