Researching self-organised communities and recombinant social capital: inverting the ‘participatory’ paradigm

The ‘Painting Connections’ project (UCL CASA, UCL ISR, UCL IGP) was always meant to deliver certain interdisciplinary research outputs as part of a Grand Challenges: Sustainable Cities grant – an exploration of the make-up and informal exchange behaviours of a community exhibiting systems of interactions in a live/work set-up often found in studies on the Global South; VGI mapping and visualisation of the spatial networks and the dynamics of the sharing behaviour across time; and a methodology that enabled a more evenly distributed agency and a sustainable approach in working within the community and produce information valuable to its people, rather than an exploitative, hierarchical one. From the outset we were also keen that our approach would facilitate the exploration of a number of different techniques that would attempt to permeate some of the boundaries of the traditional ‘research’ paradigm, across different axes:

  1. Bring together quantitative and qualitative methodologies to generate a more complete insight into the community’s behaviours, a mixed methods approach.
  1. Loosen the divide between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’, academics and non-academics, to more evenly distribute agency, power and control, access different types of knowledge, and reducing interview and sampling bias, by employing aspects of the ‘Extreme Citizen Science’ approach (Hakley), paired with a practice most closely related to grounded action research (Lingard, 2008).
  1. Employ the paradigm of ‘public engagement’ and ‘social impact’ in research, not merely to disseminate and broadcast, but embed the mechanism within the endogenous context and social language or currency of the community.

So what about ‘public engagement’, ‘outreach’, ‘participation’? For any organisation considering, or in the process of permeating the institutional boundaries of their organisation and extending links to the networks within communities, this is a loaded term on a sliding scale.

How directed is this interaction and what is its nature? Does it form part of an exchange, and at which weighting and degree of multiplicity, or is it a one-way, broadcast or dissemination of information? Often, ‘engagement’ is denounced as tokenism, or a one-way flow of information from those (from the outside) who allegedly know better and those (in the centre) who don’t. Or even if two-way conversation is encouraged, the mechanisms of communication are not inclusive, hard to partake in, or gather information for the purpose of creating a narrative that suits and empowers the receiver. (Arnstein, 1969)

This is often perceived to be economically more prudent – often, participatory process tagged ‘democratic’, is feared to be a long, deliberative process will delay delivery, impair decision-making as it lacks strong leadership, one vision and involves messy compromise that ultimately impedes the formal, interlinked, yet conflicting processes of democratic and bureaucratic power of representative democracy. (Stivers, 1990)

At the same time, the synthesis of different sets of knowledge and practices that have quite different sets of underlying philosophies as well as objectives might involve loss of control and a restacking of ideas about of what success in the respective separate practices looks like (interdisciplinary research being a case in point, as well as the employment of the ‘participatory’ paradigm and its benchmarking being famously undefined). (Day, 1997)

Arnstein’s (1969) much quoted paper ‘A ladder of citizen participation’ suggests a scale ranging from ‘manipulation’ to ‘citizen control’ to describe and classify processes usually grouped under the umbrella of ‘participation’. While Arnstein’s article commented on participation in planning, employing this approach in Higher Education (under the title ‘engagement’, ‘participatory’, ‘outreach’ or ‘impact’) is equally contested, often positioned as a dichotomy of, on the one hand, a tickbox exercise causing the dilution of academic discourse, loose methodology doing more damage than good in respect to the target group and the outputs, and reducing academic time spent on pure academia instead of ‘utilitarian’ pursuits; and on the other a real opportunity to develop a relational technique to open up a technocratic discourse that often underpins macro-level decision-making and allow for a more applied, socially embedded or informed avenue for academia, engaging and supporting the public sphere it is part of and levelling divides in the production of knowledge. (Day, 1997; Universities UK, 2015)

Citizen participation is often also linked to discourses of ’empowerment’, suggesting that the relinquishing of control of the process can increase self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986), a sense of meaning, and an increased awareness of the issues at hand and how to mitigate them (Zimmerman and Rappaport, 1988). If we consider the holding of knowledge as an act of power that is traditionally skewed in favour of those with access to this particular knowledge that is valued and traded in a knowledge marketplace, and feeds into official decision-making processes with impact (i.e. higher education, government institutions, think tanks), then considering the level01983-je-participe-ils-profitent-atelier-populaire-mai-1968ling of endogenous community knowledge and learning from this, is inverting this dynamic. There is at the same time a need not to exploit this knowledge by those who benefit from access to it (in the vein of ‘nous participons – ils profitent’ by Atelier populaire ex-Ecole des Beaux-Arts, May 1968), but gain a better understanding  while embedding a practice of exchange, particularly as part of an organisation such as UCL who has taken up residence at the QEOP.

