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.
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.
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).
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.