Connecting Epistemologies: Final Report!

The report from our project, working with 11 ECRs to understand their experiences of working on the Connected Communities programme, is available here:

Connecting Epistemologies Report

The executive summary of the report is below. We hope the report will be downloaded, discussed and disseminated widely and we welcome feedback! Leave comments on the blog, tweet to us or drop us an email.

Helen Graham, Katie Hill, Peter Matthews, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor

Summary

Early career researchers (ECRs) are a vital part of the higher education landscape. However their experiences are often underrepresented in discussions about higher education. They occupy an uncertain position, often not securely settled into permanent academic jobs nor having fully completed their academic training. They are, however, essential to the on-going success of research in the UK, as part of Research Council funded projects.

This report contributes to recent attempts to rectify the under representation of the ECR in academic and media discussions. It focuses on a specific group of ECRs, those working on projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme. Connected Communities has funded over 280 projects, with over 400 community partners. The programme aims ‘to understand the changing nature of communities’ and to ‘inform the development of more effective ways to support and catalyse community cultures and behaviours’. The programme has been especially interested in funding methodologically innovative approaches, in particular those drawn from the arts and humanities.

Given this context Connecting Epistemologies sought to explore both the methods and the experiences of ECRs within Connected Communities. The project consisted of a research team who were themselves all ECRs (based on the RCUK definition) and reflected the variety of academic practice captured by the term. They also represented a range of methodological approaches, from quantitative studies of culture through to participatory work with communities.

The research took place between May and October 2014, with an initial workshop and later the involvement of eleven ECRs who were at a variety of career stages. The ECRs all worked with a member of the project team to record their experiences based on questions they developed and using methods with which they were comfortable.

The findings of the report are captured by four themes that paint a picture of the ambivalence of the ECR experience as part of the Connected Communities programme:

• The precariousness of ECR life
• Academic identity
• The role of the Connected Communities programme
• The ECRs’ research methods

All of the participants described their commitment to their work as academics. For some, Connected Communities was seen to have provided a space to very productively bring together different aspects of their lives as researchers, educators, professionals, practitioners or activists.

Others had experienced sacrifices as part of this commitment. For this group, questions were raised as to the suitability of many of their methods for an academic career within the rigid disciplinary frameworks of the university. This could be especially problematic for some ECRs working with participatory or co-creation methods as part of an RA role on a bigger project, in contrast to those that had consciously chosen these approaches.

The uncertainty around the ECRs’ academic lives is connected to the emergence of a new kind of academic and a new version of the meaning and practice of research. This practitioner is no longer the individualised researcher, but is rather a connected and communicative knowledge broker, translating between different worlds of academy, community and often also policy or general public. This identity is shaped as much by Connected Communities as it is by the ECRs’ recognition of the importance of academic impact and the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The Connected Communities project had offered the ECRs the support and the space to develop both this new identity and their methodological innovations. As a result, the Connected Communities programme was seen in a positive light by all of the participants. However, the ambivalence displayed in the other areas of some of the ECRs’ contributions to the project was present in their understanding of the programme. This ambivalence stemmed from their uncertainty as to whether being part of this specific research programme would contribute to job security over the longer term, whether as an academic or not. This was more of an issue for those who had experienced a straightforward academic trajectory, had a clear disciplinary affiliation and traditional ideas of ‘career’. In contrast, those who had a professional background, activist motivations, or who were more relaxed about the different forms their future work might take, saw Connected Communities as providing a relatively secure and high status space to develop their practices.

Ultimately the question for research councils, universities and policy makers is how best to offer sustained support within institutional and funding frameworks for the passion and commitment of ECRs identified in this report.

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