In our work, the processes of designing of questions, surveys, the collection of data and the interaction with the community most closely resembled Arnstein’s ‘Partnership’ rung of the ladder. From the beginning, Creative Wick Director William Chamberlain was part of the research team, ensuring that the project was a two-sided exchange and the community stood to gain from the process. The research team also went through the UCL Research Ethics Committee to ensure that ethical standards were adhered to, particular with respect to the voluntary sharing of geographic data in a live/work community.

While the team used ONS census data to generate a base description of the geographical community, its make-up in terms of age, ethnicity and position on the deprivation index, paired with a quantitative survey of the community, the next stages involved training three ‘citizen scientists’ to carry out in-depth qualitative interviews with members of the community, who also distributed sharing diaries within the community to complete over a two week period. We heavily drew on Haklay’s Extreme Citizen Science approach and grounded action research (Strauss, Corbin, 1998), handing over the agency to citizen researchers and increasing the closeness between subject and object in the research process, generating the type of in-depth granular insights that quantitative, purely academic-led approaches often miss.

The proposal also included an exhibition by local artists towards the end of the year. When this was planned it seemed like a novel way of doing ‘research outreach and impact’, with the intention to have a more distributed linking of agency in how higher education interacts with its immediate micro-level surroundings and issues at the macro-level in society at large.

Of course, the submission and selection process was directed, and as with the employment of the citizen scientists, selected individuals were representative of the community, but the development of the exhibition was collaborative: the work was developed to be project and site-specific in a span of 2-3 weeks. The art was intended to relate to, or comment on, the subject of the idea of a ‘sharing economy’ and the state of the HWFI community, with a critical, reflective stance – in that way, the objects and projections displayed had no direct relation to any results, any data, any tangible quantifiable output understood as ‘research’.

As we went through this process, we ourselves became part of the particular ways exchanges take place in HWFI far more closely, handing over control, and gaining a lot in the process, depending on the trust of everyone involved: keys to a factory for a weekend, help with clearing spaces, a band, free drinks for the private view, help with the design of promotional material and promotion, and internally to the Bartlett School of Architecture and CASA, projectors, swift management of admin and finance, lighting, and free printing.

In turn the ‘outreach’, or ‘impact’ activity became less literal and less directed from an academic or institutional context, but more endogenous to the place and its characteristics. If we can think of each (overlapping and intersecting) organisational sphere (i.e. community, academia etc) as having differing practices, sets of knowledge and social and cultural currency (i.e. HWFI: artistic/creative process, sharing/exchanges to mediate economic vulnerability), as a way of exchanging meaning and constructing identity within its specific context, then organising an exhibition in Hackney Wick as part of Hackney WickED Open Studios weekend in a warehouse adjacent to a factory to be demolished in upcoming developments turned out a fitting activity.

It wasn’t just a fitting activity because it ticked a particular set of boxes, but because it allowed us to immerse ourselves in a process that was part and parcel of the locality and abstracted the output to an extent that the activity was parsed into its context, and the boundaries of who was ‘participating’ thus became less clear and much less important. Without direct intention, three levels of ‘participatory’ practices came together:

