Aesthetics as much as economics guides the interpretation of social life’ (Smith 1997: 502)It is a historical fact that the major upheavals and transformations in Western art and science occurred during periods of cross-pollination from discipline to discipline (The Enlightenment of science and reason, truth and beauty, for example, or the Paris of the beginning of the 20th Century in art, music, literature, dance and design). Forward-looking arts and humanities academics are currently directly involved in such cross-disciplinary communication with contemporary practitioners from other disciplines. Some have, however, reached an impasse when re-exploring historical concepts such as the death of the author (Barthes, 1967) in literary criticism and the utility of silence (Sontag, 1967) in fiction. These conundrums, when complicated by contemporary questions in art criticism such as the direct involvement of audience in producing relationships with the world through signs, forms, actions and objects (Bourriaud, 2002) contribute to this contemporary unease. All of these questions challenge the traditional means of production and diffusion in both the arts and humanities and their scholarship.
From a different viewpoint, questions of ethics and questions of evaluation have begun to convince social scientists to look beyond their own philosophical groundings to aesthetics for solutions (Jones, 2006). They have found that text is often only linear and, therefore, temporal; in text the meaning must be precise or risk disbelief. Narrated stories turned into written text (the vast majority of the outputs of the academic interview culture) now require a fresh approach. The constructed memories that are the building blocks of narrated lives, like dreams, are simultaneous layers of past and present—the visual and the spatial—and these added dimensions, beyond the purely temporal, now demand attention.
At the same time, practitioners in the arts and humanities are looking for a framework within which to base their more scholarly pursuits and are turning to the social scientist for possible solutions or methods and philosophies. There is a pervasive longing amongst arts and humanities practitioners (photographers and filmmakers, choreographers, poets, composers, creators of new media, etc.) to connect somehow in a relational way to a science of social beings who inhabit space, place and time, and to establish scholarly grounding for these explorations. A recent seminar at The Sixth Annual Conference of the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, University of Glasgow (Oct 2007), for example, asked the following questions:
Can art change the world? Can the Arts and Humanities produce radical new knowledge? How can the effects of material and ideological change be traced? How do traditional research fields or areas approach changes in research theory and methodology? Can interdisciplinary methods in research better record innovation and change?What is learned when art talks to social science, social science responds to art? A not so quiet revolution is currently taking place in the application of research in the social sciences. The use of tools from the arts and humanities, in both investigation of concerns and dissemination of data, is gaining critical mass (Jones, 2006; Gergen & Jones 2008). Photography, music, dance, poetry, video installations, dramatic monologues and theatrical performances have recently been added to the researcher's investigative toolbox, calling itself, “Performative Social Science” (PSS). For example, a series of five workshops, “Social Science in Search of its Muse: Exploratory Workshops in Arts-related Production and Dissemination of Social Science Data”, took place at Bournemouth University (BU) from November, 2006 through June, 2007, supported by the, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and funded under its Nature of Creativity Scheme. These efforts were put forward in order to indicate means with which social scientists could benefit by identifying areas of possible collaboration with each other as well as with practitioners from the arts. Participants were able to return from these encounters across disciplines to more traditional outlets of dissemination with renewed possibilities for creative and innovative exploration of knowledge production and diffusion.
At the end of the initial four workshops, a short film was proposed which would act as a record of the events as well as an audio/visual evaluation tool. The film (“Social Science finding its muse”) was premiered at Qualitative research and arts practice: The potential for research capacity building, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, University of Wales—Cardiff, September, 2007. It has been shown to colleagues at BU many times, a visiting group of scholars from Sweden and elsewhere, and was invited for presentation at Bristol University’s Postgraduate School of Education as an exemplar of ‘Facilitated Learning’. It was also entered into the Learning on Screen Awards 2008 competition. The film has been available on the Internet since September, 2007 and has had more than 2000 viewings at this writing.
In addition, a recent Special Issue on Performative Social Science in the online, qualitative journal, Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Jones et al May, 2008) provides a wide range of examples and manifestations of PSS, with contributions from various disciplines/subject areas, and realized through a wide variety of approaches to qualitative research practice. It contains over 100 photographs and almost 50 illustrations, as well as 36 videos and two audio-recordings. Forty-two articles were produced by contributors from 13 countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) and written in three languages.
What "performative" refers and relates to in these contributions and elsewhere is the communicative powers of research and the natural involvement of an "audience", whether that be a group of peers or a group of students, a physical audience or a cyber audience, even a solitary reader of a journal or a book. This is good news, not only for participants in research studies, who can often be involved in producing subsequent performative outputs, but also for the larger community to whom these findings should be directed.
