On Merging Art and Research: An Interview with Patricia Leavy, PhD

On Merging Art and Research: An Interview with Patricia Leavy, PhD

On Merging Art and Research: An Interview with Patricia Leavy, PhD

Patricia Leavy is an arts-based researcher on a mission. She has a passion for pushing the bounds of how we think about art and research, making the products of research accessible to broad audiences and creating spaces for other innovators to get their work out there.

Patricia Leavy is an arts-based researcher on a mission. She has a passion for pushing the bounds of how we think about art and research, making the products of research accessible to broad audiences and creating spaces for other innovators to get their work out there. In a book I co-authored for her ground-breaking Social Fictions series I wrote that I was glad to “….publicly thank Patricia Leavy for her support, enthusiasm, and ongoing commitment to arts-based research and researchers around the globe. In a contemporary context, Patricia is doing perhaps more than anyone to advance the cause and diversity of ABR in scholarly fields, and is its most vocal public advocate – and for this we are immensely grateful.” I welcome the chance to chat with her about her commitment to arts-based research, her classic book Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, the trailblazing Social Fictions series and what drives her.

Anne Harris: Ok, so for those who are unfamiliar what is arts-based research or ABR?

Patricia Leavy: Arts-based research is when researchers across the disciplines (communication, education, health studies, psychology, sociology, and so on.) adapt the tenets of the creative arts in order to address social research questions. So, researchers draw on the expressive arts in order to conduct their research and/or present their findings. Arts-based research has many advantages, such as making the research more interesting, engaged, provocative and accessible to the public. I also think the arts are able to tap into things that are otherwise out of reach so new questions can be addressed and new insights garnered. I should mention that while some of us doing this work use the term arts-based research there are a host of terms people ascribe to this kind of work such as arts-informed research, a/r/tography and performative social science to name a few.

AH: How did you come to ABR and what was the inspiration for writing Method Meets Art?

PL: I’m a sociologist by training and I have always been a qualitatively inclined researcher, meaning I would be more likely to do in-depth interviews over survey research or that kind of thing. I’ve always been interested in knowledge construction, how we think about what we can know, how we methodologically design studies and how we share what we learn. I spent several years working with another qualitative methodologist and together we wrote about qualitative methods and emergent methods for doing research. All of this work took me to arts-based research. When I discovered the work incredibly innovative artist-researchers were doing I felt like I found my home. Arts-based research is transdisciplinary, creative, engaged, critical, evolving and has the potential to be public. In short, it is everything I think research should be.

In terms of the inspiration for writing Method Meets Art, I was in awe of the work being done, across the disciplines, by innovative scholars. I wanted to chronicle that work, to bring it together and document it. I also wanted to offer some methodological guidance to others who want to do their own arts-based research. When a field is developing it’s vital to both document what has been done and to start to find commonalities and outline methodologies that others can adapt.

AH: You are a woman on a mission, literally travelling all over the world to speak to different groups about ABR, promoting it on social media and writing reams. Why?

Well, you are too! Your wonderful work on ethnocinema and creativity has put you all over the place and I suspect our motivations are similar. For me, I have a deep commitment to advancing arts-based research as a legitimate model of knowledge building. We are talking about the way we think, learn, share and challenge ideas so there are real consequences at stake. What counts as knowledge, how that knowledge is created, who is included in the process, how funding is distributed, and who has access to the products of research, all of this is complicit in how power operates and whether or not research remains in the hands of a few or if becomes accessible to the many. I think there are moral and practical imperatives for doing work that is useful and accessible. Most published research circulates in highly specialized journals and is jargon-laden. It never reaches the public and has little impact. That’s a waste of people’s time, talent and other resources. Arts-based research isn’t the way to do everything and for some researchers it will never personally be the right choice for their work, but it has to be a legitimate pathway for knowledge building and that means we have to be able to fund, publish and disseminate it.

AH: I agree completely. My approach to both creativity research and the intercultural video methodology of ethnocinema is all about collaboration and social change – how can we make work that matters, empowers, and has real impact in a shared world?  The arts still do that better than anything I know, and the academy is finally catching on. Speaking of which, your latest work has involved writing novels as research. Can you talk about that?

PL: I was frustrated with the limitations of academic journal articles and monographs. I didn’t want to spend my time writing things read by only a few colleagues. I’ve always loved the craft of writing and so I turned to fiction. I had spent about a decade collecting interviews with women of varying backgrounds about their relationships, identities and body images. I had interviewed men as well but focused more so on women. I wanted to take what I had learned, cumulatively, and share it. My first novel, Low-Fat Love, is loosely based on that interview research and explores the psychology of negative relationships, women’s identity and self-concept development and the social construction of femininity. The process of writing the book and then sharing it with readers was quite magical for me. I felt like I was really able to take what I had learned over the years and offer it up to people in a way that made sense and then as readers sought me out to share their stories my learning continued. I guess I was hooked after that. I wanted to explore other themes from my interview research as well as personal experiences. So I wrote another novel, American Circumstance, which explores appearance versus reality; how our lives and relationships look versus how we experience them, how social class shapes identity and the codes of female friendship including the things we do and do not say to each other. Both books are deeply embedded with sociology and social psychology. Actually, a renowned sociologist who I have long admired emailed to tell me the novels offer a sociology of everyday life which is what I had hoped for. After I wrote Low-Fat Love a publisher I had already worked with asked me to write a book about doing this kind of work. I happily took the project on because it’s so important to teach these methodologies to others, as well as the rationales for using them. That book is called Fiction as Research Practice: Short Stories, Novellas and Novels.

AH: The novels are a part of the Social Fictions series which you developed and edit for Sense Publishers. As an author of an upcoming book in the series I can say there was nothing like this before and it has really opened a new space in academic publishing for arts-based research. How did the series come to be?

PL:The series has been the ultimate labor of love and honestly, it is what I am most proud of in my career. It came to be for the very reason you suggest, there was nothing else like it. When I finished writing Low-Fat Love I had to figure out how to publish it. There’s nothing like writing a book and realizing no space exists in which to publish it. I very much saw Low-Fat Love as research as much as entertainment. Because I am interested in advancing arts-based research I decided to try and use my novel as a vehicle for doing so. I came up with the idea for the Social Fictions series in order to create a space to publish the products of ABR, at least those that adapt literary mediums, and so that my book would be a part of something larger. The Social Fictions series publishes books written entirely in literary forms, including plays, novels, short story collections and hybrid forms that involve poetry and other literary forms, but all of the books are written by scholars and are informed by research and it is published by an academic press.

AH: The reaction to your novels and the series as a whole has been tremendous. Can you talk about that and what you think it means?

It has been really amazing and humbling. I had initially pitched the series, including Low-Fat Love, to a publisher who turned it down because he thought we couldn’t sell more than a couple hundred copies. In fairness, I thought he may well be right. Then I began with Sense with a very tight reign, planning to publish only two or three books and wait a year and evaluate the response. I even invested some of my own funds in the beginning to make it more feasible for the publisher to take on what seemed so risky. However, within months of Low-Fat Love being released we realized we had really created something big with the series so we started signing more books. It has been a whirlwind ever since. Every milestone we hit, we sort of can’t believe it, and then we surpass our expectations again and again. To date we’ve published about ten books, in less than three years, and we have a long slate of signed books forthcoming. I am so proud of each and every book. We’ve been inundated with submissions and so I’ve had the luxury of supporting projects and authors who I think are doing truly innovative work that has a chance to impact people in meaningful ways. I’ve picked books with social justice messages.

I think what all of this shows is that there is a hunger for this kind of border-crossing, evocative work. People want to read things that engage and entertain, that prompt reflection without telling them what to think. And this is the kind of work that many researchers want to do, work that carries meaning for them. I can’t overstate how proud I am of the series and how grateful I am to Sense Publishers for taking it on. My fondest wish is that the success of the series paves the way for others to publish, display, screen and fund arts-based research. Likewise, I hope more professors use these kinds of works in their teaching because the learning potential for students is there and by using the work in those ways, they can help create more demand and thus more spaces for publishing it.

AH: What is some of the most exciting ABR happening these days?

PL: There’s so much, the field has exploded, so it’s impossible to narrow it down. I think what most excites me is to see graduate students doing their thesis work with arts-based approaches, often building entirely new methods. That’s tremendous. Drexel University in Philadelphia now has a PhD program in Creative Arts Therapy and some students are doing doctoral dissertations with arts-based research. I’m currently finishing up a second edition of Method Meets Art and I have been trying to give nods to graduate students doing ABR, from using dance to represent their research to a dissertation written as a comic book. The amazing part is that there is so much of this happening that I can only cover a bit of it which shows that professors, who are themselves researchers, are not only doing this work but they are teaching it to the next generation. That is exciting.

AH: Any words to those who are weary of merging art and science or fiction and research?

PT: You know sometimes I talk about the importance of risk-taking, innovation and imagination but really, it’s an artificial divide. It’s as simple as that. I actually wrote about this in my book on transdisciplinarity, the polarization of art and science is artificial. I think many of the greats, from Albert Einstein to Pablo Picasso to Zora Neale Hurston, knew this well. So hanging on to this falsity doesn’t make sense. At the end of the day it’s also vital to think about the utility and impact of our work and to use all available tools to do work that is meaningful.

Anne Harris is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and the author of the new book The Creative Turn: Toward a New Aesthetic Imaginary (Sense Publishers).

Patricia's book Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice

Follow Patricia Leavy, PhD on Twitter

Visit Patricia's website: here 

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