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Artistic research: ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t’

Vincent Meelberg
Radboud University Nijmegen

Artistic research, being a relatively young academic discipline, is sometimes characterized as being ‘methodless’. Artistic research has no method, some maintain, and instead proceeds from an intuitive, informal basis, and therefore cannot be considered a proper scholarly practice. If this indeed is the case, this may be problematic for the academic status of artistic research. Having a clear method when doing academic research is crucial. First of all, it provides a recipe that helps researchers during the process of research, as a method can be considered a description of a way of working or as a recipe for action. A method is always based on a specific purpose. In other words: the goal one wants to achieve determines the method that is used in order to attain that goal. As a result, a method usually consists of several steps to be carried out. Steps that ultimately, and ideally, lead to the desired outcome.

Yet, a method is also important because it acts as an explanation and justification for the research and its outcomes. By applying a method, articulating which method is used, and in what manner; and providing a rationale for choosing this method, researchers guarantee that the research is actually intersubjective. This means that the reader of the research understands why the research was carried out in the way that it was, that they can retrace the steps taken in the research that led to its results, and discuss the validity of its conclusions by critiquing these steps.

Is, then, artistic research a research without method? There is at least one method, one recipe for action, that is specific to artistic research, namely that in artistic research the research is done through artistic practices. Artistic practices thus are both the object and the general method of investigation. This recipe for action, however, might not be enough to count as academic, scholarly research.

Therefore, other methods need to be used as well in order to both articulate how artistic practices may function as research and analyse these practices and their outcomes themselves.

And therein lies the rub. How does one proceed in finding methods that ensure the outcomes of an artistic research project are scholarly valid? Doing Qualitative Research: The Craft of Naturalistic Inquiry, written by Joost Beuving and Geert de Vries, may be helpful here. In their book the authors outline what they call naturalistic inquiry, which is the ‘practice of studying people in everyday circumstances by ordinary means’ (p. 15), in order to arrive at a better or new understanding of what human actions mean to those who perform them. As artistic practices are human actions as well, there is no a priori objection to applying naturalistic inquiry as an approach to doing artistic research.

The central argument of Doing Qualitative Research is that a proper investigation of human action should be conducted by following what they call the 'arc of naturalistic inquiry'. Any research starts from a 'topic or problem' that is identified either by reading literature around that topic or arose as a result of common sense or intuition. The next step is the formulation of so-called 'foreshadowed problems and sensitizing concepts', which are the research question(s) and concepts that are relevant for the project. Then, the research enters the stage of '(empirical) saturation'. This consists of the description as a result of the observation of acts, behaviour, and/or cultural artefacts, the selection of which is determined by 'theoretical sampling', i.e. selecting situations and cases that are relevant for the project, without striving for completeness. Instead, the goal is to arrive at a variety and diversity of cases. Next, the descriptions of these situations and cases are subjected to 'inductive analysis', which includes the identification of common themes and trends that are catalogued via open coding and categorization. With the aid of these codes and categories the stage of theorization may begin, during which an interpretation and explanation of the observations is articulated. Finally, during the 'writing stage', the findings are represented in such a way that the reader of the research understands how and why the researcher arrived at a particular interpretation and explanation.

The subsequent chapters of Doing Qualitative Research elaborate the stages the arc of which naturalistic inquiry consists, all the while stressing that, in actual research, the order of these stages is not strictly chronological. Repeatedly, researchers will go back and revise previous stages as a result of new findings, or jump forward to a later stage. Chapters One and Two lay the theoretical groundwork of naturalistic inquiry and discusses the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research (naturalistic inquiry being a form of qualitative research), and the relation between naturalistic inquiry and other types of qualitative research. In Chapter Three the first actual method is discussed: participant observation. In their discussion of this method the authors focus on the challenge of maintaining scholarly distance, in particular. They maintain that it is not necessarily wrong to lose your distance in research, as long as the researcher is aware of this and makes it explicit in his/her research. Chapter Four focuses on conducting interviews, while Chapter Five provides an overview of how to analyse texts, objects, and images. Chapter Six discusses the analysis of social networks, i.e. the interaction of the different so-called actants (both animate and inanimate) that a particular human action entails. Chapters Seven and Eight, finally, outline the manners in which a productive analysis may take place and how to represent the findings of the research in a convincing and compelling way.

Doing Qualitative Research is a clear and very useful guide for how to do scholarly valid research into human actions and their possible meanings, but why would it also be of interest for artistic researchers? How can the methods described in this book be useful in artistic research? Above I suggested that, in artistic research, artistic practices are both the object and the general method of investigation, but that other methods need to be used as well in order to articulate how artistic practices may function as research and to be able to analyse these practices, as well as their outcomes, i.e. the artworks themselves. This implies that artistic research focuses on at least three perspectives: the artwork itself, the artist-researcher, and the other people involved in the creation and/or appreciation of the artwork, such as an audience. Each of these perspectives can be studied by using a method, or set of methods, appropriate to that perspective, and many of the methods discussed in Doing Qualitative Research may be appropriate.

The artwork itself, for instance, can be investigated through visual or aural analysis, depending on the nature of the artwork. The manner in which texts, objects, and images can be analysed is discussed in Chapter Five of the book. The analysis of aural phenomena such as music is not mentioned, whereas the perspective of the other people involved in the creation and/or appreciation of the artwork may be studied by participant observation and conducting interviews, as outlined in Chapters Three and Four.

That leaves us with the final, and perhaps most important, perspective: that of the artist-researchers themselves. Methods that focus on experiences from a first-person perspective are not explicitly discussed by the authors, but that does not mean that the book is of no use here. The analysis of social networks, in particular, may be a productive way to study this perspective. After all, artistic practices, in which the artist-researcher is a prime actant, can be considered a social network as well. This does mean that the method as outlined in the book needs to be adapted in order to productively analyse the network called artistic practice from a first-person perspective. But the manner in which this method, as well as most of the other methods, is introduced by the authors does allow for such an adaptation, as the book is anything but dogmatic as far as methodology and its possible applications are concerned.

Moreover, the general principles concerning scholarly research that are outlined in the book can also be applied to the study of the first-person perspective of the artist-researcher. Artist-researchers need to make sure there is an emphasis on analysis and interpretation, rather than on mere narration, and subject their subjective experiences to the same rigorous process of coding, categorization, and inductive analysis as the other perspectives. In this way a new or better, scholarly sound, understanding of the relationship between the self of the artist-researchers and their artistic practices, as forms of human action, may be gained as well.


Vincent Meelberg

Radboud University Nijmegen