On Wednesday 11 February, at the University of Huddersfield, a group of research students and academics engaged in a conversation about undertaking a PhD and the co-production of research. The postgraduate workshop had the aim of delineating methodologies, exploring common themes – problems and opportunities – and talking through real-world research issues from the perspective of co-production of research, in relation to historically-focussed humanities disciplines. The participants have shared their notes from the day to allow others to be part of the conversation.
The conversation was based on a series of developments that have created a historical moment in which the Humanities disciplines are expected to have public utility. The Research Excellence Framework 2014 sought to quantify this value through measuring the ‘impact’ of research publications and other outputs. At the same time, there have been significant pressures from the users of university research – cultural institutions, service users and community organisations of various types – to be allowed to participate in research processes, including design and delivery. At the forefront of such intellectual developments has been ‘the co-production of research’, well-established in many social science disciplines and which has been highlighted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the Connected Communities programme.
Co-production sets a series of challenges for Humanities PhD students, including time-management of collaborative working in fields usually occupied by lone scholars, but at the forefront of the challenges are methodologies of the co-production of knowledge. We met to talk through these challenges, to hear about each other’s’ research and try to develop new ways of working as researchers.
As an outcome of the workshop, we have compiled our notes and jottings to stimulate further discussion and to act as a record of what proved to be an open, honest, and thought-provoking examination of the ways of working of individual researchers and universities.
The workshop was funded by the University of Huddersfield Research Development Fund for postgraduates and we are gratefully acknowledge its support (and Liz Pente for applying!). We were also lucky to have Kirklees Local TV cover the event and would like to thank them for their support in developing collaborative activities and co-production of research.
Milton Brown, University of Huddersfield
To watch a video of our reflections on the day click on the image below:
All of the participants outlined their current research and its relationship to co-production of research and collaborative methods. There was a range of engagement with co-production among those attending. None of us thought that co-production should be compulsory in research, or assumed that projects including co-production all do it in the same way. We discussed the varieties of collaborative research that take place in PhDs and how students can accommodate encounters with the public in the context of a three-year project with its own constraints set by funders, supervisors etc.
Questions and issues raised in our discussion
- Who holds the power? (With whom?)
- Authenticity (of co-production, of voices, of representation)
- Unconscious behaviour
- Guilt (class and ethnicity based, excluding others, make up of academia)
- Proportions of co-production (2% or 50%?)
- What defines a group or community? What is the common ground?
- Insiders and outsiders
- Academic identity
- What is successful research?
- What is successful co-production?
- All history is co-production – it’s our examination of the process that becomes visible
- Where is the boundary between researchers and activist?
- Is it possible to have a conversation where we (archivist/academic and heritage user/community member) both understand what the other is saying. Communication.
- Who is the co-producer (is an archivist a co-producer?)
- Strong outside influences
- Work with community groups ‘moves’ the project
- Analysis can become paralysis
- Prejudice of the researcher if he/she comes from within the community group (not wishing to recognise alternative narratives)
- What are the risks of the nascent academic becoming too academic and forgetting his/her community role?
- Conflict between academic theorising and participants’ presentation of themselves. Theory as a betrayal?
- Learning to be political through the PhD process
- Various ideas about success
‘The Orange Papers’
For part of the day, we spent time writing – on orange paper. We sought to define what we mean by ‘the co-production of research’ and to discuss a series of themes that emerged in our discussions. We haven’t attributed authorship to any of the contribution here – we propose these ideas/reflections collectively but don’t necessarily individually agree with every point made.
What is co-production?
‘Defining co-production is hard, but even more dispersed, and therefore harder, is identifying what co-production defines. It makes us think about defining communities, academic identity, boundaries. We have to define authenticity and the demarcation between researchers and activists, and ethical questions. The co-production process, and the interrogation it necessitates, could prove as radical a turn in the Humanities as any other in the last 30 years.’
‘Ideally, taking other people’s inputs seriously, to challenge one-sided narratives and then have some output from the process. Dialogues, on one level. Often tokenistic. Researcher still has the last word, makes decisions.’
‘Co-production of historical knowledge involves the collaboration of a historian and individual(s)/or community groups at various stages of the research process which leads to the production of a variety of outputs.
Co-production can take place between various entities involved on a project (uni-cultural institution; researcher-community members; researcher-cultural institution) and can be done to different levels/percentages. At one stage of the project, you could have 50/50 authority, 100/0, 70/30 or any other percentage of collaboration between academic and collaborative partner.
Transparency in the amount of collaboration/co-production taking place in the research and outputs can help other researchers trying to achieve/encourage democratization of knowledge.
History is typically an individual pursuit so nearly any attempt at co-production can be beneficial for working towards producing inclusive history/diversifying voices in history.
- A justification for spending so much of other people’s money and time on this PhD
- A trend that everyone is chasing because of the funding and political climate
- A way for research to ‘do something’ real and immediate that impacts on people’s experiences and ideas
- More difficult to get right than I imagined. How to translate an AHRC proposal in to something I can share beyond academic communities?
- A community in itself, of people trying to work out what they are really up to.
- Reflecting constantly on how you do your work as a researcher
- A process of negotiation, compromise, and knowledge sharing.
- Talking, talking, talking.’
Who holds the power?/What is this community?
‘Co-production and community engagement (in museums) is often seen to fit in one new master narrative about liberal inclusion, leading to new ways of excluding diverse opinions and painting a simplistic consensual image of ‘the community’ rather than showing complex identities and pluralistic viewpoints. Researchers and professionals get to choose who they work with.’
‘[a simplistic consensual image of ‘the community’ rather than showing complex identities and pluralistic viewpoints ] I think there’s a really exciting theme emerging here, that we can sound as a warning bell early in the development of Co-production in Humanities to avert a potential loss of faith: the dangers of co-production in terms of its homogenising tendency, and possible ways to avoid it.’
