University academics and managerial types alike seem to be awash these days with ideas of 'creativity' as some new miracle tool, and play as a key component to engagement. They bring together academics and convince them that playing with toys, colouring in, and tickling their toes with mud will somehow produce what has been lacking in their scholarship. New buzz words are shared. Everyone goes home happy.
What is sometimes called 'arts-based research' is none of these. If anything (and those who have really engaged with using tools from the arts to discover knowledge and to disseminate their findings are well aware), an approach using the arts in research takes about twice the time and effort.
Performative Social Science (PSS) is an arts-led approach that has been developed over more than ten years at Bournemouth University, It has been written about in journals and books, and demonstrated in a variety of examples such as online graphic publication, film production, and new fiction writing. PSS in philosophically grounded in Relational Aesthetics and Relational Art which take into account the viewer/participant as key to its approach. (I have written at length on the development of Performative Social Science.)
What follows is a much earlier piece that was developed for a seminar at Bournemouth University. I was beginning to grapple at the time with both the joys and problems thrown up by my turn to the creative, the arts, and the fictive in representing social science research. I present that essay here as a alternative to the buzz words and play dates becoming common place in academic circles these days.
“Performative Social Science: What it is, What it isn't”
Seminar presented at Bournemouth University, 13 October, 2010Publish or perish drives much of academic life. It has its origins in hard science
where the first to get an experiment, finding or theory into publication won the prize.
Other academic disciplines followed suit by imitating this system. This structure has
developed a style of academic writing and a vetting process that are both by now
antiquated and suspect.
We are all caught up in this bind from time to time, me included. Fortunately,
publishing is evolving and, more and more, supplementary multi-media are requested
as part of the publication procedure. Audience share and economics drives most of
these changes, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a good time to take advantage of this
expansion of the opportunities for academic outputs.
Qikipedia recently cautioned on Twitter: “About 200,000 academic journals are
published in English. The average number of readers per article is five. Funders are
now looking for outcomes from their investments that demonstrate how we will affect
change in the wider world, i.e., the world beyond the very few other academics who
happen to read a journal article. This climate of flux presents opportunities to get the
products of our alternative methods of dissemination of social science data to wider
audiences—to popularize research. This is why I now revisit one of my early cracks at
audio/visual script writing and production, “The One about Princess Margaret” here
Why popularize research?
Personally, one result of the current academic climate is that I am less interested
in writing that does not communicate directly with an audience and include my “self”
in that narrative. Somewhat reluctantly at first, therefore, I began to explore auto-
ethnography and its potential for more personal communication with an audience and
the platforms that I might use in order to reach that audience. I realized that all I
really have to share with anyone else is my own experience. It may be flawed and/or
of little value to anyone else. For these reasons, I try to write and produce for various
media in a way that will be of some use to others in their own work. I attempt to
accomplish this with some skill and craft—to “popularize it” at the same time. The
natural follow-up for me was to revisit the arts and humanities for potential tools that
might enrich this transition.
Filmmaker, Jean Luc Godard is often credited with having once said, "It's not
where you take things from—it's where you take them to” (BoingBoing 2010). In my
best auto-ethnography, I am actually a minor character and/or a conduit to a time,
place and other people. I become fictionalized through writing. I am the sorcerer who
reminds audiences of their selves. In terms of visual representation of such stories, I
become a keen observer of lives, allowing cultural images to become private and
iconic. These remembered images twist and turn and eventually morph in various
ways to be included as my own graphic memories. These visual ‘mash-ups’ are truly
Ethno-Graphic. Indeed, our visual memories can become imbued with both intense
cultural and personal meaning. This is the visual auto-ethnography that I hope to
represent in my work.
Along with exploring visualizations of research data over the past ten years or
so, I have also experimented with writing performatively, or rather, representing in
text what I am trying to accomplish imaginatively. Several examples include the
results of an interview with Mary Gergen; the script for an audio/visual production
about Klaus Riegel and Kenneth Gergen; a very early piece about Akira Kurosawa
and Gerotranscendence; and, of course, the script for “The One about Princess
I think it is important to revisit the initial motivations behind these early efforts
and even try to recapture a bit of their naïveté and my initial enthusiasm for finding
innovative ways of expressing my scholarship. As I labor to become more
sophisticated and skillful in my productions, it is important for me not to forget the
initial struggles and uncertainties that are documented by those earlier attempts. This
is the reason behind another screening of “The One about Princess Margaret” here
Why was this particular medium chosen?
“The One about Princess Margaret”, like many of my early pieces, involved
being presented with a particular puzzle or challenge and then finding the tools from
the arts to respond to such questions. In the case of “The One about Princess
Margaret”, it is important to recall that the production was built in PowerPoint—
testing the software’s potential to its limits, then converted to video. My initial query
was: How can humor be used to capture time/place and culture and how will the
results measure up to scrutiny as auto-ethnography? Thus my personal leap into
auto-ethnography and the development of Performative Social Science (PSS) began
with a research question.
