Monday, October 11, 2010

Engaged Scholarship

Last week, I attended a half-day seminar hosted by the Department of Organization on "relevance and engagement with practice". It was really well done, with short clear presentations and plenty of time for discussions. That's not to say that I agreed with everything that was said, of course, and this week I'm going to write three posts based on my notes from that seminar.

The core of the seminar consisted of presentations by two guest speakers: Andrew Van de Ven from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (USA) and Chris Grey from the Warwick Business School (UK). Van de Ven published an influential book a few years ago called Engaged Scholarship (Oxford University Press, 2007), which became the touchstone for much of the conversation. In this first post I'm going to talk about Van de Ven's and Grey's presentations. On Wednesday I'm going to talk about the practitioner perspective on the issue and on Friday I'll talk about the perennial issue (certainly here at RSL) of publication.

Van de Ven presented engaged scholarship as a kind of social movement that seeks to transform the way we do our research at the universities. Citing Ernest Boyer's 1990 report, Scholarship Reconsidered, he called for researchers to think of themselves as more than that, i.e., to think of themselves not narrowly as "researchers" but broadly as "scholars". This means being open to many different points of view and those points of view, he emphasized, include practitioners. We must, that is, begin to engage more with practice—we must make ourselves more "relevant". Instead of producing knowledge in isolation from practice (cultivating what he calls an "insular" ethos) and then somehow "transferring" it to practice, we should think of ourselves as "co-producers" of knowledge. That is, knowledge is to be produced "out there" in practice, not "in here" in the academy.

I should mention that Boyer's report is of particular interest to me because Karl Weick recently invoked it to dismiss my concerns about his scholarship—mainly misreading and plagiarism of his sources. These concerns, he says, are not relevant because he practices what Boyer calls "the scholarship of integration". "Some value that form of work," he says dryly. "Some do not" (2010: 179). That is, because Weick's work is "engaged", he seems to be saying, ordinary "academic" standards don't apply.

As Van de Ven presented, I got increasingly concerned that "engaged scholarship" is a kind of assault on traditional academic values. It is an attempt to valorize "imagination" over "validity" (Van de Ven 2007: 19) and therefore marginalizes forms of criticism that might point out straightforward errors of scholarship. The question, then, is whether this reprioritization is worth it. Indeed, there appears to be a counter-movement out there as well, namely, the growing concern with "academic freedom". After all, if scholars are increasingly asked to "engage" with practice then they are also asked to take practitioner concerns seriously and this means being more responsive to what the practitioners would like us to say. As Morten Vendelø astutely noted, sometimes the "co-producer" doesn't want to hear what the researcher discovers, so one way to keep the "co-production" running is, presumably, to think of something else to say. Academic freedom is not an "unengaged" attempt to "insulate" the academy from practitioner concerns; it is a wholly legitimate attempt to protect long-term research interests (of society as a whole) from short-term business interests (of individual organizations).

This is where Chris Grey's ideas impressed me. He pointed out that "being relevant to practice" is a very complicated matter because "practice" isn't any one thing. Even if we confine the "practices" that organization studies "theorize" to "management" (and Grey was right to question doing so), there are a multiplicity of "stakes" (matters of concern for stakeholders) that one might be responsive to. All research is relevant to (i.e., engages with the practices of) someone. The strength of university-based "academic" research has always been its openness to this multiplicity of concerns. Grey noted in passing what I think is really the strongest platform for engagement—the classroom—and that's what I will talk about on Wednesday. The student body is the only place where transfer-to-practice by "co-production" of knowledge makes sense. Indeed, not only are our students, taken together, richly "multiple", they are a way of engaging with the practice of the future.

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