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Researcher and change agent

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

I am currently looking at the roles of researchers in transition studies, and I am struggling with the positive depiction of researchers transcending their roles. This is not about researchers transcending the realm of science, but researchers blending with other roles when they do so. For sure, there are articles, that have a critical stance toward transdisciplinary research. For example, Lang et al. (2012) refer to questions pertaining to quality assurance or credibility. In this post, I am reflecting on one specific article; the article from Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) about the roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. This is a reflection and I do not claim to have answers or better solutions. The roles that Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) identify are: reflective scientists, process facilitators, self-reflexive scientists, knowledge brokers, and change agents. I am specifically struggling with the change agent role.

I studied International Development at the University of Vienna. The program had a strong interdisciplinary orientation, and transdisciplinary methods were advertised. Now, there are many different understandings of transdisciplinary research, and often, I would argue, it is not executed in the way it should be. Lang et al. (2012) provide the following definition:

“Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle aiming at the solution or transition of societal problems and concurrently of related scientific problems by differentiating and integrating knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge.”

Transdisciplinary research to me, is engaging with stakeholders not merely in an extractive but in a reciprocal manner. That means that a researcher does not only, for example, interview stakeholders, but also feeds collected information back and discusses the results with the respective stakeholders. That could be a process with several rounds if time allows. Furthermore, in transdisciplinary research, the stakeholder is understood as an expert who potentially has more knowledge about the studied matter than the researcher. It is exactly because the stakeholder has more knowledge than the researcher that the stakeholder gets involved in the research process.

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) write about action research, which they equate to transdisciplinary research. They do not use the term co-creation, but I assume that especially the role of the change agent calls for a co-creative setup. I have been struggling with the term co-creation as well, because I could not quite figure out what the difference between transdisciplinary and co-creative research is. I was once told that co-creation could also happen in non-scientific contexts, whereas transdisciplinary is bound to the scientific context. Though reading the paper by Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) I think the difference might be the way researchers engage with stakeholders. In co-creative settings one might support researchers becoming part of the co-creative process. Though, I argue that researchers should not do that.

The ownership of knowledge creates hierarchies. In the societies I have been exposed to, this usually only applies to formalized knowledge (and age). An anecdote from my time as a student in Vienna: At the beginning of a lecture, a professor started to tell a story to clarify relationships. He told us that a student dared to start an e-mail with Dear colleague. The student did not know this was wrong because the professor started his e-mails with Dear colleague and the professor called us with Dear colleagues during lectures. Of course, that can create confusion. Though, gladly, the professor clarified the situation and told us that only he had the right to address us with Dear Colleague. He is not a colleague; he is our professor.

These hierarchies exist not only within a trade, but across society. Austria is a hierarchical place. Thus, I grew up learning that it matters if someone has a title. You hear things like, “oh he is a Doctor”, or “he is an Engineer,” etc (usually, it is a he…). And the general public also pays attention to differences in hierarchies within a trade. Like you would distinguish between a normal medical Doctor and a Primarius. It was very important to use the title when talking to a person with a title, and you get taught to show your title. And to this date, I am struggling to use the fist name when talking to supervisors or people with a higher rank. I’m a fan of formality… Anyway, the hierarchy a person had, impacted how much value one would place on that person’s statements. One trusts the judgment of the primarius more than of the freshman.

Now I live in a country where people say that there are no hierarchies, or that hierarchies are flat. I do not experience it at all like this. It is maybe more subtle than in Austria because people don’t brag about their titles. But there are very clear hierarchies. To me, this is a bit more confusing than in Austria, where hierarchies are usually clear (apart from some Dear Colleague problems). However, that is not the point of the blog. The point is that knowledge, especially formalized knowledge, creates hierarchies.

I am a yoga teacher. It took me some time to make the decision and do the yoga teacher training. That was because I always thought that I am spiritually not evolved enough to teach yoga (and I was already a climbing teacher and personal health and fitness trainer). Anyway, I ended up teaching yoga, and since I am from an Ashtanga Yoga tradition, I was pro-adjustment. Today, I think differently about adjustments.

The yoga teacher experience taught me much about hierarchies. Not everyone is self-assured enough to say no to a teacher, to say that adjustments are not wished. The teacher is seen as an authority (at times worshipped like a Guru), and many students would not dare to object to the teacher. Furthermore, it is the teacher who decides when to adjust. There were positions in which I would have liked adjustments, but I never was, and there were other ones, where I did not want to be adjusted, but the teacher was always pushing me in some direction. I understand the teacher's perspective. You see the skewed body, and you want to do something about it. You, as a teacher, know what is right. And all you want is getting those skewed bodies in the right position. However, I more and more also understand the student perspective.

