We had the chance to speak with sociologist Patricia Leavy about her new novel, Spark, which is designed to sensitize students to research methodology and critical thinking. Before we get into our discussion, here’s the back-cover synopsis.
Professor Peyton Wilde has an enviable life teaching sociology at an idyllic liberal arts college—yet she is troubled by a sense of fading inspiration. One day an invitation arrives. Peyton has been selected to attend a luxurious all-expense-paid seminar in Iceland, where participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers in the world, will be charged with answering one perplexing question. Meeting her diverse teammates—two neuroscientists, a philosopher, a dance teacher, a collage artist, and a farmer—Peyton wonders what she could ever have to contribute. The ensuing journey of discovery will transform the characters' work, their biases, and themselves. This suspenseful novel shows that the answers you seek can be found in the most unlikely places.
You’re a well-known advocate for arts-based research which involves researchers in any discipline adapting the creative arts in their research. You’re also a leading methodologist and you’ve written many widely adopted methods textbooks. Did Spark come to be because you got the idea to combine these two things?
Well, sort of, but there was an event that really started the whole thing. A few years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in a seminar on the neuroscience of creativity hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Receiving that invitation was like getting the golden ticket for the chocolate factory. It was an extraordinary opportunity and experience. The seminar occurred at the real Sound of Music house in Salzburg, which is a castle. The participants were a mix of neuroscientists, artists, and a few others from around the world. We all felt deeply privileged to be there and we had a strong sense of responsibility. As a methodologist, I was constantly thinking through that lens. It was during that seminar that the idea for Spark was, well, sparked. Someone was recently interviewing me and said the novel seemed like “an impossibility and inevitability.” I think that’s spot-on. For years I had wondered if there was a way I could express my research methods knowledge through fiction, but it seemed impossible. In Salzburg, I figured out how to do it. I wrote the outline in Vienna, the day I left the seminar. I put it in a drawer until the right time. Thinking about it now, it was completely natural for me to write a novel about the research process. My work had to go there. It was inevitable.
The protagonist is a sociologist. Can you talk about that decision and how you developed the other characters?
As a novelist I think it’s important to start from what you know. So Peyton, the protagonist, shares a few things in common with me. I also wanted the social sciences represented, and really sociology which is typically valued less than psychology. In order for the book to work, there needed to be characters from different disciplines, and specifically disciplines that aren’t necessarily valued equally. So I thought about what perspectives and ways of seeing the world needed to be at the table and I designed the characters around them. The sciences, social sciences, and humanities and arts all needed to be included. In terms of character development, each character is an archetype. I based them on the kinds of people we might expect in those fields as well as those who defy our assumptions. They’re composites of many people I’ve met over the years.
The character of Milton, the retired farmer, stands out from the others who are all scholars or artists. What does Milton represent?
That’s a great question. Milton is an important character. He represents the value of experiential knowledge. That kind of knowledge isn’t always legitimized or taken seriously, especially in the academy, and that’s a huge missed opportunity. Community-based researchers have figured this out.
Picking up on your last response, there’s a clear division in academia between disciplines, with some valued more than others. That’s a theme in the novel. What are your thoughts about how the social sciences are situated and how is this incorporated into Spark?
There’s no question that there’s an institutionalized hierarchy built into the structures of academia and research institutes. The system greatly privileges the natural sciences and mathematics over the social sciences followed by the humanities, and then the arts on the lowest rung of the social order. Even the divide between quantitative and qualitative traditions within the social sciences, with a clear privileging of quantitative research, reflects this larger power struggle. Quantitative social science is, in part, an attempt to make social science appear more “scientific,” using standards created in other disciplines. This hierarchy directly impacts research and teaching in many ways, including, how researchers and academics are paid, what research is funded and to what extent, what topics are researched, who receives prestigious awards and the kinds of work recognized, and how students are taught. These practices also result in societal ideas about what counts as knowledge and what is valuable to know. The institutional and cultural contexts in which we live and work have a role in shaping who we become and how we interact with others. So academics immersed in these inequitable systems in which some routinely have their worldview validated and others are relegated to second-tier status, may come to view people in other fields through these lenses. It’s not uncommon to hear someone from the natural sciences defend their higher earnings or larger grants with statements such as “my work is harder” or “my work is more important,” or “there’s no evidence your work has value.” These ways of being negatively shape the experiences of many in the social sciences, humanities, and arts who often do so much work for so little support and recognition. In the novel I wanted to re-create some of this hierarchy. For example, Liev and Ariana, the two neuroscientists, seem dismissive of other viewpoints right from the get-go. The Liev character illustrates how the privileging of science over other fields can result in arrogance, a sense of self-importance, and a range of behaviors that flow from that. I tried to show the effect on the other characters and how the effect differs across people from philosopher Dietrich going head-to-head with him, dancer Harper feeling entirely devalued, and visual artist Ronnie’s frustration. And in the end, the sciences alone can’t solve our real problems, which require transdisciplinary.
