Tag Archives: reflective_practice

Collaboration among diverse participants

“…the challenge of bringing into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and to the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.”

The quote comes from p.199 of my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement Chicago UP (2005). In this book, I argue (quoting here from my website homepage) “that both the situations studied and the social situation of the researchers can be characterized in terms of unruly complexity or ‘intersecting processes’ that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.”

The emphasis on “involv[ing] heterogeneous components” poses a challenge for such a process view of knowledge-making and reassessing, thus the question this session aims to address. The emphasis on “cut[ting] across scales” also sets up a tension that concerns me, namely, taking seriously the participation of diverse people whose livelihood is directly dependent on an ecosystem or city or…, and, at the same time, acknowledging researchers’ professional identities and abilities as people who can contribute analyses of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.

A 18 Feb. 2010 faculty seminar addressed these challenges through a post-it brainstorming and clustering (described elsewhere).   In brief, to generate ideas on post-its participants were asked to: “Imagine a project you’re working on or and endeavor you’d like to pursue. It’s 2-3 years in the future. You meet a friend and are telling them how wonderful it is that the project is managing to ‘bring… into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and [kept] them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.’ The friend asks what has contributed to making that possible.”  Each participant then grouped the post-its and named the resulting clusters, then grouped those clusters, etc.  This is my synthesis.

Later, I subject the clusters to back-of-the-envelope “interpretive structural modeling,” in which the cluster is lower in the diagram and linked to a cluster above it if the addressing or acknowledging the consideration reflected in the first cluster makes it easier to address the consideration reflected in the second cluster. The result is given in a prezi presentation, in which the clusters are also grouped within three frames as defined in the original synthesis, and these are grouped into one overall theme at the top.*

* This prezi can be viewed as a whole by zooming in or out using the + and – button. Or, by clicking the arrow you can trace the various pathways of the form addressing/acknowledging the lower consideration makes it easier to address the higher consideration. Or, by clicking the More button you can do this automatically and can see a full screen view.

It is interesting to note that addressing or acknowledging that “FEAR IS REAL, BUT WE HAVE HAD SECURE BASES” lies at the root. In the jargon of ISM, it is a deep driver. (Conversely, not taking time/space to address that makes it harder to make progress on the other concerns.)

Why emphasize collaboration in environmental research?

Since the 1990s collaboration has become a dominant concern in environmental planning and management (Margerum 2008), but the need to organize collaborative environmental research can be traced back at least as far as the tropical rainforest ecosystem projects led by H.T. Odum in the 1950s and 60s (Odum and Pigeon 1970).  This emphasis ran through the International Biological Program (1964-74) and the Long-Term Ecological Research projects that began in 1980.  Yet what exactly is it about developing environmental knowledge that calls for collaboration?  A number of different ways to think about collaboration in environmental research can be readily identified (Taylor 2001).  We divide this list into two categories: the first reflecting the simple idea that collaboration aims for a sum of multiple parts; the second, the hope that something greater than the sum of those parts will emerge through their interaction (Box 1).

Box 1. Why emphasize collaboration in environmental research?

A. Sum of the Parts

Combining multiple perspectives

• When research is tied together with planning and management that involves meetings and networks of representatives of established and emerging stakeholder groups, the knowledge and questions from the different groups and kinds of research needs to inform the research projects (Margerum 2008, Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000).

• When researchers are concerned about social justice, they can shape their inquiries through ongoing work with and empowerment of people whose lives stand to be most affected by some change in social policy or technological development, such as digging of deep wells for irrigation (Greenwood and Levin 1998).

• When the knowledge and research skills of more than one person/specialty are needed, multi-disciplinary research teams are established.

• When the labor of research, especially in data collection, is beyond any research group, amateurs—”citizen scientists”—can be sought as collaborators (Wikipedia n.d., Barrow 2000).

• Workshops and other organized multi-person collaborative processes in environmental research constitute a self-conscious example of what sociologists of science and technology have called “heterogeneous engineering” (i.e., the mobilization of a variety of resources by diverse agents spanning different realms of social action) (Taylor 2005, 93ff).

Extending over time

• The nature of environmental complexity means that ongoing assessment (as against a one-time analysis) is needed, so an ongoing organization or group is formed to conduct the assessment.  (The need for ongoing assessment is recognized in the field of Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management; Resilience Alliance n.d., Gunderson et al. 1995.)

Spanning distance

• Researchers in separate projects and disparate locations use the tools of eco-informatics to combine their data and thereby generate a larger picture (Halpern et al. 2008).

B. Greater than the Sum of the Parts (i.e., outcomes over and above A.)

Generating new perspectives

• Knowledge and further research questions can be generated that the collaborators (individually or in sum) did not have when they came in (Olsen and Eoyang, 2001).


• Guided by skillful facilitators, collaborators can become invested in the plans, policy, and ongoing collaborations that emerge from the research (Stanfield 2002, 17ff).

Developing capacities

• Collaborators develop skills and dispositions for collaboration in various settings, as warranted by the rise of citizen participation and of new institutions of “civil society” (Burbidge 1997, Taylor 2005, 204ff).

We have expressed the items in the second, “greater than the sum of the parts” category in more generic terms, but we see them as grounded in many of the more concrete objectives of the first category.  At the same time, we recognized that the objectives in the second category raised questions about the theory and practice of collaboration that need not be specific to environmental research:  Why do well-facilitated group processes result in collaborators’ investment in the product of the processes?  How can collaborators (or facilitators of collaboration) ensure that knowledge generated is greater than any single collaborator or sum of collaborators came in with?  How does a person become skilled and effective in contributing to such outcomes?

There is an obvious flip side to these questions.  What can we learn from interdisciplinary workshops and collaborations that fail, for the most part, to generate new knowledge and investment in the product; that do not enhance participants’ ability to contribute to effective collaborations in the future?  Each of us had seen time, energy, funds (and associated carbon footprint) poured into workshops in which the parts competed more than added up to any sum.  Where the pressure for products was allowed to squelch generative processes so that participants perpetuated familiar patterns of defending territory and speaking at cross-purposes.  Where we headed home without being enriched by perspectives and frameworks from other disciplines—and, in many cases, without any products emerging.  Yet, grouching about such frustrating experiences (which seem far from rare) is not productive; the question is how can we do better?

Current Direction of Inquiry: Becoming skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations

Let us pick up the last question that flowed from the “greater than the sum of the parts” objectives: How does a person become skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations?

Excerpt from “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop” (with S. Fifield and C. Young) Science as Culture, forthcoming.  (In the meantime, contact me if you want the references.)

Intersecting Processes, autobiographical note

As a student and environmental activist in the 1970s I developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity.

As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior.

See http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt and http://sicw.wikispaces.umb.edu for more detail.

Note: Blog posts will also address critical thinking and reflective practice in environment, biomedicine, and social change, but the picture of intersecting processes will usually be there in the background.