Today I attended a BSA Sociology of the Arts Study Group‘s event entitled ‘Using the Arts in Teaching and Research’. I should say that I am not a sociologist nor do I think of myself as belonging to the social sciences, so this reflection is based on my interest in using arts in teaching and research rather than on the content of the research that was presented. As so often within the arts context, for me today was all about process.
I was treated to a really interesting day. The organisers had split up the presentations into four different sessions dealing with Using Art to Engage with Marginalised Groups, Using Art as a Reflexive Tool, Using Art in Engagement and Dissemination and Using Art in Training and Education respectively. Here are some observations I made (in no particular order, I think of these as possible starting points for more detailed posts in the future, but want to get them down while the event remains fresh in my mind):
When it comes to art and research there seems to be a spectrum at work. I haven’t quite worked out all the details yet, but this ranges from no art, to using art to illustrate research (that could be findings or part of the process, and it could be already existing art or art specifically generated for the particular project), participatory art might be produced as an integral part of the research, this might then be interpreted by the researcher, or it might be interpreted by the participants themselves and then this will be interpreted by the researcher. And then there is art that has been produced by either researcher and participant or by both in collaboration that becomes a part of the outcome/dissemination.
Issues that these stages have to deal with include:
- There is almost always a hierarchy between the researcher and the participants/subjects of the research, which at some stage is likely to kick in. For example at one stage the researcher might move from facilitator to the person who interprets results and writes them up – a position of power. It seemed to me that research is more true to the person creating the art if they themselves explain it/reflect on the meaning – and to use that in the analysis of the results rather than the researcher interpreting the work.
- Depending on the set up of the research (or of the situation that is researched), participants/subjects might feel they need to present an established story (for example of a victim that gets redeemed, triumph over adversity), or might want to give a certain impression due to a (possibly hidden) agenda. Again a perceived hierarchy might complicate things.
- It is really hard to plan and tie down a research protocol, because very often you don’t know in advance what data you will get. At the beginning participants might be concerned they are ‘doing it wrong’ and might want to get very specific instructions (and the ‘but I can’t draw’ response for drawing as part of research is a common occurrence in this context). However, certainly one of the great things about using arts-based research is that once participants feel empowered by it they often develop their own way of responding, which might be completely unexpected by the researcher. But this means that the forms in which the data comes might be surprising.
- There were nods to thinking about working with artists – and being mindful of what that might mean for the artists, i.e. typically artists are freelance and payment through the university systems are notoriously slow, and the project, i.e. budget for the artists needs to be planned in from the very beginning, whether that is artist as illustrator, facilitator or co-researcher.
Of course we also discussed arts-based research in the context of today’s academic framework, so what exactly is practice-based research and is it becoming more accepted for submission as part of the (UK’s) Research Excellence Framework? Is it maybe easier to use this as part of an impact study? How can it be captured, and is it ok to collect and present research that is inherently subjective?
Needless to say, I came home with a lot of food for thought.