Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 2 Issue 2
Qingchun Wang
University of Leuven
Sara Coemans
University of Leuven
Richard Siegesmund
Northern Illinois University
Karin Hannes
University of Leuven
Qingchun Wang is a PhD student affiliated to the Faculty of Social Sciences (social research
methodology group) of KU Leuven. Her research interest is in the development of qualitative
research methods, mainly in the area of visual research methods. She currently plugs her
methodological experiments into a series of studies on acculturation processes of international
Sara Coemans is a PhD student affiliated to the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences
(laboratory for education and society) of KU Leuven. She explores the potential of arts-based and
multi-sensory methods for community-based research projects. Her focus is on the relationship
between people and their environment.
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Richard Siegesmund is a visual artist and associate professor at the School of Art, Northern Illinois
University. He resided at the Faculty of Social Sciences, KU Leuven in the period the paper was
produced. His research interest is in articulating methods and methodologies of visual inquiry. He is
particularly interested in curricular applications in K-12 schools and assessment strategies that
meaningfully report student growth and learning.
Karin Hannes is associate professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences (social research methodology
group) of KU Leuven. Her main research interest is in developing, applying, and refining approaches
to qualitative research. She is most known for her academic contributions in the area of qualitative
evidence synthesis. On a primary research level, she has been focusing on the use and further
development of arts-based and multi-sensory research methods in the context of public health,
social-cultural and social welfare practice.
ABSTRACT: Arts-based research has recently gained an increasing popularity within qualitative
inquiry. It is applied in various disciplines, including health, psychology, education, and anthropology.
Arts-based research uses artistic forms and expressions to explore, understand, represent, and even
challenge human experiences. In this paper we aim to create order in the messy field of artistically
inspired methods of socially engaged research. Based on a literature review, we distinguish three
major categories for classifying arts-based research: research about art, art as research, and art in
research. We further identify five main forms of arts-based research: visual art, sound art, literary art,
performing art, and new media. Relevant examples of socially engaged research are provided to
illustrate how different artistic methods are used within the forms identified. This classification
framework provides artists and researchers a general introduction to arts-based research and helps
them to better position themselves and their projects in a field in full development.
KEYWORDS: Arts-based research; Socially engaged research; Qualitative methodology; Literature
review; Classification
Arts-based Methods in Socially Engaged Research Practice
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 2 Issue 2
In the last few decades there has been growing interest in applying artistic
approaches to qualitative inquiry (Barone & Eisner, 2011). As a result, recently published
handbooks of qualitative research now include chapters on arts-based research (ABR)
(Butler-Kisber, 2010; Leavy, 2014; Savin-Baden & Major, 2010; 2013). This interest has also
led to the publication of influential books on ABR, for instance, Arts-based research (Barone
& Eisner, 2011), Handbook of the arts in qualitative research (Knowles & Cole, 2008), and
Method meets art (Leavy, 2009). Artistic forms such as poetry, music, visual art, drama, and
dance have successfully been used in a variety of different research disciplines. Artists have
incorporated conventions of research into art making and design processes (Hannula,
Suoranta, & Vandén, 2005). This has made artistic inquiry more systematic and transparent.
Arts-based research has also known a considerable uptake in social, education, health care,
and behavioral sciences (Brazg, Bekemeier, Spigner, & Huebner, 2010; Conrad & Kendal,
2009; Hornsby-Minor, 2007). Researchers have started using artistically inspired methods of
data collection, analysis or reporting in their research projects, particularly in the area of
participatory research practice.
“The idea that art
The term arts-based research, as applied to
could be used as a
social sciences, was first coined in
1993 for an
educational conference at Stanford University
way to understand
organized by Elliot Eisner, a curriculum theorist and
human action and
one of the pioneers in this field. He suggested that the
arts could provide rich models for social and
experience has
behavioral science research, and could add to our
turned ABR into a
understanding of classrooms as a performance event.
The forum immediately received great enthusiasm
very popular
from the participating researchers, and boosted the
approach for those
further development and application of arts-based
committed to
approaches in research. Today, ABR has evolved to
encompass a broader conceptual foundation and is
socially engaged
defined as
research that uses the arts, in the
research practice.”
broadest sense, to explore, understand, represent and
even challenge human action and experience” (Savin-
Baden & Wimpenny, 2014, p. 1). The idea that art could be used as a way to understand
human action and experience has turned ABR into a very popular approach for those
committed to socially engaged research practice. Socially engaged research practice can be
conceptualized as research developed through collaboration, participation, dialogue, and
immersive experiences (Froggett, Little, Roy, & Whitaker, 2011) in one or more aspects of a
research process, (including formulating research questions, generating data, analyzing
data, and presenting research results) and with the purpose of widening audience
participation and positively transforming participants, communities, or society. The rapid
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digitalization of society provides a world of new possibilities, not just for entertainment or
personal use, but also for academia, and for public engagement in academia (El Demellawy,
Zaman, & Hannes, 2017). The development and mass availability of tools such as mobiles,
cameras, multimedia devices and graphic software may encourage researchers to rethink
the way we currently conceptualize and disseminate research. For example, in social and
behavioral science research participants are now commonly engaged in social interactions
through image creation. The present cultural condition challenges qualitative scholars and
the research community more generally to rethink the types of academic literacy we
currently promote and to re-conceptualize what we currently consider as research data and
outcomes (Hannes & Coemans, 2016). ABR may provide a more thoughtful answer to the
complexity of challenges researchers face in trying to adapt to the conditions of a fast
changing society. It offers researchers a pathway to understand existing and emerging social
phenomena differently. ABR is not just a tool for those trained in the fine arts, but also for all
contemporary social and behavioral scientists.
