For research to be called socially transformative, the production of scientific knowledge with the aim of addressing a societal problem is not enough. Research processes themselves must also be socially just, which calls for critical self-examination by researchers of how they do research. A project led by ISS researchers seeks to conceptualise a transformative research methodology that underlines a radically different and morally responsible way of conducting research by identifying and challenging assumptions that perpetuate social injustices in research processes. This post introduces the project and its core premises.
The veneration in the academe of a singular ‘expert’ knowledge produced by persons and groups based in academic institutions in the Global North, preferably with white bodies, and the failure to create knowledge with communities who are supposed to benefit from it are perhaps the two central obstacles preventing development research from realising its transformative potential. Knowledge produced without the involvement of those it is supposed to serve is not making the impact that it could – and should.
In response to this significant challenge, critical scholars have called for the development of transformative research methodologies based on the collectively identified aim of enacting social justice through research processes themselves. In our understanding, some of the key questions that arise in this context include:
- What is the purpose of scientific research?
- Who benefits from such research?
- How can transformative social change be achieved?
- Who enacts such change?
- What are the intersectional implications of such change?
Asking such critical questions makes it clear that power relations that continue to play a central part in the production of knowledge need to be changed so that research itself can be truly transformative. In particular, the gap between ‘the researcher’ and ‘the researched’ sustained through current research methodologies must be addressed by recognising those we work with to produce scientific knowledge as primary actors in the research process.
Many researchers at the ISS and beyond are already adhering to the core principles of such methodologies through their work, which led us to seek to synthesise the different approaches and methods at the ISS in a bid to create a framework for transformative research. And so, in late 2020, a group of researchers from the Civic Innovation (CI) Research Group put their heads together to explore the possibility of taking initial discussions on transformative methodologies further. Such discussions had taken place frequently over the past few years within the CI group in recognition of the need to increase the societal impact of research through the inclusion of those we work with and serve through our research in the research process.
We agreed that the research methodology researchers employ to guide the research process matters. The research process itself shapes the extent to which the knowledge that is produced makes a lasting and transformative impact. Thus, we developed a project that would explore different transformative elements of our research and bring them together to form the basis of a transformative research methodology. Our point of departure is to critically engage with possibilities for communities that are commonly depicted as benefactors of produced knowledge to become part of the process as experts and co-producers of knowledge.
Our main activity was to organise a workshop in which we could explore transformative methodologies researchers at the ISS have employed. This synthesis of experiences and techniques, we hoped, could inspire other researchers to do the same. But the workshop was also meant to be a space to discuss issues related to transformative methodologies, including things such as our own biases and assumptions, financial and legal constraints, and hazardous fieldwork sites.
Here are some of the things that emerged from the inspiring discussions we had during the workshop:
- Coloniality plays a role in perpetuating untransformative research methodologies; to address this, knowledge production processes need to be decolonised. Delphin Ntanyoma, a PhD researcher, proposed that in the light of dominant colonial writings and research and for responsible knowledge production to occur, “researchers need to look backwards and forwards a hundred years”, by which he meant that they need to consider both the historical politics of knowledge production and its long-term consequences for social justice. He gave an example of his own community, the Banyamulenge in DRC: the violent conflicts that affect the Banyamulenge in eastern DRC to date are rooted in constructions of a ‘local’ versus ‘immigrant’ identity that dates back to colonial writings.
- A focus on individual achievement in the academe, related in part to the well-known ‘publish or perish’ adage, has come to overshadow the notion of collective responsibility that is a crucial premise of a truly transformative methodology. These structures in academia focusing on performance and prestige rather than impact catalyse ‘(extr)activist’ development research that instrumentalises marginalised communities for the benefit of furthering academic careers. Knowledge is extracted from research communities, never to be seen again.
- Things might have been different if researchers were to be considered responsible for the impact of their research, including how it is used, and indeed for the effect of the research methodology itself on the research communities they engage with. One workshop participant highlighted how researchers from the Global North have made careers out of writing about the contradictions within indigenous communities in India – a process that has exacerbated prejudices against these already heavily marginalised communities.
- For researchers who see themselves as scholar activists and whose deep connection with a specific group of people directs their research, responsibility and commitments in research would also be something to learn from and develop together with the community. During the workshop, Silke Heumann and Karin Astrid Siegmann for instance explained how their collaboration with sex worker groups taught them that the framing of sex work matters: ‘whore stigma’ has been used to justify sex workers’ exclusion from relevant policy discourses, such as those on human trafficking and labour rights. Such and similar relationships to marginalised communities constantly remind researchers to rethink the meaning of what counts as valid knowledge and who is regarded and respected as a knower. This reflective process has been understood as getting closer to ‘strong objectivity’ by feminist theorists like Harding.
- Engaged scholarship carries risks that may threaten the ability of methodologies to be transformative. For instance, allying with the LGBTI+ movement has led to serious threats to both researchers and research participants. Workshop participants, including Cathy Wilcock and Natalia Lozano Arevalo, shared how they have used art-based research methods and humour to try to provide a safe space for those actors they work with to share their experiences without the fear of being prosecuted or stigmatised. These forms of data collection can also be seen as more engaging alternatives to conventional forms of doing and communicating research.
- An important, yet, difficult step to move forward in the conversation on transformative research is to critically interrogate the role of our research institutions in shaping how we do academic research. Besides assumptions about who can be identified and respected as a knower, coloniality shapes how authorship and budgets are distributed between development researchers in Northern universities and their collaborators in the Global South. In this context, it is extremely important to implement and guarantee a clear ethical, respectful, and responsible no-harm policy.
Keeping these humbling experiences in mind, researchers’ moves out of the individualistic academic ivory tower towards a collective of researchers and activists that shape research and its outcomes together may still be a crucial first step towards transformative research. To be able to engage with transformative methodologies in research and discuss challenges such as those mentioned above, it is important to attempt to create a collective space where instead of individualism and competitive careerism, a meaningful relationship between collective research and activism is promoted. While giving space to issues of intersectionality, identity, and diversity within academia, it is equally relevant to prioritise larger structural issues that threaten the existence of collective communities.
There is still a long way to go to in the dialogue towards evolving scientific research methodologies that would help us maximise their transformative potential. This project on transformative methodologies is one picture that we hope can form part of what will hopefully become a collage of meaningful engagement informing research practice and making it truly transformative.
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About the authors:
Sreerekha Sathi is assistant professor at the International Institute of Social Studies.
Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies.
Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies.
Richard Toppo is external PhD candidate at International Institute of Social Studies.
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