Final report: S.M.Oreszczyn, L.Levidow, S.Hinchliffe, Cooperative research processes in CREPE, November 2010
Introduction: reflecting on cooperative experience
Entitled ‘Co-operative Research on Environmental Problems in Europe’ (CREPE), this project brought together civil society organisations (CSOs) and academics as partners to carry out research together. The thematic focus was environmental issues of agricultural practices and innovations, in the context of EU policy for a Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy (KBBE). Within those overall themes and contexts, the project had five aims:
1. Capacities: To strengthen CSOs’ capacity to participate in research, while engaging with diverse perspectives and expertise – thus facilitating co-operation between researchers and non-researchers, as well as between academics and CSOs.
2. Co-operative research methods: To design and test the methods used for co-operative research, as a basis to inform future efforts.
3. Sustainability: To analyse diverse accounts of sustainable agriculture in relation to agricultural methods, technologies, innovations and alternatives.
4. Priority-setting: To relate research more closely to societal needs, as a means to inform policy debate and research priorities for Europe as a ‘Knowledge-Based Society’.
5. Solutions: To suggest alternative solutions related to different understandings of societal problems, agri-environmental issues and sustainable development.
As regards the first and second aims, research cooperation is becoming widespread as a means to address the economic, environmental, social and technological problems that the world faces. Research organisations go beyond working with each another; they broaden their networks and methods to involve public, private and CSOs, also called non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Co-operative research forms part of this expanding activity, which has been especially prominent in areas such as agriculture, development studies and health.
Cooperative research has overlaps with other relevant concepts – such as participatory research, partnership research and action research – which also describe collaborative processes. The relevant literature has evolved within discrete fields and disciplines; each community of practice has developed different definitions and understandings of such activity. The concept of partnership brings together and re-labels the many different ways of sharing knowledge; this means networking, participation or collaboration across organisational boundaries, rather than simply transferring knowledge between them.
As these initiatives recognise, research depends upon broader knowledges and methods than conventional research processes. Cooperative research has been defined as a ‘form of research process, which involves both researchers and non-researchers in close cooperative engagement’ (Stirling, 2006, page 9). This also aims to open up the assumptions and aims of research through deliberative processes.
As part of the overall CREPE project, this study (WP 8) aimed: 1) to facilitate self-reflection on the social process and methods of the project as co-operative research; 2) to identify and facilitate ways to enhance collaborative-reflexive processes and to inform; 3) to benefit other efforts at collaborative research.
The cooperative processes operated at two levels – the overall project and the individual studies that each partner carried out. The individual studies encompass diverse forms and degrees of cooperative relationships (see Appendix 1). There have also been different degrees of progress in terms of the planning and conduct of cooperative research. Some CSO partners were building on previous capacities, projects and networks, thus more easily making progress; some CSO staff already had much experience of formal research projects. Other CSO partners were building new capacities and networks, or they encountered difficulties that led to changes in the research plan; so they needed more time to plan and carry out the research.
The research process necessarily draws upon diverse methods. Researchers have sometimes engaged with ‘informants’ and ‘participants’ in ways that may more resemble conventional research methods. At the same time, these interactions contribute to the overall cooperative process.
Within the overall project, this study has been designed to promote reflection on the issues faced by partners. Partners tried out methods – and then discussed with others what worked well, how it worked, what failed and what could be improved. In some cases, the researchers anticipated that the original plan would pose difficulties in gaining CSOs’ cooperation (among others) and so changed the plan. All partners kept a ‘cooperative research diary’ detailing the CR aspects of the individual studies. Entries described the participants with whom they cooperated, how they developed cooperative relations, what methods worked well and what worked less well. Partners were encouraged to record descriptive accounts, conversations, difficulties, tensions, excitement and so on. Reflection exercises were conducted within the partners’ meetings. Near the end of the project, a final reflection exercise enabled partners to reflect back on their participation in CREPE and to comment on their experiences. The following themes have emerged from this activity.
Cooperative relations in CREPE
More equal stakes and joint responsibilities
All partners in CREPE have been funded by the project for their research activities. Furthermore, the overall project has been jointly managed and run by all the partners. These joint stakes put partners on a more equal footing and strengthen CSOs’ capacity to participate in research activities, e.g. by enabling more staff time or new posts to be funded for such activities.
Within the CREPE project, all partners were responsible not only for their individual studies and overall outcomes of the project, but also for the management of the project. At the same time, ultimate responsibility for the final deliverables, and distribution of the finances, remained with the coordinating partner.
