Social Research & Reflexivity: Content, Consequences and Context
Publication Year: 2011
What are the critical gaps in thinking about reflexivity and social research? How is reflexive practice shaped by the contexts and cultures in which researchers work? How might research practice respond to twin demands of excellence and relevance in the knowledge-based economy? Thinking reflexively about the inter-relationships between social research and societal practices is all the more important in the so-called knowledge economy. Developing reflexive practices in social research is not achieved through applying a method. Where and how researchers work is fundamental in shaping the capacities and capabilities to produce research as content and context lie in a dynamic interaction. This book not only provides a history of reflexive thought, but its consequences for the practice of social research and an understanding of the ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
Part 1: Content
- Chapter 1: Commitment, Criteria and Change
- Chapter 2: Mediation and Research
- Chapter 3: Representation in Question?
Part 2: Consequences
Part 3: Context, Written with Beth Perry
The Natural Home[Page ii]
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© Tim May 2011
Chapters 6, 7, 8 and Conclusion © Beth Perry 2011
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As with the writing of all books, there are sets of circumstances that both enable and constrain their production. What is often needed is a systematic period of time to devote to its production. In my case, this was never to appear as my career took on new challenges in different contexts. While I sought the time, the effort bargain surrounding my work altered and the need to generate large amounts of external income and develop and then maintain an organization, its values, integrity and culture, predominated.
The processes that surround what we do inevitably influence our production at some level and given this, periods of time were taken within my daily practices to write this book. In the end, it was the context and content of those practices and the learning, knowledge and experiences that it generated that has informed the writing of this book. I found myself surrounded by varying expectations and entering into new terrains of activity. Then, in 2001, an opportunity arose to be seconded to the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF). SURF is an interdisciplinary, largely self-funded research centre with its own offices in Central Manchester.
After a few months of my secondment I was asked to run the centre and we set about building it up and obtaining the necessary funding to provide for its reputation and ensure its medium term sustainability. It was hard work. Yet the chance to do something different increased and this experience has taught me a great deal. It was certainly not the same as my past experiences of academic life.
I had to learn about new areas of work and engage in the creation of a distinctive identity that sought to balance applicability with credibility. All of this took place whilst liaising with external clients, working to tight deadlines and producing lengthy research reports in short time periods, whilst actively seeking in our practice to adhere to a set of values concerning the importance of academic work. We sought clarification through journal articles and book chapters as a matter of routine and were highly successful in the game called the ‘research assessment exercise’. We designed websites, engaged in dissemination activities according to the idea of knowledge being a public good and sought to balance the attraction of expertise with a cooperative spirit of inquiry. Our own culture of inquiry, therefore, was of key importance to maintaining a sense of value in an ambivalent world.
In many ways I returned to elements of what I was — an agricultural engineer — before I became a social scientist, but with new forms of knowledge, values and experiences. When people speak of those in the public sector having no experience [Page viii]of the private sector — and with that the assumption that they are somehow ‘lacking’ — I feel no need to be defensive or deferential. I actually find the tendency to be deferential to those in the private sector to be without foundation and this detracts from the important need to sustain the difference and distinctiveness of universities as sites of knowledge production, cooperation and dissemination.
We are engaged, as a matter of the realities that inform our everyday work, with clients in the public and private sectors who find what we do useful and challenging. That means we have to work at being different in both the university sector and in public and commercial life in general. We have to make spaces of reflection in places of expectation. This is important for the future of university life, but it receives little systematic attention and is frequently divorced from the content of academic work.
All in all, a great deal of change has taken place in a short period of time in my public and private lives. Throughout this period I have had the support of my friends at SURF where Vicky Simpson acts as our Centre Manager. Simon Marvin and I have been through many discussions and experiences in running SURF together. I have valued our friendship during this time and during one long evening, he gave me advice that I will never forget. Mike Hodson not only has been a friend and someone with whom I have enjoyed many good discussions over the years, but he also read parts of the book and provided valuable comments on its content.
