Working as a collective

Using (Participatory) Action Research as a methodology for development has meant that iterative cycles of action followed by reflection followed by the potential redirection of action has been embedded into my research approach and my practical approach in developing the mental health recovery archive. This had caused me in the midst of the action to begin to unravel and confront the degree of influence I had in the initial stages both in deciding the structure and frameworks in which the mental health recovery archive would develop; and then in the operation of those structures and frameworks.  

My own realisation of my degree of influence made me feel very uncomfortable and frustrated with myself that after all my reading, learning, and talking around 'participation' I hadn't really grasped how to embed a 'participatory' approach into the early stages of the development process. I hadn't given enough space in the initial stages of the project for the framework, structure, system, methodology and process to emerge in collaboration with the contributors.  Instead, I had set up a broad frame of reference (mental health recovery); and a relational structure (working 1:1). Within these constraints there was a reciprocal two-way process between me and each contributor in which we shaped and mediated each others understandings but I took it upon myself to synthesise the reciprocal process between me and each contributor into collective decisions on the nature of the archive that we would create (personal narratives as archives); its openness (immediacy); the delivery mechanism (the web); and the system/tools that would best fit its development (Omeka).

As I was becoming aware of my degree of influence over the development of the mental health recovery archive, I was also at a point in the process where I felt there were further strategic decisions to be taken.  For example, should I continue to work with just the four contributors or seek to widen participation at this point?  This led me to endless circular reflections in which I increasingly felt I was an inadequately placed to synthesise what was the best course of action.  I also began to realise that what we were creating wasn't just four individual narratives; in sharing the same frame of reference and being interconnected within the same system; there is an inherent collectivity within the mental health recovery archive that demands some degree of collective decision making.

In unpicking the strengths and weaknesses of the initial processes that I used to establish the mental health recovery archive a complex picture emerges in which there is a tension between creating conducive conditions for the co-production of life history (in this instance personal mental health stories) and conducive conditions for working collectively (and striving to be participatory) when those co-produced life histories are interconnected and drawn together as a system.  The approach of establishing a strong 1:1 relationship with each contributor was vital in enabling the former; but it did nothing to enable the latter.

These realisations led me to contact each of the contributors to ascertain whether they would be happy in a shift in approach where I continued to work on a 1:1 basis with each of them to enable the production of their own narratives; but where we also established a collective way of working where we would meet to discuss purpose, aims, and objectives in order to establish collective decisions on strategic ways forward.  This was a pivotal moment in the development process.  Had the contributors been unwilling to work collectively then the direction in which the initiative could evolve would inevitably be entirely different in scope and outcome.  All four contributors agreed to be involved collectively and strategically.  At this stage, I also sought active collective participation in the strategic process from the A&M team, and Professor Jerome Carson.

We then established a series of collaborative workshops in which strategic decisions have taken collectively which has brought with it a whole new set of tensions and issues around authority and control to work through.  The key strategic decisions taken collectively have been: to not involve any new contributors beyond the initial four; to focus on mental health professionals as the primary audience for the mental health recovery archive; and to run a symposium to launch the mental health recovery archive (9 December 2013) primarily aimed at mental health professionals but also including other interested parties including individuals with lived experience, archivists, and historians.

I am still at the time of writing (December 2013) trying to reflect on the degree to which this shift in approach has led to the emergence of a 'participatory' approach within the mental health recovery archive.  Issues of degrees of influence; dealing with conflicting viewpoints; and the subtle interplays of positionality, authority, and control make me question whether any process can adequately measure up to the ideology embedded in a lot of 'participatory' rhetoric.  I am working through and processing whether this means that I am questioning 'participatory' rhetoric and methodology or whether I am questioning my application of it.