An introduction to Creative Analytic Practices and Arts Based Inquiry

“Creative analytic practices” (CAP) is a term coined by the sociologist, Laurel Richardson (1999, p. 660), who writes:

In the wake of poststructuralist, feminist, critical race literary and queer theory, ethnographic work now appears in multiple venues in a variety of forms. The ethnographic genre has been blurred, enlarged, and altered to include autoethnography, poetry, drama, conversation, new journalism, readers’ theater, performance, hypertext, fiction, faction, creative nonfiction, true fiction, aphorisms, comedy, satire, layered texts, writing stories, songs, museum installations, photographs, body painting, choreography and so forth.

This work cannot be confined, is difficult to categorize, and blurs lines between the arts and science, the mind and body. Some work embraces the idea of embodiment, and bringing in sensory experiences into presentations of research (e.g., performance, dance, music). Some work emphasizes techniques from the visual arts (e.g., visual inquiry, photography, collage). Some work re-configures writing as a medium of expression through poetry, fiction and non-fiction. This work also instigates all kinds of questions. For example:

  • What is research?
  • When is art research?
  • By what criteria should arts-based research be judged?
  • Do I need to be an artist to be an arts-based researcher?

These are difficult questions, with no easy answers. If this work makes you feel uncomfortable, ask why? Using these approaches to research requires a great deal of risk-taking on the part of scholars who choose to do things differently. One arts-based researcher, D. Soyini Madison writes:

We practice at home what we preach on paper and in the field. We work to become more generous with each other within the academy as we work for a politics of global generosity. I wish that we are generous with each other at every opportunity, and when there are no opportunities, we create them. I wish that academic generosity (of information, influence, resources, and praise) becomes as important to us as academic freedom (Madison, 2008, p. 404).

In my view, it is useful when confronted with work that is challenging, to practice a spirit of generosity in receiving and learning about what the researchers and authors offer. Below, in no particular order, I offer some examples of arts-based inquiry:

Lisbeth Berbary (2011) made use of creative screen play to represent findings from her ethnographic study of a sorority house. Berbary draws on the work of Nate Kohn, who has worked in film, and who has written about screen plays (Kohn, 2000).

Kay Inckle (2010), like anthropologist Michael Angrosino (1998), uses fictional portraits that drawn on her ethnographic fieldwork to represent findings from her research concerning body-marking practices (that is body modification and self-injury such as cutting).

Darrel Caulley (2008) shows how fictional writing strategies might be used to enliven the writing up of qualitative research findings via creative non-fiction.

Soyini Madison (2005, 2008) has written about the social justice work in which she has been involved in Ghana. Madison shows how she combines ethnography with performative methods. To view some of her performative work, see this video.

Johnny Saldaña is a theater professor at the University of Arizona who has written extensively on how toe creative dramas from ethnographic data. One of his first dramas used data from Harry Wolcott’s study of Brad (this study is also referred to as the Sneaky Kid Trilogy). You will find this drama published in Wolcott (2002). Saldaña has also published books on ethnodrama, including Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre (2005), and Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage (2011), which won the 2011 American Educational Research Association’s Qualitative Research Special Interest Group’s 2012 Outstanding Book Award.

Another writer who has used dramatic form is Mienczakowski (2001). Mienczakowski has worked in the area of mental health, and has used collaborative representations with participants to represent research findings to audiences outside the academy (e.g., family members). He elaborates in the 2001 chapter on the possible risks and problems entailed in this work (he has worked in suicide prevention in rural Australia).

Another example of the use of performance integrated in an anthropological ethnography is that of Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston’s book, Staging strife: Lessons from performing ethnography with Polish Roma women (2010). In this book, Kazubowski-Houston describes the participatory research that she conducted with Polish Roma women for her Ph.D. research. Experienced in theater and acting, this researcher wanted to develop a dramatic performance with Roma women in which issues of poverty, gendered violence and racism were explored. As implied in the title of the book, the collaboration was marred by strife, as the Polish actors and Roma women vied for different outcomes in the work. This book won a best book award at the 2011 International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry conference at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and is a highly reflexive account of how participatory work can be subverted.

