Reality is always more clever than the philosophy that impotently wishes to reflect it. That is why enlightenment is no seamless doctrinary construct but rather the constant illuminating dialogue that we are obliged to construct with ourselves and with others.

(Amery 1984, 141).

To embark on a discussion of Ethics in the context of practice research; an idea with no fixed identity, that offers us no universal givens, and exists in the complex relations between people, their ideas, codes of behaviour and actions, can encourage us to embrace doctrinary constructs. Arguably this may not be a bad thing, but as we embark upon research projects we need to learn ways to accommodate a constancy of change in relation with the context, the ideas explored and those we work alongside. Ethical relations are lively; they exist beyond any written and approved plan and any institutional protocol for research. Ethics in practice inhabit the realm of ideas and relations that shape the interactional spaces existing between us. These energised spaces are where we forge our practice, and through our investigatory journey undertake the shaping of responses to the questions that initiated the process. It is, after all through iterative cycles of practice, that we learn to recognise ways of understanding. It is here that we learn how we relate and ultimately realise the worth of engagements informed through what are dialogic, adaptive processes of ethics.

Arguably at the outset of any research project, we each seek to recognise a common good, and to recognise that we aim to do as we would be done by. It is worth noting here that in many examples of arts-practice-research there is a desire to engage in shared decision-making as a way to accommodate differences, inspirations and evolving attitudes. In any such process, we can acknowledge the presence of vibrant relations where we will probably need to give attention to changing ethical relations and to changes that can occur in terms of roles. Here, immersed within the practice of research, we need to recognise and facilitate a sense of permeability, in the meeting and mixing of selves, ambitions, relations and academic protocols.

Whilst practices of research can come into existence through transparent engagements, they often present difficult, sometimes uncomfortable situations that we need to learn to accommodate for the sake of those involved and for the progressive investigation of the project. These common and complex situations reside in vibrant, in-between places of relations. They task us to accommodate differences with respect to habit, to engrained preferences, to determination of purpose, to role, and to power. The reality of such research contexts are always more complex than an imagined or approved plan; more fascinating with respect to the responses uncovered and the discipline that it requires.

In any research context, there is need to acknowledge that,

  • we seek to do no harm;
  • we seek to foster positive outcomes;
  • we seek agreed understandings;
  • we remain open to emerging interpretations;
  • we acknowledge the value in difference.

It is through engagement with transparent ethical behaviour that we can recognise the frameworks for thinking existing in the particularities of our artistic practice. Attending to the manner of relations that can often; even deliberately exist between order and disorder can facilitate the emergence of new and significant assertions. In any research context attention needs to be given to recognising the generation of knowledge through the transmission of ideas brought into existence through a broad range of subtle, felt activities. When further refined through co-operative cycles of disciplined-open mindedness, opportunities emerge in terms of shaping reflections, and generating co-operative shared outcomes. Recognising such experiences as existent within the ways you engage in and with research is part of learning how to be with an emerging process. Through the manner in which you attend to and associate with the illuminating dialogue between ideas and actions, for yourself and for those with whom you work, access can be gained to richly, interconnected knowledge.

Through approaching engagement in practice research in this manner, we step towards frameworks for thinking in an appreciation of ethics informing practice by exhibiting inclusivity, mutuality, trust, and respect. The benefits formed through ongoing partnerships that exhibit inclusivity, mutuality, trust, and respect as features of research reveal how we can become more closely identified through the particular ways we forge new knowledge. In making these observations the aim is to share a series of threads that can aid reflection when shaping your own meshwork of practice. Appreciating your engagement with research as a recurring series of ethical endeavours can illuminate an active means of experiencing your lively position as a researcher.

To close the gap between research design and the often somewhat distanced protocols used in granting permission to begin a project it is useful to realise an engagement with ethics that contributes to the identity of the knowledge generated. To offer a shift in the perceptions of ethics in the practice of research it is useful to recognise the powerful dynamics at play in contexts of active learning that can illuminate and delimit the potential understandings forged. In the multiple ways we might choose to contextualise an inquiry, there are consequential impacts on emerging outcomes that need to be recognised and acknowledged.