‘The power can change hands throughout the research. On the one hand the researcher has full control as to what they want, yet the co-producer could choose to pull out at any time!’
What is community?
‘This is a tricky one for me, groups with a shared consensus, perhaps? Or who took part in a particular movement or culture that “happened” in the past? Admittedly, I do not often think about academia as a community of academics, although there are grounds, maybe, to argue that there could be a community of academics with a shared interest – workers’ history/LGBT history perhaps?’
Who holds the power?
‘Outside of whoever holds the “purse strings”, I believe the “power structure” which “controls” any co-produced project is an incredibly complex one and doesn’t necessarily function on a “top-down” vertical axis – being as all parties involved have vested interests, and motivations in ‘seeing’ the project through to completion. Arguably then, the “power structure” here functions linearly. This is because each of parties should have the will to complete and, the freedom to withdraw from the project at any given time. Ideally then, partnerships formed become co-dependent and this by default removes the possibility that any single party can gain significant power over the other.’
‘I think you as a researcher are defined as inside or outside by those who you work with. For example, I might think that my background, where I live, my family income etc makes me part of the working-class community that I interview, but my academic positioning, my qualifications etc, makes me outside it. So, instead of thinking about where I am in this history, it is helpful to think about how and where people think about you.’
‘I think this will stem from the researchers own sense of belief in their convictions, often connected to social/activist identities, which they each bring to research. But I also think projects can change your beliefs, and therefore, change your authenticity.’
Unconscious behaviour and guilt
‘This for me manifests in nervous actions both in academia and in social life! But it’s getting better. The guilt springs from my underconfidence or rather ‘unknowledge’ of my moral position in wider society. I really hope (starting more to believe in) I am a morally capable person and I am not patronising (mainly because I have a lot less life experience than most of the people I work with). I do understand I am a lucky and privileged person – I need to work so that people I work with know I recognize my position.’
What co-production means to me
‘Having the authentic research to allow my PhD to be truthful and hopefully accurate. To allow the co-producers a voice which they can benefit from the final PhD outcome.’
‘To me, co-production is a process whereby two or more “partners” combine the knowledge, skill and funding which enables single, or multiple, collective intellectual output(s). This is important because frequently these “partnerships” cross institutional boundaries, thus significantly contributing to the democratisation of knowledge and the demystifying of the “academy”, to those in society who would benefit from “having their horizons broaden”. Hopefully a knock-on effect from projects of this type will be a widening in the demographic of F.H ad H.E participation. Naturally the reversal of this, is that “life-long privileged academics” can and do get to spend time with “rich, wise and wonderful ‘marginal’ communities”. Here the “privileged” get to learn that people living in these communities aren’t simply “groups” or “theories”, but are individuals who have a right to be respected as being so. Arguably through this process of “dual-demystification” “real” conversations can take place and changes inequality may start happening. I’m not saying “co-production” can change the world – it can’t. But if projects like this do contribute to change and directly impact the lives of a few individuals, both “top-down” and “bottom-up”, then surely they are worth pursuing. We are all intellectual beings and that should never be forgotten.’
‘To me, it means – methodologically – that the project has been produced from the onset – so the aims and objectives are established by a number of people from different backgrounds. This will be towards working on a problem or theory.’
What joint percentage of input makes a project co-produced?
‘I would say that it’s more of a spectrum of collaboration than co-production.’
I’m not sure that this question has a quantifiable answer, or whether this even matters… How can you even measure ‘quantity of input’ when all individual-contributed “skill sets” are incomparable, anyway?! I suppose the only way you could approach answering this question is to evaluate how each party personally views the success of the output. Let’s imagine we could accurately quantify and “value” “work input” and we had a completed project which finally consisted of 98% input from “Partners A” , and 2%, from “Partners B”. If both Partners A and B were equally satisfied with their levels of input, and the success of the output, then this would be an example of co-production at its finest. So maybe the question shouldn’t be “What joint % of input makes a project co-produced?” Perhaps the question should be reframed and “level of co- production” becomes measured by each party’s evaluation of the output. For the question must be asked, “If one party leaves a project dissatisfied (irrespective of level of ‘input’) was it ever really ‘co-produced’ at all”?
Challenges and Opportunities Co-producing PGRs Face
- Having to work with people and persisting with difficult relationships – established academics can more easily walk away if it isn’t working
- Time constraints
- Conveyor belt attitude to PhDs in contemporary academic setting
- Expenses and pay walls (even funded PhDs are not cost neutral)
- Co-production as too much pressure
- Learning life skills, not just PhD skills
- Co-production means not being able to plan as clearly because you never know from the beginning what will be in each chapter
- Academia is still experienced as white, male, middle-class
- How do Co-producing PhDs gain academic credibility?
- Having a Collaborative Doctoral Award means having a non-academic supervisor, a supervisory voice from the community, and this is really valuable.
- Negotiating social media is a challenge: demarcating spaces, defining identity
- Connected Communities discussion paper http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funding-Opportunities/Research-funding/Connected-Communities/Scoping-studies-and-reviews/Documents/Towards%20Co-Production%20in%20Research%20with%20Communities.pdf
- Article on participatory research methods in Forum: Qualitative Social Research (including how to define ‘community’ etc) http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1801/3334
Liz Pente and Paul Ward are part of Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research, a project running from 2013 to 2017 which brings together a range of different research projects working across universities and their, mostly local, communities. Using the new knowledge we gather, together we will imagine how communities might be different. We will experiment with different forms of community building that ignite imagination about the future and help to build resilience and a momentum for change – see http://www.imaginecommunity.org.uk/