November 2009 Archives

I know the truth. What statement could begin a more complicated conversation (Pinar, 2004) than this? In a postmodern era seemingly afraid to admit to a belief in anything, knowing the truth is complicated. Here is the elephant in the room: the truth no one speaks: "soon all of us will sleep under the earth." To whatever heaven each of us aspires, none of us will escape this passage. Marina Tsvetaeva, a Russian poet writing during the window period of the 20th century, watching her family and friends suffer and die under Stalin's KGB writes:

I know the truth -- give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look -- it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
(Tsvetaeva, 1994)

A century later, and we still cannot let each other sleep above the earth in peace. As a country, we've begun to sense our vulnerability in the wake of 9/11 and reporters describing national disasters and terrorist plots caught just in time. I wonder if we have the internal resources to respond to this shift in consciousness: To accept our vulnerability without becoming victims of fear or indifference? Another great Russian, Leo Tolstoy (2009), writing War and Peace during the same period observes, "[i]f we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed." This idea of possibility is no small matter. As Freire (2004) notes, it is possibility that provides us with the concept of "hope" and this possibility of hope allows us to imagine new futures. When we are vulnerable, possibility is a necessity.

And we are all vulnerable. You and I are vulnerable. The idea of vulnerable populations referring only to the marginalized is a fiction. As Martha Albertson Fineman (2008), professor of law, argues, a vulnerable subject must replace the autonomous and independent subject asserted in the liberal tradition. The "vulnerable subject" approach embodies the fact that "human reality encompasses a wide range of differing and interdependent abilities over the span of a lifetime....individuals are anchored at each end of their lives by dependency and the absence of capacity" (p. 7). Vulnerability is inherent in the human condition, not only in at-risk populations.

We are vulnerable because we have soft bodies. We are vulnerable because, whatever our religious beliefs or disbeliefs, our bodies survive only a short time. This knowledge should impact our research choices. In her poem Wild Geese, Mary Oliver (2004) suggests that -- researcher, explorer, the world offers itself to your imagination. You only need to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Why is this so hard for an academic? If our doctored lives were infinite, or if we had, say, 500 years to pursue our research, then perhaps this truth would be less pressing:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(Oliver, 2004)

Why don't our classrooms confront the fact that we, teachers and students, are already dying? We have so completely othered this conversation that everyone owns the ammunition necessary to shoot down the discussion: morbid, glass half-empty, depressing. But is this the only response to imagine? A stance of victimization or silence in the face of universal experience? Ruth Behar (1997) considers this further in The Vulnerable Observer with the following anecdote:

"Arlene Croce's New Yorker essay...announced she had refused to see [Bill T. Jones dance work 'Still/Here'] on the grounds that his use of dancing inspired by the movements of HIV-positive dancers and video testimony by AIDS patients turned the art of dance into 'victim art,' a 'traveling medicine show.' As Homi Bhabha notes, what disturbs Croce about so-called 'victim art' is that its effect is 'to solicit sympathy and collusion, rather than disinterested critical reading.' The anxiety around such work is that it will prove to be beyond criticism, that it will be undiscussable. Bt the real problem is that we need other forms of criticism, which are rigorous yet not disinterested; forms of criticism which are not immune to catharsis; forms of criticism which can respond vulnerably, in ways we must begin to try to imagine." (Behar, 1997, p. 175)

It is through imagination that we can slip out of our temporal bodies as past memories become the present moment, material images exist apart from their carbon-based forms, the future is intuited. But as we consider the need for imagination in the 21st century, as the Partnership for 21th Century Skills states, the need is situated within the workplace. Is the workplace the site of our future dreams? Whose dreams? Are careers a 20th century invention?

"So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun." (Penn, 2008)

How is our research agenda giving in to security, conformity, conservatism? What questions bring us encounters with new experiences and a "new and different sun"?

The postmodern needs to admit there is at least one master narrative: "soon all of us will sleep under the earth." What is the research that will carry us through this passage? As parochial and awkward and vulnerable as the sounds of our soft bodies thinking may be, there is a need to offer our voice to the century in which we live. To persist through our own self-doubt, to gather the courage and rigor to respond with heterogeneous voices, to make errors and imagine possibilities, not once, but to carry the weight of our failures and hopes over a lifetime is to be vulnerable. Our hearts will be broken, our hearts will stop beating, but in the end we will have engaged life with a human and adventurous spirit.

Behar, R. (1997). The vulnerable observer: An anthropology that breaks your heart. NY: Beacon. Albertson Fineman, M. (2008). The vulnerable subject: Anchoring equality in the human condition. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism (20)1, pgs. 1-23. Retrieved on October 14, 2009 from theory/vulnerability-studies-project.html Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. NY: Continuum. Sean, P. (Director). (2007). Into the wild. [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures. Oliver, M. (2004). New and selected poems. NY: Beacon Press. Pinar, W. (2004). What is curriculum theory? NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Tolstoy, L. (2009). War and Peace. NY: Penguin Classics. Tsvetaeva, M. (1994). Selected Poems. (translated by Elaine Feinstein). NY: Penguin Classics.

