Art as a Research Method

Research is not as objective as many of us would like to believe. We construct complex statistical models, fret over leading questions, and sometimes cloak ourselves in the complexities of science mystery. But in doing so we sometimes miss the bigger point – we’re here to discover, innovate, and find insights that inspire people.  Good research isn’t about regurgitating facts, but finding uncharted paths. We sometimes seem to forget that while we strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Paradigms dominate thought and research practices until new paradigms develop. The result is that many opportunities are lost because they simply don’t fit the accepted way of doing things. Hence our propensity for embracing rational, seemingly objective science and dismissing the craft the artistry, because craft and art includes elements of commentary, irony, and critique missing from “serious” research.  What if we step back and start to think about how they two can and should influence each other?

First, the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, of experimentation and of learning. Rather than focusing on standardization and outcomes, the focus is in the act of creating. This is a significantly different way of thinking because the focus is on the interdependence of symbols and looking for new modes of expression that may well run counter to the hypothesis from which we work. It is holistic and concerned less with constructing norms than it is with viewing norms from an angle, so to speak. This isn’t to suggest we throw out systematic investigative processes, but it is suggesting that we broaden the definition of how we “know” what we know and expand the options both the researcher and the audiences we investigate. Using the creative act of artwork as a means of articulating an idea, practice, or belief engages the participant with the concept in question rather than the researcher or question itself. As the artwork unfolds, the researcher is in a position to develop new questions, comment on the ideas expressed, and explore concepts that 1) might not normally be discussed or 2) might be too sensitive for the participant to normally address honestly. By using art as a means of investigation, both researcher and participant become part of a shared exchange rather than a negotiated one.

But art is more than free expression. It isn’t as simple as putting clay or paint brush in hand. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip participants and it’s helpful to construct assignments with these in mind:

  • Whimsy: Focusing on radical symbolism, the participant-artist is encouraged to incorporate criteria such as celebration, fantasy and wonder into mundane objects and services.
  • The Outcast Approach: Artistic traditions of iconoclasm allow the participant-artist to take up lines of inquiry and expression that are often devalued by others.
  • The Exalted: The positivist approach and valuing of social commentary means the participant-artist is likely to integrate cultural issues in their work that reflect broader concepts.
  • Steam Punk Wonder: Casting the participant-artist as outside utopian/dystopian discussion around technology and change, means the participant-artist can bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider expression unbound by “logical” constraints.

There are of course other approaches to how the stage is set, but the point is simple.  Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation means new perspectives and possibilities can be revealed in very evocative ways. That leads to new ways of thinking about what we sell and how we sell it.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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