The Art-Research Nexus: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

The Art-Research Nexus: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Arts September 19, 2017 / By Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
The Art-Research Nexus: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Patricia Leavy introduces "Handbook of Arts-Based Research" a collection of over 700 pages with contributions focusing on the importance of integrating arts into fields as diverse as sociology, psychology, education, business, neuroscience, chemistry, and physics.

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is a sociologist turned arts-based researcher on a mission. Formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology, and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College, she left it all behind to become a full-time author and highly visible public advocate of arts-based research. The author or editor of twenty-three books, she has earned critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction. Her recent titles include Handbook of Arts-Based Research, 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. She is also series creator and editor of seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill and cofounder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal. She has received numerous career awards and has been labeled a “visionary” and “influencer.” I’m fortunate to call her my colleague. I recently spoke with Patricia about the connections between art and research, the field of arts-based research, and what this historical moment means for artist/researchers.

Lauren M. Sardi: What is arts-based research?

Patricia Leavy: Arts-based research, or ABR, exists at the nexus of art/the humanities and research, or art/the humanities and science. It 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 project conceptualization, 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, with ABR providing another approach. 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, creating useful or applied research, and contributing to public scholarship. 

In what fields is this work occurring?

It’s probably most commonly used in art education, education, communication, and gender and women’s studies. It’s also growing the social sciences, including my home discipline, sociology. However, there are many examples of arts-based research in just about every field including health care, business, social work, and the natural sciences. 

You’ve written about the relationship between neuroscience and art, for example in your piece titled Our Brains on Art. Can you talk about this?

There’s growing research in the neuroscience of art making and art consumption, or what we might call our brains on art. The findings have been remarkable. For example, research in “neuroaestethics” has looked at how our brains process visual art. Findings show that numerous distinct and even conflicting emotional signals are activated which cause deep memories to form. Similarly, there are studies in “literary neuroscience” that examine what happens to people while they’re reading fiction. Findings show reading fiction activates both hemispheres of the brain including regions involved in touch and movement. That feeling people have when they’re reading a novel like they’re placing themselves in the story, totally immersed in the story world, isn’t just a “feeling” per se but rather something physiological is happening to them. Research has also found that there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel. So in sum, there is a great deal of emerging research to show we process fiction and art differently than other forms, fiction and art engage numerous regions of our brains, and the impressions made can last longer than reading nonfiction, for example. 

What we’re really talking about here is deep learning and transformation. How do people learn? How are deep impressions made? How can we jar people into thinking differently about that which they have previously taken-for-granted? What tools do we have for people to challenge their own thinking? How can we disrupt stereotypes and the ideologies that support them? How can we promote empathy across differences? How can we spark imagination, critical consciousness, and critical thinking? 

What have you personally learned transforming your research into fiction?

The process of writing fiction has made me a better thinker, scholar, and writer. My writing in all forms including blogs, articles, and nonfiction books has become stronger, as has my public speaking. Writing fiction requires such rigorous attention to language and structure, it has entirely changed the way I see, think, and communicate. 

I’ve also learned about many things from my readers, about audience and impact. The things we’ve already talked about abstractly regarding the potential for arts-based research and neuroscientific research, I’ve seen deeply in my own experience. People’s responses to my novels have stunned, moved, and inspired me more than anything else in my career. It was most pronounced with my first novel, Low-Fat Love, because I didn’t expect it. That novel explores women’s identity-building in relation to destructive male figures, the social construction of femininity, and why some women settle for “low-fat love” in different areas of their lives. It’s pretty raw. Shortly after the novel came out I was inundated with emails from readers telling me how they related to various characters or circumstances, and sharing their own most intimate stories. At book talks readers lined hallways each waiting to whisper their stories of “low-fat love” to me. It wasn’t just women. Men would talk to me about their relationships, their sisters, daughters, or friends, and things about commercial culture they had never noticed before. I had probably published at least ten nonfiction books prior to the novel, as well as numerous articles, and I had delivered many conference presentations. Yet I had never experienced anything like this. The novel resonated deeply and caused self and social reflection. It made a lasting impression. I’ve even had readers email or approach me many years after reading it to tell me how they still think of this or that in the novel. When a character touches someone, the connection created is like nothing else. So I’ve learned about how fiction can affect readers in deep emotional ways. These experiences were echoed when I later released my novel American Circumstance and my most recent novel, Blue. Blue is my personal favorite. It explores identity, friendship, and figuring out who we are in the context of people who really “get” us. The characters are each at a moment in their lives in which they need to grow, to become better versions of themselves. It explores the possibilities that exist for each of us, a subject hard to get at in other ways. After Blue was released countless readers sought me out to tell how the novel reminded them of their own dreams, prompted them to go for something in their own lives, or simply to thank me for making them care about “regular” people. Only the arts reach people on these levels. The potential to create empathy, foster critical consciousness, promote new learning, and stimulate personal or social awareness is enormous. It’s also personally rewarding.

