Waking Social Learning: It’s just natural that people ask advice. Dialogue with Joanne Vinke.
HilaryB. Hello Joanne, or I might say Professor Joanne Vinke. We meet because I was looking to learn more about our European colleagues and how they work with action research. I understand you’re trained originally as a natural scientist. I am always interested in that transition from conventional science to getting more involved with stakeholders. But may I start by understanding more what is holding your attention these days?
JoanneV.: With a background in water management I’m especially engaged in planning and implementation to achieve climate resilience for our cities and regions.
Hilary: We all believe that the threat of flooding is something the Dutch have managed for centuries, aren’t you ahead of the game when it comes to climate change?
Joanne. Yes. And no. We all know that climate is changing and we need to do something different now. We find solutions are available but then too little is actually happening. People say there is so much uncertainty. Or they say, it’s complex. Or they ask, who is responsible, who should take action? And so I’m especially interested in working at the local and regional levels where you can really work with stakeholders and bring solutions.
Hilary: I love women who get things done! How does the action orientation to research come alive in your work, for you?
JoanneV. I’m a civil engineer by background, and I currently work again in the civil engineering department [at U. Twente]. Here I really try to bridge between engineering and social sciences and to create new knowledge about governance and process management aspects in this domain. For engineering solutions to work, stakeholder management and transformation of perspectives are very important. In the past I was afraid of engaging with stakeholders. I was thinking somehow I should have a disengaged role of The Observer. But that has changed a lot more recently.
Hilary It sounds like a learning journey both for you and your field. From “we’re afraid to be an action researchers” to “we need to get active here! If we are to successfully manage climate change.” Does that sound about right?
Joanne I used to think there was only one proper way of doing research. Being the observer. Then inside a European transnational project I saw researchers doing action research as part of a participatory governance assessment. And then I thought, wow, this just makes sense. I thought, wow, this is something I want to do as well given my interests in how we move from knowledge or information to action.
HilaryB.: So you were inspired by others in your community. Like so many of us, you had learned that science is supposedly something else. How did you make that transition? Was it hard?
JoanneV. It developed naturally since I worked for a while as project manager for a regional water authority. People know me so it’s just natural that they ask my advice. So all of sudden I just ended up working with them. And then increasingly it became a deliberate choice. I consider my ideal as combining action research and in-depth case studies, on the one hand, and systemic comparison of multiple cases, on the other hand. In any case, my data really comes from going to the field, really listening and, in case of being engaged in one case for a longer period of time, really making a difference. This generally involves working beyond the confines of disciplinary boundaries.
HilaryB. Maybe more at this time are feeling drawn to this more action oriented transformative approach because there is a serious life and death challenge to our species now, which requires a new way of doing science. How does that strike you, too idealistic?
JoanneV. For me personally, this action research is THE way to do science. I wouldn’t stay in academia otherwise. We also need the people who like to work in more narrow disciplines or to observe too. We need both. It’s not that one is good and the other one is bad. We can respect each other’s work and see that science can be done in different ways.
HilaryB. To put it in more fancy language we might say there’s an ecosystem of knowledge. It’s not all just one type of tree in the knowledge forest. There’s also bushes and flowers and all these are needed. Monocultures don’t survive changing environments. How’s that metaphor from someone I might add who has no training in ecology! [laughter]
JoanneV. Yes, I fully agree with you there. And sometimes it might be needed to explore new disciplines or ways of doing science. I also began to work in areas I did not have training it at first. That’s happened by coincidence in Romania. I didn’t know about the governance context and no scholarly papers were available. So I started digging and investigating natural resources governance in Romania. For me, working with the concept of governance was and is rather instrumental. I don’t wish to be a theorist. I want to understand why interventions that aim to improve our environment succeed or fail. Over the years, I became to understand that governance context and learning processes play an important role in these. This led me to focus more on understanding social and societal learning. I ask how we can measure this, how we do this.