Ethics are core to any research journey. We can gain insights by learning to explore human conditions of action, decision-making and relationship.

As researchers we can feel vulnerable when required to submit an application for ethical approval to an anonymous university committee. Here, we enter a system established, at least in part, to ensure legal protection and the high reputation of the institution. Such a process, somewhat removed from the actuality of the research, can feel like an imposition, offering little more than restriction to what you perceive as a carefully honed design. However, an unknown observer can offer new insights, even though these may require further review and changes to the research plan. Treading the pathway between institutional ethics and your evolving research ethics can be complex. However the process can be valuable in terms of learning to appreciate difference; learning to recognise alternative perspectives; and in learning ways to clarify and disseminate your perspective. It offers a way to consider your position in relation to assumed ideas and your ability to communicate them.

Ethics asks

  • that you recognise your ability to operate within realms of unpredictability and change. It is an act of courage in venturing towards experiences as yet, un-thought.
  • that you do as you would be done by.
  • that you engage with the reflective self-consciousness that enables each of us to share a collective imagination, with responsibility for ourselves and for others.
  • that we share what we have in common, and benefit from shaping responses to our lived experiences together.
  • that we share concerns for, co-creation, collaboration, self-expression, self-determination, and collectivity.

Here we share ways of understanding ethics that draws on the experiential position of the researcher, the people and ideas researched and the manner of the research journey. In removing the gap between the design of a project and engagement with ethics we can appreciate more of the ways our behaviours are integral to the knowledge we generate.

The journey of research exists,

  • in a state of continuous flow,
  • in a situation of effective responsibility,
  • in a place where those involved seek to recognise what they share and appreciate their evolving a common position,
  • in a place of chance, recognising positions of agreement, with respect to sameness and to difference.

Towards Ethical Practice

Taking a lead from Jacques Delors’ report, Learning the Treasure Within (1996), there are benefits in embracing ethics as a partner of practice. The premise here is, that in learning to be with ideas and learning to be with others, we learn to recognise the positive opportunities inherent in shared endeavours. In turn, as we learn to handle the ways ideas intertwine and emerge we can come to realise routes towards positive change in terms of process and outcome.

To be asked to imagine broadly but ultimately to design research that is within a shadow of traditional conventions, can diminish ambition with respect to the challenges we seek to investigate. It can lead to the caging of knowledge within the framework of tradition, delimiting the possibility of initiatives and exploration. However, Practice Research offers opportunities to challenge established, often comfortable presumptions of knowledge and facilitates leaps towards recognising new knowing and forming outcomes, differently. We have support here in argument adopted by Rosi Braidotti, who, in considering identifying features of ethics for our times, suggests the need for,

….an ethics of mattering… [where we need] to take account for our part in the meshworks of life in which we are entangled, an awareness of one’s condition of interaction and the capacity to affect and be affected to enable life to flourish (Braidotti, in Lester 2016, 64).

Perhaps Phillipa Rothfield can help us here as she addresses what can be experienced and learned through engagement, in cooperative, collaborative art making. In her research in dance, there are echoes of Spinoza when she argues that,

…the ethical is already implicated within the domain of dance simply because we dance. It is found in the tactile flow of information, from one body to another (Rothfield 2015).

What is prominent here is the suggestion of inherent value in learning through bodily motion; that through time spent exploring the many ways we move and interrelate, we can come to recognise that, for each of us, it is our body that is the centre of our individual and personal existence in the world. Implicit in this idea is the value to be gained with respect to ethic-aesthetic enhancement, where learning and research are brought together in attendance to the manner of any dialogic relations.

Through incidences of practice where we might explore the social awareness of a lively community in the creation of performance, we can recognise ethics as a constituent feature of the knowledge generated, of our being and of our interrelating. Whilst I echo, Rosi Braidotti’s suggestion; that we need to, ‘invent a form of ethical relations, norms and values worthy of the complexity of our times (Braidotti 2013, 86), we do have generations of such invention. What we need is engagement, application and acknowledgment of the breadth of ethical relations drawn from active human relations. In a range of work across narratives of arts practice, we have evidence of exploratory relations of ethics and social relatedness.

