Questioning co-production in human geography at the 2014 Royal Geographical Society Conference

RGS

In August this year I attended the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference at Imperial College, London.  The theme for the conference was ‘Geographies of Co-Production’.  As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I’m not terribly au fait when it comes to fashionable geography terms and so the conference was an opportunity to immerse myself in the idea of research by co-production.

Co-production

As is often the case with such terms it quickly transpired that there was no consistently applied definition of co-production, but the general theme appeared to be the development of knowledge through collaboration.  There was a spectrum on the extent to which collaboration resulted in benefits for the researcher and the researched.  At one end some researchers labelled what I would call consultation as co-production, and at the other co-production was a form of action-based research, where the researcher directly influenced and assisted the researched to reach a pre-defined goal.

The vagueness of the term ‘co-production’ can result in its application in situations contrary to its origins.  If co-production is generally considered to be an interaction between a researcher or agency and the researched or client that results in mutual benefits the potential for its application in almost any kind of marketing research is possible.

Take IKEA, for instance.  IKEA has developed a marketing strategy based on the idea that the more its customers do (finding the furniture on the shop floor, transporting the furniture, building the furniture) the less IKEA can charge for its products – the mutual benefit is reduced price/cost and associated increase in market share. Simultaneously, IKEA is creating a unique brand for itself that is synonymous with corporate efficiency, and giving average citizens everywhere the opportunity to feel like they can physically build their own furniture. In effect, IKEA is allowing the enthusiastic co-production of every flat-packed table, chair or bookcase.

The limits of co-production

So why wouldn’t I call this co-production?  It comes back to a question of accountability and interaction in the process.  Co-production puts the people being researched or the client at the core of its decision-making and not the researcher or corporation.  The research subjects help define what the research is to be about, how they will benefit from the research and, together with the researcher, what benefits might exist for greater society.

Issues with co-production as research

Co-production is not without its problems.  In particular, if citizens are to be driving the research agenda it may result in co-opting of an institutional agenda or stated research goals.  During the conference, Uma Kothari discussed the potential for this to occur.  In her research she became aware of something that her subjects didn’t want reflected in publications, but which she thought integral to the research.  The way a researcher responds to this challenge may determine whether the research can truly be considered co-production.  In choosing to repeat information that the subjects have requested be suppressed the researcher is reproducing unequal power relations.  The ethics of this are questionable, and this would definitely lead to a situation that would not be defined as ‘co-production’.

I generally found myself concerned with the application of ‘co-production’ in research presentations at the conference.  I see a problem with geographers labelling their research as ‘co-production’ in that this gives them the opportunity to ‘badge’ their research as beneficial to the people they are researching when this may not be the case.  In particular, many researchers were labelling their research as ‘co-production’ when it seemed to me as though the research reflected mere consultation. Many presentations couched benefits to subjects in terms of ‘empowerment’ – that they had the opportunity to inform research and voice their opinions.  I don’t think this is enough.  Particularly in the absence of psychometric tests to determine whether respondents did have a sense of empowerment, and whether that sense of empowerment exceeded costs associated with contributing to the research project, it seems that empowerment cannot be assumed.

Legitimate co-production

This is not to say that legitimate co-production does not exist or that it does not represent benefits to both the researcher and subjects.  In particular, co-production can be useful where a ‘boundary space’ exists between a researcher and those being researched.  A boundary space may be an area where academic research and community life coexist to the extent that members of the community can be considered ‘amateurs as experts’ and researchers can assume a role as ‘non-experts’ undertaking research.  In this case there is the opportunity for mutual and reciprocal learning between those being researched and those doing the research.  For example, research into citizen-based science, where community members undertake research in a field of their own interest (local historian societies etc) alongside a ‘qualified’ researcher.  Co-production in research has the potential to generate a sense of legitimacy for citizen-centred work, by treating community members as experts.  Furthermore, if the researcher is capable of assuming the role of the non-expert they have the potential to obtain localised and context-dependent community knowledge.

Co-production in my own research?

Considering co-production caused me to reflect on my own research experience and other studies I have participated in.  On reflection I think my Honours research into Landcare groups tended towards co-production.  While the initial stages, where I surveyed Landcare groups, would be considered consultation, the interview process included elements of co-production.  I used grounded-theory methodology, allowing the subjects to inform my own research agenda, and I believe I gave them an opportunity to act as ‘experts’ informing research, which I believe they enjoyed.  However, without formalising the knowledge accrual and development process, and gaining subjects’ insight from the earlier stages in the research, I wouldn’t dare call it real ‘co-production’!

I would love to hear from other human geographers about their experiences with and perceptions of co-production.  Should the research be worthy of the term?  Please include your comments below!

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