Action Research for Sustainability by Jonas Egmose

Jonas Egmose has a new book out.

Action Research for Sustainability. Social Imagination Between Citizens and Scientist. A new book by Jonas Egmose is introduced by Mary Brydon-Miller’s foreword:

“In Jonas Egmose’s view the response to the crucial need to address issues of sustainability lies in the ability of scientists and citizens to engage in democratic processes to develop shared understandings and responses that allow us to fundamentally rethink the way in which we live together in the world. The notion of upstream public engagement, that is the idea that public engagement should take place not simply in response to scientific research but should be brought to bear in framing the kinds of questions that scientists are asked to engage on our behalf, is a critical reframing of this relationship.

In developing this more engaged and generative response to the issue of sustainability we must step outside of the normal strategies of doing science and our accepted ways of relating to one another and to the wider world. This sounds like an overwhelming challenge and to some extent current political inaction on both local and global scales would suggest that the most likely response is continued inertia. But at the same time there is growing understanding in both the scientific and broader community discourses that continued inaction will only exacerbate the environmental, social, economic and political impacts we will face in the future. But who decides what sustainability looks like and what responses will do the most to enhance the flourishing of all life on our Earth?

This volume makes important contributions to this discussion on multiple levels. At the most concrete level, Egmose provides an engaging description of an innovation attempt to bring diverse groups of community members from a low-income neighbourhood in Islington in North London together with academic researchers interested in exploring sustainability at the local level. Working with groups of youths, older people and women aged 25–40 years of age the research sought to use film-making and other forms of community-engaged research to address the question, ‘what it is like to live in the local area?’, using this question to encourage participants to begin to envision together what a sustainable future might look like in their community. The answers as explored in the films each group created and the discussions which grew out of these collaborations present the range of experiences and aspirations of the participants. For the women’s group the main theme seems to be the importance of relationships with one another; for younger people, the feeling of being trapped by the economic and social constraints they face in their daily lives; and for the elderly it was a more aspirational tone characterized by the words, ‘What a wonderful world it would be’. (I don’t know if it’s because I am closer to their age that when I hear this I think of Louis Armstrong’s wonderful song with that title.) These distinct responses to the initial question all challenged the participating scientists to rethink the ways in which the notion of sustainability manifests itself in the lives of these community members.

In addition to this finely crafted examination of practice, Egmose also provides an excellent example of the ways in which theoretical frameworks can be used to better understand the nature of human interaction and social change. Building upon the metaphor of painting, Egmose notes that ‘the choice of theoretical frameworks is a process of deciding what layers and perspectives are relevant for examining the questions in mind’. By integrating aspects of the work of environmental theorist Vandana Shiva, together with critical theory and Critical Utopian Action Research, Egmose provides a nuanced integration of theoretical perspectives through which to understand the dynamics of the Citizen Science for Sustainability (SuScit) project and its outcomes. Shiva’s work contrasting the notion of intellectual commons and enclosures provides an especially useful critique of the current system of knowledge production and the ways in which this constrains the development of creative and socially responsive strategies to address the issue of sustainability.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of this book, however, is in Egmose’s willingness to challenge the entire system of knowledge production which currently holds sway within the academy. One important outcome of the SuScit process as Egmose describes it is in the opportunity it affords not just the citizens involved, but the scientists as well, to experience a kind of ‘free space’ in which the quotidian duties and organizational expectations of academic research are set aside for a time, allowing participants to consider together what a more sustainable future might look like, or as Egmose puts it, to think ‘beyond the horizon of the present’. This free space challenges the system of enclosures described by Shiva and the pernicious system of knowledge commodification that currently shapes the way in which science is conducted.

In my mind the key challenge raised by Egmose’s work is for us to find ways to create permanent free spaces in which community members and their academic partners might engage with these critical issues together. As Egmose notes, the challenges facing us are not something that scientists can solve through the imposition of a series of technical fixes. Rather we must understand that ‘sustainability in its most basic sense is an immanent and emergent ability of ecological and social life continuously to renew itself. No technology can guarantee that ability, but technology can, as any other human invention, either support or erode that basic ability’. Egmose provides here a well-supported and richly illustrated examination of this critical question and offers us both theory and practice designed to help us to tackle these issues and, in doing so, to redefine the role of scientists in our societies as partners in creating positive social and environmental change.

Find the book and details at this link