In Praise of Involvement

Categories: Other, Research, Research Roles, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles


I recently came across “In Praise of Involvement” in the SAGE journal, Business & Society. The article is part of an excellent open-access collection of commentaries about impact that offers relevant insights to researchers beyond the field of business studies.

This set of open-access commentaries is relevant to researchers beyond the business field!

The article on involvement struck a particular chord. Clearly, whether researchers are conducting studies online, face-to-face, or in some combination, involvement is essential. To learn more, I posed a few questions to the co-authors, Laura Spence and
Paul du Gay.

JS. Can you define what you mean by involvement?

LS & PdG. We take a fairly straightforward view on the meaning of involvement. We simply mean that the researcher should not be detached from the topic or subjects of study. We feel it’s important to get away from the dominant focus on research as a means to publishing, and instead consider our research as a Project (Big P), which may span years but encompasses engagement with the stakeholders of the research. This may or may not mean literally the people who are studied, but it would mean having some kind of communication and ideally relationship with some of those who affect and are affected by the study (a classic stakeholder approach), or their representatives. So that might be relevant businesses or business networks, community groups, policy makers, non-governmental organizers.

No-one is suggesting you have to have equal access and influence with all of these simultaneously on every study completed, but every angle of involvement is frankly personally enjoyable and in some way helpful in our experience – though we really don’t want to promote involvement for instrumental reasons.   I think we are aware that some may be concerned that the idea of ‘impact’ could be yet another instrumental goal for researchers. We both do impact work and find it very rewarding and important, but involvement is a wider idea that can apply to pretty much all research. We want to present the idea that involvement is a good in its own right, not just as a precursor to impact.

JS. How does this concept of involvement compare and contrast with participatory action research?

Involvement might come before, during and/or after research, so it isn’t reducible to any particular methodology. An involved researcher could certainly follow a participatory action research approach, but they needn’t. They could be doing quantitative, qualitative or even conceptual work and still build relationships and a dialogue with those who affect and are affected by their research.

JS. How does being involved change the role of the researcher? How can researchers learn to develop these relationships?

LS & PdG. That is a good question, as some might mistakenly think we are suggesting that the researcher should abandon the idea of being independent and do the bidding of their research stakeholders – that is not our point at all. Both of us have been involved with stakeholders of our research and had, at times, to deliver research findings which are not what they want to hear. That is why building up a relationship based on mutual respect is important, and a continual dialogue should make clear early on that the independence of the research is crucial. The researcher thus needs to be willing and able to stand by their research. All this means that research involvement is absolutely the domain of high quality research. We by no means advocate a kind of half-hearted attempt at research and scholarship to achieve involvement– not at all!

JS. You start the article with this statement: “With few exceptions, impact is a by-product of some degree of involvement. We advocate for involvement in its own right, as part of good research. In doing so, we encourage the consideration of research as a circular economy rather than a supply chain of ideas delivering nuggets of knowledge for impact.” Does this circular nature mean researchers should consider doing longitudinal or other multi-stage projects that permit relationship-building and trust?

LS & PdG. That is a good point and it is definitely one option, to aim for formalized long term projects. However, most of us spend many years looking at one topic from different angles, and this is what we mean by a Big P Project. In fact many smaller components of a research journey, and work published along the way, can form an arc of research which is embedded in and enabled by involvement.

JS. What do you suggest that novice or student researchers do to prepare for these levels of involvement?

LS & PdG. We have discussed some of the ideas around involvement with PhD students and early career researchers before and it is important that none of us feel like this is yet another thing to add to the checklist of being a super-human researcher and teacher. But it might not hurt to be aware of some skills which will help support involvement with non-academics. We have suggested thinking about the rhetorical devices that we use in presenting academic work and how they might be adapted and deployed. We propose being aware of our credibility as experts, the quality of our arguments, empathizing with our research stakeholders (i.e. understanding the world from their point of view), and being sensitive about the right time to be involved.

This last one is super-important. Individuals, business, practitioners and policy makers all have time-specific waves of interest in certain topics and hard deadlines to keep! One other thing that people often stumble over is language. Having learnt to write and speak in an academic style, involvement might mean unlearning some of that, and concentrating on a core message presented in a way which reveals it to the non-specialist rather than obscures it. Actually, writing blogs is a brilliant training ground for this!

Spence, L. J., & du Gay, P. (2021). In Praise of Involvement. Business & Society

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