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date: 05 May 2021

Arts-Based Researchfree

  • Janinka GreenwoodJaninka GreenwoodUniversity of Canterbury


Arts-based research encompasses a range of research approaches and strategies that utilize one or more of the arts in investigation. Such approaches have evolved from understandings that life and experiences of the world are multifaceted, and that art offers ways of knowing the world that involve sensory perceptions and emotion as well as intellectual responses. Researchers have used arts for various stages of research. It may be to collect or create data, to interpret or analyze it, to present their findings, or some combination of these. Sometimes arts-based research is used to investigate art making or teaching in or through the arts. Sometimes it is used to explore issues in the wider social sciences. The field is a constantly evolving one, and researchers have evolved diverse ways of using the communicative and interpretative tools that processes with the arts allow. These include ways to initially bypass the need for verbal expression, to explore problems in physically embodied as well as discursive ways, to capture and express ambiguities, liminalities, and complexities, to collaborate in the refining of ideas, to transform audience perceptions, and to create surprise and engage audiences emotionally as well as critically. A common feature within the wide range of approaches is that they involve aesthetic responses.

The richness of the opportunities created by the use of arts in conducting and/or reporting research brings accompanying challenges. Among these are the political as well as the epistemological expectations placed on research, the need for audiences of research, and perhaps participants in research, to evolve ways of critically assessing the affect of as well as the information in presentations, the need to develop relevant and useful strategies for peer review of the research as well as the art, and the need to evolve ethical awareness that is consistent with the intentions and power of the arts.


The term arts-based research is an umbrella term that covers an eclectic array of methodological and epistemological approaches. The key elements that unify this diverse body of work are: it is research; and one or more art forms or processes are involved in the doing of the research. How art is involved varies enormously. It has been used as one of several tools to elicit information (Cremin, Mason, & Busher, 2011; Gauntlett, 2007; Wang & Burns, 1997) and for the analysis of data (Boal, 1979; Gallagher, 2014; Neilson, 2008), and so it serves as an enrichment to the palette of tools used in qualitative research. It has been used in the presentation of findings (Bagley & Cancienne, 2002; Conrad, 2012; Gray & Sinding, 2002) and so occupies a space that could be responded to and evaluated as both art and research. It has been used to investigate art and the process of art-making. The emergence of the concept and practice of a/r/tography (Belliveau, 2015; Irwin, 2013; Springgay, Irwin, & Kind, 2005), for example, places art-making and its textual interpretation in a dynamic relationship of inquiry into the purpose, process, and meaning of the making of an artwork.

The field is multifaceted and elusive of definition and encompassing explanation. This article does not attempt such definitions. But it does risk describing some well-trodden pathways through the field and posing some questions. Illustrative examples are offered from the author’s work, as well as citing of works by other researchers who use arts-based approaches.

My own explorations of arts-based research began many years ago, before the term came into usage. I was commissioned to develop a touring play for a New Zealand youth theater, and I chose to write a docudrama, Broadwood: Na wai te reo? (Greenwood, 1995). The play reported the case of a remote, rural, and predominantly Maori school that made Maori language a compulsory subject in its curriculum. The parents of one boy argued against the decision, claiming the language held no use for their son. The dispute was aired on national television and was debated in parliament. The minister agreed that the local school board had the right to make the decision after consultation with parents and community. The dispute ended with the boy being given permission to do extra math assignments in the library during Maori language classes. To develop the script, I interviewed all the local participants in the case and sincerely sought to capture the integrity of their views in my dialogue. I accessed the minister of education’s comments through public documents and media and reserved the right to occasionally satirize them. Just a week or two before final production, the family’s lawyer officially asked for a copy of the script. To my relief, it was returned with the comment that the family felt I had captured their views quite accurately. The youth theater was invited to hold its final rehearsal on the local marae (a traditional tribal Maori ground that holds a meeting house and hosts significant community occasions), and a local elder offered the use of an ancestral whalebone weapon in the opening performance, instead of the wooden one made for the production. The opening performance took place in the school itself, and the boy, together with his parents and family friends, sat in the audience together with hundreds of community people. The play had an interactive section where the audience was asked to vote in response to a survey the school had originally sent out to its community. The majority of the audience voted for Maori language to be part of the mandatory curriculum. The boy and his family voted equally emphatically for it not to be. The play then toured in New Zealand and was taken to a festival in Australia.

At the time I saw the work purely in terms of theater—albeit with a strongly critical social function. Looking back, I now see it was a performative case study. I had carefully researched the context and respectfully interviewed participants after gaining their informed consent. The participants had all endorsed my reporting of the data. The findings were disseminated and subject to popular as well as peer review. The performances added an extra dimension to the research: they actively invited audience consideration and debate.

