Landscapes Forum > ‘Co-produced’ research at Bennachie

In the introductory post on this forum Jeff mentioned ‘co-produced’ research, in which the community gains skills in research as the project goes along. I want to think a little more about what this means and to encourage discussion about how it could be done. On one level, it is a pretty significant departure from the standard model of research in the humanities and social sciences, where you might go and find out about other people but not necessarily find out anything with them. A good starting point would be to consider it as a different kind of research ethics, which focuses on the kinds of relationships that are created by the research as much as the final outcomes. That in turns draws on a postmodern critique of centralised and objectified knowledge. In archaeology, history and so on it might be based more specifically in the understanding that cultural heritage belongs to those who live through it and with it, and perhaps a hallmark of ‘co-produced’ research would be that it begins with this insight rather tacking it on to the side. So, while the historical subjects of our research at Bennachie are not around any more, their descendants certainly are, along with many others whose relations with the landscape give them a part-ownership of its heritage.

From a community point of view this is perhaps common sense but it may be less obvious how to turn an interest in cultural heritage into a feasible programme of research, and this is where partnership with a university or other professionals can be useful. From the university’s perspective, the issues quickly become broader than the idea of teaching research skills, or rather that ‘skills’ should come to include the ability and the motivation to set the agenda, contribute to the direction of research and have stake in the results, as well as help to carry it out in a practical sense. Questions about inclusivity, or who actually makes up the community that is involved in the research, may also come to the fore.

There is a good deal of discussion in and beyond academia on these themes. One of the references we used in the proposal for this project was a paper in the journal Public Archaeology entitled ‘Evaluating Community Archaeology in the UK’ (Simpson and Williams 2008), where the authors reflect on their own practice of community archaeology projects in London and Devon respectively. Simpson found that while ‘the community’ in were keen to join in the excavations, there was little interest in other longer-term parts of the project. Williams worked with local community groups, which was a more sustainable structure, but found that there was relatively little interest in the medieval archaeology being uncovered compared to themes in more recent local history. The overall conclusion is that evaluating community archaeology should include more than just quantitative measures of how many people visited or took part in a dig, and might instead consider community identity, inclusion and sustainability. Values amongst the community itself also need to be considered, and not just those of academia.

To me this again raises ethical questions about different ways of knowing and different value systems in research, as well as how university researchers position themselves in relation to community dynamics. The University of Durham and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement recently produced a couple of interesting reports that are relevant to these issues. The first, ‘Community-based participatory research: A guide to ethical principles and practice’ fits our cultural heritage work at Bennachie very well. The ethical principles it sets out are headlined by mutual respect, equality and inclusion, democratic participation, active learning, making a difference (‘positive change’ for the community), collective action and personality integrity. The guidelines to practice then cover preparing and planning, doing the research, and sharing learning from it, from the perspective of the principles. The second report, ‘Ethics in community-based participatory research: Case studies, case examples and commentaries’ has more interesting material, including a case study of what started as a purely professional archaeology project to excavate a medieval ship but came to involve an important ‘community’ element.

I hope some of this material will help us reflect on our work at Bennachie from a broad perspective, even though we are all involved with the details of it. It might even help to make the research more successful still. I have also started some interviewing on these themes and I’ll report on that in my next post.

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJo Vergunst