Arts Based Research


Tom Barone & Elliot W. Eisner

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  • Dedication

    To Tanya, whose incomparable assistance in preparing this book shines through on every page.


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    This book is designed to serve as an introductory text for anyone interested in social research within a variety of fields who may not yet feel sufficiently acquainted with the role of artistry in projects of social inquiry. It is meant to acquaint readers with what has, over the years, come to be known as arts based research.

    The term arts based research originated at an educational event at Stanford University in 1993. Elliot Eisner, having written about the connection between the arts and education, thought it would be useful to provide an institute for university scholars and school practitioners that would help them understand what research guided by aesthetic features might look like. Elliot secured the support of the American Educational Research Association for conducting a 2.5 day institute at Stanford that was available to 25 scholars and practitioners.

    Elliot asked Tom Barone to be one of three instructors involved in that institute. Noting the enthusiasm that was generated at this institute and the testimony of those who attended, Elliot decided to offer a second institute 2 years later and asked Tom to join him again, this time as codirector. Tom was a former doctoral student of Elliot's, whose dissertation work in the 1970s was dedicated to the development and application of a rationale for an approach to qualitative research and evaluation that employed dimensions of creative nonfiction for inquiring into and disclosing social phenomena. Then, 2 years following the second institute, together, Eisner and Barone, conducted a third and then a fourth. Ultimately there were eight such institutes held from 1993 to 2005.

    By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, many of the leaders in the field of education and other fields currently working in arts based research had been, at one time, students in that institute. We, Eisner and Barone, were surprised to see the level of enthusiasm displayed for the exploration of major themes and other ideas in arts based research. What started with a glimmer became a beacon for many educational researchers looking for another way to think about research and how it can be conducted. We became convinced that the premises, principles, and procedures employed by artists can serve certain purposes for engaging in social research that, in important ways, complement those of the sciences. Throughout a large part of our careers, as authors of books and articles, as university professors, and public speakers, we have strived to advance the field of arts based research.

    Over the decades, the place of the artistic and the aesthetic in the process and product of social research has indeed been illuminated and expanded—by us and others. One may argue—as we do throughout this book—that artistry in the social research process is nothing new, that indeed artistry has existed in scientific research from the very beginning. Indeed, before the 18th-century period of the Enlightenment in the Western world, no substantial differences between the arts and sciences were recognized. The ensuing art–science dichotomy that became prevalent in Western thought was described most famously in C. P. Snow's (1993) Two Cultures and the Scienific Revolution. This dualism perhaps reached its height in the philosophy of the logical positivists.

    For the research traditionalists of the time, the very idea of an approach to research in the social sciences that is based upon a conception of art was an oxymoronic idea. For them, the only means for shedding light on some aspect of the physical world was science, and when it came to issues surrounding human beings, social science was the sole illuminating source. For them, the dominant research paradigm was the experiment and was seen as the gold standard for research. The use of statistics was ubiquitous, and the models to be used in doing research had a mechanistic uniformity: First, you defined the problem; second, you described the theory that was going to be used in the study; third, you identified the sample or population to be studied; fourth, you intervened with some treatment; and fifth, you measured the effects secured and finally determined the level of probability that you had achieved with the treatment that was applied to population or to the sample.

    These features were the dominant thematic beliefs that guided research, certainly in education and also, to perhaps not as large a degree, in the social sciences. To do research that was rigorous measurement was necessary, and with measurement came statistics, and with statistics came probabilities, and with probabilities came a reduction of attention to individuals or even to distinctive features of individuals. In the process, the individual characteristics of the human being got abstracted out of reality. There seemed to be much more interest in numbers than in the people being studied.

