One: Engaging with policy, practice and publics: an introduction

This book develops critical and original perspectives on research engagement and impact. It uses first-hand accounts from social scientists to unpack and highlight the intersectionality of their work and experiences in engaging with policy, industry, civil society and other academics. With a personal and reflexive take on experience and the politics of research engagement, including notions of social difference, power and inequality, we respond to the growing agenda and the desire of academic research for real-world influence. Our aims for this collection are, then, to provide critical reflexivity to understandings and applications of research engagement and impact strategies, within academia and with other stakeholders, namely policy makers, industry and civil society. In this introductory chapter we outline the contemporary landscapes of impact and engagement; identify important spaces of research engagement and encounter; outline key ideas about intersectionality, identity and positionality; and provide a taster of the themed sections and chapters that follow. Academic engagement with non-academic groups and actors – such as policy makers, industry, charities and activist groups, communities and the public – is arguably more important now than ever before. From public engagement activities such as talks, exhibitions and festivals, to the co-production of knowledge for and with interest groups, the imperative for real-world influence has moved from being an ideal in academic research to something of a normative expectation (also see Banks et al, 2019; Hardill and Mills, 2013). Indeed, such engagement, or rather ‘impact’ on industry, policy making and public opinion, is increasingly being formalised, as another marker of esteem and credibility upon which academic institutions, their staff and increasingly students are promoted, measured and ranked.

This book develops critical and original perspectives on research engagement and impact. It uses first-hand accounts from social scientists to unpack and highlight the intersectionality of their work and experiences in engaging with policy, industry, civil society and other academics. With a personal and reflexive take on experience and the politics of research engagement, including notions of social difference, power and inequality, we respond to the growing agenda and the desire of academic research for real-world influence. Our aims for this collection are, then, to provide critical reflexivity to understandings and applications of research engagement and impact strategies, within academia and with other stakeholders, namely policy makers, industry and civil society. In this introductory chapter we outline the contemporary landscapes of impact and engagement; identify important spaces of research engagement and encounter; outline key ideas about intersectionality, identity and positionality; and provide a taster of the themed sections and chapters that follow.

Contemporary landscapes of impact and engagement

Academic engagement with non-academic groups and actors – such as policy makers, industry, charities and activist groups, communities and the public – is arguably more important now than ever before. From public engagement activities such as talks, exhibitions and festivals, to the co-production of knowledge for and with interest groups, the imperative for real-world influence has moved from being an ideal in academic research to something of a normative expectation (also see Banks et al, 2019; Hardill and Mills, 2013). Indeed, such engagement, or rather ‘impact’ on industry, policy making and public opinion, is increasingly being formalised, as another marker of esteem and credibility upon which academic institutions, their staff and increasingly students are promoted, measured and ranked. This volume, which sometimes perceives such engagements to be good and responsible research practice, and at other times to be a form of top-down governance, generates timely and critical discussion about their importance for contemporary academics.

In the UK context – from which the editors and a number of contributors write – the impact agenda occupies a central place in the contemporary academy. Whether it is called ‘social responsibility’, ‘pathways to impact’, ‘public engagement’, ‘outreach’ or ‘knowledge transfer’, this is an agenda that covers the physical sciences, humanities, social sciences and arts. During the time in which we have been collating this book, the role of impact has become even more imperative. In 2019 the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK – the exercise by which universities, departments and staff have their work reviewed by a panel, which then determines access to government funding (also see Evans, 2016; Hardill and Baines, 2009; Rogers et al, 2014) – announced a number of key changes that resulted in even greater weight being attributed to impact. Where in REF 2014 outputs, impact and research environment were weighted at 65 per cent, 20 per cent and 15 per cent respectively, in REF 2021 the weightings of the three elements have been revised to outputs at 60 per cent, impact at 25 per cent and environment at 15 per cent (REF, 2019, p 14). While other countries have measures for assessing the work of academics and institutions – with moves to institutionalise impact in Australia and New Zealand (Roa et al, 2009; Rogers et al, 2014), and a long tradition in India of applied research (Srinivasan and Kasturirangen, 2014) – the UK REF assessment is by far the most comprehensive and has the most developed means of evaluating impact and research engagement.