Relational Aesthetics offers a theoretical grounding to the complexities of collaboration across seemingly disparate disciplines such as the arts and social sciences and further exploration of the synergies between them. Nicolas Bourriaud’s (2002) Relational Aesthetics is suggested as a starting point because he offers a post-modern, contemporary framework that allows academics to think about aesthetics and the use of platforms from the arts across disciplines in refreshing ways. Relational Art is located in human interactions and their social contexts. Central to it are inter-subjectivity, being-together, the encounter and the collective elaboration of meaning, based in models of sociability, meetings, events, collaborations, games, festivals and places of conviviality. By using the word ‘conviviality’, the emphasis is placed on commonality, equal status and relationship (Hewitt & Jordon 2004: 1). Relational Aesthetics or ‘socializing art’ often comprises elements of interactivity, but its most noticeable characteristic is its socializing effect. Through such efforts, it aims to bring people together and to increase understanding (Johannson 2000: 2). In fact, Bourriaud believes that art is made of the same material as social exchanges. If social exchanges are the same as art, how can we portray them?
Performative Social Science challenges the traditional binary between research and (re)presentation, that is, between acts of observing or ‘gathering data’ and subsequent reports on this process (Gergen & Gergen 2003: 4). Text is often only linear and, therefore, temporal; in text the meaning must be precise or risk disbelief. Conversely, ‘working visually involves a significant shift away from the often oddly lifeless and mechanical accounts of everyday life in textual representation, towards … engagements that are contextual, kinaesthetic and sensual: that live’ (Halford & Knowles 2005: 1), reflecting, perhaps, what Denzin forecasts as ‘the cinematic-interview society’ (Denzin 2001: 23).
Asking a person to tell us about her/his life through photographs (as one example) might be just a beginning. By doing this, in a less than perfect way, we are at least starting by participating in the storytelling of the person in her/his world, her/his expectations, successes, failures and dreams. In the end, the final product of any compilation of interactive visual images (and, as importantly, the process of creating it), certainly reflects Bourriaud’s call for relational art (and, therefore, “performative” diffusion of biographic production) that is about inter-subjectivity, the encounter and the collective elaboration of meaning, reflecting the material of social exchanges within a spirit of conviviality and play.
What does such an effort contribute to traditional academic values? ‘This will be uncomfortable. Novelty is always uncomfortable. We shall need to alter academic habits and develop sensibilities appropriate to a methodological dencentring’ (Law & Urry 2004: 404). What needs to be recognized and acknowledged, then, is that, beyond the text of traditional research material and its promise of personal revelation, the territory of a physical intimacy that is shared by the researcher and the researched remains situated. Recoiling from this shared intimacy negates the potential for the cathartic, audience-like experience and the possibilities of a truly reflective knowing of other human beings. Embracing—a good word for it, too—the physicality of these potential relationships unlocks possibilities for deeper understanding and further opening up of relationships.
Barthes, R. (1967) “Death of the Author Aspen Magazine, 5-6.
Bourriaud, N. (2002; English version) Relational Aesthetics. Dijon, France: Les Presses du Reel.
Denzin, Norman K. (2001) The reflexive interview and a performative social science. Qualitative Research 1(1): 23-46.
Gergen, M., Jones, K. (2008) Editorial: A Conversation about Performative Social Science. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(2), Art. 43.
Hewitt & Jordan (2004) Talking up the social. Press Corps 2004 Liverpool Biennial.
Johannson, T. D. (2000) Visualising Realations Superflex’ Relational Art in the Cyberspace Geography. Paper for the Asia Europe Forum 2000, Kyongiu, South Korea, October 23025, 2000.
Jones, K. (2006) “A Biographic Researcher in Pursuit of an Aesthetic: The use of arts-based (re)presentations in “performative” dissemination of life stories”. Qualitative Sociology Review, April 2006.
Jones, K. (Special Issue Editor) with M. Gergen, J. J. Guiney Yallop, I, Lopez de Vallejo, B. Roberts & P.Wright (Co-Editors) (2008) Forum: Qualitative Social Research Special Issue on Performative Social Science (42 articles) 9:2 (May 2008).
Law, John, Urry, John (2004) Enacting the social. Economy and Society, 33,3: 390-410.
Smith, S.J. (1997) Beyond geography's visible worlds: a cultural politics of music. Progress in Human Geography, 21, 4: 502-529.
Sontag, S. (1967) “The Aesthetics of Silence” Aspen Magazine 5-6.