Being NEAR and FAR: The role of a formative accompanying researcher in the Leverage Points team

Rebecca Freeth

When people ask me what my role is in the Leverage Points project, I tend to take a deep breath before embarking on an explanation. I start with what I’m not doing; I’m not looking at the content of sustainability transitions or the mechanisms of leverage points; I’m not studying food or energy systems in Lower Saxony or Transylvania as my colleagues are.  Actually, I hasten to add, I am deeply interested in all these things.  But I’ve travelled from Cape Town to Lüneburg to study the Leverage Points team itself, to learn about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research from the inside (well, from the boundary, with one foot in and one foot out, but that’s for another blog post) and to engender learning within the team itself.   So that we all end up a bit wiser about the how-to of research collaboration across disciplines or, to borrow Ulrike Felt’s evocative term, different “epistemic living spaces” (2009).  To my surprise, most people I explain this to get it first time: “Oh, yes, that makes sense. Collaborative research can get pretty complicated at times.”  And then their expressions cloud a little: “Ooh, that must be pretty uncomfortable for the team, to be your research subjects.”

This job is called Formative Accompanying Research.  FAR.  I have a vivid memory of watching an episode of Sesame Street as a child, in which Oscar the Grouch runs towards the TV screen, until it is filled with his furry face, saying: “This is NEAR” and then runs, puffing hard, into the far distance, until a little speck shouts, “This is FAR”.  Again and again and again – which was endlessly entertaining for children like me.

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Yes, it may be uncomfortable for the team, and for me, at times.  And I could end up doing a lot of running between being close-up and further away, to get perspective.  But the intention is both simple and positive, as articulated in the Leverage Points project description: To gain insights into the research process and keep looping these back into the project to the benefit of the Leverage Points team, and to the benefit of inter- and transdisciplinary methodological development more broadly.

If I think about each of the three words in the job of formative accompanying research, the ‘how’ of this task also becomes a little clearer.

Formative, for me, is the opposite of summative.  Instead of an outsider conducting an evaluation at the end of Leverage Points and pointing out to everyone what went well and what didn’t and what we could have done differently if only we’d known better, this is about learning in situ, and as close to real-time as is feasible.  The advantage is that we can gain insights and course-correct as we go.

In music, accompaniment involves providing the harmonic background or rhythmic structure for a lead singer or musicians.  A good musical accompanier takes their cue from the lead performers and makes sure they are not themselves too loud or too obvious.  This idea strongly appeals to me; I see my task as not being in the foreground, but to get the beat of the Leverage Points project (see principle 1 at the end of this piece) and help create some of the conditions that allow us to notice when we are out of synch, to pause, hopefully laugh a little at ourselves, learn something from the experience and then pick up the harmony again.

Lastly, that little word research. I’m drawn to the characteristically contentious differentiation Bruno Latour made between “science” and “research”.  Referring to science as if it was dead and buried, he wrote, “While Science had certainty, coldness, aloofness, objectivity, distance and necessity, Research appears to have all the opposite characteristics: it is uncertain; open-ended; immersed in many lowly problems of money, instruments, and know-how …”.  (1999:20).  Although the Leverage Points project is located in the field of Sustainability Science – which, it must be said, has done a lot towards resuscitating science since Latour wrote these words – the particular role of formative accompanying research will require some tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity for all of us, especially in these early months while we are still finding our rhythm.

So, the intention is not to subject the team to great discomfort.  And where I get it ‘wrong’ as a researcher – such as overstepping boundaries, or missing the beat – this will hopefully sensitize all of us to both roles: Being a researcher and being on the ‘other side’ – being researched.

Given that Leverage Points owes its name and much of its conceptual framing to Donella Meadows, I have returned to her for some guiding principles.  She was, by all accounts, not only an incisive thinker, but also a wise, humorous and often kind human being.  Her way of being is already instructive to me.  Donella’s book “Thinking in Systems: A primer”, published posthumously, concludes with 15 principles or “systems wisdoms” for “living successfully in a world of systems” (2008:170).  I concur with most of them, but my current Top Six, which I will try to apply to my practice of formative accompanying research with the Leverage Points system, are:

  1. Get the beat of the system before intervening (as described above);
  2. Use concrete, truthful and rich language, “enriched with systems concepts”;
  3. Enhance whole system properties, such as growth, stability and resilience;
  4. Respect and distribute information, to strengthen feedback loops;
  5. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable; and
  6. Offer both a critical and an appreciative lens so as not to “weight the bad news more heavily than the good” (2008:185). I believe we learn best under conditions that feel safe-enough for each of us – knowing we all have different safety thresholds – but not so comfortable that we fall asleep in them.

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Some of these principles come fairly automatically to me after nearly 20 years of working with organisational teams and inter-organisational collaborations, and some will stretch me considerably over the next three years.

Watch this space.

References

Felt, U. 2009 (Ed.). Knowing and Living in Academic Research: Convergence and heterogeneity in research cultures in the European context. Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Latour, B. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 Meadows, D. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A primer. Wright, D (Ed.). Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

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