Crafting a MadZine Methodology

by Hel Spandler and Jill Anderson

When we submitted our funding proposal for our MadZines research, we had some preliminary ideas about how we would approach this. This blog outlines our initial ideas, and how we have developed our thinking since.

We knew we wanted to approach zines in a way that is congruent, with both the ethics and culture of Zines and Mad Studies.  In other words, we wanted to develop a methodology that makes use of a Mad Studies lens whilst mirroring zine practice. 

Research as Craft

We understand research, like zine-making, as knowledge creation. Moreover, we understand the creation of such knowledge as a craft. A reader’s experience – whether of a zine or of a research report – derives not just from its content but from its materiality, or the form that has been crafted.

Congruent with a Mad Studies ethos, we have been looking for an emancipatory research approach that avoids imposing our own, one-way, interpretations on other people’s words and images, or ‘fixing’ their meanings. We have found inspiration in creative techniques like collage, through which zinesters demonstrate a zine’s openness, its un-finalizability or, what Paula Cameron (2012) called, its ‘seamfulness’.

Through our own evolving collage – or ‘bricolage’ – of methods, we seek to replicate that openness. Bricolage is a useful metaphor for the kind of research that uses multiple methods, as each becomes necessary in the unfolding context of a research situation. Such research – by contrast with conventional, more seam-less, academic outputs – shows its process and workings. People who ‘craft’ this kind of research have often been likened to quilt makers (Denzin and Lincoln 2003).

Thinking with zines

We knew, from the outset, that we wanted to explore the dialogical potential of zines to open up, rather than to close down, conversations and understandings about mental health. That drew us to Arthur Frank’s (2010) Dialogical Narrative Analysis which explores not what stories ‘mean’ but what they can ‘do’ for people (or their ‘performativity’). In that sense, we were also drawn to post humanist ideas and New Materialism which sees ‘objects’ (like zines) as having ‘agency’ – that is, the capacity to act. We were especially intrigued by Frank’s idea that we need to think ‘with’ rather than ‘about’ stories – letting them ‘breathe’. So, we wanted to explore how that might work in relation to zines i.e. how we might think with, rather than just about zines.

Over recent months, we have been identifying and acquiring zines, receiving their riches in the post, finding ways into and unravelling them, swapping and sharing them and spending time with them.  Having spent some time with zines, talking to zinesters and each other, and reading other zine scholars’ work, we are now in a better position to start thinking about applying those ideas in practice. What have we learned?

Being with MadZines

Central to our research is the critical knowledge that is contained within zines (in the psychodynamic sense of ‘containment’, as a safe place for difficult material to be processed and understood). However, as we anticipated, our own encounters with zines have moved beyond our ‘reading’ of them (their explicit, or even implicit, content). 

We have been intrigued by how Madzines affect us; whether and how they move us, touch us, unsettle us or challenge us. We have discovered that this concern with what zines do and how they do it, rather than just with zines as texts to be read, has become central to zine studies (Radway, 2018).

To answer our questions, we have realised that we need to ‘be with’ Madzines, letting them affect us. That kind of co-presence mirrors what many psychiatric survivors say that they want from mental health services, and beyond them: to be accompanied by people who can get alongside them and their distress, without pre-judgement or unwanted intervention.

Letting Madness Breathe

Many Mad Studies scholars critique psychiatry’s tendency to think ‘about’ rather than ‘with’ clients, seeing the profession as overly concerned with diagnostic labelling, medication and behaviour management (Spandler 2014). ‘Being with’ someone in distress means not imposing assumptions, interpretations or meanings onto their behaviour. It means recognising the ways in which that person might be ‘holding their own’ (Frank, 2010) and helping to open up possibilities for personal meaning-making. Crisis services, like Soteria type houses, and services based on the Open Dialogue approach, are often popular with service users and survivors precisely because they prioritise that way of working.

Many of the zines we are exploring are perzines, zines about people’s personal experiences of madness and distress. We want to both honour those experiences, being sensitive to their uniqueness, yet also de-centre the individual zinester in our analysis. This will help us to focus on the socio-political-cultural aspects of zines, similar to Alison Piepmeier’s (2009) analysis of feminist zines and Stephen Duncombe’s (1997) analysis of the underground politics of zines.  For example, in line with our Mad Studies approach, the last thing we’d want to do is to psychologise or psychiatrise the people who make zines. 

In these ways, we are trying to develop a methodology which allows both zines and madness to ‘breathe’.

The Afterlives of zines
Picture of a zine about our methodology

Finally, we have been starting to think about the ‘after-lives’ of zines (Radway, 2018). Beyond the process of crafting, gifting and sharing zines, what ideas and actions do they set in motion? Rather than being passive observers of zine processes, we’d like to actively engage with zines and help them to circulate. For example, not only are we interested in making and distributing our own zines (a method common to zine researchers, especially doctoral students), but we are also interested in helping zines to foster dialogue – within and between the Zine and Mad communities.

Coming full circle, we hope this will help us craft a unique MadZine methodology.

Watch Jac Batey interview Jill and Helen about our MadZine methodology zine.

Do you have a personal or professional interest in zines, in madness, in research, or in all three?

We’d be interested in any feedback about these ideas.


Cameron, P. (2012) Seamfulness: Nova Scotian Women Witness Depression through Zines, PhD, University of Toronto

Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (2003) Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Duncombe, S. (1997) Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Verso Press 

Frank, AW, (2010) Letting Stories Breathe: a socio-narratology. London: The University of Chicago Press 

Piepmeier A. (2009) Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: New York University Press.

Radway, J. (2018) Zines, Half-Lives , and Afterlives : On the Temporalities of Social and Political Change PMLA. 126(1):140-150.

Spandler, H. (2014)Letting Madness Breathe?: Critical challenges facing mental health social work today’ in J. Weinstein. Mental Health: Critical and radical debates in social work. Policy Press, Bristol.

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