Poking and prying with a purpose

Sherlock and Watson

SOURCE: Flickr user minifig

During the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference last week at Seattle University, I got to hear dozens of scholars and practitioners share their research about the arts in social and political context. STP&A, for those who don’t know, is the oldest established permanent floating crap game of academic research in arts and culture, founded almost four decades ago by a ragtag cross-disciplinary cluster of curious people.

Among the more interesting exchanges was within a panel of public arts folks (NEA, regional arts, Washington State, King County, City of Seattle) on whether or why they do “research”. One claimed he didn’t spend a nickel on research, but rather focused all his funding on programs to serve the constituency. Others described significant separate research initiatives, gathering and analyzing data to discover and discuss their impact.

The intriguing theme behind the discussion was that “research” is something we can choose to do or not do. Granted, most definitions of the word suggest that “research” is different from “inquiry,” “observation,” or “reflection” because it is systematized, structured, and directed toward new knowledge. But, in reality, we are constantly using systematized, structured, and directed methods to engage the world and adjust our actions within it — often without knowing or saying what those implicit systems are.

“Every attentive glance into the world is already fraught with theory,” said Goethe. And he would know, since he was rather fraught himself.

Program-focused grantmakers don’t just give money to random people, and then close their eyes about the results of that gift. Program staff within organizations don’t scatter their attention and their energy in every direction. They look. They choose. They act. They reflect (or not). They choose again. Just because the system, the structure, and the direction are unspoken or undefined doesn’t mean it’s not a form of research.

American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote that “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” The real question isn’t whether you do research or not, but whether you engage the world you serve with purpose, rigor, and intent.



  1. says

    How could one work in a university teaching arts administration and not be involved with research about the arts and their position in society? We Americans are largely ignorant about how the rest of the world funds the arts — which is mostly through public funding systems. For those American “public arts folks,” I suspect that every penny spent on researching public funding systems, especially those in Europe, would create knowledge that would eventually return the investment ten fold or more in terms of creating social structures for funding artistic work.