All of your novels have been very well received, earning critical praise and achieving bestseller status for your publisher. How is ABR generally received in academia and in the art world?

That’s a tricky question. It depends on what circles you’re in. For example, there are some groups in academia that are critical or dismissive of arts-based research. These biases are certainly built into publishing and funding structures. However, there are also many groups in academia that embrace ABR, which I believe will only increase over time. Every new innovation is met with resistance, fear, and critique. This is the nature of both science and art. Paradigm shifts happen over time. It took decades for the qualitative paradigm to become legitimated, and of course there are still significant biases in favor of quantitative research. So the pushback is not new or unexpected. The same is true in the art world. There are some groups that understand and appreciate ABR, while there are others who feel their turf is being encroached on and scholars are diminishing the training artistic practice takes. Again, this resistance is not new or unexpected. Innovation never occurs without resistance. I think that the more people in both academia and the art world educate themselves about what arts-based research actually is, the less likely they will fear it or see it as some sort of threat to the credibility of their work. Arts-based researchers are not suggesting ABR is the only paradigm through which to conduct research. Rather, it is one of several valid approaches and is particularly well-suited to certain kinds of research projects. I recently published a book called Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches in an effort to show how each of the five major approaches to research are useful, each in their own way. 

I want to add that I think it’s very important for practitioners of ABR not to value their work based on critical or commercial outcomes, which are largely out of your control. Scholarship and art that pushes the bounds may well receive criticism, that’s the nature of innovation. It also may simply be difficult to get the work out there so that people can find it. While I’ve been fortunate with my novels, I’ve done other work that hasn’t found an audience but that doesn’t diminish the value of the work in my mind. 

Are there unique challenges doing this kind of work at this historical moment?

Well, I would say there are unique challenges and possibilities. There’s no question that art and artists are under attack. Funding for the arts is being systematically threatened and slashed, in education approaches that value arts integration are undervalued and often made structurally impossible to implement, and freedom of expression itself is taking a beating. These are tough times. Herein we also find opportunities or unintended consequences. Art is desperately needed. Artists know this. Especially those pushed to the peripheries due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social identities. By attacking the arts, an army of warrior artists has been created. Art has the capability to raise critical consciousness and move the needle forward. Art is a necessary part of resistance. While it may be more difficult for many artists in both academic and art worlds, there is also a great deal of material that we have to work with, and growing numbers of people looking for answers to pressing social problems. Artists and artists-scholars are well equipped to mirror social life back to us and to reimagine social life, showing us new possibilities. So not despite but because of the challenges we now face, this is our time. 

Do you have any advice for artist-researchers trying to navigate all of this?

Seek out opportunities to form a community with others who embrace this kind of border-crossing work. For example, I attend a conference each year for qualitative research that has a strong ABR contingent. It’s an opportunity to share my work, gain feedback, network, and learn what others are doing. Every year I leave inspired, with new friends and ideas. Check national associations to see if they have special interest groups in arts-based research. For example, the American Educational Research Association has an arts-based educational research group, as well as other special interest groups with overlapping interests. I also attend this conference when I’m able to and have learned a lot as a result, and made wonderful friends. Social media has also provided ways to connect with others interested in this kind of work. You can also contact people after reading or consuming their work. I have done this myself many times, and many readers contact me. So if you’re working in an institution or other space in which you feel isolated or that this work in not valued, reach out to communities interested in ABR, and in doing so create your own network. It’s also important to develop your own relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on external approval. I believe this is true for all scholars and artists. When you’re blazing new trails in any field, there’s bound to be criticism. But remember that all good science and art comes from experimentation, asking new questions or asking questions in new ways, seeking new approaches, and learning to think differently. Advances that move the needle forward are necessarily challenging to the status quo. I do believe that if you can engage yourself with your work, you will ultimately engage others as well.