HilaryB. So there is a big overarching goal: “our society wants to learn and survive at this point. And so our work as scientists is to contribute to that in whatever different ways we can.” Some will do it as theorists, some will do it much more instrumentally. The purpose of our research is to serve our capacity for learning. What is the learning you take seriously? What is societal learning for you?
JoanneV. My understanding of learning comes from the notion of social learning. This type of learning can happen when there is a true interaction between people with diverse backgrounds, diverse interests. Through their mutual interactions, you may see a change in knowledge, skills, perspective, changes in understanding. This can happen in a positive direction or negative direction. This establishes a basis for collective action to improve say natural resources management. I’m very much interested in the impacts of learning what and how this process changes policy and practices, how it’s taken up by community networks for climate adaptation actions, those kinds of things.
HilaryB. I would love to hear an example of your work, say, the work you’re most proud of right now?
JoanneV. An action research case that I am proud of and currently working on is in the Netherlands, in my own region. This is a project that focuses on flood risk reduction. To look for measures that would provide a suitable alternative for strengthening dikes. And I work at the regional level to support water authorities and other stakeholders in the process. I showed them that they’re in a “cognitive lock-in” type situation. They are locked into a conventional perspective on how to manage flood threat. A bit stuck with old ways of thinking. So in this work I can really help designing multi-actor processes that stimulate learning. I also collaborate with more conventional researchers. One colleague does agent based modeling, very theoretical.
Hilary How do you collaborate with other scientist partners?
Joanne We established an international group called “the learning community.” It’s people with backgrounds in natural resources management, sustainability transitions, educational science. We are all interested in learning for sustainable development and we are organizing webinars on a regular basis. If we could maybe organize a webinar together on transformative change for example, and the role of action research it’d be great! We’re about 80-90 scholars who have a transformative orientation. Super diverse.
By the way two weeks ago I was coordinator of a session on sustainable river planning. I was really surprised about how much people use action and results oriented methods. We built upon *the paper by Ioan Fazey. You and Steve Waddell are co-authors. And we thought that the words you were using were sometimes too big. “Second order transformative action oriented.”
Hilary Oops. Haha! We do need to find better words and pictures. Was it a useful session despite the word soup?
JoanneV. It allowed us reflect on our roles in research. So we had, for example, somebody who does participatory monitoring, working with local fishermen to collect monitoring data. We also had people using social network analysis to facilitate change. We also felt that we need to have more clarity about terminology. I think more than 50 percent would use some kind of action research label. And if we talk in a broader sense about transdisciplinarity, then we’re 90 percent. In the European context there’s kind of a demand now for this action orientation.
Hilary: There is always frustration with terminology. You can see the word cloud Steve and I made. We know many of us use different terms. For me we’re a big tent of people with different terms and diverse approaches. But I wonder if you feel supported or do you suffer a lack of supportive environment for doing action oriented research?
JoanneV. I work a lot with people who are not based in the traditional disciplines. We have a lot of freedom when our work is really benefiting stakeholders. However, it becomes very different if you’re apply for funding.
Hilary Is it that the Netherlands is more conventional in how disciplines, —or disciplinary regimes to use a fancy Foucault term— are used to reinforce the status quo?
JoanneV. The Dutch context is following Europe. The European context is currently much more aligned to interdisciplinary and action approaches. In the Dutch context, the system and reviewers are still a big problem.
HilaryB. So that might be one influence agenda for us. How to clarify, perhaps in a manifesto, that stakeholders must be part of the decision making for grants? That could make a big change. And the political nature of the choice of referees must be more transparent. Who is chosen to be a referee? Do they represent a conservative or action agenda? I’ve sat in a few such reviews myself. Then there’s also the interpersonal power dynamics.
Joanne I doubt if a lot of research proposals are reviewed by practitioners or policymakers. I submitted a proposal recently to a German Foundation. And we got this review from a fairly traditional political scientist. And I just wondered, does this person want us to go back to 20, 30 years ago? But luckily the decision makers at the foundation admitted that the reviewer was indeed too old fashioned in outlook. But you have to be lucky.
