While the role of the arts in peacebuilding has emerged as a field of study and practice, there is a dearth of literature and research on how the arts – theater, photography, music, the visual arts, song, and other forms – can contribute to peacebuilding evaluation. As a master's student at the European Graduate School, I conducted research on how the arts can help practitioners and evaluators gather usable information about the value of the work and the experiences of target populations. I investigated the topic through both secondary and primary research to discover what the arts in peacebuilding evaluation can look like, what theories support the use of the arts in processes of inquiry, and what has been learned by those who have used the arts in evaluation.
Theories and case examples revealed that the arts can uncover and communicate aspects of human experiences that more linear or scientific modes of inquiry cannot. Literature on the arts shows human beings as multimodal; they acquire knowledge through multiple channels and not solely through the mind and intellect. Knowledge can be corporeal, sensory, relational, experiential, emotional, empathic, and spatial. People experience both conflict and peacebuilding in similarly complex, multifaceted, and intermodal ways. In processes of inquiry, the arts were described as capable of contributing to a more holistic understanding and capturing that which may be too complex or intangible to measure or communicate with words alone.
According to cited literature, the arts can play different roles at different evaluation stages. These include evaluation design, data collection (the arts can serve as data, sources of data, and data collection methods), reporting, and dissemination of findings. Literature also revealed several challenges and issues that are crucial to consider when using the arts in peacebuilding evaluation, such as how to ensure reliability of data and how to interpret and analyze data. Helpful examples of cited literature are below.
Primary research was comprised of six semi-structured interviews with professionals who had used the arts in evaluative processes within peacebuilding contexts. In setting my inclusion criteria, I purposefully sought to honor the use of diverse art forms (such as the visual arts, digital media, music, movement and dance, theatre and performance art, writing and poetry, storytelling and narrative, ritual, metaphor, symbol, image, and personification), the different roles given to the arts (such as data, source of data, and method of data collection), and different approaches to peacebuilding (such as community empowerment and healing, mediation and dialogue facilitation, development work, disaster relief, and work with refugees). Interviewee experiences were therefore quite different, providing a comprehensive look at the arts in peacebuilding evaluation.
Below are several overarching themes that were most commonly brought up in interviews:
Evaluating arts-based peacebuilding work Multiple interviewees described using the arts as sources of data when evaluating arts-based peacebuilding initiatives. For example, interviewees examined people's participation in and reactions to performances, and they collected data through methods such as questionnaires and observation.
Participatory artmaking as data collection Other interviewees described using participatory artmaking as a method of data collection. Participants created arts pieces using forms such as photography, video, and printmaking. In one example, a group of refugees individually took photographs around three open-ended questions pertaining to their current situations and commented on why their photographs were significant. Interviewees noted that participatory, arts-based processes fostered participant empowerment, allowed greater mutuality between evaluator and participant, brought attention to participant voices, and often resulted in the creation of arts pieces that were themselves informative and usable for the target population.
Quality and breadth of measuring and data According to several interviewees, the data yielded from and through the arts were more expansive and holistic than information yielded through linear measures. Data often revealed information about aspects of peacebuilding work that were more intangible, such as people's lived and felt experiences. They also provided information on indirect impacts and unintended outcomes.
Mixed methods Many interviewees expressed doubt that the arts could be used as a stand-alone method, noting instead that the arts could be used in conjunction with other, more traditional methods. For example, one interviewee noted how the demand for quantitative information was likely to continue. Other interviewees commented on how the concurrent use of more traditional methods can serve to test and validate arts-based methods. Interviewees also spoke of methods such as photovoice which combine two or more art forms within one process. Many also noted how the decision around what method or methods to use should be made according to the evaluation's goals.
Decisions regarding design, management, and logistics Interviewees alluded to several process and logistical decisions they made, such as choosing which art form or forms to use, choosing whether to lend or give equipment to participants, ensuring confidentiality, working in teams, and paying attention to context.
Challenges in achieving accuracy and precision Interviewees described many factors that presented potential challenges to obtaining accurate information. These included issues around viewing and interpreting art, the tendency of the arts to evade linear measures, group dynamics in participatory processes, and the possibility of artistic goals and peacebuilding goals being at odds with one another.
