Updating the Academy: Is Practice as Research (PaR) modernising academic tradition?

by Caitlin


Practice as Research; Building the Discord Installation. Somerset House, August 2016

In this essay I will be discussing how Practice as Research (PaR) is challenging academic research conventions within the Western academy. I will outline the pedagogical and academic context of PaR in the arts, introduce basic definitions, and outline the history and critiques of PaR. I mostly refer to the work of academic Robin Nelson and Philosopher and music theorist Henk Borgdorff, both of who have written extensively on the development and validity of PaR as a research methodology.


Practice as research is distinctly different to the traditions of the more well-known and accepted qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. And so, unsurprisingly, PaR has many sceptics who argue that material knowledge and knowing through doing is no equivalent to theoretical knowledge attained through the traditions of the scientific method. A long-term institutional separation of the epistemology of theory and practice lies behind a lot of the doubts surrounding the PaR methodology. As Nelson points out in Practice as research in the arts: principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances (2013), the schism in the history of arts led higher education in the UK, “reflects an entrenched binary between theory and practice” (Nelson, 2013, p. 11). The problem broadly, is that praxis, or knowing through doing has not been incorporated into epistemological philosophy within Western academic thought. The prevailing epistemology has been constructed around the scientific method. What is exciting about the emergence of PaR, is that it has already started to effect and challenge dominant forms of academic knowledge, which in the longer term could well transform what is widely accepted as research, and subsequent new knowledge (Hann, 2016). Philosopher and music theorist Henk Borgdorff acknowledges that through dialogue with scholars on methods and definitions of academic research and knowledge, that “a new definition of academic research may emerge” (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 11). He also reminds us that there is nothing new about this. Throughout the history of science, there have been discoveries that have undermined and modernised previous standards, and ascendant knowledge has tempered and transformed academic scholarship.

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Robin Nelson (2010). Dynamic Model for Practice as Research. 


PaR is of relevance to my studies, as it is the methodology I’m employing as the cornerstone of my PhD research project Sonorous States. A relatively new concept, it is useful to dedicate time to examining the terms, history and development of the methodology. Like many emerging ideas, PaR is a contested term. Broadly speaking, it is research that contributes new knowledge to the discipline of the arts, through theory and practice. More simply put, as Nelson outlines in his theory of Praxis, PaR is theory imbricated with practice (Nelson, 2013). In this essay I shall be referring to this definition when using the term.

As we enter the watery world of terminology, it is important to note that there are different variations of the same idea going by slightly different names. The most commonly referred to are; Practice as Research, Practice led Research, and Research on the Arts. Before we move into the differences between terms, it is useful to note, that practice-based research is a collective notion that may cover any form of practice oriented research in the arts (Borgdorff 2006). When I use this term I will be using it to refer to the field of practice based research at large. Below, I will take a moment to discuss the differences between the commonly used terms.

Practice led Research is widely used in arts research in Australia, and was coined by the seminal work of Carole Gray (1996). This definition has been well used over the past twenty years. Professor Brad Haseman summarises practice led research as a research method that “asserts the primacy of practice and insists that because creative practice is on going and persistent; practitioner-researchers do not merely “think” their way through or out of a problem, they practice their way to resolution.” (Nelson, 2013, p. 10)

Practice on the Arts is a definition presented in Henk Borgdorff’s paper The Debate on Research in the Arts (2006). It is defined as “research that has art practice in the broadest sense of the word as its object. It refers to research projects that aim to draw valid conclusions about art practice from a theoretical distance (Borgdorff, 2006). Practice as Research is described by Henk Borgdorff as “the direct intertwinement of research and practice” (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 7). Meanwhile, Robin Nelson describes practice as research as theory imbricated with practice. Although language differs, the cementing concept remains the same. In this sort of artistic research, equal importance is given to practical and theoretical inquiry.

