Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Conversations with Patricia Leavy Part 1: Ways of Knowing

Conversations with Patricia Leavy Part 1: Ways of Knowing

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-four books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a rare feat by any author. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill-Sense, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post.

Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” It was recently announced that Patricia is the recipient of the National Art Education Association 2018 Distinguished Service Outside the Profession Award. Established in 1965, previous recipients include Nelson Rockefeller, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a who’s who of vice presidents, governors, senators, and CEOs. Patricia has made history as the first sociologist and first full-time author to receive the honor. Patricia received this award for her internationally recognized work advancing and popularizing arts-based research in both the academy and public. Letters of support called her “a visionary” and “pioneer” and credited her with inspiring countless careers. Patricia is a long-time support of Mental Fitness, Inc. and we interviewed her upon news of her NAEA award. To continue to the celebration, Patricia has agreed to allow us to explore her work in-depth. This is part one in a series of three conversations, each focusing on a different aspect of her body of work. Each conversation includes excerpts from her published work. And attention authors/researchers, parts two and three will include calls for book proposals!

So let’s start with the basics. You’re an internationally known expert in research methods. What are research methods? What would you say about research methods to someone with no knowledge or interest?

Research methods are tools for collecting data. Data is just a fancy word for information. So if you want to conduct a study about X, you need to gather data. You use one or more research methods to do so. Even though the term may be unfamiliar, most people have some experience with research methods. For example, if you’ve ever filled out a survey at work, the doctor’s office, or for the census, that’s a research method. If you’ve ever been interviewed or watched an interview, that’s another research method.

If you’re not a researcher, you probably don’t need to know a whole lot about research methods but that doesn’t mean you don’t have an indirect interest. I’m sure anyone reading this has something that impacts their own life that they’d like to know more about. Maybe you’re caregiving for a family member who is going through cancer treatment, maybe you have a child who is being bullied or is bullying at school, maybe you’re going through a break-up and hoping for a better future relationship, or maybe you live in a community undergoing rapid development and you feel excluded from decisions that will affect your life. These are all topics that have been researched. The better the research methods or tools we have available to do that research, the better information we can learn and hopefully pass on to folks who need it. While there are a host of established research methods, researchers also create new methods to suit their projects.

How did you become interested in research methods and how did you wind up doing work that merges research methods and the arts?

I first became interested in research methods as an undergraduate in college over twenty years ago, when I took a required survey of research methods course. I loved our class textbook. To me it contained the codes to knowledge creation. Research methods allow us to effectively conduct research so that we can learn new things. In other words, research methods let us create knowledge. That’s endlessly interesting to me. And the more methods we have available, the more questions we can ask and answer.  So I’ve long been interested in different kinds of research methods and when I came upon arts-based research practices they intuitively made sense to me. Even in everyday life we gain many insights from the arts. The arts are able to get at different questions or get at old questions in new ways. More people also enjoy and have access to the arts. I immediately saw the possibility for contributing to public scholarship so that research findings don’t simply circulate within elite research communities.

In our last interview you defined arts-based research as “researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts in order to address research questions”.  Your book Method Meets Art has become the classic ABR text. What inspired you to write it?

At the time I was writing a lot about qualitative research and emergent or innovative research methods. I kept coming across studies that drew on creativity and the arts. That’s how I discovered arts-based research. The literature was scattered. There were articles and essays here and there, but it hadn’t been compiled and organized. I wanted to chronicle and synthesize the literature. I also wanted to provide methodological guidance. There was almost no methodological instruction available. So I explicitly set out to write a methods book about ABR.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up.

I picked this excerpt from the preface because I thought people might be able to relate to it and think about art in their own lives.

Like many, I intuitively understood the power of the arts from personal experience, long before I learned about the arts in any scholarly sense. As a child I would reread my favorite books until the pages were faded, freely surrender to new worlds at the movies, go from laughter to tears between acts one and two at theater, and marvel at the grace of dancers moving through space.

