I found a recent paper by Jude Fransman, about different perceptions of Public Engagement, enlightening and inspiring, and it led me to write a blog piece about it. I also interviewed Jude, and publish the transcript below, as it goes into much more detail than the blog, and also gives her perspective.
Fransman, J. (2018) Charting a course to an emerging field of 'research engagement studies': A conceptual meta-synthesis. Research For All 2, pp. 185-229. https://doi.org/10.18546/RFA.02.2.02
Jude Fransman interview 04 Sept 2018
Neil: There are two distinct parts to the paper.
Jude: It should probably be two papers, but the journal were keen to publish the whole thing together.
Neil: It does at least mean that people like me read the second half, and I might not have otherwise. One reason I was struck by your paper was that in my personal experience, I meet people who work in different aspects of Public Engagement, but when I talk to them, there's a wall between us. One example is a PPI group I know, and I realized that they were from this different world that you describe. I know PPI is important, but in my role as a biomedical researcher who hasn’t worked on health service projects, it never came into my consciousness. Whereas, if you are a health services researcher, maybe that's all you think about. And what I thought when I was reading your paper was how helpful the first part, the mapping, was. First of all, as you went through what science communication is, that's my world and it really echoed.
Jude: And there's a lot of literature on that. I'm sure you've read stuff by Richard Watermeyer and Gene Rowe; they do a lot of in-depth focused work on that field specifically and how it's evolved
Neil: But I came to the third group, and I thought this is the world of my PPI colleagues, and then you went on to describe these other worlds, some of which I recognized a little: the development world we had touched on in my MSc, with people like Freire mentioned. So as I looked at this map and the descriptions, I thought that this could really help both us recognizing our own worlds, but also explain to us why other people are not making sense to us. That's why I got in touch with you, and I've been showing it to a few other people. So tell me about you and how you, a bit about your background, and how you came to write this.
Jude: I think what you say is really interesting in terms of how we work within our own areas and then inevitably at some point we connect, whether it's as research practitioners through our education practice and research practice, or whether it's as more theoretical researchers. So inevitably at some point you interact with people either outside of your discipline or outside of your sector, outside of your country sometimes if it's more internationally based research. And, and I guess for me Public Engagement is that connection. So reaching out across these boundaries and connecting, and speaking different languages.
My background is quite eclectic. I started with a first degree in comparative literature and then moved into International Development. I did a taught MPhil at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Sussex. I'd actually spent some time in south China, so I was already quite interested in that time of really rapid economic and social development in the late nineties.
Neil: That's being a bit more political?
Jude: Yes, it was much more political. And, probably even before that, my parents are South African, though I was brought up mainly in Scotland, but going back and forth to South Africa towards the end of apartheid and with this whole discourse of politics. And so I moved into International Development and started focusing on education, but particularly adult education and literacy. Then I spent a couple of years at the OECD International Development Centre in Paris, and then UNESCO working on their global monitoring report for education. So I moved a bit more into international education policy, both generically but increasingly focusing on adult literacy and non-formal education, which is where my PhD focused.
After that I decided the UN wasn't for me for various reasons, and took a year off and I worked for the NGO Action Aid International as a research consultant and I did a project looking at the relationship between literacy, policy and then practice on the ground in Tanzania and Vietnam. I think I'd been working at the international policy level and I felt disengaged from on the ground practice, and as part of my work at UNESCO, we commissioned this study led by Action Aid into developing benchmarks for adult literacy. So I was quite keen to look at how this was then translating on the ground, or how the policy was interacting with the practice.
I did that for a year and then I got funding to do a PhD, which ended up being something completely different because I was initially looking at Latin American migrants, and their literacy practices as they cross between Latin America and the UK and sometimes Europe in the middle.
But then I started focusing on community organizations. When I was at IDS in the early 2000s, I was involved in another research project, where I worked on a project, which looked at Higher Education Institutions and their relationship with communities. The idea was to look comparatively internationally at different structures of community engagement within Higher Education. So we did this and already I was thinking a little bit about how Higher Education interacted with community organizations in International Development contexts. And then my literacy stuff was looking more at different types of communication, both around language but other kinds of visual, nonverbal types of communication across different sectors and groups and cultures and institutions. So my PhD at the Institute of Education (UCL) ended up being focused on the way that community migrant organizations conduct research on themselves, and how that compares to the way that academics conduct research on the same migrant groups. So it was looking at this research ecosystem in London, around this Latin American migrant group and the organizations within that.
