Image: Ceri Davies

Ceri Davies has a varied research and practice background that spans disciplinary boundaries, positioning her ideally for her work supporting community and research partnerships across issues and disciplines. This was her role working at The Community University Partnership Programme (CUPP) at the University of Brighton, where she led a programme of knowledge exchange projects between academic and community partners between 2008-2018. She is now a Research Director at NatCen, a social research institute, where she leads a portfolio of policy-related research on topics of civil society. 

With a grounding in the biological sciences (graduating in 2003), Ceri continued her studies for a masters in Natural Resource Management. More recently, she received a PhD for which she explored community-university collaborations. She specifically focused on the challenge of accommodating and working with multiple ways of knowing and understanding, and what this can mean for claims of ‘engaged citizenship’ and ‘knowledge democracy’.  Ceri holds the concept of ‘Social justice’ centrally to her practice, and also has extensive practical experience, having worked in community development in the UK and overseas. This equips her to reflect on the practical realities of work done in the name of community university partnerships, engagement with research and participatory development.

The terms and language that Ceri uses may be unfamiliar to those working under the umbrella of community engagement with global health. However, much of what Ceri has to say is directly relevant to community engagement practice; this is also often driven by large academic institutions, whose methods of communication may not match with the communities they serve. These communities might have their own ways of understanding and communicating their concerns. And, whilst community engagement practice might not overtly speak in terms of ‘social justice’, terms such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’ are being increasingly seen in community engagement discourse, which suggests an implicit commitment to ideas around ‘social justice’.

In conversation, Ceri speaks candidly about her experiences. She outlines some of the tensions that working from a strong value base creates when working within an academic institution with its own traditions and pressures around knowledge production (research) and productivity. Interestingly, Ceri suggests that there might be a correlation between a researcher’s disciplinary approach to question forming and how they might approach engagement design. She also expresses bafflement that the concept of social justice has been so absent in ‘engagement’ discourse. This article has been written in the hope that Ceri’s reflections provide insight into some of the challenges that community engagement practitioners positioned between the academy and the community might experience. 

I know something about you, but can you tell me a bit more detail about you, your background and what motivates you?  

I have a bit of a mixed background. My career started in community development. I then worked for a charity, which had social justice aims. It was trying to support organisations and small groups to mobilise around issues of health and health inequality. That was before I joined CUPP in 2008.  Prior to all that my undergraduate degree was in biology so I kind of came on this interdisciplinary journey through the natural sciences to a PhD in social science, which has been illuminating.

Mixed in with that trajectory was some international work. My Master’s thesis looked at water governance in rural Uganda and the social mobilisation of water user-groups around this. Also, in 2016-17 I did a 12-month secondment as a research fellow on a project looking at mental health service users’ experience of care. That had a participatory research aspect to it: we supported a group of peer researchers to inform the delivery of the research and conduct co-interviews. We also had a mixed professional/academic advisory group and so incorporated nearly all the perspectives of people to whom the research might be relevant.

I suppose the commonalities across that rather random set of work have been around participation, inclusion, voice, and about agency and people’s ability to create change to things that matter to them, in the ways that they want, rather than in the ways that are decided by - or imposed on - them from outside. 

Tell me more about the idea of Social justice, as you understand it?

There are various definitions. In a nutshell I think that it’s the ability for people to make the change that they want, in the way that they want. My views around social justice are principally informed by two political scientists called Nancy Fraser and Iris Marion Young  as well as my own practice experiences. Conceptually Fraser & Young say social justice is about adequately recognising people and finding ways to include differences (such as different identity groups and statuses) in participatory or engagement situations. This difference can also relate to different ways in which people express what they know and have the opportunity to have what they know listened to.  

Young also says that it’s about changing the ‘conditions of domination’ if there is an inequality between groups, which I find particularly significant.  Otherwise, all we will do is come up with amazing things but none of the wider pieces of an issue or context move. Universities will come up with knowledge, but communities will not receive the benefits of that knowledge. A project can look like an opportunity for co-produced research but if it doesn’t do anything to change the way we think about who a researcher and whose knowledge counts (for example challenging the idea that academics are the researchers and non-academics the informers) then it is not an approach founded on social justice.

The justice bit for me is around how we can transform and change those knowledge dynamics.  This is a kind of ‘mutual transformation’. To deal with issues of social justice is not just to recognise that you are different to me but also to change the conditions so that we each can have a say and get things done in a way that is recognised and validated.