How can scholars interested in ABR get started? How can they engage in this kind of work?

I suggest five things. To begin, read about ABR and how to do it. A scholar interested in conducting survey research would likely read a general research methods textbook or a quantitative textbook, and then likely additional texts devoted to survey research. The same applies here. Give yourself an ABR methods education.  My books Method Meets Art and Handbook of Arts-Based Research are good places to begin, but there are wonderful books by other authors as well. In addition to reading “methods” texts, it’s also important to consume ABR, especially in the genre you’re interested in. Look for examples from practitioners at all levels, whether that’s reading novels or plays, or viewing films and visual art online. Consume ABR in your genre. Take notes on what you like, what you think is powerful, what you might do differently. Also, expose yourself to as much art as you can in that genre. Here I’m not talking about ABR per se, but rather art created for the sake of art. If you’re interested in writing a play, then read or see as many plays as you can. People tend to pick “the masters” which is fine as you’re learning your genre, but there are problems with that too when you start thinking about who historically has been included and excluded from support in any artistic genre and thus who is eligible to be labeled “a master.” So I recommend seeking out lesser known works by artists you relate to, those who are different from you, those who work in multiple stylistic approaches, and those who work with similar subject matter. Next, expose yourself to ABR and/or art in other genres. As scholars and artists we can gain enormous inspiration and insights into 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 get your hands dirty. Practice and play. Experiment within your genre. You can start with small exercises. For example, if you’re interested in creative writing you might begin with simple writing prompts. If you’ve conducted research using a different method, such as some form of qualitative research, you may take a piece of your preexisting research and play around with it, analyzing or representing it with an art form. The intent in the beginning is not to redo your work or publish it in a new form, but to start learning your craft. 

Please describe your new release, Handbook of Arts-Based Research.

It’s a comprehensive, retrospective and prospective overview of arts-based research. It explores the synergies between artistic and research practices and addresses issues in conceptualizing, designing, implementing, evaluating, and publishing ABR studies. Leading scholars/artists from across the disciplines contributed chapters. The handbook is divided into eight sections: the field, literary genres, performance genres, visual arts, audiovisual arts, mixed method and team approaches, arts-based research within disciplines or area studies which included education, the social sciences, health studies, the natural sciences, and business, and the final section covers additional considerations. 

Each genre is described in detail and brought to life with robust research examples. The handbook is filled with art in various forms too, making it a quite special. It can be used as primary reading in courses in fields such as arts-based research, narrative inquiry, advanced qualitative research, art education, and creative arts therapies. It can also read by any individual artist, researcher, or creative arts therapist, interested in the art-research nexus. I think it’s one of those special reference texts one might pull off their bookshelf time and again. I know I will. 

There are a lot of big names in the table of contents. It reads as a who’s who. Do you get excited when someone with name recognition signs on?

It’s always an honor when a trailblazer in the field wants to work with you. I’m grateful for their generosity. That said, there are also lesser known, emerging practitioners in the handbook and I value their contributions just as much. It’s important to look for artistic and scholarly talent everywhere, at all career levels. That’s how we make advancements.

Do you have a favorite chapter?

