I’ve been pondering my career options and one trend of interest is the increasing focus on assessing the impact of research activities and investments (link, link, link, link). These assessments are also seen as being inherently challenging (e.g. see link), often highly flawed, and there are important debates about who should do such evaluations and be involved (link). Additionally, there is a need to consider the impact of such assessments on research activities – i.e. how does the impact agenda impact research?
Whilst there are already many impact assessment models and approaches such as the ‘payback model’ (link), my doctoral research had led me to think that knowledge practices research could provide an additional useful theoretical lens for such studies.
Research on knowledge practices focusses on the situated activities of human beings, and related “on-the-ground work” (Camic et al. 2011, pp.6-7), involved in the production, evaluation and/or use of knowledge. A key claim made by knowledge practice scholars is that other research gives too little attention to “what … people do in the course of the production, evaluation and application of the forms of knowledge with which they deal” (Camic et al. 2011, p.4, emphasis added) – the hands-on work and seemingly mundane actions and processes that are involved. I agree. As I explored in my PhD research, we can investigate knowledge practices of all three core kinds – i.e. practices involved in the production of knowledge, in the appraisal/evaluation of knowledge, and, thirdly, in the mobilisation of knowledge where it is put to use for a particular purpose.
Knowledge practice research also builds on sociological theory which argues that human behaviour should be conceptualised as social practices (Camic et al. 2011; Gross 2009).
I believe research on such practices will be useful for deeply understanding research impact and developing transferable explanatory insights. Such explanatory insights potentially have the added value of assisting others in their efforts to enhance research impact.
For example, a knowledge practices perspective would consider how specific practices in the research process (e.g. use of research “co-design” activities) influence research impact, and it would adopt a practices lens when probing how scientific evidence and other information is appraised (or interpreted), mobilised and put to use (or not) by relevant social actors. It would conceptualise such knowledge practices as “ensembles of patterned activities” related to the situated tasks that human beings must confront and structure (Camic et al. 2011., p.7), and it would examine the development of taken-for-granted routines and their influence on knowledge production and use.
This theorisation of knowledge practices informed my doctoral research on prospective knowledge practices which applied the theory of social knowledge practices to the study of forward-looking inquiry and related activities (prospective knowledge practices).
One related research interest of mine is examining the cognitive and social mechanisms that influence the evaluation of data and scientific evidence and related judgments and behaviour. Some psychologists argue that human beings are unable to process information logically or rationally and it would be useful to study this in more detail and consider how it influences research impact (link). Research could similarly probe the extent to which information processing can be made more rational, under what conditions this is possible and what specific knowledge practices may help to enable this.
All this makes me wonder if there are opportunities to contribute to and advance research impact assessments whilst also exploring topics relevant to my research interests… I’m increasingly interested in the ways people appraise and mobilise evidence, the cognitive and social factors that influence this, and in how certain research, ideas and theories take off become socially influential (and others conversely do not), and all such processes influence research impact.
Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. (eds) 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Gross, N. 2009, ‘A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms’, American Sociological Review, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 358-79.