Boolean searches for fuzzy themes and other research quandaries

There’s an odd paradox in applying research methodologies to a subject when the subject itself resists the research methodology. In this instance the paradox surfaces when employing reductive, disciplinary classifications to a subject that rejects reductionism and seeks interconnected, holistic, interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary expression. This conundrum has been both challenging and exciting to encounter while researching the role of art in environmental governance. The biggest challenge, however, seems to be establishing the foundations for the research without getting drawn into exploring every endless ‘rabbit hole’ along the journey.

Starting the journey: why art?

Physical sciences, engineering and economics often feature as disciplines for building sustainable futures. One need only to view the plethora of programs and organisations built from these disciplines to see the dedication to addressing global, environmental problems from these disciplinary perspectives. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), the Ocean Conservancy, and Carnegie Wave Energy spring to mind as examples of economy, science and technology focused organisations seeking solutions to the world’s environmental challenges.

The arts also have the capacity to help build sustainable futures in sometimes surprising ways. The arts bring creativity and innovation to the development of solutions and the process of problem definition, through openness to lateral thought, improvisation, spontaneity, intuition, complexity, serendipity, and other forms of knowing, learning and discovery. Eisner (2008, cited in Eernstman and Wals, 2013, p. 1650) surmised that:

Arts-informed research … may trump conventional forms of research when it comes to generating questions or raising awareness of complex subtleties that matter. The deep strength of using arts in research may be closer to the act of problematizing traditional conclusions than it is to providing answers in containers that are watertight. In this sense, the products of this research are closer in function to deep conversation and insightful dialogue than they are to error-free conclusions.

In this regard, the arts are not building concrete solutions, but reframing conceptions of problems to inspire alternative approaches. It is a process that is dynamic and ever changing, and one that recognises the social dimensions of human-ecological interactions: a critical consideration when addressing the world’s wicked problems. This space of negotiating problems and conclusions, and of not trying to reduce complexity, can be a very different place in which to operate. It is also one that, arguably, needs far greater attention.

Rabbit hole #1 : Fuzziness

Fuzzy logic contrasts binary systems thinking by acknowledging and exploring the grey areas between conventional, fixed polarities, such as ‘true’ and ‘false’ values. Traditional binary systems operate on the basis of ‘either/or’ logic and an adherence to the law of excluded middle. Boolean logic captures this binary systems thinking, and it’s a logic that underpins much of modern society, including computing (other than quantum computing), electronics, and online database search engines!

Boolean searches for fuzzy themes. Image by James Lee.

It is the latter application that has caused considerable challenges to my research progress. Sourcing literature for review became more complex as cases of the integration of arts into social-ecological decision-making processes became less explicit, less black and white, or more ‘grey’. As an example, the arts are sometimes contained under the umbrella of ‘culture’, yet not all cultural practices are arts-related. It becomes more complex when considering holistic knowledge systems, as present in many Indigenous cultures, where there may be little or no distinction between art and culture (or knowledge). In such instances, ‘cultural transmissions’ of ecological knowledge may or may not contain arts practices, and, should they contain arts practices, those arts practices may not be conceived of as arts practices. Confused? It’s ok, it’s just a bit of fuzziness.

This backdrop of fuzzy ‘may or may not’ style relevance is, perversely, the crux of this research investigation, for it is in the space of irreducible uncertainty where art permits the renegotiation of problem and solution frames. As captured by art educator Van Boeckel:

I think in art you allow yourself to live a little longer with contradictions: one viewpoint does not necessarily exclude another. Open-endedness constitutes a notion that there are several choices available, and you are not forced to immediately choose between one or the other (Eernstman and Wals, 2013).

Rabbit hole #2 : Epistemology, ontology, ethics
and maybe some phenomenology

Don’t fall down the rabbit hole.
Image by James Lee

The second rabbit hole opens into the domain of philosophy, and falling down this rabbit hole will quite probably derail the entire research process. It is, however, an important area to explore, particularly when it can be argued that our current environmental crisis is a product of an epistemological orientation or, more precisely, by “western thinking that is dominated by scientific and technological rationality” (Dieleman, 2008, p. 8).

This scientific and technological rationality is constructed upon a separation of human beings from nature, so that we can objectively observe, study, measure and control the natural world. This objective separation has lead to tremendous technological and scientific advancements, but the cost of treating the earth as a free resource and waste sink has proven to be astronomical.

In an applied sense, the arts are positioned to negotiate a range of ‘re-connective’ processes. This is not necessarily a process of repairing ecological degradation–although this can certainly be a part of the process–but a process of repairing the human-nature disconnection that enables ecological disregard. Re-connective capacities demonstrated in applied theatre for sustainability included “building socio-ecological identities and ecological consciousness” and “fostering engagement and emotional commitment leading to action” (Heras and Tàbara, 2014, p.390).

These capacities, I believe, are not tangential to the critical environmental challenges of our time, but integral to our ability to move away from mechanistically repeating the actions that contributed to the crises in the first place. Importantly, from a governance perspective, these processes of knowledge co-production and ethical engagement are often inclusive, democratic, diverse and driven from the bottom-up. Numerous sources also focus on local and community experiences, emphasising place as a crucial part of building social-ecological identities and fostering engagement, which will surely be needed for the conservation of unique places across the globe.

Moving beyond the rabbit holes?

Falling down rabbit holes is a handy metaphor for the enormous fields of knowledge in which one can get lost while attempting to answer research questions. The two rabbit holes I’ve mentioned in this post are not the only ones I’ve stumbled over during my research journey. There’s another one on transdisciplinarity, which I fear may lead inexorably towards the realms of quantum physics and quantum logic, but I’m only teetering on the edge of that one at the moment. It may, however, be a rabbit hole for the next research project!


Dieleman, H. (2008). Sustainability, art and reflexivity: why artists and designers may become key change agents in sustainability. In Kagan, S. & Kirchberg, V. (Eds.), Sustainability: a new frontier for the arts and cultures (pp. 26). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: VAS – Verlag für Akademische Schriften.

Eernstman, N., & Wals, A. (2013). Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development. Sustainability, 5(4), 1645-1660.

Heras, M., & Tàbara, J. D. (2014). Let’s play transformations! Performative methods for sustainability. Sustainability Science, 9(3), 379-398.

Ingram, M. (2012). Sculpting Solutions: Art–Science Collaborations in Sustainability. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 54(4), 24-34.


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