Rethinking research partnerships: evidence and the politics of participation in research partnerships for international development

Rethinking research partnerships: evidence and the politics of participation in research partnerships for international development

Fransman, J. and Newman, K. (2019) Rethinking research partnerships: evidence and the politics of participation in research partnerships for international development. J. Int’l Dev. 31: 523-544.

Abstract: This article responds to the drive for research partnerships between academics and practitioners, arguing that while potential benefits are clear, these are frequently not actualized resulting in partnerships that are ineffectual or worse, exacerbate damaging or inequitable assumptions and practices. In order to understand/improve partnerships, a systematic analysis of the interrelationship between what counts as evidence and dynamics of participation is proposed. Drawing on data from a seminar series and iterative analysis of seven case studies of partnerships between Higher Education Institutions and International Non-Governmental Organisations, the article concludes by suggesting substantial shifts in the theory and practice of partnerships. 

This article is a reflection on components of partnerships between researchers and international development agencies all using UK examples: power, evidence, institutional context, practices, research/partner identities, research outputs (“artefacts”) and narratives (“accounts”). The basic structure of the article is a matrix of five levels of analysis

  • Research institutions 
  • Research practices 
  • Research identities 
  • Research artifacts 
  • Research accounts 

Against four dimensions 

  • Evidence contexts 
  • Research purposes 
  • Power within partnerships 
  • Change through partnerships 

The four tables (one for each dimension) describing the five levels do a good job of providing detail of the analysis. 

Ignore the heuristic framework. It just takes the four dimensions and puts them in a circle. I don’t know what it adds. 

Some things in the article that are slipped in briefly but that I think could do with some more reflection: 

  1. the broader social benefits of partnerships might include a shared commitment to responsive research that balances rigour and relevance, promoting ‘engaged excellence’” 
    • Partnerships need to strike a balance between rigour and relevance. The assumption here is that academics bring rigour and NGOs bring relevance but that sets up a (artificial?) dichotomy for which the aforementioned balance is required. 
  2. Institutional agendas around securing impact, obtaining funding and scoring highly in the research excellence framework were often at odds with the interests and values of individuals
    • This shows that there are not only tensions in the partnership but tensions between the academic and their institution. Why do the additional work for social change when you need to publish it in a top tier journal, so your institution can get more funding? 
  3. Power can vest with the academic or with the NGO especially if the NGO is funding the research.  
    • But the article points out that money isn’t the only medium of power. 
  4. The participants therefore found it helpful to distinguish between productive’ and problematic’ tensions. While productive tensions may not be resolvable, they can often set conditions for creative emergence and trigger critical thinking and action
    • The article provides a couple of examples where partnerships ended because of problematic tensions 
  5. trust is key as well as creating spaces for listening, reflecting and imagining. 
    • This isn’t new to the literature, but it does underpin the critical role of trust in helping to navigate the productive and problematic tensions. 

Then there is this: While all the case studies sought impact in the world beyond the partnerships, change was also identified within the partnerships. This included changes in individuals through the development of new skills, languages, sensibilities and confidence and through changes in role or occupation. Some impacts of research partnerships arise as a function of participation in the partnership itself. Changes in participants’ beliefs, attitudes etc can occur before any research outputs are published and presented to practitioners or policy makers. These more proximal impacts can be felt throughout the research process, you don’t have to wait years for distal societal impact to be manifested.   

Questions for brokers: 

  1. Engaged excellence – this is a cool term. Discuss and unpack what is meant by engaged and excellence. 
  2. How have you managed to navigate through problematic and productive tensions? 
  3. WTF is a heuristic framework and what does it add? 

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create online 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.