Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research: Beyond Impact
reviewed by Catherine Dunn Shiffman & Paula J. Malachias — February 08, 2018
Title: Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research: Beyond Impact
Author(s): Keri Facer & Kate Pahl (Eds.)
Publisher: Policy Press, Bristol
ISBN: 1447331621, Pages: 274, Year: 2017
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How can the value of collaborative university-community research be understood and communicated?
This is the central question of Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research: Beyond Impact, edited by Keri Facer and Kate Pahl. As collaborative efforts proliferate and academic researchs role in serving the public good is questioned, the editors correctly argue that research participants, funders, and academics must answer this fundamental question. Facer and Paul contend that too often we focus on making collaborative projects happen at the expense of taking time to reflect on the work and the extent to which our efforts live up to wide-ranging claims about quality, democracy, and equity (p. 1).
To take on this question of value, the book draws on insights from a diverse, interdisciplinary set of projects from the Connected Communities initiative in the United Kingdom. The sheer range of projects examined is both a strength and challenge for this volume. The book wrestles with concepts of knowledge and meaning that are fundamentally understood as constructed, negotiated, dynamic, and multiple in nature. At times, conveying the richness of this complex and diverse work overwhelms the books efforts to advance a practical framework from which any projects value can be understood and communicated.
The book is divided into four sections. The Introduction provides background on collaborative research, introduces Connected Communities, and presents legacy as the books organizing frame. The editors offer a useful typology for categorizing collaborative research. Mutual learning emphasizes learning among participants, developing practical theory, and building capacity. Crowd and open research concentrates on the inclusion of a large and wide variety of voices to generate new insights. Design and innovation projects focus on developing new services, products, and tools with community input, and correcting the record research advances the voices of those often not heard. Next, the chapter introduces the Connected Communities initiative, an ambitious government-funded effort begun in 2010 to support research partnerships and networks that deepen understanding of communities. Further background about the policy and social context of this initiative would have been useful for international audiences interested in funding similar work in their own countries. What prompted the government to fund an initiative focused on communities? What were the expected outcomes? Finally, the editors introduce the notion of legacy. They argue that impact inadequately captures the value of collaborative research. Instead, the more expansive term legacy gives a feel for the embodied labour, the lived experiences, and both the tangible and intangible outcomes from collaborative interdisciplinary research (p. 8).
Section One includes nine chapters by authors from individual projects that employed an array of disciplinary foundations and methodologies to explore the legacy of their work. In this section, the reader travels through evaluative (Chapters One through Three), sense making (Chapters Four and Six), and contextualized (Chapters Seven through Nine) processes that bring into sharp relief the diverse ways in which legacy can be understood. Each chapter includes a definition of legacy related to the project, useful resources, and guidance for readers who wish to explore particular types of collaboration in greater depth.
Chapter One considers the value of collaboration in community-university research partnerships found in skill development, knowledge, and collaborators sense of efficacy. Chapter Two examines collaboration through the values and reflective practices of an academic-community partnership. The authors argue that legacy is optimized if the values of the participants are continuously revisited and reviewed. Chapter Three focuses on the identification and consideration of intangible legacies, thus including broader sets of values and collaborative actors.
In Chapter Four, the authors seek to understand how knowledge is constructed through the interaction of different legacies, or what they refer to as heritages. The authors conclude that the legitimacy of legacies emerges through social processes of action and reflection. Chapter Five authors conclude that in order to fully understand legacy, the collaborative actors must perform legacy. Chapter Six discusses ways in which artists bring unique perspectives and create new ways of knowing to collaborative work. The authors argue that collaborative actors need to make sense of their work in order to evaluate the outcome of their collaboration.
Chapters Seven through Nine focus on the materiality and contexts of collaborative research. Chapter Seven examines legacy in terms of material objects and landscapes that are both the focus of research and catalysts for additional exploration and knowledge. Chapter Eight offers an insightful examination of institutional boundary-crossing through the use of policy briefs. The authors conceptualize legacy as changed relationships among researchers and policymakers. Chapter Nine draws on literary theory and mapping techniques to explore culture. Their legacy is a web-based interactive tool to represent and situate diverse stories and perspectives.
In Section Two, the editors propose a lexicon of eight terms to capture key characteristics of collaborative interdisciplinary research. Some terms rest on firmer theoretical foundations than others. For example, praxis builds on an extensive background that includes action research, feminist and post-colonial studies, and American pragmatism. Praxis is also accompanied by established methodological techniques for collecting and analyzing data. Other terms are less grounded and (in some cases) may overlap. The distinction between messiness and complexity offers an illustration. One wonders if complexity (entangled ways in which meaning gets made and constructed, p. 217) is a contributor to or synonymous with messiness (things dont always go according to plan, p. 216). The strongest feature of this section is the eight generative questions to ask of interdisciplinary collaborative projects which are derived from the lexicon. These questions provide a practical framework for evaluating collaborative research.
Section Three explores the future of collaborative research. Facer and Pahl contend that we must attend to the interplay between intentional project goal-setting and research processes that allow for serendipity, disruption, and messiness (p. 235). Too much attention to a projects intended outcomes can undermine the emergent possibilities (p. 236) of this work. However, over-emphasis on emergence can result in projects that lack focus and are unable to meet accountability expectations. To address this tension, the editors recommend practical tools for unearthing theories of change at the outset such as logic modeling and systems mapping.
While legacy is a foundational concept, it is a term that often feels elusive. This central concept would have benefitted from stronger framing in the Introduction. This would help readers make sense of the diverse forms of legacy discussed throughout the book. Without a fully articulated definition, the distinction between impact and legacy risks being viewed as a semantic argument of interest primarily in academic circles.
Collaboration across disciplines, individuals, and organizational contexts is difficult work. This volume makes an important contribution to the conversation about the role of university-community research collaborations in producing knowledge that resonates with and enriches individuals and communities. For those less concerned with the theoretical evolution of collaborative research, the lessons of greatest value are derived from the nine individual projects, the eight generative questions, and the specific suggestions and tools for examining a projects theory of change.