All of the contributors did a fantastic job so I could never choose. But I will tell you that the cover art is something I really love about the handbook. I developed my love for art, including street art, going on trips to SoHo with my mother when I was a child. She was a painter and loved to go to the art galleries. It was the time and place when I developed my sense of art as somehow magical. Picking the cover art for the Handbook was daunting, more so than with most other books given it is a book about art. My publisher offered to get the rights to a piece by a well-known artist. However, I wanted to support a lesser known, living artist. A couple of years ago I met the incredible artist Charlie Green Williams in the streets of SoHo. I love both his work and sensibility. When it came time to figure out the cover, I knew his work would be perfect. I picked a piece that not only reminds me of street art, but of the street itself. I wanted the cover to be a nod to the streets in which I learned to love art, including street art, which is necessarily public. There is a public scholarship aspect to arts-based research. This is particularly pronounced in contrast to how elitist most academic research can be, circulating only in academic journals no one outside of academia has access to. Wrapping the handbook in Charlie’s art is a statement. I’m grateful Charlie agreed to work with us. I’m also appreciative to Paul Gordon at The Guilford Press for how he designed the cover to keep the art primary and give the whole thing a street art feeling. There is a consistency with the cover and the contents of the handbook.

What differences do you see now, in publishing the Handbook, as compared to when you published the first edition of Method Meets Art nearly a decade ago, which many consider an ABR bible?

There’s been enormous growth in the field. Publishers had barely heard of ABR back when I was working on my book proposal. Guilford Press was visionary to take it on. When Method Meets Art first came out there were very few books about ABR and none that dealt exclusively with methodology. Within two years of the release several other books came out, that in one way or another deal with ABR, and since then many others have been released. The same is true of journals and conferences. Now there are academic publishers and journals that regularly publish ABR as well as book series and journals devoted to ABR, or with special issues devoted to ABR. It’s far more present at conferences as well, including conferences devoted to ABR or with ABR as one of several primary themes. Correspondingly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a significant increase in the number of courses that teach ABR in some capacity. This is vital to the legitimation and longevity of an emerging research paradigm.

Where is the field going? What do you think is important moving forward?

There’s enormous potential for ABR to grow into a fully legitimized research paradigm. By that I mean an approach to knowledge building that is taught and funded alongside quantitative and qualitative approaches. That’s not pie in the sky despite the challenges. It’s within reach, but will require sustained and strategic effort on the part of practitioners. First, as I mentioned in response to the last question, it’s vital to consider our teaching practices. To start, we need to include ABR in existing survey of research methods courses. I wrote Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches in order to provide professors with an easy way of doing so. It would be great to see arts-based scholars teaching sections of their department’s required methods courses. Professors also need to continue to develop advanced methods courses in ABR just as it’s customary to have advanced courses in quantitative and qualitative research. Lastly with respect to teaching, it’s important to incorporate the products of ABR into all kinds of courses as a means of teaching other subject matter. An intro or elective course in the social sciences, for example, typically includes examples of studies using quantitative and qualitative methods, monographs based on research within those approaches, case studies, and so on. Many courses even incorporate novels and films. In all of these instances the work of arts-based researchers working in that subject area could be included. As we grow the field via teaching practices, publishing and funding structures will evolve. 

There are two final things that I think are important if we’re going to move the field forward: strategic thinking and popularizing our work. Arts-based researchers embrace creativity in their work. We need to apply that creativity to thinking about how to collectively move the field forward. I especially think it’s important to think creatively about strategic, mutually beneficial relationships across disciplines with respect to grants and publishing. For example, earlier we spoke about research in the neuroscience of creativity. This is well-funded research. Opportunities can be created by those in the humanities and social sciences to develop connections and strategic partnerships with scientists in this area. 

Finally, a distinguishing strength of ABR is the ability to contribute to public scholarship and thus have an impact. ABR engages seriously with issues of audience. It’s important for practitioners to look for venues to distribute their work, and to do the labor or promoting their work to relevant stakeholders. Researchers and artists love doing their work and sometimes assume that if it’s good, it will somehow just “get out there.” Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case and there are often lost opportunities to have a bigger impact. The promotion of our work, the work of our colleagues, and the field, is vital. This takes as much of an effort as the work itself. 



Learn more about Patricia Leavy: 

Patricia on Facebook 

Handbook of Arts-Based Research on Amazon

Handbook of Arts-Based Research at The Guilford Press (automatic 15% off & free shipping in the United States and Canada) 

About Lauren M. Sardi

Lauren M. Sardi, Ph.D, is Associate Professor of Sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. Broadly, her research interests include human rights, the medicalization of bodies/embodiment, and feminist theory.

comments powered by Disqus