Norman Denzin’s work on performative ethnography. Denzin’s recent work has focused on social justice, and he uses a variety of data sources to create scripts that might be enacted. See Denzin (2003) for examples of this in relation to the football mascot at the University of Illinois (Chief Illiniwek) over which there has been controversy.

Numerous scholars have incorporated poetic representation into research practices, including Laurel Richardson (2002), Monica Prendergast (Prendergast, 2006; Prendergast, Gouzouasis, Leggo, & Irwin, 2009), Ardra Cole and colleagues (Cole, Neilsen, Knowles, & Luciani, 2004),  Rita Irwin, Carl Leggo, and Misha Cahnmann-Taylor (Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund, 2008; Cahnmann-Taylor, Wooten, Souto-Manning, & Dice, 2009; Cahnmann, 2003).

Many arts-based researchers have a background in the humanities or arts. Such is the case of Celeste Snowber, who performs her inquiry via the medium of dance. See her website.

“Arts-based inquiry” is practiced for a variety of reasons by a wide range of researchers and artists. Some researchers pursue social justice aims. Others use arts-based forms of representation to engage different kinds of audiences in different kinds of ways. Others pursue their artistic passions, with research as a complementary interest.

Numerous authors have pursued the issue of criteria for assessment of quality. Most often, these are embedded in the representational mode (e.g., visual forms of representation are judged on the aesthetic criteria used within visual arts; literary criteria are used to judge the merit of fiction and so forth). Some researchers assert that only those who have mastery of the art form should use artistic modes of inquiry. Others suggest that use of the arts by “non-artists” can assist us through various stages of a research project. Thus, whatever mode you might choose to assist you in your inquiries and representation of findings, you should become well-acquainted with the debates around “quality” in your community of practice.

As you examine these different approaches to qualitative inquiry, I hope you enjoy seeing some of the newer forms of representation used by researchers to analyze and represent their work. Ask yourself does this work cause you to ask questions? Does this work inform you? Do you experience some kind of emotional response?

Kathy Roulston 


Angrosino, M. (1998). Opportunity house: Ethnographic stories of mental retardation. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Berbary, L. A. (2011). Poststructural Writerly Representation: Screenplay as Creative Analytic Practice. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(2), 186-196. doi:10.1177/1077800410393887

Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Siegesmund, R. (Eds.). (2008). Arts-based research in education: Foundations for practice. New York: Routledge.

Cahnmann-Taylor, M., Wooten, J., Souto-Manning, M., & Dice, J. L. (2009). The Art and Science of Educational Inquiry: Analysis of Performance-Based Focus Groups With Novice Bilingual Teachers. Teachers College Record, 111(11), 2535-2559.

Cahnmann, M. (2003). The craft, practice, and possibility of poetry in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 29-36.

Caulley, D. N. (2008). Marking qualitative research reports less boring. Qualitative Inquiry, 14(3), 424-449.

Cole, A. L., Neilsen, L., Knowles, J. G., & Luciani, T. C. (Eds.). (2004). Provoked by art: theorizing arts-informed research. Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books.

Denzin, N. K. (2003). Performance ethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Inckle, K. (2010). Telling tales? Using ethnographic fictions to speak embodied ‘truth’. Qualitative Research, 10(1), 27-47. doi:10.1177/1468794109348681

Kohn, N. (2000). The screenplay as postmodern literary exemplar: Authorial distraction, disappearance, dissolution. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(4), 489-510.

Madison, D. S. (2005). Critical ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Madison, D. S. (2008). Narrative poetics and performative interventions. In N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies (pp. 391-405). Los Angeles: Sage.

Mienczakowski, J. (2001). Ethnodrama: Performed research: Limitations and potential. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook  of Ethnography (pp. 468-476). London: Sage.

Prendergast, M. (2006). Found poetry as literature review: Research poems on audience and performance. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 369-388.

Prendergast, M., Gouzouasis, P., Leggo, C., & Irwin, R. L. (2009). A haiku suite: the importance of music making in the lives of secondary school students. Music Education Research, 11(3), 303-317. doi:10.1080/14613800903144262

Richardson, L. (1999). Feathers in our CAP. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(6), 660-668.

Richardson, L. (2002). Poetic representation of interviews. In J. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 877-892). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Wolcott, H. F. (2002). Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.



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