Monday, 25 February 2013

Research does not automatically generate knowledge - rethinking product and process

By Catherine Fisher

The overwhelming conclusion I have drawn from my involvement as a contributor to the IDS Bulletin, New Roles for Communication in Development?, is the need for research communication to place a greater focus on process rather than product. I draw this insight from both the process (what I've learned from being involved) and the product itself (what I've learned from some of the great articles in the Bulletin). I'm not arguing that there is no role for product, far from it, but that there is value in re-examining the relationship between the two.
Product v Process? Baking Czech bread
Image credit: Chmee2 (Own work) CC-BY 3.0

Overall I would argue that articles in the Bulletin collectively encouraged us to challenge our assumptions around three related areas:
  • What is research? 
  • What is knowledge?
  • How does change happen?  

And to explore  links between these areas: how does research generate knowledge, whose knowledge produces the research, how does research or even knowledge lead to change?  All speak to a greater focus on process. I explore a couple of examples below.

Research changes those involved 

Patta Scott Villier's article, This research does not influence policy, explores how participation in a research process brought change for both the researchers and the ‘researchees’,  even if the resulting output didn't shape high level policy processes  So the process generated more change than the product. But maybe the product (or its story as described in Patta's article) will inspire someone somewhere else to undergo a similar process, that might itself generate change...

Research doesn’t necessarily build knowledge

In our article, Kirsty, Louise and I explore the factors that shape whether actors engage with research and are willing and able to draw on research.  In doing so, we challenge ideas that research, even if it is shared at the right time and packaged in the right way, will somehow automatically generate “knowledge” in target audiences.  Research does not automatically generate knowledge. This happens through a process of sense-making in which the “knower” is an active participant not a passive recipient, who may deliberately or inadvertently choose to reject the intended message of the product. As Penelope Beynon’s et al's article illustrated, even carefully constructed outputs such as a policy brief, often seen as the silver bullet of research communication, can lead to the creation of different knowledge than was intended.

Growing importance of “process architects”

One implication of this greater focus on process is a greater role for intermediaries, knowledge brokers or innovation brokers within the broad spectrum of research communication. The focus on process over product helps us to see a greater role for these actors which is not just about turning research outputs into attractive products but about seeing research  and research-based products as part of the processes of knowledge creation and change, and supporting the design of these processes. These processes will often draw on products from multiple sources, current or historical, local or from far away. Often these processes themselves produce products which then go on to inform other processes. This speaks to some of the points I make in the Introduction, Is Development Research Communication Coming of Age? (PDF).  

The value and opportunity for exposing the process behind the product

One final reflection is that I doubt anyone will learn as much from the papers that appear in the journal  as I have learned from writing them. The process of writing a paper with a colleague forced us both to reexamine our assumptions and beliefs. An early version of our paper included a box outlining the differences in position about research and knowledge, and how it contributes to change that attempted to share some of the discussions we had  Yet journal articles require a compelling single narrative, an authoritative position and do not allow for divergence and discussion. They also have a strict word count. So this was dropped. While journal articles play an important role in communicating ideas and indeed validating the rigour of those ideas, particularly those from more formal research processes, perhaps there is also space – particularly in the social sciences for us to be more open in our workings, less authoritative in our positions. New media such as blogs like this, or even tweets enable “work in progress/emerging thinking” type products to be shared more widely that can  trigger thinking and knowledge generation processes for others. 

I hope that both this blog series and the Bulletin itself has prompted you to think and re-examine your ideas as it has done for me.

Catherine Fisher contributed to the Introduction in the IDS Bulletin, entitled Is Development Research Coming of Age? (PDF) and to the Bulletin article entitled Stimulating Demand for Research Evidence: what role for capacity building?. Catherine is International Capacity Building Co-ordinator at Amnesty International. She was formally Capacity Support Coordinator with the Impact and Learning Team at IDS  

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development?