At the start of each year, I am gearing up to lead my course ‘Practice-based Research’ on The Creative School’s practice-based PhD program. As part of this process, to clarify my thoughts, I tend to write down explainer-ey pieces about it. In early 2021 – when we were admitting the very first students for the program which had not started yet – I wrote ‘What is practice-based research?’ and ‘Do *I* do practice-based research?’.
In January 2022, wanting to have an even more boiled-down account, I did ‘Practice-based research: A simple explainer’. In January 2023 it wasn’t a written thing per se, but I did a Pecha Kucha presentation called ‘Finding a path through creative practice’.
Then during 2023 I worked with the brilliant PhD students Justine Woods and Francisco-Fernando Granados, to produce an article called “Reframing, embodying, and in-betweening”, which is, as its subtitle says,“A conversation about experiences of doing practice-based research and research-creation”.
And here at the start of 2024, I have a few more things I want to say and to clarify about practice-based research, which are rooted in the ever-more complex and fascinating conversations I am having about it, with our growing body of students, each year.
(Some parts of what follows are adapted from the book proposal that I just had to write, for Polity, for a book called Practice-based Research and Research-Creation: An introductory guide to gentle processes of discovery and transformation).
Practice-based research is a ‘new’ approach which is also the oldest approach
Practice-based research is a process of exploration through doing, making and thinking. In the world of Western academic research methodologies this may be reasonably ‘new’, but human beings have recognized that creative practice is central to how we understand our lives for thousands of years – hence the existence of art, stories and music in all cultures and across all times. As researchers seek to build and communicate knowledge about the world, it makes complete sense that creative practice should be a primary method.
Not just another method
I recently saw advertised a session introducing practice-based research to grad students, and the tone was like ‘Here’s another qualitative method that you might consider using’. Which is not wrong or a bad thing. But I felt offended, and then I was curious that I had felt offended, and wanted to write down why. And this is why:
Practice-based research is not ‘just another method’ on a menu of available procedures: it is an ethical choice, and represents a commitment to empathy, dialogue, and a journey on which we gather a collection of processes and experiences, with few easy answers.
Having a practice
What does it mean to have a practice? It doesn’t mean doing just one thing endlessly. It’s more a commitment to keep exploring – and therefore, to keep changing, and doing different things, but as part of a continuous process of exploration and poking at the same questions from different angles – and also, therefore and inevitably, finding new questions.
A gentle search for meaning
The commitment to a creative practice, over time, involves a recognition that there are not going to be easy answers to our rich and complex questions. We come to see that arriving at specific and final ‘answers’ is not what this journey is about. One thing leads to another, and we develop insights, but we also discover new paths to explore. Creative practice therefore tends to be a gentle, careful kind of activity, by definition the opposite of a wham-bam data-gathering intervention – in most cases. The work may often feel intense, and at the extremes of difficulty and pushing oneself, but considered overall, the process of slowly-advancing thoughtful engagement is a model for how knowledge should always be sought.
Wandering and experimenting
The practice-based researcher is an experimenter in the loosest of senses – trying out eclectic and untested ideas to see what will happen. As the work develops, it will become more focused and determined, but in the early stages it is good to be wandering as freely as possible.
This loose journey of experimentation will mean that the researcher often has to revisit and revise their original intentions. The project will change along the way, and when it does, that is a reassuring sign that it is going well – taking the researcher into areas they had not anticipated, breaking new ground, opening up new areas – which is, of course, exactly what you want.
A basket of things
Most PhDs, and advice about PhDs and research projects more generally, emphasise the need to choose a single specific project with a precise question, explored through one or two specific interventions. But the practice-based project, being much more like an unfolding journey, can be treated and presented as a basket of things gathered along the way, with a narrative which tells the story of the research process, and thereby connects the elements. The basket contains a set of mini-projects, interlinked by the development and emergence of questions. Each one may suggest a partial solution, but this will also lead to more questions and the next mini-project. To present this basket of mini-projects as a meaningful whole, the narrative that goes with it must make clear the research intentions, thought processes and decisions, and conclusions. (Here’s an expanded version of this point).
Making a difference
It is important to remember our original motivation for starting the work – which always involves some kind of desire to do something better, understand something more fully, and/or make a difference in the world. It is important to re-articulate this to ourselves as we proceed, and to communicate this drive clearly and often to others. We seek to make a difference – to ourselves, our communities, and the world – through a process which is ongoing and incomplete, rather than producing one-off certainties, and which therefore contributes to an ongoing transformation of learning and experience.
Like many parts of life, practice-based research is rarely a one-off achievement which meets and entirely satisfies a goal. It is an unfolding process of seeking partial answers and raising more questions – always exploring, always moving forward. This is a key reason why it is meaningful, rewarding, and worthwhile.
Practice as transformation
We explore, play, and make things, because we want to bring change to the world, but the most direct and certain transformation is that of ourselves. The personal journey of practice-based research is not merely a ‘side effect’ but is at the heart of this process of discovery.