The Importance of Developing a Classification Framework
The interest in ABR approaches is growing, particularly amongst qualitative
researchers. However, the conceptualization of this type of research remains challenging.
Firstly, newcomers to social and behavioral sciences may find it challenging to position this
emerging field in the methods base in which they are equipped or trained. Secondly, though
a large variety of artistic forms, methods, and ways of representation or dissemination are
currently presented in the literature, there is often little guidance on how to apply them in a
research context. It may be difficult for newcomers in the field of ABR to choose between
options without clear guidance on what the options are, how they relate to each other, and
how they have served the research community in their practical applications.
To respond to these challenges, this paper situates ABR in the broader field of
qualitative inquiry. We further develop a classification framework that will assist artists or
researchers who consider adopting ABR methods to choose between options. The idea to
develop a classification framework was inspired by a previously conducted systematic
review on ABR in socially engaged research, more specifically in community-based and
participatory projects (Coemans & Hannes, 2017; Coemans, Wang, Leysen, & Hannes,
2015). It was meant to provide an overview of how ABR methods were defined and applied
in community-based research practice. We noticed considerable ambiguity in how the ABR
movement was defined and an absence of a shared vocabulary (Coemans, Raymakers,
Vandenabeele, & Hannes, 2017). We used the set of studies included in the database from
the review as a starting point to develop a framework that could potentially address the need
for understanding some of the boundaries of what ABR is, and what it is not.
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There have been a few worthwhile attempts to classify ABR or artistically inspired
research approaches in previously published work (Frayling, 1993; Savin-Baden & Major,
2013). A notable example is the classification of Savin-Baden and Major, developed for the
field of education. They clustered ABR approaches into three main families: arts-based
inquiry, arts-informed inquiry, and arts-informing inquiry. Arts-based inquiry is research where
the artistic process is used to understand art itself or the art experience by the people who
use it; arts-informed inquiry refers to the situation where art is used to represent findings of a
study, or to represent a response to a situation studied; arts-informing inquiry is research
where art is used to evoke responses from an audience to a situation. Frayling’s (1993)
categorization targets art and design researchers, but is also informative for social and
behavioral scientists trying to make sense of ABR. He identified three categories: research
into art and design (including historical research, research into a variety of theoretical
perspectives on art and design, aesthetic or perceptual research); research through art and
design (including materials research, development work and action research) and; research
for art and design (referring to projects in which reflection is embodied in the process of
creating and where the end product is an artifact that is meant to communicate knowledge
visually, iconically and imaginatively). We used Frayling’s categories as the basis for defining
families sensitive to socially engaged research projects, and added an additional layer of
forms with a series of specific illustrations.
The current study has two goals: Firstly, it is meant to create order in an otherwise
messy field of ABR through positioning different forms of socially engaged ABR approaches
into broader families wherein art meets research practice. It is not an attempt to close the
boundaries of what ABR is, box-in the thinking and experimental attitude of those engaging
with artistic method, or define how ABR should be used in future socially engaged research
practice. It is meant to organize things and develop a terminology that arts-based
researchers can use to communicate with colleagues working in different disciplines.
Secondly, it is intended to provide insight in how artistic practices can successfully be used
in, or merged with, socially engaged research, building on a series of examples of qualitative
research scholars that combined art and scholarship. This could assist graduate students
and newcomers in ABR to visualize and conceptualize this emerging field. The following
questions guide our research:
1. How does ABR relate to the field of qualitative inquiry?
2. How do art and research relate to each other?
3. Which types of art forms can be identified?
4. How do the art forms reveal themselves in socially engaged research practice?
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Search, Sampling, and Selection Strategy
In what follows, we will: (a) situate ABR in the broad area of qualitative inquiry; (b)
outline three major families representing a type of relationship between art and research
and; (c) distinguish five major forms that artists or researchers can choose from when
conducting their research. These forms will be illustrated by examples from the area of
socially engaged research practice.
Most of the examples of socially engaged research practice we will feature below are
pulled from a database created in the context of a systematic review (Coemans & Hannes,
2017; Coemans, Wang, Leysen, & Hannes, 2015) on the use of arts-based methods in
participatory and community-based inquiry. When appropriate examples for certain
categories could not be retrieved from the database, purposefully selected examples
retrieved via Google Scholar were added to fill in the gaps. Socially engaged ABR examples
were selected based on two major criteria: first, an active collaboration between the artist(s)/
researcher(s) and the participants was required in at least one of the phases of the research
process. This could take the form of a continuous dialogue between both parties or the
infusion of ideas into the process by participants. Second, the aspiration of trying to achieve
some kind of change (on the level of participants, communities, or society) introduced via the
research process had to be evidenced in the research logic displayed.
Classification Framework
Situating ABR Within Qualitative Inquiry
Characteristic for qualitative inquiry is the study of things in their natural setting to
make sense of research phenomena, in terms of the meanings people bring to them (Denzin
& Lincoln, 2008). Qualitative researchers make use of a “wide range of interconnected
interpretive practices” to gain a better understanding of the research matter (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2008, p. 4). They deploy the material tools of their craft and use the available
strategies, methods, empirical materials as well as create new tools or techniques where
and when necessary. Qualitative researchers often wear different hats: they can be
scientists, field-workers, journalists, social critics, artists, performers, musicians, or even quilt
makers with a particular interest in adding an artistic component to their research work. In
the context of this study, we use the term artist-researchers to refer to qualitative
researchers using artistically inspired methods or approaches, or artists integrating research
components into their creation processes, or investigator profile in which the role of
qualitative researcher and artist are fully blended.