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Discord (2016). Caitlin Shepherd.  Sound Installation. Somerset House. Photograph. Theory Imbricated with Practice

There are nuanced distinctions between the terms Practice led Research, Practice on the Arts and Practice as Research. It is important to tease out the different meanings, as it helps us better understand the difference between terms, and exercise a more critical examination into practice based research. So let us examine the differences. Nelson, proffers that Practice led Research “may bear a residual sense, that knowledge follows after, is secondary to the practice” (Nelson, 2013 P. 10). Thus he prefers the term PaR, that gives equal weighting to theoretical and practical knowledge. Meanwhile, Borgdorff asserts that Practice on the Arts is an already well-established research discipline within university faculties, particularly within musicology, art history, theatre studies, media studies and literature (Borgdorff, 2006). Practice on the Arts is an academic study into the effect, history and value of the arts at large, and often excludes practice and practical inquiry from the research methodology. With the intention of generating a terminology specific to PaR, Nelson presents the idea of praxis as a key component and method of practice as research. Praxis is the name given to the research process that includes the implementation of know what, know that, know how. Uniting these processes within a theoretical and practical inquiry, as stated by Nelson is theory imbricated within practice. With these brief summaries in mind, it is possible to make distinctions between research terms that are problematically, often used interchangeably. To be clear, I will be employing Nelson’s term PaR throughout this essay, and indeed my own practice led PhD. Specifically I use this term to refer to research that is based on the process of imbricating practice with theory, and acknowledging that artistic practice as means of generating new knowledge within both arts institutes and the academy.

The history of practice based research within the arts is a short one. Now middle aged, but still emerging, PaR is a relatively new methodology. The university reforms that took place in UK and Scandinavia contributed significantly to education and policy debates around the validity of PaR. In the UK, the reforms involved giving the polytechnics (higher professional schools) equal status to universities, thus enabling art schools to secure direct and indirect public funding for research (Candlin, 2001). Similar reforms occurred in Australia (Strand, 1998). A second impetus, mostly relevant to the European continent is the Bologna process. This central European policy aims to create a single framework for higher education, containing it within three transferable cycles; bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. The overarching purpose of such an initiative is to generate a transferable knowledge economy for members of the EU (EHEA, 2016). However, given the post Brexit climate, the Bologna process and how it will be rolled out through the UK is currently in question. Although the UK and Scandinavia have paved the way for many other countries to engage with PaR, Nelson notes that there has been significant engagement with the methodology in Australia and South Africa (Nelson, 2013, p.11). At the same time as international developments in PaR, there have been institutional and vocal challenges made to the validity of the methodology. I will discuss some of these criticisms below.

In existing literature PaR is represented as a burgeoning practice, spreading through institutions on a global scale, with established doctoral researcher cohorts generating a range of PaR case studies (Nelson, 2013). However, its rise in popularity does not exclude it from significant criticism. Due to its multiple and fluid forms, methods and the complexity and diversity of artistic, design and media led practices, there is not a one method fits all approach to PaR. Some scholars take issue with the diverse methods utilised to carry out PaR, and argue that the approach risks tarnishing the rigour and systematic research methodologies conventionally used in scholarly doctoral research. Other critiques include that argument that there is a lack of pedagogical theory and examples to ground PaR as an established discipline (Nelson, 2013, p. 4). Specifically, there is a deficit of archiving and systematic analysis of the emerging research methodology. Key critics include James Elkins, who in his critique of PaR in the UK describes the developments of PaR methodology as “threadbare” (Nelson, 2013 p. 13). Nelson challenges Elkins critique by arguing that his assessment of the methodology is coming from a very singular view with regard to what constitutes a research methodology. Nelson argues that Elkin repeatedly looks back to an archaic and arguably exclusive methodology taken from the traditions of scholarly research that has a history of excluding artistic and material practices from the process of knowledge generation. If the major criticisms can be grouped into a theme, the issue culminates in the question of whether research in which the creation of art and creative output is intermeshed with the research process, is indeed serious scholarly research equivalent, and whether it is PhD-worthy (Candlin, 2000).