Although the stakes are more equal, they necessarily differ – e.g., because the rewards can be less obvious for CSOs than for academics. All partners sought to inform CSO strategies, e.g. for intervening in policy issues, and so designed their studies for that purpose, This is a main aim of CSO partners though perhaps not for academics. Furthermore, all participants took a risk in committing time and resources; that commitment can benefit partners if the project generates new research agendas, increases effectiveness or alters policymaking. However, in some settings, academics tend to be better established and can afford to take riskier routes in research.
Multiple identities, cultures, synergies
In cooperative research we distinguish between academics and CSO staff, but a distinction between researchers and non-researchers can be misleading. Such categories ignore the multiple roles being played by both academic researchers and CSOs. CSO participants in CREPE reflected on their multiple identities, especially the challenges faced in being both a researcher and a CSO staff member. For example, they may be treated as political activists rather than being taken seriously as researchers. By contrast to most academics, CSOs are involved in many issues beyond their research themes, so they are continuously being pulled by other projects, campaigns and colleagues to consider a variety of approaches. Potential diversions are compounded in cooperative research.
The CREPE project brought together CSOs which had been working with stakeholders in their own networks of practice and so were already engaged in cooperative practices. Although very different cultures were brought together in CREPE this encounter did not tend to lead to disagreements, rather the opposite. In practice, negotiations were made and the differences enabled partners to learn from one another.
The individual studies varied in ways reflecting the thematic focus, organisational culture and strategic perspectives of each CSO partner (as shown in Appendix 1). Some studies favoured societal groups suspicious of dominant policy agendas, while other studies involved stakeholders promoting divergent views and interests. For example the TNI study of ‘agrofuels’, adopting this pejorative term, involved mainly CSOs and social movements which had an affinity with TNI’s critical perspectives (WP1). CIVAM, as agricultural extension agents, had already worked with academics in order to research the practical issues of farmers in short food-supply chains; its extra study was also used to influence policies of local authorities (WP4). By contrast to those two case studies, the study of water scarcity built networks including all relevant stakeholders, amidst practical and policy conflicts over water management; workshop discussions were meant to clarify current practices and future options for improvement, especially through greater cooperation among stakeholders (WP3).
Here researchers did not attempt or pretend to hold the study accountable to the stakeholders, thus avoiding conflicts over the research orientation. In such ways, WPs 1-6 have developed and extended wider stakeholder networks, partly through workshops (whose reports are available at http://crepeweb.net/?page_id=191).
Strengthening and developing networks
As highly networked organisations, CSO partners see co-operative research as an opportunity to extend and strengthen their networks. In this process, more participants were drawn into the issue which animates the CSO partner; they were able to strengthen existing networks, form new ones and foster their networks of practice (Brown and Duguid, 2001). Furthermore, by working with academic researchers, CSOs could make links with the wider academic and policy networks of those researchers. In this way CSOs can gain many benefits, some of which may be unexpected and unplanned.
Relationships formed through the CSOs’ workshops were particularly important. These events enabled participants to combine different knowledges, to share experiences, to build new relationships and thus to foster their networks of practice (cf. Brown and Duguid, 2001). Involving local, tacit, situated and therefore grounded knowledge has been important for opening up new research directions. For example, the FDG’s workshop informed the research for its study of community-supported agriculture, with advice from academic experts. Alongside the workshop, moreover, a national meeting of urban food projects provided a temporary ‘community of practice’, which had some potential to continue beyond the CREPE study.
For both communities and networks of practice, new opportunities for learning and fresh insights often occur at boundaries (Wenger et al., 2002). The studies in CREPE highlight the need for boundary spanners who are able to span different communities of practice and who have the necessarily facilitation skills. Within CREPE partners have been playing a knowledge mediators role in their studies, e.g. by mediating between various experts, CSOs and other actors. In WP6 FSC sought to play a mediation role between agri-ecologists, peasants and CSOs, as a basis for such actors to share their knowledges and cooperate in research activities.
As a disadvantage, this mediation role could create an extra layer, resulting in additional gaps between knowledge broker and producer – likewise between knowledge broker and user. Such problems can be avoided by boundary spanners who are legitimate members of different communities and thus able to span boundaries without such a gap. Boundary spanning and effective facilitation require specific skills, which need to be developed among both academic researchers and CSOs.
Sustainable agriculture: critical perspectives
Although the various studies researched different topics, all related to agri-environmental issues and sustainable development. So partners were able to draw on each others’ expertise. From all those studies, the project aimed to draw overall conclusions on options and research priorities for sustainable development.
