Illustration of woman holding pencil, with speech bubble, "Why not come on down and join us at CBR lab?"

A Comic Approach to Scholarly Inquiry

The CBR Lab at UMass Amherst is building community and capacity around comics-based research, a novel, rapidly growing research methodology that can be applied to virtually any academic discipline.

On a recent Monday afternoon, a group of students, faculty, and staff gathered in the UMass Amherst College of Education’s Montague House. Bolstered by cookies and an atmosphere of camaraderie, they held an informal “show and tell” session of their work, offering one another encouragement and help navigating challenges.

The gathering represented a diverse cross-section of departments at UMass, yet everyone present shared a common interest in exploring an obscure—yet rapidly growing—research method known as comics-based research (CBR). CBR can be used to plan, conduct, and disseminate research, and can be applied to virtually any academic discipline. 


Illustration of eight people around a circular table with CBR lab written on it. Each person has an arrow and words indicating the reason they are drawn to the CBR lab.

With an eye toward building a supportive creative scholarly community and growing capacity for CBR, Sally Pirie, professor of child and family studies in the UMass Amherst College of Education, launched the CBR Lab in December 2023. 

Illustration of four people and a cat with speech and thought bubbles indicating their need for CBR lab to help them.

Pirie is a CBR trailblazer—one of the very first scholars to publish comics-based research with her book series, Shane, the Lone Ethnographer (Rowman & Littlefield, Routledge), first published in 2007. She is an award-winning newspaper cartoonist—published in outlets including the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the weekly newspaper of her alma mater, Grinnell College—who earned a PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder. There, her dissertation chair encouraged her to integrate her artmaking with her academic research and life. Pirie went on to publish four scholarly books and numerous journal articles in comic form, and is committed to helping other researchers understand and use this methodology in their own work. 

Ilustration of woman with brown hair and black shirt
Sally Pirie, professor in the UMass Amherst College of Education and Comics-Based Research trailblazer.


What is Comics-Based Research?

As Pirie explains it, CBR is a subgenre of arts-based research, which applies systematic arts-making processes to research. Comics—defined as narrative, sequential art—can be employed in all parts of the research process, including:

  • Data collection: For example, by drawing observations in the field, or asking research participants to create drawings
  • Data analysis: Drawing to make sense of observations, including—but not limited to—visual memoing
  • Research dissemination: Using comics to share research findings with the world, either as part of a piece of conventional scholarship, or as a standalone piece of comic art
Illustration of woman drawing with thought bubble showing different creatures with speech bubbles showing hearts.

Why Use Comics in Research?

“Drawing comics is incredibly generative,” says Pirie. “This process can be used to explore complex ideas, and piece together a cohesive story based on data." 

Moreover, as a means of disseminating research, she explains, “CBR has many entry points, allowing both experts in a field as well as nonexperts to access research. If you’ve ever taken your kid to a Disney-Pixar movie, you’ll find that as much as it’s pitched toward kids, there’s also a lot in there for adults—there are multiple points of access and layers of complexity. Comics-based research is much the same.” 

In her own comics-based ethnographic research focused on children and childhood, Pirie strives to reduce the number of words and let the images speak, further challenging the primacy of conventional approaches. “This helps to decolonize how we think about knowledge and knowledge transmission: what speaks, to whom, and how,” she says.

Illustration of woman on orange background, with speech bubble, "Now I can better support students who are interested in comics-based dissertations and other projects!"s

The Future of Scholarship?

Both at UMass and beyond, Pirie has seen interest in CBR growing across academic fields—most prominently in public health, cultural anthropology, and medical research.

Through the CBR Lab, Pirie hopes to build a community—at UMass Amherst, in the region, and throughout the commonwealth—to support those interested in utilizing this methodology in their own work. The lab offers departmental trainings, support for student dissertations, an independent study option for undergraduates and graduate students, and artistic advising and illustration help.

“Doing creative work in the academy requires a huge investment of time and courage to go out on a limb,” says Pirie. “An interdisciplinary center like CBR Lab is crucial to promoting that work and supporting the people who want to do it.” 

Illustration of woman drawing at an easel with speech bubble, "My butt still hurts but I've found a creative research community at CBR lab!"

Pirie encourages anyone interested in learning more about CBR to get in touch and come to a meeting.  

“If you think you can’t draw, you’re wrong, because everyone can,” she says. “CBR has a place in every area of scientific inquiry, both in the university and beyond. I think this is an important direction that scholarship could be going in the future—not just in terms of expanding creativity, but also expanding multi-modality and access.”


Illustration of brown creatures on arm chairs. Text reads: "Curious?

This story was first published in April 2024.