Research saves, vol. 1: You wake up in a tub full of ice (course content)

dawn pankonien
7 min readDec 27, 2018


An excuse to make a few key points about research.

“You wake up in a tub full of ice with one or more of your organs missing. What do you do?”

Remember that question with which we began this semester? Do you remember how you answered? Because here’s the thing: you were in a tub and either:

1) You chose to gather new information (google, call an experienced friend, track down an expert mafiosa who knows the market, determine your financial compensation according to the law), or

2) You chose to provide additional information to someone else (a 9–1–1 operator, a future gallery goer, etc.).

In short,

1) You did research, thereby gaining data and, soon after, knowledge, or

2) You communicated knowledge gained via your own recent, lived experience (and lived experience, absolutely, can and should count as research — just keep thinking, observing, and reflecting as you live even the most mundane of days).

Also depending on how you answered that question with which we began, you privileged a different kind of doing research, which is to say, you chose to apply a different research method. Let me show you what I mean.

For those of you who said:

A. Take out your phone, google bathtub missing organ, and go from there

You chose to privilege Internet based research. Starting there can lead you, quickly and easily, into keyword or advanced searches of databases other than Google (like JSTOR, like EBSCO, etc.) for information that is even more specialized and often more rigorous than what Google offers up.

All of this, whether you are 1) poking around Google and finding mostly blogs, vlogs, and pop news, 2) digging up primary sources and academic articles in digital archives like JSTOR, or 3) flipping through books on shelves at a bricks and mortar library gets called reviewing the literature. This is a research method. And it is where many people begin, once they have chosen a question to untangle.

B. Ring/text a friend who once woke up in a bathtub without a kidney and start asking questions.

You want to ask questions of other human beings, you say? Then you’ve chosen to interview and/or conduct a survey. These are two different, albeit similar, research methods, and we’ll look at both in this course.

For those of you who chose:

C. Set up a meeting with the local mafiosa who dominates all black market trade in your area and talk her into tracking down your missing organ(s).

Okay, I’m stretching a bit here, but: somebody who dominates the market has to *know* the market, correct? As in, that person, a mafiosa in this case, needs a strong sense of supply and demand and how goods and services (let’s be marxists and call them “commodities” here) move through time and space.

In research, whenever you want to trace a good/service/product/commodity ( i.e. anything-which-circulates-and-which-has-a-price), it can make sense to conduct a commodity chain analysis. Again, I’ll tell you more later.

So what if you picked D?

D. Call 911, give the operator the whole backstory.

“The whole backstory” is the part of this answer that I am focusing on here when I tell you, maybe you can pull everything you need for the 9–1–1 operator from your memory: You just lived an experience. That makes you an expert of sorts on that experience, no?

“You see, operator, I came to Vegas with three buddies … and now I am here and I am pretty sure there is a tiger in the bathroom, too” (paraphrasing, plot borrowed from Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover” (2009)).

When you participate in something, observe as you participate, and then pull your data from this experience, you are using a research method called participant observation. (Some will say I am simplifying, but this really is pretty simple: participation + observation = participant observation.)

Historically (in the social sciences), of course, the context in which you would be participating when doing research would be exotic or capital-o-Other to you. You might be born in Austria-Hungary, working at the London School of Economics, but hanging out in the Trobriand Islands, for example (see: Bronislaw Malinowski). And that exoticness/otherness of the situation would be what distinguishes “research” from regular old “hanging out” — again, this was the olden days. In 2019, obviously, there are all sorts of problems with thinking that research is about the exotic/”Other,” so now we need new ways to distinguish research from regular old living. I propose the following:

If you set out to participant observe, you are a researcher doing research. If you are living your normal daily life without keeping an eye out for data, without thinking about patterns, and without a notebook in sight (for jotting epiphanies/thoughts/observations you want to consider later), you are just a regular old participant doing life.

Clifford Geertz described participant observation, in 1998, as “deep hanging out”, and so we might also say that the difference between doing research and living is the depth to your hanging out. Side note: you can now deep hang out online as well as offline.

Key clause: At times when you need still more background than can fit into your memory and/or your fieldnotes, or say, perhaps, at a time when you can’t remember anything because your buddy thought he was slipping ecstasy into your drink when really it was rufflin (again, “The Hangover” (Ibid.)), a fantastic research method (one that is every bit as important as reading texts and digging through archives and interviewing and participant observing) is collecting oral histories, also sometimes called collecting life histories or narratives. Note: narratives, in particular, have become especially prominent (i.e. trendy) today, a shift that is often described as “the narrative turn” (even more here).

Next, a whole handful of you selected:

E. Break out that mysterious law degree you never told anyone about and get prepping your lawsuit.

Law students, lawyers, people really into rules and rule-making at the macro level: they have their own discourse (way of talking) and their own ways of researching — though, of course, they also do a whole lot of the kinds of research everyone else does, too. In this course, not yet but soon, we will look at how one author wrote about property rights and the human body using as her evidence a series of court cases which she tracked down and then analyzed. This is called legal research, and you can do it without a law degree.

Lastly, for those of you who, being the good artists that you are, chose:

F. Start wondering what you can make, given this new experience

Okay, okay: this one isn’t a research method in the classic sense of the word, but: recall how Roberto Orazi used a variety of methods to inform his making? Or there’s A.J. Lieberman who we just considered: he did a lot of reading (AKA a literature review), but he could have chosen to run interviews, too. Or he could have gotten even more creative: gone to Brasil and organized workshops in which willing favela residents act out skits in response to the prompt “rim” (“kidney” in Portuguese) — or maybe the willing favela residents could utilize disposable cameras (or their cell phones) for a week or a series of weeks and create photo journals in response to some prompt(s) — this is a method called “photovoice” — or, or, or.

My point here is, even when you choose to *make* in response to the world in which you live, you can always start with some sort of research. And if you look at some of the world’s most lucrative still living artists today, you will almost always see, in addition to each artist’s ideation phase, a research phase (even when this phase goes unnamed or gets called something else). Here I am thinking, first, of Yayoi Kusama (who swears she paints from within yet has always read prolifically), Ai Weiwei, Sonya Clark, Theaster Gates, and Matthew Barney, though there are many others…

P.S. I am a firm believer that anything you can think up which is 1) feasible, 2) ethical, and 3) helps you to answer the questions you wish to ask (as an artist, as a scientist, as a curious human being, etc.) can be called a research method. Therefore: feel empowered to invent methods if/when you do not find the right methods for your own research. In this course, and in the future, too.

Why I am writing through this here (i.e. So what?)

We will examine and also practice each of the research methods listed above this semester. My job is to convince you that research methods are tools, and that you, an artist, can use these tools (just like scientists use these tools) to inform your making. Your job will be to choose which of the tools (though we’re going to call them methods) you wish to try out this semester.

What and how you will choose your methods will depend both on what you choose to ask/investigate and on the usefulness and/or feasibility of each method to/for you specifically. Do you have time to run ten interviews — awesome! Do you not have this time? Maybe design a survey using Google Forms and email it to peers or post it to Reddit. I’ll be working alongside of you to answer your questions and to make sure our practices remain ethical.

When you are ready for our first science case study of this semester (we’ll be looking at the research into organ trafficking of anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, of course), click “Next.”



dawn pankonien

Binational. Transdisciplinary.