This article discusses the epistemology that underlies arts-based approaches to research, reviews the purposes and value of research that involves the arts, identifies different stages and ways that art may be utilized, and addresses questions that are debated in the field. It does not seek to disentangle all the threads within this approach to research or to review all key theorizations and possibilities in the field. The arena of arts-based research is a diverse and rapidly expanding one, and it is only possible within this discussion to identify some of the common underlying characteristics and potentialities and to offer selected examples. Because this discussion is shaped within an essay format, rather than through a visual or performative collage, there is the risk of marking a limited number of pathways and of making assertions. At the same time, I acknowledge that the discussion might have alternatively been conducted through arts-based media, which might better reflect some of the liminalities and interweaving layers of art-based processes (see further, Greenwood, 2016).

The term art itself compasses a wide and diverse spectrum of products and process. This article focuses particularly on dramatic and visual art, while acknowledging that the use of other art forms, such as poetry, fiction, dance, film, and fabric work, have been variously used in processes of investigation. The word art is used to indicate the wider spectrum of art activities and to refer to more specific forms and processes by their disciplines and conventions.

Why Use Art?

One of the main reasons for the growth of arts-based approaches to research is recognition that life experiences are multi-sensory, multifaceted, and related in complex ways to time, space, ideologies, and relationships with others. Traditional approaches to research have been seen by increasing numbers of researchers as predominantly privileging cerebral, verbal, and linearly temporal approaches to knowledge and experience. The use of art in research is one of many shifts in the search for truthful means of investigation and representation. These include, among others, movements toward various forms of narratives (Riessman, 2008), recognition of indigenous knowledges, and indigenous ways of sharing and using knowledge (Bharucha, 1993; Smith, 2014), auto-ethnographies (Ellis, 2004), conceptualizations of wicked questions (Rittel & Webber, 1973), processes of troubling (Gardiner, 2015), and queering (Halperin, 2003). Preissle (2011) writes about the “qualitative tapestry” (p. 689) and identifies historic and contemporary threads of epistemological challenges, methods, and purposes, pointing out the ever-increasing diversity in the field. Denzin and Lincoln (2011) describe qualitative research as a site of multiple interpretative practices and, citing St. Pierre’s (2004) argument that we are in a post “post” period, assert that “we are in a new age where messy, uncertain multi-voiced texts, cultural criticism, and new experimental works will become more common, as will more reflexive forms of fieldwork, analysis and intertextual representation” (p. 15). Springgay, Irwin, and Kind (2005) assert that a/r/tography is not a new branch of qualitative research but a methodology in its own right, and that it conceptualizes inquiry as an embodied encounter through visual and textual experiences. The use of art in research is a succession of approaches to develop methodology that is meaningful and useful.

Art, product, and process allow and even invite art-makers to explore and play with knowing and meaning in ways that are more visceral and interactive than the intellectual and verbal ways that have tended to predominate in Western discourses of knowledge. It invites art viewers to interact with representations in ways that involve their senses, emotions, and ideas. Eisner (1998, 2002) makes a number of significant assertions about the relationship between form and knowledge that emphasize the importance of art processes in offering expanded understandings of “what it means to know” (Eisner, 1998, p. 1). He states: “There are multiple ways in which the world can be known: Artists, writers, and dancers, as well as scientists, have important thongs to tell about the world” (p. 7). Like other constructivists (Bruner, 1990; Guba, 1996), he further argues that because human knowledge is a constructed form of experience, it is a reflection of mind as well as nature, that knowledge is made, not simply discovered. He then reasons that “the forms through which humans represent their conception of the world have a major influence on what they are able to say about it” (p. 6), and, making particular reference to education, he states that whichever particular forms of representation become acceptable “is as much a political matter as an epistemological one” (p. 7). Eisner’s arguments to extend conceptualizations of knowledge within the field of education have been echoed in the practices of art-based researchers.

Artists themselves understand through their practice that art is way of coming to know the world and of presenting that knowing, emergent and shifting though it may be, to others. Sometimes the process of coming to know takes the form of social analysis. In Guernica, as a well-known example, Picasso scrutinizes and crystallizes the brutal betrayals and waste of war. In Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht fractures and strips bare ideas of justice, loyalty, and ownership. Their respective visual and dramatic montages speak in ways that are different from and arguably more potent than discursive descriptions.

In many indigenous cultures, art forms are primary ways of processing and recording communally significant information and signifying relationships. For New Zealand Māori, the meeting house, with its visual images, poetry, song, oratory, and rituals, is the repository library of mythic and genealogical history and of the accumulated legacies of meetings, contested positions, and nuanced consensual decisions. Art within Māori and other indigenous culture is not an illustrative addition to knowledge systems, it is an integral means of meaning making and recording.

One of the characteristics of arts and arts-based research projects is that they engage with aesthetic understandings as well as with discursive explanations. The aesthetic is a contested term (Greenwood, 2011; Hamera, 2011). However, it is used here to describe the engagement of senses and emotion as well as intellectual processes, and the consequent collation of semiotics and significances that are embedded in cultural awareness and are variously used by art makers and art viewers to respond to works of art. An aesthetic response thus is a visceral as well as rational one. It may be comfortable with ambiguities, and it may elude verbalization.

