Knowledge Mobilisation and the Civic Academy: The Nature of Evidence, the Roles of Narrative and the Potential of Contribution Analysis

Bannister, J. & O’Sullivan, A. (2013). Knowledge mobilisation and the civic academy: The nature of evidence, the roles of narrative and the potential of contribution analysis. Contemporary Social Science, 8(3), 249-262.
The purpose of knowledge mobilisation (KM) can be defined as the creation and communication of evidence motivated by a desire to improve the design, delivery and consequent impact of public services. This definition also embraces the notion of the civic academy. In this article, we explore the requirements of effective KM in the light of recent contributions to the theory of knowledge (specifically regarding the nature of evidence) and of the potential roles for narrative. We consider in these contexts whether a number of recent conceptual and methodological developments offer the prospect of progress in the pursuit of effective KM.
This is an essay. It’s got lots of good references but this is an opinion piece not a research or practice based article. This is not a critique of the paper but a heads up so you know ahead of time what you have in store. It is based on the concept of the civic academy which is mentioned in the title, as a key word and then not again until the conclusions. The authors leave it to us to decide on the definition of civic academy.
Google isn’t much help. A search for civic academy only yields links to “civic leadership academy”. A google scholar search gives this paper. While the authors fail to define this term they have also given us an opportunity to own it.
My definition: the civic academy is the academy engaged with its local and global communities.
The article starts off by presenting three barriers to effective knowledge mobilization: “a limited appreciation of the ways in which multiple forms of knowledge are incorporated in the policy process; a shortfall in the skills necessary to participate effectively in this process (specifically, the ability to communicate in a way that will be heard) and a reluctance to engage in knowledge production that seemingly threatens disciplinary integrity through its challenge to a hierarchical approach to evidence.’ The authors state the intent of their article is to explore “the potential of narrative as a vehicle for securing more effective KM and of contribution analysis (CA) as a means to deliver this potential.”
For more on contribution analysis see last month’s journal club.
The authors discuss the desire for research impact that “makes a difference” and makes the case that knowledge mobilization can mediate impact through the co-production of knowledge thus creating a civic role for the academy – side bar: is it the “desire of the academy” to make a difference or a desire of the academic to make that difference? How do we separate the research from the researcher or the researcher from his/her institution?
Proposition: It is possible for academics to have an impact on society without the active involvement of their institution but the corollary is not true. Institutions desiring to have an impact on society can only achieve this by the active involvement of their researchers (faculty and/or students) and their non-academic partners.
The authors make an interesting observation. They quote House (2006), “inclusion of all relevant stakeholder views, values, and interests; extensive dialogue between and among evaluators and stakeholders so they understand one another thoroughly; and deliberation with and by all parties to reach conclusions”. But then they observe, “though the co-production of knowledge holds the potential to deliver more equitable and transformative impacts…engagement beyond the academy remains tentative at best.” In other words, although co-production is a key knowledge mobilization method that relies on stakeholder engagement, the academy (and academics) are not good at stakeholder engagement and thus, by extension, not good at co-production and hence not good at having an impact beyond the academy. To be clear, that’s my conclusion from the authors’ observation.
The case is made that traditional social sciences impose a hierarchy of evidence in order to “speak with both clarity and power”. It is suggested that other types of evidence such as that derived from co-production is not given equal authority or power and also that academics and the academy lack the skills to participate in the democratic processes needed to ensure that academic evidence is included in policy dialogues. For more on policy dialogues see a previous journal club post.
The roles of narrative: A large portion of the paper is devoted to narratives as a form of transferring scholarly information/evidence to policy makers. The authors “emphasise a need for researchers to ‘bring alive’ their findings, using good case study and exemplar material to challenge and oust anecdotal evidence.” There is mention of academics skilling up to compete with lobbyists for the attention of policy makers. See a Linked In post about evidence and policy and the concerns about scientists becoming lobbyists. The authors conclude that “narrative is fundamental to the formulation, legitimation, interpretation and communication of evidence. Like other people, policy-makers look for and prove receptive to compelling stories. While academia has increasingly recognised the power of narrative in recent decades, it has for the most part held on doggedly to its own storyline of the disinterested, impartial arbiter of social truths.
Disinterested? Hardly…many academic researchers are highly interested in their work and the conclusions their research is making.
Impartial arbiter? Maybe…but not likely. We have methods such as randomized controlled trials (yes, even in social sciences) that are supposed to remove bias, and statistics that are supposed to give us confidence in the result but the interpretation of the data is informed by political, religious, social and cultural experiences of the researchers. Take climate change as an example. If the data and the research were impartially interpreted we would not be continuing to debate the evidence.
Enter contribution analysis as a means to generate the evidence to inform the narrative. Last month’s journal club gave way more on contribution analysis (thank you Sarah Morton) than this article does so look to last month for the detail.
However, be careful what you write for your contribution analysis informed narrative. The authors reference work stating the “European Commission standard approach to the preparation of a contribution story to involve a short summary of 300–500 words, and a ‘long’ text of 1000–2000 words and note ‘a contribution story, be it reduced to a few hundred words, is still too long for “speaking to power”.
The authors express dismay at policy makers’ inability to read a long narrative. Literally, they are shocked stating this is an “almost mind boggling attention deficit disorder on the part of ‘power’”.
I’m guessing neither of these authors is on twitter with its limits of 140 characters!
Let me reiterate this…they characterize policy makers as having an “almost mind boggling attention deficit disorder”. This is a primary role of knowledge mobilization: to present the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format to inform decisions. Policy makers are not academics. This essay illustrates the point above that these authors are neither impartial nor are they disinterested in their subject matter.
Concluding the paper the authors state that “the power of narrative is a fact. To fulfill its civic purpose, it is up to the academy to accept this and respond positively.”
Questions for brokers:

  1. What is your definition of a civic academy?
  2. The paper identifies three barriers to knowledge mobilization. Name some other barriers. Then discuss approaches to overcoming those barriers.
  3. The authors question contribution analysis stating, “with its emphasis on engaging stakeholders in the process of developing contribution stories in pursuit of buy-in and ownership, does it foster democratic accountability and transparency or could it just amplify the leverage of vested interests on policy options and outcomes?” What do you think?
  4. If narrative, informed by contribution analysis and stakeholder engagement, is an important element of knowledge mobilization supporting the civic academy, how might the academy accept this and respond positively?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.