Numerical data can help researchers generate usable statistics, but numbers by themselves don’t always tell the full story. In this blog, Dr Thomas Dodsley, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Derby, explains why arts-based research methods can help to build a clearer picture of people’s behaviour and the social world they inhabit.
Arts-based research methods blur the boundaries between science and art, using a variety of techniques such as drama, film, illustration, painting, photography, poetry and the spoken word as vehicles for participants to express, interpret and respond to issues. When used alongside methods such as focus groups and interviews, researchers can further contextualise and interpret the art produced to glean additional meaning.
In recent years, arts-based methods have become increasingly important in social research, with growing interest in this kind of qualitative research which uses artistic processes to explore participants’ lived experiences, meaning-making and power relations. Researchers using arts-based methods are able to develop rich understandings of people and the social world they inhabit, with the emphasis on individuals’ experiences as subjective and multisensory.
As such, they are particularly useful for research which is concerned with subjective interpretations of social phenomena, exploring sensitive topics or vulnerable populations. Consequently, arts-based methods are most commonly found in the field of health research and are often conducted with young people and ethnic minorities.
Arts-based methods are beneficial in their potential ability to allow researchers to access varying levels of consciousness, with participants communicating holistically and through the use of metaphors. Indeed, there are multiple ways of knowing and knowledge is not simply ‘discovered’, rather it is made – as a result, research inquiry is more complete if researchers expand the means through which they describe, investigate and interpret the world.
Young people and arts-based methods
The relatively recent sociological interest in viewing young people as ‘social actors’ (conscious, thinking individuals who have the capacity to shape their world) has contributed to the increased use of arts-based methods in researching their experiences and understandings. Young people are seen as ‘beings’ in their own right and, as such, are increasingly acknowledged to be competent participants with the capacity to make informed decisions and undertake rational actions within social research.
Arts-based methods have been favoured by youth researchers, who feel such approaches can encourage young people to participate in the research process by empowering them, resonating with their interest in images and styles of expression, and limiting the recurring issue of adult-young people power relations. Furthermore, these methods are considered helpful with young people who may have difficulties expressing themselves verbally, and can be useful in helping sustain their interest and attention
Arts-based methods in criminology
Criminology is a discipline traditionally associated with quantitative methods and as such, qualitative methods have been frequently marginalised. However, in recent decades there has been a movement towards more nuanced, contextually grounded and spatially aware approaches to criminological research, undertaken through creative and innovative methods.
In large part, this has been facilitated by the field of cultural criminology, which focuses on interpretation and has gained salience in a late-modern world characterised by an increasing emphasis on creativity, individualism and lifestyle, coupled with the mass media’s expansion and proliferation.
In 21st century society, images of crime and criminal justice are continuously circulated and the boundaries between factual and fictional representations of crime are blurring. Due to these increasingly visual and ambiguous representations of crime, research methods should be receptive and adaptive to a changing social world. Within this altered environment, arts-based methods have the potential to unearth unique and meaningful insights regarding lived experiences of crime, and the meanings and understandings individuals attach to them.
Young people and arts-based methods in criminology
The increased emphasis on the role of young people’s agency, alongside the growing acknowledgment of the value of arts-based methods, is an opportunity for researchers interested in issues concerning young people and crime to further their knowledge and understanding, while challenging orthodox criminology’s impersonal and arguably increasingly detached methods.
Arts-based methods are especially attuned to explore young people’s everyday lived experiences of crime and in this respect are particularly valuable in research which explores attitudes and perceptions of criminological issues, as these form the basis for subjective interpretations of crime and related concerns. As such, art-based methods can be used with a variety of young people ranging from offenders to victims of crime in an attempt to unearth their personal experiences and understandings of the issues under investigation, and provide multi-sensory insights that may not be achievable through traditional methods.
Although arts-based methods involve careful considerations and potential tensions, often regarding ethics and data analysis, they resist established traditions while possessing the ability to shape new ways of seeing and interpreting a fast-changing social world. It is within this context that they are especially valuable when undertaking criminological research with young people and are likely to continue to gain relevance and support in an increasingly technological and visual world.
Find out more about studying Criminology at the University of Derby.