This is not to say that impact is only instrumental. On the contrary, many academics feel a sense of responsibility to promote their findings and learning beyond the confines of ‘the ivory tower’, to have a positive influence on the communities and environments with which and for whom they research (see Banks et al, 2019; Evans, 2016; Fuller, 2008; Hogg et al, 2014; Pain et al, 2011). Nonetheless, these changing agendas and aspirations also have real-world influence, in both a personal and a professional sense, which shapes how researchers approach their subjects, their findings and communication methods, and affects who we are and how we do research. Rogers et al (2014, p 6) describe this as the ‘anxieties relating to impact [which] are a particular sort of preoccupation bound up with power-relations and [how] there is a need for critical reflexivity here in relation to class, gender and other axes of identity’. As such, there is politics at play within research engagement, raising questions about who and what it involves and excludes, and indeed the personal politics of these extra-research encounters. These dynamics are of key concern within this book.

Given the role of multiple actors involved in engagement activities, this volume is therefore aimed at and beyond academic scholars, to include a wide array of those working and engaging with industry, civil society, policy makers and the general public. The politics of impact and impact making are not limited to researchers and academia. There are multiple and overlapping reasons for an increased interest in impact across society. With an increased push towards inter- and multidisciplinary research as an area in which REF 2021 includes ‘additional measures’ to assess (REF, 2019, p 13), scholars too have been encouraged to work beyond the silos of their disciplinary fields and institutions. Industry partners are also now typically enrolled as collaborators on research bids, and commonly sponsor postgraduate research, through scholarships or doctoral awards (see Hogg et al, 2014). Civil society organisations and charities likewise partner and collaborate in research projects, as well as being benefactors of research findings, using such relations to fund their work and leverage their influence. We expect this to be increasingly the case in contexts where austerity cuts to local government in the UK, Europe and the US have, over the last ten years, drastically reduced income streams for many local charities as well as local councils (see Bannister and Hardill, 2013; Hall, 2017). Of more interest to us in this volume are the politics of impact, including the often invisible spaces of engagement and encounter where impact is practised and performed.

Indeed, there are concerns about how the notion of impact is being applied and transported from the physical, environmental and engineering sciences with little regard for how the social sciences might differ in their impactful activities. Srinivasan and Kasturirangen (2014) hit on this when they describe how ‘existing conceptions of academic impact treat knowledge as a product akin to software. Unfortunately, unlike software, established ethical, epistemic and pragmatic frameworks change slowly’. Moreover, it is not only the possible type and scale of social science research impact that differ – perhaps less so at the economic and macro levels, but within communities and social and cultural networks (see Banks et al, 2019; Pain et al, 2011). It is also the pace and time at which this change might occur, often unfolding gradually, with careful and sensitive negotiations (see Evans, 2016).

This can in turn have social implications. As Roa et al (2009, p 233–4) explain, in the New Zealand context much effort and time have been invested into building trusting relations with Maori communities: ‘this slower pace was needed to ensure that the coproduction of knowledge was ethical, accurate, authentic, trusted and used’. Metrics for measuring research outputs and impact can have the effect of turning off researchers from engaging with indigenous communities and, arguably, communities more generally, in favour of chasing quicker results. Policy makers are often sought-after stakeholder groups for engagement, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and tend to be more open to engaging with academics. However, they often seek input from academics in the form of evidence to justify policy decisions, strengthening existing hierarchical structures and power asymmetries (see Hardill and Baines, 2009).

Spaces of research engagement and encounter

To explore this potentially vast subject, in this volume we open up the black box of spaces of research engagement and encounter. Everyday lives are made up of numerous forms of engagement and encounter, in the spaces of home, work, leisure, education, travel and so on. Spaces of research engagement and encounter then refer to the social and physical spaces in which these interactions may occur. Here we find that geographical debates and writings are particularly pertinent, a geographical approach being one that engages with and unpacks social relationships and processes across space, time and scale.

Encounter spaces encompass a range of formal and informal opportunities for researchers and other stakeholders to interact and learn from each other, usually outside a purely academic setting, such as at workshops, exhibitions, presentations and meetings; in fieldwork; via media; or in person. We cover some of these and many more examples in this volume. But spaces of engagement and encounter mean more than this, for everyday research interactions in the name of impact themselves also lead to the development of social spaces; of connection and similarity, tension and difference. Far from being neutral or purely enabling, they play a key (albeit largely hidden) role in shaping engagement and impact for both academic and non-academic stakeholders.

Encounters are argued to be founded upon the meeting of difference, and a range of literatures have explored how social differences and proximities can shape everyday socio-spatial interactions (see Valentine, 2008; Valentine et al, 2015). However, not all encounters hold the same meaning, intensity or resonance. Some may be fleeting and momentary (for example Laurier and Philo, 2006), others prolonged or repeated (for example Hall, 2014). In this book we explore research encounters and engagements that take place in a bid for change, what Valentine (2008, p 325) calls ‘meaningful contact’: ‘contact that actually changes values and translates beyond the specifics of the individual moment’. Latimer and López Gómez (2019, p 251) also write of important and intimate ‘moments of “being moved” and “moving”’ within ‘knowledge-making work’, in which we would include research engagements and encounters. And in writings on intersectionality, to which we shall soon return, there is likewise considered a need ‘to take account of the social and affective relations of encounter and engagement’ (Lewis, 2013, p 887).

