Research as art, transformation and justice

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.
Obviously there is much more to be said.  Stay tuned because I’m sure I will have more to add as I get into the class and think about future possibilities.
Update: Those who read the entry, “Good intentions are not enough,” may be interested in the gallery of photos from Eastern State Penitentiary that I recently added to my photo website
Note also that blog entries may be more sporadic during the summer months.  I will try to return to a regular schedule of postings in the fall.

13 comments on “Research as art, transformation and justice”

  1. Alyson from Shetland says:

    Hi Howard,

    Happy recent birthday!

    I am very interested to read your blog re arts based research and links to RJ. As you maybe aware – from our correspondance a wee while ago, I too am really interested in the possible transformative effects of creating a gift and the act of giving the gift both on the Person Responsible and also the Person Harmed during an offence.
    The use of different artistic approaches, enabling a wider range of appeal to Persons Responsible,, composition, painting, working with fabrics, sculpture etc, poetry, play writing – far more techniques I am sure than I am even aware of. … linked to the “side by side” nature of creating something ….whilst incidentally perhaps working through the didactic FCF formula makes sense to me. How many of us have tried talking to someone who is reluctant to open up, give them a lift in the car and Wallop! talking begins. This is one aspect I am interested in, how to help people engage, but also the hopefully increased sense and understanding of harm for the PR and increased appreciation of the sense and understanding for the Person Harmed.

    Enjoyed the ramble….. look forward to hearing from you

  2. Cathy McDowell says:

    Dr. Zehr,
    For several years now I have been bringing the concept of restorative justice to inmates in county jails and state prisons. We sit in a circle and discuss topics like accountability (which doesn’t really exist if they accept a plea bargain), feeling shame and guilt for choices we make (as well as the benefits that can come from that), making amends (which is familiar to many of them because so many are substance abusers and are aware of the 12 Steps) and the reasons why forgiveness can restore the person who forgives. With only a very few exceptions, the men embrace the idea of participating in helping to right a wrong. Probably what surprises me the most is that it appears to be a relief to them that they can contribute to the restorative process. I see something “open up” in them that incarceration tends to close. Maybe it is a twisted embrace of a code of honor that general has no honor. Just recently I was able to get approved to show the men the docmentary “Beyond Conviction” by Rachel Liebert. It was powerful and opened them up in new ways. Somehow, my hope is that we can focus as communities on re-entry programs that include faith based communities so that there is an opportunity for these inmates to re-connect in a meaningful way. Thank you for your dedication to the process and I have always wished that I could be in your classes.

  3. jeff from says:


    If you need any help or would like someone to tag along with you as you pursue ABR let me know. I would love to take this class. I don’t have anything to contribute, but thank you for the references and I will check them out. shalom/salaam

  4. Dear Howard,

    I recently became involved with Missouri Murder Victims Families for Healing. I am a retired pharmaceutical industry executive, and wrote a book titled She Had No Enemies, about my sister’s death by a serial killer and how I turned that tragedy into a positive force in my life. I’ve made a few student and grant-funded films. I volunteered to be on the media subcommittee for the MMVFH. I recently ran into a filmmaker with good credentials as an assistant director in Hollywood. He has made documentaries in the past. I became interested in making a documentary on the effects of murder on surviving families, how groups of victims families meet to heal and work with offenders to help them heal. I contacted Beth Wood with and she recommended I contact you as a starting point for my documentary. If you can help me, I will appreciate it. If you can’t personally, and can recommend someone to talk to, again, thanks.

    BTW, I watched the new Blu-ray version of Last Year at Marienbad and some of your work reminded me of that 1961 masterpiece of surrealism. Your photography truly attains the level of high art.


  5. Fascinating that I my internet search for Patricia Leavy should lead me to you. Just a few weeks ago, a friend and companion in a long distance inquiry group, introduced me to your work. And, here i am with you!

    I too am “convinced of the importance of visual as well as verbal ways of knowing and communicating.” I began experimenting with fabric and watercolor “collages” to research and communicate the patterns of my life experiences. And now, I’m experimenting with the same concepts in the course I teach at a small community college. It has been a awakening experience.

    Here’s an example of students reflecting visually on meaning.

    First, we talked around a table using the stone game. Then, I invited them to find metaphors, images, things that spoke of their experience on a table filled with fabric, foil, magazine cutouts, string, etc. etc. They went to work immediately – no hesitation. A week later – poetry and journal writings spilled out.

    I’ve not read Leavy’s book but I just ordered it. I long to have more conversations about the power and possibility of arts-based research and reflection.

  6. zehrh says:

    Thanks, all, for these comments and connections. Although I’ve been working with photography and the arts for years, I feel like I’m really only beginning the journey. I’m looking forward to the class this coming semester as a way to dig deeper.

    I’m honored to be joined in leading it by videographer Paulette Moore. (See

    Candee, thanks for sharing this work. I’ll look forward to hearing more.

  7. Zac says:

    I checked out that gallery that you linked to at the end, great stuff thanks for sharing!

  8. Fania E. Davis says:

    Howard, thanks for sharing these thoughts.

    As you know, here at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) we do lots of RJ trainings and educational presentations, and we’re also helping partners implement pilot programs in the schools and justice system. Consciously incorporating much more art and culture into our trainings, presentations, and circles could give us a huge boost. There is something about the power of this work that simply cannot always adequately be expressed through speaking alone. Even before coming upon the blog entry, I know I have at times while doing trainings or making presentations personally felt the need to overcome barriers to communciation- or just to convey meaning with greater power – by breaking out in song or dance. The thought of exploring this renews my committment to this work.

    I look forward to hearing more about how the ABR course is progressing later in the semester.

  9. mark says:

    Thanks. some great infomation here keep up the good work. I cannot really leave a more constructive comment as i’m abit out of my deph but i will be checking back here for further updates.

    Mark London,England

  10. mdhsafi says:

    Many people are of the view that arts-Based Educational Research is still in its initial stage and evolving. From an artistic viewpoint which are the areas that still continue to be restricted.

  11. Howard Zehr says:

    Yes, I think it is true that ABR is still an emerging field with many issues to ironed out. We had great fun with it in the research class this last semester – I believe ABR has great potential but like all methodologies, it is important to be aware of its most promising applications as well as its limits. I am convinced that some realities can only be unearthed, tested or communicated through the arts. But there are other applications where more conventional qualitative or quantitative approaches may be better suited.

  12. mdhsafi says:

    Many people are of the view that arts-Based Educational Research is still in its initial stage and evolving. From an artistic viewpoint which are the areas that still continue to be restricted.

  13. Excellent photos. Thanks for the update and adding the link to the photos.

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