Category Archives: Art

Arts-Based Research :: What level of skill is needed?

Recently two of my colleagues from my advanced qualitative doctoral seminar presented work in the area of arts-based research.  I was delighted and intrigued. To prepare for the class, we were given some articles to read. One article —  See: Finley, Susan. (2011). Critical Arts-Based Inquiry. In Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (4th edition) (pp. 435-450). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.  —  was particularly interesting to me for its discussion of expertism. This is an important discussion to have. If scholars in the social sciences want to do arts-based research, what level of skill in the arts is needed? In the article, it is suggested that if the researcher uses an arts-based research methodology but doesn’t have a lot of practice or knowledge of the medium, the value of the research will be compromised. If the standards are too high, social scientists might be scared away from doing this kind of research. Eisner (2008) suggests that graduates in the social sciences wanting to develop arts-based research should work directly with practitioners of the arts in the form of collaboration.  He also suggests that curriculum developed for graduate social science students include ways for them to develop and apply their “imaginative, perceptual and interpretive abilities” (Finley, 2011, p. 441). My take on these issues is this: coming from a background in the arts with a practice, I personally have high expectations, and as a teacher I’ve always pushed my adult students (supportively) to think through their medium in light of its history and contemporary applications. In art whatever is expressed is expressed through the medium. I’m not interested in defining a standard of expertise in the medium for social scientists doing arts based research because I don’t wan’t to interfere with the possible emergence of a unique arts based research form, however, I agree with Eisner, that it is important for the researcher to develop a sensitivity to creative practice. Beyond that, I think, because making is integral to acquiring knowledge of the medium, social scientists interested in ABR would benefit from developing a practice. This means not just working with the medium but becoming part of an art community where critical discussions about art occur. One could make a similar argument for the importance of skill in the medium of writing for academics. Without the skill of writing and familiarity with its modalities and grammar, a researcher will be limited in her ability to convey ideas.

As Bruno Latour (2005)* argues, in a good account, the social appears. To arrive at that good account, great sensitivity on the part of the analyst (researcher) is required.


*Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

::: Phenomenology: Bag and Stone Exercise :::


Phenomenology. As I was reviewing phenomenology and hermeneutics for my Advanced Qualitative Methodologies class I remembered a simple contemplative exercise that I was introduced to in a graduate fine arts class that brought awareness to the pre-reflective stage of cognition.  I think that the originator of the exercise was the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988).  I’m offering my recollection of it in the hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did. Here’s how it goes:

You need the following materials:

  • 1 stone. The stone should be 1.5 to 2” in diameter, give or take.
  • 1  plastic bag. The bag should be the kind you find in the vegetable section of the grocery store — the clear or slightly frosted kind you pull from a roll.  This exercise doesn’t really work with ordinary plastic bags, so you have to get this part right!
  • something to write on and with.


1. Fill the bag with air and tie a knot at the opening to keep the air in.

2. Put the stone on the bag.

3. Hold the bag in your hands with the stone balanced on it.

4. Just experience how this feels for a while.

5. Notice what comes to mind.

6. When you are ready, put the bag down and write.

If you need prompting, think about the relationships between the stone, the bag, the air, and yourself. What happens when you move, even slightly? What sensations do you become aware of?  What do you feel?  What thoughts arise?  Where do they go?  How do sensations, feelings, perceptions and thoughts arise, influence one another and change?  Where does this lead you?

As I recall, some of the final writing pieces produced by my colleagues had only the faintest traces of the stone and the bag.  But that didn’t matter.  The point of the project was to heighten one’s awareness of the fluid, uncertain and interdependent relationship of matter and mind in its multiple aspects and to give voice to the experience that unfolds.  What begins as a sensorial experience becomes contemplative and, finally, reflexive.

Phenomenology bodes well in the arts where the emphasis is on the senses and the practice of working mindfully with materials in the world matters.

The awe I experienced holding this simple construction in my hands seems miles away now. But that one moment, that one teaching and learning moment, continues to inform me.