A Follow-Up Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy about Arts-Based Research and Public Sociology

Lauren Sardi: To recap from our last interview you explained that there is now am arts-based paradigm in addition to qualitative and quantitative paradigms. ABR is when researchers in any discipline adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research. You noted many advantages of ABR including contributing to public scholarship and thus making research accessible to diverse audiences.

Patricia Leavy: That’s right. I believe that there are ethical and practical reasons for doing research that leaves the academy and has the potential to be useful to people. Arts-based research provides a set of approaches for doing so.

Lauren Sardi: You turned to fiction and wrote two novels based on years of interview research. You said that one of the advantages of doing so was exploring micro-macro links. This is something that is fundamentally important to sociologists. How did fiction facilitate that?

Patricia Leavy: As sociologists we know that people’s lives are shaped in many ways by the society in which they live. We are all enmeshed in a social historical context. The question is how can we expose that so readers, our audience who we aim to reach, can see it for themselves and then reflect on their own lives and culture. Fiction is about showing, not telling, and I think anyone who has ever taught probably understand the value of showing and letting people engage for themselves, if we are to make a lasting impression.

Fiction allows us to show people’s interiority, their inner lives. We do so with tools like interior dialogue. Readers have access to what a character is thinking when he or she is in a given situation or engaged in particular interactions. A narrator’s voice is one technique through which we can also bring the larger picture in, including our own interpretation of what is going on with characters. So here are a couple of examples from my work.

My first ABR novel, Low-Fat Love was based on nearly a decade of interview research with women as well as observations from my personal and teaching experiences. The book explores the psychology of dissatisfying relationships, identity-building, the social construction of femininity within popular culture and the importance of self-acceptance. The novel is underscored with a critical commentary about how, too often, women become trapped in limited visions of themselves. I wanted to expose some of the gendered nature of pop culture and how it impacts some women. I used women’s media as a signpost throughout the book in order to make visible the context in which women come to think of themselves as well as the men and women in their lives. By doing so I was able to offer a commentary about popular culture and the social construction of femininity. So for instance, a character would be watching television and readers would be exposed to what she was thinking about herself, her own life and relationships. The narrator’s commentary would provide another layer. The selection of pop culture items and the cumulative impact of their presence is yet another layer of meaning.

After exploring issues of esteem and identity-building, I became interested in the relationship between social class, gender and identity. My novel American Circumstance explores appearance versus reality in people’s lives, how our lives and relationships look to others versus what we experience, and a large part of this is how social class shapes identity. There is a lot that goes unspoken about social class in the United States and I wanted to bring some of that out, including the replication of power and privilege. I also wanted to expose and disrupt stereotypes about social class. There is a strong US focus in the book but there’s also a global subtext. While the story unfolds in the northeast of the United States and follows American characters, it seemed to me that if I was going to try to tap into issues of social class and identity and also the intersections between gender and class, it was important to acknowledge that issues of privilege, opportunity, oppression and the ability to self-actualize are far more complicated when we apply a global perspective. In other words, the complex ways that gender and social class impact our lives vary greatly when we look cross culturally. So the main character in the book, Paige, works for a fictional charitable organization called WIN which is devoted to helping women living in conflict and high risk zones throughout the world. Through Paige’s work we are able to see that all problems are relative as are the ways that race, class and gender influence our stories. We are able to see how social environments impact individual lives and life chances. While WIN is a fictitious organization, it is inspired by the real organization Women for Women International. Through the fictional format I was able to show characters enmeshed in their environments and describe how those contexts are steeped in social class issues. I used tools including dialogue, interior dialogue and third person narration to forge micro-macro links that readers can tease out through their own individual reading process.

In short, literary tools can enable us to crystalize micro-macro links through showing instead of telling, which I would suggest is pedagogically important. Further, readers can be exposed to what people are thinking versus what they are saying and doing, as well as the context in which the action is occurring.

Lauren Sardi: Low-Fat Love became Sense Publisher’s top selling book, which is a great boon to ABR. What has the reaction of readers to either of your ABR novels taught you about how and why sociologists should do this kind of work?

