Connection, Participation and Empowerment in Community-Based Research: the Case of the Transition Movement

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Geography


This project will explore patterns of engagement and knowledge exchange within the Transition movement in the UK, with particular attention to the relationships among academic researchers, Transition initiatives - local groups promoting community-led responses to climate change, peak oil and economic contraction - and the Transition Network, an international coordinating body dedicated to supporting Transition initiatives and enabling their work.

In the context of an increasing emphasis on research 'impact' in the forthcoming research excellence framework (REF), many researchers in the humanities and social sciences will be seeking to engage more directly with potential research beneficiaries in community groups and movements. However, the experiences of both the Transition Network and individual Transition initiatives (as with other community organisations) suggest that the potential benefits of collaboration with researchers are not always realised. The Transition Network has also indicated that, while it recognises these potential benefits, in practice these are not always realised, and there are risks that researchers can be a drain on limited time and resources.

Against this background, this project will investigate how relationships among researchers, the Transition Network, and local Transition initiatives can be mutually beneficial. It will do this through a collaboration between interested academics and Transition Network staff. This team will first lead a process of documenting and reflecting on experiences of researcher engagement with transition. The learning from this phase will then feed into the design of strategies and protocols for enhancing knowledge sharing and researcher engagement. A series of pilot workshops will also be held, to test new approaches and respond to needs identified by the transition network. Throughout, the project will experiment with a co-inquiry methodology inspired by permaculture design, chosen for its relevance to the Transition movement (itself informed by permaculture).

The main outputs from this project will include guidelines for managing relationships between academic researchers and Transition groups or communities, a report for a general audience that will summarise key findings from the documentation, design and piloting phases, and an academic article in a peer-reviewed journal.

The project will be relevant to a range of stakeholders and beneficiaries, including Transition Network members and staff, local Transition initiatives, academics and policy-makers interested in the Transition movement as a relevant example of community-led adaptation to climate change and peak oil, and academics interested in qualitative and participatory research methodologies.

The project contributes to the development of the Connected Communities programme, addressing all three of its three core themes, including researchers from four existing scoping studies and building upon findings from a broad range of further studies in the scoping phase.

Planned Impact

The collaborative and applied nature of this research means that impact is, to a significant extent, built in to its design: the action research orientation directly targets issues and needs already identified by the Transition Network, and the research process develops the Transition Network's capacity to address these at the same time as it explores them in greater depth.

Broader impacts will derive from:
1. The Transition Network's unique position at the heart of one of the most important movements for community-led change (both in the UK and worldwide);
2. Using existing mechanisms for rapid communication and uptake of new ideas and practices through the Transition Movement;
3. The Transition movement's emphasis on interconnection means its activity intersects with other and broader movements for community action at local, regional, national and global scales, further extending its networks for communication and learning;
4. Existing and ongoing involvement of all members of the research team in a broad range of community action, at a range of geographical scales.

Findings will be directly applied in the Transition Network's future dealings with professional researchers and development of its own research activity, along with the advice and support it gives to individual Transition Initiatives about working with researchers. They will also be communicated through the Transition Network's existing mechanisms:
1. Posting of reports and written outputs to the research section on the Transition Network's interactive website (345,000 unique visitors during 2010).
2. The monthly Transtion Network newsletter (10,000 subscribers)
3. Workshops at the Transition Network annual conference in summer 2012 and/or 2013.
4. Overlap between the research team and the Transition Network's interest group on researching Transition, which brings together academics/students interested in working with Transition groups and Transition activitists interested in working with researchers (Henfrey and Bastian facilitated meetings of this group at the Transition Network conference in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and are seeking funding to activate an academic-activist network to develop its activities further).
5. Possible incorporation into training courses run by the Transition Network, directly given to over 400 people per year and to many hundreds more through a global network of trainers set up by the Transition Network.