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Previous review work suggests that ABR is firmly hosted within the qualitative inquiry
tradition (Coemans et al., 2017; Fraser & Al Sayah, 2011). It shares some common features
with other more conventional qualitative approaches, including grounded theory,
phenomenology, ethnography, narrative study, and collaborative forms of research. In line
with these approaches, ABR focuses on how people make sense of the world, in order to
create meaning. By making the particular vivid, it aims to contribute to the understanding of
the whole (Eisner, 1981). However, as a transdisciplinary approach, which crosses borders
of theory and methodology (Chilton & Leavy, 2014), ABR also has its own distinct features.
Below we provide a short overview of the features of both conventional qualitative inquiry
and ABR (Table 1) and how they may strengthen each other. We expect that both types will
slowly become more integrated over time.
Table 1
Features of qualitative inquiry and specific characteristics of ABR
Qualitative inquiry
Main Purpose
Studies satisfy researchers’ needs for in-depth understanding
of a particular situation or phenomenon and may lead to
recommendations for action.
» Specific characteristics of ABR: Studies satisfy artist-
researchers’ desire for in-depth understanding as well
as a need for surprise, and potentially “unsettle” things.
Data collection methods
The use of well-documented data collection methods, such as
interviews, focus groups, visual elicitation, and field work
involving observations.
» Specific characteristics of ABR: Data creation: The
use of artistically inspired methods, such as digital
storytelling, photography, drawing, poetry writing,
performance, etc.
Data analysis
Interpretations, understandings, and suggestions for
improvement about a particular social phenomenon in
response to the research questions outlined.
» Specific characteristics of ABR: Drawing attention to
complexity, raising more questions than answers, and
even generating more uncertainties than certainties.
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Forms of dissemination
Written accounts of research, mostly published in academic
journals, formal statements as in scientific articles.
» Specific characteristics of ABR: The use of artistically
inspired forms of dissemination such as exhibitions for
two and three dimensional artwork, performances,
publication and/or performing literary works such as
fiction and poetry, in addition to or as a replacement of
a purely academically written text.
Mainly academics and stakeholders working in the same or
closely related areas, with a sufficient level of academic
» Specific characteristics of ABR: A more diverse group of
stakeholders, including but not limited to community
members and policy makers. It addresses the full range
of sensory literacy levels.
A variety of assessment frameworks and criteria to judge the
quality of published papers exists, with some overlap between
criteria used, mostly built around the idea of credibility,
transferability, dependability, and confirmability.
» Specific characteristics of ABR: Several frameworks for
the assessment of ABR projects are available, with a
strong focus on how the method relates to broader
pedagogical, societal, or philosophical objectives.
Conventional qualitative inquiry is equipped to satisfy our need for an in-depth
understanding of a particular situation or phenomenon related to broader pedagogical,
societal, or philosophical objectives, and may further lead to some recommendations for
action. ABR also fulfills our desire for surprise. It provides opportunities to see new portraits
of phenomena, diversifies our perspectives, and emancipates the gaze through which we
approach the world around us (Barone & Eisner, 2011). It may also raise our awareness of
important social, political, or educational issues, and offer a starting point for further inquiry
and actions. ABR often challenges ways of conducting research, and the fundamental nature
and purpose of research itself (Savin-Baden & Major, 2013).
In the data collection phase of conventional qualitative inquiry, researchers often use
well-documented techniques, such as interviews, focus groups, visual elicitation, and
fieldwork involving observations. Artist-researchers working in ABR may apply innovative,
artistically inspired methods to generate data, such as digital storytelling, photography,
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drawing, poetry writing, or performance. Concerning data analysis, conventional types of
qualitative inquiry often aim to develop a convincing interpretation and understanding of a
particular social phenomenon in response to the research questions outlined. They
represent attempts to suggest promising steps toward action that would improve the social
condition. Many ABR projects do not only aim to provide answers to a problem, they may
also draw attention to complexity, raise more questions, and even generate more
uncertainties than certainties for artist-researchers and audience (Barone & Eisner, 2011).
This is very often part of their initial goal.
In terms of disseminating research findings, researchers trained in more conventional,
qualitative methods publish written accounts of research that fit academic journals. This is
the standard form of communication for academics, however, it is usually limited to
colleagues working in the same or closely related disciplines with a sufficient level of
academic literacy. There are few opportunities to connect with the public because of the
scientific jargon used and the low accessibility the public has to journals. In comparison,
those engaged in ABR might try artistically inspired forms of dissemination such as
exhibitions for two and three-dimensional artwork, performances, publications, and/or
performing literary works such as fiction and poetry, in addition to or as a replacement of a
purely academically written text. Knowledge disseminated this way may effectively reach
diverse groups of stakeholders, including but not limited to community members and policy
makers, and address the full range of sensory literacy levels. It often enables a more
empathic participation of the viewers, stimulates new forms of public dialogue and may
advocate social changes (Colantonio et al., 2008; Gergen & Gergen, 2011).