I did not suddenly decide to transform into a graphic illustrator, scriptwriter or
filmmaker. I remain a social scientist with a particular story to tell or message to get
across by exploring which media will best help me to accomplish that. I don't worry
about whether I am exceptionally good at the use of a specific medium but rather,
wonder if that means will serve the purpose at hand. I then begin the struggle with the
specific new means of communicating. This process itself holds many of the joys and
frustrations of each project, but also the opportunities to really explore the creative
I believe that, on the whole, the writing up of our projects should be ancillary to
this new performative work; the text should never be the main output. For me, more
interesting as documents are the scripts themselves, the notes or the diagrammatic
evidence that our projects leave behind as a kind of trail, trace or map. When we do
publish, these sorts of records certainly hold more relevance for me. I am more and
more convinced these days that any academic written texts reporting our efforts at
popularizing research should be supporting ancillary documents to our productions,
not the other way round and certainly not the final results or raison d’êtres of our
Many who have turned to PSS have shifted to the arts for both inspiration and
practical assistance in answer to our own frustrations with more standard research
4practices. Perhaps typical qualitative academic methods have become shop worn
(routinely slotting vast amounts of data into themes and then banging on about “rigor”
comes to mind as an example)? Possibly the problem lies within our diffusion of
data? Do we write too routinely about the “evocative” without knowing what it is that
is being evoked and how or, better yet, what our work might provoke instead? Yes,
we turn elsewhere, aptly so. The arts encourage us to be at the forefront of change and
innovation in academia, challenging the status quo and moving our fields forward—
the rightful place of scholarship.
What is Performative Social Science?
Is Performative Social Science art or social science? It isn’t either. It is a fusion
of both, creating a new model where tools from the arts and humanities are explored
for their utility in enriching the ways in which we research social science subjects
and/or disseminate or present our research to our audiences. This does not mean that
we simply put on a play or make a film (and I need to constantly be wary of that
pitfall myself these days in lieu of the increasing amount of my own cinematic
It certainly isn’t taking interview transcriptions, leaving out a line or two here
and there, rearranging it on the page in stanza format mimicking poetry, and then
passing it off as poetic inquiry. (Even worse: then calling ourselves poets.) It isn’t
thinking that our lives are so precious and unique (the “snowflake” phenomenon) that
surely the world wants us to dramatize them—too often through embarrassingly
intimate performances of over-cooked angst. Typically to a captured conference
audience, academics present these hysterics by crawling around the floor for half an
hour and calling it dance or by producing a monologue that seems never to have a
narrative arc or conclusion. As audience members, we often wish we had chosen the
parallel book launch with complimentary sherry instead.
In its place, let us return to what we already know quite well: academic research.
I recall the standard rule-of-thumb suggestion that we make to postgraduate students
all of the time: “Find a research method that best fits the research question(s).” This
imperative applies to PSS as well. Within the vast richness of the arts and humanities,
which lens, device, technique or tradition might deepen our research process or
expand our dissemination plan? Is it a good fit (to the question[s])? Do we
automatically put on a play or make a film from our research data because we are so
many frustrated actors or film directors, without ever asking which art form best fits
the research question or the data that it has produced?
What lessons have been learned so far?
Funders are currently encouraging researchers to find ways to reach wider
audiences with their findings (“impact factor”) and, because of this, we are beginning
to look beyond academic journals or narrow academic subject groups (e.g., delegates
at specialists’ conferences—or “preaching to the choir”). Funders now want to know
the benefits of our research to society and how it might affect the social order–the
potential outcomes of our efforts.
Performative Social Science, when it is at its best and humming along, is a
synthesis that provides answers to many of these very requirements. Ideally, our
audiences should be almost unaware of the seams where we have cobbled together indepth,
substantial scholarship with artistic endeavor. In my estimation, part of doing
PSS is not only in the breaking down of the old boundaries, but also in discarding the
old expectations and frameworks of what research is supposed to resemble after it is
Nonetheless, we are researchers. We are not actors, directors, filmmakers,
dancers or poets. There are many opportunities and outlets (and frustrations and
roadblocks) for those who wish to pursue those professions. We can learn a great deal
from these folks who often find it necessary to wait tables and do other menial jobs in
order to pursue their dream profession. They may help us look at our own field
through new lenses, but let’s not insult them by falsely assuming their hard-earned
In return, a word of caution to artists who might be drawn to working with
researchers: the world of academia is not simply a new venue for you to put on a play,
dance a dance or publish a poem. There are both constraints and opportunities in the
academic world as well, which we are happy to share with you through our
Through interfaces with both practitioners and practices from the arts and
humanities, opportunities are presented to work with social science material and
expand its means of production and popularization to novel and creative levels. This
requires the fusion mentioned earlier. This necessitates cooperation and collaboration.
Communication and common ground are central to successful partnership and union.
The intuitive aspects of shared culture, coupled with a more universal response
to life’s tribulations and injustices (and, therefore, artistic expressions of these
emotive components), compete for resolution with the more rigid academic ethical
frameworks and methodological constraints under discussion. By developing a trust in
instinct and intuition and the naturally expressive and moral potential of these
personal resources, social science research can become richer and more human, if we
only are willing to jettison some of the baggage of the old academic rigor and dry
A few closing words of caution: Some academics would rather incorporate the
language of what we are doing into their own outputs without ever challenging either
their own thinking or outputs. They subsume the language of PSS, but never really reexamine their own routine techniques or dissemination methods. Our developing
terminology is, in this way, incorporated within standard academic journal texts rather
than through any meaningful reinvention of research methods or diffusion.
Most of all, however, let’s be careful not to implode PSS through an overblown
sense of what we are about. In our enthusiasm, let’s not be too quick to anoint
ourselves as poets, actors, dancers or magicians. If we do eventually earn those titles,
I am sure that others more qualified to judge will be sure to let us know.