Making room for practice-led research

I think a lot about the divide between academic research and the kinds of learning and making done by regular folks without the backing of a university or other official institution to say, “Yes, we say that you are a Serious Researcher!” A lot of very fine work is done by people who have become experts in their crafts through a combination of traditional research methods (reading archival materials, studying old textiles, viewing anthropological images and films to learn traditional craft techniques, among other things) and by applying what they learn through handwork. Some of this is done for personal use, but some is put out into the world through publications, guilds, workshops, lectures, and other outlets where artisans present their research and its tangible results. As someone who has chosen the path of academia, I worry about how to make my research interesting, accessible, and useful for makers and other people who aren’t in the academic world and are thus shut out of scholarly journals and other university resources. I’ve recently become excited about an approach to craft research that incorporates creative practice and that has the potential to lead to better results for non-academics: practice-led research. To some extent, this is what I’ve already been doing, and I just didn’t know that it had a name.

A general guide published online by Edith Cowan University explains that practice-led research is “a conceptual framework that allows a researcher to incorporate their creative practice, creative methods and creative output into the research design and as a part of the research output.” If you are familiar with the idea of participant observation — the researcher observes people while also participating in the event, task, etc. alongside them — you can imagine how making already has been a part of fieldwork for a very long time. For example, one of my favorite early ethnographic books is The Pueblo Potter (1929), in which Ruth Bunzel describes her experiences learning how to paint pottery from Zuni women. Her tactile experience enriches our understanding of the pottery, how the motifs are formed, and how painting pottery is situated in the context of the women’s daily lives as artists.

In my case, I’m mostly interested in wool and wool crafts (and other textiles, to a lesser extent). I could approach these in a purely theoretical way and focus on research in libraries, archives, and museums, and that would be a valid way to do this. I could look at the history of wool and wool crafts, the types of fibers found in museum artifacts from different eras, or archival accounts from makers. I could talk to current artisans and farmers and record their words, film them at work, and follow them to the marketplace to gather impressions about how their products leave their hands and become a part of other people’s lives.

Practice-led research can include some or all of these things, but it is grounded in hands-on experience with a craft or other process. The researcher is interested in being able to better understand it through personal, bodily experience and the products of creative experimentation. Making and doing leads to “tacit knowledge”, a term created by Michael Polanyi (1966) to describe knowledge that is difficult to articulate verbally but that seems to reside in and be learned through the body. It’s easy to understand this even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept — imagine trying to tell someone about the smell of fresh baked bread in a way that actually allows them to experience and understand it.

For a researcher, tacit knowledge can lead to much more accurate interpretation of historical clues, better rapport with interviewees, and a better understanding of the kinds of information that can be helpful to makers and doers, not just academics, when creating the products of scholarship — exhibitions, books, websites, films, etc. A common example of this is with embroidery. A researcher who is familiar with doing embroidery will know to show the back side of the work and certain small details about the materials, while one who has not done embroidery may only show the front and may not take care to note how many plies or strands of thread were used. The latter researcher may produce great scholarship for art history articles, but the former will also produce scholarship that can be applied by craftspeople, guilds, teachers, etc. who want the resources to put these techniques into practice. This is especially important for marginalized or immigrant communities who have experienced dislocation from their oral traditions and who may need documentation in order to reconnect with or even reconstruct what they have lost.

Practice-led research can also inform how we understand objects when there is no information on how they were made and used. Craftspeople have many stories about seeing objects displayed incorrectly in a museum in a way that makes it clear that the museum workers do not know exactly how they were/are used — tools shown upside down, machines assembled incorrectly, utilitarian objects labelled as ritual objects, etc. There is no reason to be frustrated with the museum workers over this — especially in a small museum, one cannot expect there to be a serious expert on staff for each kind of very specific type of object on exhibit. They rely on documentation, and a lot of that was generated by earlier museum workers or collectors who may have misunderstood the objects themselves, especially when there was a strong divide between academic research and applied knowledge. People who have held, used, or made related objects have a better chance of catching these mistakes and of correctly understanding details about the objects, patterns of wear, mending, and tool marks from when they were made. They also are better at identifying objects on a very basic level. For example, a knitter has a better chance of identifying whether an item was hand knitted or machine knitted. Someone who has made lace is more likely to identify whether a lace item is bobbin lace, tatted, or sprang.

So it’s easy to justify practice-led research. What are the drawbacks?

I don’t want to debate how useful practice-led research is in generating data, partially because I come from folklore studies, and folklorists often focus on individuals in context to take a deep dive into the human experience, so these kinds of very focused, very limited research are appealing to me and seem useful, even though they could be taken as too limited. I was reading some more skeptical literature about this approach, and it seemed too rooted in art history and fine art to be fully applicable to craft. I think that one can say a lot about craft through personal experience just by more fully understanding little-used tools, materials, and methods. I think the key is to be honest and realistic about what one can accomplish through this research — for example, if you are just learning the craft, you will have a lot to say about the learning process, but not as much about the experience of a master artisan. For this kind of information, you would want to supplement your experience with interviews, observations, and documentation focused on such a maker. However, your personal experience with the craft will probably facilitate rapport and understanding with that person.

