Take-aways from our panel: Opportunities and hurdles for an inclusive approach to Citizen Social Science

Take-aways from our panel: Opportunities and hurdles for an inclusive approach to Citizen Social Science

Kersti Ruth Wissenbach

On October 18 to 20 CoAct organised its Final Event Week. These three days full of activities were not meant to close the curtain though. Rather did we wish to take a moment to look back, reflect, discuss, and to look ahead.

GIG organised a panel discussion on October 18 titled ´Opportunities and hurdles for an inclusive approach to Citizen Social Science – Critical reflections on 3 years of learning´.

As GIG, we particularly focused on advocating for an inclusive and diverse approach to Citizen Social Science throughout the CoAct project. Given that, for us, the essence of participatory work lies in enabling inclusive engagement of all groups that are part of, or affected by, a social change process, we wanted to dedicate one of the final events to related learnings that can be drawn from three years CoAct. We organised a panel discussion, asking

What can we hold up to if we perceive Citizen Social Science as a combination of equal collaboration between citizen groups?

CoAct had the opportunity to explore the possibilities and challenges of participatory research across various thematic lenses and socio-political contexts. This allowed us to reflect upon this overarching question by posing a set of smaller questions to our coalition partners:

  • How far can we talk about citizen driven research when it is rooted in academia?
  • How do civil society organisations benefit from participatory research in their programmatic work, and do they need academia for it?
  • How can CSS enrich multi-perspective an inclusive policy making?

Prior to the event we sat together and reflected upon the key learning areas that emerged throughout the collaborative research processes. They could be bundled in two key topics:

Topic 1: The need for more flexibility in participatory research processes

Topic 2: The need to build from local experience in participatory research

Our coalition partners brought their key learnings for each of the topics into the panel discussions. They shared what their experiences were and how they eventually had to adapt their Research and Innovation Activities (R&I Actions) and processes, as they learned along the way. We invited high level expert respondents from policy and civil society to provide their direct feedback. Find out more about our coalition members and the expert respondents here.

You can find a brief summary below but don´t miss to watch the full recording here.

Main take aways topic 1 – Flexibility

Our coalition partners ran into various circumstances that forced them to adjust their pre-planned methods or processes to local conditions. This ranged from adjusting to the times and agendas of co-researchers or collaborating institutions, to acknowledging that the research process is not the priority for people they wanted to engage.

An example provided by our partners from the University of Vienna, who had worked with unemployed youth, was that young people were withdrawn from the running R&I process by their social workers as they had found internship or job deployment opportunities. These types of examples helped to understand that these priorities were not only to be considered but given the nature of the project, should also be proactively supported.

In the case of our R&I Action in Barcelona, working with persons with mental health challenges, the research team even developed a new research tool on the go, a major step in terms of flexibility. A paper-based research diary proofed to be of major value to the people they worked with and demonstrated that the solutions are not always to be found in the latest digital possibilities. Flexibility also related to the diversity of people within co-researcher groups. Diversity is of central importance but also implies a wide range of needs in order to enable everyone to participate based on their contexts etc.

In the case of our R&I Action working on environmental justice in Buenos Aires expectations of co-researchers also let the CoAct team to adjust. Working with active civil society group has shown that they do have their own expectations on what is important in such a process. And this is something a CSS research process needs to be responsive to. In their case, activists expected the R&I Action to be connected to classroom education. As a new law on environmental education had just been implemented it was a major opportunity to link to.

Main take aways topic 2 – build from local experience

Our research team gained valuable experiences as to what building on local experiences requires. This is especially the case when it comes to very individual experiences and needs to be accounted for in a research design.

Our research team working with unemployed youth in Vienna, Austria for instance experienced how very individual challenges for youth to get into employment is largely generalised in existing support mechanisms, such as language courses or skills training, thus ignoring underlying issues of social inequalities. CSS identifies and integrates these challenges, and its participatory methods allow to embed these personal experiences and stories in a wider societal discourse. CSS research can also facilitate through the provision of neutral spaces to bring e.g. policy makers and civil society groups together.  

Valeria from our Argentinian R&I Action highlighted that, for them, CSS demands to build from collective experiences. Creating synergies between different actors working on a topic is therefore a crucial step within each CSS process, her team found. In their case it has also shown that policy makers got especially interested and engaged due to the research groups capacity to bring different civil society groups to the table and offer an opportunity to directly build on local knowledge, also in policy processes.

Take aways and feedback from our invited experts

In response to both topics, our invited experts from civil society and policy highlighted various key aspects.

As Gilberto highlighted, we need to relentlessly put one question above all, when engaging civil society groups in academic based research. This is, what is in it for them and how can we ensure that what comes out of it truly links back to improving what was at stake. He also stressed the need to critically reflect on the framing of flexibility, as long as we are operating in dominant scientific environments. To date, engaging civil societies, or co-researchers, must adapt to the hegemonic system by default. Therefore, flexibility should ideally reach a state close to actual change or transformation of existing methodologies and processes. This relates to knowledge production as much as knowledge distribution. Open and accessible spaces are needed.  

Linda also highlighted that, especially reflecting on African contexts, research funding oftentimes comes from external institutions which do not understand local contexts. High quality research exists but remains oftentimes disconnected to directly address local needs.

CSS certainly moves into a good direction to address this remaining challenge. Julia stressed that from a policy perspective, at least what concerns her experiences in the Barcelona context, CSS stems the potential to play a strong role in closing the remaining challenges to identify real problems on the ground. Public administration needs more and better data and, oftentimes simple tools to enable direct dialogue between policy makers and citizens can be of crucial benefit.

Directly related to this is the necessity to recognise and acknowledge the knowledge that already exists within communities. Civil society groups have always been organised by the production of knowledge. This should be a stronger point of departure, stressed Gilberto, given that citizen groups working on certain issues have a lot that researchers can learn from and adapt in their processes.

Bottom-line, CSS can create new spaces of knowledge, but they have to really trust on the knowledge and spaces of knowledge they are working with. This also means that CSS researchers should seek feedback from the civil society groups they engage with on their activities, not reversely.

However, as our experts did not miss to highlight, power dynamics are real and will remain. We need to be clear about the fact that CSS research as it is set up will never be a neutral space.

Our experts also had some very valuable advice in regards to timing and engagement steps. Linda, responding to the learnings from the Argentinian R&I Action, stressed that aligning CSS research processes with actual policy making cycles and the respective agenda setting moments can be a crucial aspect in order to stem a realistic chance to truly inform policy making. This, as she emphasised, also relates to understanding to whom policy makers do listen and make sure to frame CSS actions accordingly.

Overall, as Julia from the perspective of Barcelona city administration suggested, CSS processes are well positioned to catch the attention of policy makers when truly succeeding in providing inclusive perspectives on certain thematic areas, as this is most difficult for policy actors to achieve.

This brings us straight back to the crucial learnings to improve relevant and civil society needs and interest driven engagement into CSS processes. All the aspects we have learned along the way of three years R&I actions, on how more flexibility and a stronger attention to truly depart from actual needs and agendas on the ground are required, are therefore intrinsically foundational for CSS to succeed in transforming local needs into concrete change, on the ground and on policy agendas.