There is a significant research challenge in finding out how economic and political shifts are being played out in real time. For example - do we know how those in the ‘front line’ of public service, voluntary and community based organisations are coping with austerity: what kinds of decisions they are faced with, what judgements they are making and how they themselves are coping with the pressures and strains.
There is lots of anecdotal evidence, of course. And it would not be too difficult to conduct research after the event, looking at how resource flows have changed, what organisations have survived and what closed down, and what publics have experienced most hardship as a result.
But such post hoc research does little to contribute to the political and theoretical challenges of the present. What is needed, perhaps, is a form of participatory research that helps foster new kinds of dialogue in order to support and engage those directly involved: that is, for any research that seeks to make positive interventions as well as produce ‘objective’ data. Two recent studies offer different approaches to this.
I was directly involved in the first. This was an indirect result of a three-year study of women who had brought political commitments into their working lives (J. Newman, Working the spaces of power: activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour, Bloomsbury 2012). This research was informed by an explicitly feminist perspective, and many of the people I interviewed had been involved in developing new forms of participatory practice in the organisations or communities they worked for.
The research was completed while the financial crisis was just starting to have an impact on those I interviewed, and I very much wanted to keep the conversations going. The result was the formation of a Feminist Policy, Politics and Practice Forum, convened jointly with Sasha Roseneil at Birkbeck College. The three conversations we had within the forum about the impact of austerity (and other topics) linked personal experience, policy analysis and theoretical insights in a thoroughly engaging way. It also generated new links and alliances among participants: a public of feminist oriented activist/practitioners.
While this could by no mean be considered a ‘scientific’ research project, I drew on some of the insights in a recent paper on creative responses to austerity (J. Newman, 2013: ‘Performing new worlds: politics, policy and creative labour in hard times’. Policy and Politics 41, 4: 515-532).
A rather different study focuses on the impact of cuts and austerity on local governance (V. Lowndes and S.Squires, 2012 ‘Cuts, collaboration and creativity”. Public Money and Management 32, 401-08) The research process here was informal and dialogic, bringing service managers, front line staff and partner agencies together in a series of discussions. Its significance is that it did not only report on what was happening, but also helped shape new relationships and insights that, in turn, informed practice. It was collaborative, in that it brought together people who might not have otherwise met, and participatory, in that researchers and research participants collaborated in the formation of new insights about the effects of austerity. And the research itself perhaps helped to constitute creative public responses to adversity.
These two projects, then, have some similarities in their styles of public engagement: informal, dialogic, and emergent (in that they did not start out with a predefined ‘sample’ nor a predefined set of ‘research questions’). Such forms of research do not present us with scientific results. They do help to refine the questions that might inform future research, as well as generating a conceptual vocabulary (for example ‘creative labour’ and ‘institutional resilience’). But more importantly, each demonstrates the process of public-making through publicly engaged research.
This is very different from the pressures in Higher Education to demonstrate ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’ through research outcomes. The research I have described here is a collaborative and emergent process. And the projects – one explicitly, the second implicitly – draw on feminist research methods and agendas. As public engagement becomes more oriented towards collaboration (in terms of methods) and co-production (in generating outcomes), and more concerned with the affective and relational dimensions of the topics studied, such methods and agendas have much to offer.
This is not of course unique: the initiatives gathered as part of the ‘Participation now’ project at the Open University show a number of different approaches to collaborative research. For example the ‘Productive Margins: regulation for engagement’ research works with communities to ‘coproduce new forms of engagement and decision-making’. Such approaches have an oblique relationship to the current pressures in HE to demonstrate ‘impact’ as an end result of research. In both of the projects I described earlier, the research is collaborate and emergent; impact is through process rather than end result. And they both – one explicitly, the second implicitly – draw on feminist research methods and agendas. As public engagement becomes more oriented towards collaboration (in terms of methods) and co-production (in generating outcomes), and more concerned with the affective and relational dimensions of the topics studied, so such methods and agendas have much to offer.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.