Research creation

Research-creation and scholartistry: a manifesto for research and learning

From Michael Shanks

Addressing the question “what does a researcher do?” and “what should researchers be doing?”

Personal standpoint

I am an archaeologist in a university, an academic researcher and scholar.  It is typically held that archaeology researches the past by digging up sites and working on finds, building scholarly knowledge of the past by asking and answering questions with systematic rigor. Research refers to finding out; scholarship to rigor. The product of scholarly research is usually evaluated according to criteria such as coherence and avoiding contradictions, the fit between explanation and what is to be explained, the degree to which an account represents what has been found, the fidelity of an account to data, the degree to which an account can be confirmed or discounted by separate research. The degree to which the product of research, a description, explanation or interpretation, fits with what it aims to account for, is free from bias and values, is universal and context-free, standing “the test of time”, is considered crucial.


I take a pragmatic (and pragmatist) view of research process, focusing on what gets done, on processes as much as on the results, the products of research. So I have long held that archaeologists don’t discover the past and deliver it in their accounts; archaeologists work with remains. And yes, they may make claims about such work, that they are describing the way the past was, for example, but these are claims that are outlined, witnessed and argued over, and such debate is what is at the heart of a field like archaeology. I have argued that archaeology is well conceived as a mode of production and consumption of what is claimed sometimes to be the past, that archaeology crafts the past.

Research creation and scholartistry – basic principles

This position is summarized in the concepts of research-creation and scholartistry.

Here are the basic principles. Knowledge is made. Research is a creative practice, crafting, producing works. Knowledge is always already situated in projects. As such, research involves maneuvering in complex situations, particular circumstances, to particular ends. Making, designing, coordinating, assembling, intervening: research involves communities of researchers, agencies, institutions, artifacts and resources, the works of individuals, teams, communities, corporations. The works produced in research can take on a life of their own, achieving agency, a capacity to effect or affect; a research report might move and convince us to act, for example. A cognate concept here is discourse, used by the likes of Foucault to refer to the conditions under which the production of knowledge is made possible (and so related to the concept of critique). The field of science studies has long been devoted to exploring such complexity, indeterminacy, ambiguity, how science happens.

The concept of research-creation highlights lifeworld, lived experience. Research, situated in experience, involves not just cognitive reasoning, but also affect, sensory apparatuses and instrumentalities, emotional responses, dispositions, motivations, evaluations. Research creation prompts questions such as “why are you interested in this question?” “why would anyone be interested in this research, on what grounds?”.

All knowledge making involves creative imagination and conjecture. Research is not merely a response or representation of things discovered. Here research creation suggests three more valencies:

  • creative presentations of research – knowledge making is inseparable from inscription, mediation, mobilization, dialogue, dissemination;
  • creation as research – creative work may involve research, exploring, delivering, intervening, commenting, augmenting;
  • research into/from creation – just as science studies researches the practice of research, just as design researchers investigate design work, creative art works can generate research materials.

So research-creation involves an elision of the old separation of science and the arts in its foregrounding of convergences across project management, design and application, making and modes of production, dialogue and collaboration, debate and dissent, resource availability and allocation, infrastructuring and facilitation.

Research as performance design

Powerful allied concepts are performance and design. Design and design thinking refer to the management and delivery of interventions in actual challenges, situations that people confront. In framing and addressing needs and wants design might deliver new products, services, or experiences for a business, ways of organizing community healthcare, or ways of writing a conference paper. To treat research as enactment or performance, as performance design highlights active components such as scenography and dramaturgy, the staging of evidence for particular audiences, structured according to narrative and plot that make sense of a particular research project, for example (“we investigated this Roman town in order to answer puzzles about the way the region was administered”). Involved are dramatis personae, and the choreography of actors, props and agents (“the locals welcomed the availability of exotic goods from the Mediterranean”). Another cognate field here is rhetoric – designing and delivering arguments.

Research as design

Research-creation suggests an orientation on projects, with method, theory and technique developed together in relation to goals and resources, and not in the abstract. Project orientation need not only be focused upon a particular instrumental end. Design thinking, for example, as a kind of project management, involves researching a field of interest to establish points of reference, needs and desires, to frame a challenge, to ideate, generate possibilities, synthesize possible lines of action and then model them, implement, test and iterate, refine and move on. Research creation can be autotelic (self-directed) and exploratory, experimental, playful even, in its investigations that may begin and indeed continue with no particular end.

Learning is a key component in research-creation and scholartistry. There’s always more to learn, to find out, and we might always find new ways, new angles, just as circumstances are constantly changing and suggesting adaptations, modifications of our understanding and actions. Hence the pedagogical complements to research-creation are learning by doing, experiential learning, project-based learning.

Who cares? Evaluating research.

How might research-creation and scholartistry be evaluated? The connection to learning by doing suggests the answer.

Instead of evaluating research according to its fidelity to an objective separate reality, how well an account represents an object, and according to abstract objective criteria (such indeed as fidelity, logical coherence, correspondence with empirical data, capacity to be reproduced and peer-reviewed), we might look to creative process, and to criteria for evaluating performance. How well did the research engage with people, their interests and needs? How much of the research has been taken up and explored in other projects? Where does the research fit in broader and narrower interests? With what effect and impact? To what ends? Does the research resonate and augment other fields? Who is advocating and on what grounds? Who is this for? What comes next? Who cares?

Projects and experience

I have been exploring research creation, scholartistry, project-based experiential learning and design thinking for most of my career.

  • Theatre/archaeology – arts based research-creation and performance art (since 1993)
  • Stanford Humanities Lab (2004-2009) – a program in project-based learning
  • Stanford (2008-2011) – design thinking and studio-based learning
  • Stanford Continuing Studies (ongoing) – online learning
  • Stanford H-Star and mediaX (ongoing) – EdTech and learning futures
  • Stanford Introsems (ongoing) – rhetoric and digitally facilitated collaborative cocreation
  • Graduate seminars (ongoing) – research creation and process philosophy.

Publications (select)

Scholartistry: experiential learning and the future of the Liberal Arts. With Connie Svabo. In Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Phillip Motley and William Moner (eds) Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2020.

Scholartistry: integrating scholarship and art. With Connie Svabo. Journal of Problem-based Learning in Higher Education 6. 2018.

Scholartistry – with Connie Svabo – [Link] Photography and artwork. Ongoing.

A Walk Along the Smith River: a Small Work of Theatre/Archaeology. Artist’s book. 2018.

Staging evidence. Artists residency with Mike Pearson. Bard Graduate Center, New York. 2016.

Nobson New Town. With Paul Noble. Exhibition catalogue/book. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. 2014.

In Parenthesis. With Paul Noble. Web site – 2014.

Itinerarium Septentrionale One: Coast. Artist’s book. 2014.

Autosuggestion. With Mike Pearson. Performance Research 19. 2014.

Pearson|Shanks 1993–2013. With Mike Pearson. In Ian Russell and Andrew Cochrane (eds) Art and Archaeology. Springer. 2013.

Ghosts in the mirror.  Artist’s book. 2013.

Archaeologies of Presence: Acting, Performing, Being. Edited with Nick Kaye and Gabriella Giannachi. Routledge. 2012.

The Archaeological Imagination. Left Coast Press. 2012.

Michael Shanks and Lynn Hershman: the scientist and the artist. In Adam Bly (ed) Science is Culture. Harper Collins. 2010.

Artereality: art as craft in a knowledge economy. With Jeffrey Schnapp. In Steven Madoff (ed) Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century. MIT Press. 2009.

Theatre/Archaeology. With Mike Pearson. Routledge. 2001.

Experiencing the Past. Routledge. 1991.

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