Performative Social Science …

… or the use of Arts-based Methods for discovery and communication*

 “We envisage the continuing exploration of the potential of Performative Social Science (PSS) in order to encourage researchers and citizen groups in the creative investigation of communities and their changing values. Research and dissemination processes using innovative and participatory methods to creatively connect with the public are key to the future development of academic research. Performative Social Science or a fusion of the arts and sciences is central to both community engagement and as a catalyst for change”


A not so quiet revolution is currently taking place in the application of research in the Arts and Social Sciences. The use of tools from the Arts and Humanities, in both investigation of concerns and dissemination of data, is gaining critical mass amongst social scientists (Jones, 2006; Gergen & Jones, 2008; Jones, 2012). Photography, music, dance, poetry, video installations, dramatic monologues and theatrical performances have recently been added to the researcher’s toolbox, under the umbrella paradigm of “Performative Social Science” (PSS). In turn, those in the Arts and Humanities are turning to PSS in order to establish a methodological base and explore ways of engaging with and reaching diverse communities with their own creative outputs. Because of its natural requirement for community, Performative Social Science provides the overarching intellectual prowess, strategies and methodological and theoretical bases to engage and unite scholars across disciplines and, in turn, connect researchers’ endeavours with communities and stakeholders.

Pioneering work

In the initial stages of pioneering the development of PSS, a series of five workshops, “Social Science in Search of its Muse: Exploratory Workshops in Arts-related Production and Dissemination of Social Science Data,” were held at Bournemouth University from November, 2006 through June, 2007, supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and funded under its Nature of Creativity Scheme. These efforts were put forward in order to indicate means with which social scientists could benefit by identifying areas of possible connections with each other as well as with practitioners from the Arts. Participants were able to return from these encounters across disciplines to more traditional fields of endeavour with renewed possibilities for creative and innovative exploration of knowledge production and diffusion. Since this seminal effort in PSS, the impact of these explorations has been measurable, including several completed PhDs utilizing principles of PSS, many journal articles, films and conference presentations nationally and internationally and further funding by Research Councils UK of research based in Performative Social Science methods.

At the end of the initial four workshops, a short film was made which acted as a record of the events as well as an audio/visual evaluation tool. The film (“Social Science finding its muse”) was premiered at “Qualitative research and arts practice: The potential for research capacity building,” ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, University of Wales—Cardiff, September, 2007. It has been shown to colleagues at Bournemouth many times and was an invited presentation at Bristol University’s Postgraduate School of Education as an exemplar of “Facilitated Learning.” It was also entered into the Learning on Screen Awards 2008 competition. The film has been available on the Internet since September, 2007 and has had many thousands of viewings globally since that time.

Special Issue on Performative Social Science for the online, qualitative journal, Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Jones et al., May, 2008), provided a wide range of examples and manifestations of PSS, with contributions from various disciplines/subject areas, and realized through a wide variety of approaches to research practice. The Special Issue contained over 100 photographs and almost 50 illustrations, as well as 36 videos and two audio-recordings. Forty-two articles were produced by contributors from 13 countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) and written in three languages.

How does PSS “fit” within academic pursuits?

What “performative” refers and relates to in these contributions and elsewhere is the communicative powers of research and the natural involvement of an “audience,” whether that be connecting with groups of citizens, peers or students, a physical audience or a cyber audience, even a solitary reader of a journal or a book. This is good news, not only for participants in research studies, who can often be involved in producing subsequent performative outputs, but also for the larger community to whom these findings should be not only directed, but also connected.

How does such an effort contribute to traditional academic values? “This will be uncomfortable. Novelty is always uncomfortable. We shall need to alter academic habits and develop sensibilities appropriate to a methodological decentring” (Law & Urry, 2004, p. 404). Is Performative Social Science Art or Social Science? It isn’t either. It is a fusion of both, creating a new model where tools from the Arts and Humanities are explored for their utility in enriching the ways in which we research Social Science subjects and/or disseminate or communicate our research to communities. Ideally, our audiences should be almost unaware of the seams where we have cobbled together in-depth, substantial scholarship with artistic endeavor.

Recent developments: a multi-method project that led to making a film

A recent three-year project that took place as part of the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme (a unique collaboration between five UK Research Councils—ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC and AHRC) on ageing in 21st Century Britain provides an example of the use of PSS and connectivity to community. The project was entitled, “Gay and Pleasant Land?—a study about positioning, ageing and gay life in rural South West England and Wales” (Kip Jones, Project Lead). Through an exploration of the recollections, perceptions and storied biographies of older lesbians and gay men and their rural experiences, the project focused on connectivity and the intersections betweenplace, space, age and identity.  Connectivity and identity were central concepts within the project, developing an understanding of how sense of belonging may be negotiated within a rural context. Connectivity can be understood as the ways in which individuals identify and connect themselves with others and the ways in which this may be filtered by aspects of their age and sexuality.   Identity and the ways in which older lesbians and gay men choose to disclose their sexuality as part of their identity exerts an influence on the ways in which individuals make connections within the wider community.

The biographies of older lesbians and gay men and their rural experiences formed the bulk of the data studied and the basis for the story and characterisation of a short professionally made film, Rufus Stone, directed by Josh Appignanesi (The InfidelEx Memoria), Kip Jones, Executive Producer and Author. (Watch the trailer for the film in the sidebar on right) This project would have been impossible without the active participation of community partners as advisors and participants over the period of the study, many who continue to actively engage in the dissemination phase of the film. The project aimed to empower older lesbians and gay men in rural areas through a collaborative multi-method participatory action research design that continues to embrace the principles of PSS in its dissemination plan. The projected impact of the film is to begin to change minds, change attitudes and help to build communities where tolerance and understanding are keys to connectivity and to increasing the value of the social capital of all citizenry in rural settings. By using film and the facility of “entertainment” to suspend disbelief, the potential to change hearts and minds becomes possible.

Conclusions and aspirations

A founding principle of Performative Social Science is a desire to reach wider audiences with research efforts. We look beyond academic journals or narrow academic subject groups for new audiences where the benefits of our scholarly activities will encourage meaningful communication and dialogue within communities of ordinary citizens. Our goals are:

1.     To dramatically demonstrate through meaningful community impact, the value and worth of in-depth, well-financed Social Science research interpreted and/or disseminated through use of tools from the Arts and Humanities;

2.     To further substantiate the theory of Performative Social Science in which community is central to (re)discovering meaning and utility through a Relational Art (Bourriaud, 2002), located in human interactions and their social contexts. Central to Relational Art are inter-subjectivity, being-together, the encounter and the social construction of meaning; and

3.     Through relational artistic activity, to strive “to achieve modest connections, open up (one or two) obstructed passages, and connect levels of reality kept apart from one another” (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 8).

Our objectives include the following:

  • To establish a ‘space and place’ for novel interactions-both with each other as well as with external communities, to include fresh interfaces with  data itself-providing a new environment for invention, inspiration and collaboration.
  • To build a critical mass of social science researchers and postgraduates with a renewed confidence in exploration and use of tools from the arts and humanities in production and dissemination of social science data.
  • To forge new collaborations and networks with individuals in the arts and humanities and,
  • To engage in on-going dialogue across disciplines through new networks, leading to,
  • Collaborative production and diffusion of social science outputs and community dialogue.



*  Report excerpted from: Jones, K. (2012) “Connecting Research with Communities through Performative Social Science” The Qualitative Report 2012 Volume 17, Review/Essay 18, 1-8.


Dr Kip Jones, Reader in Qualitative Research, School of Health & Social Care and The Media School, Centre for Qualitative Research.