• Vicky

4/4 - Rasmussens’ approach to a ecological epistemology

...in the field of artistic research and practice-led research


"We learn more profoundly about our worlds when we are more interested in enhancing them with excellence of action than in learning about them" (Heron 1996: 114)




There are many different methods of researching. Rasmussen names a few of them and adds, that the promotion of theatre studies as an ‘anti-discipline’ that seeks to ‘produce instabilities between existing epistemological practices and ontological results’ (Kershaw and Nicholson 2011: 3) may further scare any artistic researcher with limited research training and little interest in research theory.” He suggests: “what may be needed in research training is to identify and recommend, without too many complications, relevant research methodologies that ‘not only can respond to their practical needs but, perhaps more significantly, can chime with the forms of knowledge generated by the art form of drama itself’.” (2014: 22)


“Research in any discipline is usually constituted by the preference of theory above practice, which often clashes with contemporary notions of the artist’s production of meaning and knowledge (Barrett and Bolt 2007: 1). Epistemology [means: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.] may seem to reside outside the field of art.” (Rasmussen 2014 : 22)


With a focus on practice-led research Rasmussen wants “to further investigate a particular relational and extended epistemological thinking” (2014 : 23). Going through the past along with examples, the text informs about the epistemology from action research and arts modernism. While showing the development of this, he states that “the radical epistemological shift, which asserts that we cannot measure or understand a reality of which we are not ourselves a part, has been safeguarded by action research, arts education and currently some traditions of artistic research. This is radical, because the old empiricist epistemology still holds a dominant position in research, asserting that the researcher stands ‘above’ and separate from the research object, following the criteria of objectivity.” (ibid: 24) Therefore, it is important to have a close connection between fields of practice-led research and epistemology: “understanding of the world presupposes engaged participation of the researcher and researched in the common world they have created. [...] Art, too, is a

social arena for inquiries, for understanding life in sensuous, interrelating and reflexive ways. (ibid)


An interesting example that Rasmussen brings is Heron and Reason's (1997) ecological and interactive ontology. This is a "subjective-objective" worldview based on the fact that we only develop knowledge through relations. For research - especially for the field of the humanities - this becomes important where research concerns behaviour, thought and cultural production: “By considering humans as measurable objects, one also regards humankind (as part of nature) as mechanically controllable. Such a view of knowing, following Heron and Reason, thereby excludes human beings from the choices and relations that are essentially human” (Rasmussen 2014 : 25)



Experiential knowing: a direct encounter with a phenomenon, where one experiences the presence of the other through body, emotions and imagination. This is knowing through participative and empathic involvement in something of which we are a part and from which we are at the same time detached.

Propositional knowing: a search for knowledge through conceptual statements or description and analysis, expressed in thesis and theory; it is the processing of experience mainly through thought, speech and writing.

Practical knowing or ‘tacit knowing’: bodily skills; emerges from practical experience as well as conceptual understanding.

Presentational knowing: This way of knowing differs from experiential knowing, and provides a bridge to propositional knowing by way of presenting the experience in symbolic and linguistic forms, not least through the established art forms. [...] It not only instrumentally builds a bridge between experience and propositional knowledge; it emerges from and is founded on experiential knowing.


“Both action research and artistic research such as practice-led research can be considered as stakeholders of different and related knowing forms. The cycles of action research are therefore, following Heron and Reason (1997), not simply cycles of propositional planning, action, measuring and evaluation, but rather cycles of changing and relating knowing forms.” (Rasmussen 2014 : 27)


Haseman and Mafe (2009) suggest six methodological implications for practice-led research (which are close to the epistemology of Heron and Reason):


  1. the traditional pre-set research problem is superseded by a processual research focus, developed in and by the practice itself.

  2. upgrade and rephrase artistic methods and tools as research tools.

  3. notion of the combined researcher and researched, intersubjective reflexivity becomes crucial in order to bring in perspectives that extend horizons and counteract self-fulfilling and circular practice.

  4. the selected professional tradition – its theory, techniques, forms and prejudices. The media form itself is one particular context to consider in doing research.

  5. add symbolic and digital media to written forms of publication and dissemination. This is a political consequence of practice-led research and its embedded presentational knowing.

  6. complexity of arts-based and practice-led research; importantly, the artist-researcher’s formulation of life’s complexity might be as valuable as the finite finding. Sometimes both/and knowledge is ‘truer’ than either/or knowledge.

Rasmussen closes his article with a recommendation for applied theatre researchers to have a dynamic “oscillation between practical concerns and meta-thinking, including the epistemological base for methodology. [...] he applied theatre researcher, who knows by sensuous experience as well as through detached reflexivity, stands on the shoulders of research theory and methodology that may have been marginalized and long excluded from a viable research discourse. On the other hand, the mastery of relational knowing may provide a base, direction and confidence that will be of great value to the future humanistic researcher or artist.” (Rasmussen 2014 : 30)





Cited works:

Rasmussen, B. (2014), ‘The art of researching with art: Towards an ecological epistemology’, Applied Theatre Research 2: 1, pp. 21–32, doi: 10.1386/ atr.2.1.21_1


Barrett, E. and Bolt, B. (2007), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, London: I.B. Tauris.

Haseman, B. and Mafe, D. (2009), ‘Aquiring Know-how: Research Training for Practice-led Researchers’, in H. Smith and R.T. Dean (eds), Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 211–29.

Heron, J. (1996), Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition, London: Sage.

Heron, J. and Reason, P. (1997), ‘A Participatory Inquiry Paradigm’, Qualitative Inquiry, 3: 3, pp. 274–94.

Kershaw, B. and Nicholson, H. (eds) (2011), Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.