We build on personal experiences as more than anecdotes, to show how spaces shaped and created by research encounters can offer a window into structural and institutional inequality, power and privilege. Awareness of such personal politics is particularly important for ethical impact work (see Evans, 2016). As Rogers et al (2014, p 4) identify, ‘impact is messy unpredictable and may also involve risks to the communities and individuals we research, especially if academics are not fully cognisant of the effects of their activities’. Furthermore, we also reveal how encounter spaces, and the experiences and moments they shape or are shaped by, play an important role in how researchers communicate with other actors, groups and stakeholders, how they are in turn perceived, and the nature of these interactions. In doing so we lift the veil of the tremendous emotional and embodied labour involved in navigating and performing in encounter spaces with stakeholders (see also Hardill and Mills, 2013) and hope to bring it to the attention of researchers, funders, policy makers, industry partners and civil society, as co-producers and parties vested in impact.

Added to this, the social positioning and identity of researchers – in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age, (dis)ability, faith, caste and so on, and where they intersect – has an impact on how spaces of engagement and encounter are created, maintained and experienced, and on the type, form and content of knowledge co-produced in such spaces and moments. Here again we are drawn to the work of geographers, for their critical understandings of difference, power and inequality across and within space (see Hardill and Mills, 2013).

For instance, Evans (2016, p 214) notes how her ‘positionality as a white female academic based in the global North, occasionally caring for my disabled mother … my skills and experience, among other factors, had a crucial influence on my interest in care’, and her resulting impact work. This volume explores in greater detail the role and identities of researchers in spaces of engagement and encounter between academia, industry, policy (makers) and society in terms of intersectionality, social identity and difference. Our aim is to open up for critical examination spaces of interactions between academia, policy makers, industry and society by unpacking the processes of engagement and encountering. We do this by providing a range of real-life examples of such encounter spaces and the intersectionalities therein, as described in the next section.

Intersectionality, identity and positionality

The application of ideas about intersectionality is at the heart of the critical discussions contained in this collection. Key writings by black, critical race and feminist scholars that developed theories of intersectionality, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, bell hooks and Leslie McCall, focused predominantly on the interconnections of gender, race and class. As Brah and Phoenix (2004, p 76) elucidate, the concept of intersectionality signifies ‘the complex, irreducible, varied and variable effects which ensue when multiple axes of differentiation … intersect in historically specific contexts’. Scholars widely recognise ‘the extraordinary contribution to feminist scholarship that intersectionality has made’ (Lewis, 2013, p 871), although its adoption and application draw much further than this. As theory, analytic and method (see Lewis, 2013; McCall, 2005; Rodó-de-Zárate and Baylina, 2018; Windsong, 2018), intersectionality is increasingly being enrolled within policy, community and activist projects as a means of offering a more critical approach to how issues are named and framed (Crenshaw, 2018). Examples of policy application to date include the uneven impacts of austerity (Hall et al, 2017), and the role of intersectionality in equitable population health outcomes (Bauer, 2014). Here, intersectionality remains committed to the understanding ‘that experience could be at the ground of theory making’ (Lewis, 2013, p 873), through intersecting identities of ‘intercategorical complexity’ (McCall, 2005 p 1773; also see Windsong, 2018).

In addition, Crenshaw (1991) makes the case for multiple forms of intersectionality: structural, political and representational:

‘Structural intersectionality is about the ways in which black women have to deal with “multi-layered and routinized forms of domination”’ (Crenshaw, 1991: 1245) such as those associated with housing inequalities or employment practices. Political intersectionality focuses on the ways in which black women belong to at least two marginalized groups and so often have to engage with different political agendas. Representational intersectionality focuses on how images of women of colour – and debates about these – tend to overlook the intersectional interests of such women. (Hopkins, 2017, p 938)

Together, the chapters in this collection speak to all three of these forms, by exploring the institutional and social settings of research engagements (structural intersectionality), the meeting of intersecting webs of power within these settings (political intersectionality) and the voices and experiences that become silenced or amplified as a result (representational intersectionality).