Towards those aims, the studies were integrated in several ways: The project developed a transversal perspective linking the various studies on issues of sustainable agriculture. The Coordinator analysed contending accounts of sustainable agriculture and suggested ways to make these accounts more explicit in the various WP studies (see Appendix 5). Each consortium meeting had a session on those over-arching issues, including an exercise for comparing the various studies, as regards divergent accounts of sustainable agriculture. Partners commented on the Coordinator’s draft analysis. This document helped to link partners’ conceptual thinking, as well as informing each study.
Thematic discussions on sustainability also opened up the original research questions, which became suitably more complex. The Coordinator’s draft analysis had implied that different policy agendas or accounts of sustainable agriculture correspond to different institutions. As our discussions indicated, however, divergent agendas were co-existing within the same institution. Or such accounts remained elusive – remaining implicit and so difficult to analyse.
As another overlapping aspect, some topics featured technological solutions for agri-environmental problems. Dominant policy agendas were proposing solutions which would more efficiently use natural resources to enhance sustainability. In our studies, these solutions were critically analysed as techno-fixes evading the fundamental sources of unsustainability. This critique became explicit as a generic topic linking those studies in our transversal analysis. Such discussions were central to the CR aspects of the overall project, as well as to the transversal project-wide report. Eventually this analysis formed the basis for the Brussels workshop on knowledge for sustainable agriculture (CREPE, 2010) and eventually the final report of the project.
Learning in a cooperative research process
Mutual learning played an important role as partners discussed their methods and experiences with other partners; they were learning by doing. CREPE offered ‘training’ in an approach to research. For example, in the WP2 study of community-supported agriculture, partners were learning several methods – how to work in a team of practitioner researchers; how to relate to non-specialists; how to develop small scale independent projects; how to deal with the practical difficulties of engaging in grounded, local community practice-based research, (WP2 Critical moments reflections). For the study on agrofuels, researchers noted ‘new insights from the research into the topic of study which will serve as a basis for further work which will draw on the consolidation of contacts and new linkages that CREPE made possible’ (WP1 Critical Moments Reflections).
Learning occurred in CREPE both within individuals, where, for example, an individual’s current assumptions may be challenged, and also at the group level in the overall project level or partners networks. As noted earlier, partners in CREPE had a diversity of prior experience in doing this type of research. This diversity was important for the learning processes within CREPE; although the topics of study were diverse, they all had an agri-environmental theme. Partners were able to offer each other both moral support and their particular expertise, in both the processes and research topic. Those partners with less experience of academic research were able to learn research methods through joint activity and advice.
Within the overall project, interactive engagement with the academics enabled CSOs to obtain assistance to produce research in a rigorous way, although not necessarily in the sense of conventional academic research. In the individual partner studies, mutual learning occurred within the partners’ networks of CSOs. The workshops in particular played an important role in this respect.
Understanding cooperative process
It is now commonplace for research proposals to engage with stakeholders at an early stage, even prior to the start of the research. Yet this interaction is rarely documented, such that others may learn from the experience. Engagement of academic partners with CSO partners from its earliest stage of development was an important feature, allowing them to be involved in shaping the initial design of the CREPE project. Documenting in detail this early interaction and the subsequent cooperative processes within CREPE, through the diary contributions and reports, provided a descriptive account that may inform others’ efforts at cooperative research. These descriptions also enabled the project partners to reflect on their activities and research processes.
For CSOs to engage in cooperative research projects and to lead their own research, they need to be clear what they are attempting to achieve. The literature in this area can be confusing for conventional researchers; it is even more confusing for CSOs. For CREPE partners an initial learning process enabled them to clarify their research aims.
The early partners’ meetings discussed the concept of cooperative research and how it relates to similar concepts. This was important for facilitating cooperative research activities in partners’ individual studies, for example, in the way they may draw in different expertise and challenge assumptions. In some respects, recognition of the cooperative processes provided an opportunity to make more explicit the participatory research activities and relationships that already existed in various contexts and forms. For example, as an agricultural extension agency, FRCIVAM was already practicing cooperative research with academics but had not previously described the relationship in this way. The CR concept has helped FRCIVAM to clarify means to extend such cooperation as a normal, beneficial feature of research. It also made apparent the challenge of generating creativity and critical analysis within the tight community of practice that they had already created.
Enabling spaces were essential for group learning and individual learning. Previous definitions of cooperative research emphasise close working relations between researchers and non-researchers. In practice, a variety of proximities and enabling spaces for knowledge production were apparent. The overall project, and hence group learning among partners, progressed through face-to-face meetings, skype meetings and e-mails that fostered close working relations. Face-to-face meetings in particular were felt important for establishing and fostering relationships. However, this was not always possible, nor desirable. In one partner’s study (WP4) it was considered important not to meet too often and to maintain in order to keep the project and the relationships ‘fresh’.