Why is transdisciplinarity important?
Contemporary problems rarely do us the favor of fitting discreetly into our disciplinary purviews; disciplines which one could argue have been artificially constructed in order to help organize and structure our professional lives. But the real world is beholden to no such system. We can look at any number of problems to illustrate this. For example, take rates of cancer. At first glance it may seem this topic fits squarely in the purview of biomedical science. But if we’re going to properly understand cancer rates, in an effort toward remedying this epidemic, many other fields are needed. When we start looking at disparities in cancer rates across different groups based on race, gender, and other factors, it’s clear there are social dimensions. Understanding cancer rates thus necessitates the social sciences and quite possibly critical areas studies such as gender studies and critical race studies. But medical and social science models still only get us so far. There are environmental factors as well and so we need environmental science. By pooling the expertise in these different disciplines, and likely other stakeholders such as patients, caregivers, and survivors, we have a much better shot at developing a comprehensive understanding of this multidimensional topic. You see the topic itself transcends disciplines and our approach to studying it must as well. This is not to say disciplinary perspectives aren’t useful. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity relies on multiple disciplines— each set of tools and perspectives is needed in order to build a framework larger than the sum of its parts. Cancer is one of innumerable examples. Every major health concern has multiple dimensions. Other topics do too. Bullying in schools, domestic violence, school shootings and other mass violence, are all examples of transdisciplinary topics. The list is endless. Our research practices need to catch up with the world so we can better align our most urgent problems with our best means for solving those problems.
How did your work in research methodology come to bear on Spark?
My work as a methodologist made this novel possible. It permeated my thinking about the project and the entire writing process. I wrote a book called Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research some years back and certainly the ideas from that are woven into Spark. But I would say my book Research Design was the biggest influence and stepping stone. I don’t think I could have written this novel had I not written Research Design, because it pushed me to consider all of the major research approaches, their strengths and limitations, in an in-depth way without privileging any approach over the others. I went into writing Spark with the knowledge from Research Design almost like a second skin, it had become so much a part of my thinking. One of my hopes is actually that professors adopt both books in their research methods class— Spark to sensitize students to the research process and Research Design to teach them the nuts and bolts. I could also imagine students reading Spark in any number of social science or education courses and later reading Research Design in their methods course. Even though these are totally independent books, and the novel can be read by anyone for pleasure, not just students, I think there’s a completion of thought between them.
Although you’ve written several novels before, Spark is different. What was the process like? How did you integrate themes of critical thinking, transdisciplinarity, and the research process into the novel?
Generally when you’re writing a novel, scenes and dialogue between characters are primarily there to move the plot forward. With Spark the scenes and dialogue and other interactions between characters are all there to deliver specific content and promote the major themes of the book. Of course you’re also moving the story forward, but no conversations happen for that reason alone. Each of the group conversations was designed to cover certain ground. It was through those group conversations as well as other parts of the novel, such as the protagonist notetaking in her room, that I wove the principles of transdisciplinarity and elements of the research process into the narrative. The characters might be having a conversation over breakfast, but if you listen to what they’re saying, the dialogue works on two levels. There are always clues or messages. Plot-wise, the characters are engaged in a process of critical thinking or problem-solving throughout the book and I hope that mirrors the process of reading the book— that readers are also trying to “figure it out.” As an author it was an incredibly challenging project, but I love a good challenge.
Spark is available here:
Spark at Guilford (use promo code 7FSPARK for 20% off & free shipping in US/Canada)
Spark at Amazon
Dr. Patricia Leavy is an independent scholar and bestselling author. She was formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology, and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. She has published more than twenty-five books, earning commercial and critical success in both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has been translated into numerous languages. Her recent titles include Research Design, Handbook of Arts-Based Research, Method Meets Art, Fiction as Research Practice, The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, and the bestselling novels Blue, American Circumstance, and Low-Fat Love. She is also series creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill/Sense, including the ground-breaking Social Fictions series and is cofounder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal. A vocal advocate of public scholarship, she blogs for The Huffington Post, The Creativity Post, and We Are the Real Deal and is frequently called on by the US national news media. In addition to receiving numerous accolades for her books, she has received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the National Art Education Association. In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” In 2018, she was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame and SUNY-New Paltz established the “Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.”
Learn More about Patricia Leavy:
Methods in Context videos
__How do you make social science research methods come alive for your students?
Karen Sternheimer, USC sociology professor and Everyday Sociology Blog writer and Natasha Zabohonski of W. W. Norton Sociology have a solution: Put methods in context with interesting new research on the fashion industry, hip-hop, families, and more. Below are a series of interviews where notable researchers illuminate the world of research.
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Ashley Mears:
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Questions for students after viewing this interview with Brian Powell:
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Joel Best:
Karen Sternheimer and Natasha Zabohonski