    Within the 20th century, and now the 21st, regard for this dualism—and, indeed, a science-over-art hierarchy—remains but has increasingly been eroded. The idea that the aesthetic was a source of research bias and contamination has, in some quarters, met strong—and creative—resistance. The so-called “literary turn” in the social sciences began as some qualitative research methodologists and practitioners, acknowledged and experimented with approaches to inquiry and representation that had previously been associated with imaginative literature, and other art forms. Consider, for example, a 1976 quote from sociologist Robert Nisbet: The science of sociology is “also one of the arts—nourished … by precisely the same kinds of creative imagination which are to be found in such areas as music painting, poetry, the novel and drama.” The title of Nisbet's book is Sociology as an Art Form.

    The dissolution of the art–science dichotomy became increasingly obvious during the historical stage in the development of social research known as the moment of blurred genres (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). In social criticism, journalism, ethnography, and elsewhere experimentations with arts based methods and representational forms yielded literary-style ethnographic essays, New Journalistic reportage, sociological portraits, and so on. For some, social research had indeed, it seems, finally become recognized as being, as Richard Rorty has put it, continuous with literature.

    And so it is with us. This book bears witness to our belief in that research continuum. We do acknowledge the utility, at least relatively often, of social science methods for understanding complex social phenomena. But surely complex social messages being made plain through largely propositional language is not the only avenue that one can employ to understand the world or, at least, to describe its countenance. Arts based research was—and is—an effort to utilize the forms of thinking and forms of representation that the arts provide as means through which the world can be better understood and through such understanding comes the enlargement of mind. As proponents and practitioners of arts based research, we find it ironic that what is regarded as empirical focuses upon studies in which numbers are used to convey meaning while studies that deal with individuals as such are often regarded as nonempirical. It seems to us that, in general, we have our conceptions upside down. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the word empirical is rooted in the Greek word empirikos, which means experience. What is hard to experience is a set of numbers. What is comparatively easy to experience is a set of qualities.

    While, finally, other thinkers in the fields of the social sciences have come to accept these premises we have held for so long, we would also note a perhaps important distinction as we locate our own thinking on that research continuum suggested by Rorty. If the relatively recent history of social science research is one of discovery of the literary/artistic side of that continuum by researchers and methodologists who were first trained primarily as social scientists, ours is a journey that for each of us (and especially for Elliot) began at the artistic end of the continuum.

    At one time in a prior life, I (Elliot Eisner) was a visual artist. My background was secured in schools such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was visual art that enabled me to succeed in secondary school. I was no prize student since I found most of the material that was being taught of little interest. What did occur to me during my early years as a graduate student at the University of Chicago was that the arts had something to say to people and something to say that was important. If this was true, then why not use the arts methodologically to reveal what the arts make possible in various situations? Why not use expressive form to convey to readers, for example, how it feels to struggle with failure in school, to learn how to delay gratification until such conditions become not only bitter but frustrating as well? In short, why not use the arts as a way of promoting understanding, of diversifying perspective, of securing insight? In other words, why not recognize their epistemological potential, and why not do research in education that features the conditions of the arts in studying schools, communities, and classrooms?

    I (Tom Barone) had been interested in writing and telling stories since the second grade. Later, my BA degree in history from Loyola University of the South testified to my view of all human events as emplotted, as storied. But my interests in art theory and literary theory bloomed only after I was privileged to work on my doctorate under Elliot Eisner at Stanford. There and then my newfound interest in literary theory led to a career-long exploration of new forms of qualitative social research.

    This book, therefore, is a collaborative effort aimed at exploring the meaning of arts based research, a form of research that is a relative newcomer to the array of conceptions and procedures that are used in doing research in education and in the social sciences. The term arts based research is not self-explanatory. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a complex and multi-faceted conception, we will try, in this book, to describe the meaning of that phrase in a form that makes it graspable or understandable. We can say now that arts based research is an effort to employ the expressive qualities of form in order to enable a reader of that research to participate in the experience of the author. Put even more simply is this: Arts based research is a process that uses the expressive qualities of form to convey meaning.

