This week I had a student come to talk to me about their practice-based dissertation. As someone who’s own work is primarily practice-based, I was confident in my knowledge of this type of research but I also realised that not everyone has this experience or understanding. I taught on a Research Methods class last year, helping second years in what is now the School of Music and Media build up their plans for their third year dissertations, and it certainly took a while to help those students understand more clearly what was expected in practice-based research – and this was in an environment where they’d probably been encountering bits of it throughout their education. So, while it is unlikely to come up too often, here is a brief explanation about practice-based research.
So what is practice-based research?
Practice-based research is becoming relatively common in creative subjects and, within Bangor University, it features prominently within the School of Music and Media as it allows students to apply their creative learning within a research context. It can also sometimes be seen in other fields, such as healthcare and medicine, where it can highlight conflicts between guidelines or controlled studies and the realities of practitioner experience (though my focus in this post will naturally be more on the creative side). Practice has to be central to the research being conducted; in practice-based research, full understanding can only come from the combination of both the practice (creative output) and theory. I find it easiest to think of as a creative experiment, with the practice being like mixing chemicals together to find the solution to whatever problem I’ve come up with. So, using myself as an example, I once wrote a screenplay adaptation of Cinderella where I completely changed the character’s personality to see how this impacted the plot.
What do the researchers need to do?
One of the biggest misunderstandings that newcomers to practice-based research have is what exactly is expected of them. In the classes I taught last year, students tended to fall into one of two camps. Some thought that they were just going to get to do a really big creative piece with a little bit of writing afterwards – with the mistaken belief that this was going to be an easy out for a dissertation! Others were passionate about doing practice but didn’t seem to grasp the value of it as research in its own right, so instead tried to add in surveys and focus groups to rationalise what they were doing. To both sides of this coin, I had to emphasise that the practice was their research and would form the evidence for the accompanying essay portion (though of course they need to incorporate relevant academic references too!). As with other forms of research, the aim of practice-based research is to contribute to the wider body of knowledge.
Aside from the practical element, practice-based research dissertation involves a lot of the same steps that any other dissertation and so we could theoretically find ourselves helping a writer at any point along their journey. As a loose guide, however, Skains (2018) proposes the following outline:
First, establishing the research problem. If the writer comes to us at this point, we’re most likely going to be helping them with idea generation and forming a plan. In the creative side, this can often present as the practitioner wanting to do a particular creative thing – say a fantasy short story – but don’t know how to funnel this into a research project. Alternatively, they may have noticed a knowledge gap – why don’t adaptation theorists talk about sci-fi much? – but need to fine-tune where their practice may come into this. As so much of practice-based research comes from the practical exploration itself, their research question(s) may be vague at this early point but having some sort of planning document to look back on later will surely help them as they move forward.
Conducting background research naturally follows this step. For us, this may present as writers needing some guidance about where to find resources or how to determine the reliability of a source.
Skains then suggests that the practitioner begin conducting their empirical research, which they may or may not accompany with further background research. Again, they may come to us at this stage to talk about finding resources or source reliability, but also they may visit to talk about their creative work (Eoin has a post about helping writers with their creative work here).
Finally, the researcher must form an argument. Hopefully by this stage their practice will have given them a good pool of evidence they can draw from and integrate with their knowledge of theory and we can help them with the essay planning, structuring, and fine-tuning.
Practice-based research can be really exciting to conduct but it’s important that the researcher – our writer – remembers that their practice is research. This means asking themselves why they are making certain decisions, looking at where it fits in in the field, and then building it up so that both the creative output and accompanying essay work together. From our perspective, it shouldn’t be too different from other aspects of helping writers. If in doubt, ask them why they’re doing something – if they know, you get a clearer understanding and if they don’t there’s a gap for you to help them through.