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Racheal Hann (2016) Presentation at Thinking about Practice conference. Plymouth University

Dr Rachael Hann, lecturer and associate dean at the University of Surrey recognises that such criticisms have been around for long enough for debates surrounding PaR to have moved through distinct historical waves (Hann, 2016). The first wave practice as research took place in the 1990’s. It was concerned with arguing for the right to conduct research through practice, and researchers and supervisors focused on convincing university management and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to accept knowledge through practice. This first phase was directed towards the interests of artists working within the academy. The second wave happened in the 2000’s. Key concerns with this wave of practice as research were accessibility and quality of research outputs. Questions of legacy have been discussed including where to situate lasting PaR knowledge, which relates to the criticism of a lack of archiving and analysis of PaR. To help mitigate such valid concerns, peer review communities are vital, as are clear narratives of evidencing the value and knowledge contribution of practice as research doctoral contributions. As we move out of the first and second wave, we enter the third. Sitting on uncertain waters it seems that there are emerging methods for assessing PaR and the equivalent research outputs that come with the methodology. Artistic expression has always straddled multiple worlds, including linguistics, hermeneutics, semiotics, psychology, sociology, politics, science, theology and numerous other disciplines. Thus it needs a method of research that accommodates and incorporates its complexity and materiality.

In conclusion, let us look back to the original question. Has Practice as Research (PaR) modernised academic tradition? Although there are on-going debates about the credibility of PaR, it seems that many research councils organised around doctoral research and research at large have accepted the turn within the arts universe, and identified that the PaR methodology is one that suits the complex materiality and theoretical inquiry exercised through the process of artistic making. There are some countries such as the US, where uptake has been slow and a dominant scepticism resounds (Nelson, 2013). Within the UK as Hann, Nelson, Borgdstorff and others argue, the turn has already happened, and we have entered the third wave of PaR. Artist- Researchers must embrace their research question as they progress through doctoral research, but also a baton to alight, making the case for PaR within the arts as a rigorous and valid equivalent to traditional scholarly research.

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Bitter Suite (2016) Multi Sensory show Tapestries. Open to the public May 2017

For better or worse, philosophies surrounding definitions of knowing have derived from a tradition, extending back to Greek antiquity. As early as Aristotle, the concept of episteme, intellectual knowledge, was contrasted with techne, practical knowledge required for making (poiesis) and doing (praxis). It is time to shine light in on thinking that has for hundreds of years, privileged the theoretical over the practical, and challenge the towers of authority that have for too long excluded knowing through embodied process, intrinsic to the arts as a second class citizen of the intellectual tradition. Throughout its recent history, Practice as Research has broken dominant notions of intellectual knowledge that historically, have given more importance to episteme than techne knowledge. Through the complex, and at times hard to define form, PaR, is actively challenging the philosophical and pedagogic limits, catalysing discourse across disciplines on the matter of definitions and characteristics of knowing. Through the praxis of practice based research, the methodology is generating new modes and definitions of knowledge, while simultaneously demanding that traditional notions of epistemology are reconsidered through entering into discourse with the material and processual knowing embodied by those involved with artistic creation.


Borgdorff, H. (2006) The debate on research in the arts. Amsterdam School of the Arts. Available at http://www.ips.gu.se/digitalAssets/1322/1322713_the_debate_on_research_in_the_arts.pdf. (Accessed 13th November 2016)

Candlin, F. (2000). Practice-Based Doctorates and Questions of Academic Legitimacy. The International Journal of Art and Design Education (JADE) 19(1), 96-1001.

European Higher Education Area (EHEA) European Higher Education Area and Bologna Process. Available http://www.ehea.info/ (Accessed 13th November 2016).

Elkins, J (2001) Why Art Cannot be Taught; A Handbook for Art Students. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Elkins, J (2009) Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art. Washtington, DC: New Academia Publishing.

Gray, C. (1996) Inquiry Through Practice: Developing Appropriate Research Strategies. Available at http://carolegray.net/Papers%20PDFs/ngnm.pdf (Accessed 14th November 2016)

Hann, R. (2016) Talking about Practice. [Presentation]. Plymouth University. 6th February 2016

Haseman, B,C. (2006) A Manifesto for Performative Research. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy. Quarterly Journal of Media Research and Resources. 118, 98 –p 106.

Nelson. R. (2013) Practice as research in the artsprinciplesprotocolspedagogiesresistances. London: Palgrave Macmillan.