New Directions in Theorizing Qualitative Research: The Arts

reviewed by Liora Bresler - November 02, 2020

coverTitle: New Directions in Theorizing Qualitative Research: The Arts
Author(s): Norman K. Denzin and James Salvo
Publisher: Myers Education Press, Gorham
ISBN: 1975501764, Pages: 156, Year: 2020
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The relationships between arts and academic knowledge have had complex, at times turbulent and antagonistic dynamics, going back at least two and a half millennia. The dichotomous view of the senses versus “true knowledge”, a legacy of Plato’s founding of the first Akademia, was maintained and developed in the Enlightenment period by some of the most important philosophers of the Western world, including Descartes and Kant. According to this dichotomy, arts-based research is an oxymoron (Bresler, 2011).

A less polarized view highlights the important tradition that the arts have held as part of the history of knowledge. “The roots of ABR practice are centuries old”, argues James Rolling (2018, 509), suggesting that “it was his facility with a diversity of knowledge that prepared Leonardo da Vinci to become a practicing architect, musician, anatomist, inventor, engineer, sculptor, mathematician, and painter” and that Leonardo “flourished in an era when ABR across a diversity of knowledge bases was celebrated” (ibid). Both views could be interpreted as correct, depending on the focus and the eras under scrutiny. The Denzin & Salvo book advances an ongoing development of bringing arts and academic qualitative research into a productive partnership.

The contemporary intersection between the arts and academic inquiry is part of the postmodern crossing of traditional disciplinary boundaries in the second part of the 20th century. An early pioneer in the deconstruction of this dichotomy was John Dewey, who argued that art and science share the same features with respect to the process of inquiry (1934). The acknowledgement of the cognitive aspects of the arts can be traced to the “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s and 60s (e.g., Miller, 2003) and its branching into the arts (e.g., Gombrich, 1960; Goodman, 1968). Eisner’s notion of the diverse languages of art as foundational for a rich cognitive curriculum (1982), and his advocacy of the enlightened eye as a significant source of knowledge regarding social and cultural phenomena (1991) furthered the cause of the arts in both schooling and educational research.

The understanding of the arts as embodying and conveying knowledge paved the way for the arts to become partners in the processes, products and communications of research. Officially branded in the early 1990s, Arts-based research (ABR) grew and expanded rapidly, spawning distinct genres, approaches, and communities. While articulation and theorization took place in journal papers and books arguing for different ways in which the arts could be part of research (e.g., Barone & Eisner, 2012; Bresler, 2005, 2006; Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund 2008; Irwin, 2013; Irwin & de Cosson, 2004; Knowles & Cole, 2008; Leavy, 2009, 2018; McNiff, 1998; Rolling, 2010, 2018; Sullivan, 2005), the legitimation of ABR required access to respected organizational institutions of scholarship. A key event in the development of ABR was the establishment, in 1994, of the ABR Special Interest Group as part of the prominent educational venue, American Educational Research Association, under Eisner’s presidency of the association. The inclusion of exhibitions and music, drama, and dance performances as valid scholarly presentations provided a major boost to ABR, offering a venue for researchers and audiences that was recognized in academic promotions.

A significant stage for experimentation and development of arts-based approaches across disciplines in the social sciences was created by Norman Denzin in the early 2000s at the annual International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ICQI), with its allocation of space to the performing and visual arts.  Denzin’s launch of the journals Qualitative Inquiry (1994) and the International Review of Qualitative Research (2010) promoted innovative directions in qualitative research, including ABR publications (cf. Bresler & Andrews, 2014). The book reviewed here is based on presentations at the 2018 ICQI conference, exemplifying a range of arts-based inquiry approaches with distinct methodological genres and writing styles.


If academic discourse has rightfully been concerned with “What is good research”, Denzin has explicitly and consistently underscored the issue of what is research good for, highlighting the social/political. Following the theme of the 2018 ICQI conference, James Salvo’s introduction (Salvo, 2020) frames the volume as “Arts-based research for troubled times”. Referring to an era of post-truth, Salvo invokes Kurt Vonnegut’s quotation “It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, “In nonsense is strength” (Vonnegut, 2011).