I welcome readers to respond with questions or suggestions, and I hope that this research can spark an ongoing discussion about the contributions of the arts to peacebuilding evaluation, challenges and issues to address, and the possible ways in which this field can be further developed. I also hope to continue writing on this subject and to begin testing arts approaches and tools in my own evaluation work.
Knowles, J. G., & Cole, A. L. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Levine, E. G., & Levine, S. K. (Eds.). (2011). Art in action: Expressive arts therapy and social change. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Searle, M. (2013). Understanding the potential for arts-informed inquiry in program evaluation. (Doctoral dissertation). Kingston, Ontario: Queens University. (Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1974/8097)
Amanda Brown holds a master's degree in Expressive Arts in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding from the European Graduate School. She received bachelor's degrees in Theater Arts and Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. An experienced mediator and arts facilitator, she has used arts-based processes to help people acquire conflict transformation skills and work through difficult situations.
Thanks for this post, Amanda.
During my masters I have looked at the role of art as a nonviolent tool, and am interested in the idea of art as a way to evaluate peacebuilding work.
Firstly, I see additional benefits beyond what you have listed, most notably, that people of varying abilities can participate in creating art. From children, to people who are illiterate, to people who have physical or mental challenges – all can engage in some form of art.
I have a few questions about practical aspects of using art as a way to evaluate peacebuilding work.
The opportunity to collect more holistic data is exciting, but can the researcher understand all that the art expresses? Your post touches on this, but I wonder if art as tool for evaluation should come with a clearer warning about the importance of an appropriate team of evaluators.
Given that art can be highly subjective, are the creators of art, or rather, artists, given the opportunity to explain their pieces? While creating art is an important experience in itself, my research was greatly benefited by hearing artists discuss their art-making experiences. I wonder what the best process would be for capturing the wealth of data that is created by artistic experiences while still being mindful of the various levels of ability and communication that participants may have.
Looking forward to continuing the conversation!
Thank you for your response, J Dyck.
Yes, in the cases you named, verbal and written communication can be quite limited in their ability to transmit information, and the arts can be particularly effective.
In your questions, you make a very important point. The meaning behind any artistic piece can be complex and expansive, and it can vary greatly from person to person and even change over time. Evaluators using the arts must be aware of this and avoid interpretations that are inadvertently narrow or biased, or that misrepresent what evaluation participants and target populations have experienced.
In my research, one interviewee spoke of the value of having multiple people in an evaluation, and specifically of having someone with a peacebuilding or scholarly lens and background, and another with a more artistic lens and background, working together to evaluate an arts-based project or intervention. According to the interviewee, this can provide a more objective look at the art's success at achieving its artistic and peacebuilding goals.
Other interviewees noted the value of providing space and time for evaluation participants to discuss their art themselves. This point was echoed in the literature I found. Allowing the artmakers to discuss their art not only provides more data, but it also provides a first stage or “layer” of interpretation and analysis, which can then lead to greater accuracy. Moreover, it can enhance the artmaking experience for participants.
Cited authors who write on this are:
Searle, M. (2013). Understanding the potential for arts-informed inquiry in program evaluation. (Doctoral dissertation). Kingston, Ontario: Queens University. (Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1974/8097)
Huss, E. (2011a). A social-critical reading of indigenous women’s art: The use of visual data to “show,” rather than “tell,”of the intersection of different layers of oppression. In E.G. Levine and S.K. Levine (Eds.) Art in action: Expressive arts therapy and social change. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
You might be interested in learning about tools and processes that have been developed in the Expressive Arts. Two stages of dialogue, called “Aesthetic Analysis” and “Harvesting,” respectively, directly follow processes of facilitated artmaking, and they feature structured discussion and open-ended questions about the art piece, the artmaking process, and the connections between the piece and artmaker's life and experiences. These processes help artmakers explore and draw out their own meanings from the piece. A great resource that explains both processes (in therapy contexts) is Paolo Knill's chapter in Principles and Practice in Expressive Arts Therapy (Ed. Knill, Levine, and Levine). I've planned to use these processes in my own evaluations in the near future with different age groups, and so I'll soon be able to speak to how they can be made effective amidst varying levels of ability to communicate and articulate.