A variety of assessment frameworks and criteria to judge the quality of published
papers exist, with some overlap between criteria used in conventional qualitative inquiry
(Hannes, Lockwood, & Pearson, 2010). They mostly build around the idea of credibility,
transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). For the assessment
of ABR, there is no emerging consensus on whether it is important and desirable to set up
quality criteria and what constitutes excellence in ABR (Lafrenière & Cox, 2013). However,
several useful frameworks have already been developed from a more generic perspective,
emphasizing strongly the broader pedagogical, societal or philosophical aspects. Barone
and Eisner (2011) proposed that ABR should be evaluated based on criteria such as
incisiveness, concision, coherence, generativity, social significance, evocation, and
illumination of the research. Central to the quality framework from Norris (2011) are concepts
such as pedagogy, poiesis, politics, and public positioning. Both models acknowledge the
importance of looking beyond the work itself to evaluate its larger effect. Other frameworks
focus on critique as a process to achieve change through ABR (Chávez & Soep, 2005), or
how to judge the effort of students engaged in high-stakes ABR projects such as
dissertations or theses (Piirto, 2002). Models for specific art forms include the one from
Lafrenière and Cox (2013), which offers normative, substantive, and performative criteria to
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assess the effectiveness of poetry, song, theatre, and visual arts. We do not fully understand
yet whether the ABR quality frameworks developed to judge the quality of creations serve
the artist-researcher community in ways similar to peer review systems introduced by journal
editors in social and behavioral sciences. Subjecting these criteria to a more formal
consensus procedure and studying quality in relation to dissemination format is part of our
ongoing research efforts in order to spark the debates on quality issues.
Art and Research Families
Based on the literature study, we suggest three core families that form the overall
classification framework: research about art, art as research, and art in research. Here,
families are used to describe how art and research can relate to each other. Each of these
families has a set of specific characteristics in terms of its nature, primary identity of the
artist-researcher, function of the artistic component, how it relates to the research part of the
project, and what the primary perspective of the artist-researcher is (Table 2).
Table 2
Comparison between research about art, art as research and art in research
Research about art
Art as research
Art in research
Both qualitative and
Artistic inquiry
Qualitative inquiry
quantitative inquiry
Primary identity of
the artist-
The role of art
Art as a content area
Art as a way of
Art as a
methodology or a
means to an end
The relationship
Qualitative (or
Research methods
Artistic forms
between art and
quantitative) inquiry
supporting artistic
into artistic topics
qualitative inquiry
Perspective of the
Research about art. Research about art investigates art-related topics without
artistically shaping the object or installation under study, or without necessarily (re)creating a
material or bodily reality to understand the process of art making itself. Examples of such
research include art history studies, theatre studies, media studies, musicology, studies into
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the role of aesthetics, studies on the impact of art on people’s lives etc. A specific example is
art educator Charles Garoian’s (1999) study of the work of socially-engaged artist Suzanne
Lacy, in particular her performance artwork “The Roof is on Fire.” Lacy and her colleagues
parked 100 cars on the rooftop garage and positioned youngsters in the cars to discuss
topics such as family, sexuality, education, and the future. They also invited more than one
thousand audience members on the roof to listen. In his book chapter, Garoian discussed
Lacy’s work from an outsider perspective. He was not actively involved in the process of
designing, making or using the art, but was mainly interested in explaining the process to a
broader audience, and evaluating how art contributed to a further understanding of a
particular societal context.
Art as research. We classify studies in the family art as research when the involved
artist-researchers aim to gain a deeper understanding of what art, art creation, or an artistic
installation can do or activate. Art is considered to be a way of inquiry, and it is through the
artistic process that the artist-researcher gains a better understanding of the potential of the
form to introduce a change, either in terms of personal experiences or environmental
circumstances. In this approach, research facilitates the study of the artistic process. This is
often, but not exclusively, conducted by trained artists, and referred to as artistic research.
Here, the researchers take an insider perspective - they are actively involved in the making
of the artwork. The act of creating is simultaneously the act of researching. Both
components cannot be distinguished from each other. For instance, architect Jeanne Gang,
designed a police station to enhance the social cohesion in the neighborhood of North
Lawndale in Chicago. The question underpinning the project was: “can design help rebuild
trust?” A police station is usually perceived by the local citizens as a scary place. Gang
organized brainstorming session, workshops, and roundtable sessions to involve citizens
and police officers in the process of conceptualizing the building. The project was labeled
"Polis Station.” “Polis” means “a place with a sense of community.” The new police station
sparked social interactions and created opportunities for change in the relationship between
the police and the community. One of the design components that facilitated these relations
was the sports courts in the station, where kids and cops could play basketball. This is an
example of how an artist-researcher reflects on how ideas evolve through the collective
process of designing and creating a building, and how this then changes the dynamics of the
neighborhood (Gang, 2016; Studio Gang, n.d.).
Art in research. We use art in research when art is actively applied by participants
and/or artist-researchers as a creative process in one or more phases of a research process
studying social and behavioral science phenomena. For the artist-researchers more
specifically, this means an involvement either in the process of art-making or in guiding
participants in the artistic process. Thus in art in research, artist-researchers often take an
insider perspective, as they are actively involved in designing and/or using artistic methods
in their research. Art in research combines Savin-Baden and Major’s (2013) arts-informed
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inquiry and arts-informing inquiry into one category. It is a type of inquiry in which artistic
methods are used as a supporting tool for research. The art component may be used to
determine the focus of the research, formulate research questions, generate data, collect
data, analyze data, represent the findings of the study, represent a response to the findings,
evaluate the research, disseminate the research findings, and/or generate meaning and
trigger responses from the audience. In each phase, various forms of artistic expressions
can be applied, depending on the artist-researchers‘ own considerations of the
appropriateness of the specific forms, and their relevant artistic skills and expertise, etc. A
continuum of artistic skills are shown in this family, ranging from novice to expert artistic
This classification framework provides some clarity about how to position art and
research, however, it provokes a new question: What can rightfully be labeled as ABR?
