NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Importing creative collaboration into social science research

By Dr Kaya Barry — The social sciences have had a fruitful relationship working closely and collaboratively with creative artists. Practice-led approaches to ‘doing’ research are becoming more widely accepted and permitted in disciplines beyond the arts, and are increasingly seen as a valuable way to build engagement with communities and public audiences. But as enthusiasm for ‘creative’ modes of knowledge gain traction, the role of creative researchers, and the levels of their involvement in collaborations needs to be carefully considered.

In a recent article, Candice Boyd and I described the unique tensions of working in the dual role of an artist and a researcher which pertains to the division of labour, authorship, and the extent of involvement in a project. We suggested that ‘artists who are also researchers tend to be sought after for their creative skills, which may appear separate from their intellectual input’ (Boyd & Barry 2019: 3). From our experiences, tensions often lie in the demarcation of what is considered ‘research collaboration’ as opposed to ‘creative production’, with our scholarly expertise in the area of inquiry often seen as coincidental. Although there is much enthusiasm in social research for creative methods, ‘these tend not to be explicit demonstrations of practice-based knowledge, but, rather, an attempt to creatively experiment with different modes of presentation’ (Boyd 2017: 3).

Geography, where my research is situated, is a discipline that has warmly embraced artists and creative methodologies. The ‘creative (re)turn’ in human geography (Hawkins 2019) has revealed many overlaps in creative research that are found in ethnographic, participatory, and community-oriented approaches. This is especially obvious when ‘hands-on’ activities are incorporated into the research design, both as a form of data collection (e.g. inviting participants to tell their stories through drawing, map making, collage, music, or photography) and as a community engagement tool (e.g. having a final ‘exhibition’ of data). Collaboration, in this broader sense, I see as vital to creative research in the social sciences, where it is embedded in more ‘creative’ forms of action as a way to share ideas and knowledge beyond academia, while collectively producing a diverse set of responses and perspectives.

Many of us working in these hybrid spaces receive great interest in our research. However, the acceptance of non-traditional outputs is limited to a clear and rather small definition of what exactly ‘creative art’ consists of. As an early-career researcher, I have had countless moments of confusion when describing proposed ‘artistic’ activities in grant or research applications. We know too well the questions that are thrown our way during reviews, such as, ‘So, who will attend this exhibition?’, ‘I’ve never heard of that gallery’, or the one that always makes me smile, ‘why can’t you do the exhibition at GOMA?’ [1] Like any emerging or mid-career artists, the ability to secure an exhibition in a major public art gallery or cultural space feels akin to winning lotto. Yes, that may be the dream, but in the meantime, those small artist-run galleries, grass-roots community-led spaces, library foyers, and pop-up market stalls, sustain the livelihoods of doing creative research in the social sciences. These ‘minor’ exhibitions allow for a considerable amount of engagement, debate, and in many cases, collaboration with the communities we are researching.

The geographer Oli Mould notes that the ‘neoliberal versions of creativity champion individuality, and shun attempts to change the contexts in which individuals operate’ (2018: 61). We must be open about the extent that creative collaborations serves us well, in our academic career trajectories, and carefully consider the actual benefits that may arise for the communities or individuals involved. How we reflect on and negotiate these knowledge hierarchies within creative collaboration is important, and can be ethically concerning and confronting (Lobo & Barry, 2020). This type of creative collaboration in social research ‘necessitates further scrutiny of the agency of the researchers, the contributions of participants, and the representational and aesthetic decisions that are made when presenting or disseminating the outputs’ (Lobo & Barry, 2020: 13).

I am writing this at a time when many of us are scrambling to write large grant applications, and trying to show the national interest and benefit of our creative or social research. It has become common to see ‘art exhibition’ eagerly listed in the ‘communication of results’, alongside outputs such as: ‘publish an article in The Conversation’. But what impacts may this have on the value of creativity if the aim is to engage with communities and collectively produce meaningful social scholarship? Creative collaborations, in this sense, needs to resist or at least question the importation of our skills into the social sciences merely as a dissemination tool. Instead, we need to consider the extent and balance of the collaboration and the flow-on effects it can and does have out there in the public realm.


Boyd, C. & Barry, K. (2019). Challenges of Creative Collaboration in Geographical Research. Cultural geographies. doi: 10.1177/1474474019886838

Boyd, C. (2017). Non-representational geographies of therapeutic art making. Palgrave.

Hawkins, H. (2019). Geography’s creative (re)turn: Toward a critical framework. Progress in human geography, 46(6), 963-984.

Lobo, M. & Barry, K. (2020). Transgressing borders with participatory video technologies: Reflections on creative knowledge production with asylum seekers in Australia. Borderlands journal, 18(2), 8-36.

Mould, O. (2018). Against creativity. London: Verso.

[1] ‘GOMA’ is the internationally renowned ‘Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery Of Modern Art’, situated in the heart of Brisbane city’s cultural precinct.

Kaya Barry is an artist and geographer working in the areas of mobilities, migration, tourism, material cultures, and arts research. Her current research explores how temporary migration experiences are conditioned through materiality, everyday routines and visual aesthetics. She is a Griffith University Postdoctoral Research Fellow, a convenor of the Cultural Geography Study Group for the Institute of Australian Geographers, and has recently co-founded the ‘Art and Mobilities’ global research network. Recent publications include the monograph: ‘Creative Measures of the Anthropocene: Art, Mobilities and Participatory Geographies’ (Barry & Keane 2019, Palgrave).

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — Although governments and funding bodies seem determined to place academic teaching and research into neat (measurable and quantifiable) boxes, academics themselves are starting to breach the historical silo walls that have constrained collaboration and understanding.
Editor’s introduction — Professor Ben Shneiderman is one of the leading researchers in the US. He is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Founding Director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and a Member of the UM Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) at the University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, and NAI, a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne.
By Dr David Pearson — Even before the COVID-19 crisis gripped the globe the creative arts were facing serious challenges. In the UK there was widespread dismay at the Augar report proposal that university tuition fees could be linked to graduate income, a move that would massively disadvantage arts and humanities courses [1].
By Dr Bronwyn Coate — It’s interesting how labels can shape perceptions. Often, we pay special attention to these as important pieces of information that become amplified in their relevance to reveal something about ourselves as well as the object to which they are applied. To illustrate: Say we are told that a certain artist is represented by a certain gallery.
By Professor Craig Batty and Dr Claire Corbett — How might creative writing help a group of counter terrorism officers go about their job? This might sound provocative, but it was a real outcome of a recent workshop that we ran for the 2020 Sydney Festival.
By Dr Peter Charles Taylor — Since the Age of Enlightenment, which gave birth to the modern scientific worldview, education systems have engaged students of science in learning to understand objectively - at arm’s length - the world out there: the material world of naturally occurring objects and events.