Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto has been primarily on data generation processes, with topics such as inclusion, research ethics, and agency frequently discussed. Fundamental questions such as who the knowledge produced through research reaches, at what time, and with which purpose require greater scrutiny, write Dorothea Hilhorst, Lize Swartz, and Adinda Ceelen.

"Books of Knowledge." by Tessss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

There is a large collection of terms that label efforts to make academic work relevant to and heard and seen by society – research uptake, valorization, knowledge utilization, societal relevance, impact, and so on. Yet, for research to be truly transformative, the way in which knowledge is communicated needs to change. Too often still, the use of abovementioned concepts reveal a way of thinking where research outcomes are seen as a package that needs to be ‘transferred’ to ‘society’ at the end of the process. We argue that research can be more transformative if research uptake is integrated into the objectives and process of the research and if we further unpack the following question: is knowledge produced in the name of social justice, inclusion and the eradication of poverty reaching those that need it most?

This is a tricky question because it requires thinking about how knowledge can be communicated directly with – or indeed by – research participants, and with other actors that can work towards tackling the fundamental societal challenges that are now more pervasive than ever. Knowledge is powerful, and those who can avail of the knowledge can make the difference for, or ideally with, the people whose lives may be directly affected. Transformative research communication seeks to address the issue of the failure of knowledge to trickle down to the ground, so to speak, by asking how research is communicated at different stages of the research process, to whom and where, and with which intent.

The existence of a plethora of definitions of research communication has led to ambiguity on what it means and how to go about it. Unfortunately, research communication is often still seen as an activity done separately from the actual research and often after the research has been completed. Many view it as a step in the research process – between outputs and outcomes – where complex research outputs and findings are translated into a language, format and context that non-experts can understand. Notwithstanding the importance of this type of communication, research communication should be seen to go beyond such translations. Our call is to develop research communication and uptake activities that are in line with – and embedded into – transformative research methodologies.

The above questions form part of a process of rethinking research methodologies by changing the approach we as researchers take to our own role as researchers. By seeing researched communities as knowledge actors rather than populations we need to obtain data about, we work with research participants to bring about change through the research process. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is one way in which this is being done. We see research communication and uptake as an integral part of these research processes, rather than an add-on.

There is room to move beyond conducting research to communicating it not only after knowledge has been produced, but also in the process. Academic blogging for example has emerged as a promising avenue that allows researchers and research participants to make Internet users across the world aware of issues and communicate in a timely way about work done by researchers and societal actors to address these. Increased communication that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities or reports about collective action and social mobilization may for instance inspire solidarity networks in other places to adopt some of the innovative strategies discussed in blog articles, or current research on specific topics may encourage researchers to focus on similar issues in their own contexts or follow up on related research questions and corresponding studies that emerge after reading such articles.

Tackling today’s most pressing global challenges is a highly complex process that is anything but linear. Research communication geared towards durable uptake must therefore be multi-dimensional and multi-scalar, and the messages and targeted audiences will necessarily differ. There is no one size fits all. Thus, knowledge outcomes intended to reach audiences in society at large is communicated differently from knowledge that can inform change within researched communities.

This means that research uptake can take many forms. Yet, it remains important to always choose those forms that align with the long-term objectives, epistemology and processes of research. Here are some directions in which research uptake can be made consistent with transformational, participatory research for global development and social justice:

  1. Make research uptake integral to the process of participatory research. As much as possible, have research participants reach out with their stories or social actions to policy actors or wider audiences. An example concerns research on adolescent perceptions of healthy relationships, where youth were trained as youth peer researchers and subsequently trained to engage in advocacy in their communities.
  2. Favour durable research uptake that has a long-lasting effect. Together with research participants, opportunities can be found to bring about durable change through research. An example is (MOOC) as part of the ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ project of ISS. This MOOC was developed on the basis of the research findings, together with the Global Network of Disaster Reduction, which is a network of 1500 civil society organizations. In the first year of the MOOC, it had 2,500 participants worldwide.
  3. Engage research participants and partners early on and develop a knowledge-sharing and uptake plan with fit-for-purpose outputs and activities. Animations for example can explain the research in simple terms, while timely produced research/policy briefs may appeal to policy makers and practitioners. An example is the publication of a policy brief, soon after the onset of the COVID-19 global health crisis, containing recommendations to improve access to healthcare for undocumented people in the Netherlands. Moreover, make sure that not only your research, but also your communication is participatory. Get input from participants and partners to find out how you can share your research findings in a way that serves their interests and needs. For research participants, this might mean developing non-academic outputs in the participants’ local language(s).
  4. Stay in touch with research participants and continue to engage after the project has ended. The extraction of research from research sites – and our subsequent self-extraction from these settings – without returning and engaging with research participants shows indifference and a lack of concern. Durable research uptake would thus require durable relations between researchers and research participants – a relationship lasting much longer than a research project. Examples are long-lasting international research collaborations and scholar-activism that is embodied in working with research participants to challenge structural problems.

The challenges researchers face in making research transformative are formidable. Conceptualizing transformative research communication and concentrating on research uptake in the design and process of the research is an important strategy to make research part of profound change we wish to see – if only we are willing to engage. So let’s talk about it.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group.

Adinda Ceelen is Knowledge Broker & Research Communications Advisor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), where she works together with researchers on strengthening links between research and society. She holds an LL.M degree from Utrecht University and a BA degree from University College Utrecht, and furthermore completed the Advanced Master in International Development (AMID) at Radboud University.

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  • Eric Dante Gutierrez
    24 February 2021

    I completely agree with this, and as an ISS alumnus, am very happy to see this on BLISS! I just would like to add a couple of points to the list of excellent directions already suggested.

    First is the need to think about the creation of ‘safe spaces’. Researched communities as knowledge actors often face a backlash from the owners of powerful toes they may step on. Women in ultra-conservative patriarchal communities, or stigmatised poor and landless opium growers, may be rendered more vulnerable when they speak. So that needs to be sorted out too right from the beginning.

    Creating ‘safe spaces’ also apply to policymakers. Often, valuable lessons could not be learned simply because any discussion may pose reputational and career risks to the public official or donor agency involved. Like decisions to engage with warlords who later went rogue; or to construct a water pump in support of local development but instead triggered armed clashes between clans competing over the land where the pump was located. Outcomes are never predictable — the worst outcomes may emerge from excellent work and research, and vice versa, the best outcomes may emerge from sloppy work. Chatham House rules to a certain extent provide some ‘safety’ to participants. ‘Failure reporting’ is another mechanism that has emerged in the last decade. It would be useful for researchers to plan about dealing with such risks that may be faced by the decision-makers they want to convince.

    The second point is around how research “produced in the name of social justice, inclusion and the eradication of poverty reaching those that need it most” may gain better traction. There is a saying I’ve picked up that says “do not bring facts to a narrative fight”. It appears to me that facts and evidence though necessary are often insufficient to change policy, especially those policies that matter. Take for example wars-on-drugs: facts and evidence are aplenty that it doesn’t work, yet many governments continue on this track. It would really be great to get more discussion on how we can change policy beyond the usual presentation of more facts or findings in this day and age of fake news and alternative facts.

  • Mario Ramón López
    13 February 2021

    I think it is very relevant to create liberating structures for non-academic actors. Transdisciplinary research is the need and is very rich if we think about the translation of knowledge instead of linear transfer of knowledge. In developing countries there are many learning traps that can be solved with participatory action research with transformative research. Reading this post by Bliss has inspired me to see new points of view in research. Thanks a lot.