From small ‘r’ research to big ‘R’ research (and back again?)

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In his discussion of an ‘idealised’ Systems Thinking Practitioner, Ison (2017, pp.192-195) makes the case for an underlying emotion of inquiry and curiousity and engaging in what it refers to as small ‘r’ research.  He explains this as “willed and reflexive action, done for a purpose, though the purpose may not be clear initially” (Ison, 2017, p.193).

The case resonates with me, in a world of uncertainty, we can never ‘know’ anything because what we ‘know’ always changes as the real-world flux of events and ideas unfold.  So always inquiring and small ‘r’ researching – and therefore continually learning – seems an appropriate way forward.

Lately, I have been reflecting on this in relation to the use of a research-based capstone module to ‘end’ an MSc in Systems thinking in practice at the Open University and my own experience of subsequently moving on to do a PhD.I think it can be tempting to think of big ‘R’ research (doing a research project) as something entirely different to doing STiP – simply another set of ideas and methods to get to grips with in the hurdle of achieving a qualification.  To a systems thinker, research can feel too bounded, systematic and reductionist.  When research talks about the methods for data collection and analysis, it can feel very different to the way systems approaches refer to investigation and co-inquiry.

Well, that was certainly what I thought at the time.  But I now think about it very differently.

To explain, I refer to OU STiP’s teachings recognition that people have the capacity for systemic sensibility (ability to think in terms of relationships).  This gets enhanced with Systems literacy (knowledge of ideas/tools from discipline of Systems) and that together these contribute to systems thinking in practice capability (the ability to enact systems thinking and doing).

I think a parallel can be drawn with the word research – we have a small ‘r’ research sensibility (ability to be curious and find things out), this can be enhanced with Research literacy (knowledge of ideas/tools from academic research) and together these contribute to research capability.

But these are not separate ‘pathways’ they are intermingled.

With research literacy as part of my traditions of understanding, I think I have better systems thinking in practice capability.  Having enacted big ‘R’ research, my small ‘r’ research is more refined, more rigorous, more subject to self-scrutiny and I am much more aware of the limitations of what I ‘know’.

Similarly, with Systems literacy in my traditions of understanding, I think I have better research capability because I have the possibility to draw on my systems literacy (in addition to, not instead of, my research literacy) as part of framing research, critiquing literature, designing research, implementing research, analysing data and communicating findings.

I have got so many aspects of this inter-relationship in my head that I want to follow this blog up with others picking up on particular angles.  But for now I just wanted to articulate the basic premis of where my thinking is taking me.


Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: How to act. Second Edition. London/Milton Keynes, UK: Springer Publications/The Open University.

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