This essay offers a perspective on doing engaged research, especially participatory action research (PAR) within the discipline of human geography. Rather than research design and methods, via consideration of identity and positionality my focus is principally on ethics and power relations. There is, Jane Wills claims, a shift to ‘engagement’ in both research and teaching (Wills, 2014), i.e. academics are engaging with “the researched” and with “the taught”. Engagement means challenging boundaries in academia and the public realm, contesting space-relational binaries between scholar and citizen, teacher and student, classroom and community centre etc. (c.f. Freire, 1993). For academics, it signals a shift in approach from the abstract to the practical, from ideas to action, or rather to praxis: ideas in action, thence generating more ideas to translate into fresh action... The point being, as Marx so famously noted, for scholars to contribute to changing inequitable conditions in the world, not just interpret them.
Engagement challenges the privileging of expert knowledges, Wills claims: it is anti-didactic. The basis of an engaged epistemology is valuing the situated knowledges of people in place who are experiencing particular conditions. Signalling its grassroots democratic and emancipatory politics, engaged research should be driven by the needs of peoples’ campaigns rather than demands to contribute to academic debate. Ontologically, engagement feeds the geographical imagination and is central to producing the world we live in differently, to making it more caring, more just, more sustainable and more hopeful. Engagement clearly means that the researcher must make philosophical, moral and political choices.
PAR as tyranny, governance and care
But is engaged research done for, with or alongside people’s campaigns? The Autonomous Geographies Collective (AGC) reflect on Rachel Pain’s identification of three ways to engage beyond the academy as strategies of ‘critical action research’, namely academic-activism, participatory research and policy research (Pain 2003, AGC, 2010). These three approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive, AGC contend. Positioning themselves as primarily academic-activists, however, they argue for rejecting false ontological, epistemological and political distinctions between academia and a wider society and for doing research collectively with people in struggles against oppression. AGC critique participatory research and specifically PAR. They highlight the difficulties of reconciling people’s campaigns with academic agendas and the potential ‘tyranny’ of imposing participatory methods (an to observation to which I will return).
On further consideration, AGC’s distinction between academic-activism and participatory research seems quite tenuous. Indeed, via its methodological rigour PAR may embed the researcher more steadfastly in people’s politics and campaigns. Done well, PAR engages with people and their projects long-term and carries out research within communities and social movements. Caitlin Cahill evokes the anti-apartheid movement motto ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’ to express PAR’s political commitment (Cahill, 2014). PAR seeks to counter hegemonic approaches, recognising a ‘plurality of knowledges located in a variety of institutions and locations’ (Kindon et al, 2007, p.11) rather than only in the bounded spaces of policy-making and academia. It valorises the knowledges of those have been, who are or - I venture to suggest – who will be systematically excluded.
These favourable observations on PAR made, it’s worth continuing to ponder how an academic-activist approach might more readily or more effectively reconcile people’s campaigns and academic agendas. Is the academic-activist of, with or for the people: resident, embedded or advocate? Similar questions can be asked of other approaches. While participatory research is perhaps the most widely used strategy of academic engagement, militant research is gaining ground (see for instance Shukaitis and Graeber, 2007; Now!, 2013; Russell, 2014). Once again, however, the distinction is vexed. Uri Gordon, for instance, discusses PAR as militant research (Gordon, 2007, see too Halvorsen, 2014). As with the proposal for Solidarity Action Research (Chatterton et al, 2007), militant research can be seen as a critique of PAR’s perceived fixation on research at the expense of political mutuality and action. Here, it is worth recognising the under explored theoretical potential of acknowledging PAR as a form of governance that then offers poststructuralism ‘a practical means to achieve radical projects of de/reconstruction in and through its praxis’ (Kesby et al., 2007, p. 25).
PAR continues to develop as an approach, clearly influenced by the experiences of researchers’ struggles with the difficulties of engagement, not least increasing tensions with the demands of a neoliberalising academia. Caitlin Cahill highlights the relational praxis of PAR and proposes its epistemological orientation as an ‘ethics of care’ (Cahill, 2007). She argues that ‘participatory research repositions our understanding of ethics within the broader socio-political, global context of our everyday lives’, noting the responsibility of researchers ‘to address ethical questions of representation, political strategy, and emotional engagement’. Such claims for PAR flag up the tremendous potential for transforming power relations through further exploration of a feminist perspective on engaged research.
Why (not) do engaged research?
