What are the implications of systems thinking for the way we design research?

July 19, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

If you stick around in your job long enough, you end up getting consulted a lot. Every week I seem to spend a couplebrian-savage-thank-god-a-panel-of-experts-new-yorker-cartoon of hours on skype banging on to assorted academics, NGOs consultants etc about NGOs, aid, development, life, the universe etc. The only upside (apart from a bit of human contact and an escape from reading/writing boring development documents) is getting the odd idea for a blog out of the conversations.

This week it was Open University’s Jude Fransman, who coordinates a seminar series on the politics of evidence in academic-NGO research partnerships. The topic was a bit of a chestnut – how NGOs understand, carry out and use research. I’ve written about it quite a bit in the past, but the new angle was taking the conclusions of How Change Happens (did I mention I’ve got a book coming out?….) on how systems thinking means activists should be rethinking their roles and applying them to the way NGOs (and others) do research. See what you think.

Getting beyond supply or demand to convening/brokering

Supply-driven is the norm in development research – ‘experts’ churning out policy papers, briefings, books, blogs etc etc. Being truly demand driven is hard even to imagine – an NGO or university department submitting themselves to a public poll on what should be researched? But increasingly in areas such as governance or value chains, we try and move beyond both supply and demand to a convening/brokering role, bringing together different ‘unusual suspects’ – what would that look like in research? Action research, with an agenda that emerges from an interaction between communities and researchers? V little of that going on at the moment. Natural science seems a bit ahead on this one – Irene Guijt points out that when the Dutch National Research Agenda ran a nationwide citizen survey of research questions they wanted science to look at, 12,000 questions were submitted and clustered into 140 questions, under 7 or 8 themes. To the organizers’ surprise, many citizens asked quite deep questions.

Diversity and Unusual suspects

A linked point. The research world is a very determined set of monoculture sub-cults/sub-systems, with discipline-centric accepted ways of doing everything, siloed sets of standards that inhibit interdisciplinarity etc. There are some good reasons for that (e.g. quality assurance), but there are some more disreputable ones to, in terms of paradigm maintenance in various disciplines. What would research agendas and processes look like that were decided elsewhere – by indigenous groups, women’s groups or faith organizations?

But what if something happens?......

But what if something happens?……

Critical Junctures

Social and political change is seldom smooth, and often crystallises around critical junctures – shocks like Brexit or the Turkish coup throw existing power relations and norms into the air, and when they come back down, new opportunities are briefly possible (not all of them good). Currently thinktanks are pretty good at this kind of rapid response, at least in terms of commentary (eg CGD and ODI on Brexit), whereas academic institutions are much more sluggish. Could/should NGOs do more, especially in going beyond commentary to using research to actively influence policy or attitudes in the wake of shocks?

Norms not just policies

The central role in development of long-term shifts in underlying social norms has often been underestimated in an aid business focused on project cycles, policies and decision-making, rather than big, slow attitudinal shifts. Gender is one exception – an area where activists working on environment or migration could learn a lot about shifting norms, yet is very under-researched (with some notable exceptions).

Precedents: History and Positive Deviance

OK, I have ranted about this a lot, but it applies in spades to thinking about research. We don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what already works, either historically or today. Research could really help fill in historical gaps, whether on campaigns or redistribution. We should also pay much more attention to seeing where good stuff is already happening in the system (i.e. in real life, not just in our projects, for example identifying and studying villages with lower than average rates of maternal mortality and then going and trying to find out why).

Feedback and course correction – living documents

In systems, your initial intervention is likely to have to be tweaked or totally overhauled in light of feedback from Living documentexperience or events. Yet we still portray our research papers as tablets of stone – the last word on tax reform, women’s rights etc etc. Digital allows us to make them all ‘living documents’, subject to periodic revision, maybe even encourage wiki-policy papers (with moderation to keep things sensible). After all, I regularly get it wrong on this blog, and readers’ comments put me straight – what’s stopping us doing it across the board?

Then of course there’s Brexit – what is the role of research in an era of post-truth politics and ‘we’ve heard enough from experts’? Think that might need another post, though.

Any other thoughts?

And as it’s been a while since I last vlogged, and it’s summer. Here’s me apparently sitting in a bush in my garden

July 19, 2016
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Duncan Green
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