“Impact for me is changing the ecological and social conditions in communities, and bringing all of that experience and knowledge to the classroom. In research, my goal is to explore taken for granted assumptions of our everyday lives, and especially how we maintain the power relations of the disadvantaged and the privileged positions” says Seray Ergene, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island.
The conventional understanding of a scholar has been someone who reads the literature and contributes to theories. But in these unprecedented times, where the emphasis is on addressing climate change and inequalities, the role of a scholar should also be about facilitating social change.
In a recent paper, Seray, together with co-authors, talks about engaged scholarship and academic activism. The paper raises important questions: “What does it mean to be a scholar today? What is our role as scholars in changing the course of our daily lives?”
Impact in academia is traditionally measured by the number of articles published, particularly in top-journals in a specific discipline. Yet contributing to the local community and improving an understanding of a phenomenon happening in a local setting has no relevance in academic performance evaluations. “This needs to change”, Seray says.
Engaging with your local stakeholders
In an ongoing project, Seray is working with natural scientists on plastic pollution in oceans. In the US, Rhode Island is known as the ‘Ocean State’. Hence, it was meaningful for Seray to engage in research for the benefit of marine ecosystem and people whose livelihoods are sustained by the ocean. “We are engaging with stakeholders not to impose scientific knowledge on them but to listen to their views and concerns and to tailor research activities accordingly.”
Traditional academic norms dictate disciplined-based research, and it is rare for social scientists to collaborate with natural scientists. It is a difficult space to navigate, especially for a junior scholar who is on a clock to get research published. However, Seray sees her academic position with greater responsibility, “I see a broader role for academics beyond sitting behind desks and theorizing. I think every academic should ask herself ‘what kind of a scholar I want to become?’ and ‘to what intellectual space do I want to contribute?’”.
The project includes a large range of impact activities, including stakeholder workshops where policy makers, various representatives of local community, and scientists engage in dialogue. The project team also creates video lecture series for science education (kindergarden to 12th grade) about ocean plastic pollution . “At the core of my approach to research is making people question the basic assumptions underlying everyday practices. Whatever the practices are, pausing and making people think about the consequences of their actions, I think, is impactful.”
Advice for early-career scholars
Learn to communicate your social science approach to scientists from different fields. “Instead of avoiding projects with natural scientists, learn to make sense of what they are doing, so that you can relate to them, to their projects, their specific terminology, and then translate your work to them.” The collaboration may be difficult, and it may take time to establish credibility as a social scientist among natural scientists, but the project outcomes can be truly novel.
See practitioners as collaborators, not only as study subjects. “We are in this community because we care about certain things, and seeing practitioners as people trying to change things – as people like us, as collaborators – is necessary. I feel inspired by some of the things practitioners do. From a research perspective, being close to the phenomenon leads to richer and more genuine theorizing.”
Engage with the concerns of community that is local to you. “I would encourage junior scholars to study their local community. I wanted to do this research on microplastics because I am part of this community. Impact starts when the work is focused on a concern right here, right now. It is more meaningful.”
Frame impact engagements as part of research activities. “Scholars on the job market, I would encourage to look for a fit with a school that is open for this type of research and engagement.” Depending on which school you apply to, framing community engagements as part of your research program can be a differentiator on the job market.
Familiarize yourself slowly with community interests. “People who are interested in doing interdisciplinary research, they can become involved with community activities and practices, so you can build knowledge and awareness of what’s going on in the community, and in the future develop interesting projects together with the community members.”
Take classes in a variety of different fields. “During my PhD, I took many classes that were not necessarily management related. But they introduced me to so many new ideas. Being open to other perspectives, taking classes from other disciplines, and scrutinizing our theories help do better management and organization studies research. Such exploration has also helped me become a more reflexive person both in research and practice.”
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