The processes of art-making demand a commitment to a continuous refinement of skills and awareness. Art-viewers arguably also gain more from an artwork as they acquire the skills and literacies involved with that particular art form and as they gain confidence to engage with the aesthetic. However, viewers may apprehend meaning without mastery of all the relevant literacies. I recall an experience of watching flamenco in El Puerto de Santa Maria, a township outside Cadiz. My senses drank in the white stone of former monastery walls and the darkening sky over an open inner courtyard. My muscles and emotions responded spontaneously to the urgency of the guitar and the beaten rhythms on a packing case drum. My nerves tensed as the singer’s voice cut through the air. The two dancers, both older and dressed in seemingly causal fawn and grey, riveted my attention. I was a stranger to the art form, and I did not know the language of the dance and could not recognize its phases or its allusions. I did feel the visceral tug of emotion across space. My heart and soul responded to something urgent, strangely oppressive, but indefinable that might have an apprehension of what those who understand flamenco call duende. If I was more literate in the art form, I would no doubt have understood a lot more, but the art, performed by those who did know and had mastered its intricacies, communicated an experience of their world to me despite my lack of training. In that evening, I learned more about the experience of life in southern Spain than I had in my earlier pursuit of library books and websites.

Art, thus, is positioned as a powerful tool that calls for ever-refining expertise in its making, but that can communicate, at differing levels, even with those who do not have that expertise. Researchers who use art draw on its rich, and sometimes complex and elusive, epistemological bases to explore and represent aspects of the world. The researchers may themselves be artists; at the least, they need to know enough of an art form to be aware of its potential and how to manipulate it. In some cases intended participants and audiences may also be artists, but often they are not. It is the researcher who creates a framework in which participants join in the art or in which audiences receive it.

Art, Research Purpose, and Research Validity

So far, the argument for the value of art as a way of knowing is multifarious, embodied, and tolerant of ambivalences and ambiguities. Where then are the rigors that are widely held as essential for research? It can be argued that arts-based research, to be considered as research, needs to have explicit research purpose and needs to subject itself to peer critique.

As has been widely noted (Eisner, 1998; Leavy, 2017; Sullivan, 2010), the making of art involves some investigation, both into the process of making and into some aspect of the experiential world. In research, that purpose needs to be overt and explicit. When the purpose is identified, then the choice of methods can be open to critical scrutiny and evaluation. The design of an arts-based research project is shaped, at its core, by similar considerations as other research.

Arts-based research needs to be explicit about what is being investigated. If the objective is not clear, then the result may still be art, but it is hard to call it research. Purpose determines which of the vast array of art strategies and processes will be selected as the research methods. The trustworthiness of any research depends on a number of factors: at the design stage, it depends on a clear alignment between the purpose of the research and the methods selected to carry out the investigation. In arts-based research, as in other research, it is vital that the researcher identifies the relationship between purpose and selected art tools, and offers recipients of the research clear means to evaluate and critique the reliability and usefulness of the answers that come from the research. This is where choices about strategies need to be clearly identified and explained, and both the aims and boundaries of the investigation need to be identified.

This does not imply need for a rigid and static design. Art is an evolving process, and the research design can well be an evolving one, as is the case with participatory action research (Bryndon-Miller, Karl, Maguire, Noffke, & Sabhlok, 2011), bricolage (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011), and a number of other research approaches. However, the strategic stages and choices of the emergent design donot need to be identified and explained. Nor does it imply that all data or findings need to be fully explicable verbally. One of the reasons for choosing arts-based methods, although not the only one, is to allow the operation of aesthetic and subconscious understandings as well as conscious and verbalized ones. That is part of the epistemological justification for choosing an arts-based approach. The ambivalences and pregnant possibilities that result may be considered valued gains from the choice of research tools, and their presence simply needs to be identified, together with explication of the boundaries of how such ambivalence and possibilities relate to the research question.

Different Kinds of Purpose

The sections of this article examine common and different areas of purpose for which arts-based research is frequently used, arranging them into three clusters and discussing some of the possibilities within each one.

The first, and perhaps largest, cluster of purposes for using arts-based research is to investigate some social (in the broadest sense of the word) issue. Such issues might, for example, include woman’s rights, school absenteeism, gang membership, cross-cultural encounters, classroom relationships, experiences of particular programs, problems in language acquisition. The methodological choices involved in this group of purposes have been repeatedly addressed (e.g., Boal, 1979; O’Brien & Donelan, 2008; Finley, 2005; Leavy, 2017; Prosser, 2011; Wang & Burns, 1997) in discussions of the use of arts-based approaches to the social sciences. The intention for using arts-based tools is to open up different, and hopefully more empowering, options for exploring the specific problem or issue, and for expressing participants’ perspectives in ways that can bypass participants’ discomfort with words or unconscious compliance with dominant discourses, or perhaps to present findings in ways that better reveal their dynamics and complexity than written reports.

