TEXT review

Arts in qualitative research

review by Sandra Burr


J Garry Knowles & Ardra L Cole, eds
Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues
Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2008
ISBN 9781412905312
Hb 800pp AUD140.00

Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues seeks to explore the research possibilities that arise from the fusion of arts-based practice and social science research. Its existence speaks to an assumption that arts-based research is no longer an oxymoronic term regarded with suspicion by the academy. Indeed, as the editors state in the preface: ‘The contents of the Handbook acknowledge the breadth of scholarship and burgeoning practice within a range of academic disciplines and contexts where the arts influence researching’ (xi).This tome is not a defence of practice-led research but an exposition of the multiplicity of ways in which a diversity of art forms and art practices mesh with qualitative research methodologies to produce new knowledge and ways of understanding.

Sage scholarly research publications are reliably comprehensive and authoritative and this Handbook is no exception. I used the word ‘tome’ deliberately, for this is a dense work: six parts, 54 chapters, and 699 pages with more than 60 contributors including such luminaries as Norman K Denzin Elliot Eisner, Susan Finlay, Valerie J. Janesick, Stephanie Springgay, Graeme Sullivan, and many more. While the bulk of the scholarship is Canadian and North American, there are also contributions from scholars located in other parts of the world including Australians Tessa Moore (CQU), Karen Scott-Hoy (an independent scholar from South Australia) and Laura Brearley (RMIT). The depth and breadth of scholarship in this volume attests to an interest in and acceptance of art-as-research in academia. As the editors say this is ‘... a community project, one centered on the work of scholars committed to articulating the place of the arts in researching’ (xv).

Each of the six sections contains a number of essays which are prefaced by a summary of contents. In Part I: Knowing, for example, Elliot Eisner discusses the notion of what it means to know with clarity and precision that would make enlightening reading for teachers and students alike. Part II: Methodologies, surveys a range of theoretical positions and approaches selected on the basis that ‘[T]here is much more to methodologies than method’, illustrating the ‘depth and complexity inherent in employing the arts as a means to knowledge advancement through research’ (27). Shaun McNiff uses a recurring dream to demonstrate his contention that dreams are  a unique way of knowing; Sandra Weber examines the different kinds of images available to researchers and lists ten reasons for using images in research including suggestions that images ‘encourage embodied knowledge’ and ‘facilitate reflexivity in research design’ (46); and Cole and Knowles, through the lens of personal experience, argue for a redefinition of inquiry that is more inclusive and representative of lived experience. Part II: Genres, surveys different manifestations of art-based inquiry in subsections that cover literary, performance, visual art, new media and folk and popular art forms. Tom Barone, for example, describes creative nonfiction and social research using three publications to illustrate his case. While Australian Karen Scott-Hoy (with co-author Carolyn Ellis) explores the links between research and autoethnography from a very personal standpoint relating the frustrations she experienced in her multiple roles as student/ researcher/teacher and mother. There are further stimulating essays on a range of media-as-research from paintings to photographs, to performance, quilts, blogs, zines and beyond.

The essays in Part III: Inquiry Processes, look at the pragmatics of doing this kind of research. They are not so much ‘how to’ as expositions by the authors on the ways that they do research, and how they marry their research practices with their creative outputs to produce a form of scholarly inquiry. Cancienne’s essay is a particularly enlightening analysis of dance as research, while Prosser and Burke describe new ways of writing about childhood by adopting a childlike perspective. The illustrations in this essay are particularly engaging. Part IV: Issues and Challenges, tackles those area that are pivotal to creative inquiry: ethics, reflexivity, finances, aesthetics and, most interesting to higher degree by research scholars, is a very valuable essay by Knowles and Promislow discussing the use of arts methodology to create a thesis or dissertation. The final chapter looks at arts research across a broad range of disciplines including anthropology, psychology, education, nursing, social work, disability, business studies and sport.

In a recent review of this publication Baldacchino (2009) warns that ‘making arts and design practice fit within the social sciences carries the risk of essentialism, where practices are reduced to identifiable methodological categories’ (7). While he makes a valid point about the undesirability of this sort of narrowing of arts-based inquiry, this collection demonstrates that a natural affinity does exist between arts-based research and qualitative methodologies. I consider this Handbook to be a celebration; it clearly shows the many far-reaching and powerful ways that arts-based research contributes to the advancement of knowledge in the world. It not only reinforces the place of arts-based enquiry in the academy, it also provides inspiration for multiple ways for practitioners to cement and enhance the relationship between qualitative and arts-based inquiry. The publishers suggest that it is an essential resource for any scholar interested in qualitative research. I would go further and say it is an essential resource for those teaching arts-based inquiry methods to undergraduates. My students often complain that the set readings are too dense, complex and jargon ridden. The Handbook would go a long way to demystifying arts-based research across the board. My review copy is already well thumbed, and the pages bookmarked and dog eared. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of knowledge in this discipline.

Works cited

Baldacchino, J. (2009) ‘Opening the picture: On the political responsibility of arts-based research: A review essay’. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 10 (Review 3) at http://www.ijea.org/v10r3/ (accessed 4 March 2011).



Sandra Burr has a PhD in creative writing. She is an adjunct professional associate at the University of Canberra where she teaches creative writing and creative research.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy