Saturday, 21 May 2016

Book Review: The Social Politics of Research Collaboration - Review by Brenda Leibowitz

The Social Politics of Research Collaboration
Eds Gabriele Griffin, Katarina Hamberg and Britta Lundgren

Within the context of research on social justice, research collaboration is important, and the manner in which the research is conducted, and in which the research team organises itself, is of equal concern. If anyone is interested in the social politics of research collaboration, either as the object of research and theorising about it, or in order to understand how to plan for collaborative research, the edited volume, The Social Politics of Research Collaboraiton is extremely valuable. I have been involved in several collaborative research projects, some of which have been interdisciplinary. I’ve been involved as a team member and a team leader, and have been involved in writing up some of this experience (Leibowitz et al. 2012; Leibowitz, Ndebele and Winberg, 2014).  I was not aware, however, how much has been written on this subject! This book brings a whole new set of insights, using a variety of perspectives (Bourdieu on symbolic capital; boundary work and knowledge transfer; Mol on ontological politics; Yuval-Davis on transversal politics) and with references to a large source of writings on research collaboration

The book is the result of a five-year research grant where a large group of researchers came together to “co-conduct research on gender in relation to health, violence, normalization, emotions, and democracy and justice” (as summarised in the acknowledgements). I can’t work out how big the team was, but it was interdisciplinary and had five theme teams, each with a sub-project team leader.  It was also cross-institutional and cross-national. It is the sister companion to a book entitled The Emotional Politics of Research Collaboration, also Routledge (2013). An important point made in the book The Social Politics of Research Collaboration is that the research method and the social processes involved require consideration, ‘the political implications of research should be considered not only in relation to methodology but also in the context of research organization’ (p. 76).

The book covers a range of perspectives and is written by individuals occupying diverse positions such as project leaders, sub-project leaders and senior students. What makes the book even more interesting is that the writers are in some cases very practical, in some cases quite theoretical, sometimes self-reflective, and in other cases, highly critical about research cultures in universities in particular in Scandinavia.

Topics of interest include:
  • Leadership as formal, diffused and collective, all possible within the same project (p. 30)
  • Having an interdisciplinary team might imply different leadership styles and different expectations of leaders (p. 40)
  • The difference between transactional leadership (focusing on goals and standards) and transformational leadership (stimulating the interest and ability of co-workers and maintaining criticality about one’s role and context) (pp. 47 - 48)
  • In a multi-institutional project, there are challenges associated with researchers’ having to work with the rules of their own institutions.
  • Participation in cross-national research is extremely valuable for one’s own research profile, but also challenging, “Nation-states differ along historical-cultural, socioeconomic, and political dimensions, which all have an impact on contemporary social-scientific analysis” (p.65).
  • The tensions of ‘getting a voice’, which involves working within the structures of power, and the dangers of this for a feminist research project (p. 101).
  • Working across disciplines (eg public health or physiotherapy) and gender studies is important for challenging one’s own assumptions (p.136) and for practical understandings of how to manage health management issues, and it ensures research ‘robustness’ but it is tricky, as it often implies having to work across epistemological as well as ontological positions (p. 121).
  • As an individual, working across disciplines can be challenging as it can lead to a sense of not belonging anywhere (p. 126) or a superficial mastery of several bodies of knowledge and languages, “Single researchers’ demanding ‘paradigm trips’ within more or less supportive environments including their facing of ‘paradigm clashes’ need to be made visible and acknowledged’ (p. 121) – this one I could identify with personally, given my experience working across academic development/teaching and learning in higher education, academic literacy and post-structuralism, critical realism and more recently, posthumanism!
  • There is much value in having advisory boards and critical friends, but their roles and functions need to be carefully defined, and should not be confused with the power dynamics caused by actual friendship relationships with some members of the research team – this can be very corrosive (pp. 148 – 154).
  • With research projects that have to be carefully formulated for funders andthat have to stipulate goals well in advance, the danger is  that there is no space for experimentation and exploration in the setting up phase (p. 168) leading to ‘reflexive blindness towards the development of new domains of gender research’ (p. 170). One has to decide when a research project is becoming too straitjacketing, and when to move on (p. 171).
Some of the practical issues I read about included:
  • Being a team leader requires leadership skills, not just research excellence skills (p. 40)
  • Leadership can be learnt, and research leadership requires tolerance of ambiguity and complexity (p. 42)
  • Having a steering group (in this case consisting of the leaders of the sub-project) (p. 31) and having staged and interrelated meetings (p. 30)
  • The importance, in an interdisciplinary project, of trust in researchers’ specialised knowledge and competence and as a corollary, of “being open towards and trusting others’ expertise” (p. 33)
  • One should discuss role allocation upfront (not just as a tickbox activity) (p. 44)
  • Establish written groundrules for the collaboration and have regular and repeated space to come together to reflect on the research process; revisit the groundrules regularly and if necessary, reformulate them; set up rules for conflict resolution in advance (p.50)
  • Acknowledge participants’ different backgrounds and subjecitivities but don’t assume this should lead to particular behaviour patterns, “Respecting that we come from different backgrounds, and at the same time not accepting that that would legitimate nonattentive nonlistening, this is ethical complexity in everyday (interdisciplinary) work” (p. 100) – this on the basis of a discussion on situatedness, where the author, who writes about being male in feminist research project, Anders Johansson, quotes Yuval-Davis: “there is no direct causal relationship between the situatedness of people’s gaze and their cognitive, emotional and moral perspectives on life” (Yuval-Davis, 2011, 7).
  • Be wary of seeing various intellectual positions as inferior or superior to others – for example theoretical research as more valued than applied research (p. 123 - 125).
  • Reciprocal interest and respect is a prerequisite for research collaboration (p. 124).
  • Have a clearly articulated and shared vision (p. 128).

I am hoping that more and more people working in the field of educational research for social justice use collaborative approaches – this book is a valuable resource.

Leibowitz, B., Ndebele, C. and Winberg, C. (2014) The role of academic identity in collaborative research. Studies in Higher Education, 39 (7) 1256 - 1269.Leibowitz, B., Swartz, L., Bozalek, V., Carolissen, R., Nichols, L. and Rohleder, P. Eds. (2012) Community, self and identity: Educating South African university students for citizenship. HSRC Pres

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