The Art of Qualitative Research: The Use of Artistic Methods in Prison

By Amelia Hoy

What are artistic methods?

In recent decades researchers have begun to explore how artistic methods can be used to conduct research (Leavy 2014). Artistic methods involve the researcher using art-making as their primary method during research (McNiff 2011) such as visual art (e.g. painting), literary forms (e.g. writing) and performative forms (e.g. dance). The use of creativity to answer research questions (Leavy 2018) has created new insights to human life and previously inaccessible phenomena. While the use of artistic methods is relatively new to qualitative research (Ledger and Edwards 2011), its foundations stem from therapeutic and rehabilitative aspects of art (Nugent and Loucks 2011). Artistic methods can offer different ways of communicating experiences to a researcher.

How have artistic methods been used in research?

The use of artistic methods can be beneficial through promoting individuality and agency in a controlled environment, allowing people in prison to express emotions freely and improving overall wellbeing (Soape et al 2021). Researchers aim to avoid objectification of their participants through promoting freedom of expression throughout the research process (Piotrowski and Florek 2015). Therefore, artistic methods allow participants to express themselves, tackling barriers to building relationships and connecting with individuals.

How have artistic methods been used on the Doing Porridge project?

We have experienced first-hand the benefits of art in prison, through attending an art exhibition at a local women’s prison, witnessing the emotion that can be translated through artistic expression. Women were able to express happiness through fond memories from their past, or discontent from their current experience in prison. We are using artistic methods in the Doing Porridge project through multiple stages of our research. Creativity is encouraged through our diaries which include stimulating questions and activities surrounding the topic of food in prison. Through freedom in how the women use and fill out their diaries, they aim to be accessible to most women and promote expression and choice in how aspects of the diary are completed. Participants are encouraged to draw or write, giving them the choice to complete the diaries in their own way. This data will allow for further interpretation, as stated by Sullivan (2010) discontent expressed by people in prison suggests wider issues within prisons as well as larger structural levels. Creativity for the women is maintained in our two art workshops at each prison. With help from artist Erika Flowers (, women can create a piece of artwork surrounding the theme of food. The project aims to open up conversations about food in prison by promoting dialogue directly between participants, researchers, and the general public. Our exhibition with Koestler Arts ( next year will showcase art from the workshops as well as pieces from this year’s Koestler Awards, which has the theme of ‘Taste’.

Artistic methods introduce a new, creative way of engaging with research participants by promoting agency, freedom and improving mental wellbeing. Using artistic methods is mutually beneficial, where participant and researcher work together to achieve aims which were once out of reach, creating new knowledge, social change and reform.


Anderson, H. and Bedford, C. (2017) ‘What I Know Now: Radio as a means of empowerment for women of lived prison experience’, Journal of Alternative and Community Media.

Gussak, D. (2006) ‘Effects of art therapy with prison inmates: A follow-up study’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 33, no. 3.

Horneman-Wren B (2021)’ Prison art programs: Art, culture and human rights for Indigenous prisoners’, Alternative Law Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 219-224.

Leavy, P. (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, Oxford University Press: New York.

Leavy, P. (2018) Handbook of Arts Based Research, The Guildford Press: New York.

Ledger, A. and Edwards, J. (2011) ‘Arts-based research practices in music therapy research: Existing and potential developments’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 38, no. 5, pp. 312-317.

McNiff, S. (2011) ‘Artistic expressions as primary modes of inquiry’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, vol. 39, no.5, pp. 385-396.

Nugent, B. and Loucks, N. (2011) ‘The Arts and Prisoners: Experiences of Creative Rehabilitation’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 356-370.

Piotrowski, P. and Florek, S. 2015 ‘Science of art in prison’ in Ostrowski, T. M, Sikorska, I. and Gerc, K, Resilience and Health: in a Fast-Changing World, Krakow: Jagiellonian Press, pp. 93-108.

Soape, E., Barlow, C., Gussak, D. E., Brown, J. and Schubarth, A. (2021) ‘Creative IDEA: Introducing a Statewide Art Therapy in Prisons Program’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, doi:10.1177/0306624X211013731.

Sullivan, G. (2010) Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts, SAGE Publications: Los Angeles.

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