  1. Participation in engagement with place, of which there is a long tradition: dissolution of the hierarchies and boundaries between ‘planner’ and ‘public’. Although not a planning or development project, engagement with place, its traits (creative clusters, social innovation, sharing culture), against the background of its impeding changes played a part in our work. Volunteered geographic information and mapping also provided a better, more fine-grained and nuanced picture of the community’s behaviours than typically available aggregate level data.
  2. Participation in research through the Extreme Citizen Science and grounded action research approach: dissolution of the hierarchies and boundaries between ‘researcher’ and ‘public’, alongside a more socially aware and applied focus of work. Citizen scientists were trained and paid for their independent work on location.
  3. Collaborative curating reminiscent of artist-led curating: dissolution of the hierarchies and boundaries between ‘curator’ and ‘artist’. Artists and venue received funding to create site-specific work and had control over the space and their arrangement within it (within constraints). (see ‘Curating the Contemporary’, Hans Ulrich Obrist, or In addition, the show explored the employing of a clear socio-political angle within curation, which developed another turn along the axes of ‘professional exclusive ‘art for art’s sake’ domain versus socially engaged public domain’. (see also, Johnston in ‘On Curating’)

The benefit of this practice? As an exhibition, its aim was to provide visitors with an experience and the raising of awareness – both of the research project, but more importantly of the sets of problems present within the physical and geographical community: scheduled demolitions, the changing neighbourhoods with the advent of QEOP refurbishment, seeing major museums move in, the high level of trust present in a tightly-knit, geographically bounded and professionally/culturally relatively uniform community paired with the reality of economic necessity as a driver for sharing behaviours.

Taking part in HackneyWickED festival weekend and seeing over 1000 people visit our show clearly ticked the box of raising awareness. As an exercise in intersecting practices and sets of knowledge, mediating between them, opening up communication, exchanging information and learning to operate with more awareness within them, as well as learning about the limitations of that practice, the exhibition was also a great vehicle.

On the other hand, it obviously did nothing tangible to change the reality of, say, demolitions and scheduled evictions of artists and the factory that was venue for our exhibition on Wallis Road, or feed into a formal institutional engagement process. However, collaborating with local residents on a piece of work that was outside our context (research) but within theirs (art) was an inversion of the researcher – citizen science exchange of the previous months. Through organisations such as Creative Wick and Affordable Wick, the community already has a strong fabric of self-organised initiatives to foster and protect their interests, and we were lead by their expertise in positioning our work – once the evaluation of the collected data has been completed, we’d hope the findings will be helpful for the community in communicating their unique character and the useful implications of retaining the conditions under which the community knows itself it can thrive, in combination with new organisations and their practices.

Naughton (2005) explores the idea of a more nuanced, relational reinterpretation of the often positivist, rational-choice, or utilitarian employment of the term ‘social capital’, in that ‘social capital is reconstructed as an emergent effect of the activated power relations within and between groups’. This points towards an approach that makes the relational, power-distributed coupling in the exploration and ownership of knowledge and resources possible and valuable, something that is also outlined, albeit in a purely economic and regional context, by Yeung (2005) outlining a relational approach ‘compromising local and non-local actors, tangible and intangible assets, formal and informal institutional structures and their interactive power relations’. Moving away from power relations, Grabher and Stark’s (1997) evolutionary theory model of recombinant properties and loose coupling between old and new, informal and formal institutions and groupings with regards to organising diversity in post-socialism suggests the co-existance of distinct organisational systems of networks and openness to new sets of knowledge in a context of transformational friction (in the case of new institutions entering the vicinity of a tightly-knit self-organised community) can play a positive role in retaining established localised knowledge and recombining these with new practices and sets of knowledge (knowledge read as an asset of exchange) towards a selection of optimal self-organising and development strategies under new conditions.

Future exploration could involve a longitudinal study on the impact of new organisations interacting with the community through the QEOP developments (universities, museums, cultural organisations, businesses, newcomers as part of new developments), such as the robustness of its patterns of exchange across time, including thresholds and conditions that encourage or discourage sharing behaviours and/or the creative economy; and their effect on the sharing eco system, perhaps through indicators of levels of trust and ‘social capital’ measures of the community, as factors potentially encouraging mutual exchange and sharing behaviours. Currently reviewing the data collected there are already interesting patterns of different subsets of community networks and power relations emerging, as well as diverse ideas on what ‘sharing’ and ‘creative economy’ might mean for individuals and different sub groups and their relations with each other.