22 SES 09 B, (Post)doctoral researchers and students
Since the 1980s, conceptual models of a knowledge economy (Bell 1973) powered by ever-closer university-industry relations (Gibbons 1994, Etzkowitz 1998, Lam 2010) have become increasingly influential within higher education policy. Both European and national governmental exhortations and requirements have repeatedly called for more contact of this kind. Whilst it can be argued that some of these calls are framed in simplistic terms, the assumption that university-industry partnerships can drive a ‘knowledge-based’ economy has led to increasing investment in industrial doctorates and other collaborative doctoral programmes. These trends reflect a changing policy conceptualization of doctoral education and the anticipated labour market demand for the transferable and professional skills generated through doctoral study (e.g. Enders and de Weert 2004).
Learning from models first trialled in Scandinavia in the 1970s (Assbring and Nuur 2017), many European funding schemes now require industrial research collaborations to be integrated into doctoral programmes (Thune 2010). In the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has promoted industrial studentships, organizational placements and collaborative doctoral projects since the 1980s (Demeritt and Lees 2005). Funders of social research promote doctoral collaborations with a range of civil society, commercial and state/public organisations, seeing these links as facilitating the growth of a better skill-set amongst the next generation of social scientists whilst also increasing the likelihood of the impact of research beyond the university.
In the social sciences, organisational collaborations offer new opportunities for public engagement and knowledge exchange, but come with a range of acute challenges of a practical nature. They also raise important questions about epistemology, autonomy and critical freedom within doctoral education, and it is these questions that we make our focus. Sociologists of higher education have long been critical of creeping corporate influence (Veblen 1953, Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Chan and Fisher 2008), a normative position that informs Slaughter et al’s (2002) analysis of graduate students as ‘exchange tokens’ trafficked between academia and industry. Within the field of higher education, there is a growing evidence-base on industry-doctoral collaborations (e.g. Enders and de Weert 2004, Borrell-Damian 2009, Thune 2009, 2010, Hancock 2018) but this work tends not to foreground individual student experiences, the pedagogy of partnerships, or the role of collaborations in generating critical reflection and new knowledge.
This paper draws upon the professional experiences of the two authors, and on two years of interview-based research with a range of UK social science doctoral students involved in non-academic collaborations. Illustrative vignettes are presented, offering a grounded insight into the very different challenges students face in 'managing' and sustaining these partnerships. The findings show how significant learning can emerge from tensions, failure and frustration, and that 'critical’ insights can emerge through the mundane experiences of organizational engagement.
We use Burawoy's division of sociological labour (2005) to analyse these different collaborative experiences. This model offers a heuristic framework through which to understand the synergies and interdependency of both 'instrumental' and ‘reflexive’ knowledge production. We complement this with recent theoretical work focused on the ‘generative paradoxes’ (Bartunek and Rynes 2014) and the ‘reflective entanglements’ (Jagoda 2016) that result from doctoral collaborations.
Reflecting on the epistemological challenges of collaborative research, and acknowledging our own role in training and supporting these doctoral projects, we offer a ‘three dimensional’ view of concepts and practices of collaboration, and end by exploring what criticality means for research students working in and across organisational boundaries, how it might be sustained, and why it matters for the future of the social sciences. We suggest that non-academic collaborations, for all their challenges, paradoxes and contradictions, can play a vital pedagogic role within social science doctoral education.
Our motivation and approach to this topic grows from extended experience of doctoral supervision and from leading large Research Council Doctoral Training Centres/Partnerships since 2011, roles in which we seek to foster and facilitate doctoral collaborations. During 2017 and 2018, we conducted narrative interviews with research students collaborating with companies, charities, government departments/agencies and NGOs, exploring their experiences of initiating, managing and negotiating such arrangements. This initial data-set will be augmented with a further round of interviews during 2019. In the UK, the non-academic organizational funding, support and commitment to collaborative doctoral research in the social sciences varies widely. Some projects are formally co-funded and involve written legal or legalistic agreements, others incorporate ‘in-kind’ resources or mentoring commitments, whilst a few emerge gradually and informally from researchers’ own acts of reciprocity and ‘knowledge exchange’. Some collaborations are related to, or augment, a larger established research collaboration, whilst others are free-standing. Most are with NGOs or governmental agencies, and relatively fewer with companies. Each presents its own challenges. Our initial attempts to categorise collaboration were of limited utility, and we found that each arrangement had its own history and specificity. Some are pre-planned and tightly defined by a supervisory team in conjunction with a research project partner organisation. Others emerge serendipitously during the course of fieldwork, and then may develop over time. Narrative interviews offered students the space to reflect on these relationships and the practical - as well as epistemological - challenges they presented. Our analysis was informed by qualitative interpretive approaches (e.g. Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and a modified form of grounded theory (Thomas & James, 2006). In this paper we use the device of presenting part of our analysis through four ‘vignettes’, chosen because they each offer some detail of one of our interviewees whilst at the same time speaking of wider themes.
Collaboration with ‘non-academic’ organisations is a feature of much leading university-based research. The challenges that this presents for doctoral students and their supervisors deserve close attention. Policy-makers expect academics to foster collaboration, including placements/internships, partnerships and knowledge exchanges, recognising the diversity of places at which social knowledge now gets generated. At the same time, policy debates about what needs to change in doctoral programmes have been dominated by what we term a ‘one dimensional’ view, which frames diagnosis and remedy too simplistically to be helpful to those supporting social science doctorates. Social science research is often necessarily constituted such that it questions the social arrangements, conceptual architecture, the taken-for-granted, the ‘what goes without saying’ of public, private or third-sector organisations. Arguably, this questioning is integral, rather than optional, to good social science, and plays a vital role in any society claiming to have democratic values (Nussbaum 2012). The core challenge is to preserve spaces for questioning and critique whilst making use of the learning opportunities presented by collaborative arrangements in the social sciences. Neither normative critiques of the knowledge economy nor instrumentalist models of knowledge 'exchange' in themselves help students understand the dynamic, iterative and unpredictable work of collaboration and its critically creative potential to make new disciplinary knowledge. We argue that elements of Burawoy’s vision for public sociology provide a useful heuristic for unpacking the ‘antagonistic interdependence’ of ‘instrumental’ and ‘reflexive’ knowledge. We also suggest that learning from the ‘generative paradoxes’ (Jagoda 2016) and ‘reflective entanglements’ (Bartunek and Rynes 2014) of collaborative working – especially different attitudes to time, knowledge and utility - needs to become integral to doctoral education. A ‘three dimensional’ approach to collaboration supports learning opportunities that can be harnessed for the benefit of social science doctoral students, and therefore also for social science research.
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