During the last several weeks I turned 65. I also discovered the field of arts-based research (ABR).
These two events are more connected than they may seem. As I contemplate moving toward semi-retirement, I have been thinking that I might devote more of my attention to the arts and to their intersection with restorative justice. My discovery of the relatively new field of ABR serves as an affirmation of this and suggests some opportunities and directions.
I discovered ABR as I began preparations to teach qualitative research this fall. I had taught this course – the only research course CJP then offered – from 1996 until 2001 when my administrative duties made it impossible. I gave it up reluctantly; it was one of my favorite courses and students seemed to enjoy it. Some still tell me that it was their favorite course. Although interviews were the central methodology, we also explored visual ways of knowing and communicating. Instead of traditional research reports, many students incorporated or utilized visual arts, theater and even fiction. I knew nothing of the emerging field of arts-based research (indeed, it would have been quite new then) but I did know what my heart and head were telling me as well as the direction qualitative research was taking as a field.
Let me back up a bit. Between 1977 and 1996 I was largely out of academic circles. During that time I was involved in restorative justice practice and advocacy but also worked much of that period part-time as a photographer. I often did photojournalism assignments but I also began to do the kind of documentary work involving interviews and photographs represented in my books Doing Life andTranscending.
I was convinced of the importance of visual as well as verbal ways of knowing and communicating. But I was also increasingly dissatisfied with the approaches that dominated written and photo journalism as well as academic studies. Much of it seemed disrespectful and exploitive of “subjects” and much too confident of the photographer or researcher’s ability to get at “truth.” I began to suggest a way to reframe photography that was more value-based and that reflected these concerns (see p. 17 of The Little Book of Contemplative Photography).
When I was asked to teach CJP’s research class in 1996 (I don’t think anyone else wanted to teach it) I was excited to discover that the field of qualitative research was going in the same direction. The “Guidelines and values for transformative research” (transfres) were my attempt to articulate these principles and values. Barb Toews and I also wrote an article entitled “Ways of Knowing for a Restorative Worldview” that attempted to bring together restorative justice and qualitative research values and principles (Weitekamp and Kerner, Restorative Justice in Context: International Practice and Directions).
I agreed to teach research this fall (2009) since one of faculty members will be gone and decided to call it “research as art and transformation.” I wanted to specifically emphasize a variety of artistic approaches and the possibilities of this research as an intervention in peacebuilding, restorative justice and social change. Then I discovered that ABR had already developed a literature for this.
Arts-based research (in the education field, sometimes called A/R/Tography – artistic/researcher/teacher ethnography) is defined by Shaun McNiff like this:
“Art-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.” (Knowles & Cole, Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research),
The field incorporates a wide variety of artistic practices. Patricia Leavy’s book Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, which I am using as a text, has sections on narrative inquiry, music, poetry, performance, dance and the visual arts. These approaches are used as a form of research itself (by the researcher and/or participants) as well as a way to communicate findings. The field strongly emphasizes holistic involvement of and communication with a broad audience, specifically citing the role of empathy and “resonance.”
A fuller description of this field is beyond the scope of this entry. I do want to note, however, a few of the connections I see between restorative justice and ABR. Both emphasize…
- an holistic approach, drawing upon multiple ways of knowing,
- the role of empathy and interconnections,
- the limits of the “western” paradigm of knowledge,
- the importance of elicitive and contextualized approaches, drawing upon the gifts and insights of participants,
- the complexity and contextual nature of “truth” and the partial nature, at best, of our truths (and thus the need for humility about what we “know”).
- the reality that our work often problematizes “truths” rather than provide pat answers,
- the importance of dialogue as a way of knowing,
- the necessity of developing new benchmarks for evaluation and validation,
- the role of this work in social change, and
- underlying it all, a profound respect for all.