In the work of John Dewey (Dewey, Boydston 2008), there are various lines of interest that embrace ethics, art making, the generation of knowledge, alongside explorations of our ways of learning through being in-relation. His argument, that learning how to accommodate and attend to the complexity of our multiple associations is the only means through which we can each realise our potential is riven through examples of practice research. Evident in much of his work is the need to recognise the importance of the ways we relate for arguably, it is within what can be felt through our mutuality that we can gain benefit from integration of our ethical, aesthetic and artistic possibilities. It is a situation made all the more intricate if we further acknowledge the complexities and entanglements through which we find ourselves in relation with others, with ideas and with the consequences of our actions.

James Joyce, writing in Finnegans Wake (1939) observed the complexity of the situation admirably, alluding to our, ‘… continually more and less intermisunderstanding minds’ (Joyce 1939, 118). Any discussion of ethics whether in reference to endeavours in research or life, revolves around and is identified by our capacity to engage with crowded spaces of intermisunderstandings. Keeping focus on the potential riches to be found in such experiences could usefully help us evolve counter propositions to the vulnerability, dispossession, and doubt that fosters a climate of judgmental, rule riven diminution within cultures of research in relation to ethics. If we address ethics from the perspective of our tendency towards intermisunderstandings we might foster inter-relational practices of sensitivity through the forming of shared connections with those with whom we work, whether in terms of research, the creation of performance, our paid work, community, neighbourhood, or family relations.

The Troubles in Documenting

Experiences of collaborative, experimental research illustrate the extent of the difficulties we face in terms of addressing the growing expectation of revealing transmissions of practice through traces of documentary evidence. Finding ways to reveal the radiation of ideas, often shared in a gesture or felt within the mutual context of thinking-together presents challenges with respect to the possibility of making public our changes in thinking or in the capturing of complex nuance.

Modes of documentation can accommodate the framing of ideas, and disseminate the honing of a process through scoring possibilities. However, the broadening of practice continues to present challenges with respect to representing the intra-active manner of forming a work, a thought, or the moment of a decision. Experimental research practices can be difficult to understand from the inside in terms of finding ways to disseminate awareness of the features of the process for an outside position. This doesn’t mean the exchange does not happen, we are continuously immersed in momentary experiences that shape experience and understanding. A task we continue to grapple with concerns how we make available to a broader public, the intricacies of practice, the place of thinking, and the connecting sense and ideas?

Interpersonal Fields

In appreciating the richness of the interpersonal fields in which we work, where inner and outer thoughts, actions and words mingle, and where the subtleties of bodily interaction impact upon the translation of ideas, it is important to learn to appreciate a constellation of our personal abilities. Such competencies exist in the relations that flow between us, informing the manner of (m)any of our interactions, whilst supporting the revelation of substantial knowledge. For philosopher Kelly Oliver it is the role of active witnessing; a form of socially circulating energy that appears key, existing as it does within human relationships. Oliver argues that,

In our relationships, we constantly negotiate affective energy transfers. Just as we can train ourselves to be more attuned to photic, mechanical, or chemical energy in our environment, so too can we train ourselves to be more attuned to affective energy in our relationships (Oliver 2001, 14).

In relation to arts practice research, these ideas offer a window onto a practice of ethics founded upon our recognition and association with affective energies. These relations are forged where we seek to make sense of our experience/s, alone and together. In the rhythm of a research process, a sense of relation and coherence may be found where, as individuals, we learn to ‘think with’, to share experience, and to challenge the emergence of opportunities with one another. The reason to explore this phenomenon is to understand more about associations that exist in the ways that we can champion our willingness to look beyond familiar themes and methods in the generation of ideas. It is here that we can gain benefit from acknowledging, affective relational ethics.

