There are certain phrases that to me brilliantly encapsulate a complex and important issue. I came across one of these in the early 2000s when I was exploring methods of collaborative research and it has stayed with me since then. The quote is from a text written by Peter Reason in 1998 on participatory action research, and it goes as follows; ‘one of the key questions about research is the political one; who owns the knowledge, and thus who can define the reality?’
One reason why this quote is so significant in my view is that it draws attention to the fundamental relationship between research, knowledge and power and reminds us that whoever authors or ‘owns’ any research holds a great deal of power, which in turn comes with responsibility. Specifically, Peter Reason highlights the relationships of power and representations of knowledge that researchers need to negotiate if they are working collaboratively. This applies throughout a research process but is especially true at the point when any findings are written up or communicated publicly in any way. For it is at this moment that the ‘reality’ of the research becomes defined.
Peter Reason’s observation has resonated for me particularly when I have been involved in research or evaluation projects that have explicitly been concerned with empowering participants and/or have aimed to enable co-researchers to have an active role in improving their practice or transforming their social, personal, or working conditions. In projects of these kinds, I have at times occupied the role of principal researcher or evaluation consultant, tasked with ‘leading’ the project, or in the latter case, examining and analysing the success of an activity in achieving its aims. Over time I have become aware of the privileged and powerful position the researcher or evaluator occupies in these projects, not least because it is generally their responsibility to author the final report.
Take for example a collaborative research project that involves older people who are not regular museum visitors as co-researchers exploring models of co-curation within the museum. Underpinning the project is the ambition to give these older people agency and visibility. Such a project might be funded by an external trust or foundation or research funding body and ‘co-led’ by a museum staff member and an academic, both of whom are likely to have developed the idea initially. The project might well also be evaluated by an external consultant. During the project activities are structured to give the older people freedom to lead, experiment, and develop new knowledge and practices, guided by the museum staff member and academic who work alongside them throughout the process.
However, in my experience, at the culmination of the project it is more than likely to be the museum staff member and the academic who will write up the research findings in a final paper and go on to speak about the project at academic and professional networking conferences. Likewise, it will be the evaluation consultant who will author the report detailing the success of the project. In both cases the voices of the participants will hopefully be present in the reports and their views and opinions highly visible. Nonetheless, even though this project seeks to give the older people power, at this vital moment when the ‘reality’ of what happened is being defined and communicated, the agency that comes with authorship is effectively removed from the older participants and placed in the hands of the researchers and evaluator.
There are often pragmatic reasons why research and evaluation reports are authored in this way. Some of these might include that the funders have stipulated it, or that the project was not designed to enable collaborative writing and evaluation once the actual programming activity had ended. Alternatively, the older people might not have the time or resources to be able to attend conferences or even to write up their thoughts after the project has ended. And whereas there will be considerable professional capital to be gained for the researchers in ‘owning’ this project, the same may not always be true of other participants. Either way, it can be challenging to ensure that a research project of this kind is authentically co-owned at the point of reporting and presentation.
There are no easy answers, yet there are alternatives. In her book on Inclusive Curating in contemporary art, Jade French describes how zines can provide a mode of ‘democratic communication’ and can challenge the hierarchies present within more formal research publishing routes. Similarly, Dr Roz Stewart-Hall has worked for many years pioneering the use of participatory models in the field of evaluation, for example on Tate’s Circuit programme. These are just two examples and there is not space here to delve into the potential of digital technology to allow for co-authorship. What cannot be overlooked though is the issue of representation, power, and authorship in research. Therefore, Peter Reason’s provocation is one that researchers need to have at the forefront of their minds from the very earliest stages of planning any research project that involves others, and especially any initiative that frames itself as collaborative in any way