The other issue around my understandings of social justice is seeing things as complex and structural. This means paying attention to how social relations and institutions are organised at a large scale, and how these arrangements frame how people act and what their lives are like.  Using this lens helps me appreciate that what we do and how we do it aren’t neutral acts and that structural arrangements advantage and disadvantage people according to all sorts of social, political and economic rules. So, it is more complicated than being able to say, for example, that I have come up with a vaccine for a certain disease and that this will improve people’s lives. This could be an absolutely amazing and significant contribution to transforming people’s lives. But, how that vaccine is used, whether it costs money or not, whether people are likely to be vaccinated depending on their concept of western research etc - all of those things relate to structural issues of social justice.

How was it for you coming from such a strong and explicit value base whilst positioned within an institution or organisation which might not ascribe to the same set of values?

I feel our values conflicted a little bit at times. When I first started working for the university it was quite hard to have that institutional lens. It took me a while to be in that liminal space where I could hold both interests at the same time. I had to learn about what these large institutions were doing and what their intentions were.

Perhaps there is always going to be a slight paradox about the intentions of engagement and how it’s done. I think that the ‘How it’s done’ bit is often led in a particular way because that’s where the money is, the energy is, or the people are, or that’s where the opportunities lie. The question we must ask ourselves is are our approaches really matching up with our ability to claim our stated aims?

What are some of these tensions more specifically?

I think some of them are around claims for social justice. I started looking at this in my PhD. There is often an assumption that we are using transformative research methods in these participatory approaches and that universities are mobilising their knowledge in ways that is addressing social justice. But, my question is; how can you tell? It’s one thing to say that you are doing it that way but there are layers within layers of practice. How do you know that you get there?

There is also often the assumption that if we are doing co-production then there is obviously an element of empowerment and that might not be true! It looks nice and sounds good and hopefully something nice is coming out of it, but people can be empowered in different ways. There can be forms of empowerment that relate to improving your knowledge about an issue, or having access to data or when research allows you to have a go at doing something new, and then you have forms of engagement that are around changing the fundamental conditions in the area that you are living in or around the issue that you are working on that enable you to do it differently or better.

You might think that it’s an empowering move for communities to be involved in a research experience but in actual fact it can be massively disempowering. In my PhD research an academic was working with activists around the development of a public exhibition.  They collaborated on what it should include, the activists drawing on their family experiences and knowledge and the academic on information in an archive - but, when it came to put the exhibition together the academic largely ignored all the information from the activists and just went with resources from the archive.  In this case she didn’t think their work was as valid as what she could find academically, in doing so privileging academic ‘knowledge’ over lived experience.  That is really challenging. Is it not disempowering to her partners if you engage in a process of collaboration but then discard their testimony because you don’t think that it’s ‘good’ enough? 

There are also practical difficulties. You might say, ‘we are definitely going to work in an engaged way’ but hang on, the reality is your funding only pays for you to turn up once a week when you need to be there one and a half days a week. So maybe you just adjust it and do less.

Another is around authenticity, people’s intentions to do things a particular way. Sometimes you invite people to come in, but they may have hidden agendas - which they might not know they have, quite frankly! This is not a value judgement on an individual. Sometimes they are institutionalised.  Also, it’s often harder for people to have a more authentic engagement experience because this is mediated through other powerful forces that they can’t get rid of.  These can then constrict their ability to do what might be needed and so they can only do what is possible.

Then there are lots of other things around cultures, languages etc. So, what enables people’s inclusion or exclusion in participative opportunities? Often the idea of coming into a university building can be off-putting. You can design the most beautiful piece of engaged research ever but you can’t get people into it because you are holding it in a campus that people can’t afford to get to or they don’t have an access card to get in the door. At that very basic level there are often tensions and clashes, which go unrecognised because you only tend to see the world through your experience right?

It’s hugely complex. What might it take for someone to see all these potential difficulties?

This relates to ways of knowing; how you acquire knowledge about the world and what seems possible or not.  In essence, and particularly in research, if you only ask certain kinds of questions then you only get certain kinds of answers.  

Perhaps people in my academic world are trained to be more critical in their approach. I draw on an area of research called critical theory, which allows you to ask questions from a holistic view rather than seeing things through a single disciplinary lens. From a critical theory standpoint we see knowledge as socially constructed. By this I mean that people, what they know and how they act, are based on an interrelated set of phenomena. These are to do with their experience, and the culture and structures that they live within as well as their social and political situation.

And that is a very different approach to knowledge that a natural scientist might work with?

Yes, the rules are different and how you produce and validate that knowledge is different.

I think that there are opportunities to draw on disciplines from outside of natural sciences for understanding and designing engagement activities. My positioning within critical theory has allowed me to ask questions that I couldn’t have asked with just a biology background, or I might have not seen as relevant to biology. I needed to be able to work within theoretical frames that give me a bit of space and which can hold uncertainty around social phenomena.

But you have worked with natural scientists in these community/university partnerships. Is it difficult coming from a different place?