Calum and Cian, my children, are often scathing about my endeavours and their friends have picked up books and asked: ‘What is this all about?’ The reply is usually: ‘I don't know, ask my Dad’. They know I think the content may matter because we have talked about how knowledge can make a difference. What has made a difference to me, however, is being with them as they grow up and having an increasing feeling of well-being for the type of people that they are becoming and feeling very proud of who they are. Vikki Baker has provided inspiration and support during the process of writing, as well as reading chapters and providing valued advice. Thanks Vikki, not only for this, but for so much more in our lives together.
There are many friends and colleagues that I wish to mention who have influenced the content of this book in different ways. Malcolm Williams and I have worked on a number of projects and enjoyed numerous discussions about methodology, theory and philosophy of science and he has provided valuable feedback on the content of the book. Ken Parsons and I did our PhDs together and have remained good friends since that time. My thanks to you Ken for your support and our many memorable meetings over the years. There are also those who have been generally supportive of my endeavours and I wish to record my thanks to them. They are: Jason Powell, Linda McKie, Paul Taylor, Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Brown, Alan Bryman, Rom Harré, William Outhwaite, Bev Skeggs and Dorothy Smith.
As well as the above, a number of other people were kind enough to comment on previous work that has informed the writing of this book. My thanks therefore [Page ix]go to the following: Alan Scott, Davydd Greenwood, Craig Calhoun, Lisa Adkins, Steve Fuller, Jeff Hearn, Richard Jenkins, Craig Pritchard and Stewart Clegg. My thanks also to Chris Rojek, Mila Steele and Jai Seaman at Sage for being so patient during the process of its production.
Particular thanks are due to Beth Perry. Beth is a friend with whom I have worked on many projects for research councils, universities, the National Health Service and the public and private sectors in general since 2002. Beth is a never-ending source of insight, support and inspiration. We have shared our experiences and understandings during very busy, difficult, but also rewarding times. It made perfect sense to ask Beth to collaborate on the third part of this book, which is informed by extensive empirical work that has been conducted nationally and internationally across the range of SURF's work.
We have interviewed hundreds of people, about universities, innovation, science and society in different countries, who work in national governments, the European Commission, business and industry, regional and local authorities, research foundations and universities. At SURF we have conducted work for universities on their socio-economic role, populated the idea of ‘urban knowledge arenas’ and contributed to the development of Science Cities; examined the processes and expectations surrounding investments in knowledge and innovation for city-regional socio-economic growth; introduced the idea of ‘active intermediaries’ into knowledge exchange; interrogated public policy and practice in terms of its relations between governance and economic geography and contributed to developing holistic views of critical infrastructures in city-regional development in an era of climate change and resource constraint.
Despite the reality of many of our experiences in seeking first to puncture the hyperbole surrounding the supposed relations between knowledge, innovation and economic activity and then suggest effective alternatives, we have never given up on the value of knowledge for illuminating and informing these activities, nor upon extensive reflections on the limitations of particular ways of understanding. Nor have we ever given up on our role in learning through utilizing skills that are not taught, nor could ever be, in any module or course. Our experiences could cover another book, as we have sat with those in power who regard understanding as an impediment to their ambitions, as well as with those who are not so powerful, finding such understanding does not always change things. For now, however, the focus has been on producing this one and we hope that within its pages, others will find the confidence, contexts and cultures in and through which they can engage with the world.
We have drawn upon previously published material and a great deal of research that we have conducted within SURF (for more information please see: http://www.surf.salford.ac.uk). This work has been extensively elaborated upon, broken up into sections and completely abandoned along the way. Nevertheless, it is right that we should acknowledge the editors and publishers of the following:
May, T. (2006) ‘Universities: Space, governance and transformation’, Social Epistemology, 20(3–4): 333–45. May, T. (2006) ‘The missing middle in methodology: [Page x]Occupational cultures and institutional conditions’, Methodological Innovations Online, 1 (1). Available online at http://erdt.plymouth.ac.uk/mionline/public_html/viewarticle.php?id=22&layout=html. (May, T. (2005) ‘Transformations in academic production: context, content and consequences’, European Journal of Social Theory, 8 (2): 193–209. May, T. (2005) ‘Reflexivity and sociological practice’, in M. Williams (ed.), The Philosophical Foundations of Social Research, Volume 3. London: Sage. May, T. (2002) ‘The discontented epoch: Freedom and security in Bauman's postmodernity’, in P. Beilharz (ed.), Zygmunt Bauman: Volume 3, The Postmodern. London: Sage. May, T. (2002) ‘Trans-formations in principles and practice’, in T. May (ed.), Qualitative Research in Action. London: Sage. May, T. (2000) ‘A future for critique? Positioning, belonging and reflexivity’, European Journal of Social Theory, 3(2): 157–73. May, T. (1998) ‘Reflexivity in the age of reconstructive social science’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Theory and Practice’, 1 (1): 7–24. Perry, B. (2008) ‘Academic knowledge and urban development: Theory, policy and practice’, in T. Yigitcanlar, K. Velibeyoglu and S. Baum (eds), Knowledge-Based Urban Development. New York: Information Science Reference (an imprint of IGI Global). Perry, B. and May, T. (2006) ‘Excellence, relevance and the university: The “Missing middle” in socio-economic engagement’, Journal of Higher Education in Africa, 4 (3): 69–92.
A Way Forward: Active Intermediaries[Page 197]
The aim of this book has been to inform a more reflexive, engaged and confident social research through an interrogation of the content of reflexive calls, the consequences for understanding and practice, the dynamics of the contexts in which it is produced and the varying expectations that are placed upon its processes and products. While there is no doubt that social research does contribute to human betterment, issues remain over the forms of recognition of such work and the ambiguities and unrealistic expectations that so often surround its place in society. Our journey has meant going into terrains of investigation that are frequently overlooked in calls to reflexivity. As with many matters, the closer one gets to home, the more uncomfortable can be the reading.
There have been no blueprints in our journey. Dimensions of reflexive practice and degrees of epistemic permeability have been introduced to avoid, among other issues, conflating clarification with resolution in practice. An orientation to our work, in terms of its processes, purpose and potential is needed, but it should not spill over into assumptions of how it may then automatically inform what is to be done. We have suggested that too many frustrated ambitions and expectations have been sacrificed on such altars and expectations from within politics, policy, university management and occupational cultures do not help this situation. Any shelter that may be afforded by working in particular institutions, therefore, should not be conflated with other spaces of activity as if there were some simple relationship between the production and reception of knowledge and any subsequent action.
Those outside of the confines of professional research communities need to be more involved in this process and that means engaging in different fields of activity and those persons being positioned accordingly. In practice this necessitates high degrees of effort from all those concerned: to make this the sole task of researchers who are subject to different capacities and operate within cultures whose efforts are directed in other ways is unrealistic. All too often the difficulties inherent in making these expectations work in practice are displaced by narrow measures that confuse, rather than clarify, what needs to be done, with whom, using what resources and according to what assumed outcomes.
[Page 198]In our age of climate change, resource constraint, income and wealth inequality, knowledge needs to be owned and understood in order that it is sustainable in its applicability for how we live now and in the future. Findings will be contestable and uncomfortable for many. They will meet with denial or a refusal to recognize, let alone seek to understand, the content of what is produced and its implications. Active translation is needed that enables research to resonate with experiences and issues in order that they are intelligible. There are no quick fixes to this process and models are moved across contexts as if they were a panacea for social and environmental problems, thereby relieving their recipients of the efforts needed to reach understanding, let alone coordinate their actions. We face different and common challenges. They may be common in their origin, but contestable in their effects and consequences. Placing this at the feet of those who have different capacities and capabilities to respond is not only ineffective, it is unjust.
The two domains of reflexivity we have discussed will oscillate when reflecting upon research as a collective endeavour. A resulting ambivalence is a necessary feature to learn from the past and orientate towards the future and is part of the effect of collapsing these domains of activity. Too often our idea of expertise constitutes individuals as beyond reproach and allows for a celebration of knowledge within a limited sphere of activity. Part of this is to recognize newer divisions of labour and being willing to admit of ignorance, not just celebrate expertise and yet being confident enough in what we do to engage with publics. Academia is not set up for that and current trends place unrealistic burdens upon science in general which, in turn, should recognize its limits (Latour 2004). The world is, after all, richer than acts of representation and this drives the need for engagement. Learning is a two-way process and it is something that communities, including those within research contexts, can improve.
We need more understanding of the relations between reflexivity within the lifeworld under study and that of the social research community. As suggested, this encompasses an examination of the social conditions under and through which both operate and how the objects of scientific curiosity are constructed and with what implications for knowing the world. Second and relatedly, how and under what conditions referential reflexivity is achieved both within the lifeworld under study, as well as the social scientific community and with what implications for current and subsequent practices. We will then be better able to see how societies organize their production of sciences and from there better ‘understand how sciences organize societies’ (S. Harding 1996: 506).
Dominant ways of constructing the role of knowledge in society produce a missing middle in which the significance of this activity is diminished or impeded, or is taken up by new armies of intermediaries whose understandings are limited and whose efforts add to current processes, but are not actively translational, let alone transformational. They can act to keep cultures of enquiry and reception apart, reinforcing in the process the importance of their own function [Page 199]through allusion to different parties who never meet. They may have funding, but little, if any, effect on understanding and this is evident in the perpetuation of a project and grant mentality, with success being judged by narrow measures and indicators that are limited in their conception.
These forms of working overwhelm innovative practice and learning. Allusions to ignorant and resistant publics or academic obfuscation are not helpful in this process. There is no substitute for continual efforts that are aimed at coherent, consistent, coordinated and well-communicated understandings between parties. Such work is not an annoying distraction, but a necessary pre-condition for facing contemporary challenges. A licence to think outside of the box is needed for all parties in order to learn, imagine and act. That means creating spaces in which it is acceptable to combine knowledge and imagination free from immediate consequence and also a preparedness to admit of and learn from failures.
The need for new ideas and the integration of what is already known is now greater than ever. In the search for the new, we must not forget the past. Disparate knowledges can be integrated, seen alongside each other and recontextualized. Sharing individual understandings can generate new social learning. Only then does it become possible to know when and how knowledge has had particular outcomes that are seen, by different parties, to have had benefits or contain potentials. Considerable effort is needed in order to learn from imaginative and effective processes and there are no quick routes towards this end. This implies a willingness to learn from the past and share an understanding of orientations according to working in different contexts and what is valuable and what are the limits of those places.
To remain within the confines of institutions whose distinctiveness arises from their different contributions to society, as well as the degrees of shelter they may offer to their inhabitants, despite the numerous attempts to flatten those in the name of narrow and unimaginative outputs, means giving up certain expectations, while also recognizing the ways in which position and belonging enable and constrain courses of action. As we have said, certain expectations regarding the relationship between knowledge and action may be better afforded in other places. Issues of public concern are a condition of the topicality and vibrancy of social research, but that is not the same as meaning it has the attention of the public as a whole. Being asked to speak about particular issues in the media as they arise is not the same as being asked to comment on many issues and be positioned as someone to whom the public can turn for general illumination.
The conditions under and through which social research generated in universities can or cannot be taken forward, as well as having a sense of the consequences of that knowledge for subsequent action and possessing the capability to do so, can easily be bracketed out in assumptions informing connections between knowledge and action. Saying that one has a wish to learn is not the same as [Page 200]learning, while the timeframes in which knowledge may or may not have applicability vary, as do scales of activity and their consequences for localities and general policies. Occupational cultures in all organizations can place learning at a low premium and governments, universities and research councils fund work in allusions to something called the global and competitive knowledge economy — as if the work of cooperation and the effort needed for learning were not a necessary part of the reality of knowledge production itself, as well as what is done with that knowledge.
There is so much to celebrate about how communities share and develop their knowledge, including within social research communities, but this is easily denigrated in the name of particular constructs of knowledge production and reception. In addition, practices also result from informal networks that pass under institutional radars and yet add a great deal to our understanding and actions. The effort needed to develop trust and the building of effective practices that run counter to dominant ways of working are vulnerable to eradication in the name of narrow forms of expectation and unrealistic timeframes.
We have argued that different rationales align to produce a space where we find a lot of talk about excellence and global competition, as well as knowledge transfer and enterprise activities. Spin-outs and patents, or the ‘dull thud’ of the research report on the desk of the funders, or being ‘user friendly’, is usually what is meant by these terms. Charting different excellence-relevance dimensions and their confusion in political discourse, policy and practice, we turned to three alternative ways of seeing knowledge-based development: process-driven, product-driven and acquisition-driven, each with different implications for the role of universities as sites of knowledge production and for the disciplines within them.
In the face of confusion and the absence of clarification, researchers can avoid commitment through withdrawal and capitulation (Bourdieu 2008). Other consequences then follow: political choices are justified according to scientific ‘fact’ which enables accountability to collapse into the domain of the supposed self-evidence of technical allusion, or science is seen as the savoir of the political. Neither the responsibility that comes with political choice and its accompanying accountability, nor the integrity of scientific practice, escapes unscathed in these types of encounter. The power of attribution, which rests upon its narrow constitution via exclusionary practices, enables this to continue. Yielding additional income — which is what is often meant by relevance — is one outcome. The point is not that such an outcome is necessarily problematic in itself, but that it overlooks the importance of knowledge as a whole and perpetuates the idea that only particular knowledges ‘add value’.
So much of what is known and practised is not amenable to frameworks that constitute knowledge in this way. With all the talk about knowledge transfer, little understanding populates the processes and contexts through which it can happen, as well as those conditions that stop it happening, in ways that are [Page 201]mutually engaged, supportive and helpful. Institutional contexts are ignored as if individuals can simply rise above them. While alternative practices do occur, it is despite, not because of, the institutions in which people find themselves. However, there are high negative costs and this perpetuates the idea that they are associated with exceptional characters, divorced from their cultures and contexts. Apparently the how of knowledge is secondary to what results from production. If the latter is good enough, it is assumed it will take care of the former. Simplistic and unhelpful understandings are permitted their space and ways of knowing and practical efforts are denigrated and excluded.
We seem to have a greater recognition of this through the deployment of the term knowledge ‘exchange’. Yet the occupational and institutional arrangements for this to take place are rarely discussed, but exist as expectations that produce a vacuum to be filled by success at playing information politics. No one, despite all the talk of ‘innovation’, will risk blowing this apart and so we get enterprise in institutions being constituted as separate from research, along with knowledge transfer divisions and offices whose very existence is taken as evidence of success. It is real in its effects: monies are distributed to particular institutions as if the production of knowledge (property) and knowing (taking forward in practice), were synonymous.
The role of universities as knowledge producers is increasingly valued in particular ways, with an emphasis upon their relationships with businesses, governments and society in general. As we have suggested, priority is then given to social research that is ‘robust’, ‘relevant’ and exhibits ‘user engagement’ and ‘knowledge transfer’. At the same time the roles and functions of the university in the knowledge economy are diverse and act at different levels of scale. On the one hand, social research is taken to be conducted at an international level in order to meet criteria of world-class excellence. On the other hand, it also needs to be embedded in local and regional contexts if the kinds of economic, social and environmental benefits expected from knowledge are to be realized. This rests upon particular assumptions and expectations that create ambiguities with a resulting diminishing of effectiveness.
