Having to put on a protective suit to meet up with potential new research partners doesn’t seem to bode at all well, but it was what myself and a team of other researchers found ourselves doing in May last year, as part of a Connected Communities project that focused on co-designed research. This particular workshop explored the possibility of doing participatory action research with bees, but over the course of the year we pretended to be dogs and underwent clicker training, we went wild swimming and also talked to trees. Our aim was to test out a variety of co-design methods to see what happened when you tried to extend them to include non- humans.
Although this all might sound more than a little strange, the project asked some very serious questions. In a context of mass species extinction, extensive habitat loss, climate change and resource depletion, how might our current research paradigms be failing us and how might they be transformed? In particular how might we remake our research practices so that they can move beyond a narrow focus on the human and start to help us find ways of living sustainably within more-than-human communities?
This interest in challenging the traditional divide between humans and non-humans has already created a push to develop methods that can work with the distributed knowledges, experiences and values found in multi-species worlds. These include, for example, work around etho-ethnology and ethno-ethology (Lestel et al. 2006), multi-species ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010) and zoömusicology (Taylor 2013).
Importantly, participatory research has a long history of grappling with problems of who is thought ‘to know’ within the research process. Its various manifestations have challenged what kinds of knowledge are seen to be legitimate, while also paying close attention to the stubborn inequalities that affect the contexts within which knowledge is created. Both of these problems are of key importance when trying to engage with non-humans in new ways. As a result, our project sought to bring these two areas of research into discussion to see what each might learn from the other.
We found that an engagement with the controversies and debates within PR offer an important opportunity for those developing more-than-human methodologies to reflect on their practices in complex and sophisticated ways. In particular, questions around power, the space within which participation takes place and the scale of different partner’s participation were persistent problems that we came up against. For example, what did it mean when the service dogs we were working with spent most of their time outside in a van? Did we have to read this as exclusion or was this being attentive to their needs for a familiar space and time to rest from work? How far could our experiences travel? Would what we learnt floating in the river translate into other spaces and continue the water’s participation? If a dog helped to select a design prototype that it preferred, would this count as a participatory evaluation? Indeed how much participation is enough to count as ‘Participation’?
But we also found that much of our work produced intense friction between the ways of knowing that we were trying to bring into conversation. Consent and privacy (often anonymity) are core to many PR guidelines, but what would this mean to a bee? Could a body of water help to disseminate research findings? Even the difficulties of designing the workshops themselves showed how little we have to go on when trying to do this kind of research. New languages, methods and modes of embodied enquiry are needed, but perhaps it is only by starting to ask these uncanny questions that a space will open up for them and allow them to come into being.
In conversation with…:co-designing with more-than-human communities is a Connected Communities project funded by the AHRC, and is led by Dr Michelle Bastian, Chancellor’s Fellow, Edinburgh College of Art