This is a personal reflection from Fabio de Castro on the Transformations to Sustainability mid-term workshop, which took place virtually in June 2020. Find out more about the meeting and see all related content here.
Transformations to sustainability (T2S) research challenges conventional research methods and strategies. Grounded in transdisciplinarity, it exposes the tension between rigid theoretical premises guiding data collection and flexible co-design through engagement methods. In addition, vagueness, polysemy and multi-dimensionality of transformative processes create challenges in the design of methodological strategies to identify and keep track of transformative cases. Temporality and spatiality are particularly relevant aspects as transformative power may conflict across different temporal and spatial scales. In addition, there is a tension between the short-term timeline of the T2S projects and the long-term transformation process. These and other concerns were discussed in the break-out session on methodological challenges in T2S research, which can be grouped in three broad themes.
The first theme is related to the balance between coherent data collection and engagement for co-production. Here, the emphasis on reflexivity, consciousness and joint learning guiding new imaginaries and place making in T2S research may sometimes conflict with systematic methodological designs aiming at broader interpretations of social processes. Creation of co-production spaces such as Open Dialogues, Participatory Mapping, Art Making and Citizen Science has been used as a possible solution for transdisciplinary encounters; however, with exception of IPACST, high polarization of normative interpretations of transformative processes tend to not consider more powerful actors such as business, and national and international agency researchers as potential agents of transformation. Another important methodological element in T2S research is the difference between single and multiple case studies. The former tend to address first-level transformation and have more potential to produce more concrete outcomes, especially if engagement has been in place for a long time. The latter tend to address higher-level transformation as they provide insights on diversity and commonalities, connectivity, and broader collectivities and imaginaries.
The second theme is related to ways to ‘measure’ and ‘keep track of’ transformation. The multi-scale, multidimensionality and temporality of transformative processes pose major challenges in the building of methodological tools to unpack transformation. In order to address this issue, transformation must be defined according to what, at what scale, for whom, and in what phase. In addition, instead of emphasizing transformation, ‘enabling factors’ (potential triggers and support of transformative processes) may prove to be more useful for operationalization purposes. With no intention of pre-defining ‘enabling factors’, some examples that emerged from some T2S project presentations are: network building, increased visibility, partnerships, inspiring ideas and practices, transdisciplinary narratives, visual languages, inclusive policies. At the same time, one must avoid normative interpretations of transformation (and enabling factors) and recognize trade-offs between dimensions of transformation and the dark side of transformation.
One last methodological theme emerged from the current Covid-19 crisis which has created major disruption in the methodological strategy of all projects. It broke the engagement process initiated in the last year and shifted the attention to other fundamental process of survivorship. Not only must the methodological design be adjusted to the new reality but also the research goals and analytical strategy. How relevant is the transformative process for the local actors in this new context? How can new demands emerging from this crisis be incorporated in the original methodological design for engagement and co-production? At the same time, as the current crisis may silence transformative initiatives, an extra effort to keep them alive and visible is needed. The increased use of virtual media has created new opportunities to use digital methods for mobilization, information gathering, communication outreach, and visibility. However, in many places where internet connection is not available, adjustments to the research methodology are even more limited.
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