Co-producing Political Philosophy and Social Theory with Grassroots Constituencies

Towards Emergence and Transformation

Dr Lara Montesinos Coleman
University of Sussex
Dr Alex Prichard
University of Exeter
RESIDENTIAL RESEARCH PROJECT: AUGUST 2017

Abstract

This research group aims to radically re-think the praxis of knowledge ‘co-production’ between scholars and ‘grassroots’ collectives of citizens and activists. We aim to provide a novel account of why philosophical/ theoretical innovation is vital in these settings and to challenge mainstream approaches to research ‘impact’ and the instrumentalisation of academic knowledge.

‘Co-production’ is research with, rather than about, research subjects and has become more popular in the context of HE ‘impact’ agendas. Conventionally understood, co-production produces tensions between the integrity and autonomy of researchers and the needs of research users (government/ community constituencies). Perhaps as a result, co-production has made minimal inroads into political philosophy and social theory. While political philosophers once held the image of the ‘citizen philosopher’ in high esteem, social and political theorists struggle to find the methods to cultivate and learn from the virtuous public life. By breaking down barriers between expertise and community knowledge production, coproduction has the potential to transform how scholars work with social justice movements to address real world problems. By reconnecting theorists and philosophers with grassroots constituencies, it has the potential to generate new opportunities for emergent becoming, challenging the instrumentalisation of knowledge production and impact.

This cross-disciplinary group will build on a one-and-a-half-day workshop at the University of Exeter in December 2016. Each participant has developed theoretically and methodologically innovative methods of coproduction with activist groups and communities across a variety of countries and context (see participants list). The group comprises scholars publishing in a variety of disciplines: geography, management studies, politics, international relations, international development and critical legal studies. The funding would allow us to mutually interrogate our insights via two academic journal articles. Building on this, we aim to develop a sustainable international network to support other scholars and activists in innovative methods of theoretical and philosophical co-production.

The Research Idea

Engaging publics in the co-production of meaningful political and social philosophy is a key challenge in an age of populist authoritarianism. The aim of this project will be to provide a normative framework and a practical set of methods for those wishing to use co-production as a method for political and philosophical research, that is for research whose primary outputs are likely to be theoretical.

We aim to show that co-production generates normative tensions which are both productive and fraught. At an initial planning workshop, the group has already set out a heuristic for considering co-production as set of intersecting practices that can be conceptualised across three axes (see appendix). Along one axis, co-production can be instrumentalised, with the aim of producing pre-determined goods and services, or – at the other end of the spectrum – it generates unpredictable and emergent outcomes, which themselves can have positive feedback on the process of co-production itself. Along a second axis, co-production ranges from being a method that can improve or reproduce existing practices and techniques, to being a process through which participants can bring about radical transformation for social justice. Finally, along a third axis, co-production can be more, or less, participatory, relying to different degrees upon the power of expertise. There is no way of determining the virtues of any one point on any of the three axes a priori. But we must theorise the tensions and opportunities in practical contexts in order to clarify these practices for future research.

Background

The concept of co-production has a long history and plural meanings, deployed in different academic contexts. While anthropologists and ethnographers lay claim to co-production through Participant Action Research, co-production in social policy also has a rich pedigree. Co-production is a complex of methods and approaches, which at their heart prioritise doing research ‘with’, rather than ‘about’ the subjects of research (Facer and Enright 2016). The state of the art in co-production tends to prioritise the participation of service users in public service design (Verschuere, Brandsen and Pestoff 2012). Attempts have also been made to theorise co-production from the perspective of radical philosophy (Durie and Wyatt 2013), where insights from complexity theory suggest non-linear processes of design and implementation might be fruitful. More needs to be done to understand how co-production can itself generate emancipatory praxis, and in particular how we can co-produce active and engaged citizen philosophers, those with the critical capacities to develop the virtues of the polis themselves. The ethical questions have been raised (Brydon-Miller 2008), but tend to focus on the ethics of co-production, rather than the cultivation of ethos through co-production. The methodological questions and insights are being explored in the context of political theory (see for example Coles 2016, Coleman 2015, Gordon 2006). Much more can be done to open up this line of praxis for others. To this end, our aim will be to develop a much-needed framework for conceptualising the ethics and methods of co-production in social and political theory and philosophy.

The Focus

There are two sorts of real-life problems addressed by this research group. On the one hand, we explore the problem of how to engage publics in the production of social and political philosophy, a vital challenge in an age of right-wing populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. Our experience is that activist groups campaigning for social justice often do produce philosophy that informs their practices, but this is often either done apologetically or the ideas become static and reified. Grassroots philosophy is rarely built upon, honed, interrogated and disseminated in ways that can inform wider processes of community organising and social critique, let alone academic political philosophy.

To this end, we will address important questions about the trend toward the instrumentalisation of academic knowledge, the separation between academic and community knowledge production, and about the normative and political limits of collaborations with non-academic partners. How communities and academics ought to interact is a normative question without a clear answer, less still is it clear how those relationships might produce mutual critique and mutually emancipatory outcomes (see Coleman 2015). Our framework for thinking about co-production will demonstrate the value of bringing community engagement to cross-disciplinary encounters of social and political theory and philosophy. The workshop will also provide an opportunity for participants to reflect critically on their own research practices and normative assumptions and use that critical reflection to inform ongoing debates in political science and philosophy. In the context of impact and user-facing research this is vital work in uncharted territory.

