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16 / 03 / 2016

There is some discomfort, but you can do it

Author: Ilona Kunda

You have a project event where you have to engage with farmers or rural consultants or rural entrepreneurs. You know what these people do – they feed you and preserve your environment and keep alive the countryside and your cultural heritage. The thing is, they do not quite understand what it is that YOU do, but they are polite and someone they trust has asked them to spare a couple of hours to come to your event.

You don’t want to waste their time; they do not want it either. Yet to achieve the promised goals of the project you must find ways to engage with these practical, non-nonsense people. Maybe you are typecasting them a bit,  and maybe they are even quite open to what you have to say. However it is not easy at all, bridging the gap which might not be there, but probably is: you are a researcher, interested in concepts, models, typologies...while the people you need to engage with are interested in the tangible, specific and often only tacitly known realities of their work. How can you be of benefit to them? How do you build the bridge from scientists to practitioners?

For many decades, you did not really need to. You observed “them”  and asked “them” the questions you needed to, and there was little assumption of unravelling issues together, especially if they are not related to technologies or yields, but to the “soft”  aspects of rural life: knowledge flows, values, unique clusters and dilemmas of meaning around specific activities. They talked, you interpreted. Now you have to translate yourself for them, because we have all realised there is no other way to make your work matter to “them”, at least somewhat.

You can never hope to know about technologies and yields and drainage systems as much as they do. You are a social scientists, you deal in other issues, which you take for granted so much that attempting to translate them really bothers you. An uncomfortable experience. And you are used to feeling comfortable and competent.

What happens, then? You try to win their trust, and show that you are useful, to the best of your understanding and resources. If it is an organised group, say, a cooperative, you can engage in simple forms of barter: bring them a needed expert or take them as a group to see something relevant for their experience (e.g. a new technology), and listen and engage during the trip to understand why this is important. After some time you may be able to provide some bit of feedback on how you see their interactions – there will be a couple of reflection-prone individuals (or perhaps leaders) who will be interested.

You can go one step further, make it possible for your informants (to some extent you can call them partners now, right?) to access some broader networks that they are interested in, and spend lots of time with them while they are developing something new in their practice – again, to understand their perspective and provide an outsider view of their strengths. For image-conscious entrepreneurs it may turn out to be an appreciated part of collaboration. They can now emphasise some aspects of their activity which they could not have appreciated from the inside – a contribution to the community life or a broader social issue, perhaps. In my experience, this was indeed the closest I came to bridging research and practice, as the project partner had the openness and the curiosity and a certain opportunity-space to reflect on their practices jointly.

Indeed, space may be another valuable aspect. Perhaps the scientist-practitioner interaction is not only the story of translating yourself or translating yours partners for themselves, but also the story of appreciating the non-partisan space between the many actors usually involved in any single issue. As researchers, you have no economic or political stake in things definitely going one way or another (buying a piece of equipment, adopting a practice, etc.), you need to explore and understand.

Indeed, sometimes it is the best thing you can offer – a quiet, no-man’s-land setting for debating controversial or emergent issues with multiple stakeholders. And you do not necessarily do this only by talking in turns – you can utilise any number of quite sophisticated interactive techniques to identify, rank, sort, prioritise, back-cast, negotiate. On an additional plus side, the coloured papers and markers and post-its provide the set-up of an innocent, almost child-like activity...except it is not, and the results may eventually concern hundreds of thousands of stakeholders.

So yes, maybe we have more to offer than we sometimes realise. Just have to refine the translation and space-making skills which no-one had taught us at University.