In the practice of research, we often depend upon the energies of others and the generative impetus that develops between us as a way to shape our relations and emerging outcomes. It is feasible to frame arts practice research as an inter-subjective field, where work is formed through mutual endeavour, through the generation of responses, to witnessing and the investigation of ideas. A continuing thread running through this discussion is an alignment of ethics in research as a relational, social process. Here, the ethical journey of research can be recognised as an exploration of the social and creative encounters that occur between individuals as they work in common.

Being immersed in the generation of shared ideas can offer opportunities to address how we learn to think and come to recognise the significant events emerging during any relational processes in practice. This is the place where the ethics of a research practice reside, where they function as active features in the generation of knowledge rather than a protective schedule of rules for engagement.

The Troubles with Ethics

No code of ethics can guarantee ethical behaviour, it can neither resolve all ethical issues nor capture all the complexities of the nature of the responsibilities that exist within artistic practice experiments or fieldwork. Ethics concerns our behaviours as individuals, beyond allegiance to any one fixed moral code. What is important and the primary thread explored here is the concern of all of us in terms of how we engage with ethical work through an appreciation of the relational traits that identify our practice.

It is of course possible that in any programme of research there may be a need to address unpredictable situations and the finding of solutions that might reshape the practice. Research can lead to changes in established patterns of thinking. Just as the production of artistic outcomes requires us to be open to the possibilities of experimentation, the journey through ethical research can lead us to uncertain places where we have to rely on reasoned decision-making. In such circumstances, thinking forward responsively to the possibility of seeing and feeling things differently is a productive means by which to address the varied intensities and affects of working betwixt ideas and practice.

Attending to such ethical processes can increase the transparency of work thereby providing rich data, closely aligned with the specifics of the context and supporting the realisation of robust, secure, and informing outcomes. What can become evident in the process of considering ethics is that the choices we make and the decisions we take have a significant influence on what are complex relations. These connections exist between ideas, between the ways we choose to act upon them and, between those with whom we relate. As Gail Simon reminds us:

…all research constitutes an intervention in the lives of the researcher, the research participants and the audiences or witnesses to this re search. Each act of inquiry invites, mindfully or otherwise, the possibility of an implicative force, which changes lives. (Simon 2014, 23)

Traces of the work of Spinoza are evident here, as they are for Rosi Braidotti when she promotes ethics as concerned with a web of accountability. For Braidotti the meshwork offers a chance to remove the obstacle of self-centred individualism, thereby allowing ways to combine, ‘…self-interests with the well-being of an enlarged sense of community’ (Braidotti 2006, 35). For Sharon Todd (2003) there are similar trajectories where ethics concerns engagement through interaction. For Todd, such interaction embraces the ways in which we can appreciate the fuller complexities of our encounters and realise our engagement through a sustaining form of ethics.

Moira Gatens (1996), Rosi Braidotti (2006), Genevieve Lloyd (2013), Gail Simon (2014) all signal modes of sustainability as determinants of ethics in practice, each arguing that ethics is concerned with processes of encounters formed, in, with and through lived experience. The practice of ethics seen through this lens is not a task added into a research profile but an integrating feature of any process of inquiry. These authors, perceive of ethics as both a subject of philosophical inquiry that offers us guiding principles towards what we might recognise as a civilising society and more vitally, a way for each of us to be in relation with the complexity of our lived experience world. As researchers, there is a continuing need to be attentive to change over time, to the impacts felt by all those involved and to the ways in which the identity of the research shifts through developments. To embrace ethics as informing shifts in practice, we can actively consider ways to,

  • embrace ones imaginative capacity, developing work that allows for empathetic experiences through a range of different perspectives.
  • learn to recognise and utilise individual and shared capacity.
  • explore the manner in which ethics can operate as an identifying feature of research practice and ambitions.
  • design processes of practice that are transparent.
  • represent the outcomes and generate new insights that are illuminated through practice.

The journey is one of recognition in terms of the shifts in behaviours that need to be addressed and can be framed as an ethical approach that is founded in practice; that is relational, responsive and adaptive.

