Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.
I have been hoping to blog about two things: our recent Masterclass in Theatrical Interpretation of Research Data and Carol Channing.
The Masterclass was a great success. Sharon Muiruri, the facilitator, was a real star and the participants, for the most part, really dug in and contributed to developing this emerging concept of using improv as an interpretive tool to interrogate research data. I had a few ah-ha! moments of my own, particularly in regards to the script development for our eventual film for the Gay and Pleasant Land? Project.
With little connection at all (ah, but with typical kipworld synchronicity you might say?), except that I have been rethinking corporeal theatre and how expressing life story metaphors and developing characterizations might be accomplished physically, I wanted to write my Carol Channing story. In a recent interview, Channing talked about Stanislavsky and ‘the spine of the character’ and how, astoundingly, she used Stanislavsky’s method to develop her title role in the musical, Hello, Dolly!
I was going to write my own personal recollection about meeting Channing in the green room of an American television talk show. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she transformed into the character ‘Carol Channing’ right in front of us. This was accomplished with a wig, false eyelashes, crimson lipstick, some spit and a tin of Stein’s theatrical grease paint, much to the astonishment of all, including Mary Kay of Mary Kay Cosmetics who sat transfixed, yet horrified. I promise to tell the complete story at another time.
In the meantime, you may think that I have totally gone off the deep end and all ‘show biz’ on us here! This is not at all the case. I am still a social science researcher, I promise. Herein, however, lies the conundrum (and its synchronicities) behind what I would like to write about now.
Is Performative Social Science (PSS, for short) Art or Social Science? It isn’t either. It is a fusion of the Arts and Social Sciences, creating a new paradigm where tools from the Arts and Humanities are explored for their utility in enriching the ways in which we research social science subjects and/or disseminate or present our research to our audiences. This does not mean that we simply ‘put on a play’ (I have written about this elsewhere) or even make a film (and I need to constantly be wary of that pitfall myself these days in lieu of our Project's promised cinematic output).
It certainly isn’t taking academic prose (or interview transcriptions), leaving out a line or two here and there, and then rearranging it on the page in stanza format mimicking poetry, then passing it off as ‘poetic inquiry’. (Even worse: then calling ourselves poets.) It isn’t thinking that our lives (the ‘snowflake’ phenomenon) are so precious and unique that surely the world wants us to interpret our individuality (too often through the device of painful self revelation and angst). Usually to a captured audience, these academics perform their stories by crawling around the floor for an half hour or so and calling it dance or producing a monologue that seems never to have a conclusion.
Instead, let’s return to what we should already know quite well: academic research. I recall the standard rule-of-thumb suggestion that we make to postgrad students all of the time: ‘Find a research method that best fits the research question(s)’. This imperative applies to PSS as well. Within the vast richness of the Arts and Humanities, which lens, device, technique or tradition might deepen our research process or expand our dissemination plan? Do we automatically put on a play or make a film from our research data because we are so many frustrated actors or film directors, without ever asking which art form best fits the research question and the data that it has produced?
Many of us have turned to the arts for both inspiration and practical assistance in answer to our own frustrations with more standard research protocols and outputs. Perhaps our methods have become shop worn (routinely slotting vast amounts of data into ‘themes’ and then banging on about ‘rigour’ comes to mind as an example)? Perhaps the problem lies within our methodologies? Do we write too glibly about the ‘evocative’ without knowing what it is that is being evoked and how or, better yet, what our work might provoke instead? Do we falsely champion the ‘embodied’ without realising that through this binary by default we risk painting ourselves back into the Cartesian corner of mind/body duality that we are supposed to have abandoned in post-modern times? Yes, we turn elsewhere, rightfully so.
In addition, we have been encouraged to find ways to reach wider audiences by funders and, because of this, we have begun to look beyond academic journals or narrow academic subject groups (conference presentations or what I like to call ‘preaching to the choir’). Funders now want to know the benefits to society of our research and how it might affect society –the ‘outcomes’ of our efforts.
Performative Social Science, when it is at its best and humming along, is a synthesis that provides answers to many of these very requirements. Ideally, our audiences should be almost unaware of the seams where we have cobbled together in-depth, substantial scholarship with artistic endeavour. In my estimation, part of doing this 'performative social science' is the breaking down of the old boundaries, but also the old expectations and frameworks of what research is supposed to look like after it is ‘finished’. I am more and more convinced these days that any academic written texts reporting research should be 'supporting ancillary documents' to productions, not the final results or raison d’êtres of research efforts.
Nonetheless, we are researchers. We are not actors, directors, filmmakers, dancers, poets and so forth. There are vast opportunities and outlets (and frustrations and roadblocks) for those who wish to pursue those professions. We can learn a great deal from these folks who often needed to wait tables and do other menial jobs in order to pursue their dream profession. They may help us look at our own field through new lenses, but let’s not insult them by falsely assuming their hard-earned mantles.
In return, a word of caution to artists who might be drawn to working with researchers: the world of academia is not simply a new venue for you to put on a play, dance a dance or publish a poem. There are both constraints and opportunities in the academic world as well, which we are happy to share with you through our collaborations.
Through interfaces with techniques from the arts and humanities opportunities are presented to work with social science material and expand its means of production and dissemination to novel and creative levels. This requires the fusion mentioned earlier. This necessitates co-operation and collaboration. Communication and common ground are key to successful collaboration and fusion.
A closing word of caution: there are a few reptiles perched on the periphery of our pleasant pond. PSS, as the concept and its terminology become more familiar, runs the risk of providing a phrase or two for academics who would rather incorporate the language of what we are doing into their own outputs without really challenging either their own thinking or work. They subsume the language of PSS, but never really re-examine their own procedural techniques or output methods (and our developing terminology is, in this way, incorporated within standard academic journal writing rather than through any meaningful reinvention of research methods and dissemination). As Pollyanna I occasionally forget that there are a few academics lying in wait like lizards whose tongues dart out as soon as someone else's hard work and new ideas come into view from their lily pads. Let’s call them on this when they do so.
Most of all, however, we need to be careful not to implode PSS through an overblown sense of what we are about. In our enthusiasm, let’s not be too quick to anoint ourselves as poets, actors, dancers or magicians. When we do become one of those, I am sure others, more qualified to judge, will quickly let us know.
Anything goes? I don’t think so.