    Some vivid examples of this process of empathic participation in the life of another can be found at the cinema. Films such as The Godfather, Pan's Labyrinth, Raging Bull, and The Hurt Locker secure their impact by virtue of the way in which the form of the film has been crafted. By the form of the film we mean the way in which speech, music, and visual imagery interact to express ideas and qualities that would otherwise be inaccessible to language alone. Arts based research is, likewise, a vehicle through which the expressive qualities of an artistically crafted form can come to express meaning and significance. How this occurs and what the issues are with respect to it is what this book addresses.

    These movies are mentioned as examples of efforts to transform an artist's (or collectivity of artists’) experiences into a script that itself gets transformed into a movie, and the movie itself becomes enhanced with music, movement, scene, and language, including language that is accented. The problem for the playwright and the director is to make the appropriate transformation so that the ideas he or she is trying to render will have a chance at coming to fruition. These films represent works of art, not works of science. They also represent an effort made to raise significant questions regarding the theme of the work. What was America like in the teens? What was the relationship between imagination and resistance during the Spanish Civil War? What is it like to be a famous American athlete in a violent sport in post World War II America? What is it like to be a soldier who is addicted to war? What sorts of visuals are needed to give the viewer a sense of place? What will the music sound like and what should be its pervasive quality? How should the available footage be edited to greatest advantage? These and a host of other questions must be addressed in one way or another in order to create an “authentic” film of an important part of history. And perhaps the most important question one can pose to the work is: Does it raise questions about important social issues, past and/or present?

    Of course, these examples of films stand near the very edge of the artistic side of the art–science side of the research continuum. In other examples of arts based research—examples found in this book—there exist design elements that more fully reveal the blending of dimensions of art and science, placing these works on various spots along this continuum. Still, that the emphasis on arts based research is indeed arts-based to the degree that it evidences, again, expressive qualities of form to convey meaning.

    These and other notions are a part of the intellectual agenda in this book. They are identified here to provide a mere foretaste of what is to come. First, however, a more detailed description of the contents of this book.

    This book contains two sorts of readings regarding arts based social research. The first sort is found in the main chapters of the book, written by us. In these 10 chapters, the authors attempt to familiarize readers with the approach. We define the term arts based social research, consider the purposes for engaging in it, address some of the major controversies surrounding this form of social inquiry, and discuss criteria for judging quality. Here is a more specific breakdown:

    Chapter 1 tries to familiarize readers with arts based research by describing just what is and what is not arts based research. What is the relationship between research based in the arts and research that is primarily scientific? Why do we refuse to dichotomize between the two?

    Chapter 2 deals with questions regarding the purposes for engaging in arts based research. Why would a social researcher choose to do arts based research and not another form of social research? How does arts based research succeed in prompting readers into the reimagining of dimensions of the social world surrounding them? How can particular examples of arts based research help them “make new worlds”? What sorts of uses may arts based research texts serve?

    Chapter 3 addresses the reasons for insisting that arts based research is indeed a legitimate form of social research as opposed to merely a form of inquiry. Phases in the process of doing arts based research are also discussed herein.

    Chapter 4 focuses on who the arts based researcher is or can be. Can anyone who so desires do arts based research? Does one need to be formally trained in the arts to do it well? Does one need to be an academic to do arts based research? Within the academy can only arts educators be arts based researchers? Or can arts based researchers reside in other academic fields? How “good” must the work of an arts based researcher be? Can talent for arts based research be developed? What should academic programs look like that aim to enhance capacities for doing “good” arts based research?

    Chapter 5 approaches issues related to the audiences for arts based research? For whom are works of arts based research composed? Can arts based researchers hope to expand their audience beyond colleagues within the academy? Can and should arts based research also be composed for lay people, members of the general public? How can arts based research “seduce” members of an intended audience into an engagement with their compositions?