While universities are places of these different expectations, this gives rise to a need to establish their distinctiveness in order to avoid becoming sites of activities that could take place in other contexts. Without this distinctiveness in place, what is their future and why would people wish to work there? A balance between the short and the long term is required. At present there is little evidence of a consistent and coherent approach to this issue and we have argued that this is reflected in institutional and occupational practices. The absence of a call for immediate application, combined with particular professional cultures and an emphasis on providing spaces for reflection, leads to a different — and unique — form of knowledge being produced within universities.
Valuing this function is of central importance if the place and role of the university in society and the research that is conducted within it, is not to give [Page 202]way to a short-term instrumentalism — just the type of practice that causes so many problems for so many, as perpetuated by so few. We live in a world where ‘quick hits’ drive criteria of relevance. Universities are now seeing themselves as significant economic actors in their own right and their role in the production of public goods — whose benefits are not be reducible to narrow economic calculation — is diminishing.
The challenge needs to be directed at the ambiguity perpetuated by environmental expectations of particular forms of knowledge (Box 1). We have also argued that for reflexivity to flourish, institutional and occupational practices can be improved to enable a diversity of roles within supportive cultures. If pushed too far, however, the results will be counterproductive. Reducing everything to its utility in terms of performing an operation on the world undermines the importance of the status of knowledge produced in a distance from that world. It is for this and other reasons that the distinction of what is produced in universities, in diverse ways, is so important for their future and that of societies as a whole. The issue is not to collapse them, nor to assume that they are unproblematically separated through sealed boundaries. As we have said, a great deal of boundary work goes on, consciously and otherwise, to create this distance from particular forces. How forms of knowledge interact and learn from one another, how we learn in terms of taking our background assumptions into an object for our contemplation and seeing how things and people are connected is central to a general understanding of ourselves through others and in the environments we inhabit.
A tension exists between modes of knowledge production and the goals of policy-makers and economic ‘gurus’. More systematic programmes are needed, in collaborative endeavours with groups who are normally excluded from such processes that demonstrate the relevance of the university informing contemporary issues, without collapsing into a short-term instrumentalism. There is a need for more sustained and long-term programmes of work that systematically and productively take the knowledge produced by universities for socioeconomic and environmental reasons, without undermining their civic and social value. Instead of ignoring the tensions that these issues raise and current trajectories ignore or characterize in limited ways, we wish to suggest a productive way forward that takes these important differences seriously for the benefit of us all.
As we noted in the Preface, within SURF we work at the interface between academic and policy worlds and research and practice. We have wrestled with issues associated with knowledge exchange, not only as a matter of organizational survival, but also on behalf of numerous clients in the public and private sectors, including universities. Our commitment to knowledge exchange, as we prefer the term, concerns the exchange of knowledge between different bodies to facilitate and strengthen links and improve practices for all concerned. We seek to avoid terms that imply a ‘hypodermic’ model in which grateful recipients receive the latest pearls of wisdom from those who are positioned as experts. Too much [Page 203][Page 204]emphasis is placed on the ‘expert’ who, for example, can end up modelling the economy in the name of particular and limited understandings. Knowledge exchange does not have a clear start or end point or fixed boundaries between funders, users and producers of research. It is about the active translation of work from information to intelligence according to the needs, in context, of particular groups of policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and the public at large.
A continuous and interactive relationship between research participants and users is required, in which differences in divisions of labour are recognized, negotiated, tolerated and acted upon for mutual benefit according to changes in the environments we occupy. This is far from an easy process. Active commitment, effort and institutional support to be effective are, at least, necessary. We have spoken at universities who want a centre such as SURF to be part of what they do. Yet it cannot be taken off the shelf, nor can it be generalized to universities as a whole without significant effects on the positive elements of their diverse cultures. There are no short-cuts or simple remedies and beware those peddling such wares!