Natural avenues for communication beyond the Transition Movement derive from strong interconnections with other networks of community action at both local and national levels, ensuring the research gains broader attention at both of these levels. Nationally, the Transition Network is a member of the Communities and Climate Action Alliance, a 'network of networks' convened by Transition Network CEO Peter Lipman that also includes the Low Carbon Communities Network, Local United, the Green Communities Network, the Community Energy Practitioners Forum and the Scottish Climate Challenge Fund Network. At local levels, an important part of the work of Transition Initiatives is to create and work through linkages between existing sustainability and community development groups in their area, and to cultivate good working relationships with local government. The benefits for impact will be magnified by the national and international prominence of the Transition movement: the Transition Handbook has sold over 28,000 copies worldwide (in six languages) and both the current government and previous administration have consulted Peter Lipman and Rob Hopkins for high-level policy advice within DECC.


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Description The rise of interest from academic researchers in movements such as Transition is potentially positive: research can benefit both groups, and play an important role in tackling pressing issues such as climate change. Our research with TIs and academics suggests that these benefits are often maximised when collaborative research approaches are used. This project has itself exemplified a process of knowledge co-production, advocated in many Connected Communities outputs.
The guidance and resources developed on this project are intended to support diverse activist-academic research collaborations, offering not only generic advice but encouraging approaches, methods and practices that are situated within, and sensitive to, particular contexts and projects and their specific needs, capabilities and values.
However, there are currently a number of significant barriers to activist-academic research collaborations that benefit both sides. Addressing these would significantly ease the process:
• The significant knowledge gap amongst funders and reviewers about collaborative and activist research, their traditions, practices and requirements, and important differences to non-collaborative research approaches. While more funders and academics are now speaking the language of engagement and collaboration, the meaning and distinction of terms such as transdisciplinarity, co-production, participatory, community-based, activist and action research are poorly understood.
• The time and resources needed for collaborative research, particularly before research projects can be designed. Lengthy dialogue and trusting relationships had been developed leading up to this project's design, and these can not be forced or shortcut. The provision of infrastructure that facilitates discussions and long-term contact between academics and activists is potentially a valuable part of the role that research councils, Universities and social movements can have.
• The iterative nature of participatory and collaborative research. Questions and methods may change as partners work together; researchers and authors may join the team as the project develops (as happened here); spinoff projects and other activities are catalysed. This dynamic and networked way of working often crosses beyond the discrete bounds of research projects.
• Funding mechanisms require adjustment to take account of these interrelationships between academics and activists in research. At present non-academic collaborators on research grants tend to have a second class status (at worst described by some in the CC programme as 'bid candy'). As time has progressed, however, the Connected Communities programme has become a champion, as non-academic researchers have often been paid for their time, and our Showcase grant was held by Transition Network rather than a University - a first for UK research councils.
• The need for forms of research evaluation that focus on process, 'soft' outcomes and benefits to all parties, as well as harder, bounded outcomes. Again, this requires time, resources and dialogue.
• Research impact as currently constructed in REF2014 HEFCE documentation requires adjustment, if collaborative research with grassroots organisations is to be recognised and encouraged (Pain et al 2011a). This requires more emphasis and measurement on the mutual benefits that arise within and through process, as well as isolated outcomes. At present the form of research reported here does not fit well with academic institutional culture; meaning that valuable opportunities are often lost for research on and with grassroots organisations working on the most pressing social, economic and environmental issues facing us. Research Councils' requirements for impact might also explicitly recognise these forms of research.
Exploitation Route The research protocol is freely available online and relevant to a range of other oganisations and users
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Research protocol developed that is used by Transitions Research Network for all research undertaken by external and internal researchers. it is also freely available to other organisations online. This makes for more useful research with more impacts for TRN and its social/environmental justice goals.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description Providing research protocol for and with Transitions Research Network
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Research protocol developed that is used by Transitions Research Network for all research undertaken by external and internal researchers. it is also freely available to other organisations online. This makes for more useful research with more impacts for TRN and its social/environmental justice goals.
Description AHRC
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Description European funding
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Title Research Protocol Pattern Language 
Description A detailed guide to undertaking collaboraive research in the form of a layered 'pattern language'. Different entry points for academic and non-academic researchers. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Unkown - it is freely available online