In conversation with... Professor Keri Facer
Theme Leadership Fellow for Connected Communities, Professor Keri Facer discusses the benefits of collaboration and how drawing on expertise from outside universities could help open up new research horizons.
My first degree was in English literature – I loved reading and always thought, as a kid, that books had the potential to change the world. It was then pretty inevitable with that interest, that I would end up in the field of cultural studies – which was what I did my Masters in – and then later at the end of the nineties I found myself looking at digital cultures. Basically, when I look back over my career, I guess I’ve always been interested in how our technologies for creating and communicating meaning – whether books or the internet – shape the conditions of possibility for social change. My first job as a researcher – here at the School of Education at Bristol - was looking at children’s digital cultures and it got me interested in the old cultural studies questions about the relationship between popular, everyday knowledge and elite or socially valued knowledge. I’m still fascinated by different ways of knowing; how different types of expertise can connect or contradict each other. It’s what Connected Communities is all about: bringing knowledge together.
There are limits to what we can understand by simply drawing on the expertise that exists within university walls. Connected Communities is a significant experiment in how you bring together academic, public, professional and community-based knowledge. We know there is a huge amount of expertise outside universities, so we need work out how best to combine it with more traditional academic and scholarly work. We are beginning to see that combining these forms of knowledge widens our understanding of culture, heritage and society – improves our research and scholarship and in some cases, supports projects and activities on the ground.
When a collaborative research project between university academics and community partners works well, it allows all parties to develop expertise in new areas, and learn new skills. Academics can gain living knowledge of social, cultural and historical phenomena. Partners can take the opportunity to take a step back and ask questions about the work they’re doing. For both academics and partners, it provides the confidence to make their case to the wider world – when you’re sure about what you are saying both from lived experience and robust scholarly knowledge it’s easier to speak out. Importantly, these projects can lead to new networks and even friendships, whether that’s with others in the project or with people doing similar work in different parts of the country. It’s these connections that can go on to provide a firm foundation for other activities in the future. Of course, this is when it all works well. It doesn’t always – after all, it’s not easy to bring people together from different institutions with different objectives and forms of accountability. Working out how to support them in working together is tricky, and it’s just as important to recognise it doesn’t always work perfectly.
The project Tangible Memories in Bristol showed what happens when partnerships work well. It was concerned with the idea of building a community in care homes. It’s very hard to keep someone’s memories and experiences visible in a space when they enter a care home, so this project explored ways in which individuals could communicate their stories to care workers and each other. It brought together an interesting mix of people, including researchers from education, history and computer science, alongside care workers, artists, folklore experts, and a community group called Alive! who are specialists in the practises of reminiscences. There has been a real exchange of knowledge and expertise that’s playing out in all sorts of different ways and with lots of new projects coming out of it. One of the greatest successes of Connected Communities is the fantastic community of researchers and outside organisations who now understand how to work practically with each other.
There is more than one way to work collaboratively. I hope the legacy of Connected Communities will be the foundations of a much more sophisticated and reflective approach to collaborative research. It needs to be recognised and respected as a long standing tradition of research with very deep roots. One of our critical objectives as a programme is to demonstrate just how diverse the practises of collaborative research can be. Each field has a different tradition – design has service and participatory design; development uses participatory action research; history has oral histories and history from below; and there’s citizen science and patient consultation in medicine. It is really important to recognise that these traditions are different, with different methods, priorities and expected outcomes and that they offer different approaches for all concerned. We are producing a collection of 10 books (published in 2018) which document what collaborative research means in these different traditions to act as an important repository and reference. One legacy of the programme, therefore, will be a much more informed and nuanced debate about what ‘collaborative’ research with partners is and the many different ways it can be approached.
We have not thought enough about how participatory and collaborative research can engage with the world of Big Data. A huge amount of information is being held about individuals by commercial companies, such as Google and Facebook, and the state, so it’s really very important that arts and humanities scholars, and social science researchers start to get to grips with how that information is being used. We need to look at how public bodies, charities, and NGOs can be supported in bringing their knowledge and expertise to bear on the use of Big Data. At the moment, I don’t think our area of collaborative research with civil society has caught up. How could we imagine scholars and community partners working together on the large datasets that are becoming available – and perhaps creating their own, identifying new patterns. At the very least, this means linking up the amazing community datasets that are being produced by collaborative research, so that they can have real power beyond the specific local community.
The developments in biological sciences over the next 20 to 30 years are likely to be transformative in terms of ourselves as humans and what it means to live in society. To what extent do we want to modify who we are as human beings? If we have digital augmentation, cognitive enhancement, and genetic modification, then what sorts of communities will we live in if there are different ways of being human? These are 50-year questions, not 200-year, so we need to start thinking about them soon. And collaborative research – between arts, humanities, social science and life science – will play a key role in addressing these huge ethical questions.