Key to effective exchange is an understanding and recognition of different cultures of enquiry and reception, as well as the limitations to current understanding. Knowledge must be produced and communicated rather than simply transferred. Knowledge needs to be actively received, understood and interpreted and its processes of production informed by different groups. The reception of research requires more consideration than has been provided thus far. Without some understanding of use in context — which is not a one-way relation of research to practice, but also of practice informing research — exchange is an activity without substantial benefit. Knowledge exchange does not therefore take place between two separate spheres of activity, but is a space of communication where different cultures of enquiry and reception can engage, through drawing upon different forms of knowledge exchange (see Figure 1).FIGURE 1 REFLEXIVE KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION
Take the representation of many contemporary urban issues as problems. There are different forms of knowledge, relating to a variety of motivations and understandings that together constitute distinct reactions to the ‘same’ sets of issues. To that end, the idea of transfer cannot adequately characterize the multiple negotiations that are required to develop effective responses to shared problems. A number of other issues act to prevent a simple problem-solution equation that policy-makers, politicians and academics reach for in their desire to apply knowledge. At this point technology often steps in. Technology can be used to access information quickly and efficiently, but explicit knowledge relates to tacit knowledge, so there are limits to codification as a solution. All too often technology is seen as a panacea to our collective problems. Context also matters. There are limits to deploying forms of communication that only accelerate information, but do little to add to intelligence. Understanding the context in which research is produced and received is critical in ensuring effective knowledge use in practice. Being context-sensitive is not the same as being context-dependent, for the former allows for revision in the process of learning.
[Page 205][Page 206]Our research has found that spaces of communication between cultures of enquiry and cultures of reception do not exist in a systematic way. Populating what we have called the missing middle requires active intermediation between research and different social interests in order to mutually constitute a shared understanding of the need for knowledge exchange (see Box 2). We need a mode of operation in which knowledge is produced by interaction between parties, allowing the know-how of practice to inform the production of knowledge for practice. This is challenging not only to research funders and performers, but also to governments at multiple scales and to their policy-makers. The space of communication is frequently absent and we have found knowledge, context and action existing in a dynamic tension that is frequently unconnected. A missing middle, composed of the unarticulated and unrealistic expectations placed upon all in the research process, without a mutual understanding being developed, is apparent.
Across many different contexts, the landscape of social research in higher education raises complex sets of issues for those working in universities in respect to their roles and purpose. Questions are commonplace over what can be reasonably expected in relation to its positive impact upon the environment and social, political and economic issues. Translating opportunities into tangible realities poses a number of significant challenges. These need to be managed in ways that are not indifferent to the strengths, as well as weaknesses, of current practices. Issues of scale, forms of funding, academic research and working practices, university structures and governance and modes of knowledge production, are all part of this mix.
To be effective, knowledge exchange requires the building up of trust and commitment over time to joint working. It is a time-consuming mode of working and the drive for excellence in academia, through publication in journals upon which career progression is based, does not render itself amenable to these types of activity. It does have its place, but attempts to introduce novel and distinctive ways of approaching these issues hit conditions driven by particular values, expectations and measures of assumed effectiveness.
Effective coordination, communication and support between organizations, with sufficient funding and legitimacy, are essential to success. The appropriate scales of activity need to be considered without assuming all appropriate forms of expertise reside within a particular locality. Personnel, drawn from universities and other organizations, who are disciplinary specialists in their own right with the disposition to do something different, should not be disadvantaged by dominant forms of professional career structures. Working at inclusion within a well-developed framework of understanding what is trying to be achieved, how and why, takes time and a great deal of effort. Inter-institutional spaces, which not only move beyond current limits, but also recognize their strengths, would need a clear sense of purpose in acting as active intermediaries between sites of production and reception. In having the contexts to perform in this way, their cultures will produce the contents that have positive consequences for how we live together now and into the future.
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