Unsettling knowledge and exploring co-production: my initial thoughts on joining Connected Communities


AmphitheatreI recently joined the Connected Communities Programme as a Research Assistant. I am working with Keri in the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University. This short piece is a way for me to try and unpack some of my initial thoughts about Connected Communities, knowledge, co-production and who/what universities are for – all issues I have skirted around in the past and am now being forced to confront head-on. The aim of my new role in the Connected Communities Programme is to produce a better understanding of the contribution that the Programme as a whole has made to the research landscape. An integral part of this will be to develop an informed and rigorous narrative which draws together projects right across the CC Programme under the rubric of co-production.

I recently completed my PhD in Human Geography and at the University of Birmingham. My doctoral research explored the role of Temporary Staffing Agencies (TSAs) in the local labour market and the impacts they have on people’s experiences of work. My concern and enthusiasm for understanding temporary employment along with the opportunities and risks it presents for workers and business was sparked by a short career in the recruitment industry.  As it turned out, the knowledge and experience I brought from working in recruitment was valuable and advantageous in my academic research, it added insight and authenticity to my research and ultimately to the field of literature. Why am I talking about this? Well, the Connected Communities Programme has, at its foundation, an appreciation for ‘different’ forms of knowledge and the question of how to make use of those knowledges in bettering the research we do.

The community partners that co-design, participate in and inform Connected Communities research bring with them experience and knowledge. Academics leading these projects have had to find innovative ways of utilising this knowledge and embedding it not only into the findings and outputs of the research but into the research design itself. This has brought to the fore questions about how research practically and conceptually handles different types of academic and non-academic knowledge.  As I begin to ask questions about what the Connected Communities Programme has brought to the research landscape I will consider whose voices, knowledge and expertise has been brought to light and integrated into the CC projects. Has the CC Programme challenged ‘whose knowledge counts’ in research and how we, in the academy, listen to and incorporate knowledge from outside our institutions into our empirical and theoretical understandings of the world; ultimately producing research not only about communities but with and for communities?

I have approached this deconstruction and reconstruction of knowledge though some suggested reading which includes Raewyn Connell’s work on Southern Theory, Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s book Another Knowledge is Possible, some of Olav Eikeland and Davydd Greenwood’s work on Aristotelian approaches to knowledge, Thomas Osbourn’s work on intellectuals as mediators and (yet to be tackled) Paulo Freire. I would be very happy to hear suggestions in this area of literature and look forward to reading broadly around theoretical approaches to knowledge, so all suggestions are welcome!

My second key area of reading and inquiry is ‘co-production’. The Connected Communities Programme is distinctive in its commitment to funding research that is conducted with, by and for communities. As such, the narrative which draws the CC projects together has co-production as its key unifying element. Again, I come to co-production with limited but helpful previous experience.

pic for CC fellows blogEarlier this year I spent four months working as a Research Assistant at the University of Birmingham on a project which critically examined the use of positive psychology in the workplace (see current work by Dr Jessica Pykett). As part of this I volunteered with Happy City; a charity in Bristol dedicated to bringing together community groups and individuals in different initiatives which promote wellbeing and human flourishing. My experience with Happy City was enlightening but also confusing in relation to the positive psychology research. I could see positive psychology being utilised in people’s everyday lives, it was helping lots of people and it was fun! Yet, much of the academic literature I was reading was highly critical of positive psychology. I developed a kind of theoretical critique but practical appreciation for this ‘science of happiness’. The research with Happy City forced me to think about why I was critiquing positive psychology (beyond the fact that I may get a journal paper out of it) and how this critique could be helpful to the people using the techniques it prescribes.

This experience encouraged me to ‘translate’ complicated academic critiques of positive psychology and talk about them with people at Happy City. It also made me think about how I could interpret the everyday experiences of people in Bristol, at the Harbourside Festival (which was the main event I helped organise with Happy City), in ways which could be incorporated into academic debate. For me, there was a tension in my own research experience around whose knowledge was ‘more valid’; was it the academic’s whose knowledge I ‘got’ second hand through papers, or was it the people’s I volunteered for, whose knowledge I ‘got’ first hand from face-to-face encounters. Could there perhaps be room for better validating and using both sets of knowledge if a research project was premised on a line of communication between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’ at the point of research design?

Co-production goes beyond gathering or collecting data from research participants and the distinct roles of the researcher/observer and researched/observed. Instead, it involves research partners at each stage of the research; in the identification of research questions/problems, designing methods, collecting data and analysing it and, perhaps most important, co-production aims to produce outputs which are useful and relevant to all partners involved. As part of my new role I intend to interrogate how co-production, as a key part of the Connected Communities Programme, has enhanced the research landscape.