Congratulations on the release of the Handbook of Arts-Based Research.
Thank you. It was a big undertaking but also highly collaborative. I owe a huge debt to the contributors for their generosity and to the team at Guilford Press for their hard work.
It’s a gorgeous collection and provides a different reader experience than most methods handbooks.
Thank you. When you’re flipping through this handbook you’ll see visual art, stories, poetry, comics, scripts, and music in addition to the more traditional prose. While I think the artistic examples make the book engaging, it’s also full of in-depth methodological instruction, hopefully showing something can be beautiful, engaging, and practical. I think it’s the kind of reference readers will pull off of their bookshelves time and again for inspiration and practical guidance. I know I will. It’s intended to be useful to individual researchers and artists but also is appropriate as a primary text in courses such as advanced qualitative research, art education, creative arts therapies, sociology of art, visual sociology, advanced qualitative research, narrative inquiry, and arts-based research.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is arts-based research (ABR)?
Arts-based research involves researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts in order to address research questions. An arts practice may be used during data collection, data analysis, and/or to represent research findings. There are numerous advantages of ABR, some of which are also goals in quantitative and qualitative research. Advantages include the ability to produce new insights and learning, description, exploration, discovery, problem solving, forging macro-micro connections, evocation and provocation, raising critical consciousness or awareness, cultivating empathy, unsettling stereotypes, challenging dominant ideologies, producing multiple meanings, conducting applied research, and contributing to public scholarship.
As a sociologist, how did you become interested in ABR?
My interest actually stemmed from frustration. Like many of us, I became a sociologist with the idea that somehow, even in a small way, my research could make a positive difference. I began my career conducting interview research and publishing peer-reviewed articles. I soon learned that no one reads academic articles. I mean literally almost no one. Most academic articles have an audience of 3-8 readers. One study found that 90% of articles are only read by three people, the author, their mentor, and the journal editor. I mean that’s truly astounding. When you consider the resources that go into this work, for little to no impact, it’s sobering. Academic articles aren’t widely read because they’re rarely engaging, they rely on excessive disciplinary jargon, and they circulate in journals that only academics have access to. I felt that the research I was conducting had the potential to be interesting to many, both inside and outside of the academy, but it would have to be written in a more engaging format and circulate in public spaces. As a methodologist I was already immersed in the literature about a various emergent research methods and that’s when I came across arts-based research. For me, ABR provided a set of methodological tools that allowed me to engage in public scholarship, and thus have some kind of real-world impact.
How does ABR fit into the pantheon of research methods traditionally used in sociology?
Historically we’ve been taught there are three major approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. In recent decades there’s also been increasing exposure to community-based participatory approaches, but they’re typically presented as a genre of qualitative research. Some view ABR the same way, as a genre of qualitative research. It’s true that qualitative researchers have added considerably to ABR practices. That said, I view ABR as a distinct approach to research. In my view, there are five major approaches to research in the social and behavioral sciences. Unfortunately the textbooks used in the field typically focus on those three traditional approaches which is why I wrote Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches. Each of the five approaches to research are valuable. Each approach has unique strengths and is well-suited to particular kinds of research questions and objectives. The more methodological tools we have, the more questions we can ask and the greater impact our work can have. So I view ABR as fitting within the pantheon of research methods traditionally used by sociologists, as another valid approach, no better or worse than other methods, merely suited to different goals. ABR offers additional options for how we might conceive of and carry out research, and how and with whom we might share our findings. It can also be used in conjunction with quantitative, qualitative, or community-based methods, and frequently is.
What are the advantages of ABR?
ABR can be used to explore, describe, provoke, and evoke. In the social sciences ABR is frequently used to explore and crystalize micro-macro connections, disrupt stereotypes or dominant ideologies, raise critical consciousness, build empathy across differences, and prompt self and social reflection. One strength of ABR is that it’s uniquely able to produce engaging, compelling accounts of social life. This is connected to what is perhaps the greatest strength of ABR, the ability to contribute to public scholarship. Art is enjoyable and accessible in ways that other forms are not. By using ABR in our sociological research projects I believe we can reach larger audiences both inside and outside of the academy. When I say “reach” I’m not only referring to the materiality of access, but also reaching people on deeper levels that are more likely to make lasting impressions.
You mentioned micro-macro links which is at the heart of a lot of sociological work. Can you expand on that?
Connecting our personal biographies and historical sociocultural contexts is at the heart of the sociological imagination is Mills’ terms. He wrote about this as the promise of sociology and the arts can help us achieve that potential. For instance fiction allows us to present interiority, which isn’t represented in nonfiction. This unique capability of fiction as a form or writing can be put into service of linking the personal and the public, or the micro and macro. As an example, in my first novel, Low-Fat Love, the protagonist is often shown consuming popular culture and we hear her interior dialogue. Readers are thus exposed to what she consumes and what she thinks during consumption. Links are created between the images of femininity that circulate in commercial culture and how the character feels about herself. This can be achieved in various art forms in different ways. For example, in a play we might be exposed to dialogue and action/interaction that may speak to the macro context and we might hear monologues or voiceovers that speak to the character’s interior life, or personal biography. A song could be constructed so that each verse represents the macro level and the chorus represents the protagonist’s personal experience, or vice versa. These are just examples. It’s important to note that one of the reasons artistic forms are adept at making micro-macro links is because they foster what Elizabeth de Freitas has called “empathetic engagement.” As a consumer of art, you may metaphorically walk in the shoes of another, that other may be quite similar or dissimilar to you. In the case of the novel I mentioned, consider the difference between an article about commercial popular culture and how it can foster low self-esteem for some women as compared to watching a character that you have come to “know” and perhaps care for, and observing her struggle, as you’re exposed to her most intimate thoughts through interior dialogue. Not only can art forms help us show micro-macro links, but they can do so in ways that resonate deeply with the true potential of a sociological perspective because they can help us not only to “see” but to feel.
