An Interview with Sociologist Patricia Leavy about Arts-Based Research, Fiction and Public Scholarship

Lauren Sardi: You are a proponent of arts-based research. What is arts-based research (ABR)?

Patricia Leavy: Arts-based research is when researchers in any discipline adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research. The arts can be used as a method of inquiry and/or representational strategy. As a sociologist I was trained that there are two major paradigms, quantitative and qualitative, and then mixed methods where you combine quantitative and qualitative. But an alternative paradigm has emerged: Arts-based research. ABR can make social research accessible to diverse audiences and I believe in public sociology. I think there are ethical and practical mandates for doing work that is of value beyond the academy. The products of traditional social research rarely reach the public domain. Research findings are jargon-laden and circulate in highly specialized, hard-to-get journals read by only a handful of academic “experts”. ABR can help us bridge the academy and the public as we bridge science and art.

Lauren Sardi: You turned to fiction in your own research. Can you talk about that?

Patricia Leavy: My turn to fiction as a research practice came from my desire to reach public audiences with my scholarship and to engage academic and student readers on a deeper level. I was frustrated with the limitations of traditional academic articles and monographs which are only read by a handful of people with highly specialized education. They simply never reach broad audiences. I think people generally enter the field of sociology with a desire to make a positive contribution to society but the constraints of academia can be disenchanting. I wanted to do research that had the hope of being of some value and specifically, useful for girls and women. For nearly a decade I collected in-depth interviews with women of varying backgrounds about their relationships, identities and body images. I wanted to take what I had learned, cumulatively, and share it. My first novel, Low-Fat Love, is loosely based on that interview research and explores the psychology of negative relationships, women’s identity and self-concept development and the social construction of femininity. After writing that book I wanted to explore other themes from my interview research as well as autoethnographic data. So I wrote another novel, American Circumstance, which explores appearance versus reality; how our lives and relationships look versus how we experience them, how social class shapes identity and the codes of female friendship including the things we do and do not say to each other. Both books are deeply embedded with sociology and as one colleague suggested, they offer a sociology of everyday life.

Lauren Sardi: What has fiction afforded you that traditional academic writing did not?

Patricia Leavy: Through fiction I have been able to reach both academic and general audiences. I’ve had the chance to speak with college classes as well as women’s book clubs. It’s wonderful to share work more broadly. It isn’t just who you reach though, it is also how you reach them. People generally enjoy reading fiction. I believe learning can be joyful and must be engaged and fiction is well-suited towards those ends. Through fiction we can also try to promote empathy, disrupt stereotypes and grand narratives, make micro-macro links by showing instead of telling, tap into emotional complexity, construct believable realities for readers to enter, cultivate resonance and open up a multiplicity of meanings. From a writer’s perspective, fiction also allows greater freedom than traditional academic writing. You don’t need to censor yourself which is liberating and I think benefits readers as well. I’ve actually written a book called Fiction as Research Practice which details this methodology.

Lauren Sardi: What does the novel format in particular offer you?

The novel format allows me to weave stories together, build gaps into the narrative and develop characters in ways that I hope promote empathy towards them. Because I play with assumptions and stereotypes, sort of laying them out and then challenging them, I need some time to introduce characters, giving readers an impression of a character and then subtly suggesting things are not always as they seem. Novels, even when short like mine, give you the space to do that. With that said, I have read social science written as novellas, short stories and poems that are quite powerful.

Lauren Sardi: Both of your novels are a part of the Social Fictions book series that you edit. This is the first academic book series of its kind. How did it come to be?

Patricia Leavy: When I finished writing Low-Fat Love I had to figure out how to publish it. I very much saw the novel as research. I am also deeply committed to advancing arts-based research and hoped to use my novel as a vehicle for doing so. I came up with the idea for the Social Fictions series in order to create a space to publish the products of ABR and so that my book would be a part of something larger. The series publishes books written entirely in literary forms, including plays, novels and short story collections, but all of the books are written by scholars and are informed by social research and it is published by an academic press.

Lauren Sardi: You’ve said in conference presentations that it was difficult to get a publisher to take a chance on the idea of “social fictions” but the reaction to your novels and the series as a whole has been astounding with your publisher announcing Low-Fat Love is their top-selling title of all time. What does this mean to you and what is your hope for the series?

Patricia Leavy: The first publisher I approached turned me down saying that we couldn’t sell enough copies to earn back his investment. I believe he predicted we couldn’t sell more than 200 copies. Actually this points to an ethical issue. Many publishers, that one included, will publish books about how to do arts-based research but then they won’t take a chance on publishing the products of arts-based research. But in terms of the Social Fictions series it all worked out extremely well. Sense Publishers is committed to social justice and creativity and they have been the ideal partner for the series. I hope the success we’ve achieved paves the way for others so that we see more of this genre blurring work and more people have access to scholarly works. Our goal has always been to advance arts-based research and public scholarship and I think we’re doing just that.

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an independent scholar and novelist, formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College. She has published a dozen non-fiction books including Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice and the novels American Circumstance Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Routinely called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. The New England Sociological Association named her the “2010 New England Sociologist of the Year” and she has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and a Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.  Please visit for more information. For information on the Social Fictions series visit:

Lauren Sardi, PhD. is an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.


Categories: Committing Sociology

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4 replies »

  1. Thanks for really thought-provoking perspectives. I’ve to give a talk on Art, Culture and urban society to a ‘Friends of Theatre’ audience in Glasgow, UK, early in the New Year and I’ve found several useful lines of thought – originator will be acknowledged of course.

  2. And thanks to you. You and others here might also be interested in a debate around ‘evidence’, public funding and the arts in the UK. The link below is a take on how it’s unfolding in the ‘English’ bit of the UK – I’m in the more important Scottish bit of course 😉

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