Complexity Embodied: Using Body Mapping to Understand Complex Support Needs


  • Angela Dew UNSW Sydney
  • Louisa Smith UNSW Sydney
  • Susan Collings University of Sydney
  • Isabella Dillon Savage UNSW Sydney



body mapping, embodiment, arts-based, visual methods, participatory research, qualitative research, complex support needs, planning, transitions


Arts-based methods reduce reliance on verbal communication. This makes them particularly useful for exploring sensitive and controversial topics, which can often be difficult to articulate verbally, and capturing the experiences and insights of marginalised groups including people with complex support needs. The visual arts-based method of body mapping provides an alternative way for participants to express their views and experiences through non-verbal storytelling. In this article, we report on the adaptation of body mapping to conduct research with two disadvantaged groups: adults with cognitive disability and complex support needs; and young people with complex support needs. We identify the potential of the method to promote participants' choice and control over the research process and the onus on researchers to create and maintain a mutually safe and supportive environment. Body mapping is also identified as a useful practical tool for use by individuals and their supporters. Arts-based methods, including body mapping, have the potential to empower people with complex support needs to engage more fully in research, which provides a greater understanding of their experiences, views, and feelings.


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Author Biographies

Angela Dew, UNSW Sydney

Angela DEW, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Intellectual Disability Behaviour Support (IDBS) program at UNSW Sydney where she is engaged in research related to people with cognitive disability and complex support needs. Angela is a sociologist with 36 years’ experience in the Australian disability sector. Her research relates to understanding the specific issues faced by people with cognitive disability and a range of complexities including living in rural and remote locations and coming from an Aboriginal background. Angela uses qualitative and arts-based methods within an integrated knowledge translation framework to ensure her research results in practical solutions that can be tailored to individuals and local communities.

Louisa Smith, UNSW Sydney

Louisa SMITH, PhD is a lecturer on the IDBS program. Louisa’s research interests centre on the relationship between experiences of disability and social policy and social change. Her research works across the disciplines of sociology, disability studies and policy studies. In Louisa's research and teaching she uses arts-based methods, knowledge translation and universal design to make her work as accessible as possible.

Susan Collings, University of Sydney

Susan COLLINGS, PhD is a research fellow at the Institute of Open Adoption Studies at Sydney University. Susan undertakes applied research to understand complex social disadvantage, using knowledge translation to support practice change. Her current research aims to improve permanency for children in long-term foster care. Susan’s research uses child-centred, participatory action and arts-based methods.

Isabella Dillon Savage, UNSW Sydney

Isabella DILLON SAVAGE is employed as a research assistant on the IDBS program at UNSW Sydney. Isabella holds a bachelor of arts, a masters of development and is currently completing a masters of public health. She is an emerging researcher with an interest in human rights, family violence and gender. Isabella has expertise in applying a participatory approach in both research and community development.




How to Cite

Dew, A., Smith, L., Collings, S., & Dillon Savage, I. (2018). Complexity Embodied: Using Body Mapping to Understand Complex Support Needs. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(2).



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