I wouldn’t say difficult, but I would say different. It depends a bit on how prepared you are to have the discussion and try to dialogue with people from these different positions - be they subject positions, theory positions, life positions. I think that there are some norms around how people can work with each other. It can be difficult if you end up in quite a contested conversation and people didn’t believe what you say because of your disciplinary background, then yes.

I have tried to look at different approaches to things as complementary rather than holding one as better than the other; this is what critical theory - my theoretical home - would advise.

For example, I did some work with a biologist last year around social isolation and they were very keen to see if they could use biomarkers of stress to say something about how people might be affected by social isolation or not. In some of my early conversations with them they said: ‘I don’t really work with people [as research subjects], I work in a lab’ which led to some uncertainty about how they could do community partnership work when it wasn’t in their theoretical nor professional world to be going out to speak to people. I just used that as an opportunity to open up a conversation about some of the ways that you might look at it. That requires me to have some understanding of where they are coming from. I ask questions that help me to understand what is important to them. So it’s not about them proving how biology can be relevant but us both thinking about how we can achieve this end goal of trying to engage people in their process. It’s not about competition between ‘community’ and ‘biology’ but how you can work together on a ‘third issue’ or a particular topic – in other words, the thing you have in common, a bit like in a Venn diagram.

It is difficult to be the person in the middle but I think that is where this varied background that might look a bit broad and a bit random is actually an asset. I think that if I had come up through a single discipline and I had stayed in the university and had no practice experience, I might be more solidly wedded to my world view, and then it becomes more difficult. I understand how that becomes the case for some people, and so I understand that having had the opportunity to do more than one thing means that I am better able to help those conversations to happen.

Are you surprised about the lack of explicit conversation around social justice within community engagement?

It baffles me. Sometimes I think, ‘well perhaps people think that it’s implicit and they conflate community engagement with social justice’. I’m not sure that that is the case though. Community engagement gets practiced in a range of ways and some of the issues that it attends to are not related to issues of social justice, but sometimes they are. However it is often not seen this way, but is seen as an opportunity to get your research paper out or something instead of taking the chance to affect positive change. A community partner might be complicit in this, they might just want data that they can put in their funding report and that’s it. So, sometimes people assume that the two are the same and at other times people think that it’s so far removed and nothing to do with them that it doesn’t even figure in their work.

What I think is interesting is this proliferation of ways in which people practice engagement, in line with a wide range of methods that are now being used in research. These methods are being devised to include and involve people who are affected by that research but none of those things have adequately specified the relationship between the ‘academy’ and the ‘community’. This is an ethics thing, it’s a methods thing but it’s also about the theory of knowledge: What and whose knowledge counts and how is this validated?

When I see big centres asking for funds and their plans to spend absolutely loads of money on public engagement activities, it really gives me pause for thought. I struggle sometimes with the way that the public and communities are being spoken about without any real sense of who these people are, what they want or need or even what they have to contribute themselves. I am disappointed when we are more concerned with making something big and shiny but which doesn’t do anything to change the terms of the debate around knowledge.  But then it is not my place to say that these things should or should not be done, nor do I think these activities don’t have a value.  I just think that resources and energy concentrated on engagement this way could push a bit further.  Interestingly, colleagues Budd Hall & Rajesh Tandon (who hold the UNESCO co-chair in social responsibility in higher education) have pioneering backgrounds in participatory research and knowledge democracy, and have recently been questioning how this agenda, and universities’ public engagement efforts, can be directed explicitly at the sustainable development goals, so maybe that is a fruitful coming together.

In some contexts, such as health and social care research in the UK, user, public or citizen involvement has become official policy and thus researchers are required to at least consider what engagement means in the context of their work. There is some theory to support this. What I think is important is to be aware that there are so many different terms that inscribe different ways of ‘doing’ engagement – anything from public engagement to community-based research. I think of this research along a spectrum in which variations relate to different methods, but crucially what these methods mean for dynamics of power and participation. Some of these approaches situate communities as sources of knowledge some as passive recipients of knowledge and so the opportunity for people to take part in developing and sharing knowledge varies. It is important to develop our ability to draw distinctions and grapple with the differences, especially when we are interested in social justice.

How might our engagement work address issues of social justice?

If you are trying to take a social justice approach then you probably need to think of engagement not as the transferring of knowledge or perspectives or experiences (which is perhaps somewhere else on a spectrum of community engagement). I’d say we need to think beyond the binary of there being two main groups of actors, experts in the institute or laboratory and lay people in the community. I think that if we stay in that binary then we risk reifying those identities and that has implications. Within my research people were thinking about how to blur those boundaries and how that is important for getting to more authentic, direct or committed ways of working with each other. This is an opportunity to challenge some of the structural underpinnings that favour certain people’s perspectives over others’ with respect to knowledge. If you do this then you open up possibilities for things to be done differently, more justly.