A general definition of arts-based research is offered by J. Gary Knowles and Andrea Cole (2008) in the Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research: "[a]rts-based research can be defined as the systematic use of the artistic process, the actual making of artistic expressions in all of the different forms of the arts, as a primary way of understanding and examining experience by both researchers and the people that they involve in their studies" (p. 29). Knowles and Cole (2008) go on to state that arts-based research represents "an unfolding and expanding orientation to qualitative social science that draws inspiration, concepts, processes, and representation from the arts, broadly defined" (Knowles & Cole, 2008, p. xi). This 'broad definition' of the arts is an important factor to consider when examining the current practice of aesthetics within arts-based research. A general understanding of the qualitative research paradigm that led to these broad definitions is useful.

Quantitative and Qualitative Research Paradigms

The two main theories of western academic research are defined within the quantitative and qualitative paradigms. Quantitative methodologies embrace the scientific method, which believes the social world consists of universal social facts. Centered in a positivistic ontological and epistemological worldview, quantitative research utilizes a deductive method of answering research questions. Quantitative researchers believe that "a knowable reality exists independently of the research process and this reality consists of a knowable "truth," which can be discovered, measured, and controlled via the objective means employed by neutral researchers" (Leavy, 2009, p.5).

Researchers, who do not believe in a theoretical vision existing solely on the tenets of positivism, have been constructing alternative worldviews under the umbrella term 'qualitative research'. Movements throughout the 20th century, such as the use of ethnography in the 1920s by the Chicago School of Sociology, Erving Goffman's (1959) development of the term dramaturgy in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s which brought about a reexamination of power within the knowledge building process, in conjunction with globalization, postmodernism and the development of critical theories such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, queer studies and psychoanalysis , have problematized the quantitative world view (Leavy, 2009, p. 7-8). Questions such as "Whose truth is knowable?" "How can a researcher or methodology be neutral?" and "How do we avoid creating knowledge that oppresses minority groups?" led to the development of the qualitative research paradigm. Qualitative researchers have created various methodologies to address these and other questions within the research process.

History of Arts-based Research

Emerging from the qualitative paradigm, arts-based research grew out of the practice of creative arts therapy taking place in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. Creative arts therapist Shawn McNiff (2008) states, "creative arts therapies...promoted themselves as ways of expressing what cannot be conveyed in conventional language" (p. 11) Within arts therapy, researchers began to apply this line of thinking to research (McNiff, 2008, p. 11). As these research methods began to draw attention from other fields, arts therapists began asking "whether or not we [were] ready to use our unique methods of artistic inquiry to shape a new vision of research" (McNiff, 2008, p. 11).

This new vision of research was picked up most notably by Eliot Eisner and his student Tom Barone when, in 1997, they introduced the concept of 'arts-based educational research' as a chapter in the book Complementary Methods for Research in Education published by the American Educational Research Association. Barone had written a dissertation in the form of creative nonfiction under the direction of Eisner. Their chapter "focused largely on contributions of the literary arts in educational research...and laid out a theoretical framework for arts-based research, describing the qualities of arts-based texts" (Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund, 2008, p. 8).

Because writing is a foundational element in the presentation of research, most of the beginning works of arts-based research focused "on the use and analysis of literary art forms in the human sciences with nods to music and the visual arts" (Cahnmann-Taylor, 2008, p. 6). Over the past decade, the field has been opening to a variety of visual, performance, and literary-based theories and methods. This history is still being written with arts-based research practice. Advances in access to technology are allowing more forms of arts-based research to be available (Knowles & Cole, 2008; Cahnmann &. Taylor, 2008; Leavy, 2009).

Arts-based Research and Aesthetics

Aesthetics is a central concern in the production and evaluation of arts-based texts. Patricia Leavy (2009) suggests that there are two primary avenues for addressing the question of aesthetics in arts-based research: the theoretical and the methodological (p. 17). "On a theoretical level, the emergence of these new methods necessitates not only a reevaluation of 'truth' and 'knowledge' but also of 'beauty.' Furthermore, the research community needs to expand the concepts of 'good art' and 'good research' to accommodate these methodological practices" (Leavy, 2009, p. 17).

On a methodological level, "arts-based practices have been developed for all research phases: data collection, analysis, interpretation, and representation "(Leavy, 2009, p. 12). There are many diverse arts-based methods in use, and arts-based researchers are hesitant to prescribe methods. Some arts-based researchers, such as a/r/tographer Rita Irwin, have argued that arts-based research should constitute its own research paradigm separate from quantitative and qualitative methodologies (A/r/tography, 2008).


A/r/tography. (2008). Retrieved November 14, 2008, from
Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Siegesmund, R. (Eds.). (2008). Arts-based research in education:Foundations for practice. New York: Routledge.
Green, J.L., Camilli, G., & Elmore, P.B. (2006). Handbook of complementary methods in education research. Washington, DC: AERA.
Knowles, J.G., & Cole, A.L. (2008) Handbook of arts in qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Leavy, P. (2008). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. New York: Guilford Press.
Liamputtong, P., & Rumbold, J. (2008) Knowing differently: Arts-based and collaborative research methods. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Macleod, K. (2005). Thinking through art reflections on art as research. New York: Routledge Press.
McNiff, S. (2008). Art-based research. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Sullivan, G. (2005). Art practice as research: Inquiry in the visual arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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