Given the challenges, why would one do engaged research? Or, given its potential, perhaps the better question is why wouldn’t one? Well, in some instances it’s senseless to make a case against expert knowledge - consider designing a nuclear power reactor, combating an Ebola outbreak or quantifying climate change. But the anti-didactic stance of engagement is social rather than scientific: situated, affected publics do have knowledge of living with the risk of nuclear accident, epidemic illness or extreme weather; the engineer, immunologist or meteorologist should not have a privileged political voice. That said, one wouldn’t do engaged research if the object was a universally applicable analysis of quantitative data in the fields of, say, demography, economics or psychology. Epistemologically too, one wouldn’t do engaged research if one didn’t value situated knowledges and celebrate the differences between geographies: between and within communities and the places they inhabit, the spaces they create and the landscapes they animate. Ethically, not to mention practically, one wouldn’t choose engagement as an approach to researching groups whose ideology was wholly contra one’s own values, for instance neo-Nazi organisations: transparency as well as empathy with participants, though not neutrality or consensus, are seemingly prerequisites of engaged research. Finally here, one wouldn’t engage unless one truly believed it could fire the geographical imagination differently and so contribute to the production of alternative futures: hope is also prerequisite (c.f. Solnit, 2005).
Engagement, I contend, signals a participatory approach if not explicitly or exclusively participatory research methods. But is it really feasible to have academic research driven by popular needs? Who will frame the all important research question/s? And how will the researcher satisfy the demands of academia for theoretical grist to its mill? How can the results and analysis serve these two interests? (Or, with the increasing commercialisation of academia, should that be three interests: What if research reflects badly on a corporate funder of the researcher’s university? What if it doesn’t herald any commercial worth?) What if people’s campaigns are best served by tried and tested theoretical approaches? Or, on the other hand, what if analysis suggests action so radical that it is inconceivable or unpalatable to the community the researcher is working with? (e.g. Mason, 2013) Sometimes, communities may need to do that which is ethically acceptable and culturally familiar rather than what might be politically effective. ‘Solutions’ that involve direct action, irony, or transgressing norms may well be unacceptable
Admittedly unresolved, such issues do raise further questions of identity: the distinction between researcher and researched. Who are the people the researcher intends to engage with, and is that engagement only in order to facilitate the research? (c.f. Pain et al., 2013) Is the researcher already a member of that group, community or social movement? (Is that what AGC demand from the academic-activist?) Is the researcher, for example, an asylum-seeker living in a detention centre and campaigning for a change in immigration law? If not, how can she/he engage, how can she/he consider participatory research? (some groups have protocols that academic researchers must agree to, see for instance Just Space, 2014). And, if the researcher is able find a place and be accepted to work among such a group, for how long will she/he commit to their cause? How will she/he represent them? And, when her/his thesis is written, will she/he continue to campaign? Even if the job she/he’s offered is researching another group, elsewhere, involved with a different issue? Even if her/his intellectual curiosity is fired by a fresh observation? What will she/he do about the relationships formed during research? Did she/he agree how results would contribute to the campaign? Did she/he make it clear from the beginning that she/he was just passing through? Or, what would it mean to continue with activism with the academic cloak removed, without the backing (?) of the university or the protection (?) of an ethics statement? I note here the lack of an
Committing to engaged research means having to ask yourself questions about who you are and the life choices you make: it’s evidently not an impersonal, abstract, un-affecting decision; it’s not the easy emotional, political or career choice (c.f. Klocker, 2012). For that, consider mail-shot surveys, inanimate datasets and insensate SPSS.
Some engaging strategies and tactics
If you’re still determined to put yourself through it, believing perhaps the rewards will make it all worthwhile – for you and your collaborators/co-producers, here are some ideas and practices that may be useful. These are inevitably framed by my work as a political activist with social movements but they are likely to be adaptable for work with other publics (although I would counsel caution particularly if applying them to, for example, children’s geographies, which are not my forte). So, to do engaged research you should hold to – or perhaps be curious to unpack – the ontological, epistemological, ethical, political and emotional positions we’ve discussed. Academia seldom puts us in an ideal situation, but even in our less than perfect worlds you should aspire to conceive and design your research with a group whom you have got to know and who know you: formulate your research together. If your research is as part of an extensive network – for instance the Occupy movement (Halvorsen, 2014)– you won’t be able to work with everyone directly. Like a cook preparing a meal for activists in a protest camp, you’ll have to use your judgement and skills to discern the group’s needs and cater to them accordingly. There’s a particular responsibility here. (And what is the academic equivalent of hot, tasty, nutritious, sufficient and free vegan food?)
