We are living in terribly perilous times. And the stress of it all showers down on us daily. In its August 25 weekly online Education Briefing, The New York Times proclaimed “A bumpy fall semester.”[i] The article focuses on the impact of current COVID anxieties and the political divides associated with determining how best to respond to COVID and school reopenings and address policies related to racism and other critical issues. Yet, this is but one part of the perils that grip us.
At present we are embroiled in a period of Triple Crises, with a global pandemic, a burning planet, and a menacing turn towards authoritarianism and away from democracy marking the boundaries of our daily lives. Interwoven with each of these crises are challenges related to the production and dissemination of knowledge regarding how best to respond. That’s what I want to address in this blog post along with what all this has to do with practitioner research.
What is practitioner research and why is it relevant to the present crises? According to one source, “practitioner research involves one or more people who are both practitioners (e.g., Teachers) and are researching that practice. Unlike some other forms of research, practitioner research is intended to solve problems and enhance practice (rather than developing theory for example).”[ii] Practitioner research can take many forms including action research, and some authors use the terms action research and practitioner research interchangeably. As users of Social Publishers Foundation (SPF) Knowledgebase are aware, the Foundation’s purpose is to support the development of practitioner research and help disseminate the results of practitioner research carried out in a variety of social domains including education, community-based participatory initiatives, social work and social services, and wellness and health care. For SPF, practitioner research is a vital element in the search for creative solutions to problems of everyday living and the strengthening of practices that serve individuals and communities in relation to diverse needs and aspirations.
Practitioner research occupies a social, intellectual, and political space that is both supportive of the role of science in society and opposed to knowledge monopolies that squeeze out diverse voices and forms of knowing and arrogantly elevate the proclamations of experts. In this sense, the current wary and at times intensely conflictual relationship between science and practice is a critical factor in the relevance of practitioner research to our times. In education, for example, by the first decade of the 21st century, one prominent scholar concluded that “although it has been assumed that educational research and practice should be intimately tied together, research and practice seem to be more disconnected and alienated from each other than ever before.”[iii] From the perspective of practitioners, much of the knowledge produced by formal researchers is “illusive, annoyingly abstract, or too theoretical”[iv] In the course of many practitioners’ careers, a sense of distrust of the capacity of ‘experts’ (e.g., academic researchers), to contribute valuable knowledge regarding what works in the field begins to accumulate. For example, at a reunion with a former close high-school friend we compared our careers, with each of us having been in education for 25+ years – he as a K-12 special education teacher and I as a counselor educator in higher education. He wanted to be sure and remind me that my Ph.D. really stood for ‘pile it higher and deeper’ as my scholarly pursuits and publishing did not reflect any real understanding of ‘what is going on in education.’ The exchange was in good humor, but the message was clear – whatever I might have to say about K-12 education was suspect.
In health care we are by now all too familiar with the tensions and conflicts between practice and science. Much media attention has been given of late to the dangers of the anti-science orientation, but there is ample evidence that this orientation is not going away any time soon. An August 29 online news item, for example, reports on the death of a prominent anti-mask ‘Freedom Defender’ in Texas. Of the 30-year old father of three young children, his wife asserted that “he was so hard-headed . . . he didn’t want to see a doctor, because he didn’t want to be part of the statistics with COVID tests.”[v] In her husband’s view, 2020 had been “one of the worst years for America.” Yet it seems clear that he held at a minimum a very conflicted view of how facts might enter into developing an understanding of either what was creating this ‘worst year’ or what sound social solutions might be applied to making things better. He wrote on his Facebook page, “Show me the science that masks work . . . Show me the evidence that school closures work. Show me the evidence that lock-downs work.” In other words, he did not believe that there was any to show him. Part of the tragedy here, of course, is that such evidence does exist; yet in the face of his challenge to show him evidence, one wonders how, if at all, any evidence could have been shared with Caleb Wallace to change his stance before it was too late.
In a larger picture, historian Michael Kazin has cautioned that the insurgent right-wing populism widely and deeply evident in the U.S. for the past 6+ years reflects a sense of abandonment among many less-privileged folks. Their feeling is that the mass culture that fills their TVs on a daily basis recognizes and rewards only the moneyed, the cosmopolitan, and the racially diverse and that the formal political culture either ignores or patronizes them.[vi] The crass, inane, and infantilizing marketing stratum of corporate capitalist consumerism may still titillate their senses and ignite a desire to ‘buy, buy, buy’, but there is a nagging sense that they cannot own the biggest toys or purchase the finest services, or enjoy the elite luxuries that they perceive outside of their reach. In other words, the deck is stacked against them and they resent it.
