What can social scientists know from art and how? by Cathy Wilcock

A recent workshop hosted collaboratively by the University of Manchester and the ISS sought to determine what knowledge can be derived from artistic work by asking ‘what can social scientists know from art and how?’ The workshop aimed to start conversations between those who make art and those who engage with art in their social science research. This blog article by ISS postdoctoral researcher Cathy Wilcock includes verbal and written reflections of the workshop proceedings and outcomes.


The intersection of art and the production of knowledge recently became the topic of discussion in a workshop co-organised by Cathy Wilcock of the ISS and Aoileann Ní Mhurchú of the University of Manchester (UoM). This discussion workshop was motivated by the questions: what knowledge can we derive from artistic work (defined as the product and process of any creative activity e.g. music, dance, painting, literature)? And how should we “read” artistic work in order to gain access to/play a part in producing the knowledge that inheres within it? Also, what can art offer for knowledge production that other forms of information cannot? Such questions are accompanied by an ethical question: should we treat artistic creations as potential sources of knowledge? 

Four ways of “using” art in social science

Of course, there are centuries-old traditions of academic research on the arts, but within social science disciplines this a more recent phenomena. As these traditionally realist—and initially economy-dominated—disciplines have become more open to social constructivist ontologies, concerns with representation, fictions, and the broader “aesthetic” have surfaced.

Art is being instrumentalised in social science research in four fundamental ways. First, modes of analysis developed in the arts are being borrowed into social sciences—for example, policy documents being analysed as “texts” or “narratives”. Second, artistic works are being used as data in social science studies—for example through the analysis of novels or photographs. Third, artistic methodologies are being employed during the research process—for example by asking research participants to produce creative works such as films or photos. Finally, in the era of research impact, art is being used as a dissemination tool, allegedly as a better way of communicating research findings to non-academic audiences. 

Translating methods?

This can only be a good thing, but the motivation behind holding this workshop was an uncertainty around whether we really know what we’re doing. Can the knowledge production practices developed in, and for, the arts be easily transferred to the social sciences? There are many epistemological and ethical questions to be raised about the instrumentalisation of art for knowledge production in the social sciences. And perhaps there is also a tendency to romanticise art; there are power relations involved in who gets to create art, who gets to distribute it, curate it, appreciate it, and observe it. How can we account for this in social science research?

With this problematic in mind, we asked four artists to reflect on their creative process—and to think about how making art helps them to produce knowledge, and also what and how their artistic work says to audiences. Through this artist-led discussion we went down some interesting avenues in our exploration of what we can know from art in the social sciences. 

Openness and opening up

One striking aspect of making art and interpreting it that came up in our discussion was how exposing it is. And, tied in with this, how the “knowledge” produced by it can be open and unfixed. In Michelle Olivier’s work (main image), which speaks back to prejudiced racial relations, it is an invitation to start a dialogue, rather than a direct exposition of a point of view. In being so exposed, you confess to your ambivalence, and admit to not having all of the answers. In many ways, the process of making art is a celebration of this. We are used to being goal-orientated in social science research and to strive for precision; there is little room for mess or mistakes, whereas art is often about playing, testing, and opening possibilities.

Related to this, making art came out in our discussion as an invitation to communicate. For some of our artists, the making process often began in a private realm, but it was being made with the public realm as its ultimate destination. The way that art is consumed is often a joint experience among the audience—for example, when music is performed, it is experienced collectively. One of Florence Devereux’s works involved her washing the feet of her audience (see below). In doing so, there is a connection made between the audience and the creator through the artistic process. Manoli Moriaty, a sound artist, also collaborates with a dancers and choreographers in his work.

Symbiosis - Manoli Moraity
Manoli Moriaty – Symbiosis

In each case, the collective experience was described as adding something—and often “tension”—to the work. I think, for this reason, it seemed that the art pieces themselves “exceeded the words” used to discuss them—and this would have consequences for those reading art as data for social science. Maybe the work itself is only half the story—a remnant.

Using and transforming codes

All of the art being made by the artists in our discussion to some extent relied on and also challenged codes. It is clear that we cannot escape codes—the meaning of words, phrases, and images are products of our situated knowledge. The symbol of the tea in Michelle Olivier’s Tea Map, and the symbol of feet-washing in Florence Devereux’s work, both speak to, and are drawn from, loaded and contested codes which have been developed in cultural contexts. The ideational and material resources available to artists cannot be free of those codes, but there is some agency—derived through the creative process—to subvert, ironise, or uphold them.

FloDevereux - feet washing
Florence Devereux – Feetwashing

It seemed through our discussion that this process of challenging codes is especially effective because of the potential of art to be “beautiful” or aesthetically amazing. This came through strongly in Michelle’s discussion of her piece, which refers to a racist limerick. She explained that expressing anger can be a way of shutting people down but “beautiful” art draws you in—the beauty of the piece makes you want to engage and to try to understand more. Being drawn towards it, rather than repelled from it, invites you to challenge the codes presented. In this way, perhaps art is equipped to “interrupt” understanding—something to think about in the age of academic impact and also in broader discussions around power and resistance.

Senses and sensations

Especially when discussing Manoli Moriaty’s work on sound, and also in my reflections on songwriting, the relationship between sense and affect came through strongly. Is hearing sound, with no semantic content attached to it, a pre-rational, pre-reflective form of knowing? And what happens when that sound is accompanied by the “readable content” in lyrics, as they often are in songwriting? Cathy Wilcock’s Go Golden is one example of how songwriting can be used as a form of expression.

These are recorded reflections on this exploratory discussion and there is more work to be done to link back to the original questions about what and how art can produce knowledge for the social sciences. In particular, in exploring the implications of the four key ways in which art is being used in social sciences.


The original article can be found here

Main image: Michelle Olivier – Tea Map


CW bwAbout the author: 

Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration. In one project, which sits within the Vital Cities and Citizens project at EUR, she is looking at citizenship practices of migrants in home and host states.

One comment

  1. Thank you very much for this article! This reminds me of the course I took in graduate school on ‘feminist approaches to art and affect. I really enjoyed this course back then. Somehow, this article captured the thread of that course.

Comment anonymously or log in