It can be a rough-ride being both an academic and an activist and here has been notable work on identity and positionality (for instance Hodkinson and Chatterton, 2006, Routledge, 2003, Routledge, 2002). Everyone’s commitment in a group is limited by time and space-relations. As an academic you’re not different, neither privileged nor at a disadvantage. Just as the cook contributes to the movement by producing nourishing food, you will be striving to produce useful knowledge. Be open about your research from the outset and make it clear, at least to your cohort, immediate comrades or affinity group, what you know your limitations to be, e.g. you won’t be around much in two years time, perhaps when a campaign is set to reach a critical point, because you’ll have to be writing your thesis.
There may be as many forms of engagement and choices of methods as there are groups and spaces within which to research. In each instance the stress on the P, A and R of PAR is likely to be different. Those observations made, some of my reflections on identity, positionality and methodology may be useful, if only as strategies and tactics to discard. On identity, a notion that has served me well is Ed Soja’s ‘critical thirding’ (Soja, 1996). For a while I explored the idea of Soja’s ‘thirdspace’ as a theoretical means of unifying the academic-activist identity (see Routledge, 1996; Anderson, 2002). Much more productive and manageable, though, is employing critical thirding simply as a technique that responds to the confinement of thought and action to only two alternatives, e.g. academic or activist, without seeking resolution. Critical thirding serves to interject the choice of academic-activist, where the original binary choice is not dismissed but subjected to a creative process that draws what it needs from the opposing categories to imagine things differently. How would an academic-activist research and act in a certain space of encounter that would distinguish the identity from either academic or activist: What if the binary choice was or could be dismissed? Similarly, what does critically thirding the researcher-researched binary offer? Surely, it signals the need to also research the self of the researcher and to empower the researched to research? In practice, critical thirding may also mean acknowledging the imperative to act in a wholly academic or wholly activist identity at specific times in certain spaces, particularly with respect to institutional constraints not (yet) ripe to challenge.
On positionality, a notion I have found very useful is Gavin Brown’s inversion of participant observation, which is in tune with both participatory and academic-activist approaches. As a social movement activist who is also an academic, Brown observes as he participates: he can’t help himself, and neither should he; this is what he does, and it is how he might usefully contribute to movement aims. Within ethical limits, it must be useful to take away narratives from a movement and share them with academia (just as the cook might learn a new recipe at a protest camp, take it away, cook it at work, improve upon it, and bring it back to the movement - not to labour that analogy too hard).
Ethical limits can be a nightmare. Often the researcher will find her/himself having to make a critical decision alone and in an instant: institutional support structures in academia are not geared to engaged research participation. If the group you are working with breaks the law, for instance, say committing trespass (e.g. Garrett, 2013), you must decide whether you participate, whether you include this transgression in your data, concealing identities, dates and places. And how you are going to protect your data? If possible, prepare yourself for such eventualities in advance: ‘What would I do if…’ While observant participation might seem to liberate your choice from academic constraints, i.e. you should act as your activist self decides, you will have to live with the consequences both in society and in academia.
Finally, I have found auto-ethnography an appropriate means of exploring and representing engagement, including identity and positionality (see Katz, 1992; Pratt 2000; Routledge, 2002; Juris, 2007; BRE; 2007). Auto-ethnography allows the researcher to reject the intrusion of methods such as interviews or questionnaires into communities of solidarity and trust. It also counters the potential tyranny of imposing a set methodology, as flagged-up by AGC. On the other hand, where they fit with both campaign and research needs and benefit both, interviews, questionnaires, participatory mapping, participatory video or other method may be appropriate: The researcher will have to make a judgement-call and possess the necessary skills to back it up. Like all methods, auto-ethnography has its limits. For example, I have often found the need to backtrack on research to double-check my observations, frequently via ‘remember when’ conversations with others. Here, I note the often unacknowledged research methods of conversation, especially for geographers ‘talking whilst walking’ (Anderson, 2004), and the ethical challenges that raises. For me, the experience that auto-ethnography generates further questions and the need for checking and corroboration stands it in good stead.
‘By placing themselves clearly in the story – as agents from specific locations in processes of social and cultural production – autoethnographers have openly challenged accepted views about silent authorship… In autoethnography, the researcher is firmly in the picture, in context, interacting with others’ (BRE, 2007, p. 226).
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