Complicating matters politically, for many citizens the perception of the embrace of diversity by the elites has fueled their turn to authoritarianism and in particular white nationalism. Thus, although experts such as astrophysicist, author, and popular commentator Neill deGrasse Tyson may proclaim that America’s growing rejection of science is “the beginning of the end of an informed democracy,”[vii] it is not an ‘informed’ democracy that holds the interest of Right Wing authoritarian populism. Thus, as we saw on January 6, inflaming authoritarian passions mattered more than the counting of votes associated with political science in a democracy. In other words, the discrediting of science is part and parcel of the suspicion and hostility directed towards an array of elites, including mainstream politics, the media, higher education, and established institutions of all kinds. In this sense, it was not ‘evidence’ that Caleb Wallace needed regarding the use of masks but a restoration of trust in civil society and in established processes for seeking solutions to the pandemic. Ultimately, he had neither in forms he could embrace, and his quite avoidable passing is now a tragedy to be borne by his young widow and their three children.
So, how does practitioner research begin to speak to any of this? I believe that the democratization of knowledge production and dissemination, as challenging and complex an undertaking as there can be, is the path forward. Practitioner research is, in my view, an essential component in knowledge democratization. It can serve us well in two ways initially. First, given that it is conducted ‘closer to the ground’ with the intention of solving practical problems and enhancing practices to benefit local populations, it has a better chance of making a case for shared and equitable benefits. To demonstrate this capacity practitioner research needs to be visible in both operation and dissemination. In other words, while academic researchers may labor stressfully under a mandate of ‘publish or perish’, practitioner researchers can rally publicly around ‘publish to share improvements’ or ‘publish to strengthen practice.’ This is a more practical orientation that can be mobilized to demonstrate to local communities that research is taking place for their benefit.
In a larger sense, the benefits of democratizing knowledge production are much more readily at hand in relation to practitioner research. As writer, educator, conservationist, and activist, Terry Tempest Williams puts it, “when minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech.”[viii] To the extent that practitioner research demonstrates its practical and localized intent, there is a greater chance of opening dialogue and lessening fear. As Tempest Williams further puts it, “democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” Too much of the standard research results flashed across the nation’s TV and computer screens are too firmly declarative, even when researchers understand that no one study, no matter how well designed and carried out, provides all the answers to a crucial question. In truth, the knowledge produced through research has a tentative quality to it, and that is the way it should be. With a greater emphasis on the construction of knowledge, perhaps we can begin to embrace the tentative nature of research findings and open space for the dialogues and community-based conversation around applying the results of practitioner research and linking the research to a more participatory orientation within local communities and neighborhoods.
These need not be overly abstract and ‘big data’ operations. Regarding Caleb Wallace, his wife Jessica has stated that Caleb accepted her wearing a mask, although he held to the idea that “masks aren’t going to save you.” For Jessica, “it gives me comfort to know that maybe, just maybe, I’m either protecting someone or avoiding it myself.” Her statement backs off from the ideological edges of the ‘prove it’ arguments and anti-science hysteria and focuses instead on finding and giving comfort. I think it comes down to a recognition I explored in some earlier writing that “the often rarified air of advanced scientific understanding disseminated through elitist platforms has to be put in balance with the capacity and determination of regular folks to understand their situations and to take appropriate actions to improve things”[ix] I believe that practitioner research, conducted in a collaborative manner with humility and determination has a chance to contribute significantly to the opening of speech, the nurturance of democracy, and the fostering of creative solutions in relation to all three of the crises currently engulfing both this country and the larger global community. In times such as these in the U.S., when as author George Packer[x] puts it, we are living in a period of “unwinding” when our social structures, moral underpinnings, and sense of collective identity have begun to come apart we are called to improvisation. The barren scene in Packer’s telling – a ‘landscape without solid structure’ – is one in which people have to “improvise their own destinies.” In such times, the improvisations of practitioner research are well-suited to the search for creative solutions and the reconstruction of democracy.
[iii] See Pine, G. J. (2009). Teacher Action Research: Building Knowledge Democracies. Sage.
[iv] Hong, E., & Rowell, L. (2019). Challenging knowledge monopoly in education in the U.S. through democratizing knowledge production and dissemination. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 125-143.
[vi] Kazin, M. (2016). “Trump and American Populism: Old whine, new bottles.” Foreign Affairs, 95(6), 17-24.
[viii] Williams, T. T. (2004). The open space of democracy. Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock.
[ix] Rowell, L. (2018). A brief update from across the big pond’s troubled waters: beliefs, science, politics, and action research, Educational Action Research, 26(1), 4-8. https://doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2017.1417773
[x] Packer, G. (2013). The Unwinding. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.