methodology and method

It’s Friday night and I’m reading the wikipedia page about methodology. I know I know – Friday! Wikipedia! #desperatetimes

I’m reading this because I’ve had a lot of conversations recently (with colleagues and students) about methods and methodology in practice-as-research.

Two statements on the wiki page catch my attention:

The methodology is the general research strategy that outlines the way in which research is to be undertaken and, among other things, identifies the methods to be used in it.

Methodology and method are not interchangeable. In recent years however, there has been a tendency to use methodology as a “pretentious substitute for the word method”.

And here’s a great little summary from Aotearoa of the distinction between method and methodology in relation to decolonisation methodologies: http://whanauoraresearch.co.nz/news/method-or-methodology-whats-the-difference.

Practice-as-research finds itself at an interesting moment in its development. I feel confident as an artist-scholar that when I write a practice-as-research methodological statement (say, for a proposal) I am calling on a set of methodological principles, and a particular history. I understand such a position statement to be a critical framework that makes sense of why a practice-as-research methodology is most appropriate for that particular research. In other words, it is a methodological rationale. This means I do not have to defend practice-as-research methodologically (that work has already been done), but I do have to make a clear methodological case for the specific project I am proposing or doing.

However, methodology is not the same as method and it is certainly not the same as creative process.

The research methods that I work with in practice-as-research often overlap heavily with creative processes. These might include group devising, task-based development of ideas, workshopping, improvisation, video editing, etc. They are the basic tools (or methods) with which I do the research.

I would argue that under most circumstances there is little that is exceptional or unusual about these research methods/creative processes. The trap in practice-as-research (particularly at PhD level) is to provide a blow-by-blow description of research methods/tools/creative processes as if they are special. There are (rare) circumstances in which creative processes are unique and might make an important contribution to, for instance, our understanding of choreographic, film or theatre-making processes. In such (rare) cases, then it would be important to provide access to these processes for the reader/viewer. They could watch rehearsals (or documentation of rehearsals), read reflections on the processes, etc.

For practice-as-research PhDs I’d suggest that in most situations students could write a methodological rationale (to help the reader understand why their research questions are best addressed by this approach) – maybe 3–4k words, but even as few as 2k? – that would include a brief outline of the methods/tools/processes used. The exception would be in cases in which the methods/processes are the object of the research investigation. That is, in which there is something special about these processes that demands attention and that would potentially contribute to how we understand artistic processes.

Any thoughts?

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: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279191606_Artists_in_the_Academy  ↩
  3. https://www.creativityandcognition.com/resources/PBR%20Guide–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.  ↩

mesearch

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

– George Orwell, Collected Essays, Vol. IV. In front of Your Nose

In his blog post The Unbearable Whiteness of Mesearch Victor Ray describes the situation where the work of scholars of colour is dismissed as being “me studies” or “mesearch”. He then says:

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities.

I’d never heard the neologism mesearch before[1] but it strikes me that practice-as-research lends itself to mesearch both elegantly and terribly. The elegant part is that practice requires commitment and (self-)absorption (particularly if the practice is a solo one); it demands profoundly critical reflection on what is happening; it is a constant struggle to see something that is so close.

The terrible part of mesearch – and I understand this to be a common problem in practice-as-research[2] – is a failure to engage deeply with the community of artists and scholars within which one is working (either directly or indirectly). It is a failure to acknowledge that research – by definition – happens in relation to others. A key task for any practice-as-researcher is to readily acknowledge how their work is participating in these various communities of practice and scholarship.


  1. It was in Eric Anthony Grollman’s post conditionallyaccepted.com/2016/12/01/watchlist/ that I happened across the term and also the link to Victor Ray’s blog post.  ↩
  2. But certainly not in research to do with discrimination, racism or that focuses on communities of colour that Victor Ray is referring to.  ↩

intuition

It’s easy to undervalue the role of intuition in research processes. Perhaps though in practice-as-research it is more common for people to work with their intuitive thoughts and actions in ways that are difficult to substantiate or justify. After all, it’s a creative process right?

Here’s Tim Ingold on intuition as a form of knowledge:

In his recent study of reindeer herders and hunters of the Taimyr region of northern Siberia, David Anderson (2000: 116–17) writes that in their relations with animals and other components of the environment, these people operate with a sentient ecology. This notion perfectly captures the kind of knowledge people have of their environments that I have been trying to convey. It is knowledge not of a formal, authorised kind, transmissible in contexts outside those of its practical application. On the contrary, it is based in feeling, consisting in the skills, sensitivities and orientations that have developed through long experience of conducting one’s life in a particular environment. This is the kind of knowledge that Janáček claimed to draw from attending to the melodic inflections of speech; hunters draw it from similarly close attention to the movements, sounds and gestures of animals.

Another word for this kind of sensitivity and responsiveness is intuition. In the tradition of Western thought and science, intuition has had a pretty bad press: compared with the products of the rational intellect, it has been widely regarded as knowledge of an inferior kind. Yet it is knowledge we all have; indeed we use it all the time as we go about our everyday tasks (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986: 29). What is more, it constitutes a necessary foundation for any system of science or ethics.