Theoretical Novelty

This research aims at conceptual innovation regarding the role of theory and philosophy in emancipatory social change. Traditionally, social research is thought of in terms of a series of steps from theory, to methodology to method, with ethical and ontological questions largely resolved at the first stage. It is rare that social and political philosophy develops out of engagement with user communities. While there is some attempt to do this in political theory (Coles 2017), and attempts have been made to bring high theory to public policy (Durie and Wyatt 2013), there has been little effort to theorise a way to practice political philosophy from below (exceptions include Gordon 2006). This project will bring theoretical and methodological novelty to this area, setting out why this is such a vital task today.

We will provide a novel theorisation of co-production as a heterogeneous assemblage of practices, publics and materials, constituted through the pulls of opposing ‘gravities’, or the instrumental requirements and political commitments of participants, the resources available, the nature of the communities involved. We aim at an account of co-production that is emergent and transformative, a process of knowledge production that opens up possibilities of personal and collective transformation. This is not always possible, but our research will map precisely when it is. This research will have considerable intellectual benefits for researchers in the disciplines of politics and IR and will deepen connections between traditions of activism, militant research and political philosophy.

Methodology

Participants draw upon a range of different disciplines, as noted above. Our work is inter-disciplinary (even anti-disciplinary) because of how it has emerged from within research constituencies. Disciplinary frameworks too often limit the sorts of questions that can be asked and the sorts of issues that are visible when grappling with real-life problems and struggles ‘on the ground’. Our concepts emerge directly from longstanding process of engagement with diverse constituencies, from UK anarchist communities (Prichard, Swann, Milburn) peasant movements in Colombia (Coleman), anti-mining activists in South Africa (Gradin), Israeli anarchists (Gordon), anti-arms trade activists (Rossdale), to liaising with hard to reach communities for the police force (Durie, Willett). The work that will inform this project is already methodologically innovative and several of us have already begun to theorise this as it relates to our own research practice (e.g. Rossdale 2013; Coleman and Hughes 2014, Coleman 2015; Gradin 2017).

Our primary method for working together will be collaborative writing. Collaborative writing is uncommon in the social sciences. Methods of assessing ‘research excellence’ incentivise academics to work primarily alone or in pairs. We will counter that trend by combining our varied backgrounds into two coauthored papers: on the ethics of coproduction, and on the methods of transformative co-production. Underway since December 2016, this funding will enable us to build on these collaborative methods developing in our individual work, to reflect on our own practices in order to inform future research methods.

Work Plan

This funding would enable the group to gather in order to produce two collectively-authored journal articles, which have already been mapped out. Our working method draws on participants’ extensive experience of collaborative research and writing, combining more formal workshop-style presentation of research, with informal exchange of ideas.

Day 1 (evening only). Participants arrive and exchange ideas informally over food and drinks.

Day 2. Research café, with three sets of themed sessions, in which participants share experiences of co-production and resulting insights, in direct relation to themes already defined for the papers. In the evening, Prof Rom Coles, Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University, joins via Skype for discussion.

Day 3. Participants spend day reading, discussing and revising initial notes with section co-authors (already allocated at planning workshop). Much of this will take place out of doors, in twos and threes. At 4pm, reconvene for feedback session, run by experienced facilitators within the group, to develop structure and flow of papers. Followed by Skype discussion with Colombian trade unionist Gilberto Torres, who was kidnapped and tortured by paramilitaries linked to BP, about his own experience of co-producing political philosophy with academics at Sussex.

Days 4 and 5. Participants break out into their respective teams, each taking on different sections of two papers and working on them in a variety of different indoor and outdoor settings. Each day ends with report back and evaluation, with clear agenda set for the next day.

Day 6. Full day collectively editing both papers.

Outcome

As immediate outputs of this residential period, we aim to produce two articles for submission to discipline leading journals, such as Theory and Event and Political Studies. These will be disseminated via a variety of formats, for example short interventions on well-known academic blogs (e.g. Critical Legal Thinking, e-IR, The Disorder of Things) and periodicals (the co-applicants have already been invited to contribute a short piece to Radical Philosophy on this theme).

Our aim is to use the relationships cemented over this extended period of collaboration, and subsequently the dissemination of our research to establish a durable research network that can support emergent and transformative co-production internationally. While participants are deliberately drawn from UK institutions, in order to enable closer, embodied, working connections, our research takes us across the world and involves collaboration with scholars and activists in universities internationally, many of whom are facing similar pressures with regard to the instrumentalisation of knowledge. Long term, we plan to seek funding for a sustainable international network that can share experiences of coproduction for social change, undertake professional development activities, and support early career researchers and those new to innovative methods of theoretical and philosophical co-production.

  • Lara Montesinos Coleman, Senior Lecturer, International Relations/Critical Legal Studies/Political Philosophy, University of Sussex
  • Robin Durie, Senior Lecturer, Politics/Philosophy/Public Health, University of Exeter.
  • Nathan Eisenstadt, Human Geography, Research Associate in the School of Social Policy, University of Bristol.
  • Uri Gordon, Lecturer, Environmental Politics and Social Movements, University of Nottingham.
  • Sofa Gradin, Lecturer, International Political Economy, Queen Mary, University of London.
  • Keir Milburn, Lecturer, School of Management, University of Leicester.
  • Alex Prichard, Senior Lecturer, International Relations/International Political Theory, University of Exeter.
  • Chris Rossdale, Fellow, International Relations/Social Movements, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Thomas Swann, Research Associate, Organization Studies, Loughborough University.
  • Joanie Willett, Lecturer, Politics/Political Philosophy, University of Exeter, Falmouth.