Fostering both group learning and individual learning was an important facility within CREPE. The workshops conducted by each study particularly provided enabling spaces for relationships to be formed and learning to occur as networks were fostered and/or expanded, drawing in a wider range of expertise to the studies. Workshops further enabled CSOs to engage with a wider policy and academic audience. For example, from exchanges at the workshop, particularly following advice from one academic researcher, the researchers in WP2 realised that the original idea to study a single initiative was too narrowly focused and over-ambitious. Thus the learning gained from the workshop served to re-orientate this study.
The iterative reflection process was a time consuming process for partners, particularly producing the diaries. However, documenting in detail the thoughts, experiences and processes that partners underwent, and reflecting on these activities at meetings, created space for the cooperative research processes within CREPE to be made more explicit.
‘Good practice’ in cooperative research
Within CREPE, good practice included the following: building a network of practice; being flexible about research plans; reflecting on our practice and documenting those reflections; acknowledging the differences between the academic and CSO cultures; and providing spaces to enable learning from each another. Especially important were the financial resources to ensure a more equitable partnership.
Our experience in CREPE highlights the diversitv of practices in cooperative research. The results indicate that partners´ roles are more varied than perhaps expected and are therefore not readily reducible to an ordinal scale of activity, proximity, involvement etc – as suggested by some typologies of participatory research. Furthermore, there is not necessarily a clear distinction between cooperative research and conventional research methods; both may be used within a particular study.
As a broad concept, ‘good practice’ takes account of the many possible practices that could be called ‘good’, depending on the aims, contexts and participants of the research. Cooperative research processes focus on the relationships involved in different forms of cooperation. It enables researcher and CSOs to make more explicit the existing relationships, networks and ways of operating. Making them more explicit helps participants to consider how best to utilise the potential.
This diversity of research practices also has implications for any standardised guidelines, assessment tools or precise management methods. Such measures deny the complexity and specificity of cooperative activity, which needs to remain flexible and open to alternative ways of addressing issues as they arise during the research process. This complexity adds weight to the argument that there ‘no simple prescription for best practice’ (Huxham and Vagen, 2005: 34) – indeed, that there can be diverse types of good practice.
Diverse experiences also highlight the need to focus on processes of participation, rather than a toolkit approach that emphasises tools for the job (Reed, 2008). As a metaphor, ‘tool’ implies that there is a knowable task or problem that a tool can fix. In contrast, cooperative research opens up the task or problem in order to find solutions or ways forward. Reflecting on experience, as in this report, may inform others’ efforts at cooperative research, allowing participants to reflect on their own unique situation in light of others’ experiences.
There is a general need for funding bodies and academic researchers to have greater flexibility than would normally be the case, to accommodate the particular difficulties that CSOs face. Following the initial design of the individual studies, CSO partners had staff changes resulting in changes in expertise; staff turnover was more frequent than in academic institutions. In such ways, they may be less stable than academic institutions and so need greater flexibility to overcome any problems. Working with others can enable them to find solutions, but consequently makes heavy demands on other partners, particularly the coordinator. Therefore the scope and ability to be flexible is crucial.
Most studies involved some re-design once they had begun. Most partners had to deal with events beyond their control. Where some research plans turned out to be unfeasible, especially for involving other CSOs, these plans had to be redesigned in consultation with the project coordinator.
Furthermore, less flexible financial resources meant that any delays in funding arrangements or contract negotiations were problematic. Being a researcher in a CSO makes great demands on staff time and resources which need to be carefully managed.
Despite those extra demands, partners saw the benefits as outweighing any difficulties. The research activity and results helped some CSOs to gain a hearing in policy arenas. All partners noted that they had had a positive experience in CREPE; in their view, cooperative research practices have the potential to improve relationships between academics and CSOs and bring their contributions into policy arenas. As one CSO partner commented: ‘The opportunity to work with formal research helped us achieve a social and thus political recognition that could not have been reached without this support’ (FRCIVAM, WP4).
At the same time, intervention into societal issues does not entirely depend upon research. Indeed, much useful knowledge does not come from activity that is formally recognised as research, even if resulting from a systemic investigation. So cooperative research has important roles beyond answering research questions. New relationships extend knowledge networks among stakeholder groups, while also redefining the problems to be researched, thus opening up policy assumptions and perhaps societal futures.