A Defense of Collaborative Research

The simple fact is that deep, embedded, collaborative research whereby researchers work hand-in-hand with community participants in order to reveal new perspectives and to curate new forms of knowledge is inevitably risky, messy and to some extent even defiant.

Defiant in the sense that collaborative research rarely fits within traditional disciplinary or methodological silos, it demands a huge up-front investment in time and energy in order to forge high-trust relationships with community groups, and the outputs are very often too rich, fluid and varied to fit within conventional academic norms and audit frameworks. And yet the beauty of collaborative research is that it is defiant: it retains a sense of independent criticality that challenges the passive professionalism of the social sciences while also seeking to undertake research not ‘on’ local communities but ‘with’ local communities. In a contemporary context that is almost defined by division, distrust and polarization my sense is that the ability of collaborative methods to get under the skin of social discord would place it at the forefront of methodological discussions and questions of social relevance.

…the beauty of collaborative research is that it is defiant: it retains a sense of independent criticality that challenges the passive professionalism of the social sciences…

I was therefore surprised to read Graham Crow’s extended critique of collaborative scholarship. Crow argues that arguments for collaborative research are often overstated and sought to warn those who would adopt this position by offering ‘four cautionary tales’ about (1) paying insufficient attention to history, (2) conflating ‘different’ with ‘better’, (3) over-simplifying social complexity and (4) ‘courting conflict’.

This article by Matthew Flinders originally appeared on the Global Discourse Blog as “In Defence of Collaborative Research: Emotions, Engagement, and Existence” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 4.0).

The problem, however, is that Crow is not actually concerned with dissecting the pros and cons of collaborative research per se but is actually focused largely upon a critique of one specific and exceptional research program. As such, Crow (paradoxically) falls into the trap of his own making by overstating the extent to which collaborative scholars have sought to make the case for methodological supremacy in quite the manner he suggests. As such, the ‘four cautionary tales’ that Crow offers would not only be widely accepted as valid by the vast majority of collaborative scholars but are also of generic relevance across the full spectrum of social scientific methods. To seek to place such ‘tales’ so explicitly at the door of collaborative scholars is therefore arguably unfair or, at best, to make a curious case that remains largely unproven.

Possibly the most instructive element of Crow’s article for early career researchers is the manner in which it reveals that, no matter how carefully constructed, strawmen (whether of the theoretical, empirical or common farmyard variety) are generally relatively easy to knock-down.

What Crow’s focus on ‘four cautionary tales of overstatement’ does provide, however, is a platform on which to build a far more robust set of arguments about the link between emotions and methods and about how this relationship is changing in ways that have implications for both the focus and nature of research and research careers. Far from focusing on the link between collaborative research and over-statement could it actually be that a set of fundamental issues have been under-stated and therefore deserve to be foregrounded as part of the ‘conversation’ Crow seeks to initiate?

Four potential tales of under-statement spring to mind and can for the sake of simplicity be set out as: (1) the danger beyond, (2) the danger of going against, (3) the danger within, and (4) the danger of being between.

The danger beyond focusing on the emergence of fearful societies and the significance of emotional intelligence. The core point being made, however, is that – notwithstanding the work of scholars including Sara Ahmed, Ernst Bloch, Martha Nussbaum, Raia Provhovnik, Paul Hoggett and Emma Hutchinson – the role of emotions and particularly why feelings matter and how they affect political attitudes and political behavior in a context defined by the emergence of anti-political sentiment and populism remains under-studied, under-acknowledged and ultimately under-stated. This case has been powerfully made by Laura Jenkins (2018) but the link back into Crow’s thesis about collaborative scholarship, and particularly the debate concerning ‘different is different’ as opposed to ‘different is better’, is that an argument can be made that collaborative approaches provide specific value in terms of identifying and understanding the emotional dynamics of communities.

Just like politicians who refuse to inflame the public expectations risk not being elected so too do researchers who adopt a more modest approach risk not being funded.

The second ‘tale of under-statement’ revolves around a topic that Crow does actually raise, albeit in a slightly oblique manner: the emotions of the expectations trap, or what I label ‘the danger of going against’. The argument here is very simple: as the pressures and expectations placed on academics increases and as the available research funding decreases (or, in some cases, increases but with increasing strings) so too does the pressure on researchers to over-inflate what their proposed research will deliver increases. This danger is therefore about the risk of over-promising but then under-delivering and the pathological impacts such a pattern of behavior might produce. Just like politicians who refuse to inflame the public expectations risk not being elected so too do researchers who adopt a more modest approach risk not being funded. This is the ‘expectations trap’ and it is one that all scholars whatever their methodological persuasion must learn to navigate. The twist, however, is that collaborative methods do by their very nature bring with them and additional but rarely acknowledged challenge for researchers due to the manner in which they must persuade external actors (communities, charities, communities, service providers, etc.) to actually collaborate with them in the first place, and then to sustain that engagement. In this context ‘the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device to make the case’, as Crow suggests, could be significant in terms of creating a sense of belief or value in a research project.

And yet this focus on the ‘expectations trap’ actually flows into a very different but related dimension which I label the danger within and that focuses on the emotional dynamics of modern life. The ‘decline of donnish dominion’ – to paraphrase the title of A. H. Halsey’s 1995 book on the British academic professions in the twentieth century – is a well-worn and possibly over-stated narrative but what is arguably under-stated is the impact that increasing professional pressures are having on the mental health and well-being of academics. A recent research project found that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder (i.e. nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders compared with the general population). A 2017 RAND report – ‘Understanding Mental Health in a Research Environment’ – also found that higher education staff reported worse mental well-being than those in other types of employment but also found that academics were generally reluctant to disclose or discuss their mental health challenges to employers (with only around six per cent of academics disclosing a mental health condition to their employer). Liz Morrish’s 2019 report describes and epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. (As an academic with a history of mental health challenges I feel well-placed to call for greater attention to be paid to this topic.)

What is it, however, that might make arguments about mental health and well-being of particular significance within debates concerning collaborative research and emotions? The answer brings us back full-circle and to my initial statement that thick, immersive and embedded community-based initiatives are inevitably risky, messy and to some extent even defiant. Such methods are not for the faint-hearted or those that seek to ‘play it safe’ in a professional sense, and the danger is therefore of somehow existing ‘between’ designated professional spheres as neither wholly one or the other. Coping with ambiguity is exhausting but rarely has the link between emotional labor and collaborative research been explicitly stated, let along explored.

Coping with ambiguity is exhausting but rarely has the link between emotional labour and collaborative research been explicitly stated, let along explored.

What I mean by this is that collaborative scholars often exist not as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ but somewhere in the intersection or nexus between academe and society. This reflects both their belief in the capacity of social science and their commitment to supporting social change. The risk, however, is that by adopting this position they exist as neither-one-nor-the-other, in the sense of not being a ‘mainstream’ academic but also not being a ‘conventional’ social campaigner or activist. Existing between these spheres is arguably akin to operating in a professional hinterland and a fairly lonely place and maybe this is the ‘cautionary tale’ that really needs to be told more often.

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Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics and founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is also president of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and a board member of the Academy of Social Sciences.

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