Hilary Its also an identity shift required that I believe is really hard. Giving up power is at the heart of it. I think of the Old Professors with the fame and fortune and all the big grants. So they develop a certain identity of being super important people, which is truly hard to let go or even recognize. It’s delicate, how do we take come action together on all this. Hey I have an idea, please come to our Chalmers Gathering!
JoanneV. I’m very interested to come. Especially if there are people who work in similar domains. It will provide a basis for further collaboration or for joint proposals. So I hear there is openness and being flexible. I find that good.
Hilary And practically I wonder also can we make it so people don’t always have the distance to fly to really engage. How to use video conferencing well.
Joanne. That would be very valuable. Sounds like a community trying to be even more powerful and successful, directing ourselves towards the future about novel ways for us to act together collectively to have this impact. So I hear it’s sort of an organizing event. Rather than being focused upon exchanging methodologies or stories of our work. Of course we get to organizing by sharing what we most care about.
HilaryB. We learn so well by sharing our stories. But my deeper hope is not just to share stories – as an editor, daily I see articles as stories of people’s work. Stories are then also forgotten. I want to start linking the leaders and efforts up. Then someone can build on your work and vice versa.
JoanneV. Science is about building on knowledge and that can only be done if we are rigorous in how we define things. AR at some point got a bit of a negative flavor. I have seen a few examples of Action Research where people were not precise when it comes to what they assess, what they looked at. That’s really a pity and an obstacle to widen action research circles. It came to be perceived as something inferior.
HilaryB. Yes, I do agree. And I will also say I think people are a little bit afraid of it who have never worked with stakeholders. It takes a repertoire of skills that the conventional university researcher doesn’t have. So they criticize what’s different from their work, insisting on precision to the detriment of everything else. And so I like so much the complementarity that you were talking about before. I believe strengthening of loose ties between conventional and action researchers in the ecosystem of learning and research might help action researchers with rigor and conventional scientists with vigor or impact. I would love to see some great studies being done between those who’ve been trained in the engineering and physical scientists where precision is more valued. And they work with more of the anthropologic, psychologically trained people. I think there’ll be a lot of power in that. We could learn from each other. What is the right balance between precision and impact?
JoanneV. So last question for you Hilary. What is good PHD training for action research students?
HilaryB. You’d think I’d have an easy answer for you. And it’s because I don’t, that I invite energy into AR+. Action Research is being demanded more and there are fewer resources than ever before because we don’t have a sustainable next generation coming through the universities. AR+ wants to plug the gap. And support those few universities where it is happening.
JoanneV. So I’m looking at how to teach my students myself. Or perhaps send them somewhere?
HilaryB. Happily there are lots of resources available for teaching, certainly more than a decade ago. And one of our projects in AR+ is to develop a virtual university for students such as yours. In the meantime there are the *Handbooks of Action Research, *journals of action research. Please invite students to look at AR+ resources student resources. Oh I can’t forget my favorite – the Cookbook. Volume 2 is really helpful to students I hear.
And maybe I can say a bit more. I find people often think of action research as a method. It’s not only that. It’s better considered an orientation to research in which we can use all sorts of methods. So we may use quite conventional methods. Just for example, when I do a more quantitative network analysis, because I love the rigor of network analysis, I usually use it in a different way than conventional social scientists. After I gather the aggregate results I get the stakeholders involved to look at the network diagrams and debrief it together. Normally we can only see our small part of a network or a system. This way those involved can see and talk about their system as a whole system. Or with qualitative methods, when I do interviews, it’s a little bit like the interview we’re doing now. I’m not just trying to get information from you. It’s about how do we cook something together.
JoanneV. It’s really inspiring to talk about all this and the upcoming Gathering.
HilaryB. Well, thank you for taking the time. Our ability to connect, never having met before bodes well for our Gathering.
JoanneV. Perfect. Thank you very much. Have a nice evening.