Another smaller, but important, cluster of purposes is to research art-making processes or completed art works. For example, a theater director (Smithner, 2010) investigates the critical decisions she made in selecting and weaving together separate performance works into a theatrical collage. Or, a researcher (O’Donoghue, 2011) investigates how a conceptual artist working with film and video enquires into social, political, and cultural issues and how he shapes his work to provoke viewers to develop specific understandings. These kinds of studies explore the how and why of art-making, focusing on the makers’ intentions, their manipulation of the elements and affordances of their specific art field, and often engage with aesthetic as well as sociocultural dimensions of analysis. Often such studies are presented as narratives or analytic essays, and it is the subject matter of the research that constitutes the arts basis. Sometimes, such studies find expression in new artworks, as is the case in Merita Mita’s film made about the work of painter Ralph Hotere (Mita, 2001), which interlays critical analyses, documentation of process, interviews, and pulsating images of the artworks.

The third cluster involves research about teaching, therapy, or community development through one or more of the arts. Here arts are primarily the media of teaching and learning. For example, when drama is the teaching medium, the teacher may facilitate the class by taking a fictional role within the narrative that provokes students to plan, argue, or take action. Students may be prompted to use roles, create improvisations, explore body representations of ideas or conflicts, and explore contentious problems in safely fictitious contexts. Because it examines both work within an art form and changes in learners’ or community members’ understandings of other issues, this cluster overlaps somewhat with the two previous clusters. However, it is also building a body of its own traditions.

One strong tradition is the documentation of process. For example, Burton, Lepp, Morrison, and O’Toole (2015) report two decades of projects, including Dracon and Cooling Conflict, which have used drama strategies as well as formal theoretical teaching to address conflict and bullying. They have documented the specific strategies used, discussed their theoretical bases, and acknowledged the evidence on which they base their claims about effectiveness of the strategies in building understanding about and reducing bullying. The strategies used involved use of role and improvisation and what the authors call an enhanced form of Boal’s Forum Theatre. Other examples include the Risky Business Project (O’Brien & Donelan, 2008), a series of programs involving marginalized youth in dance, drama, music, theater performance, stand-up comedy, circus, puppetry, photography, visual arts, and creative writing; explorations of cross-cultural understandings through drama processes (Greenwood, 2005); the teaching of English as a second language in Malaysia through teacher-in-role and other drama processes (Mohd Nawi, 2014); working with traditional arts to break down culturally bound ways of seeing the world (Stanley, 2014); and the training of a theater-for-development team to use improvisational strategies to address community problems (Okagbue, 2002). While the strategies are arts processes and the analysis of their effect addresses aesthetic dimensions of arts as well as cognitive and behavioral ones, the reporting of these projects is primarily within the more traditional verbal and discursive forms of qualitative research.

Sometimes the reporting takes a more dramatic turn. Mullens and Wills (2016) report and critically analyze Re-storying Disability Through the Arts, an event that sought to create space for dialogue between students, researchers, artists, educators, and practitioners with different involvements or interests in disability arts. They begin their report by re-creating a scene within the workshop that captures some of the tensions evoked, and follow this with a critical commentary on three community-based art practices that engage in a strategy of re-storying disability. They present arts as means to “counter powerful cultural narratives that regulate the lives and bodies of disabled people” (Mullens & Wills, 2016, p. 5). Barrett (2014) reports a project, informed by an a/r/tography methodology, which utilized the classroom teaching of the prescribed arts curriculum to allow students to explore evolving understandings of identity and community. Montages of photographs are a central component in the report, as is a series of images that illustrate Barrett’s reflections on her own role within the investigation.

Using Art to Research Social Issues: Collecting Data

Within a social science research project, art processes might be used to collect data, to carry out analysis and interpretation, or to present findings. Perhaps the most common use is to collect data. The process of photovoice (Wang & Burns, 1997), for example, gives participants cameras and asks them to capture images that they consider as significant elements of the topic being investigated. Graffiti might be used to prompt absentee students to discuss their perceptions of schooling. Body sculptures, freeze frames, and hot seating are examples of drama strategies that could be used to facilitate reflection and debate about cross-cultural encounters, feelings about hospitalization, experiences of domestic violence, or an array of other topics.

In each case the art produced becomes the basis for further discussion. This process is quite different from historical concepts of art therapy, where the therapist would give expert insight into what a patient’s artwork means; here it is the participants who give the explanation, perhaps independently or perhaps through dialogue with other participants and the researcher. The embodied experience of construction provides a platform and a challenge to talking in ways that are more thoughtful and more honest than through a conventionally structured verbal interview. The talk after making is important, but the art products are not merely precursors to verbal data, they are concrete points of references to which both participants and researchers can refer and can use to prompt further introspection or deconstruction. The process of making, moreover, is one that allows time for reflection and self-editing along the way and so may yield more truthful and complex answers than those that might be given instantly in an interview. Participants who are second language speakers or who lack the vocabulary or theoretical constructs to express complex feelings, reactions, or beliefs can be enabled to use physicalization to create a bridge between what they know or feel wordlessly inside them and an external expression that can be read by others.

The art tools available for such data gathering are as varied as the tools used by artists for making art. They might include drawing, collage, painting, sculpting materials or bodies, singing, orchestration, Lego construction, movement improvisation, creation of texts, photography, graffiti, role creation, and/or spatial positioning.