I hope this has answered your questions, and thank you again for your response.
Thanks for your insightful post. Using the arts for peacebuilding evaluation is particularly appealing to me for its potential to blur the lines between research and practice in an empowering way. In my experience with an international NGO, I have seen research processes that reduce participant dignity, especially when Western methodologies are used with people struggling with colonial legacies. Alternatively, arts-based evaluation can adopt culturally appropriate methods that gather data for the researcher/practitioner while simultaneously playing a peacebuilding role through the restorative act of the arts exercise.
Another benefit of arts-based evaluation is the potential for higher numbers of research participants because participation is more enjoyable and/or impactful for the participants. Of course, as you mention, choosing which art forms to use is critical to realize this potential, as some forms may alienate rather than entice if not appropriate to the cultural environment in which the evaluation is undertaken.
One point of discussion I’d welcome your feedback on is how the conflict’s use of the arts may impact the ability to use art for peace evaluation. For example, patriotic songs and storytelling are often used to emphasize ethnic differences, stimulate hate and escalate a conflict. Rather than being seen as an empowering process, the arts-based research might instead be viewed as another form of emotional manipulation to serve another’s agenda. I am not suggesting that arts should not be used in these cases, as developing alternative peace messages is critical to countering the conflict narrative. Applying conflict sensitivity or “Do No Harm” analytical frameworks to the arts evaluation is a possible strategy to ensure the exercise is beneficial to both the research and the broader conflict.
Thank you very much for this interesting post. I have recently become aware of the power of the arts in post-conflict reconstruction, to assist in the processes of healing and reconciliation. I have even heard of human rights organizations using drawings done by refugees as evidence of systemic patterns of human rights abuses, in cases where more conventional data collection methods (like interviews) are not feasible . However, I have never imagined that there was a way to incorporate the arts in peacebuilding evaluations. My pre-conceived notions of evaluations were that they are technical and rigid, and thus would limit creative space. Therefore, it is exciting to learn that approaches to evaluations are varied, and can in fact be flexible and innovative.
I agree with the previous posters, J Dyck and dbkropf, about the inclusive and empowering potential of using the arts in peacebuilding evaluations. Moreover, I believe that by incorporating different forms of expression in evaluations, participants could be more inclined to deal with issues that are not normally discussed in their respective societies due to pervasive norms, taboo, or even power relations. On that note, I was wondering if art as a data collection method in peacebuilding evaluations is interpreted differently for a diverse range of groups who may have varied statuses in society, and if this is an issue that is taken into consideration during such evaluations?
 Human Rights Watch. (n.d.). Smallest Witnesses: Introduction. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/features/darfur/smallwitnesses/in...
This post was very intriguing, Amanda. Thank you for sharing your insights. The conversation regarding Arts and peacebuilding is one that has been taking place in a few of my graduate courses and I personally have found much interest in it. As an individual, I have always turned to different forms of art that I felt connected to. Whether it was through music, spoken word, or dance, I found myself turning to these outlets as forms of healing and better understanding of the context of the situation I was confronted with. Though I acknowledged the impact art has in my personal life, I had never really applied this line of thinking to peacebuilding on a grander scale, so I am very grateful to have come across discussions such as these. Art allows us to enter a whole new realm of feeling and thinking, one that is not restricted by structures and rigid approaches that do not foster creative thinking and spontaneity.
The reason why most individuals can connect to art is because it remains unrestricted and open to different interpretations. This exact strength of art can also be viewed as a weakness. In your post, you mention the challenges regarding interpretation and how it can create barriers when attempting to gather accurate information. This particular challenge is one I am trying to grapple. Because art can be interpreted in different ways and it varies from context to context, it requires meaningful and thorough consideration before any application. Art should be incorporated in peacebuilding strategies but should not be mistaken as a solution. Practitioners and artists should work in collaboration with one another so as to critically reflect on the different approaches and focus on transforming creative visions into positive and lasting change.