Relational, ethical, adaptive practice

  • has integrity in being integrated with ongoing life experience
  • can be considered fair,
  • generates and exhibits information without harm
  • is equitable in terms of process with respect to what can be done
  • facilitates agreed positive change
  • shows sensitivity in the portrayal of human experience
  • generates rich, representative information
  • is integral to and shapes the journey of research.
  • exhibits perseverance and depth of discipline.

Towards Ethical Practice

For Jane Bennett (2001) whilst the adoption of codes and criteria may well be an indispensable part of ethical practice, if these are only exercised through enforced obligation, they remain insufficient in terms of meeting the aspirations we may espouse. What Bennett (2001, 3) proposes is that there is value to be found in facilitating ‘ethical generosity’ allowed to glide across ways of being in relation and being sensitively responsive in our actions and with those that we encounter.

Ethics is

  • about all manner of behaviours towards being-in-community with others, and our selves. It clearly concerns co-creation, collaboration, self-expression, self-determination, and collectivity, all integrating through a shared reliance and simply stated, tells us to, ‘…do as you would be done by’.
  • present in the metaphors that a performance might evoke as much as it is the embodied vision realised in the form of a work.
  • present in the metaphors that a performance might evoke as much as it is the embodied vision realised in the form of a work.
  • ultimately the presence of reflective self-consciousness enabling us to share a collective imagination and responsibility for ourselves and for others.
  • a pragmatic quest for an artist-researcher, to appreciate knowledge of the subtleties of experience. This is particularly the case where practice relies on a refining ability to recognise social interaction in the terms of exchanges in practice.

Closing the Gap

In the midst of a research process, we seek to cultivate imagination, observation, evaluative and critical realisations made through the generation of material and ideas. Part of any such venture offers a series of challenging quests in learning how to cope with what can be risky dialogues with ideas and with each other. There is always need for us to address our power to act, to consider positions of vulnerability, inequality, prejudice, security, and control for all those involved and in the realisation of any outcomes. Research in these terms becomes a practice of encounters with ethics and aesthetics as they meet through affective compositions that can lead to different outcomes with respect to thinking and decision-making.

In following arguments explored by John Dewey, we find no separation of our intellectual and emotional selves and no separation of body and mind. Instead, we inhabit experiences of learning as an integrating mind. It is in our ability to function as a fusion of intellect, sensation, and emotion that we can come to recognise the realms of further possibilities. As researchers, we are in community with ideas, with ambitions for practice, modes of operation and with those with whom we work. Interaction and communication are cornerstones in understanding any such human endeavour.

In attending to our sensibility towards engagement with research we can recognise new knowledge through the integration of aesthetic, ethic and artistic responsiveness. This intrinsic blend helps shape emergent research designs and offers the benefits of learning to cope with complexity, messiness, and uncertainty. It can help frame a willingness to suspend the rush to decision-making, something increasingly hazardous in research driven by premature closure to meet the super-imposition of deadlines. These complex spaces can be difficult to negotiate in terms of how we engage in the design of research. What is clear is the need to experience the practice of ethics in research as a process of learning to listen, to observe and to think, through an epistemology of the senses.

stEP… Mind the Gap

…ethics concerns more than the rote learning of rules and procedures;
…through ethics we learn about shared responsibility, fashioned in-dialogue through the quality of personal practice (Bannon 2012, 38).

In any working process, ideas gradually emerge as we follow relations and threads of thought. This can mean moving away from a pre-planned and agreed routes with the consequent need to learn to guide the practice through shifts of emphasis and often into realms of unknowing. The environments of research are complex, the relations changeable and the trajectory often uncertain. From an ethical perspective it is important that we each recognise and shape our own steps towards ethical practice.