As an adult, my love of the arts only increased from playing music first thing in the morning to visiting museums and seeing films. It wasn’t until I became a mother and a professor that I started to realize the many ways arts could be harnessed to teach. For example, when my daughter, Madeline, was in elementary school and having trouble with geometry, I took her to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and we analyzed Cubist paintings, looking for shapes. Her geometry improved. Art taught her much more than information, though; it also taught her about connection, empathy, feeling, resonance, and self-awareness. One profound experience I had observing this was when I took her at the age of 7 to her first concert. Let’s face it, there are very few incredible first-time life experiences, and most of them don’t involve your mother. With that in mind, I wanted to take Madeline to her first concert, to share that experience with her. I will never forget the look on her face when the lights went out. She stood on her chair and instinctively flung her arms up and started screaming with everyone else. I spent most of the concert watching her and I realized that what she was experiencing was the connection she felt to everyone else there, a connection created through live music. She was a part of something. It was visceral, embodied, and powerful.

These lessons were echoed in my teaching. In my Sociology of Gender course I lectured about patriarchy, violence, and sexual assault and we read many articles on those topics. What really moved students, though, was when I would show a video of Tori Amos singing “Me and a Gun,” a haunting song that chronicles the singer’s own rape. In my seminar Love, Intimacy, and Human Sexuality, we covered many topics that were challenging for students at the Catholic college, such as transgender identity. They were less compelled to think and see differently by nonfiction essays than they were by watching the film Ma Vie en Rose, about a child struggling with gender identity. The film prompted conversation, reflection, cultivation of empathy, and, at times, increased self- and social awareness.

(Leavy, P. (2015). Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice Second Edition, New York: Guilford Press, pp. viii-ix, reprinted with permission from Guilford Press)

While the first edition became a bestselling text and reference, widely adopted in universities, the second edition of Method Meets Art has been translated into foreign languages. Do you attribute that to growth in ABR?

ABR has grown enormously since the first edition came out. There are more professors and researchers familiar with it and therefore more courses that teach it. Perhaps it’s a good reminder to other scholars that some works gains legs over time. This is especially true if you’re doing something pushing boundaries. While the first edition of the book was well-received, there wasn’t any interest in foreign translations, or at least not that I’m aware of. All of that has come years later.

Congratulations on the publication of the Handbook of Arts-Based Research. It’s a beautiful collection. Can you describe it, the audience, and the motivation for releasing it at this time?

Thank you. It’s an edited volume that provides a retrospective and prospective overview of arts-based research. The handbook is over 700 pages so it’s quite comprehensive. Leading scholars, methodologists, and artists from across the disciplines wrote chapters. In a nutshell, the handbook explores the synergies between artistic and research practices and addresses issues in conceptualizing, designing, implementing, evaluating, and publishing arts-based research studies. The handbook is divided into eight sections: the field, literary genres, performance genres, visual arts, audiovisual arts, mixed method and team approaches, arts-based research within disciplines or area studies which include education, the social sciences, health studies, the natural sciences, and business, and the final section covers additional considerations. My favorite features of the book are the research examples used to bring each practice to life, the art in various forms sprinkled throughout the prose, and the different writing styles used by the authors. With all credit given to the contributors and publisher, I honestly think it’s gorgeous and shows that a handbook can be both practical and artistic.

Why did I release it at this time? Well, as we already talked about, there’s been significant growth in the field over the past decade and it seemed like the right time to document where the field has been and where it’s going. Even us folks who do ABR don’t necessarily know all of the fields it’s used in or all of the methods available. It’s such a diverse paradigm. I felt we all needed a comprehensive, contemporary handbook with ample practical guidance.

In terms of the audience, it can be used as a primary class text or a reference book. As a class text it’s suitable for courses in arts-based research, art education, narrative inquiry, advanced qualitative research, and creative arts therapies. It can also read by any individual artist, researcher, or creative arts therapist, interested in the art-research nexus. I’ve said this before but I truly think it’s one of those special reference texts one might pull off their bookshelf time and again. I know I will.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share from the introduction. Please set it up.

