Careful Research

Last Friday I had the pleasure of listening to the anthropologist Tim Ingold give a keynote presentation at the Art, Materiality and Representation conference organised by the British Museum and SOAS. Over the course of an hour, he spoke eloquently about the connections between art and anthropology and the responsibility both have to supporting a sustainable future.  He drew attention to how each are processes of enquiry that are speculative and necessarily incomplete. Both in his view need an ‘inquisitive approach’, one that is ‘modestly experimental.’ But they must also be critical, in the sense of seeking change.  Art and anthropology, he argued, need to recognise difference, embracing a variety of approaches so as to explore the essential question ‘how are we to live?’

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One topic that Tim Ingold touched on resonated particularly strongly for me.  This was his argument that artistic and anthropological research that follows ‘the evolution of ideas from the inside’ relies neither on the testing of an hypothesis nor on conjecture and refutation to build theory, but on care and attention.   He identified how ‘curiosity’ and ‘care’ derive from the same Latin root – curiosus – to make the point that research thrives on enquiry, but requires tending and looking after.

I have long been interested in the idea of care and the need to be careful (that is, full of care rather than cautious) in practice and research.  In an essay on the Tanks Programme at Tate Modern I draw on Anthony Huberman’s concept of institutional caring, alongside Paulo Friere’s articulation of love to argue for collaborative programming that manifests the emotional and intellectual commitment needed to do work of quality.  In my mind, undertaking work with care involves doing exactly what the English Oxford Dictionary definition of the word describes, namely working with serious attention and consideration because of the concern and interest you have for something.

More recently I have become interested in the possibility of substituting ‘careful’ for ‘rigorous’ in relation to research and using ‘care’ as apposed to ‘rigour’ to describe research programmes and initiatives that are trustworthy, transparent, coherent and credible.  In part this comes because of the disquiet and frustration many of the arts practitioners I interviewed expressed with the language of rigour and their concerns regarding the negative application of validity criteria derived from scientific research to  arts and education based studies. These practitioners don’t in any way think that their research should be exempt from tests of quality or reliability. But these judgements need to be appropriate to the questions being asked, the methodologies adopted and the aims for the research itself.  ‘Rigour’, as with all terms of appraisal, is loaded with baggage, not all of it helpful in the context of art museum research. So I am trying out ‘care’ to see how it works.

Prior to listening to Tim Ingold I had spent the day convening a session at the conference under the heading ‘Curating with an Anthropological Approach.’  In addition to my own paper, eight other presenters explored how contemporary curatorial and artistic practices address the ethics and practicalities of presenting art from beyond the West in western contexts and how artists and others can disrupt the museum in productive ways.  We heard speakers from Italy, Latvia, Poland the USA and the UK. And we learnt how performance, activism, conservation, curatorial, education and artistic practices are being explored and questioned as professionals and audiences become more aware of the sensitivities of working with indigenous artefacts and of representing diverse communities.

Listening to each paper I was aware of the care that the presenters evidenced by the quality of their talks. The content was rich and fascinating, we had helpful images to look at and each talk prompted interesting further thoughts and questions.  Everyone had planned their presentation so they kept to their allotted time.  This last point might seem a minor one, but to me it is a crucial indicator of care.  According to Tim Ingold, a further characteristic shared between art and anthropology is generosity, in the sense that practitioners in both fields need to pay attention and receive ‘with good grace’ what is offered to us by others.  Thus research is a process of giving and accepting, of speaking and listening and making-room for everyone.

4 thoughts on “Careful Research”

  1. Hi Emily, I really like this book about fieldwork practice, ‘Between Art and Anthropology’ Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright

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