My role as a researcher

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I’m now officially four days into the induction programme for my Professional Doctorate in Public Health at the University of Lancaster.  We’ve got some on-line induction activities to do – then in a couple of weeks is the summer residential academy.  I’m looking forward to meeting my fellow students for ‘real’ beyond the on-line networking we’ve started.

But today yet again, I found myself inquiring into the relationship between ‘doing my job’, ‘doing research’, ‘producing knowledge’ and what these things mean with respect to the relationship with my colleagues and others who will become ‘participants’ in my research.

I know I’ve been here before – most recently in If research is the answer, what is the question? and Knowledge to action (or theories in practice) – but it also touches on issues way back, such as Insights into research from Schein and So I hope you got what you wanted

But the latest push into thinking about it came from a new journal article by Turnhout et al. (2013).

Turnhout et al highlight that the growing recognition of ‘complex issues’ facing society has led to reflections on the need for science to have a new role in society.  This is being interpreted in different ways and has led to different ways of conceptualising the relationship between the scientist (researcher), the ‘knowledge users’, and the way that ‘science’ is done.

They offer up different roles of science along a ‘spectrum’ with limited interaction between knowledge producers and users at one end and intensive interaction at the other.  At the limited interaction end of the spectrum is the notion of ‘pure scientist’ – the objective scientist developing facts that inform decision making. Here, interaction with knowledge users can actually be seen as ‘harmful’ to objectivity.  At the intensive end of the spectrum are ‘participatory knowledge producers’ – it is not just that there is intensive interaction, in reality the roles of knowledge producers and knowledge users become completely blurred.

The choice you make about the role of science and the nature of the research you do affects your views about the ‘knowledge brokering’ task – this may be a third person or even another organisation in the dynamic with a role of making sure the knowledge produced gets turned into knowledge in use.

The primary research carried out by Turnhout et al led to them identifying three repertoires of knowledge brokering activity – any individual may well adopt each of these repertoires depending on the nature of the task.  The three repertoires are:

  • supplying – finding out what questions the knowledge users have and supplying them with answers,  The knowledge user is perceived to be in an information-deficit, that must be filled through effective communication of the facts generated by the scientist.  This is quite a linear model – sciences produces knowledge, society uses it.
  • bridging – mediation and translation between the knowledge producers and knowledge users
  • facilitating – bringing together knowledge production and use into one process.  This is no longer ‘bridging’ but blurring and requires facilitation of participation.  Values the knowledge held by everyone.

Turnhout et al’s research was with the ‘third-person’ intermediaries – but it strikes me that researchers themselves can take on these different repertoires.  A participatory, facilitated research process where everyone is ‘inquiring’ may also require a bit of ‘supply’ and ‘bridging’ – but this can be the offer of all involved not just the ‘scientist’.  In effect the research process can aim to be emancipatory.

I always recall Law and Urry (2004)’s emphasis that social science isn’t neutral – it doesn’t just describe the world because in describing it it influences what the world is.  That means that the way science is done matters as much as what is ‘produced’.  As a researcher I need to understand that I am ‘intervening’ – even an interview or a focus group or an action-learning session – can lead to ripples of change, especially if these have created the conditions where the participants themselves are actively inquiring.  Ethics of science is more than just consent forms – it is taking responsibility for the changes your ‘intervention’ may have.


Turnhout, Esther, Stuiver, Marian, Klostermann, Judith, Harms, Bette and Leeuwis, Cees (2013) ‘New roles of science in society: Different repertoires of knowledge brokering’, Science and Public Policy, 40(3), pp. 354–365.

Law, John and Urry, John (2004) ‘Enacting the social’, Economy and Society, 33(3), pp. 390–410.

2 thoughts on “My role as a researcher

  1. note to self!
    beginning to think of my identity as a researcher as someone who stimulates and facilitates the production of knowledge for use by society. That fits with the way I’d like to see it.

  2. Pingback: Just Practicing − More on ‘minding the gap’ – or preventing the gap in the first place

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