We were fortunate enough to secure funding from RCUK in 2012 to become a Catalyst for Public Engagement at the University of Exeter. We used complexity theory to understand and articulate the dynamic processes of engagement and of culture change, and on the basis of previous primary research, developed a model of a three-phased cycle of engagement (Durie et al. 2017).
Strong and weak connections
A particular focus of our work was trying to understand what institutional roles might best enable and support these different dynamics of the engagement cycle. We approached these issues from the perspective of the theory of complex social networks. The emphasis in this approach is not on individual agents within a system or network, but rather on the nature of the relations – the connections – they make and hold with other members of the systems to which they belong. Network theory hypothesises that these connections tend to be of three predominant types: absent, weak or strong. Strong connections are typically held between family members, close friends and neighbours – such connections tend to form more or less closed circles by which information, opinions, cultural beliefs, etc, are reinforced. By contrast, weak connections are the means by which new information moves through networks, where new cultural beliefs and behaviours can be experienced or transmitted. The distinctive texture of a network, what the system “is like” – for instance, what it’s like to work in an organisation, or what it’s like to live in a particular community – tends to be an effect of these weak connections.
Production manager role
We therefore began to envisage the roles that might be played by people who facilitated these sorts of weak connections in dynamic processes of PE with research, or with culture change in higher education institutions. Towards the end of our period of funded Catalyst work, we spent some time discussing these ideas with Paul Manners and Sophie Duncan from the NCCPE. Their response was to suggest that what we were thinking about was very much akin to the role of “production manager” within film, theatre, and TV production companies. The two main aspects of the production manager role that stood out for us were: (1) assisting the Producer to interpret and realise the Director’s vision; and (2) being able to work effectively, and with diplomacy and sensitivity, with all members of the production team, and with actors, other contributors, and members of the public. The production manager role is crucial to the success of delivering films, TV programmes and theatre productions, yet to the extent that it is essentially facilitative, it can often be unheralded. Indeed, the most effective production managers are often those who are least noticed! It’s certainly the case that few, if any, cognate role exists in HEIs as they are currently construed.
As a legacy from our Catalyst work, we were keen to explore whether it might be possible to develop roles within our University which would function in ways akin to that of production managers, and which would help create the conditions for dynamic processes of engaged research within the University. Specifically, we wanted to see whether it would be possible to develop these roles in such a way that their primary focus would be on facilitating the development of relations with multiple partners in transdisciplinary engaged research – where the two main requirements are the qualities necessary to developing and maintaining relations with partners from multiple different backgrounds, and the ability to facilitate the emergence of ideas and the mutual recognition of experiences between these multiple partners.
Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health
We have now secured significant funding from the Wellcome Trust to establish a Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. At the heart of the Centre’s ethos is its transdisciplinary engaged research approach to understanding how we can create the conditions for health across the lifecourse. It will bring together academics from the humanities, social sciences and medicine, alongside publics including communities, schools, libraries, and non-governmental organisations, to co-create research questions and projects which respond to global health challenges. Our challenge is whether our engagement approach and ethos can itself contribute in a significant way to the creation of the conditions for health: to what extent might an engagement role akin to that of the production manager enable the co-production of healthy publics?
With this question at the forefront of our thinking, we will be appointing a “Public Engagement Manager” to the Centre, a role which will have an ambitious remit, and one which, we hope, will have the potential to push our thinking about the transformative potential of engaged research. We have also planned for an ongoing formative evaluation of this approach, and of the model of the dynamics of engagement on which it is founded. We are hopeful that our reflections on the processes, as well as the outcomes, of engaged research will inform future debates about public involvement and engagement in research, and about “healthy” university-community partnerships.
Have you been thinking in similar ways about the new kinds of roles needed to support engaged research? Do please comment below if you have. More details of the engagement manager role can be found here.
Durie, R., Lundy, C., Wyatt, K. “Using complexity principles to understand the nature of relations for creating a culture of publically engaged research within Higher Education Institutes.” In Mitleton-Kelly, Paraskevas & Day (eds), Edward Elgar Handbook on Complexity (forthcoming, 2017).