The first five chapters, based on an ICQI 2018 panel on the “Transformative power of song,” personify the significance of artistic work towards social justice. Responding to a range of social malaises, historical and contemporary issues reverberate. Anne Harris, the organizer of the ICQI panel, sets up a compelling initial framework for the following four chapters, addressing the differences between “call-to-action” songs employed by activist movements, versus reflective narratives that invite us to look beyond the current crisis towards a horizon of hope (Harris, 2020).

The reality of current troubled times reached a climax during the writing of this review, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the wide-spread protests following the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. Reading Bryant Keith Alexander’s chapter 2 “Still hanging/on: “Strange fruit” and “Glory”: Songs of/as/in protest,” assumed a special poignancy, projecting the ongoing brutality of racism in the United States and elsewhere (Alexander, 2020).

A critical autoethnography, chapter 3 by David Carless explores songwriting and musical performance as approaches to qualitative research. Portraying how moments of history, biography, culture, politics and lived experience can coalesce within a song, the author refers to Douglas’ notion of “thick empathy” (Carless, 2020, 41) to express what we don’t know how to articulate in words, and to move toward an imaginative aesthetic that transcends problematic silence. Carless describes how rhythm, melody, words, personal voice and the dynamics of musical performance combine to evoke insights, emotions and meaning in ways that support impact, solidarity and transformation.

In Chapter 4, Kitrina Douglas develops the connection between singing and research, pointing out that songs, like stories, bring attention to issues worth noticing and to the life experiences of people (Douglas, 2020). While her professional background is in the context of health and the benefits of songs, the chapter is largely autobiographical, reflecting on her experiences of the creative act of writing songs as an embodied response to what is going around us; attending to songs as provocations to reflect on her actions and inactions; and the effects of listening within a community.

Taking us to yet a different cultural context, and the time-period of the 1960s to the 1980s, Marcelo Diversi addresses in chapter 5 the power of music to teach, expand and heal during the violence of dictatorship. The personal narrative of a Brazilian singer “who sings with and through smiles,” (Diversi, 2020, p. 71) telling stories of Brazil and its peoples who were not taught in school during the repressive military regime, extends the power of song, from protest to affirming identity, to health and healing.

Popular musical genres to which these five chapters refer, share with classical music the expression of pain and suffering--evident, for example, in the long history of Requiems and Passions, from Ockeghem, Charpentier, Bach, and Mozart to the contemporary works of Ligeti, Pärt and Golijov. Both classical and protest songs are intensely communal, affective, embodied experiences. Classical music often portrays suffering that is abstract, part of the eternal human condition. The music and lyrics referred to in these chapters—protesting, mourning, cuttingly poignant, calling to action—address highly specific social and political oppression.

The theme of music within societal contexts reflects back to the origin of these chapters as communal, visceral conference presentations. The music performed, and alluded to in the first five chapters, is audibly missing in the written text. Here, Denzin’s (2018) comment on the difficulty of publishing experimental, performative texts is an apt reminder of the limitations of book formats, revolving around the relationships between the multifaceted experience of a presentation/performance, and the text based on this performance.

The last three chapters in the book address the relationship between art and research through the identification of key theoretical issues. Given the multiplicity of definitions and interpretations of ABR, with their diverse and sometimes contradictory meanings, Dafna Moriya confronts, in chapter 6, ethical considerations when art is integrated in research, unpacking the terms of ethics and moral principles (Moriya, 2020.) Moriya urges clarity about the nature of artistic activity involved in ABR, offering a method for distinguishing between different kinds of ABR. Useful categories include using art in the data collection stage; creating art for data analysis; and making art for the presentation of results.

Further confronting ethical issues in ABR, Chapter 7 by Richard Siegesmund centers on the time-honored aesthetic concept of “disinterestedness” (Siegesmund, 2020, 87). Siegesmund draws on Clifford Geertz’ use of the term as a solution to both insensitive quantitative research and narcissistic qualitative research, moving beyond the dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. With New Materialisms framing social engagements as authentic embodied entanglements of reciprocal agency, Siegesmund suggests that disinterestedness can be a criterion for the assessment of the quality of ethical engagement in works of ABR. Referring to examples from contemporary art, Siegesmund notes important differences between the ethics in artworlds, where intentionally harming participants can be acceptable, versus the ethics of research, where exposing participants to harm is unacceptable. He argues for the importance of research to demonstrate “a kind of caring reliant enough to withstand an enormous tension between moral reaction and scientific observation” (Geertz, 2000, in Siegesmund, 106). Thus, an essential criterion of ABR is the degree to which the research steps out of an auto-centric stance and engages with the “entanglements of the world, recognizing the full agency of the human and nonhuman” (ibid). A related criterion of quality concerns whether the work fulfills the pragmatic goal of widening a circle of inclusive and ethical social participation.