There is something to my skewedness. Usually, it teaches me something. And in order to learn the teaching, I have to listen to myself and feel myself. The skewedness will not go away if I am constantly pushed by external forces. I will lose my ability to feel, to experience myself, and to learn. Sure, I might not ever find out that I am skewed if I do not get the adjustment and feel a different alignment. So sure, there is a role for a teacher. Though, the line for a teacher is fine, between helping to learn and being paternalistic, ripping people off their autonomy. I also learned that the teacher always needs to stay humble and stay in the role of a student as well. You need to understand that it is not you who has authority over someone else's body. People have the right to remain skewed. People have the right to learn on their own terms, people have the right to ask for help, rather than being helped when not wanted. People have the right to aspire to different goals than the teacher’s goals.

Now I have a different view on adjustments. My body is injured, my body is aging, and I have learned about the autonomy over my own body. It was about time. I do not want my Yoga teacher to adjust me, unless I ask for it. That is because I trust that I can listen to my body and understand what the body is saying. And that is because I accepted a certain external skewedness, as there are other things to work on that are more important to me, but which may not be visible to the teacher. I once asked my teacher whether that’s tough for him, not being allowed to adjust. He admitted it was. And every time I am in the Yoga studio, he cannot resist but at least give a little adjustment. So what is happening here? I have become the teacher in the role of the student. He needs to learn to let go. To accept the wish of the student, to accept seeing the skewed body, to accept that the student does not want help from the teacher. That all might be tough teachings. After all, it might mean that he no longer has the authority he once had. That is brutal for the ego.

So what has that yoga story to do with scientists intervening in transitions? This blog post was triggered amongst others by a paper by Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) about the roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. One especially triggering paragraph was:

„In both action research and transition management, the explicit goal of ‘action’ is real-life change. Researchers actively facilitate or participate in the learning process and in the actual experiments (e.g. the creation of paradigms or lifestyle icons of sustainability), they support in policy formulation, while at the same time observing, reflecting and analyzing these actions and their relations to the long-term vision [emphasize added]“ (Wittmayer & Schäpke, 2014).

In my mind, there is a big: “Should we though?” I am very careful about telling other people what to eat (unless I am getting bothered by some pseudo-dietitian telling me I need proteins….). Who am I to inflict worldview changes on other people? As much as I want that. Is this ethically ok? We started this whole transdisciplinary thing in sustainability research because it is full of normative questions to which scientists cannot provide objective solutions (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993). If we cannot, how can I, as a scientist, then get actively involved in creating solutions? To be clear, there is a difference between scientists engaging in activism and in changing other’s people’s lives. I am not saying that scientists cannot be change agents. I think it is great to see that there are more and more activists among scientists and that scientists practice what they preach. But it is one thing to be a lighthouse and another thing to be a siren.

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) state that one of the main roles of scientists is to create arenas in which people can learn. I think that is fine, as long as this is voluntary learning. But as one can see from the yoga example, even voluntariness can be a problem because of hierarchies. I think, at times, it is not that easy to know whether societal stakeholders make use of their autonomy or not. Already the start of the research process could potentially be problematic. Imagine a psychotherapist coming to you, telling you, unasked, that you have a personality disorder and that we should work on it. Now imagine, you have issues in your life, and you seek help. Unless we are talking about commissioned research projects, we usually deal with the external problem identification situation. That already sets the stage in different ways. In the first case, I am disempowered because someone came to tell me I have an issue. In the second, I am empowered because I take charge to do something about my issue. Of course, it is usually not that obvious. Scientists are usually not walking around telling people what their issues are. We usually seek interested partners for a research project.

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) describe this:

“The researchers had not been invited by the community to support them in addressing a certain challenge; instead, the neighborhood had been chosen through negotiations between the public administration and the research institute during the writing phase of an EU FP7-funded research project. As such, there was no local ownership at the beginning of the process.”

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) continue to explain that they then started their analysis to find the problem. Lang et al. (2012) describe a similar instance where scientists have to, in a tedious process, first make people aware of the issue. Sounds a bit like the therapist who is going to tell me, unasked, that I have an issue and we better work on it. I am aware that people need to be informed about sustainability issues. But I hope I am communicating well, that informing people of a problem is not as collaborative as it might be portrayed, and that this has a very distinct paternalistic taint. So if we are not on a level playing field, why are not calling it as it is? The scientist acts as an authority, calling out a problem that society has to work on. Like the yoga teacher who adjusts me, so I feel that my hip is always tilted in some weird way. Once, I feel that I might be able to work on it.