There is a sort of coherence; I moved around quite a lot, but my focus started to be more on the politics of research and how research isn't necessarily always conducted within universities, but sometimes completely independently of universities, and sometimes – more often than not – across these institutional boundaries. I was also thinking about method, how method changes when it moves across these boundaries, how modes of representation change, how research can be represented as anything from a journal article to an exhibition. One of the community organizations I worked with was led by an ethno-musicologist, and she was doing quite applied research on the community, but representing it as a series of different types of exhibitions as well. So I was looking at what this meant compared to a journal article or a policy report, and interactions with things like censuses and other political instruments.
Off the back of that, I think I started getting also interested in digital technologies and the role of new technologies in representing research in different ways, and also in theory facilitating research processes in different ways. So I got my first postdoc research post at the Open University leading a study looking at digital scholarship practices.
Then I got a fellowship back at the Institute of Education, which was working on a number of projects, but all more or less looking at research practices, processes within that setting. And actually at that point they had one of the Public Engagement Catalyst projects.
So I was involved in that team as well. And that's when started working with the NCCPE and Sandy Oliver, and it's sort of coming full circle: again interacting with some of what I’d been doing in Sussex, looking at community-based research and that relationship.
Then I started getting more substantial research funding from ESRC, looking at research partnerships between civil society organizations and universities in the UK. I also got a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust looking at research practices of international NGOs, so completely separate from Higher Education, but looking at how research happens outside of – independently of – universities, but asking how universities might learn from different ways of negotiating ethics, or developing an understanding of what research impact means, or even research design. How it helps people working in Higher Education to think a bit creatively about their own systems and practices, which we feel very locked into but that actually don't necessarily have to look like the REF.
Most recently I've been working quite closely with the UKRI and the Global Challenges Research Fund in trying to develop a framework for what fair and equitable research partnerships look like. And these are partnerships which includes academics from the Global South, non-academic institutions, public sector policy institutions, even the private sector as well. So we're just about to launch a report and some learning resources that we've developed off the back of that. There's a big network of academics, academic brokers, practitioner organizations across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in the UK and looking at how we can rethink research so that it's fairer. And especially research focused on global challenges or International Development. So that's my broad background.
Neil: I think it is helpful to know your history and background, which are very different from mine, in relation to the paper. You describe us, so it’s useful to see where you are situated. What led you to write it?
Jude: So this paper was part of part of the Leverhume project. In the first year I thought that I would conceptualize what research engagement was before then focusing on one sector, International Development, and then specifically one type of institution producing research independently of academia. So it's a framing, but also I think because I've worked across, not the sciences so much, but technology a little bit, and then coming from an arts and humanities background and then working a lot across the social sciences, like you, I was grappling with how we generate a language which transcends all of these different ways of working, ways of understanding what research is, what research engagement is. And so it started off as an exercise just for myself to clarify where these different conversations and debates were happening. I spoke to an advisory group of individuals across these different sectors who were all quite enthusiastic about somehow bringing everything together. I think the title's a little bit provocative and I sort of hate it.
Neil: The title is fine for me, but I was interested in the method. No-one is competent in all areas, can know all worlds.
Jude: Yes, absolutely. And initially I thought I would do a systematic review and it was impossible.
Neil: And also systematic reviews have different meanings and aims don't they? So you did do it in a rigorous way, that would get the information you wanted, but it wasn't a Cochrane systematic review.
Jude: Yes, and the meta-synthesis as well, it was a conceptual meta-synthesis, and I was more interested in producing an indicative guide of the types of discourse terminology, areas.
Neil: Define meta-synthesis...