The closing chapter by Sweet, Nurminen and Koro-Ljungberg refers to the “post-qualitative” debate in the qualitative community, its diverse stances and voices. In their quest to access knowledge beyond language, the authors invoke the Jungian concept of the shadow representing the realm of the unknown, where the shadow lies outside of normative qualitative inquiry, hidden away from the "light" (Sweet, Nurminen and Koro-Ljungberg, 2020, 118-199) of scholarly expertise. Their ABR work, acknowledged as part of the qualitative paradigm, weaves the theoretical with the personal, poetic, visual, and dramatic, including creation of an evocative and embodied experimental text.


Good books generate a dialogue. I identified two underlying themes in this book as a basis for a discussion:


The roles of the arts in ABR, from intensified narrative to expressing the ineffable


The intimate, powerful connections between the arts and ethics.

The theme of artistic expression, integral to all the chapters, is widely recognized beyond academia and has been evident, for example, in the outpouring of artistic expression following Floyd’s killing. During the week of the killing, CEO of Applicaster Jonathan Laor referred, in a note to his employees, to choreographer Alvin Ailey, who “depicted the spirit of Black Americans throughout his work and life, the deep sorrow and the effervescent spirit of the black community.” Laor shared an on-line segment from Ailey’s piece “Cry,” composed in honor of his mother, writing: “Ailey captures every woman, every family, every community, its struggle, its spirit, its humanity,” and urging them to “imagine Donna Wood2 overlaid on the footage from the past few days from the across the United States.” (

In the same week, Chicago West Bible Church’s pastor Jon Kelly, provided a deeply aesthetic moving service titled “Lamenting the pain of Blacks in America”, maintaining: “This message is a lament through the eyes of the Black experience in America for 400 years. It is meant to reflect upon and express pain through Psalm 55 in hopes of finding healing through lament.” (May 31, 2020,

Alexander’s performance and chapter, Ailey’s dance and Kelly’s service can all be seen as “songs of protest,” profoundly expressive, rich with invitations to engage. Their juxtaposition reveals shared and distinct types of knowledge and expression, relating to the etiquette and conventions embedded in each domain-- the academic, the artistic, and the religious. In an age of blurring hard boundaries, an awareness of the highest aspirations of each domain is useful.

What is the role of music in scholarly texts where the music is absent? What kinds of conceptualizations and translations are useful and required for ABR? The impossibility of translating music and the arts to language has been often articulated in popular culture as well as in the literature of aesthetics. Gerber and Myers-Coffman address the complex issue of translation and what it means for knowledge (2018, 587) “In ABR, “translation” as we understand it, is a concept and practice that represents not only the transformation of one language into another but, more comprehensively, the transformation of one form of knowledge into another.” They trace back to Aristotle the concern with how to translate a fact of human life into an emotionally valuable aesthetic human experience. Indeed, this grappling has been central to qualitative texts from early ethnographic and phenomenological research. An example of a personal favorite that captures the “untranslatable” in communicating insights into the human condition, is Barbara Myerhoff’s ethnography on an aging population in an ethnic cultural center (1978). Created before ABR was identified, and not centering on the arts, Myerhoff’s writing exemplifies the power of research to richly and aesthetically capture personal and cultural lived experience, engaging readers on multiple levels.

The ways in which the artistic and the scholarly are integrated have been addressed in ABR (e.g., Bickel, 2008; Irwin & de Cosson, 2004), and can be seen as one important criterion for trustworthiness. “What characterizes ABR as research rather than just artisanship, or the mere application of prior accumulated arts and aesthetic practice?”, asks James Rolling (2018, 494). The arts, he reminds us, have always been a means to revisit our deepest questions or beliefs. Rolling’s interrogation of how well art can carry the load of being engaged as a knowledge-building tool, underlies, I believe, each ABR project.

