Practice-research is a methodology in which knowledge is gained via the doing of something, rather than reading about it (desk-research), or inquiring into what other people know about that thing (i.e., interviews, surveys, etc.) or other more traditional models of research such as case studies and ethnographies. Generally, it is spoken about within a creative contexts but practice-research is present in most fields, including healthcare, business, and science.
In the past, there has been a dichotomy between practice-based and practice-led research. Practice-based research provides knowledge through doing practice. For example: I might try to sing Wagner on a tightrope in order to find the edges of my performance abilities when combining these distinct practices. The knowledge that I would gain from this would be inherently embodied and while “the significance and context of the claims [can be] described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to those outcomes." You’d need to have seen it – or done it - to understand it.
Practice-led research, on the other hand, provides knowledge about practice, rather than what can be learned by doing it. It has “operational significance for that practice. The main focus of the research is to advance knowledge about practice, or to advance knowledge within practice.” In other words, a practice-led inquiry about Wagner on a tightrope would focus upon the practice of tightrope walking and performing Opera itself, rather than what I learned in doing that silly thing.
These terms are quite nuanced, and are perhaps more useful within the minutia of research methodologies than they are for a wider public - as such, there has recently been a move to speak of both these approaches simply as “practice research.” And, while it may seem to some wholly rational that knowledge can be gained in the doing, there is resistance from other more traditional arenas that critique the fact that this knowledge isn’t systematic, nor repeatable: it is different every time someone does it; its lacks rigour and so it is hard to know what is ‘true’ and what is just experience: Where - and what - is the evidence of practice research?
Fundamentally, this is an epistemological division between those who understand the world via rational, scientific sense (which suggests that to develop new knowledge things can/should be quantified) and those that understand that the world is built of individualistic experiences (which are relational and constantly changing to form meaning and new possibility). While these perspectives are different (perhaps oppositional?), it is important to remember that both these approaches produce knowledge, albeit knowledge of different kinds. As such, they should not be set at odds, but rather be understood as different strands of the same Gordian Knot. As Sullivan (2013) suggests: “Artists emphasise the role of the imaginative intellect in creating, criticising, and constructing knowledge that is not only new but also has the capacity to transform human understanding.” In this way, this practice research within creative contexts aim to transform human understanding.
This is why practice-research is important to others who do not do this work: it gives unique insights into the nature of the world. For example, an artist might work with a community to explore how they are responding to climate change. In this instance, the artist is not solving climate change, nor finding solutions, but rather creatively asking questions to the community that invite them rethink their relationship to land, production, the environment, tourism etc.. In another example of mine, I undertook a ridiculously long walk between two sites of art that aimed to ask what the relationship between these two places was, or could be. It is a project that ultimately failed in its original intention, but still was able to ask difficult and important questions about walking as an artistic practice and insights into how long distance walking can challenge assumptions of migration, borders and boundaries.
Practice research is therefore not useful in the sense of providing universal facts, but rather, in giving insights into the individualised, unique, connected and subjective world in which we live. It can reveal and expose how complicated the world is, rather than provide inalienable, simplistic truths. This approach, I would argue, is more important in today's world with its political binaries and emphasis on rational knowledge. While I am neither a tightrope walker nor particularly keen on Wagner, such a silly piece of research would provide useful reflections about the state of opera today, and perhaps challenge our understanding of how opera should be experienced, which in turn, might give new insights and meaning about how others might rethink and redo traditional operatic productions. It might not change the world in any significant way, but at least it gives us some ways to complicate how we think about it.
CCCMS (Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies)
Practice Based Research Cluster: Finding and Understanding Creative Knowledge