Knowledge transfer, inspiration, (over-) reflection: A discussion of potentials and limits of cooperative research

By Philipp Lottholz and Tobias Marschall

In a recent workshop on ‘Cooperation between practice, social movements and academia’ during the Joint CESS-ESCAS conference in Bishkek, practitioners and academics from Central Asia and beyond discussed the potentials and limits of such cooperation. The event was based on the presentation of concrete case studies which drew on earlier initiatives on ‘activist research’ and publicly engaged anthropology and social sciences. These have not received due attention and are worth considering especially in the context of Central Eurasian studies.

The main observation leading to the initiation of the event, which was also confirmed during the discussion, is that researchers share the same goals and concerns and encounter similar difficulties as practitioners and social activists. The most obvious synergy identified between these groups is the transfer of knowledge. For instance, academics’ knowledge can be helpful in areas ranging from workshop facilitation (giving ‘tips and tricks for young trainers’) to working with different target groups (e.g. youth, elderly), as became clear in the presentation and discussion of Jeanne Féaux de la Croix’s project titled ‘The Marshrutka question’. Further examples include the transfer of technological know-how and programming skills, as demonstrated in a project on Kyrgyz language speech recognition presented by Joshua Meyer, or of analytical skills and methodologies for the conducting of social surveys and analysis of social problems and challenges in communities, which is a major interest of the NGO network Civic Union ‘For Reforms and Result’. Such knowledge and know-how transfer is often limited by the time frames of presence-based cooperation between academics and NGOs or social initiatives. However, in cases where academics have to go back home or have limited time at their disposal, online collaboration and knowledge transfer was found to be a potentially fruitful means of exchange.

There are also clear synergies between critical social research on issues such as international development assistance and aid, institutional reform, peace-building, community security, among others. Cooperation with participatory (action) research, practice-based or activist approaches can be fruitful, as researchers can offer feedback, identify potential for improvement and make NGOs’ and other actors’ initiatives more visible. Philipp Lottholz, for instance, demonstrated how his research on the above-mentioned Civic Union ‘For Reforms and Result’ helped to promote the organization’s efforts to promote an alternative conception for the country’s police and law enforcement reform. Publications in policy-oriented outlets, for instance, can have the simple effect of showcasing the positive change brought about by this NGO’s (or other social movements’) initiatives. In a recently published academic article, a case study on the Civic Union’s pilot project for a cooperative approach to community policing (which brings law enforcement, local self-governance, civil society and population together on one table) additionally indicates the potentially problematic, essentializing and patronizing approach of local security working groups vis-a-vis marginal and vulnerable groups.

The heightened publicity but also criticism offered in such collaborative and dialogical research indicates the challenges that can result from the increased exposure, vulnerability and possible (over-) reflection offered by academic researchers. To mitigate or deal with the latter, partnering organizations face a higher need for internal discussion about their communication and self-presentation vis-à-vis the researcher and other external actors. Furthermore, in countries and specific sectors where state authorities exert a strong grip on (international) NGOs, research may expose sensitive details about their work or attitude that may make them susceptible to inspections or public delegitimization campaigns. Such risks and the ethical dilemmas arising from them were discussed by Karolina Kluczewska on the basis of her own activist research project with a Tajik NGO. The solution, as she and other participants acknowledged, is not straightforward. Ways of mitigating risks and preventing attacks, such as anonymizing the identity of individual interviewees, participating organizations or contextual details also diminish the verifiability and thus effectiveness of research output. Still, providing or anonymizing information according to the kind of analysis and to the context in which it is published, can help to toe a more balanced line in communicating one’s findings.

All participants agreed that there is a need for academics to produce more readable and intelligible output about their work and engagement with organizations, initiatives and people. Besides building rapport with research subjects and interlocutors and making engagement with them more sustainable, this can also provide a useful plane for reflecting on the political and ethical conditions under which knowledge is produced. However, it often appears as if new performance measurement and excellence criteria make the transmission of outcomes to research participants and the broader public difficult. Platforms like the Central Eurasian Scholars and Media Initiative offer the opportunity to share such reflections but are struggling to find enough contributors. Apart from making scholars reflect on the necessity and relative ease of engaging with the public in their research, addressing this situation would also require a more substantive incorporation of public outreach and dialogue with practitioners in research excellence and performance criteria. Thus, rather than considering the latter as addressed by the ‘policy recommendations’ added as the icing on the cake ever so often, it seems that actual discussion with practitioners and engagement with their dilemmas and challenges should be rewarded instead of further entrenching the artificial boundaries between academic and practitioner identities.

This leads to a final point about the incentive structures faced by practitioners and scholars alike. The composition of the workshop participant conveys a clear message: Of the few international and national NGO representatives who had shown interest in the event or registered in advance, only two could eventually follow the invitation, in addition to the ‘Civic Union’ who presented their own activity. Apart from the usual reasons such as packed meeting and event schedules and unforeseen circumstances, this appears to be well explained by the fact that cooperation with academics does not decisively improve the success chances or popularity of a given project. As the discussions during the workshop have indicated, academics may sometimes act as knowledge and know-how providers, and be helpful through the additional analysis and critical reflection they provide. Larger and well-established organizations, however, have the structures and resources for these purposes in place and cannot expect to significantly increase their effectiveness or success through additional dialogue with academics. On the contrary, past disagreements between researchers and their (ex-) cooperation partners have indicated the risk that NGOs may incur by allowing too much reflection on and criticism of their activities. Still, given the increasingly stalemate conditions faced by individuals working for international bureaucracies of development aid or national implementing partners, conversations with academics can be a refreshing exercise and perhaps even have a therapeutic effect. We look forward to extending this dialogue and to have more voices joining in. Thanks go to the conference organizing committee, especially John Schoeberlein and Svetlana Jacquesson, for allowing us to host this workshop and accommodating it in the program; and to Georgy Mamedov for facilitating the event.