Jude: So meta-synthesis, I guess was bringing together not only different reviews, but also related articles and related understandings which might not be in published format. That's why the advisory group was really important because a lot of guidance was through conversations in a very subjective way. Everybody I spoke to had their own mapping of their sector and it's all very subjective. Of course, it depends on where your research interests lie and who your networks are. So I guess it was never an intention to produce a definitive comprehensive map of each of these sectors, and especially of this whole field of research engagment. Even though I tried to focus just on the UK context, there’s still so much international influence. And even within different disciplines, there's so much interdisciplinary influence as well.
Neil: Anything where you try and map something into something that is useful, you draw boundaries that start to mess with your head.
Jude: Yes. So I think the idea is to get some initial indicative mapping of these different types of ways of approaching engagement as a conversation starter. But also trying to hold ourselves as a community, myself included, more to account in terms of how we approach engagement and what type of discourses or terminologies or ideas about engagement we're using, where that comes from, and thinking about some of those routes a little bit more.
Neil: You've illustrated a bit of process with a first stage and a second stage mapping diagram. Tell me about how you got initially to what you thought were the main five groups.
Jude: It was actually based on quite a lot of work that we'd been doing with NCCPE and some of the mapping that they've been doing as well. I started off with a few key review studies. One of them was this [Facer et al 2012, Towards a Knowledge Base for University–Public Engagement: Sharing knowledge, building insight, taking action], grounded in the arts and humanities, which Keri Facer did with the NCCPE back in, I think 2012. I can't remember the exact terminology, but I think mapping university Community Engagement or university Public Engagement, I'm not sure exactly how it was framed, but it was more from within the arts and humanities. It was funded by AHRC, but there was spillover, so it did reference some of the science communication literature. Then there was a bunch of reviews from International Development. Obviously that's the area that I'm more familiar with. In my previous studies, I’d already done a number of literature reviews which pick up on what I framed as Public Policy broadly, but within that there's a very different set of discourses in education and social care and health, public health. And so it's a little bit artificial to bring them all together. But there was more interrelation, and I think partly through the work of RURU, and Sandra Nutley and Hugh Davies and this more focused work on how to get evidence from research into policy, some of these groups are brought together. So there are some common sets of terminologies even though the roots of the different components are specific to different sectors.
Jude: To be fair, even though the map of the interdisciplinary/cross-sectoral research landscape interacts with the sciences, arts and humanities, most of it is actually quite social sciencey. I think the map should be read as a magnified central point which is probably most defined by the social sciences but beyond that the different disciplines veer off quite considerably. So it shouldn't be read as like a map of all knowledge. I should have made that more explicit, but I cut so much of my methodology sections, to get it to an acceptable length, but all these areas are actually much closer together than maybe it looks in the figure.
Neil: For me in a sense, the test was how they describe themselves. And what really grabbed me, as I said, was coming to my area, and saying, now that is me, and it’s the people I know, In my MSc, those were our key key texts, this is what we talked about and we dipped into other things a little bit. But this is also what the natural scientists I work with will understand by Public Engagement. And then you go to these other areas, and they won’t recognize them.
The other thing was was the first section which is Higher Education, and in a sense I thought that was very different in that it's not really an area of research in the same way as the others, it's a sort of meta area of research because it is about the whole context in which all these other things are done.
Jude: But it is increasingly an area of research and an area of policy and practice
Neil: And it's definitely the world of senior university managers, and it’s what they understand by Public Engagement. So I think it's really important to have it there.
Jude: Authors of the review studies have often compared one of the other sectors to this policy domain.
Neil: So there was everyone knows this, because everyone is beaten over the head with it
Jude: But even within each world there's a lot of contradictions. I think that another thing that I was trying to do was draw out the tensions within each of these area.
Is it useful? How have people responded?
Neil: So you've published this - before we come to the next part - I found it really useful. And I’ve gone to some people and asked if they make sense to them as well. Have you had feedback from people saying, yes, this mapping makes sense or that you've missed out my area?
Jude: I consulted quite a lot of people from my broad network in these different areas while writing it, so most of the feedback I've had is from them, so they're not the best assessors, because I've incorporated the things that they told me to incorporate. I have been contacted a few times by quite random organizations I haven't been involved with, through Twitter, who have found the paper useful which is quite nice because of all the publications I've written, this is the one that I’ve felt least confident about because methodologically it's so complicated and it's not rigorous in the way that I think a lot of my other research has been. But I still thought it was important enough to produce in this way. And so when I say it's provocative, I think, I'm not sure that there should be a field of research engagement studies. It was more an exercise to say, how can we bring together something this large, diverse and interconnected and what should be differentiated?