Art Processes as Tools for Analysis

Art processes can also be used to analyze and interpret data. Within qualitative paradigms, the processes of collecting and interpretation of data often overlap. This is also true of arts-based research. For instance, Greenwood (2012) reported on a group of experienced Bangladeshi educators who came to New Zealand to complete their Masters. While they were proficient in English, they found colloquial language challenging, struggling often to find words with the right social or emotional connotations at the speed of conversation. In previous discussions, they often looked to each other for translation. A teaching workshop, held as an illustration of arts-based research, addressed the research question: what have been your experiences as international students? A small repertoire of drama strategies, particularly freeze frames with techniques for deconstructing and refining initial offers, short animations, and narrative sequencing were used. These prompted participants to recall and show personal experiences, to critically view and interpret one another’s representations, and to further refine their images to clarify their intended meaning. The participants flung themselves into the challenge with alacrity and flamboyance and created images of eagerness, hope, new relationships, frustration, failed communication, anger, dejection, unexpected learning, and achievement. They also actively articulated ideas as we deconstructed the images and, through debate, co-constructed interpretations of what was being shown in the work and what it meant in terms of their experience, individual and shared, of overseas study. The interweaving of making, reflection, discussion, and further refinement is intrinsic to process drama; as a research method, it affords a means of interweaving data collection and collaborative analysis. In this case the participants also debated aspects of the validity of the process as research, raising questions about subjectivity in interpretation, about the nature of crystallization (Richardson, 1994), about informed consent, and about co-construction of narratives. Analysis shifted from being the task of an outsider researcher to one carried out, incrementally and experimentally, by insider participants. While the researcher held the initial power to focus the work, participants’ physical entry into the work, and their interrogation of the images that were created constituted a choice of how much they would share and contribute, and so they became active and sometimes playful partners in the research. This approach to analysis shares many features with participatory action research (Brydon-Miller et al., 2011), both in eliciting the agency of participants and in evolving a process of analysis that is interwoven with the gathering of data from preceding action and with the planning of further investigative cycles of action.

The work of Boal is perhaps one of the best known examples of the use of an art process, in this case theater, as a means of analysis of data. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (1979) details a series of strategies for deconstruction and collaborative analysis. For example, in the process he calls image theatre, participants select a local oppressive problem that they seek to resolve. They create and discuss images that exemplify experience of the problem and their idealized solutions (the data); they then analyze their images to find where power resides and how it is supported. Boal’s theater process calls for experimentation with further images that explore scenarios where power could become shared to some extent and could allow further action by those who experience the oppression. The process finishes with consequential explorations of the first step to be taken by participants as a means to work toward an equilibrium of power. Boal, as the title of his book, Theatre of the Oppressed, acknowledges, draws on the work of his Braziailan compatriot, Freire, and particularly on his concept of conscientization (Freire, 1970, 1972). Boal’s process for analyzing experiences of oppression is not so much a direct action plan as a means of analyzing the mechanisms of specific conditions of oppression and the potential, however limited, for agency to resolve the oppression. The sequenced strategies of creating and discussing alternative images of oppression, power relationships, and action enable participants to deconstruct the socio-cultural reality that shapes their lives and to gain awareness of their capacity to transform it.

Art as a Means to Present Findings

There is a large and growing body of research that presents findings in arts forms. A few examples are briefly discussed.

After collecting data, through interviews and official communications from participants in a case where a district school was being threatened with closure, Owen (2009) commissioned a composer to write a score for sections of his transcripts and create a community opera. He expressed the hope that this would “transform their tiny stories into noisy histories” (p. 3). Part of the data was sung at a conference I attended. I was struck by the shift in power. What I might have regarded as dull data in a PowerPoint presentation now became a compelling articulation of experiences and aspirations and a dynamic debate between personal lives and authoritarian policy.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt project (Morris, 2011; Yardlie & Langley, 1995) is frequently described as the world’s greatest piece of community folk art. A claim can be made that, while each panel in the quilt is a product of folk art, the collation of the quilt in its enormity is a work of conceptual art that juxtaposes the fragility and isolation of individual loss with the overwhelming global impact of the AIDS epidemic. The quilt can also be seen as research that visually quantifies the death toll through AIDS in Western world communities and that qualitatively investigates the life stories and values of those who died through the perceptions of those who loved them.

A number of museums throughout the world present visual and kinaesthetic accounts of social and historical research. Well-known examples are the Migration Museum in Melbourne, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism in Munich. A less securely established exhibition is that of images of the Australian Aboriginal Stolen Generation that was collected by the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation to educate community and schoolchildren, “but only had the funding to showcase the exhibit for one night” (Diss, 2017). These and many other exhibitions create visual and experiential environments where the data of history can be not only seen and read but also felt.

In a similar way to how these exhibitions use actual archival photographs, theater may use the exact words of interviews to re-tell real stories. In making Verbatim, Brandt and Harcourt (1994) collated the words from 30 interviews with convicted murderers, their families, and the families of murder victims. “We went into the prisons to find out what the story was that we were going to tell, and that was the story that emerged from the material we collected,” Harcourt explained (White, 2013). “Not only the content, but also the form emerged from that context. We didn’t go in having decided we were going to make a solo show. Form emerged from the experience of the prison system.”

