smelling as sweet

  • practice-as-research
  • practice-research
  • practice-led research
  • practice-based research
  • artistic research
  • practice on the arts
  • creative research
  • artistic practice creative research in the arts[1]

There’s no surer sign of a field with an inferiority complex than having a bunch of different names for processes and approaches that essentially describe the same thing.

In 2004 Sarah Rubidge tried to clarify the differences between the terms practice-led and practice-based[2], and recently a PhD student I am working with – Carol Breen – showed me some writing by Linda Candy[3] in which Candy describes essentially the same processes but with the names switched.

Last month Caitlin Shepherd (a PhD candidate at the University of West England) wrote a thoughtful and detailed blog post about practice-as-research.

In it, Shepherd writes:

There are nuanced distinctions between the terms Practice led Research, Practice on the Arts and Practice as Research. It is important to tease out the different meanings, as it helps us better understand the difference between terms, and exercise a more critical examination into practice based research.

I’m not sure I agree with Shepherd’s concerns about the terms.

My worry is that the distinctions are often more about researchers staking claims[4] than they are about the messy, flawed, complex, uncertain, and nuanced experiences of artist-researchers working in the Academy (at all levels, whether students or faculty). These are experiences that are all versions – or iterations – of principles of practice-as-research[5], rather than experiences that can easily be aligned to terms that are described in oppositional (and colliding) ways.

Furthermore, the differences between the terms are often based on geographic differences more than nuanced differences in approaches. For example, the difference between practice-led research and practice-as-research has more to do with the former happening in Australasia and the latter in the UK then any distinction between the methods (whereas Artistic Research happens in continental Europe). That is, geographical differences > methodological differences.

Is there a way we can just drop the anxiety about what to call it so that we can just get on with developing approaches based on principles that are appropriate to our research concerns? My sense is that the far more important concern is how we might recognise which practice-as-research trajectories or strategies are most appropriate. This is a problem that has to do with the nature of our practices, their histories and contexts, and their potential epistemological value.

  1. OK, OK, so I made this one up.  ↩
  2. I’m sure she wasn’t the first but here’s that conference paper:  ↩
  3.–1.1–2006.pdf  ↩
  4. I’m probably falling into the same trap.  ↩
  5. I only use the term practice-as-research out of time and familiarity, not because I think it’s the most apt.  ↩

8 Replies to “smelling as sweet”

  1. OK, Simon, in some ways I agree but in others I don’t. For example, you say ‘ the differences between the terms are often based on geographic differences more than nuanced differences in approaches. For example, the difference between practice-led research and practice-as-research has more to do with the former happening in Australasia and the latter in the UK then any distinction between the methods’ – sure this is true in many ways but the AHRC made a big deal about calling what it was prepared to fund ‘practice-led research’ and stating it would not fund research that could not articulate its research aims, methodology, etc. So the geography thing doesn’t work so well.
    But the notion that we might get students to be more clear about their trajectories, strategies, methodologies is well said AND they could then map these individual articulations onto the PaR etc field as we know it! In this way they would then be able to say ‘I am more closely aligned to so and so and/or so and so who make a case for ‘practice as research’ or other labels’. In this way they/we are working toward the articulation of a larger field of practice/discourse rather than only being concerned with our subjective experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jane.

      Curious about AHRC. In their latest funding guide there’s only one mention of practice-led research, and this is in relation to Social Anthropology. All other references are simply to “practice” as in:

      “Creative output can be produced, or practice undertaken, as an integral part of a research process as defined above.”

      I definitely take your point about geography although (just for the sake of argument) I would suggest that it’s now rare for people in the UK to use the term practice-led research (as much as I like that term). Regardless, the key part of the post is about getting on with the practices …



  2. I think I agree, Simon.

    The diverse naming wrappers are just what have emerged within distinct geographical zones, as shaped by local academic/funding constraints and priorities. I don’t think they are much different from, say, we in Australia referring to thongs, and the English talking about flip-flops, (or jandles in NZ).

    For me, I hear all these names for creative practice led/based/as research etc, and I ask myself the same questions:

    -Does knowledge emerge through the practice?
    -Are the inventions and discoveries of the practice made available for others to access and build upon?
    -Does the overall project (practice+exegesis+?) contribute something useful to the field (method, ideas, critique, data)?

    If so, then we’re on the right track.



  3. Hello,
    To me the geographical/cultural is very important and I think we are practicing what Baz Kershaw calls different ‘species’ of PaR. I am always going back to Kershaw’s intro to Practice-as-research in Performance and Screen as there is just so much in there. He notes how ‘different countries and regions are highly likely to evolve their own characteristic species of practice … evolution of systems of support and infrastructures, and potentially substantial and sustainable impact within universities and in their wider cultures.’ This really stood out to me after moving from Ireland where, for example, PaR and Dance Studies are in an emergent state.
    Context has a huge impact on how and why different research approaches develop. For example, dance scholars in Ireland are often in theatre departments – therefore theatre and performance studies have been really influential on Irish dance studies from my perspective. Somatic practices in dance studies in the UK are sometimes referred to as having developed as a result of severe technical training and a need for less disciplinary pedagogies but in Ireland most of us didn’t have access the same kinds of technical training – so there is a need to dig deeper to understand why somatics are developing there quite rapidly at the moment. PaR is just developing in Ireland and what this means for that species of PaR I’m not sure yet. Often titles don’t necessarily indicate these different contexts, though sometimes they do – like, in my understanding, artistic research.
    So I agree with the point about geographic differences but I think if we look below the surface of that, we might find emerging from that some more subtle differences that are, I feel, important to name. (coming from a feeling of not wanting my cultural experience to be erased I think!!)


  4. Even at the ‘in the beginning’ stages, terminology flummoxed. Baz Kershaw attempted to distinguish between practice-as, practice-based and practice-led in a 2002 article in STP on his Iron Ship project. And he and I wrote some things in 2003/04. Useful, if now of the archive, references here: In addition to geography, it is also discipline-driven. In screen, MeCCSA runs a practice network Back in the early 2000s, John Adams advocated the use of practice-research, which was adopted across the community. This might have been a resistance to their sense of being overshadowed by theatre and dance. Disciplinary politics are performed through disciplinary boundary-making practices. The thing to keep in mind is that AHRC and HEFCE seem less bothered by our definitions than we are. If what we do fits their definitions of research, that would seem adequate. However, it may still be that precise sub categories of practice do important conceptual, ideological and political work…


    1. Thanks Angela for this nicely considered response. Completely agree re disciplinary politics.

      My concern in part is that I’m working with so many doctoral students who feel like they have to figure out what to call the method before they can get on with their practices. These histories — of nomenclature — are inhibiting or infecting their work at untimely stages, and in ways that mask (or overwhelm) the nuances of individual practices.


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