Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

Written by Cathy Wilcock based on group reflections

This blog is a reflection on a workshop held at the University of Manchester and hosted collaboratively by the UoM Politics Department and the Institute of Social Studies in Den Haag. The workshop, co-organised by myself – a postdoc at ISS – and Aoileann Ní Mhurchú – lecturer in International Politics at UoM, was primarily 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. The ideas recorded here are comprised of verbal and written reflections of all those attending the workshop (4 artists and 6 academics).

This discussion workshop was motivated by the question: 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 we should ‘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? There is also an ethical question – should we treat artistic creations as potential sources of knowledge?

For 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, there has been a rise in concerns with representation, fictions, and the broader ‘aesthetic’.

I’ve identified are four main ways in which art is being instrumentalised in social science research. 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, 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 over 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 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. Some key thoughts:

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 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 for striving for precision; there is little room for mess or mistakes, whereas art is often about playing, testing and opening possibilities.

Tea maps

Related to this, making art came out in our discussion as an invitation to communicate and, importantly, partially comprised by communication. 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 – in doing so, there is a connection made between the audience and the creator through the artistic process. Manoli Moraity, a sound artist, also collaborates with a dancers and choreographers in his work.


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, ironize, or uphold them. A good example of this is Florence’s use of her body in making art. She spoke about how she has taken her eczema skin to imprint textures onto silk, and these have been turned into glamourous arm-length gloves. In doing so, the codes of a so-called body ‘condition or irritation’ are challenged and transformed.

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. I was surprised that the work was so beautiful when the ideas are so ‘ugly’ and I was interested in this conjunction. 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 away, 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 on my reflections on song-writing, the relationship between sense and affect came through strongly. For instance, I spoke about how resolving a chord in a piece of music can be used to make things seem more emotive, and how harmonic irresolution can ‘feel’ more ‘tense’ – but what form of knowing does listening this produce?

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 song-writing? It seems that there is an ‘anlongsideness’ or ‘as-if-ness’ – to use Michelle’s terms – which can arise when listening to sound and music. When I hear music, I often feel as though there is a very complex mood being expressed which I can identify with – therefore, perhaps I can get a glimpse into what connects my experience with that of others. This is something that could be very important in addressing issues of self/otherness but also, more generally, what can be known through non-verbal codes.

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 for the four key ways in which art is being used in social sciences.

Written by Cathy Wilcock based on group reflections

Workshop participants: Madeline-Sophie Abbas (Lecturer in Sociology), Elena Barabantseva (Senior Lecturer in Chinese International Relations), Josephine Biglin (PhD candidate in Politics), Martin Coward (Reader in International Politics), Florence Devereux (artist using sculpture, photography, performance, collective curation and astrological practice), Manoli Moriaty (composer using sound and human-machine interactions), Aoileann Ní Mhurchú (Lecturer in International Politics), Michelle Olivier (artist using mixed media printing, photography), Róisín Read (Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies), Cathy Wilcock (song-writer, musician, vocalist and postdoctoral researcher in migration).

Embedding the art works under discussion:

  • Michelle Olivier – Tea Maps
  • Florerence Devereux – Feet washing
  • Manoli Moraity – Symbiosis
  • Cathy Wilcock – Go Golden

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.