Visse, Hansen & Leget (2019) point out that although theorizing about knowledge and concepts is central to doing ABR, rarely are the philosophical aesthetic underpinnings clarified in depth. How does the unsayable of arts-based practice, they ask, relate to the generally accepted view on ABR as a practice that “generates” knowledge and is constructivist and critical in its nature? (2019, 2). They distinguish between approaches that favor the ontic in which research generates knowledge about the world to report on it, versus an ontological stance to the world, indicating the poetic, mysterious, unfathomable, and nonverbal dimensions of art and research. Visse et al. identify four different “turns” in ABR organized from the ontic to the ontological: the narrative; nonlinguistic; critical; and transformative turns. They identify a fifth turn: a poetic and apophatic view of ABR that favors an approach to nonknowing. I find these dimensions useful in aiming to understand the aesthetic underpinnings of the individual chapters, from the narrative-based songs of the first five, to the critical in chapters 6 and 7, and the poetic in chapter 83. Here, a discussion of aesthetic underpinnings could provide a useful lens with which to conceptualize the different assumptions about the role of the arts in research.

The untranslatable and ineffable, I suggest, are intimately related to the dynamically powerful relationships between arts and ethics. The art/ethic connection, explicit in some chapters, implicit in all, has been eloquently articulated by artist, psychoanalyst and critical theorist Bracha Ettinger. Ettinger uses photographs taken from her personal and historical archives, documenting and referencing the traumatic and destructive history of the Holocaust, urging the viewer to engage in an ethical act of remembrance in the role of what she names the wit(h)ness. “The porous spaces of Ettinger’s work present passageways which allow the viewer and reader to move through and between the various levels of text and image, theory and art, in a constant shift between modes of production. Ettinger’s ethical aesthetics intends art as a latent space of healing, a border-space of connections which are positive, active and aware.” (Vignault, 2009).

Ettinger’s reference to the power of visual art to convey what cannot be expressed in language in ways that mobilize and transform (Evans & Ettinger, 2016) are clearly relevant to all art forms, and to the chapters in this book: “Each of my paintings starts from the traces of images of human figures — mothers, women and children — abandoned, naked and facing their death. Painting for me is an occasion to transform the obscure traces of a violent and traumatic past. Residues and traces of violence continue to circulate throughout our societies. Art works toward an ethical space where we are allowed to encounter traces of the pain of others through forms that inspire in our heart’s mind feeling and knowledge. It adds an ethical quality to the act of witnessing.”

Instead of translation, Ettinger generates an interplay between images and language: “Painting leads to thought and then leaves it behind. The space of painting is a passageway. By trusting the painting as true you become a witness to the effects of events that you didn’t experience directly, you become aware of the effects of the violence done to others, now and in history — a witness to an event in which you didn’t participate, and a proximity to those you have never met.” For Ettinger, the coming together of art, psychoanalysis and critical theory allows her to approach images of devastation, “praying I can cure in viewers a blindness to violence and persecution that continues to lead to the dehumanization of others and of ourselves.” (Evans & Ettinger, 2016).

Adorno’s famous question on the relevance of art in response to the “unrepresentability of human atrocity,” raised by Brad Evans (Evans & Ettinger, 2016), is crucial, I believe, to all ABR that centers on social justice, as is Ettinger’s response to the question: “We join in sorrow so that silenced violence will find its echo in our spirit, not by imagination but by artistic vision. . . Art in this regard, like love, appears as a form of fragile communication in which complete strangers can understand one another by resonance, both inside and outside one’s close “community.” One then realizes that humans are part of fragile and shared systems.”

Ettinger’s insight on the relationships between aesthetics and ethics is directly relevant to the theme of troubled times and the roles that the arts carry in these times: “There is no real beauty without compassion. . . Art has the power to re-link and invent new subjects and forms in and by light and space. Enlarging the capacity to elaborate, carry and transform traces of violence, whether private or historical, is a responsibility.” These are important aspirations to be mindful of in continuing to engage as audiences, readers, and creators of arts-based research. I applaud the editors and authors for initiating—with aesthetic and ethical commitment—a timely, engaging conversation on such crucial issues



I am indebted to Ashley Dawson for stimulating conversations and excellent editorial suggestions. Thanks to Barbara Bickel for introducing me to the work of Bracha Ettinger and to Lori West for introducing me to Jon Kelly’s service.


The original dancer in “Cry”.


Some chapters hint to several stances, for example, Carless, when referring to narrative, critical, and poetic qualities of music.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2020 ID Number: 23495, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 10:52:31 PM

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