Steps Towards Ethical Practice

  • To cope with difference, as ideas emerge and collide.
  • To put yourself in the place of another.
  • To attend, to wait, to allow for emerging ideas and response.
  • To look for interconnections between differing perspectives.
  • To allow for the possibility of unexpected outcomes.
  • To sustain your attention.
  • To wait without rushing to results.
  • To give and to take responsibility.
  • To attend to the detail of ideas shared by others.
  • To unsettle what you think you know.
  • To recognise changes in your attitude.
  • To be aware of the impact of your study on those involved.
  • To avoid harm or detriment for those with whom you work.
  • To not overpower the voice of participants.
  • To be a responsive witness.To hold onto the possibility of what seems impossible.
  • To acknowledge constancy of reinvention.
  • To hold processes in review with time to remodel.
  • To recognise the impact and contribution of collaborators.
  • To be appreciative of the ‘messiness’ of experience.
  • To show respect for the well-being of others and of yourself.
  • To ensure the safety, security, and privacy of partners in the work.
  • To learn to find comfort existing with tension.
  • To allow yourself to migrate, to shift your point of view.
  • To allow yourself to trust and to suspend any rush to answers.
  • To ask yourself how you acknowledge those you work beside.
  • To recognise and utilise your resourcefulness.
  • To cultivate perspective through the experiences of others.
  • To ask yourself how you might think differently.
  • To sustain responsiveness.

Reference List and Additional Resources

Améry, Jean; Sidney Rosenfeld, and Stella Rosenfeld. 1984. Radical humanism. 1st edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bannon, Fiona. 2019. Considering Ethics in Dance, Theatre and Performance.: Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Bannon, Fiona. 2012. Relational Ethics: dance, touch and learning. [online] Higher Education Academy.

Bennett, Jane. 2001. The enchantment of modern life. Princeton, NJ [u.a.]: Princeton University Press.

Braidotti, Rosi. 2006. Transpositions: On nomadic ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The posthuman. Oxford: Polity Press.

Dewey, John., and (ed.) J.A. Boydston. 2008. The Later Works of John Dewey: 1929–1930, Essays, the Sources of a Science of Education, Individualism, Old and New, and Construction of a Criticism. 1st edition, 122–123. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Delors, Jacques., In’am. Al Mufti, Isao Amagi, Roberto. Carneiro, Fay. Chung et al. 1996. Learning: the treasures within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Gatens, Moira. 1996. Imaginary bodies: Ethics, power and corporeality. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Joyce, James. 1939. Finnegans Wake. 1st edition, 118. London: Faber and Faber.

Lester, Stuart. 2016. “Posthuman nature: Life beyond the natural playground.” In Philosophical Perspectives on Play, 1st edition, edited by M. MacLean, W. Russell and E. Ryall, 53–67. London: Routledge.

Lloyd, Genevieve. 2013. Enlightenment shadows. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oliver, Kelly. 2001. Witnessing. 1st edition. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

Rothfield, Philipa. 2015. The Ethics of Intervention. [online] Accessed 12 April 12, 2017.

Simon, Gail. 2014. “Systemic Inquiry as a form of Qualitative Inquiry.” In Systemic Inquiry: Innovations in Reflexive Practice Research, edited by G. Simon, and A. Chard, 3–29. Farnhill: Everything is Connected Press.

Spinoza, Baruch., and R. Elwes. 1951. Benedict de Spinoza: a theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. New York: Dover.

Stuart, Meg. and Catherine. Sullivan. 2008. Catherine Sullivan and Meg Stuart. [online] BOMB. Accessed on March 16, 2015.

Todd, Sharon. 2003. Learning from the other: Levinas, psychoanalysis, and ethical possibilities in education. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Fiona Bannon

Fiona Bannon (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds, UK where she teaches courses in research methods, performance, choreography and collaborative practice. Fiona is the current Chair of DanceHE, the representative body for dance in higher education in the UK. As the Chair of World Dance Alliance-Europe she is a member of the Global Executive of World Dance Alliance. Her career spans time working as a Dance Animateur in the UK and Australia, and Head of the School of Arts, University of Hull. Recent publications include a monograph entitled, Considering Ethics in Dance, Theatre and Performance.