Organizing Questions

Artists and Social Scientists: Doing Things Together

For the purposes of this workshop we are treating art to mean not only finished works but also the craft of producing something. This means that we also think of social science not only in terms of ideas, concepts, theories and so on but also the craft practices and ways of doing. In the workshop we have practitioners from both sides and we hope there will be two-way traffic and ways of overcoming the artificial separation between the arts and the sciences.   We envisage new mixes and mashups of many kinds.

Hopefully the discussion in the workshop will go in a lot of different direction – so social scientists can learn from artists and vice versa; or that some new and interesting third viewpoint may emerge. Below is a scatter of viewpoints, as an illustration of how many directions the discussion and the conversation can take.

Trevor & Richard

Small Points on Mixing Art, Creativity & Social Science (including attachments)

The Role of the Senses

The social sciences, indeed like the natural sciences, have been dominated by a visual paradigm.  Scholars are increasingly arguing that attention should be paid to other sensual modalities such as, for instance, sound.  Artists are more familiar with dealing with the full sensorium. Can social scientists and artists learn from each to evolve new vocabulary, practices, and concepts to address all the senses?

Relationship Between Visual Sociology and Arts

A small subset of sociologists have paid attention to using photographs and video as a methodological tool. One thinks of Douglas Harper’s photographs of car mechanics or Chuck Goodman’s ethnomethodologically-inspired video analysis. Photographs and video documentation in visual sociology largely serve as evidence to support ethnographical findings or points of interactional analysis. Can the visual aesthetics and practices of artists inform such work and can the evidentiary aims of social sciences impact artistic projects?

Material Turn

Within many fields of the social science there has been a renewed interest in materiality – this is particularly true in geography, anthropology and science and technology studies.  Fields that study emergent processes are particularly sensitive to the role of materiality. There have even been calls (e.g. Latour) to treat human and non-human actors equivalently. Artists are said to develop an acute feel for and understanding of the materials they work with. Does the quiddity of artistic material production have relevance for the practice of social science?

Error and Contingency

Error and contingency play a role in creativity in all endeavors. But in the natural sciences and some areas of the social sciences the goal is to produce reliable knowledge free of error or to at least beat back the noise to better understand the signal. Artists seem to revel in error for example with Glitch Art.  Do we want social scientists to embrace error more in their practices and under what sorts of circumstances?  Can renewed thinking about error, breakdown, and repair enrich both arts and social sciences and how?

The Role of the Critic and the Performativity of Intellectual production

In Art there is an institutional role given to critics and it is accepted that conceptual art and artistic intervention can itself be a form of performative politics.  In most sciences and social sciences there is no equivalent institutional position to the critic and most social scientists see the impact of their work coming through policy mechanisms rather than through immediate performative engagements.  Can we imagine different institutions and relationships for the reception of social science and artistic endeavors?

The Divide between the Arts and the Sciences.  According to Nelson Goodman, both artists and scientists do something very similar: they work with symbols; and with these symbols they build worlds. Goodman also outlines the differences and similarities between the kind of symbols used by artists and the ones used by scientists. Scientists often use symbols that are more distinct and remain the same, such as letters or figures that remain the same; while an extra shade or line in a painting may change the whole meaning). While scientists and artists describe, on the other hand, painters depict – so here the use is more diverse …

The Author as Social Scientist?  Around 1900, just around the time when sociology was born, several authors tried their hand at social science analysis/reportage – such as Jack London (People of the Abyss), Anton Chekhov (The Prison on Sakhalin Island) and August Strindberg (Among French Peasants). These authors conducted “field work” way before the sociologists (the 1920s); they also experimented with photography and in other ways went beyond what the professional academics/sociologists did at the time.

Looking at Photographs. In his classical article “Sociology and Photography” (1974) Howard Becker argues that photographers can sometimes learn from social scientists to make better photographs. This is especially true for photographers interested in documenting social phenomena. If they followed people around and got to know how they acted and thought, they could take better pictures than if they just stepped into a foreign environment and started photographing.

Theorizing in Social Science and Art. Sociologists sometimes view theory as something big & chunky, while they feel more comfortable with methods. Their most important attempt so far to develop a way to teach students to do theory as part of research, is called “theory construction” – an expression that gives associations to assembling the pieces of an IKEA chair or the like. In art, theory enters art in a more subtle way, as evidenced by, say, Helen Vendler in Poets Thinking. You may not even see it – but it is there.

The Different Role of Evidence and Expression. Modern sociologists emphasize methods and the role of evidence; but they hold back on the expression in their writings. They step back and assume the role of an objective observer. Art on the other hand hides or ignores or transforms what it feeds on, and focuses its energy on its expression. Can you do both?