Wednesday, 29 May 2013

New article in Environment & Planning A: 'A decade of learning about publics, participation & climate change'

A 'wordle' representing the content of the paper

I was excited to find out last week that my first lead authored paper, based on my masters research, has been printed in the most recent issue of the journal Environment & Planning A. The paper can be viewed and downloaded here, or do get in touch with me if you would like a copy of the pdf but do not have access.

This was my first experience of writing and preparing a paper for publication, a process which began more than two years ago when I carried out my masters research. The most difficult part of the process was working out how to condense down and improve my masters thesis into a coherent and readable paper, a task which took several months, a fair few supervisor meetings, and (seemingly) the drawing of many many tables in order to concisely justify and explain my methodology and argument. The paper then when through two rounds of review, by three very helpful and thorough reviewers, and was accepted for publication in Environment & Planning A just under a year ago.

An interesting challenge I encountered whilst writing the paper and responding to the reviewers comments - a process I found very productive and led to much improvement in the paper - was in trying to achieve a balance between accurately presenting the research project as it was carried out, alongside the concepts and analytic tools I was working with at the time, but also recognising the development of my own thinking on the topics of organisational learning and participation, during the first two years of my PhD. Whilst this is a piece of work that I am proud of and would still defend from criticism, my thinking on many of the issues involved has changed since the project was carried out. If I was to do the research again now there are probably some things I would do differently. I suspect this is quite a common feeling for academics to have when their papers are eventually published; given the length of academic publishing cycles, it seems almost inevitable that one's ideas and interests will have moved onto something else by the time of publication. I suspect this feeling is particularly acute in the case of PhD projects, however, as the researcher continues to develop and improve on the same project whilst being exposed to new ideas and methods at a rate that will probably never again be equaled in the rest of her career.

To briefly summarise the paper, I followed historical trends and instances of learning about participation, 'the public' itself, and climate change within the network of the organisation Sciencewise, which runs public dialogue exercises for UK government departments, from 2000 to 2011. I followed learning from the initial creation of Sciencewise in 2004, responding the landmark House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report 'Science and Society' in 2000 which called for public dialogue to be embedded in science policy making, through to its more recent activities in promoting public dialogue and reflective learning. This was also intertwined with the story of climate change as a UK policy issue through the decade, evolving from being understood as a discrete technical problem, to becoming an increasingly significant policy issue and therefore a topic for multiple public dialogue exercises. The overall argument of the paper is that whilst there has been learning throughout the decade about participation, the nature of the public and the concept of climate change, this learning has been mostly instrumental, and thus rarely challenges or transcends conventional frames of the problem under discussion or deeply entrenched organisational assumptions. On a more optimistic note, however, the paper also details some evidence of what might be called double-loop or transformative learning - for example, the Department for Energy and Climate Change initiating a project which engaged with low carbon 'communities', rather than targeting 'consumers' as it had done before. It is argued that instances of more transformative learning tended to occur through informal social networks and interactions, rather than through official organisational channels, which makes it challenging to create mechanisms which might promote deeper learning and reflection.

I am now building on this work in my PhD research, by following organisational learning within Sciencewise in 'real time' throughout 2013 using a mixture of ethnographic methods, interviews and document analysis, and considering much more deeply the question of whether it is possible to consciously systematically encourage and stimulate reflective learning and reflexivity. Related to my empirical work I am also developing my conceptual understanding of organisations and organisational learning and reflexivity, and am currently revising a review paper which attempts to do this.

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