Patricia Leavy: Just to clarify, I don’t think ABR is appropriate for all projects. For some researchers it will never make sense to do on a personal level, although I do hope they expose their students to it. What I do think all sociologists should do is think about how to make their work accessible to broad audiences; how to engage people beyond the academy. You shouldn’t need a PhD in a highly specialized field to have access to sociological knowledge. For me, ABR and specifically fiction was my path to public scholarship and I think it could be for many.

The response I have received from readers has solidified my belief in arts-based research and in the importance of making research findings accessible. People’s responses have been personal, reflective, emotional, and thoughtful; the kinds of responses that show engagement which of course is the point in anything scholars create and then share with others. Whether it is traditional college students reading the books in classes or women and men of all ages who I have connected with through book clubs, book talks and email, the novels have prompted self and social reflection and dialogue in ways that my academic research articles never have or could. This is what research, what knowledge, should do. It should get people thinking and feeling. The arts are uniquely able to stimulate this kind of response and so their power to further public sociology is unlimited. We have barely begun to tap into the potential of art to shape and disseminate social science.

Lauren Sardi: Because you are both very prolific and very public, you have become extremely prominent in the field and to many, you represent the contemporary face of arts-based research. As someone who believes in the importance of public intellectuals what does that mean to you?

Patricia Leavy: I think of my work as contributing to a larger body of work and the ABR movement as a whole. That carries real meaning for me and focuses me on the work at hand, whether it is something I may be writing or a space I am trying to create for others to showcase their work.

I think when I say I am invested in the ABR movement and see my work as contributing to that larger project, it may seem like something that someone just says and thus doesn’t carry the intended weight but I mean this in a serious way. Consider if someone says that are committed to a social movement of some kind, such as civil rights, we don’t question that the focus isn’t on their individual work but rather this far greater and more important project to which they are contributing. To say I am committed to the ABR movement is not just to say I am invested in some academic trend or what have you. I view my commitment to arts-based research with the same intensity that I view my lifelong commitment to the feminist movement and lives of girls and women. As we grow the arts-based research movement and aim to imbue it with legitimacy across the research landscape, and indeed something that more students are taught and more researchers practice, I believe there are meaningful consequences at stake. The way we think, learn, share and challenge ideas; none of this is trivial. We are talking about what counts as knowledge, how that knowledge comes to be, who is included in the process, what is funded, and how we teach and learn, which impacts who gets to learn and what they learn. All of this is complicit in how power operates on many levels and whether or not research remains in the hands of a few or if becomes accessible to the many. Let’s not forget that a heterosexist white supremacist research system created many of the methods and funding standards that are viewed as “legitimate” but what might those ways of knowing prevent us from seeing and who is excluded from those knowledge practices? So I very much see my work as a part of this larger project. I am in community with many others who are also doing all they can to contribute to the field. Our community just lost a giant with the passing of Elliot Eisner and I think we all feel that we want to honor his legacy through our continued efforts. Whatever attention comes my way I try to direct to the issues at hand. So I am grateful for any attention my work receives and opportunities I have to advance the field that many have built and remain dedicated to.

Lauren Sardi: What do you want sociologists who are unfamiliar with ABR to know about it?

Patricia Leavy: It is both rigorous and fun. Any notions that it is somehow easier or less serious than other methodologies are totally false. Like anything else, done well, it is very demanding. But it can also be incredibly engaging not just for audiences, but for the practitioner. People are often afraid to say their work is fun, as if it will take credibility away from it, as if we should all aim to do work we don’t enjoy because somehow that makes it better. Being creative and learning to speak to different audiences is incredibly rewarding. And at the end of the day, I would encourage people to think about the impact of their work and the issue of audience. It simply doesn’t make sense to me, particularly in a field like sociology, to spend one’s work life doing research that will be read by 5 or 6 other people. If someone reading this is unfamiliar with ABR I urge you to read about it to see if it has applications for your research, your teaching or your students’ research.

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 and Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Please visit www.patricialeavy.com for more information. For information on the Social Fictions series visit: https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/social-fictions-series/ Patricia’s two ABR novels are available with automatic free shipping at www.sensepublishers.com

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

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