Intuitive understanding, in short, is not contrary to science or ethics, nor does it appeal to instinct rather than reason, or to supposedly ‘hardwired’ imperatives of human nature. On the contrary, it rests in perceptual skills that emerge, for each and every being, through a process of development in a historically specific environment.

– Tim Ingold, 2000. The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge, p.25

It falls on us as practice-researchers to keep searching for ways to be critical of one’s own thinking and practices (including the intuitive aspects), and to adopt some kind of balance between doubt and intuition.

crystals and documentation

Last week I posted a(n incomplete) list of the reasons why artists (and also artists in academia) might document their work. Part of the complexity of the issue of documentation is that the word documentation itself reveals a number of assumptions about practice-as-research as a method in the academy.

The word *documentation*:

  1. sets up a simplistic otherness between the art work and the documents that somehow trace aspects of that work. In other words, the term documentation forces the art work to contain the heart and soul of the research because everything else is pointing at it. For some artist-researchers this might seem like a positive thing.
  2. traps us into a way of thinking in which what is understood/experienced/felt/apprehended differently as a consequence of our research – its epistemological value – resides somewhere between an event that has past, and some materials that are present and (relatively or vaguely) permanent, but exist primarily in relation to that event. William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
  3. tends to foreground the idea of what is lost when we document performance
  4. can corral us into absorbing – or buying into – economies of knowledge in which the (persisting) value of our work is located in recognisable and traditional objects of knowledge (that in certain circumstances can be bought and sold).

I suspect that we have defaulted to the word documentation due to its availability and accessibility (both very good reasons), and also because in the early days of practice-as-research there was a tendency for projects to involve making an (art)work, documenting it, then writing about it. It was all rather tidy, at least on the surface.

I don’t think the solution involves finding a more appropriate word[1], but rather rethinking the way we imagine the scope and shape of our research projects[2]. The metaphor I’ve found most useful in this regard is the crystal, which I first encountered in writing by the sociologist Laurel Richardson:

[Crystallization] combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach. … Crystallization provides us with a deepened, complex, thoroughly partial, understanding of the topic. Paradoxically, we know more and doubt what we know.[3]

The implications for practice-as-research are clear. Each research project is a singular entity with many surfaces. These surfaces – or materials, experiences, activities, events, etc. – enable the reader-viewer-audience to access and apprehend different perspectives or understandings of the same singular entity. In such a model, documentation is no longer other to performance, and writing is not simply a description of a performance that happened in the past. They are enfolded into the same experience and understanding.

In many respects, this crystal model or metaphor demands that artist-researchers step back enough from their practices so that it is visible (or able to be conceived of) as singular. At the same time, it makes multiplicity possible – even essential – in our practices and work.

Some further reading:

  • Jones, A., & Heathfield, A. (2012). Perform, Repeat, Record. London: Intellect Books.
  • Ledger, A., Ellis, S., & Wright, F. (2011). The Question of Documentation: Creative Strategies in Performance Research. In B. Kershaw & H. Nicholson (Eds.), Research methods in theatre and performance (pp. 162–184). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research (pp.516–529). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Ellingson, Laura L. (2009). Engaging Crystallization in Qualitative Research: An Introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.[4]

  1. This was one of the key aspects of my PhD in which I suggest that remembering is a more apt term because it invites suggestions of loss, contexts, fallibility, construction, etc.  ↩
  2. At some point I’d like to write a few thoughts about how distinguishing between workds and projects might be useful. Bojana Kunst has written this about the word project: http://www.manifestajournal.org/issues/regret-and-other-back-pages/project-horizon-temporality-making  ↩
  3. I didn’t have easy access to Richardson’s chapter in Denzin and Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research but this quote is all over the net. In this case the quote is cited in http://www.learninglandscapes.ca/images/documents/ll-no8/rshagoury.pdf  ↩
  4. Thanks to Teoma Jackson Naccarato for this reference. I haven’t had a good look through it yet but it seems like a good place to start.  ↩

a list about documentation

Yesterday I spent a few hours with the postgraduate cohort at C-DaRE (Centre for Dance Research) at Coventry University. They were in the middle of a couple of days working through ideas about research methods and my job was to lead some conversations about documentation in relation to practice-as-research.

I feel quite strongly that documentation is simply not the right word to be using when we are talking about the various traces, practices, texts (etc) that make up practice-as-research projects or activities. I’ll discuss this problem or idea in a later post but for now, here’s a list of reasons why performance-making artists (in any context, not just academia) might find ways to gather the traces (detritus?) and materials of their work. It’s not exhaustive:

  • preservation
  • to stimulate memory of the performance event (Phelan, 1993).
  • pressure to develop reproducible forms
  • interest in developing reproducible forms
  • new audiences
  • economic benefit
  • professional benefit
  • continue and diversify creative processes
  • increase cultural authority (Lycouris, 2000)
  • evocation
  • to foreground the disappearance of performance
  • to prevent performance disappearing
  • to acknowledge performance’s incompleteness (Lycouris, 2000)
  • to trace, map, outline, sketch, taste, make sense of
  • reflection
  • understanding
  • fashion

Lycouris, S. (2000). The documentation of practice: Framing trace. Working Papers in Art and Design Vol I http://www.herts.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/12288/WPIAAD_vol1_lycouris.pdf

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked. London: Routledge.