In my own experience, there are three drawbacks: time, isolation, and a lack of focus. They are all interrelated, so it’s difficult to handle each one separately. The time issue is fairly obvious on the surface — making takes a lot of time. It’s much faster to do an interview or read an article than it is to knit a sweater. Isolation can result. Depending on the cultural context, a lot of the process of making takes place through independent work and only part through interaction with teachers and other students. Instead of being out in the world doing fieldwork, you can easily find yourself stuck at home, knitting, weaving, or sewing, and this splits your time and forces you to choose between different types of research and practice. There is only so much time for research, so any major activity is going to take away from others. Some types of making and doing are compatible with social interaction, but I personally cannot take my massive loom to the town square to weave in public. Finally, this can result in a lack of focus. Part of this is the aforementioned issue with splitting up the research time, and part is because making is just as large a world as research, and you can easily expand too far and use up all your time in handwork of various, related, but not very focused, types, and they can all seem important. Even if you stay focused, you should try to keep in mind exactly how the practice informs the research and how the research informs the practice, or it can easily result in mismatched projects.

The time issue is a bit more complicated than it appears in that your time as a maker is not just the time that you spend working on a project — it also involves all of the time that you have spent building up your skills, often over many years. In my last post, I wrote about how difficult it has been to get my knitting up to Estonian standards. It has taken me about a year and a half of work to get to the point where I can start learning how to knit using traditional Estonian techniques, and, frankly, I could still use more practice. The skill level needed to go deep on some of these things is fairly high, and this can be a barrier for newer researchers akin to needing to learn a new language to a high proficiency level to be able to start research — it happens, but it’s a lot harder to do starting in PhD coursework. It’s difficult to carry the weight of graduate school and also spend many hours per week learning how to do a craft.

I don’t have a solution for that; to some extent, I think you have to start this process with at least some adjacent hand skills. However, I also think that people in my generation and younger in the US often don’t have the kind of stable, settled background that allows for the development of such skills. Something portable like knitting is reasonable, but few people have access to the large, specialized equipment needed for many crafts — big looms, anvils and forges, or kilns — when people move around too often to have a hometown and when these kinds of crafts are no longer as common or as integrated in the rhythms of daily life. I want students to have opportunities to learn those skills and also to engage in related research.

The school where I’m on exchange in Estonia, the Viljandi Culture Academy, has a 4-year program in which students take courses with standard academic subjects like history, composition, and project management alongside practical courses like knitting, weaving, silver smithing, and leather work. Students enter with some hand skills already, but the practical classes allow us to become familiar with different crafts through hands-on experience and to apply that experience to museum research and creating reproductions of museum artifacts. It’s a ton of work to get through the practical classes, and then you’ve only got a few samples and one full project in that craft, simply because making is time-consuming and managing to get that much into 4 years is essentially a heroic effort by the faculty and staff. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly valuable experience that has completely changed how I understand textiles when I observe them.

All of this is to say that my personal experience with practice-led research is that it is like trying to become two researchers rather than splitting one’s time in half. Everything takes much, much longer, and it can be hard to keep organized and focused. At the same time, it allows me to include a much deeper understanding of making and other physical, hands-on processes in my research, and it keeps me grounded in the interests and needs of makers when I document what I learn. It’s just like anything else that structures and transforms things at a comprehensive scale; it needs a lot of time and space to develop, breathe, and mature. I have to make room for it, and the challenges that presents are worth the effort.

References:

Bunzel, R. L. (1929). The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. Courier Dover Publications.

Research Methodologies for the Creative Arts & Humanities: Practice-based & practice-led research. https://ecu.au.libguides.com/research-methodologies-creative-arts-humanities/practice-based-and-practice-led-research

Polonyi, Michael. 1966. The tacit dimension. Gloucester: Peter Smith.

More resources that I plan to review:

Biggs, M. 2002. The role of the artefact in art and design research. International journal of design sciences and technology 10 (2): 19–24.

Biggs, M. 2004. Learning from experience: approaches to the experimental component of practise-based research. Forskning, reflection, utveckling. Rapport från ett seminarium i Sigtuna 2004.

Dean, R. & Smith, H. (Eds.) (2011). Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

Mäkelä, M. 2007. Knowing Through Making: The Role of the Artefact in Practice-led Research. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, (20), 157-163.

Schön, D. 1995/1983. The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. Hants: Arena.

Scrivener, S. and Chapman, P. 2004. The practical implications of applying a theory of practise based research: a case study. Proceedings of the research into practise conference. Selected papers vol. 3. http://www.herts.ac.uk/ artdes1/reseasch/papers/wpades/vol3/ssfull.html

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