A frequently used form is that of ethnodrama (Mienczakowski, 1995; Saldaña, 2008). Ethnodrama presents data in a theatrical form: using stage, role, and sometimes lighting and music. Saldaña (2008) explains that ethnodrama maintains “close allegiance to the lived experiences of real people while presenting their voices through an artistic medium” (p. 3) and argues that the goals are not only aesthetic, they also possess emancipatory potential for motivating social change within participants and audiences.

Sometimes the ethnographic material is further manipulated in the presentation process. Conrad (2012) describes her research into the Native program at the Alberta youth corrections center in play form as “an ethnographic re-presentation of the research—a creative expression of the research findings” (p. xii). Her play jumps through time, creating fragments of action, and is interspersed by video scenes that provide alternative endings that could result from choices made by the characters. Conrad explains her choice of medium: “Performance has the potential to reach audiences in ways beyond intellectual understanding, through engaging other ways of knowing that are empathetic, emotional, experiential, and embodied, with the potential for radically re-envisioning social relations” (p. xiii).

Belliveau (2015) created a performative research about his work in teaching Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in an elementary school. He interwove excerpts of students’ performances from the Shakespearean text with excerpts of their discussions about the issues of power, pride, love, and other themes in a new performance work that illustrated as well as explained primary students’ response to Shakespeare. He later presented a keynote at the IDEA (International Drama in Education Association) conference in Paris where he performed his discussion of this and other work with young students. Similarly, Lutton’s (2016) doctoral research explored the work and challenges of selected international drama educators using imagination and role play. In her final performance of her research, she took the role of an archivist’s assistant at a fictitious Museum of Educational Drama and Applied Theatre to provide “an opportunity for drama practitioners to use their skills and knowledge of drama pedagogy to tell their own stories” (Lutton, p. 36). She states that her choice of research tool embraces theatricality, enabling the embodiment of participants’ stories, the incorporation of critical reflection and of aesthetic knowledge (p. 36).

The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, developed by John McGrath and the 7:84 Theatre Company, recounts the history of economic exploitation of the Scottish people, from the evictions that followed the clearances for the farming of Cheviot sheep, through the development of Highland stag hunts, to the capitalist domination of resources in the 1970s oil boom. Within a traditional ceilidh form it tells stories, presents arguments, and uses caricature, satire, and parody. The play is the result of research and of critical analysis of movements of power and economic interests. It is also a very effective instrument of political persuasion: McGrath gives the dispossessed crofters a language that tugs at our empathy whereas that of the landlords provokes our antagonism. Is this polemics or simple historic truth? Does the dramatic impact of the play unreasonably capture our intellects? And if the facts that are presented are validated by other accounts of history does it matter if it does? What is, what should be, what can be the relationship between research and the evocation, even manipulation of emotions?

Emotion—and Its Power

In as much as arts offer different ways of knowing the world, their use at various stages of research has the power to influence both what we come to know and how we know it. Art tools, strategically used, allow access to emotions and visceral responses as well as to conscious ideas. That makes them powerful for eliciting information. It also makes them powerful in influencing audiences.

The photos of the brutality of the police and of the steadfastness of the activists in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg are examples of powerfully influencing as well as informing data. As well as the events that are recorded, the faces and the bodies speak through the photos. Their exhibition in blown-up size at eye level together with film footage and artifacts create a compellingly powerful response in viewers. Like many others, I came out of the museum emotionally drained and confirmed, even strengthened, in my ideological beliefs. The power of the exhibition had first sharpened and then consolidated my understandings. Was this because of the power of the facts presented in the exhibition, or was it because of the power of their presentation? Or was it both? When the issue presented is one like apartheid, I am not afraid of having my awareness influenced in multiple ways: I believe I already have an evidence-informed position on the subject. I also applaud the power of the exhibition to inform and convince those who might not yet have reached a position. But what if the issue was a different one? Perhaps one which I was more uncertain about? Might it then seem that the emotional power of the exhibition gave undue weight to the evidence?

The issue here is not a simple one. The presentation is not only the reporting of findings: it is also art. The researcher (in the artist) stays true to the data; the artist (in the researcher) arranges data for effect and affect. Conrad explicitly states her hope that her choice of presentation mode will add impact to her research findings: she wants the presentation of her research about youth in detention centers to engender more empathetic understandings of their experiences and lead, in turn, to more constructive attitudes toward their needs. By putting their words to music, Owen wants his audience to listen more attentively to opinions of the stakeholders in the schools threatened with closure. McGrath wants his audience to side with those dispossessed by the combined power of capital and law. The Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation plans to emotionally move as well as to inform its community. In writing Broadwood, I meticulously presented both sides of the dispute, I deliberately placed music and metaphor at the service of Maori language, and I deliberately used the spatial suggestiveness of the stage to evoke possibilities in the ending. The boy is alone in the library while his classmates are on the marae listening to an elder explain the history of their meetinghouse. The elder gives them an ancient whalebone weapon to hold, the students pass it among themselves, then hold it out across space to the boy. The boy stands, takes half a cautious step toward them and then stops; the lights go down. I intended the audience to complete the action in their subconscious.