I selected this excerpt because I’m interested in literary neuroscience, a field that essentially examines our brains on fiction. I’m also interested more generally in neuroscientific research on the arts. There’s fascinating and significant research being done about our brains on art or making art. I thought by sharing this excerpt it might prompt folks to read some of this research.

In February 2015 I was one of 50 participants worldwide who were invited to the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. The title of the 5-day seminar was “The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?” The majority of the participants were either world-class neuroscientists studying creativity or accomplished artists. It was an extraordinary experience, during which I learned that there is extensive, funded research being conducted on how our brains function while we are engaging in creative practices such as art making, comparisons in brain activity during art making between novices and accomplished artists, and how our brains are affected as we consume art. It is clear to me that (1) research in this area is taking off, and (2) our brains respond in critical ways as we engage in art making, as we enter “flow” states of creativity, and as we consume art.

(Leavy, P. (2018). Handbook of Arts-Based Research, New York: Guilford Press, p. 7, reprinted with permission from Guilford Press)

We also asked you to pick an excerpt to share from a contributor chapter. Please set it up.

I selected this excerpt from a chapter titled “Film as Research/Research as Film” by Trevor Hearing and Kip Jones.  I chose this piece for a few reasons: film is an art form that includes multiple art forms, the authors wrote their chapter as a conversation which highlights the varied, creative approaches contributors used throughout the book, and this particular segment focuses on a question frequently asked about how research and arts/arts-based practices differ.

KIP: Well, that’s my next question, actually, and it is one about the research question. Saying research usually starts with the research question and using film to ask that question, as well as the medium, to begin to uncover answers to it, how does this proceed differently to other research methods? We incorporate the research question, but because we’ve shifted somewhat, how are we going to do this?

TREVOR: Well this is the thing about film, that it draws on so many forms of creativity, so many tools: Film draws on performance, it draws on writing, music, photography, and so forth, and isn’t that the wonderful thing about film whether it has to do with research or not? It’s that it is a fusion of those particular skills, techniques, and abilities to use emotion, and that, for me, is what film is about.

KIP: To me it almost is a breath of fresh air, and that last moment, when you realize when you see it successfully used as a performative way of producing research, you see that the end result is often an “aha” moment. This makes much more sense to me.

TREVOR: Yes, it makes sense, but I’d go back to this thing of emotion: Do we skirt around quite a lot the place of emotion in research, and isn’t that something we need to tackle a bit more? Not just in terms of film, but in terms of any arts-based research, and film perhaps highlights this more than most. I feel that’s something I haven’t explored sufficiently, or maybe the academy hasn’t acknowledged the place of emotion fully in understanding knowledge, and this is something we can offer through performative methodology.

KIP: I think that in the way people in research often say something is “emotive,” but I think that’s a cop-out in a certain sense—a way to say I’m not going to talk about the emotionalism involved in what it is I’m producing. I mean you know, in the film RUFUS STONE [Appignanasi & Jones, 2011] I worked with the film’s director to use this. We were really pulling at the heartstrings of the audiences, and we really wanted them to have an emotional reaction.

TREVOR: Because that is recreating or representing the research.

(Hearing & Jones (2018). In Leavy, P. (Ed.) Handbook of Arts-Based Research, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 430-431, reprinted with permission from Guilford Press)

Your latest authored methods textbook Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches became an “instant bestseller” for Guilford Press and was the number one new release on Amazon in seven categories for eight consecutive weeks. That’s quite a feat for a research methods textbook! Can you describe the book and what inspired you to write it?

