Practice makes perfect: how AHRC is supporting practice research

Modern angular wooden staircase in the London Design Museum

A summary of our understanding of the place of practice research in our funded portfolio and our future plans to support.

A thriving research and innovation ecosystem

One of the principles for change set out in the UKRI strategy 2022 to 2027 is to support a multiplicity of ideas, people, activities, skills, institutions and infrastructures as part of a rich portfolio of research and innovation activity in the UK.

Practice research spans the breadth of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) portfolio, stretching across the arts and humanities disciplines and beyond to make connections across the research councils’ remits, catalysing new interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods.

In this blog post, we take a whistle-stop tour of what AHRC means when we talk about practice research, why it is important to us, and what we are doing to support our communities, stakeholders and partners in this space.

Why practice research?

A photograph of a large sign in London’s Design Museum reading “Maker”. In the background you can see visitors in the museum.

Credit: Jack Young, Unsplash

All research involves some form of practice and the idea of practice as research has emerged in many disciplinary contexts. Practice research is usually characterised by the production of outputs in non-text-based forms including artefacts, performances, and exhibitions. Given the breadth of outputs and methods this potentially covers, practice research has many different meanings, depending on the context.

AHRC is inclusive in its definition to encompass any form of arts and humanities research that incorporates, reflects upon, or embodies practice as part of the research process or the research outputs. This covers a myriad of topics and approaches across many disciplines including, for AHRC, areas of research as distinct and broad as design; visual arts; music; audio-visual and digital creativity; community and action-based research, performance and making.

Steven Hill, in his foreword to the Research England funded report by PRAG-UK on definitions and support for practice research, states the case for funders to encourage a great range of methods and outputs beyond the predominating monographs, book chapters, and journal articles:

Practice as research is set apart by new ways of conceptualising the research process, often leading to an increased diversity in research outputs… Research considered in this light is embodied in the world, with real and direct connections to society.

Architect adding to a technical drawing using blue pen on tracing paper.

Credit: Ryan Anchill, Unsplash

The clearest way to articulate the powerful possibilities of practice research is to highlight some examples:

  • Somatic practice, chronic pain and self-care technology co-led by Dr Emma Meehan from Coventry University and Professor Bernie Carter from Edge Hill University explores the value of dance and movement for people living in pain, and healthcare professionals
  • ‘Architecture after Architecture’ is a collaboration between Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) and the Technische Universität Braunschweig investigating ways in which the architectural profession could make fundamental changes, reimagining itself to face the climate emergency
  • the Antislavery Knowledge Network led by Professor Alex Balch at University of Liverpool offers the first extended effort to address slavery as a core development challenge in sub-Saharan Africa via innovative approaches from the arts and humanities that deliver community-engaged antislavery work. The project is built on participatory approaches to development that recognise the transformative potential of existing cultural resources and heritage, and the value of co-designed and co-delivered work. This research has contributed to evidence for UK government’s national consultation to tackling modern slavery

This is just a small sample of projects which have benefited from AHRC funding, illustrating both the impact of practice research and the variety of methods and applications collected under this definition.

The role of peer review

Peer review is critically important to the assessment of research excellence in all its forms and plays a key role in the allocation of our funding. AHRC is committed to ensuring that our Peer Review College continuously evolves to reflect the full diversity of the research we support, including practice research.

We were fortunate through our recruitment exercise in 2022 to increase the range of in-depth practitioner expertise in our college membership. One hundred thirty-seven new members specifically highlighted expertise in practice research, and considering other areas closely related to various practices (such as action research, curation and archiving), we have several hundred college members with a huge variety of practice research knowledge.

Between 2016 and January 2023, AHRC funded 601 awards that were self-classified by applicants as practice research, making up 20% of AHRC’s overall portfolio, with awards covering a range of disciplines. Applications made through our responsive mode for projects indicating practice outputs had a 30.9% success rate, which is consistent with the average rate of success (about 30%) for all other applications in the same period.

Given the inherent plurality in practice research, these figures could obscure a more nuanced picture of variation within and between disciplines. Our approach to supporting practice research is therefore aimed at encouraging variety and innovation in methods, application and outputs across all disciplines, as well as developing funding opportunities inviting applications from disciplines where practice research is prevalent.

How we are supporting practice research

With AHRC-funded project Practice Research Voices, Jenny Evans at the University of Westminster is working with practice researchers to understand how to better capture and preserve practice research outputs. This enables them to be better integrated into the knowledge landscape alongside papers, publications and monographs on an equal footing.

AHRC is also funding Sustaining Practice Assets for Research, Knowledge, Learning and Engagement (SPARKLE), a collaboration between the University of Leeds and the British Library to create a national searchable repository for practice research assets.

Thirteen hip-hop dancers on stage, lit up in a purple light.

Credit: Maick Maciel, Unsplash

We have recently launched a funding opportunity for applications under our Dance Research Matters fund, developed following a Dance Research Symposium delivered by AHRC in partnership with Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University (C-DaRE) in May 2021.

The symposium was a first for AHRC, aiming to support the dance research community at a critical moment midway through the COVID-19 crisis, post EU transition. This funding will support up to five networks which will promote collaboration of dance researchers and the wider dance sector to consider sector-specific issues that strengthen the dance and practice-research communities.

Practice research – in all its forms – provides us with an amazing palette of insight, expertise and approaches to create new ways to undertake, produce and reflect on knowledge creation. It is a core component of the arts and humanities research landscape.

Where next for practice research?

In this blog we have shared our thinking on this important theme and we have drawn out some examples of where we are directing funding towards these communities. How we best support new and innovative disciplinary and interdisciplinary methods for research is a live area of interest for AHRC.

We welcome further discussion on the next big idea which will help support existing practice communities to flourish and exciting new areas of research to emerge. Our ‘Where Next?’ scheme provides an open opportunity to submit your ideas to AHRC. It may highlight a gap in our funding, or it may point us to a new frontier. It may suggest a new bold debate, or an innovative way for us to enable the right people to engage with it.

Top image:  Credit: Andrea De Santis, Unsplash

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