In each of these cases, the art form of the presentation allows the artist/researcher to manipulate affect as well as critical cognition. To my mind, this is not simply another iteration of the argument between subjectivity and objectivity in research. Many contemporary approaches to research openly recognize that knowledge is mediated by context, experience, and social and historical discourses as well as by individuals’ personal interpretation (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Ellis, 2004). It is shaped by what is left out as well as by what is included. The practice of careful and scrupulous reflexivity is a way of acknowledging and bounding the subjectivity of the researcher (Altheide & Johnson, 2011; Ellingson, 2011). The researcher-who-is-artist draws on a subconscious as well as a conscious sense of how things fit together, and constructs meaning subconsciously as well as consciously, manipulating affect and effect in the process. Perhaps all researchers do so to some extent. For instance, the deliberately invisible authors of much quantitative research, who allow the passive voice to carry much of the reporting, who triangulate and define limitation, create an effect of fair-minded and dependable authority. The affect is not necessarily misleading, and it is something that readers of research have learned to recognize. However, the researcher-who-is-artist can draw on the rich repertoire of an art field that already operates in the domain of the aesthetic as well as of the critically cognitive, in spaces that are liminal as well those that are defined. It is arguable that readers of research still need to recognize and navigate through those spaces. Arguably, the challenge exists not only in the field of research: it is present in all the media that surrounds our daily lives.

A/r/tography and Examination of Places Between

The challenge of exploring liminal spaces of intention, process, explanation, effect, and affect is seriously taken up by the emergent discipline of a/r/tography. The backslashes in the term speak of fracture; they also denote the combined authorial roles of artist, researcher, and teacher. Springgay, Irwin, and Kind (2005) explain that a/r/tography is deliberately introspective and does not seek conclusions: rather it plays with connections between art and text and seeks to capture the embodied experience of exploring self and the world. Irwin et al. (2006) state: “Together, the arts and education complement, resist, and echo one another through rhizomatic relations of living inquiry” (p. 70). A/r/tography is explicitly positioned as a practice-based and living inquiry: it explores but resists attempting to define the spaces between artist, teacher, and researcher, and so implicitly rejects boundaries between these roles. It conceptualizes inquiry as a continuing experiential process of encounter between ideas, art media, context, meaning, and evolving representations. At the same time as it blurs distinctions, it teases out interrelationships: it offers art inquiry as something that is purposeful but unfixed, and art knowing as something that is personally and socially useful, but at best only partially and temporarily describable, never definable. This is one reason why its proponents explain it as a substantively different and new methodology outside the existing frameworks of qualitative research.

A/r/tography emerged out of the field of art education, with the explicit aim to extend the opportunities afforded by education in the arts, and to develop means to record and report the complex facets of learning and teaching in the arts. Consequently its language may be experienced, by readers who are outside the discipline, as highly abstract, deliberately ambiguous, and even esoteric: it seems to speak, as many research disciplines do, primarily to others in its own field. However, its broad principles have been picked up, and perhaps adapted, by practitioners who seek to explore the processes of their students’ learning through the arts and the evolving understandings they develop. For instance, Barrett and Greenwood (2013) report exploration of the epistemological third space through which place-conscious education and visual arts pedagogy can be interwoven and through which students, many of whom do not aspire to become artists, can use art-making to re-imagine and re-mark their understandings of their physical and social context and of their relationship with community. The value of this kind of research is posed in terms of the insights it affords rather than its capacity for presenting authoritative conclusions.

A Conference Debate, and the Politics of Research

Whether the provision of insights is enough to make art-making into research is a question that is frequently and sometimes fiercely contested. One such debate took place at a European conference I recently attended. It occurred in an arts-based research stream, and it began with the presentation of two films. The films were relatively short, and a discussion followed and became increasingly heated. Personally, I liked the films. The first reported a dance process that became an undergraduate teaching text. The second, in layers of imagery and fragments of dialogue, explored the practice of two artists. However, I was not sure what the added value was in calling either research. I saw art responding to art, and that seemed valuable and interesting enough. Why was the construct of research being privileged? The filmmakers defended the claim to research on the grounds that there was inquiry, on the grounds that art spoke in languages that were best discussed through art, and on the grounds that research was privileged in their institutions. Then a respected professor of fine arts put forward more direct criticism. Research, he argued, needed to make explicit the decisions that were made in identifying and reporting findings so that these would be accessible for peer review. Neither film, he said, did so. Defenses from the audience were heated. Then another senior art educator argued that art itself could not just be self-referential: it had to open a space for others to enter. The debate continued in corridors long after the session ended.

That the criticisms were unrelenting seemed an indication of how much was at stake. The space held by arts-based research within the European academic congregation is still somewhat fragile. The arts-based network was formed because of advocates’ passionate belief in the extended possibilities that arts-based methods offer, and this year again it expressed its eagerness to receive contributions in film and other art media as well as PowerPoint and verbal presentations. However, the network also saw itself as a custodian of rigor.