The context of conflict always differs. The forms and interpretations always differ. The goals of practitioners and goals of artists can also differ. What practitioners and artists should consider when implementing art-based peacebuilding strategies is how they can effectively use their collaboration so as to apply the specific strategy that best suits the different cultures and contexts. This, of course, will take a lot of practice before it can be understood.
Amanda, thank you for sparking this conversation, I too find it intriguing and have come to see art as a very useful tool for peacebuilding evaluation. I am a master of peace and conflict studies student and have recently read an article entitled, “Arts and Peace: Strategic Arts-based Peacebuilding” by Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch, that I would highly recommend. Link to the article here:
This article seeks to organize and build on the existing literature on art and peace, which, as Amanda aforementioned, is limited and marginalized. The author attributes its limitation to three reasons; the common perspective that art is a soft approach to the complex issues of conflict and violence, secondly, peacebuilding practitioners usually come from the social and political sciences backgrounds, and lastly, methodologies are not readily available . Based on John Paul Lederach’s analytical process of the strategic what, when, and how’s of peacebuilding, the authors are making a call to practitioners everywhere to begin (or continue) articulating why and how the arts is a powerful tool that is currently being underused within peace and conflict studies. Thank you for contributing to this research and articulating how you believe this to be true.
Amanda’s point on the ‘Mixed Method’ approach, using art in combination with a more traditional method, seems like a good first step in further bridging arts and peacebuilding. I specifically thought of Lederach’s Elicitive Approach, in which the participant is a resource, not a recipient, the peacebuilder acts as a catalyst and a facilitator, rather than an expert in the field . From this place the participant and the peacebuilder begin to co-create knowledge, engage in critical reflection, and work together for change. Shank and Schirch use the example of a Poetry Dialogue Project in New York in which young poets interacted intergenerationally with older poets from diverse cultures. This process encouraged cultural exchange which fostered cross-cultural respect, involving both the artists and the audience. This artistic process could be coupled with participatory action research, as they share common values, to bring forward a mixed method peacebuilding evaluation.
 Michael Shank, and Lisa Schirch. “Arts and Peace: Strategic Arts-based Peacebuilding.” ECP: Escola de Cultura de Pau, 2008. 1.
 Shank et al, Arts, 11.
Thank you for your comments, dbkropf.
Arts-based methods can indeed be more culturally appropriate and far-reaching than other methods, though Western assumptions and definitions of the word “art” can still cause arts processes to disempower and reduce participant dignity, just as Western methods can. Furthermore, it is equally problematic to implement any art form without proper knowledge of and sensitivity to the particular meanings, histories, narratives, and underlying nuances that local populations associate with that form. Implementing arts-based processes without an awareness of what an art form or piece means to people (especially if different groups have different or conflicting meanings attached to the form or piece) can alienate as well.
This is related to your question, and the arts can indeed exacerbate conflict. The distinction between art and propaganda can be blurry at best. Sensitivity to conflict dynamics is key to effective arts-based and arts-informed evaluation. I think the Do No Harm Framework is a great tool to use, especially since it forces us to recognize how we can both worsen and ameliorate a conflict situation through both what we do and how we do it. I also think that a rigorous and participatory analysis of context prior to and during project design can teach us about how art forms have been used by groups in conflict in the past, and about the legacies these forms have for each group in conflict. In addition, since the arts in evaluation is a mixture of peacebuilding evaluation and arts-based peacebuilding, it might be helpful to look at what researchers and practitioners in both fields have to say about best practices, ethics, maximizing effectiveness, and reducing the risk of causing harm. For example, Cynthia Cohen of Brandeis University has developed a wonderful toolkit for artist-peacebuilders that provides useful guidelines and critical questions aimed at supporting effective arts-based peacebuilding work: http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/peacebuildingarts/actingtogether/toolkit/....
I also recently heard Colleen Duggan of the International Development Research Centre speak of ethics in peacebuilding evaluation in a Thursday talk on the Network for Peacebuilding Evaluation.