thoughts on practice-based research…

Recently, I’ve been discussing practice-based research in traditional music. Here are my basic assumptions about the epistemology of practice-based research–comments needed and welcome!

There appear to be three basic positions:

1) The phenomenological position: This appears to be the most widely held view in Anglo-American scholarship on practice-based research (in my opinion). In this position, phenomenological practice-based research offers mainly very detailed descriptions of the ways of knowing artistic practice that involve the researcher consulting their own experience in detail and rejecting scientific positivism. This sort of deep reflection therefore is antithetic to binary concepts of theory and practice but elides them within an affective reflexivity. The research element therefore emerges both in the process and product of artistic research, which must include the researcher’s phenomenological explanation(s) in text! (and importantly in my view—not in a 300 word text box, but in a peer reviewed submission). Key writers stem from Husserl, van Mannen and Merleau-Ponty etc. Critically, this sort of practice-based researcher has to be both good at artistic practice and scholarly writing!

2) The social constructivist position (my favoured approach because it really emphasises shared experience rather than the interiority of phenomenology): This sort of a position positions artistic practice as the place of meaning construction and adopts an intersubjective approach. This basically emphasises the socially shared set of symbolic meanings, often a very specfic context. Therefore, this sort of research is very much about the relative distinctions between truth, knowledge and opinion. I.e. it is important to understand others’ feelings, values and realities from their point of view, but the research emerges from a strong empirical body of shared values and truth which can be held up to scrutiny and empirical observation (one of the outcomes of this is that there is good and bad art!—aesthetics grounded in socially constructed symbolic meaning). This sort of ‘strong relativism’ supports moving beyond the objective–subjective paradigm to an ‘intersubjective’ stance where the research value lies in the ‘shared symbolically-mediated meanings’ (see: Michael Parson’s, 1995). It is therefore socially constructivist and largely about artistic consensus within a group (including hopefully reception studies) and takes into account the socialy and contextually specific meanings of art/music. It can also be used as a means to test the reliability of practice-based research findings (focus groups, questionnaires etc.) and is therefore something recognisable to non-arts academics.

3) The praxial position: This is (in my view) the weakest position whereby artist claim that ‘research’ is ‘practice’ in and of itself. This is a very weak position to get into because it is basically a circular argument and does not elucidate or support practice as a distinct process from research, and therefore sets up no boundaries between vocational practice and practice-as-research. It cannot be the case that all artists are researchers because that is corollarous to suggesting that all plumbers are scientists simply because they are vocationally skilled (others will disagree).

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