With the current state of affairs, do you think ABR is even more important?
We’ve been working on the Handbook for years and could not have imagined what would be going on in the world at this time, but it seems like the ideal time to release it. Among the many pressing issues going on right now, we’re living at a time when the arts and artists are under attack. Funding for the arts is being threatened and slashed, arts integration in schools is becoming an increasingly uphill battle despite all the research that points to its success, and academics in general are more and more under threat, often afraid of how what they say or write might be used against them. These are tough times for anyone concerned with freedom of expression and critical thinking. So to me, it’s an important moment to release the Handbook and make the tools of ABR available to more scholars. I also think that researchers in the social sciences and humanities are eager to pose challenges to dangerous propaganda and policies. Just as some have taken to forms of public scholarship such as blogs and op-eds, ABR provides another set of tools. Things are difficult things now, but that’s also motivational. I think we will see a massive outpouring of social justice oriented art and an explosive growth in practices in academia that consider real-world impact. I choose to be inspired, not discouraged. In the long-term this will prove to be an important time for ABR.
How can a scholar interested in ABR get started?
To begin, read about ABR it. A scholar interested in conducting experimental research would likely read a general research methods textbook and additional books devoted to experiments. The same applies here. Give yourself an ABR methods education the old fashioned way by reading, highlighting, note-taking. My books Method Meets Art and Handbook of Arts-Based Research are good places to begin because they provide background about the field and specific methodological guidance. It’s also important to consume ABR, especially in the genre you’re interested in. Look at different practitioners’ styles, note strengths and weaknesses, and start to imagine your own approach. It’s also wise to expose yourself to as much art as you can in that genre, not ABR per se, but straight up art. If you’re interested in writing a play, then read or see as many plays as you can. It’s also good to expose yourself to ABR and art in other genres. We can garner ideas about our work by looking to work in other genres. For example, as a novelist I have learned a great deal about dialogue by reading plays. I’ve learned about structure from music. Immerse yourself in art. Finally, you need to start practicing, even with small exercises, such as writing prompts. Skill in an artistic practice develops over time, requires discipline, and takes practice, including the ability to garner feedback from others and learning to ruthlessly self-edit. Try to develop a disciplined practice around your craft.
What skills do scholars need to do this work?
You need to be able to think like a researcher and like an artist. There’s a balance between creating structure, focusing on your themes or goals, communicating data or content clearly, all attributes of scholarly work, and thinking about issues like aesthetics, artistry, audience response, and the emotional tenor of the work, all central to art. Scholars who want to do this kind of work need to wear both hats. It’s also important to be flexible and open to messiness. I think this is true in any kind of research. Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes methodologies need to be altered to fit new learning. Finally, developing a thick skin will serve you well. Develop your own relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on others. There can be an immediacy in response when sharing ABR that we simply don’t experience with other forms of research. If you write a qualitative or quantitative research article you may never hear from anyone about it once it’s published, and if you do, it’s usually not more than a few voices and it’s far removed from when you finished working on the piece. It’s different with ABR. It’s likely to reach a larger audience, to prompt visceral and emotional responses, and with some forms there can be an immediacy. If you put on a play, the response is live. People laugh, or they don’t; they get misty, or they don’t. While all research is open to critique, it can be more pronounced with ABR. Coupled with the reality that art, even scholarly art, tends to be quite personal to the maker, so it can be a lot to take in if you’re not prepared for it. I suggest getting as much useful feedback as you can while you’re working on it and then making peace with it once you release it. It can take a while to be able to do that.
You’ve published several novels as well as a co-authored collection of short stories and visual art, based on your research. Can we look forward to new creative works?
Absolutely. I love writing fiction. I find it more rigorous and challenging than nonfiction, and it’s also great fun. I’m currently working on a novel in a new genre for me. A couple of years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, which takes place in the real Sound of Music house. The nearly week-long seminar focused on neuroscience and art. It was an extraordinary experience and inspired me to write a novel I had been thinking about vaguely since graduate school. After the seminar I spent some time in Vienna. I wrote the outline to the novel in my hotel room and then put it aside to let it macerate. Between where I am personally as well as where we are at this historical moment, it felt like the right time to dive into it. As a novel anyone will be able to read it for pleasure, but I’m writing it with academics and specifically methodologists in mind. The protagonist is a sociologist. All of characters have stirred in me for a couple of years. I can’t wait to introduce them to others.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and author or editor of twenty-three books including Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches, Method Meets Art, and the bestselling novels Blue, American Circumstance, and Low-Fat Love. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also series creator and editor of seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers/Brill and cofounder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal. She has received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” We spoke with Patricia about her newest release, Handbook of Arts-Based Research, a magnificent 738 page collection that covers the field of arts-based research, literary, performance, visual art, audiovisual and multi-method genres, as well as considerations such as evaluation, teaching, and publishing. The interdisciplinary handbook includes chapters by leading sociologists, such as Norman K. Denzin.