Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology


Reflective analysis is probably the method most frequently applied by practitioners to their creative projects; we create a work, caught up in the process and the drive to bring a mental model of the work to fruition in reality. Reflection, however, dependent as it is upon memory, and conducted after the creative act rather than during (or as close to as possible), can be an unfortunately fallible method, and often fails to offer insights into which are frequently the focus of practice-based research. Ernest A. Edmonds, et al. note, “[t]he investigation of creativity as it takes place in naturalistic settings has been difficult to achieve and most studies of creativity draw on retrospective accounts of the creative process” (2005, 4). While some researchers decry any self-observation or reflection as inherently biased (cf. Bochner 2000), in practice-based research subjectivity is not as problematic as memory and lack of inquiry-directed observation. Thus, I call for the employment of a self-directed form of ethnomethodology during the composition of the texts, in the form of a research log (noting insights, process, difficulties), and draft materials and revision notes (which could later be analyzed as in situ utterances). Together, these methods of documentation constitute a "creative analytical processes (CAP) ethnography" in which the creative process and products, and the analytical process and products are deeply intertwined, offering opportunity for insight and nuance into the creative practice through a necessarily subjective record (Richardson & St. Pierre 2008).

Harold Garfinkel defines ethnomethodology as “the investigation of the rational properties of indexical expressions and other practical actions as contingent ongoing accomplishments of organised artful practices of everyday life” (1967, 11); ethnomethodologists observe their subjects’ speech and activities within a given context in order to make these actions “visibly-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical purposes (ibid., vii). . Social scientists practice ethnomethodology when observing people’s everyday activities, in order to use those activities as recordable and reportable data that can then be interpreted for the activities’ temporal features and sequencing, establishment of the subject’s knowledge of setting or activity, establishment and evaluation of models of activity, and evaluation of how people use their knowledge and experience to make decisions or take action. Interestingly, Garfinkel presents Karl Mannheim’s “documentary method of interpretation” (ibid., 78), which bears significant parallels to the field of semiotics: this method treats the actual appearance of an activity (arguably the signifier) as evidence “documenting” that activity’s underlying pattern (that which is signified). For instance, a writer marking a draft-in-progress with the note “Hmm, now where does this go from here?” is an observable, recordable signifier documenting the underlying cognitive pattern of composition (signified), which can be examined and interpreted by the observer.

Deborah Brandt argues for just such a practice of ethnomethodology for writers (1992), building upon Linda Flower & John R. Hayes’s 1981 Cognitive Process Model of composition (examined in the next section), wherein the cognitive activity of planning and executing composition activity is mapped as “a way of sustaining the social contexts that account for or display emerging understanding” (1992, 329).  Brandt notes that “[s]ense-making in writing entails more than producing a coherent and appropriate text; fundamentally, writers must also make continual sense to themselves of what they are doing” (ibid., 324). The process of this continual sense-making is often expressed in notes, journal entries, and comments on revised drafts: observable paratexts to the composition.

It is also worth noting that Garfinkel argues for observing activities carried out by individuals whose competence is high enough that the activities are taken for granted – essentially, activities that are familiar and practiced, even those with significant cognitive loads – then making the activities visible by applying a “special motive” to make them of “theoretic interest” (1967, 37). This notion is highly suited to an auto-ethnomethodological approach to practice-based research, as the research often “start[s] with familiar scenes and ask[s] what can be done to make trouble” (ibid., 37). This methodology calls for the creative practitioner to begin with a familiar activity that has arguably been mastered (in my case, prose writing, whose mastery is evidenced by professional publications and advanced writing degrees), and introduce an unfamiliar element as a &ldquordquo; (e.g., composing stories in prose and electronic versions, the latter being unfamiliar). The documentary method of interpretation — as applied to in situ notes and drafts — in combination with media-specific analysis of the resulting artifacts, offers aspects of theoretical interest to the practice of the particular art (e.g., digital writing) and the domain of its scholarly study (e.g., transmedia narratology).

In many practice-based projects, autoethnography can also play a role, as creative research questions are often inseparable from artist identity, experiences, and culture. Autoethnography is an approach that seeks to describe and analyze personal experience in order to extrapolate understandings about wider cultural experience (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2011); in terms of creative practice, autoethnography can help the practitioner-researcher to extrapolate their artistic experiences to those of the wider artistic community. Many of the methods associated with autoethnography can be applied to practice-based research, including reflexive ethnographies, narrative ethnographies, and layered accounts (ibid.). The method that I developed for my own practice incorporated aspects of autoethnography, as I documented and logged my experiences as research notes and observations.

Both Garfinkel (1967) and Flower & Hayes (1984) note that self-reflection is a problematic method in that individuals either do not have enough distance from their own activities to recognize patterns and sequences of significance, or they are so distanced from the actual activity that their memories cannot be considered accurate. Brandt, however, makes an argument in favor of auto-ethnomethodology, to an extent:

[B]oth ethnomethodologists and cognitive theorists in composition argue for approaching social actions as they are subjectively meaningful to the actors themselves, studying, that is, the acting, thinking, articulating perspectives of people in the process of doing something (1992, 323).

The perspective of the writer, and how that writer ascribes meaning to her own activities, is thus a rather important perspective in studying the process of composition.

While I acknowledge the limitations of self-observation and reflection through autoethnography, it is important to note that practice-based research is impossible without them. Indeed, reflexivity is key to developing a critical consciousness of how the practitioner-researcher’s identity, experiences, position, and interests influence their creative practice (Pillow 2010, 273). I have also attempted to mitigate these limitations in this methodology by stipulating that the practitioner-researcher A) approach the creative activity from a clearly defined research question; B) observe his/her activities in situ, but interpret these observation records (creative notes, drafts, research logs) after a time period that allows for a distanced perspective; and C) supplement these observations of process with media-specific analysis of the creative artifacts themselves (as discussed in a later section). A clearly defined research question not only helps to determine the scope of the creative practice, it provides a framework for examining the creative activity. Thanks to this focused frame, the practitioner-researcher can more easily distinguish and recognize the effects of the “trouble” of the unfamiliar “special motive” on his/her familiar activity. This benefits not only real-time observations, but also reflection on creative activities and later interpretation of the observation notes, creative drafts, and research logs. Similarly, by distancing the practitioner-researcher both in time and perspective (the latter by applying post-textual analysis) from the creative practice, s/he is able to identify patterns in the creative process and narrative artifacts that may not have been apparent while the activity was underway. Combination of methodological approaches, therefore, provides a more robust approach to examination of creative practice than reflection or post-textual analysis provide on their own.

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