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The role of the researcher in transformative change: change agent or observer? – Insights from the TransAct session during the IMR Research Day 2022

Date of news: 16 September 2022

Societies are currently confronted with serious challenges regarding global environmental sustainability (e.g., biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution). To move towards an environmentally sustainable society, it is argued that transformations on a systemic level are required. However, what can be our roles as researchers in these transformations? How can we contribute? Should we position ourselves as change agents, triggering transformation, as facilitators, or should we stay in a more detached perspective?

TransAct organized a session on ‘The researcher as Change Agent? Positionality and transformations: our role(s) as researchers ‘ during the IMR Research Day 2022. During a roundtable discussion, Geert Braam (Economics), Peraphan Jittrapirom (Methods Group of Public Administration) and Cebuan Bliss (Geography, Planning and Environment) shared their insights and started the discussion with around 30 participants.

Different roles of researchers: from monitoring to activism

The panellists nicely illustrated the different roles researchers can take in transformations. Researchers might act as ‘watchwomen/men’ that monitor in whether specific companies comply with existing sustainability standards; or they might provide policy advice on, for example, the effectiveness and appropriateness of said sustainability indicators; or they might actively try to produce knowledge that empowers marginal groups to advocate for change; or they might be ‘the spark of change’ that evokes societal discussions, and where the researcher further engages in the normative political debate to advocate for a particular transformative change. One might argue that the monitoring activities are more likely to lead to incremental changes, whereas the activistic engagement might contribute to more fundamental transformative change. However, it is not as black and white. Identifying the non-compliance of companies can (indirectly) empower marginal groups and cause broader societal debate. But what role should we take? The discussion was heated!

How emotionally is a researcher allowed to be? Shouldn’t we stay ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’? Can researchers even be ‘objective’ when working on sustainability issues, or is engaging with this topic already a normative choice?  Should a researcher support the agenda of certain (environmental) groups? But then, which groups are we actively excluding? Is research still approachable and trustworthy if we take such a normative stand?

The normative side: Transparency and reflexivity

Essentially, the participants could somewhat agree that every researcher should decide on their own what role they want to take in transformative change. However, what has been identified as a core to ensure approachability and authority of research is that researchers should be transparent and reflective. Researchers need to be transparent on what position they take in debates and what influences this position. Assumptions underlying research design need to be openly discussed. It is important for researchers to be reflective on their own position and engage in discussion with peers and various societal stakeholders. Humbleness and self-criticism have been identified as the basis for conducting reflective research and for being approachable for different stakeholders.

Some participants used the terms ‘responsive reflexivity’ and ‘to go native’ in one’s research. It referred to the need to stay reflexive throughout the entire writing process and to not stick with people sharing the same characteristics and therefore projecting many personal experiences and feelings into one's research. One may only avoid becoming native by going through the reflexivity process with others.

The practical side: time and skills

The aim to contribute to a sustainable future is of course commendable. During the panel session, we heard that researchers are engaged in activist networks, work together with companies, or have contact with journalists facilitated by the communication department of Radboud University. However, also critical notes emerged. Researchers are (over) loaded with teaching tasks, research tasks and administrative tasks; sometimes writing a paper takes place in our free time. So, when exactly do we have time to contribute to societal change? Additionally, do we always have the right skills to communicate our research findings or to engage with stakeholders?

The role of researchers in transformations for sustainability is a complex discussion. It is unlikely that a consensus will emerge. Every researcher needs to find their own role that they feel comfortable with. However, the research community needs to keep engaging and discussing our roles.