Passion and Practicalities in Research

There are lots of options but in the end your research method should fit the research question. That was my big take away from the opening chapters of Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods: A practical Guide. I’m not sure that I entirely agree. Passion and Practicalities were my biggest influences in choosing my question and then my methods. With more time I could have co-created a musical. In the end I ran a focus group and made an animation of my findings.

When I started reading the book I hadn’t formulated my research question. Reading it helped. It inspired, got me thinking about research, and most importantly got me thinking about what I wanted to research. In the end, I’m not sure that I agree that the research method has to fit the question. I can see how there are many ways in which different research methods would have worked for the same question, the biggest decision was about what to research. The how to research was more of a compromise, a choice of data gathering tool that would be relatively quick and easy and doable online (due to time constraints and a pandemic) to facilitate greater time on analysis and presentation. Nevertheless, the reading got me thinking and helped me to formulate my all important research question, but perhaps not in the way she envisioned.

My research clearly had to be something about teaching. Previous research I have done for my art practice had been more about understanding the everyday lives of people in site and context specific situations. There was purpose and aim to this research, including infilling the voices and lives of ordinary people into the public contemporary artscape. Not a call for action, but action in and of itself. Would this be the same for my research question? I’d spend time examining something, some people, and the research product would be the end of the project?

Reading Kara’s opening chapters some key points stood out: the definition of Methodology as a contextual framework for research, a coherent and logical scheme based on views, beliefs and values, that guides the decisions (p15);  the acceptance that research may be subjective and not neutral; the contributions of auto ethnographic research; together these threads began to guide me in the formulation of my research question. I made a positive choice to be guided in my choice of research question by my views, beliefs and values, which are about accessibility,inclusion, decolonisation and removing barriers to academic success. I would draw on my own experiences as student and teacher and I would accept that I am not neutral, but find a way to acknowledge this and consider how to mitigate against any negative impact this might have on my research outcome.

The permission and validation Kara gives to arts based research methods of data gathering and presentation were also helpful in helping me formulate my research question, because in the end my bug bear about academia had always been the straight jacket of academic writing for students who had gone into art to prioritise the visual as their mode of expression and communication. And so, hand in hand with my reading, my discussions with friends and colleagues, and reflections on what mattered to me, I formulated a rough research question “should art students have to write academic essays.” 

The research methods open to me for data gathering were exciting and I wanted to do them all. I could start with a literature review and find out what others had already written, then send questionnaires to students, staff and prospective students, use the results to formulate further questions for interviews and focus groups which I could record and then analyse using computer software to look at the most commonly used words, all whilst taking notes of the interactions between people, body language and non verbal communication. I could use the results as a basis for a new set of questionnaires to complete the circle. All of this making use of technology. I could find another set of participants (all of whom were already artists) to send me an art work to represent their experience of writing for academia and then discuss this with them in interviews…we could make up songs…co-create a musical…

It was all brilliant, but I had no time, particularly as I would have to analyse it all, not to mention present it.

I drilled down. I considered who would be my participants. Could I use easily accessible UAL students? I felt that this publically exposed my situation as still “unqualified” without the PG Cert. It might well be an option for future research, if I am able to continue the research at a later date, but for now my present situation would influence my research method. I needed to focus on the education professionals whose discretion I could count upon: work colleagues familiar with the UAL BA Fine Art degree. Even then I didn’t want to involve and chase up every lecturer on the course with a questionnaire, let alone ask them to make an art piece about the academic essay and discuss it with me in a one-to-one interview, so I began to lean towards the focus group as my research method of choice. A traditional method, used since the 1960s, but I could innovate with the format and the presentation of the findings.

Reflecting on Kara’s observation that research, like art, can reflect multiple truths and perspectives, a belief that I hold myself, a discursive focus group format also seemed to allow for the discussion of multiple perspectives, reducing the influence of the researcher through group discussion. By using a focus group, each tutor can share and demonstrate their perspective, what works for them might not work for everyone. By adding a question about their own experience I can demonstrate their own personal bias and proclivities. Demonstrate multiple, context-dependent and contingent perspectives.

In the end, it seemed to me that the research question did not come first, it was formulated and shaped in a vague cloud of creativity about what I am interested in, who I am interested in hearing from and how. However, that is not what is important. What is important is that there are choices in research beyond traditional quantitative and qualitative methods, and the research question itself is the most important thing (see also my later blog on ethics). The research question I have chosen, through my reflective process, aims to examine whether the requirement to write an academic essay in an art degree is useful and necessary. My suspicion is that it is useful and necessary for some students, but may have negative and stultifying consequences for others. If that is the case then my research will be used to make the case for using alternative formats for communicating the answers to academic questions, just as I intend to use an alternative format to the essay to present my research findings.

Thoughts on Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide

Helen Kara’s Creative research methods in the social scientists pretty much brings the sort of things that we artists have been doing – writing plays, making collages, poetry, making animations, and so forth into research. As I like writing plays and making animations this book was great for me. It said that my art was useful and could be a better way to present my research than an academic essay. A finding that also fitted perfectly with what would become the subject of my research question do we need the academic essay in an art degree, a view also shared by Hamja Ashan who discussed the use of zines as a better format than academic writing in an article published by Shades of Noir link.


Okay so this blog is a bit retrospective, I read the book and did the research and didn’t have time to ponder and write about it earlier. I had actual research to get on and do, and not much time to spare… So, recognising that this blog is a bit postpartum, I still want to record something for posterity to remind me fondly of the whole, sometimes ponderous, research experience. Auto-ethnographically, perhaps it won’t stand up as useful field notes or as a contemporaneous diary, but I still have something to say. This blog is just an overview. I will cover more specific aspects of my learning in future blogs.   

Creative Research Methods in the social sciences – and in art too, as it happens.

Setting out on my research quest to discover something interesting about teaching art, I downloaded a copy of Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: a practical guide. Every evening I’d read another chapter and think about how I and other artists had been doing some of what she was talking about, but how those social scientists made their work seem so much more, well, scientific, considered and worthwhile. Good marketing perhaps? Or was there something more to it? Yes, I thought, there were lessons to learn and I would learn them. Of course, I failed dismally at writing my research plan out methodically, like the aforementioned social scientists. A lot of it I just kept in my head, and discussed in conversations, and changed and adapted as I went along, but what I really took away from it was the certainty that my art practice had always already been research, ethical research, presented and disseminated in an accessible way. What I really learned, both from being assigned this research task and from reading this book, was to focus in on a much more specific research question with a specific aim of calling (or not – depending on the outcome) for specific changes and improvement. Whereas my art had previously researched and voiced what already is (even if somewhat invisible), now my research uses art to call for a change, even just a little one. Thanks Helen!