Artifacts as a Research Tool

by Bonnie Soroke

Background & Methodology

This is a brief account of how I used artifacts as a tool during my ethnographic research at the Reading and Writing Centre, a unique educational environment in Duncan, British Columbia. The Centre is part of the local university-college, yet located in a storefront building downtown. The two teachers moved their fundamental classes here to better accommodate their vision to be more of a learner-run centre. I wanted to look at how power and authority were operating within the Centre by exploring the perceptions and experiences of the people there. I was asking what works for students and teachers at the Centre and questioning why.

The data collection involved five months of field work during 2001. I spent two full-days each week at the centre – for participatory observation, interviews with ten students and the two teachers, and two group talks with student interviewees. During the year prior to starting my field work I attended meetings and events at the centre to meet people and engage in informal conversations and observation. Throughout I wrote daily field notes and a research journal. One of my research goals was to involve people as much as possible as research participants, despite their busy schedule and lives. Besides the interviews and group talks, their participation included ongoing consultation about there search process, negotiating decisions about my involvement and scheduling, and dialoguing about my early analysis.

Data analysis involved transcribing all interviews and group talks, then coding the data and generating themes using those codes. I then returned to meet with the research participants to discuss the themes. Artifacts were used during this time as a means of testing ongoing interpretations and analysis of the data. I created sculptural artifacts that represented my responses to observations and interviews with students, and then shared those artifacts with people at the Centre. As well, artifacts were used as a research tool for communication and reciprocity and to generate data.

I was asking what works for students and teachers at the Centre and questioning why.


The tools one chooses as researcher help shape the ethnographic description, whether the tools are pen, computer, camera or artifact. These tools are an extension of one’s physical being and a reflection of who one is. An artifact is defined as an object produced or shaped by human craft. Creating and viewing artifacts also suggests the presence of an aesthetic experience that is both mindful and reflective. I create artifacts to help make sense (and nonsense) within my life, using art as a thinking tool and a vital means of reflexivity.

The materials I choose are mainly zippers and coloured telephone wire. Most of the sculptures are quite malleable, and have the capacity to be altered. The zippers can be opened and closed, the shapes and postures can be changed. The use of recycled and common materials is a statement of my approach to the process of art. My tendency is to use what is on hand and freely available as the creation of artifacts is integrated into my daily living. Fun and humour are essential elements here. As an educator, I workfully play and playfully work to disrupt the mystique of art and the art-making process so that art as an experience is more accessible.

Tool of Communication

During the first month of my fieldwork at the Centre, I introduced some zipper sculptures depicting relationship dynamics in education. These artifacts represent personal educational experiences – that of a silenced student in a teacher-centred environment contrasted with an experience where we were all more equally engaged and connected through our participation. My intent was to share my own experiences as a student, illustrating my issues regarding power and authority in education, and also to explore those concepts with people at the Centre. I wanted to do this in a way that used alternative communication, humour and playfulness to make a connection with people. So during their weekly meeting I brought these sculptures and showed them with a brief explanation. Responses to this first presentation from the audience of twelve people ranged from puzzled faces and indifference to outbursts of laughter. The laughter I courted and welcomed as a sign of engagement. I was aware of the possible mystique and potential alienation from the use of artifacts and the art process, so it was important to me to keep the presentation light and interactive. A few people asked questions about the sculptures, inquiring when, how and why they were made. When the noise level rose at one point, someone called out a comment about “zipping up”.

graphic - Banking Education sculpture graphic - Reading sculpture graphic - Collaboration sculpture

Banking Education



Tool of Analysis/Thinking Tool

In this research process, artifacts have been a way of testing themes and interpretations of my data. One way that I responded to interviews and observations was to create sculptures, and then use them to reflect back my perceptions of students’ experiences, illustrating their issues and concerns. Interview participants spoke to me about their previous experiences of being students, where they felt teachers hovering over them, asking and checking and pressuring. We talked about the push relationship between students and teachers at the Reading and Writing Centre, discussing the differences and similarities to hove ring. In our group talks, we used the sculpture (sometimes changing the postures), to explore those experiences and to further explore the issues involved in relationship dynamics amongst students and teachers at the Centre.

Voices was initially made in response to a student who talked about his experience of the power of the teacher’s voice, and how the different tones of voice affected him as a student. Another student talked about the labeling he had experienced as child and how what comes out of people’s mouths has affected him. I’ve been reflecting upon this Voices piece in writing up and analyzing the data. I’ve been struggling with giving equal respect and authority to the voices of students and teachers, to the voices of the literature and to my own voice.

Artifacts can serve as a thinking tool, a reflexive tool for researcher and for participants. Through the interviews and observations I became increasingly aware of the power of relationships amongst students and how that is played out in this educational environment. Queen Bee was made in response to comments during an interview with a student who described another student, who she perceives to have the power of decision at the Centre, as someone who “thinks she’s smart and is the Queen Bee.” I’ve gone through paradigm shifts in the course of this research process and the meanings related to this sculpture have been changing for me, changes that are expressed in this little poem:

Queen Bee thinks she’s smart.
Queen Bee IS smart.
Queen Bee knows what she knows
and uses her knowing to ACT!

Creating and viewing artifacts suggests the presence of an aesthetic experience that is both mindful and reflective.

Data Generation Tool

During my fieldwork at the Reading and Writing Centre I wanted to create opportunities for people to play with the sculptures and the raw materials. During a weekly meeting at the Centre, I volunteered to organize an activity on a day when students, teachers and tutors from the community’s Intercultural Centre were going to visit. A student piped up, “Why not use the zipper people?” This suggestion was a welcomed prompt that led to an activity I facilitated that involved discussion and sculpture creation around the topic ‘Being an Adult Student’.

In small groups people talked together, then sculpted those experiences and presented them to the full group. Some chose to work individually on a sculpture, others created together in groups of two or three. The next photographs depict sculptures by Bert and Diane, two of the interview participants who chose to attend the group activity.

One of my research goals was to involve people as much as possible as research participants, despite their busy schedule and lives.

Bert portrays himself as the white zipper swinging from the black trapeze line, and explains:

On one of my exciting days I feel like doing things, like taking risks and swinging up there. I made a strong base in order to swing. You start on the lower bar and move up to the next one because the highest one is too big a jump. Sometimes I am also the people on the ground, sitting, watching.

Bert’s sculpture and his accompanying story woke me up and I hadn’t even been aware that I was asleep. During the interview with Bert, during the group talks and in our casual conversations I felt I was hearing him tell the same stories over and over. I realized later that I had somewhat closed off to his voice. I was listening but I was not hearing. After being woken up by Bert and his sculpture, I started looking and listening in quite a different way – more empathic and aware of how he experienced the Reading and Writing Centre, and activities that he tried. I learned a lot about risks from Bert. He helped me see that our risk-taking is related to the whole context of where we are, who we are and where we have come from.

Diane’s sculpture and her story about it led me to a deeper understanding of her perception of the behaviour of the teachers at Centre. During our conversations, Diane took an adamant stance against the use of the term ‘push’ which other people used to describe relationship dynamics amongst students and teachers. Diane asserted that teachers did not push when they worked with individual students.

graphic - Voices sculpture graphic - QueenBee sculpture



graphic - Bert's sculpture graphic - Diane's sculpture

Bert's sculpture

Diane's sculpture

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