Although each of these three categories reveal part of the relationships between art and
research, only the last two, namely art as research and art in research receive the label
“arts-based.” Both families include an element of “creation” with an input from the artist-
researchers in collaboration with the participants into the study design. This is most closely
linked with the philosophy of ABR, namely the active use of artistic expressions. In the
research about art family, the researcher involved in socially engaged research practice
takes an outsider perspective to explore or study art, without the intention to create. He or
she may ask an input from citizens, for example sending out invitations to them to search
their personal art archives or collections (e.g. paintings or pictures on pop art culture, music
records related to the flower power or punk movement etc.) to help build a knowledge base.
Art and Research Forms
We classify the forms identified in ABR into the following: 1) visual art; 2) sound art; 3)
literary art; 4) performing art; 5) new media. Under each general form, several sub-forms can
be distinguished. Each of the forms identified can theoretically be applied in each of the
families. Examples of art as research in the context of socially engaged research practice
are still scarce. Each sub-form identified will therefore be populated by examples from an art
in research tradition in the field of socially engaged research practice (Table 3). While these
forms can all be applied in isolation, in reality they are often combined into a multiple forms
approach (as shown in the “multiple forms” section further on).
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Table 3
Art and Research Forms
Subcategories (examples)
Visual art
Photovoice (Wang &
Hannes, 2014)
Photocomics (Toroyan &
Reddy, 2005)
Drawing and Painting
(Boydell et al., 2015)
Quilt (Lawton, 2010)
Upcycling (Coemans &
Hannes, 2016a; 2016b)
Animation (Vaughn et al.,
Digital storytelling (Mumtaz,
Sound art
Radio (McKenzie, 2008)
Soundscape (Kasat, 2014)
Literary art
Poetry (Tucker-Raymond,
Rosario-Ramos, & Rosario,
Fiction (Tanner, 2016)
Performing art
Theater (Sloane & Wallin,
Dance (Na, Park, & Han,
New media
Virtual world (Lally &
Sclater, 2013)
Multiple forms
(Skinner & Masuda, 2013)
Visual art. Visual art can further be divided into two-dimensional, three-dimensional,
and time-based visual art. Each category offers a variety of options artist-researchers can
draw from when applying artistic forms in their visual research projects.
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Visual art - two-dimensional. Common types of two-dimensional visual art are
photography, painting, drawing, comics, collage, and graphic novels. In what follows, we will
illustrate the use of photography, drawing, and painting through several research examples.
Photography. A commonly used design in which photography plays a major role is
photovoice. Photovoice can be described as a process by which people identify, represent,
and enhance their community through creating and discussing photographs (Wang & Burris,
1997; Wang, Yi, Tao, & Carovano, 1998). It is a method in which photographs function as the
data and as a tool to elicit narratives. An example of such a project is the study conducted by
Wang and Hannes (2014), aiming to explore Asian international students’ adjustment
experiences in Belgium. This project engaged five participants who were invited to share
their experiences by taking photos of the challenges they encountered in their daily life,
related to their academic adjustment and socio-cultural adjustment. The researchers
organized two rounds of focus group discussions, providing participants with an opportunity
to discuss their photos and related stories and experiences with peers. In this study, pictures
1) were primarily used to elicit narratives. They also facilitated the researchers in
analyzing the narratives or storylines developed from the visuals, and helped to illustrate
findings in the final paper.
Figure 1. Men taking care of their babies (Wang & Hannes, 2014).1
A different application of photography is presented in the study from Toroyan and
Reddy (2005) in which South African youngsters were involved in the development and
production of photocomics on HIV/AIDS prevention. The participants were asked to talk
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about their experiences and problems of sexuality in a workshop. Based on the workshop, a
storyline was developed. Afterwards, the participants were invited to a photo-shoot, which
later became consolidated in a photocomics visual display (Fig. 2). The photocomics were
combinations of strong visuals and narratives that conveyed educational messages to
adolescents within the community.
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Figure 2. Photocomics (Toroyan & Reddy, 2005).
Drawing and painting. Drawing and painting can be seen as meaning-making
processes “intricately bound up with power relations, social experiences, and technological
interactions” (Guillemin, 2004, p. 275). In the collaborative mural painting project conducted
by Boydell, Gladstone, Stasiulis, Volpe, Dhayanandhan, and Cole (2015), a group of young
people, who had each experienced a first-episode of psychosis, collectively created a mobile
mural revealing their illness experiences. The aims of this project were threefold: to record
the process of mural creation; to illustrate the views of the youth on the pathway to mental
health care; and to create awareness of mental health in the school setting. Before the mural
was composed, participants did some explorative painting and sketching exercises guided
by an artist-researcher, and developed some themes that could represent their illness
experiences. From the paintings and sketches, they selected some pieces that evoked the
most significant themes and carefully arranged them onto a large canvas. The mural below
3) depicts layered stories of the participants. In the final focus group discussion,
participants discussed their selection of images and experiences of co-creating an artwork.
The mural was publicly displayed in several secondary schools. This project provided the
young people with a platform to learn from each other and to generate knowledge. It also
promoted understanding among students and educators for mental illness through the
exhibition in various schools.
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Figure 3. Mural photo (Boydell et al., 2015).
Visual art - three-dimensional. Some artist-researchers opt for the use of three-
dimensional visual art in their research. This involves designing objects that viewers walk
around and/or spaces that people walk through. Examples include objects made from fine
arts materials (such as wood and stone), domestic materials (such as cloth and thread),
reclaimed refuse, and building or repurposing architectural spaces. In what follows, quilting
and upcycling examples are selected to illustrate the use of three-dimensional visual art.
