Societally relevant research and ethics:
In 2019, Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) defined its 2024 strategic plan with its objective of creating positive societal impact. The underlying Erasmian Values include being societally engaged and open-minded, connecting and entrepreneurial, and world citizenship. In line with Rokeach (1973), these values can be seen as instrumental to reaching the ultimate goal. That is, these values motivate us to achieve impact in research on local-global societal challenges.
Societally relevant research and ethics:
From my perspective as rector of ISS, the EUR Strategy 2024 has meant a lot for ISS and for our integration in EUR. The strategy’s direction enabled us to share our longstanding knowledge and experience in societally relevant research with the whole university and strengthen our relationships within EUR. This was nicely expressed in the final strategic plan with its many references to ISS’ societally relevant research in the Global South.
ISS has long identified its key values as social justice and equity; values that have motivated our teaching, research and engagement activities. With these values we aim to achieve social justice by conducting research among marginalized groups, by conducting critical social science research and by creating new academic knowledge and generating societally relevant outcomes such as policy advice, interventions, advocacy and so on.
The publication Social Impact @ sciences: the end of the ivory tower? (Van Bergeijk and Johnson, 2014) reflects ISS’ efforts in defining and operationalizing societal relevance over time. For me, the document served as an important guideline in my application for ISS rectorship eight years ago. Being a participatory action researcher myself, I was looking forward to following this up and further co-developing aspects of societally relevant research and engagement at ISS.
What does it mean to conduct societally relevant research or research for social change, or – as EUR defines it – to conduct research with impact? In the second edition of Qualitative Research Methods (Hennink, Hutter and Bailey, 2020), two chapters on participatory qualitative research bring the following principle to the table: research for social change implies that research aims to build academic knowledge and achieve societally relevant outcomes. These two objectives need to be defined at the very beginning of the research cycle, i.e., at the design stage. Hence the research questions and objectives are co-created with relevant other societal stakeholders and include their knowledge on the issues involved.
This implies two underlying principles: that researchers also consider themselves to be societal stakeholders and that researchers acknowledge that other knowledge systems exist and need to be included. In addition, it implies that research methodologies and methods are used that are participant and/or transformative in character. And – finally – it implies further co-creation between researchers and other societal stakeholders in terms of social change outcomes such as interventions, actions, policy recommendations, advocacy and so on.
Qualitative Research Methods illustrates the principles of participatory qualitative research with examples of co-authored participatory qualitative research in India, Malawi, Ghana and the Netherlands. The projects focus on the co-creation of community-based nutrition interventions; on community-based maternal health interventions; on community-based monitoring of health services; and on client-oriented care in care organizations, respectively. Starting from the principle identified by Paulo Freire (1970/1993) in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
‘the point of departure … lies in the people themselves… Accordingly, the point of departure must always be with the men and women in the “here and now” which constitutes the situation in which they are submerged, from which they emerge and in which they intervene. Only by starting from this situation – which determines their perception of it – can they begin to move’ (Hennink et al. 2020: 53, Freire 1970/1993: 58).
Similar principles are included in the ISS framework on the societal relevance of research developed by Jo Baskott and myself, in close collaboration with the ISS community, and finalized in 2022. The framework, developed following a request by the research evaluation committee in 2017 and based on Sinek’s circle of ‘why’ (2009), is:
'… a visual representation …. providing guiding principles and ideas whilst designing, conducting and ultimately evaluating our societally relevant research, and using the circles of the diagram to pose the issues raised in the table. Hence, the framework is to be used to learn, to reflect backward, to think forward, and subsequently adapt the framework further' (Baskott and Hutter, 2022: 8).
Questions to ask ourselves include:
- Which values does/did our research strive for?
- How is/was the research project societally relevant? In which stages in the research cycle is/was it included? What are/were the proposed academic and societally relevant outcomes?
- With whom is/was societally relevant research and action conducted? Which other societal stakeholders are /were involved, why are/were they involved and how and where do/did they co-create together? Is/was it really a co-creation? How are/were power relationships dealt with?
- Who is/was the project aimed at, other than academic peers, in terms of its societally relevant outcome?
This procedure, thinking forward or reflecting backwards while going through the cycle, implies the application of reflexive evaluations, mutual learning and developing the framework further.
The process of integrating societal relevance into the research cycle requires additional skills and competences alongside academic skills. Co-creation with other societal stakeholders requires, for example, the ability to:
- connect and co-create with people who do not have an academic background;
- listen carefully to and try to understand (or rather ‘Verstehen’) their perspectives and include these in the research cycle;
- make academic principles and language understandable to others involved by using more colloquial language;
- identify power relations in the interactions and reflect on own positionalities and how they may influence co-creation processes;
- co-act, where relevant, as a change agent and co-develop social change outcomes.
Reviewing ethical dimensions, societally relevant research thus requires an ability to reflect on both research and social change processes, on our own positionalities and to act upon these. These concepts, reflexivity and positionality, are important indicators of the quality and ethics of qualitative research.
Personal reflexivity involves reflection by the researcher on their own backgrounds and how these might influence the qualitative research process. Interpersonal reflexivity involves reflection on, for example, the interview setting and interpersonal dynamics between researcher and participants that might influence the research process (Hennink et al, 2020; based on Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2006). Positionality refers to reflections on the power relations between researcher and participants and how these affect the research process (cited by Hennink et al, 2020).
This also begs the question ‘to whom are we as researchers accountable in societally relevant research’? To our academic peers, for sure, in terms of the quality of our academic work. But in our societally relevant outcomes? Are we accountable to the values that drive our research, to our academic peers, to other societal stakeholders involved or to the participants of our research? Or to all four?
Based on the research quality PLUS framework of the Canadian International Development Research Centre, Jo Baskott and I identified additional criteria to check the quality of societally relevant research:
- Research Legitimacy which focuses ‘on the process of participation, how the research engages with local knowledge and the level of trust between researchers and the people who might eventually use the research findings’ (based on Baskott and Hutter, 2022: 7-8).
- Research Importance which focuses ‘on how research meets the needs and priorities of potential users’ (ibid.) and
- Positioning for Use which focuses ‘on how the research process has been managed and research products prepared’ (ibid.).
It will be very useful to develop such indicators – of quality and ethics – further, based on current developments in Open and Responsible Science. In so doing we will arrive at an even more comprehensive set of indicators that help us reflect on our societally relevant research.
I want to thank Jo Baskott for her excellent work and our pleasant cooperation in formulating the report on societal relevance for the evaluation of ISS research that will take place in June 2023.
- Baskott, J. and I. Hutter (2022) Societal relevance of research: towards a framework on societal relevance. 11 March 2022 (unpublished document part of ISS’ mid-term research review).
- EUR 2020 Creating positive societal impact the Erasmian way: Strategy 2024
- Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House UK.
- Hennink, M., I. Hutter and A. Bailey (2020) Qualitative Research Methods, Sage Publishers, London.
- Sinek, S. (2009) Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio
- International Development Research Centre (2017) The Research Quality Plus (RQ+) Assessment Instrument
- Rokeach, M. 1973 The nature of human values The Free Press.
- Van Bergeijk, P. and L. Johnson (2014) Social Impact @ sciences: the end of the ivory tower?
 Erasmian Values also reflect how EUR wants to give shape to its identity, thinking and actions, i.e., in being an Erasmian.
 In recent years, inclusion has been added as a value that motivates our behaviour, interactions and activities in building a safer and inclusive space to work and study.
 The two chapters are written with Christine Fenenga.