    Chapter 6 attempts to trouble the notion of fiction as the term may or may not apply to works of arts based research. Questions addressed include the following: What are some possible definitions of fiction? In what senses are (and are not) works of research of all sorts composed, imaginative, fashioned, fictional? Is there a strong sense and a weak sense of the term fictional? Is a fact–fiction dichotomy an unhelpful social construct? Which types of “fictional” works should be legitimated as research? Why and why not? What are some specific suggestions for arts based researchers who choose to fictionalize their research texts?

    Chapter 7 addresses some of the sticky issues of politics and ethics related to arts based forms of research. A few of the questions addressed here are: Can any social research be apolitical? How can works of arts based research successfully confront prevailing metanarratives within a culture by offering alternative “readings” of social phenomena? How can it avoid becoming propaganda in the process? How is the issue of who “owns” a piece of arts based research—the author–artist–researcher, the informants—characters in the inquiry process and arts based text, audience members—be an ethical one? What might a work of good arts based research look like that is both overtly political and highly ethical?

    Chapter 8 offers some criteria for assessing the usefulness and quality of works of arts based research.

    Chapter 9 investigates the place of theory in arts based research.

    Chapter 10 attempts to summarize by providing a cluster of what we consider to be fundamental ideas surrounding the approach to social research that we call arts based.

    These chapters are accompanied by the second kind of reading contained in the book—three examples of arts based social research. Indeed, in each of the 10 chapters we attempt to “ground” some of the more abstract notions under discussion by referencing particular examples of arts based research.

    Since the number of works of qualitative research identified as arts based have proliferated enormously over the last 2 decades, choosing these three examples was a difficult task. It was done with much care. Still, the works chosen are not meant to represent what we consider to be a “top few” of all existing works. A very large number of good works of arts based social research have necessarily been left out. (Some are cited in the Additional Readings section of this book.) The works chosen, however, were done so because they allowed us to answer the following question in the affirmative: Is the work highly useful to an array of readers insofar as it possesses the capacity to achieve the primary purpose of a work of arts based research—namely, enticing them to rethink an important social issue? This question will guide us as we explore the realm of arts based research.


    The authors and SAGE gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Melissa Cahnman-Tyler, University of Georgia

    Lynn Fels, Simon Fraser University

    David Flinders, Indiana University–Bloomington

    Robert Hard, Albertus Magnus College

    Rita Irwin, University of British Columbia

    Carl Leggo, University of British Columbia

    Margaret Moore-West, Dartmouth Medical School–Lebanon

    Pamela Stevens, Northern Arizona University

    Bruce Urmacher, University of Denver

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    Additional Readings

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    About the Authors

    Over 30 years ago, Tom Barone's doctoral dissertation at Stanford University investigated the possibilities of literary nonfiction for researching and writing about educational matters. Since then, he has explored, conceptually and through examples, a variety of narrative and arts based approaches to contextualizing and theorizing about significant educational issues. He has published widely and is the author of two books: Aesthetics, Politics, and Educational Inquiry: Essays and Examples is a collection of his early writings; Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching (Outstanding Book Awards from Division B of American Educational Research Association [AERA] and the AERA Narrative Research Special Interest Group) is an ironically titled narrative study that questions the possibility of heroic transfers of learning. As professor of education in the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Barone teaches courses in curriculum studies and qualitative research methods. Barone was the recipient of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award of Division B of the AERA.

    Elliot W. Eisner is the Lee Jacks Professor Emeritus of Education and Art at Stanford University. His major educational interests are in the role of the arts in the development of cognition. He is also interested in the ways in which art forms illuminate and promote understanding of the qualitative world. These interests are reflected in seventeen books, including Educating Artistic Vision, The Educational Imagination, and The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Professor Eisner's interest in the connection between the arts and cognition developed early in his career. It is reflected in the effort to expand our conception of cognition so that works that are nonlinguistic have an important place in the armamentarium scholars use to study the qualitative world. For his efforts in this arena, he has been the recipient of numerous significant awards. Some of these include the Jose Vasconcelos Award given by the World Cultural Council, the McGraw Prize, the Brock Medal, and most recently the prestigious Grawmeyer Award.

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