30th January 2015

My PhD project has brought up many tensions for me between the demands that an academic institution asks of you during the process of research, and the natural inclinations and approach that comes with being an artist and a textile designer.

The PhD was developed in the scientific disciplines, where the researcher studies or tests phenomena, based on a hunch, and comes up with some answers. The researchers subjective experience is not included in the data. Yet, when you do art and design research, you are using your own creative outputs (artworks, textile artefacts, films, etc) and your creative process, to gather the data, and draw some conclusions. You are not testing hypothesis as much as attempting to articulate your knowledge, evidenced through creativity, that is valuable for other designers and educators, and ideally for society at large.

Partly due to a natural self-absorption on my part (which may be typical of many creatives!), and a tendency to want to connect directly with people and not use the distant, academic-speak of academia, if I’m honest, I have struggled.

Which was why I was so pleased to find Brenee Brown’s work on vulnerability and the subjective experience in academia. I knew her work on vulnerability from the TED talk that has garnered so much attention, but I did not know she was an academic who studied shame and vulnerability by interviewing people who’ve survived challenges or traumas in their lives. She has developed a framework called ‘whole-heartedness’ based on the characteristics of the people she interviews, who go on to live fulfilling and ‘whole-hearted’ lives.

Her breakthrough came when she was analysing all the interviews and data she had gathered from these people, and realised that she wasn’t like them – that she was scared of being vulnerable, and was fearful and unable to live a ‘whole’ life. Her subjects showed her how to live, and in turn, her research became personal.

She also uses Grounded Theory, a methodology that creates theory from the data she has gathered – the lived experiences of her interviewees- rather than having a theory first, and then trying to prove the theory right or wrong. A Grounded Theory approach means she is able to articulate what people are familiar with, as it comes directly from their experience.  I guess I use a similar approach in my craft/design research, as I have looked at my creative practice and tried to draw out approaches and characteristics that other designers or makers may be able to relate to.

I am also drawn to her realisation about the scientific research approach in light of studying human behaviour and the human spirit. During her PhD, she had a quote in her office that said: “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth knowing”. However, now her moto would be: “If you can measure it, it’s probably not that important“.

This chimes with my own research experience and the tension I have felt between: wanting to use the rational, reductionist, ‘left-brain’ modes of the sciences (written word, systematic thought) to highlight and celebrate the value of textile design and craft processes – while also being profoundly aware that the beauty and wonder of the textile design and craft processes (relational, visual, tacit, empathic, subjective), is difficult to capture and define using the rational ‘left brain’.