However, we also aim to expand upon these ideas both regarding representation and application. By this we refer to recent efforts to expand upon the original intersectional triad of gender, race and class by drawing also upon discourses and experiences of disability (Grech and Soldatic, 2015) or age and generation (Hopkins and Pain, 2007) – what O’Neill Gutierrez and Hopkins (2015, p 386) term ‘different constellations of intersections’. This is by no means to suggest that gender, race and class are not central – far from it – but that to understand the contexts and effects of research encounters, a more comprehensive approach may be needed. We take heed of anxieties about the fetishisation and fashioning of intersectional theory (see Lewis, 2013), initially developed largely by black female American activists and now woven into white European feminism and feminist agendas, also known as ‘white washing’ (Rodó-de-Zárate and Baylina, 2018, p 550). We acknowledge that an intersectional approach is not simply a case of adding ingredients and stirring (Bonds, 2013), nor can its core meaning be appropriately addressed if the discussion of race is removed, but rather it requires thoughtful and engaged analytical processes. All the authors within this collection thus apply the theory with the greatest regard and recognition of these important and inextricable origins and motivations.

We also seek to develop ideas of intersectionality as it is applied, as more than a theory or empirical project but also as a form of praxis. This volume therefore speaks to developing ideas and dialogue across the social sciences that take a critical perspective of the relationship between policy and research, but with an original focus on the individuals and the personal experiences of those who lead such dialogue. In particular, it maps out how the liminal space between policy and research, as spaces of difference and engagement, are not by any means apolitical. In doing so, we address Valentine’s (2008, p 332) call to

think more carefully, therefore, about which types of encounters are sought, and by whom, and which are avoided, and by whom. … we need to pay more attention to the intersectionality of multiple identities (not just to ethnicity), and particularly to consider which particular identifications these purposeful encounters with difference are approached through, and how these encounters are systematically embedded within intersecting grids of power.

Indeed, there have been more recent and ongoing calls for research ‘to advance how intersectionality is theorised, applied in research and used in practice’ (Hopkins, 2017, p 942), and ‘to work collaboratively with practitioners to do so’ (Hopkins, 2017, p 943; see also Bauer, 2014; Hopkins and Pain, 2007).

As a burgeoning area of academic attention, bringing together these ideas around intersectionalities and research engagement can raise poignant if not complex debates. For instance, in their observations regarding collaborative funded PhD scholarships (where an academic institution partners with a business, charity or governmental partner), Macmillan and Scott (2003) identify the role of these intersecting grids of power within doctoral research, particularly as they pertain to issues of ownership, access and confidentiality, and can put extreme pressures on research relations. For instance, a ‘key concern’ for Hogg et al (2014, p 401) in their experience of these collaborative awards ‘was the likelihood of the partnership surviving the duration of the studentship, and indeed beyond’. As we can both report from our own experiences, while such collaborative forms of research are personally and professionally rewarding, operating at the interface of academia and public life, they are also imbued with complexity. As Macmillan and Scott (2003, p 102–104) explain:

In the light of differing positionalities such as age, gender and ethnicity, for example, our collaborating organizations may perceive us in contrasting ways. … Local interest in the results of the research may be heightened and may, therefore, raise the stakes in safeguarding the interests of participants, especially where power relations are involved.

The risks to academic autonomy are very real in collaborative work, and others writing on the impact agenda have similarly remarked how such autonomous working ‘potentially declines with the increased pressure to engage with different research users and publics outside the academy’ (Rogers et al, 2014, p 4). This is only the tip of the iceberg of a set of complex issues (see Brah and Phoenix, 2004; McCall, 2005) which are not, by any means, easily or readily resolved.

In the spirit of contributing to and developing these interdisciplinary debates, we raise more questions in this volume than we can possibly address, by asking: How do the social identities of researchers in research encounter spaces shape the types of engagements and impacts that take place? What – and who – are the presences and absences in these research engagement and encounter spaces? How do assumptions or perceptions about researchers’ positionality in encounter spaces facilitate the transmission of different forms of knowledge, the receptiveness to ideas and the forming of coalitions? Or do they reify and reproduce long-standing (elitist) assumptions about academia and academics?