Research Design is a step-by-step guide to designing research using the five approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, arts-based, and community-based participatory. It’s intended for use as a primary textbook in research methods courses across the disciplines but can also be used as supplemental reading. It’s also intended to be a useful resource for individual students and researchers. The first part of the book reviews the different sources from which we gain knowledge in daily life, how social research is a unique form of knowledge-building, the main elements of a research project, ethics, and the nuts-and-bolts of designing a research project from topic selection to developing research questions and/or hypotheses, conducting literature reviews, and locating participants. The second part of the book reviews the five approaches to research, each in their own chapter. The chapters cover what you need to know to develop a research proposal and design a project. Each chapter presents a template for writing a research proposal and then follows a unique format whereby the chapter fills in each section of the proposal. So readers can learn the details of each approach to design and simultaneously learn how to create a research proposal. There are numerous pedagogical features as well. For example, there are in-chapter “Review Stops” which are quick quizzes intended to test new learning, with end-of-chapter answer keys, tables, graphs, charts, bold terms, research and writing activities for further engagement, suggested resources, and a glossary of key terms.

In terms of the inspiration for writing it, I honestly wanted to write it for over twenty years. I mentioned that when I was in college I took a survey of research methods class and became fascinated with the subject. While I loved the textbook we used in the class, I was also aware that it was one perspective on knowledge-building. I thought perhaps one day I would offer a different perspective.  That was my goal. Most books only cover quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research. So first, for those topics I wanted to offer different kinds of instruction. For example, I included detailed guidance on survey construction and information about replication studies, topics often missing from quantitative chapters. Overall, I wanted to produce a contemporary book with relatable and justice-oriented research examples throughout. In addition to these goals, I felt the field desperately need a research design text that also included arts-based and community-based participatory research approaches, which are often ignored or relegated to a small section in a qualitative chapter. I was motivated to write a book that reviewed all five approaches to research, without privileging any.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up.

I chose this excerpt from the opening of the preface because people often ask what research design is. I hope likening research design to architectural design is helpful.

I think of research design as building a structure or plan for your research. Just as architects work with many different general types of structure—single-family homes, multifamily homes, nonresidential buildings, and so forth—social researchers have five primary structures with which they work: quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, arts-based, and community-based participatory. We call these approaches to research design, and the one we select for a given research project depends on considerations including our topic and purpose. The selected approach provides only the general purpose and structure for the research project, just as an architect with an assignment to design a single-family home still has many choices with respect to the style, layout, and size of the building.

(Leavy, P. (2017). Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches, New York: Guilford Press, p. vii, reprinted with permission from Guilford Press)

For people who may not understand your passion for research design, why is it important? Why does it matter?

I know, I always get side eyes when I say I love research design because it doesn’t sound like a sexy topic, but it is. Research design impacts the work done in all fields from sociology to psychology to health studies to education and beyond. It’s the invisible framework for all knowledge production. Research methodology is about how we conceive of and carry out research studies including what we study, how we study it, with whom, for what purpose, with whom we share the potential benefits of that knowledge, and how we share that knowledge.

In addition to your own books, you’re the editor for seven book series. Tell us about your two research methods series with Oxford University Press.

Oxford was the publisher of my first book, a co-edited qualitative research book, so I’ve had relationships with editors there for a long time. At a conference nearly a decade ago the methods editor took me to lunch and told me about some new projects including the Understanding Research series which was an umbrella for three series, one of which would be qualitative. They had an editor for the two quantitative arms and ultimately invited me to serve as editor for the qualitative arm which is called Understanding Qualitative Research. These are short paperback books that focus on writing, reading, and assessing qualitative research. A lot of books focus on how to do qualitative research but ignore the central role of writing throughout the process. We wanted to fill that gap. There’s detailed writing instruction on everything from writing a good research question to writing the final report. We’ve been lucky to sign some of the best authors in the field. A couple of years ago I came up with the idea for what has become the Research to the Point series. This series will publish full-length textbooks on quantitative research in different disciplines, qualitative research in different disciplines, and methods-specific books, such as a book on experimental design and a book on ethnography. What distinguishes this series is accessibility. Research methods classes are often intimidating to students and we want to produce thorough but accessible books that only use jargon as needed and are rich with examples. We’ve been developing the series and soliciting book proposals and are just now beginning to offer contracts. With a big undertaking like this, sometimes it’s best to move slowly and make sure you’re doing things right. I’m excited to see the series take shape and grateful for Oxford’s support.

