QR:  Identity boxes

Identity boxes

Source: N Brown

Source: N Brown

In this post I explain one of my methods for my research about fibromyalgia and the academic identity.


What are identity boxes?

Identity boxes are boxes that contain items that represent who we are.


How was the identity boxes idea developed?

My concept of identity boxes has developed over time and is therefore based on several approaches.

  1. Narrative approaches: According to McMahon, Murray and Simpson (2012) using narratives for fibromyalgia research would mean that we are able to listen to patients’ full stories and not just see a snapshot of their lives. Based on their thirty years of experience Clandinin and Connelly (2000) highlight the benefits of a narrative approach. However, narratives rely heavily on language and words, and some lived experiences are difficult to convey in words. Therefore, for me the narrative approach on its own is insufficient.
  2. Metaphors and comparisons: In everyday talk and especially when we try to convey physical experiences, we tend to switch to metaphors and comparisons to explain our feelings. Our headaches are often “pounding” or “splitting” or we feel like “being stabbed with a knife”. This to me indicates that language and words may not be enough to explain what we do feel. Also, sometimes we cannot put our feelings into words and therefore communication about physical, psychological and emotional experiences must take a different dimension. This is particularly important when working with children, elderly or vulnerable people, for example.
  3. LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®: David Gauntlett (2007), for example, employed Lego® Serious Play® to investigate identity and factors influencing identity. Gauntlett (2007) found  this data collection method particularly successful because research participants were creating their models using metaphors, but often tapped into their unconscious experiences in that they started building without having a specific plan. At the same time, building models was experienced as an uninvasive and unpressured activity whilst painting or drawing may have made participants anxious.
  4. Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes: The American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell is renowned for shadow boxes, wooden, glass-fronted boxes that contain carefully assembled and placed items that represent Cornell’s understanding of and fascination with earth, life and humanity.
  5. Memory boxes: I had read about memory boxes, how they are used to help elderly patients in nursing homes connect by engaging with the items in their memory boxes, so that they would be able to link to particular happy periods in their lives (Nolan, Mathews and Harrison, 2001; Nolan et al., 2002).


Why do I think identity boxes are a good data collection method?

The identity boxes will provide a holistic narrative or life-story, but at the same time allows for specific elements and critical incidents to be highlighted. Metaphors and non-verbal communication add a layer of understanding that non-creative and non-creating methods will be missing. At the same time, the process of creating identity boxes is an expressive and artistic experience that allows for communication beyond words and journalling, which we might sometimes find daunting or burdensome.


How do you go about creating identity boxes?

The identity boxes are very personal, and therefore there will not be one right way about creating identity boxes, but the creation of the identity boxes is a longer term project over several weeks rather than a short-term project. This is because a creative process cannot be forced and the person creating his or her box must have time to consider what to put in, but also to be spontaneously inspired by life. Also, depending on the purpose of the identity boxes, the actual process may differ from one project to another or from one person to another. But the basic principle is to have a box and fill it with relevant items. The items can either be items that are considered as relevant and important or they may be items that “just feel” like they belong into the box.


How are identity boxes different from memory boxes?

The purpose of the boxes is different and therein lies the main distinction. Memory boxes are used to help elderly remember and remind them of their memories. The identity boxes are more about considering who we are now, what influences our lives and decisions and which roles chronic illness for example plays in our lives. Identity boxes ask for an active engagement with and reflections of who we are and how we would like to be seen.



Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences. London: Routledge.

McMahon, L., Murray, C. & Simpson, J. (2012). The potential benefits of applying a narrative analytic approach for understanding the experience of fibromyalgia: A review. Disability and Rehabilitation, 34(13), 1121-1130.

Nolan, B. A., Mathews, R. M. & Harrison, M. (2001). Using external memory aids to increase room finding by older adults with dementia. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 16(4), 251-254.

Nolan, B. A.; Mathews, R. M.; Truesdell-Todd, G. & VanDorp, A. (2002). Evaluation of the effect of orientation cues on wayfinding in persons with dementia. Alzheimer’s Care Quarterly, 3 (1), 46-49.

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