Collection contents and key themes

Together, the chapters in this volume map out and unpack some of the key concepts, processes and entry points in analysing spaces of engagement and encounter in research, policy and practice. These are arranged into three themed parts: (1) Encounters with Difference; (2) Experts and Expertise, and (3) Research, Power and Institutions. We also offer practical advice for other researchers embarking on engagement and impact work, in a bid to engender greater social awareness of the role of intersectionality, identity and power in their work. Examples of encounter spaces from eight authors – across a range of contextual, conceptual and methodological perspectives – are presented and employed to unpack how research engagement takes place within research/academic institutions, as well as between research/academic institutions, policy and society. In particular, the collection draws out the significance of identity, social differences, intersectionality and subject positionings; most of our contributors write from within and reach out beyond geographical debates on these topics. The chapters speak to the ways in which engagement spaces between policy, public and research also intersect with personal and social identities, such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, (dis)ability, age/generation, sexuality, cultural heritage and so forth. Each deal with inter-categorical complexities (McCall, 2005) in different ways and in different settings. In doing so, the collection instigates new thinking in the field of research engagement and in impact as social and political space; it is much worthy of further investigation.

The book starts with a Foreword by the activist Ruth Ibegbuna, whose long-term engagement with young people, and particularly young black men, exposes and reminds us of why a greater understanding of intersectionality in encountering others is needed within society, and of the conflict and loss it could lead to if, once again, it continues to be ignored by academia, policy, industry and society.

In Part I, ‘Encounters with difference’, we explore close up the ways in which research encounters and engagements shape and are shaped by understandings of social difference. Opening with Erin Pritchard’s reflections on being a female with dwarfism and conducting fieldwork, Chapter Two works through the multiple negotiations of gender, disability and (hetero)sexuality as emplaced and lived. Drawing on examples covering text messages and face-to-face interactions at UK conventions, Pritchard examines how power relations within fieldwork are played out in real time, with sometimes unsettling consequences. Moving to consider the interconnections of class, accent and dialect, in Chapter Three Sarah Marie Hall examines identity making and social positioning in the context of research engagement with families, academic communities and policy makers in the UK. Drawing also on gender and whiteness, she makes the case for class and accent as an important, though less-acknowledged, form of social positioning in spaces of research encounter.

Part II, ‘Experts and expertise’, then takes a critical look at where and whose knowledge is valued and sustained within research engagements in the name of ‘impact’. In Chapter Four Michael Richardson explores the notion of research participants as experts in their own lives. Reflecting upon research in the UK and Hong Kong, he works to problematise the notion of expertise within spaces of engagement when interacting with other actors, groups and stakeholders. Chapter Five by Ralitsa Hiteva then works to unpack intersectionalities of gender, disciplinary background and nationality in working with policy and industry and between academic institutions in the context of infrastructure, exposing the burden of emotional labour for early career researchers in performing as experts in encounter spaces. Transdisciplinary expertise in the Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia, forms the focus of Chapter Six by Gordon Waitt. Bringing ideas around situated knowledges together with intersectionality, he describes how experiences of working with interdisciplinary teams and the federal government may both reproduce and contest conventional approaches to knowledge.

Part III, on ‘Research, power and institutions’, then zooms out to explore the structural context in which issues around engaging with policy, practice and publics arise. In Chapter Seven Pamela Moss and Michael J. Prince focus on concerns about disability from a Canadian policy perspective, developing the notion of ‘nomadic positionings’. Considering how intersectional identities are open to change and fluidity, they propose recommendations for how needs across the life course may be better addressed with clearer articulation of shifting social positions over time. John Paul Catungal continues some of these themes in Chapter Eight, exploring the multiple positionings of academics in public policy in the Canadian context. Using examples of critic, advocate and enforcer, particularly in research and activism relating to race and sexuality, he presents intersectionality theory as a means to more fully understand the relationship between academia and policy. Finally, the collection closes with a Conclusion by the editors, in which we reflect on the key lessons and remaining questions raised by the discussions.

This volume brings together different insights into how those researching and engaging with others in academia, policy making, industry and civil society are perceived and encountered in these engagement spaces; how different aspects of their social identity, embodied characteristics, beliefs and knowledge affect how they work with others; the type of research they do; and how their work is received, depending on the context. In sum, this book aims to unpack the how and why of encountering and engaging with others, including the decisive role of encounters in engagement outcomes. By giving voice to personal and social identities, the book aims to create a multifaceted understanding of researchers that moves away from situating them as neutral, objective and lacking agency outside of their areas of identified expertise, as well as to highlight the difficulties that are encountered in being perceived as experts. The collection thus offers a diverse range of real-life examples and practical advice for researchers, and the people who work with them, on how to address the issues arising from our multiple intersecting identities when we encounter each other. More importantly, it explores how to bring to light that which often remains hidden but shapes how we are understood and how we respond to those around us in our research engagements and encounters. This collection illustrates the need for further investment in understanding and codifying the relationships between academia, industry, policy and civil society in the encounter spaces within which they take place. Furthermore, it is a call for their joint stewardship in making encounter space and impact a force for positive change and well-being for all.

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