Research as – is – creative practice


It’s easy to get the idea that research is all about developing a plan, and then doing what you plan. A bit like this.

Develop. At the start, you read a lot to help you work out your question or hypothesis. Then you decide how you will get an answer – what methods you will use and how you will analyse the material you generate. Once you have done the analysis, you then provide a bit of an explanation, referring back to the literature to show what’s been added.

Follow. If you follow the steps you’ve laid out, you’re all done. Bingo. No worries.

That sounds pretty easy. Almost mechanical. Not much to worry about at all. Stick to the plan and all will be well.

Except where the plan doesn’t go according to plan and the researcher needs to do something else. Except where an unexpected twist half way through suggests another route might not only be possible but also necessary.. Except in some forms of data generation and analysis when it is obvious that interpretation is involved. Except in some forms of analysis where researcher choice and decision-making are involved. Except in the writing when it’s clear that there isn’t really a clear cut “answer” or a simple way to present an answer.

So here’s the rub. Research is messy. We do all know that, but many of us are still acquiescent in presenting our research plans as if they are immutable. That’s not illogical BTW, after all which funder is going to take a punt on a plan which recognises and builds in the potential for mess? But many of us are surprised when the mess appears, when we have to make some unanticipated and not necessarily easy decisions.

I hasten to add that changing research plans to deal with mess is not about abandoning thorough, trustworthy and defensible research. Working your way through mess requires hard thinking and careful attention to all of the possible consequences of deviations from the original. ( Howard Becker wrote about this a long time ago in his book Tricks of the Trade.) So recognising that there is a mess means understanding that plans may change.

But if you don’t think about research as technical and about following the plan no matter what, how do you think of it?

I reckon it’s useful to think of research as a creative process. Of course it’s technical too. Research is about plans and technical matters but is much more. (I am not talking about the use of creative methods here, although they are equally included within my umbrella notion of research as creative practice. )

You can find some very useful stuff in the scholarship around creative practices. For a start, definitions of creativity clearly cover research – see this by the Durham Commission in England –

Creativity: The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before

And what is research if it is not about producing something that wasn’t there before – a contribution to knowledge. Your contribution might be a replication or something additional or a challenge or a new interpretation or a new location etc. But the end result, your contribution, wasn’t there before you did your research.

And look at how the Durham Commission talks about creative thinking – or what I call the hard thinking we do during research.

Creative thinking: A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. 

And that’s what we do when we do research. We bring knowledges and know-how together to conceive of and realise our research. And deal with mess. Sometimes we do have to follow our hunches, wisely and carefully.

The upshot of understanding research as creative practice, and drawing on the scholarship on  creative practice, is that we also recognise that there isn’t a single way to be creative, to “do creative”. How creativity is exercised in Engineering for example looks different from how it appears in English, or Medicine. But this is not to say that there are not, at a deep level, some similarities across disciplines. Nor that the processes used by engineers (design thinking and design research) could not be of interest to, and help in, other areas.

So in the interests of sharing some of the creative practice scholarship useful to researchers, I’m going to post next about one of the cornerstones of almost all creative practices, that of “possibility thinking”.