Neil: So we have these different worlds, should they be interacting and how could they interact?
Jude: Exactly. On the one hand I haven’t really promoted it widely because I'm a little bit unsure. But on the other hand, I have had a lot of response, probably more than a lot of other articles that I'm more confident about in some way. So I guess it is on a lot of people's minds.
Neil: And what do they say?
Jude: I think people are thinking strategically within their organizations or their teams or departments about coming up with some policy or strategy or framework which connects across some of these different areas. And so it's a useful starting point just in terms of defining what those areas are and like how people might be using different language to say the same thing or the same language to say something completely different.
Neil: Which is exactly what initially interested me in it.
Jude: But I fully expect and I would like to see people drawing attention to gaps or misrepresentation because there has to be, I mean it's still so partial given the magnitude of each of these areas as well.
Neil: It's very UK-focused, but then a lot of Public Engagement feels like it's a very UK thing.
Jude: Methodologically I'm more an ethnographer than anything else, so I have a lot of respect for context. I think the idea was that by focusing on the UK, it allowed me to get a better sense of how these discourses operate in practice in the context of policy, but also in the context of the work of practitioners, and in this much broader evolving policy environment. I've tried to limit it to the latter part of the last century up until now. But even over the last few decades, the broad policy trends, through New Labour up until the big impact agenda, has had significant implications for how evidence or research is understood in all these different sectors. So it creates a common lens to look across, as well as to understand how, the discourses are operating, not just in the research sense but actually in a policy and practice sense as well.
The second half: The Research Engagement proposal
Neil: So moving into the second half of the paper, which is your research engagement proposal. I think it absolutely makes sense, to say well what you do with this situation that you’ve described. But I found it quite hard to see where I follow, or see where I would fit in in this.
Jude: So this is very, very theoretical and it's not about where you would fit in terms of practice, but rather where you would fit conceptually; how you frame your understanding of Public Engagement. And the point of this is to try and strengthen the theoretical basis of research engagement studies, because a lot of the literature that I've mentioned, especially the review studies, have said that a big problem has been the fact that research engagement has remained at the level of practice, or often even just administration in universities, and is not taken seriously as a theoretically informed area of study. Increasingly there are people – people from Higher Education studies or or any of these areas that I've mapped – who are engaging in a more theoretical way, and I would argue that theory has really strong political consequences for how strategy, policy, or practice of engagement materializes. So whether you understand engagement as an activity or a relationship has big implications for whether you frame your engagement policy with questions of what this activity is, who is involved, how we put it together, or how we fund it. If you define it as a relationship, it opens up a lot more questions around equality or participation. So already, depending on the framing, there are implications for how you would approach it.
Neil: What you’re saying is, whether I'm a social scientist or a natural scientist, I might still ask these same questions
Jude: Yes, and even within the science communication literature, work refers to all of these, so you can get a lot of the STS stuff which looks at affect, and looks at engagement as something which emerges through the interrelationship between policy and practice and material artefacts and that sort of thing.
Neil: So that's one extreme of science communication
Jude: But it's a theoretical position. So this is to map theory; it's not to map practice. So that's one extreme, but then at the other extreme you've got just Public Engagement, meaning a series of activities. You might have a festival to help to communicate a particular experiment and the outcome, and that as an activity. There's a spectrum, and the relationship might be about actually developing a partnership between two different institutions and processes in a much longer timeframe, such as trying to think about how, for example, Pathways to Impact encourages people to map the process of engagement over a longer period. The system is something which comes a lot from the public policy literature around evidence, and that's prompting people to think not just about processes, but about how research is embedded in systems of policy or practice or the global political economy of knowledge.
Research and research-into-policy or practice is embedded in very complex systems of decision-making whether within Higher Education or outside in the policy world. So you have to understand it within that complex system in order to act on it. The point is that in almost every applied research project, we're using these different ideas about what engagement looks like, and where it's situated. So is the engagament happening in the governance of research, in the decisions that University managers make, or that research funders make? Is it happening at the point of knowledge production, like control generally by academics? Is it happening through communication? Is it happening beyond the research production phase and utilization, or is it happening more broadly?