You also edited The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research. Why was that project important to you?

Although over my career I’ve embraced many approaches to research and I genuinely believe these different approaches are important for different kinds of projects, I started out as a qualitative methodologist. I’ve always been immersed in that literature. There’s an excellent handbook on the topic that’s existed for ages, and gone into several new editions. I think because the book is well-respected no one took on creating another qualitative handbook. But every book is created from a particular perspective. Every book has a different style and inevitably offers different content. There should be options. I looked at the existing handbook as if it were the top brand of ketchup, you know that famous ketchup we all have on our refrigerator door. No reason to compete with that. It’s great ketchup. So I decided to create mustard. I felt we needed a different kind of qualitative handbook that offered more student-centered, hands-on methodological instruction with robust examples, and guidance on some practical aspects of doing qualitative research. I think the contributors did an amazing job making a user-friendly, accessible, true alternative.

With over one hundred and sixty titles, The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research is one of the top five downloaded handbooks in the Oxford Library of Psychology. Congratulations! What does that mean to you?

Thank you. I’m grateful the book is of use to students and researchers. I think it shows that every field needs options and the contributors wrote fantastic chapters. If you’re looking for mustard, it’s really good and worth a try.

Where do you think or hope the field of research methods is going?

I hope the five approaches to research are equally validated in our teaching and research practices as well as our funding and publishing structures. They are all useful in different contexts. And they all have limitations. There’s a real issue of power here. As an example, when you start digging deeper and looking at who is more likely to conduct quantitative research and who is more likely to do community-based research, and why and with whom, you see that there are issues of race and gender at play. The entire research apparatus has historically been created and maintained to promote, validate, and reward Western white, male ways of conducting research at the exclusion of others. We need more approaches and I think that’s where we’re heading. I also think it’s important for researchers to consider issues of audience when they undertake projects. For example, are there stakeholders outside of the academy that could benefit from the research? How can you identify and reach them? The more we ask these questions, the more answers we’ll come up with.

Any advice to other researchers?

Sometimes we think about research as a regimented and highly structured enterprise, but real life and our study of it can be messy. Don’t fight the messiness, dive into it. Sometimes we need to create our own ways of approaching a question or problem. If traditional methods aren’t right for your project, get creative and develop your own methods or practices.

What’s next for you in the world of research methods?

Anne Harris and I coauthored a book called Contemporary Feminist Research from Theory to Practice which will be released by Guilford Press in August. It’s available for preorder. It’s a one-stop for feminist research that can be used as a primary or secondary textbook as well as a reference for any researcher. We included topics that I think make the book standout, such as global theoretical works, digital feminisms, and writing for different audiences and in different formats. I’m excited for the release. I’ve also been working on a Handbook of Methods for Public Scholarship for Oxford University Press. Thankfully public scholarship is on the rise but I felt there was a gap in the methods literature for how to do this work. We have a terrific contributor list including all-stars. Aside from these books which are nearing completion, I’m focused on growing the two methods book series I edit for Oxford, working on foreign translation deals which I like to be hands-on with, planning for new editions of some texts, and I’m considering some other ideas. I hope to sign on to more methods projects with Guilford Press and Oxford University Press down the line.

Please check back for Part 2 in our series with Patricia, which will focus on her works of fiction, the Social Fictions book series, and will include an open call for book proposals.

Learn More about Patricia Leavy:


Links to Selected Books:

Research Design at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada):

Method Meets Art at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada):

Handbook of Arts-Based Research at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada):

The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research at Amazon:

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