Updated: Apr 7, 2021
In the second session of the module, we addressed the following questions: What is research? What are the various frameworks of research? How as creative practitioners can research inform our work?
In preparation for the session, we were asked to read Bruce Archer’s ‘The Nature of Research’. Initially, I found the text difficult to relate back to the purpose of the module; I found myself wondering why I was learning about Karl Popper in a course on research for artistic practice. A little research into Archer’s background gave me more context.
Archer trained as a mechanical engineer and was Professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art.
He helped to establish design as an academic discipline and championed the notion of research in design.
Arguably, the paper was an early-stage explanation of Archer’s ideas for research through practitioner action. By setting out research in the scientific and humanities traditions, Archer is explaining the historic landscape of research and how his new theory fits within it. My query about research through practitioner action were partly answered by Archer’s background as an engineer – naturally as an applied science, building and creating is the best way of testing a theory. To draw parallels into the design world therefore makes sense.
Archer begins his paper by defining research as a general concept. 'A systematic enquiry whose goal is communicable knowledge', research has the following five aims:
Archer then divides research into three distinct traditions: ‘the scientific tradition’, ‘the humanities tradition’ and ‘research through practitioner action’. I will summarise his definitions in turn.
Science is not defined by its subject matter. Science is defined by its intellectual approach.
Archer divides the scientific tradition into several categories of research type, each distinguished by their intended purpose.
Fundamental research: acquiring new knowledge
Strategic research: filling gaps in current knowledge or applying new knowledge to a particular use
Applied research: directing current knowledge towards a particular application
Action research: investigation through practical action to test new information
Option research: enquiry directed towards gaining information to guide a decision or action.
In general, all are concerned with explanation, an explanation that has enduring validity and can therefore be applied to a wide range of situations to predict an outcome.
The Baconian intellectual approach to scientific research is defined by: empiricism (based on external evidence) objectivity (free from individual judgement) and inductivity (specific to general). This held strong until the mid-20th Century when philosophers of science began questioning the concept of proof. Karl Popper gave a well-known example:
No number of observations of white swans allows us logically to derive the universal statement: ‘All white swans are white.’ Searching for an finding more white swans does not prove the universality of the white swan theory. However, one single observation of a black swan allows us logically to derive the statement, ‘not all swans are white.’
Popper argued that ‘while most scientific theories are unprovable, they are still testable.’ The initial hypothesis is the result of inspired guesswork rather than an empirical evaluation; the empiricism, observation and induction of Bacon’s theorem is far more useful to the follow up process, in which you attempt to disprove that initial hypothesis. The longer the hypothesis can stand true, the more scientifically valid.
Archer states research within the humanities/arts are concerned with the following:
expression in appropriate media
creative reflection on human experience
the qualitative interpretation of meaning in human expression
judgements of worth
the exploration of truth values in text
the categorisation of ideas, people, things and events
the tracing of, and commentary upon, the provenance of ideas, people, things and events.
Humanities/arts research makes an important distinction between primary and secondary sources of information. Primary sources include artefacts, artworks, manuscripts, recordings, contemporary commentary, correspondence etc. While secondary sources are basically recorded responses to the primary sources.
An overriding characteristic of arts/humanities research according to Archer is its essential subjectivity. Consequently, key to understanding arts/humanities research is the identification of the author’s ‘theoretical position’. Although he doesn’t give any examples, from my understanding Archer is referring to frameworks including: ‘Marxist theory’, ‘feminist theory’, ‘queer theory’, ‘psychoanalytic theory’. These would fit into his definition of ‘an overarching system of explanation or interpretive scheme that serves to make the world more intelligible to those who subscribe to it.’
While I wouldn’t deny that it’s impossible to commit any act of interpretation with objectivity, I would argue that to not question the ‘objectivity’ of science seems naïve. All ‘option research’ involves confirmation bias, any commissioned scientific research must have an agenda and scientific research must be funded by somebody.
Archer does briefly mention the move towards more intersectional research, but generally his definitions are relatively concrete. I would argue that in the intervening 25 years since this paper was given, research has become more interdisciplinary with different subject areas working together to produce and evaluate new research particularly within the social sciences.
It is when research activity is carried out through the medium of practitioner activity that the case becomes interesting.
The overarching question Archer is exploring in this section of the paper is: can practitioner action be considered as research? For while 'a striking new art work or a radically new product or other innovation can itself constitute new knowledge... and a great deal of practitioner activity entails some research... it is not quite so certain, however, that the practitioner activity itself is quite the same as research activity.'
In some ways, the concept of practitioner activity as research works in direct opposition to the value of art as based on its uniqueness. If the practitioner activity must be 'replicable', 'systematic' and 'transparent' in order to be validated as research, then surely it can no longer be considered art?
Archer identifies the relationship between practitioner action and research as threefold in this neat summary: 'It can be useful to distinguish between research about practice; research for practice; and research through practice.' Research about practice would be theoretical and employ the traditional frameworks of the sciences or humanities, while research for practice would be preparatory and inform the activity itself.
Research through practice is the act of constructing or enacting in order to test or explore a process, principle or proposition. Similar to Action Research, research through practitioner action is impossible to conduct objectively, because the investigator must perform some kind of intervention in order to 'devise a test or shed light upon something.' Again, like Action Research, research through practitioner action is almost always situation-specific. According to Archer, these two points do not undermine its value however, as it can be used to provide 'hypotheses for later testing in more generalisable Applied Research and Strategic Research programmes.'
I found the lack of examples in Archer's work made it very difficult to create clear cut distinctions between the different types of research, so I spent some time finding more information on practice as research. I found the Methods at Manchester website really useful for defining various types of research. This video in particular explore practice as research:
I'm going to spend some more time in the next week exploring practice-based research and finding some more examples of it in action.