Again, most activities or relationships are embedded in more than one of these spaces, but theoretically often the focus is just around this knowledge and communication area, neglecting how governance and funding shapes what happens here and neglecting the utilization that comes before. I guess it's a theoretical tool to ask where we're looking and what we are maybe neglecting, and how we can look at the other areas and think about them.
So for example, the work that we're doing now with UKRI is all about research funding, and we're thinking about fair and equitable partnerships, which you could look at at the level of the partnerships themselves. There are a hundred how-to guides on respecting your partners and thinking about different languages and planning and so on, but that doesn't help if for example the funding itself establishes limits on how much funding can be given to an overseas partner. Or the funding call has a very specific focus which limits the expertise of one organization or overemphasizes the expertise of another. So again, if you're looking at one of these, you might not be thinking about another.
Neil: So you suggest three dimensions you might look at: locus, configuration and analytical lens. I really struggled following this, and seeing how it would actually be used. Can you talk me through it?.
Jude: It is quite challenging, and whilest not all the literature here is theoretical, some of it is very theoretical, and that's why you get this stuff around affects and accounts and artefacts. Even the impact and learning stuff can be theoretical. But it does have implications for practice.
So for example, take the analytical lens dimension, where I list framings informed by identities, practices, institutions, artefacts and accounts. If you think about how we need to change in order to improve engagement, you can look at it at the level of identities. That’s asking how you can actually equip individuals with a sense of being engaged researchers, broadly. And there is all this kind of career development guidance around being engaged and you can focus on different types of identities, or identities within different disciplines, or different subject groups which might have implications for how they do Public Engagement.
But that doesn't necessarily focus on the practices which moves beyond the identity level, which might be more about interactions, and how the way that you do research interacts with your institutional norms and your institutional cultures and the different languages that you're embedded within, and the social context of those identities.
And then the institutional lens introduces a much more structural set of influences. So if you're really going to change Public Engagement, you also have to think about policy processes and procedures and even agendas - why institutions want to change in the first place. Is that because of the REF, or making their name, or to fulfil their values?
Neil: And usually the answer is that all are true?
Jude: Of course. And then artefacts applies to the material elements of engagement. There are certain technologies which are seen as magic bullets for engagement.
Neil: So social media might be an artefact?
Jude: Yes, exactly. Or even this journal article can do some things but not others. It's a particular artefact. There are affordances and possibilities and an article is a different type of engagement artefact to an exhibition so again, engagement can be framed at these different levels and often it's not just within one, but it helps us to think think broadly about how we are locating it and what we are possibly missing in that framing.
And finally, by accounts, I mean, how does engagement as a field tell the story of itself? As a sort of discourse. How do we actually talk about it?, what terminology do we use?, who do we include?, who is our audience?, those sort of questions. So you can include the articles which focus more on surveys for example, or try to elicit particular individuals such as academics or people from industry; the ways that people perceive the Public Engagement field, and how they might change their individual responses accordingly to be better engaged academics or research partners, whatever. Whereas if you take a practices approach, you're looking much more at the processes or systems or relationships aspect and you're looking at different contexts and how you might structure a whole project to be more engaged, how you might work across different communities or use some of the tools provided.
Neil: And you might write something that I in my world might understand, even though you're in your world?
Jude: Yes, exactly. And there's a lot within this practice space which does that. Then institutions has much more of an institutional policy or organizational development focus, so how strategically can we change our structures to enhance our culture of Public Engagement, or to shift rewards and incentives of our staff so that they're more likely to do better engagement. So you're thinking again at a different level, but coming away with the same sort of things.
Then the artefacts are thinking more about what actual types of technologies or devices facilitate engagement. So again, you might well be looking at all of these, you might be just focusing on one, but if you are focusing on just one, you might ask, is there something else which some of the others might contribute to what you're thinking? If you're just thinking about this one, perhaps some of the institutional processes are limiting what these individual responses are going to be or could be. And I'm not saying everyone has to think about anything , but this is it's a map in that sense. It's a theoretical tool.