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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.

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ‘diversity’ to existing structures—a move that too neatly serves the neoliberal project embedded in our institutions, and their related unquenchable thirst for all that looks new, ‘shiny’ and exciting? I propose that an explicit decolonial engagement with epistemic diversity is one of the ways to productively address and navigate these challenges of co-optation and commodification.

A decolonial engagement[1] draws our attention to the need to foreground at least two important concerns. First, that epistemic diversification needs to explicitly speak to the issue of coloniality. Second, that we need to address the practical and institutional implications of anticolonial epistemic diversity.

The first concern invites us to understand that the (little) everyday institutional progress when it comes to more diversity in colour, gender, faith, ability, and sexuality, is merely the absolute minimal condition for a more just society. Hence, we should not mistake them for sufficient accomplishment. More importantly, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the ‘plussing-up’ exercise of the visible diversification is more damaging than simply not enough. We need to keep in mind that it is also a way through which coloniality can continue with a nicer face; and that that is the real and often most depressing danger.

The second concern points at the importance of moving beyond mere discursive deconstructions on what is wrong with our actual knowledge systems; the aim is to invest our efforts in material and immaterial (re)constructions of what and who has been erased or silenced.

In this regard, we could conceive of decoloniality as a research strategy consisting of three related sub-strategies: (1) the need to de-mythologize, pertaining to issues of ontology; (2) the need to de-silence, which more explicitly relates to epistemology; and (3) the need to anticolonially de-colonize, addressing both the tangible, material and the normative of knowledge production/cultivation.

De-mythologizing: where do we start the story?

In relation to the need de-mythologize, in International Relations and International Development Studies, this invites us to consider how we understand the world. A first question that arises is: where do we start the story? What is our point of departure? For example: many international development courses start with American President, Harry Truman, who in his inaugural address of 1949 declares that the USA will help the world and embark on a new program for the improvement and growth of the ‘underdeveloped areas’. It is a point of departure that systematically sustains the logic of development. If we instead start the story with how these areas became ‘underdeveloped’ to begin with, it becomes impossible to sidestep or minimise the constitutive force of transatlantic enslavement and colonialism in both International Development and International Relations thinking and practices. It becomes even more difficult to sustain the epistemic, technological and moral superiority of the West – the myth par excellence on which much of International Relations and International Development Studies is built.

A second consideration of de-mythology is that of Eurocentrism, be it geographic, imaginary or methodological. The question that arises from this is: what would our research questions or teaching look like if Europe, or the European experiences and knowledges were not the centre of our story? What would it look like when other places and experiences are centred? More importantly maybe, what if the European experiences were no longer cast as universal? It would again jeopardise the natural North-South capacity-building logic that is so central in much of our global knowledge systems and relations.

The third de-mythology consideration has to do with fragmentation. Much of colonial knowledge production is built on chopping up parts of the story that fundamentally belong together. Modernity (with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, i.e. epistemic and technological (re)discoveries) and Coloniality (with Enslavement and Colonialism, i.e. genocide, epistemicide and ecocide) are hardly ever brought to us as sides of the same coin. So is our understanding and study of the origins of wealth and poverty, which are institutionally fragmented into different departments and disciplines. This allows us to study poverty without systematically engaging with the fact that the wealth in the global North has literally been sourced from the poverty in global South. Consequently, when we seek to explain poverty in, let’s say ‘Africa’, our students and many of our colleagues turn to the issue of corruption; a locally contained phenomenon which becomes the lead character in a tale from which we – the global North – can mythologically write ourselves out.

De-silencing: who are the experts? What is expertise?

If we look at de-silencing, the two main questions that arise are: who are the experts, and what do we consider expertise? Who has the microphone, who has the megaphone, and why? Who/what type of knowledge is (not) around the table and why?

When it comes to types of knowledges, we see that in the hegemonic global Northern canon, rationality is put forward as the one legitimate (i.e. ‘objective’) way to know and understand the world. Both feminist and decolonial scholarship have challenged this, yet the empiricist, linearly incremental, competitive, zero-sum, logic of colonial knowledge production continues to dominate the field – be it in our classroom, what we value and mark, how we teach, or in our own research designs.

When it comes to the ‘who are the experts’ question, we can see the literal silencing of peoples that are supposed to be the protagonists; take for example the systematic absence as experts of Muslim women in debates on the headscarf in continental Europe. Silencing can also manifest itself in binary representation, hierarchized difference, whitewashing or overexposure; think for instance of how whenever crime or terrorism comes up, there is an almost automatic invocation of Muslim men. Silencing also bears on our use of languages, on how some of them (like English) are overrepresented in our systems of knowledge and more importantly, how we forget to remember how little we can actually know about a place when we do not know its languages. So, as a first and minimal step, de-silencing invites us revisit the implications of the incredibly limited pool from which we source our knowledges in our quest to understand the world. In practical terms, but in the classroom and in our own research, it invites us to revisit not only what we include or exclude, but also what we foreground, start with, where we theorize from.

De-colonizing: fighting coloniality through knowledge cultivation

The third and last strategy, to anticolonially de-colonize, invites us to be explicit about the purpose of our knowledge production endeavours and connect it to the material consequences of coloniality. Why am I researching this? Who does it empower? How does this serve or work against the colonial status quo? One way to look at this is by asking ourselves the extent to which our knowledges contribute to, or fight processes of epistemicide, ecocide and genocide. Put differently, we can ask ourselves whether we cultivate knowledges to address the quality or possibility of life (of those denied by coloniality) or feed the colonial status quo; knowledges at the service of the will to power or the will to life?

As such, a decolonial research strategy pushed to its logical implications, invites us to re-consider the purpose and contents of our syllabi, disciplines and departments. In the case of International Development Studies for instance, once we have discursively addressed the myth of white western superiority, colonial amnesia and re-/de-centred/pluralised the logic and voices of knowledges, the decolonial invitation is to revisit the institutions in which we do this. When the logic of ‘aid’ and linear development reveals itself as highly problematic, its will-to-life alternative would rather propose something like a Department of Global Justice and Reparations instead; for instance. It is in our embracing or resistance of such drastic engagements with the implications of diversification that our commitment to dismantling coloniality reveals itself. Maybe we should start the conversation of epistemic justice here.

[1] The ideas in this blog entry are further elaborated on in Rutazibwa, O. U. (forthcoming, September 2018), “On Babies and Bathwater: Decolonsing Development Studies”. In: de Jong, S., Icaza, R. and Rutazibwa, O.U. (eds.). Decolonization and Feminisms in Global Teaching and Learning, London: Routledge.

With special thanks to Umbreen Salim for voluntarily transcribing this presentation that was recently presented at the ISS.

This poem forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other articles here and here and here and here

IMG_2442.JPGAbout the author: 

Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa is senior lecturer in European and International Development Studies at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. Her research centres on ways to decolonise thinking and practices of International Solidarity by recovering and reconnecting philosophies and enactments of dignity and self-determination in the postcolony: autonomous recovery in Somaliland, Agaciro in Rwanda and Black Power in the US. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics (2018) and is associate editor of International Feminist Journal of Politics.