The participants in the session re-performed an argument that lingers at the edges of arts-based research. At the far ends of the spectrum, art and research are readily recognizable, and when art is borrowed as a tool in research, the epistemological and methodological assumptions are explicable. But the ground is more slippery when art and research intersect more deeply. When is the inquiry embedded within art, and when does it become research? Is it useful to attempt demarcations? What is lost from art or from research if demarcations are not attempted? The questions, as well as possible answers, are, as Eisner suggested, political as well as philosophical and methodological.

The doing of research and its publication have become big academic business. Universities around the world are required to report their academics’ research outputs to gain funding. My university, for example, is subject to a six-yearly round of assessment of research performance, based primarily on published and on funded research outputs. Each academic’s outputs are categorized and ranked, and the university itself is ranked and funded, in comparison with the other universities in the country. There is pressure on each academic to maximize research publications, even at the cost, it often seems, of other important academic activities, such as teaching. The competitive means of ranking also increases contestations about what is real research, serving both as a stimulus for positioning differing forms of inquiry as research and as a guarded gateway that permits some entries and denies others. Politicians and policymakers, in their turn, favor and fund research that can provide them with quotable numbers or clear-cut conclusions. Arts-based research still battles for a place within this politico-academic ground, although there appears to be growing acceptance of the use of art tools as means to elicit data.

Site for Possibilities—and Questions

The politics of research do matter, but for researchers who are committed to doing useful research, there are other factors to consider when choosing research approaches. These include the potentialities of the tools, the matter that is to be investigated, and the skills and practice preferences of the researcher.

The emergence and development of processes of arts-based research are grounded in belief that there are many ways of knowing oneself and the world, and these include emotions and intuitive perceptions as well as intellectual cognition. The epistemology of arts-based research is based on understandings that color, space, sound, movement, facial expression, vocal tone, and metaphor are as important in expressing and understanding knowledge as the lexical meanings of words. It is based on understandings that symbols, signs, and patterns are powerful means of communication, and that they are culturally and contextually shaped and interpreted. Arts-based research processes tolerate, even sometimes celebrate, ambiguity and ambivalence. They may also afford license to manipulate emotions to evoke empathy or direct social action.

The use of arts-based processes for eliciting participants’ responses considerably increases researchers’ repertoire for engaging participants and for providing them with means of expression that allow them to access feelings and perceptions that they might not initially be able to put into words as well as giving them time and strategies for considering their responses. The use of arts-based processes for analysis and representation allow opportunities for multidimensional, sensory, and often communal explorations of the meaning of what has been researched. It also presents new challenges to receivers of research who need to navigate their way not only through the overt ambiguities and subjective expression, but also through the invisible layers of affect that are embedded in art processes.

The challenges signal continuing areas of discussion, and perhaps work, for both arts-based researchers and for the wider research community. Does the use of art in representation of research findings move beyond the scope of critical peer review? Or do we rather need to develop new languages and strategies for such review? Do we need critical and recursive debate about when art becomes research and when it does not? Are the ambiguities and cognitive persuasions that are inherent in arts-based representations simply other, and useful, epistemological stances? Does the concept of research lose its meaning if it is stretched too far? Does art, which already has a useful role in interpreting and even shaping society, need to carve out its position as research? Does the entry of arts-based research into the arena of research call for revisions to the way we consider ethics? How do the procedures of institutional ethics committees need to be adapted to accommodate the engagement of the human body as well as the emergent design and ambiguities of the arts-based research processes? What are the more complex responsibilities of arts-based researchers toward their participants, particularly in terms of cultural protocols, reciprocity of gains, and the manipulation of emotions and cognition through visually or dramatically powerful presentations?

The already existing and expanding contribution of arts-based researchers argues vigorously for the place of arts processes in our congregations of research discussion and production. Quite simply, the arts address aspects of being human that are not sufficiently addressed by other methodologies. They are needed in our repertoire of tools for understanding people and the world. However, like other research approaches, they bring new challenges that need to be recognized and debated.

Further Reading

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  • Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. London, U.K.: Pluto Press.
  • Brandt, W. S., & Harcourt, M. (1994). Verbatim. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
  • Conrad, D. (2012). Athabasca’s going unmanned. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense.
  • Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Greenwood, J. (2012). Arts-based research: Weaving magic and meaning. International Journal of Education & the Arts 13(Interlude 1).
  • Greenwood, J. (2016). The limits of language: A case study of an arts-based research exploration. New Zealand Journal of Research in Performing Arts and Education: Nga Mahi a Rehua, 6, 88–100.
  • Irwin, R. (2013). Becoming/tography. Studies in Art Education, 54(1), 198–215.
  • Leavy, P. (Ed.). (2017). Handbook of arts-based research. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.). (2011). The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • O’Brien, A., & Donelan, K. (2008). Creative interventions for marginalised youth: The Risky Business project. Monograph 6. City East, Queensland: Drama Australia.
  • Saldaña, J. (2008). Ethnodrama and ethnotheatre. In J. Knowles & A. Cole (Eds.), Handbook of arts in qualitative research (pp. 195–207). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Wang, C., & Burns, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3), 369–387.


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