Quilt. Through the images used in the quilt blocks, quilts convey symbolic messages
and stories of the quilter, express their feelings and represent personal and social
experiences (Ball, 2008). In the study conducted by Lawton (2010), the researcher and art
education students collaborated with members of a homeless community on a quilting
project to investigate the perception of the participants on homelessness and community.
The goals were to encourage pre-service art teachers to reach out to the community, to
learn through art in community settings, and to break down the stereotypes of homelessness
through arts-based learning for the participants. Participants were invited to make quilts (Fig.
4) and talk about their life stories. They expressed feelings of empowerment through the
process of art-making and sharing stories.
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Figure 4. Urban ministry quilt (Lawton, 2010).
Upcycling. Another example of three-dimensional visual art employed in a research
process is a study named “Magnificent Rubbish,” a participatory ABR project that was
conducted with vulnerable youth from the neighborhood
“the Canal Bowl” in Belgium
(Coemans & Hannes, 2016a; 2016b). The aims of the study were two-fold: to give future
researchers insights into the use of sensory arts-based methodology; and at the same time,
to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and their environment.
The method was as follows: participants walked through the neighborhood, collected
materials (trash and goodies that neighbors no longer wanted to keep), and took pictures
while walking. In the next phase, participants discussed their experiences of walking.
Following this, an artistic upcycling workshop was conducted where participants created
something new that linked to how they experienced the neighborhood out of the materials
collected. An exhibition (Fig. 5 & Fig. 6) was organized to disseminate the results of the
project and to initiate a dialogue about this neighborhood with the audience (including
citizens of the neighborhood, people working in related areas and policy makers).
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Figure 5 & 6. “Magnificent Rubbish” (Coemans & Hannes, 2016a; 2016b).
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Visual art
- time-based. Time-based visual art works share an interest with
narratives. Through these works, people tell stories that unfold in time. Time-based visual art
may encompass film, animation, video, documentary, etc. Compared with two-dimensional
and three-dimensional visual art, time-based visual art often presents itself in a digital
format. In this section, we elaborate on animation and digital storytelling projects.
Animation. Animation is the sequencing of constructed images to evoke the illusion of
events unfolding in time. In the study conducted by Vaughn and colleagues (2013), the
artist-researchers documented in detail how digital animation was used to disseminate
research findings on violence reduction of youth to the people and communities who took
part in their research
(see an advertisement of the research in Fig.
7). The authors
systematically outlined the steps they took, the phases, activities and processes involved
and the duration of each phase. Youth were highly involved throughout the phases, including
deciding on the dissemination plan, animation development, voice-over recording, and
feedback provision. This project provides an example for future studies applying animation
as a dissemination approach.
Figure 7. Initial advertisement introducing brand characters from PCVPC to public (Vaughn
et al., 2015).
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Digital storytelling. Digital storytelling is a multimedia art form combining storytelling
with digital media to reveal a personal story, and to enrich our understanding of human
experiences (Mumtaz, 2015; Walsh, Rutherford, & Crough, 2013). With the aim of better
addressing the new immigrants and refugees’ well-being and health issues, a participatory
research project was launched by Mumtaz (2015). During the first phase of the study, in
order to develop an in-depth understanding of the emotional and cognitive aspects of
community members, and to build up trust with the participants, the researcher observed
health brokers in community meetings, recruited participants among them and organized
introductory discussions. In the follow-up workshops, participants engaged in a digital
storytelling project to share their stories. They developed scripts, collected images that
visualized their stories, recorded an auditory voiceover, and used computer software to edit
the whole configuration. At the end of the project, digital stories were showcased and
feedback was collected from the stakeholder groups, including participants, other health
brokers, new immigrants, refugees, and relevant experts.
Sound art. In sound art, artist-researchers explore the collection and application of
sound in research projects. In this section, we will present two sub-categories: radio and
Radio. Radio construction can be used collaboratively by community members and
experts in research for information transmission and new knowledge creation (McKenzie,
2008). The CAMP-Lab project (McKenzie, 2008) is an example of a participatory radio
project in which a researcher and community members collectively produced radio programs
to communicate ideas and create knowledge about the management and maintenance of
natural resources of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. The aim of this project was to manage
the use of natural resources and sustain the livelihood and lifestyle of the local population.
The project involved members of the local fishing community, the researcher as well as
environmental experts together in dialogues and education activities (such as theatre plays,
drawing, and singing), to identify community issues, express opinions, and develop
understandings and solutions. These dialogues and activities formed the content of radio
programs broadcasted weekly, and the programs were composed of music, spoken word,
and drama.
Soundscape. Soundscape was used in the Narrogin Stories project (Kasat, 2014).
The project aimed to create opportunities for Australian Noongar people to express their
cultural identities through art. It was established out of concern for suicidal tendencies in
local Aboriginal youth, which subsequently resulted in family feuds in a small town of
Narrogin. In order to better understand the situation, the researcher organized a meeting
with the representatives from the feuding families. Afterwards, one staff member and one
artist went out to the streets, talking and collecting the stories of Noongar people of
Narrogin. The recordings of the conversations were reorganized into a soundscape,
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representing the collective voice of the Noongar people. Eventually, the soundscape was
played in a community celebration. The feuding families who were so against each other all
joined this event. They recognized their own voice and stories in the soundscape, and were
emotionally involved when listening. This project provided a platform for the feuding families
to reconcile, to heal and to move forward. It had a strong transformative effect.
Literary art. Literary art brings in expressive, evocative, and engaging texts with
which readers can connect (Chilton & Leavy, 2014). It may include poetry, fiction, novel,
short story, drama used within a script, etc. In this section, two examples are outlined to
illustrate the use of poetry and the use of fiction.
