Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Philosopher-craftsmen: interesting times for research communications professionals

Plato - snapshot from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image from
Plato, the Greek philosopher
By Emilie Wilson

Two exciting new publications have landed on my desk today :
(1)  Knowledge, policy and power in international development: a practical guide and the latest edition of the IDS Bulletin,
(2)  Action research for development and social change.

Knowledge, policy and power in international development: a practical guide, not a definitive model

The first, a book by researchers at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), aims to be a "practical guide to understanding how knowledge, policy and power interact to promote or prevent change". However, the authors are quick to put in a disclaimer:

"...we acknowledge that, although some models provide useful analyses of some aspects of the interface between knowledge and policy, it is impossible to construct a single one size-fits-all template for understanding such a complex set of relationships".

That is not to say the authors aren’t aiming high: "this book seeks to provide: 
  • a state-of-the-art overview of current thinking about knowledge, policy and power in international development 
  • present empirical case studies that provide concrete examples of how these issues play out in reality 
  • offer practical guidance on the implications of this knowledge base” 
I’m looking forward to getting stuck in, and am particularly intrigued by their “Questions this section will help you to answer” approach to structuring some of the content. I’m also looking out for references to work by IDS Knowledge Services around knowledge intermediation (well, of course I am!).

Action research for development and social change

The second, edited by Danny Burns, who heads up the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS, is the latest edition of the IDS Bulletin.

IDS Bulletins come in a variety of shapes and sizes – some very theoretical, others with more practical examples. This one appears to provide a nice balance of both, and has a stellar cast of leading lights at IDS on action research and participatory approaches.

Again, there is a disclaimer "we have not sought to draw firm conclusions or a single 'theory of practice'" but then a helpful identification of recurrent themes around which to hang your reflections as you read along: power and complex power relations, learning, and action.

Both these works, I think demonstrate what an exciting time it is to be working in the realm of research uptake, weaving analysis into practice, and giving us communications professionals space to reflect on the impact of our work.

I’m not a development practitioner, I’m a communications professional...

In my early days at IDS, when I had more enthusiasm than experience, I remember a conversation with a colleague in which I referred to us as “development practitioners” and she responded “I am not a development practitioner, I am a librarian”. She’s quite right, in many ways – a librarian with a whole heap of experience in international development.

I guess that description could apply to me too: a communications professional experienced in international development. Just as others are engineers, agronomists, doctors, project managers...experienced in international development.

That is, we should not forget, while we muse on power, complexity and social change, that we are also master craftsmen. Our understanding of communication, our craft, is based on an understanding of human behaviour. While it needs to be nuanced by peoples culture, worldview, literacy, all manner of contextual factors - we remain craftsmen who understand what to look for and how to build it in different contexts. It provides us with a lens through which to see the world.

Hopefully, with my bedside reading all set up now for the next month, the theory (and practical guidance) will percolate into my communications practice and I can aspire (grossly paraphrasing Plato) to being a ‘philosopher-communicator’...(albeit with less beard!)