So then there is the question: How do you find ways of forming genuine collaboration? 

There are little ways in which bits of change can start to emerge and this can impact on what people can do. One of the key things that I do, in a collaborative partnership, is allow new and different identities to emerge. For example, by shifting who we might call a researcher and the properties that we attach to the idea of researcher, we can allow community members to be considered as researchers. In this way you are changing the way that you hear that person because they are adopting a position in a context where their knowledge can be validated.  And I think starting small is always better for forming genuine collaboration – that way you can carefully pay attention to the relational side of things by focusing on challenging power imbalances and building commitment, trust and reciprocity. This can be quite hard when you are working on big projects with big agendas.

Often for researchers working inside institutions it is difficult to do things differently, isn’t it?

Yes, there are these additional environmental barriers for people who want to work in a collaborative way. For example, the amount of time it takes to develop relationships with non-academics in order to think about doing pieces of co-research (such as co-running an event or co-writing an article) is often completely unrecognised in official work planning. Tasks such as journal writing, going and having a cup of tea with someone, or turning up to their community event are not factored in. The issue is basically that we don’t have systematic mechanisms for recognition of this kind of work within a university, especially in the UK.

Another issue that comes up often for some natural scientists who do a lot of lab based work, is that having some sense of other people’s contexts and the unruly reality of social and community work can be challenging, even down to seemingly small things like modes of communication.  For example, a scientist I was working with spent ages at one point in the project wondering why his community partner wasn’t replying to emails. He said, “I have emailed him three times now! It’s becoming a real problem” I said ok, let’s have a chat about that.  When we did I asked “Do you know that they have just had a funding cut so they are working in an organisation where they are likely to be doing double the work? Maybe he has read your email but he just can’t get around to it. Have you tried phoning him?”.  This idea that there was another mode of operation was the challenge he had to understand.

Do you think that things might be shifting, to allow for these kinds of partnerships?

Yes. If you look 10 years ago, certainly in the university space these kinds of practices were rare in the UK. There were versions of it internationally, but here there were few groups doing this stuff. Now a decade on we are into a space where people are doing PhDs in this. There is this whole field around engaged scholarship and the rise of participatory methods, which came out of development studies and has come into and across disciplines. We have increasing policy mandates on public engagement and funding and resources attached to it through, for example, ‘pathways to impact’.  I think that this is paralleled with what is happening in the public space. Governments across the world are looking at how to be better engaged with their citizens. These also overlap with more critical reflections on questions about power and change, which you see in development studies. After decades of work from people such as Robert Chambers - who wrote the book ‘Whose Reality Counts’ over 30 years ago - I have thought further about these ideas through my PhD, which looked at ‘Whose Knowledge Counts’. Also, there is a change in the professionalization of public engagement and universities now have people who are paid to do public engagement.

So are you hopeful?

I worry that sometimes what we see is these ‘shifts’ actually not being genuine shifts but maintaining the original order.A couple of years ago I sat next to a lady at a meeting and she said that this [engagement] was her job title and I asked, ‘Which department are you in?’ and she said ‘Marketing’ and I though huh…ok! So even though there are these shifts the risk is that what we come to mean by public or community engagement ends up being PR or the transfer of expert knowledge as an academic to people who really need it. There is room for this; my goal is not to police what ‘counts’ as engagement, rather to think more plurally and perhaps more ambitiously about  what we really need to understand as knowledge. This opens up opportunities to do more and different things with respect to social and community issues.

Having said all that, there is some really good theorising on the wide ‘spectrum’ of engagement which helps organise and appreciate this wide range of activity.  Essentially, I understand there to be a wide range of practices associated with engagement, demarcated by how they position dynamics and the outcomes they can produce.

I still think that there are big issues to be resolved along these lines within the science field, specifically the biomedical field where we see engagement where universities have the power to create knowledge and communities participating in that but not collaborating.

Even in the citizen science model - which sounds great right? – there  is the opportunity to contribute usefully to some great things, but when thinking about things through the lens of social justice the missed opportunity from my point of view is that the relationship between expertise and our identities remains the same, despite all the effort put into engaging.  I think we should be asking the question, before we badge methods up, of who does it really change things for?

There is some really good theorising in this area which helps organise and suggest typologies of this wide range of activity. And so, ultimately, I am optimistic about how we can truly take the opportunity to critically understand how we name and carry out our research to transform the complex social issues so many of us, inside and outside academia, dedicate our lives to addressing.

Read our summary of Ceri's PhD thesis here.


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