Poetry. Poetry invites the readers “to experiment with language, to create, to know, to
engage creatively and imaginatively with experience” (Leggo, 2008, p.165). By applying
repetition, rhythm, and rhyme, the created configuration of words allows us to see and hear
the world in new dimensions (Richardson, 1993). There are different variations in the
application of poetry in research: it can be created by the artist-researcher or by the
participants; and it can be developed from the transcripts, field notes, or auto-ethnographic
experiences of the artist-researcher
(Bishop & Willis,
2014; Lahman et al., 2010). An
example of a study involving poetry developed by research participants is a study conducted
by Tucker-Raymond, Rosario-Ramos, and Rosario (2011). This study aimed to explore how
art, in the form of poetry, can be used by urban youth as a way to explore themes of cultural
persistence, political resistance, and hope for the future. The research was conducted in an
ethnic Puerto Rican neighborhood in a Midwestern city in the United States. The sites were
chosen to be two classes in two different schools within the neighborhood, and mural walls
in the neighborhood buildings. Students wrote poems in and out of class, and performed
these poems in events such as a Cultural Show, an effort made deliberately to link school
with the larger community.
Fiction. Fiction is a story or set of stories inspired by real and/or imagined
happenings. It provides an open space for different interpretations, and therefore, avoids
closure of the research project (Banks, 2008). In the Whiteness Project conducted by Tanner
(2016), the researcher applied Youth Participatory Action Research in combination with play
building and drama pedagogy to explore how a group of high school students, including
white students and students of color, speculate whiteness. Because of the participatory
nature of the study, students and adults shared equal power, and most of the students were
involved throughout the research process. They participated in teaching sessions to discuss
whiteness, and a series of scriptwriting meetings where they agreed on creating a fiction and
brainstormed the characters, plot, and setting. In the end, the students performed their
fictional stories at a school play.
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Performing art. Performing art incorporates
“aesthetic, critical and participatory
modes of knowing” through performance (Chilton & Leavy, 2014, p. 410). There are different
variations in performing art: theater, dance, music, and performance poetry. The first two will
be illustrated below.
Theater. Theater of the Oppressed is a participatory performing art that engages the
spectators in theater exercises to explore a social problem and tackle oppression (Burgoyne
et al.,
2005). The commonly used methods in Theater of the Oppressed include Forum
Theater and Image Theater (Tudorache, 2013). The study conducted by educators Sloane
and Wallin (2013) explores how Image and Forum Theatre give refugee youth, guardians,
parents, and the public an opportunity to tackle challenges of school community. The
research process was composed of three phases. In the first phase, 26 participants who
identified themselves as former refugees were gathered together and discussed community
issues for the workshops and the play. In the second phase, participants were involved in a
five-day Image and Forum Theatre workshop to explore community problems and possible
solutions in depth. In the last phase, applying the content of the workshops, participants
produced a Forum Theatre play. In this study, Image and Forum Theatre created space for
the voice of participants to be expressed and heard, made the participants more conscious
about tensions and power relations, and influenced some of the learning content of school.
Dance. Dance is a dynamic and abstract genre of performance. It is called the
“universal language,” the “mother of all tongues,” and the “mirror of the soul” (Warren, 1993,
cited in Leavy, 2009, p. 179). Dance combines visual, musical, performative, narrative,
poetic, and autobiographic elements all at the same time (Leavy, 2009; Pentassuglia, 2017).
One example of dance applied in socially engaged research is the community-based dance
program developed for North Korean female defectors in South Korean (Na et al., 2016).
This study was designed to enhance the physical, psychological, and interpersonal
capacities of North Korean female refugees. Before the dance program, women were asked
about their preferred dance forms through interviews and questionnaires. Based on the
survey results, a dance program was developed and a pilot study was carried out. The
program was made up of three sessions: “bodily awareness,” focusing on increasing the
awareness of the body and stabilizing mind and body;
“psychological and affective
expression,” involving releasing psychological stress and expressing emotions; and “cultural
appreciation and assimilation,” designed for building up multicultural understanding through
interactions with others. During the program, a reciprocal and equal relationship between the
instructors and the participants was emphasized. This study is shown as an example where
dance can be used to promote refugees’ abilities to acclimate to a new society.
New media. New media can be used to create social communities through the
aesthetic exploration of emerging media technologies. Video games, blogs, and virtual world
fall under this broad category. In this section, virtual world will be explored.
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Virtual world. Virtual world is internet-based technology that uses avatar-based social
spaces to engage participants in joint actions. An avatar is
“an electronic image that
represents and is manipulated by a computer user in a virtual space and that interacts with
other objects in the space” (“Avatar,” n.d.). The Inter-Life project (Lally & Sclater, 2013) was
a modified virtual world in which young people worked to understand and navigate their key
life transitions. It offered a safe space for them to develop important life skills such as conflict
resolution. Young people could learn and support each other in this virtual environment,
while receiving guidance from professionals. Here, both the young people and the research
team formed a research community where everyone was regarded as a researcher. There
were several tools applied in virtual world, including interactive boards (Fig. 8), photography,
montage, and documentary film-making. These tools acted as vehicles through which
members of the community furthered personal insights, made meaning and expressed
Figure 8. Tutor and student summary from Workshop 2 on an interactive board in the
“Beach” gathering arena (Lally & Sclater, 2013).
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Multiple forms. The multiple forms approach provides participants the opportunity to
choose and combine artistically inspired forms based on their own knowledge, preference,
and experience in a single research project. An example of such approach applied in socially
engaged research practice is the community-based arts program with Aboriginal youth on
the investigation of the relationship between urban space and health inequity (Skinner &
Masuda, 2013). Eight participating youth were first involved in a place mapping exercise to
pinpoint the spaces they preferred or disliked. Afterwards, youth and researchers collectively
decided on hip hop forms, including rap, dance, poetry, photography, painting, or mixed
media, as a way to translate their mappings. With the guidance from artist and program staff,
each youth planned and chose materials or approach for their own artistic project.
With the classification framework presented in this paper we aim to create some order
in the messy field of artistically inspired methods of socially engaged research. It is meant to
deepen understanding, strengthen terminology, and provide some insights into how ABR can
be applied in the area of socially engaged research practice. We first situated ABR within the
broad field of qualitative inquiry. ABR strengthens the qualitative inquiry approach by adding
a number of data collection and dissemination methods to the qualitative toolbox. ABR also
allows us to connect with different stakeholders in the dissemination phase and offers
different types of framework for quality assessment. We distinguished three main families
concerning the relationship between art and research: research about art, art as research,
and art in research, and described the characteristics of each of the families. Based on
previously published literature, we identified five major forms of ABR: visual art, sound art,
literary art, performing art, and new media, and provided illustrations of the forms as applied
to socially engaged research practice.
Each of the forms can be applied in all three families in theory. For instance, in the
history of performance studies, scholars have been taking at least two different perspectives
on the family level: 1) performance is seen as a cultural and artistic object of investigation
(research about performance); 2) “performance itself is a way of knowing” (performance as
research) (Pelias, 2008, p. 185). In this paper, we feature performing art in socially engaged
research and illustrate it with two examples: one on theater (Sloane & Wallin, 2013) and
another on dance (Na et al., 2016). Not all of the potential combinations between families
and forms have been applied in previously conducted projects, and there is an uneven use
in the artistic forms shown in the published literature. In scoping reviews on arts-based
health research (Boydell, Gladstone, Volpe, Allemang, & Stasiulis, 2012; Fraser & Al Sayah,
2011), particular art forms like photography and theater are more popular, while some other
forms, such as poetry and dance, are employed less frequently by artist-researchers. This
could be related to a longer tradition in the use of visual media in social sciences, particularly
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in ethnographic research and the popularity of the Theatre of the Oppressed approach
(Boal, 1990) in the critical emancipatory research tradition. The less chosen forms may open
up new areas of interest, and therefore become an interesting option for the future practice
of socially engaged research.
Many of the examples we featured seem to suggest that the use of artistically inspired
research methods and approaches in social and behavioral science research is no longer
contested, at least not when it is structurally embedded in what is considered an acceptable
social and behavioral science research procedure. Here, the artistic methods are a means to
broaden our understanding of societal issues or phenomena. However, when it is claimed
that the creation of an artistic piece actually is research, the boundary between art and
scientific research becomes blurry and porous (Barone & Eisner, 2011). This challenges the
popular academic notion of art and research as two separate knowledge schemes. However,
Eisner (2006) argues that art should indeed be seen as a species of research, as it too
advances human understanding. It is anticipated that social and behavioral scientists will
engage more extensively with artistic practice and artists will become more sensitive to the
systematic forms of reflection on their artistic process and the exploration of the role of art in
the social, political, and cultural context (Hannes & Coemans, 2016).
We found fewer examples that fit in the art as research category. One of the potential
reasons for this is that we mainly used resources found in print. Those engaging in art as
research projects might opt to disseminate their findings elsewhere. As our research team
has a social and behavioral science background, we may lack information on resources that
contain non-textual forms of research outcomes. Transdisciplinary collaboration between
social and behavioral scientists and artists will be beneficial to the advancement of the
socially engaged ABR agenda. It may result in the development of shared terminology,
databases, and events that facilitate the infusion of new methodological approaches in each
of the domains. High quality resources that report on artistic projects can spark the
imagination of social and behavioral scientists. Examples include Field: Journal of Socially-
Engaged Art Criticism; Journal for Artistic Research; Art/Research International: A
Transdisciplinary Journal; and journals featuring specific artistic forms, such as Liminalities:
A Journal of Performance Studies. In addition, conferences focusing on ABR that actively
invite social and behavioral scientists to participate can further stimulate transdisciplinary
research. The past four editions of the Conference on Arts-based Research and Artistic
Research held respectively in Barcelona ( ),
(, Porto
(http://, and Helsinki
research/index/full_papers) is a good example of a space that stimulates collaboration.
Other conferences that include a strong ABR track are the International Congress of
Qualitative Inquiry
( ), the European Congress of
Qualitative Inquiry ( ) and the Conference from
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the American Educational Research Association (
To summarize, our classification framework should be perceived as unfinished
business, because of the changing nature of how young students and artist-researchers deal
with data, and the emergent nature of the field of ABR itself. Both aspects are expected to
increase creativity in academia as well as foster the academic debate on conceptualizing the
parameters of socially engaged ABR. Further progression in the development of ABR
approaches will challenge the current boundaries set in our classification. By the time this
classification is published it may already be partly incomplete and in need of an update.
Artist-researchers may even be resistant toward the idea of categorizing their work, because
they may perceive their engagement with ABR as a pathway to redefining themselves, their
discipline, and the methods they apply. Experienced artist-researchers may well transcend
existing categories as they push toward new formulations of inquiry. Crucial to the further
development of this field is maintaining an openness to the less definable and more holistic
kinds of understanding ABR can produce.
We would like to thank Prof. Dr. Sonia Tramujas Vasconcellos for her insightful comments.
We are sincerely grateful to the three anonymous reviewers who have provided constructive
feedback to improve our manuscript.
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