When we search for partners in a research project, we might have ideas on what the problem is and what the solution ought to be. I wonder, despite all the co-creation talk, how open are we as scientists really to get into a reciprocal, level-playing field interaction with project partners? For example, sustainability transition is inherently normative. Those working in the transition studies field know that one model of thinking about how this transition ought to unfold is dominant. It is a model that focuses on technology upscaling and market mechanisms. As such, it perpetuates the narrative that is already in place. The delicate question of researchers perpetuating the status quo through their own work cannot be treated in this blog, because this blog is already way too long. Though, it needs to be thought about more often, and it needs to be considered properly when interacting with stakeholders and when the purpose of the interaction is to change people’s lives. Not only the perpetuation of the status quo can be problematic, the creation of something can be too.

If knowledge creates hierarchies, are we, as scientists then, not more influencing other people’s lives than people are influencing our lives? The yoga student might be more open to learning than the yoga teacher when confronted with a rebellious student. When we participate in co-creation are we then really allowing co-creation, or are we pushing our ideas on the world, because we think that we know what is right? For example, we might think that the solution to the problems is scaling up the technology, and we should use the market for that. Thus, we start the process with preconceived ideas about what ought to happen, which mechanisms for change to use, and what the problem is. Even if we get confirmation from stakeholders for that perception, we have to ask ourselves, whether we are not recreating what is already there. But again, that leads to another topic. Even if we keep it open and say, we want people to learn, we might attach expectations to the learning outcome. That is then usually translated into a difference between stage A and stage B. As soon as we as scientists attach some normative judgment to the difference between stages A and B, we become paternalistic. We define what learning is. If the participant did not learn what we wanted them to learn, but maybe something different, we may devalue that learning outcome. I might leave my yoga class super happy because I managed to work on my breathing, but my teacher might be disappointed because all the time my shoulder was not in alignment. Who decides what the learning outcome ought to be?

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) discuss the question of ownership. I would argue that ownership is relevant for the problem definition as well as in terms of outcome. Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) state that relevant knowledge is produced. But, who decides what is relevant? That is not really discussed by Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014).

“We proposed to take the creation and maintenance of spaces for societal learning as their overarching aim. These spaces include the collaborative production of scientifically and socially relevant knowledge about persistent problems, transformative action and experimentation with new social relations [emphasize added]“ (Wittmayer & Schäpke, 2014).

In terms of problem definition, the question of ownership seemed to be highly problematic in the case discussed by Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014). The authors describe that in their project, people were not interested in sustainability. But the research team managed to find a way to get people engaged in sustainability transition nevertheless.

“In Carnisse, the concept ‘sustainability’ had a negative connotation for some who assumed that it would force them to give up certain things or that they would not be in a position to change anything. Others considered ‘sustainability’ an academic and abstract term, rather than an everyday concept that they could relate to. A minority thought that it was a worn-out term, and as such meaningless in the local context. Rather than focusing on the term ‘sustainability’, the community arena process aimed to play into local dynamics (i.e. a good quality of life) as a starting point— thereby hoping to catch the essence of sustainability without falling into quarrels about the notion itself [emphasize added]” (Wittmayer & Schäpke, 2014).

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) state that they tried to abstain from imposing preconceived ideas, but they implement a project about sustainability transitions at a place where people do not care about sustainability. Because we as scientists think that we need to get the sustainability transition going (of course, I agree with that), we find ways around it and push our agenda. I would argue that this is paternalistic. It is like the parent who sneaks in the veg that the child would usually not eat. We do not say it is about sustainability, yet it is. Of course, one can say, that we need to get the sustainability transition going, and for that reason, it is legitimate to act like this. It is like parents who want to protect their children. And that is exactly the paternalistic dilemma, I am referring to. Are we really on a level playing field when we engage in co-creation or are we the parents who think to know what is right and make our children behave accordingly?

If we engage in transdisciplinary research with stakeholders because stakeholders know more about something, is it then not the scientist who should be in the role of a student? Imagine you go to a therapist because you need help, but then you tell the therapist what to do. One asks for information but is not ready to receive it because you already know the right answer. We want to work in a co-creative manner, but already know that the solution to the problem is upscaling an innovation. For sure, we will find support for our ideas in the scientific community and beyond. And we might think that we have the right to push our ideas on others because we have the authority gained through years of training and experience.

I think there might be several reasons for why we still end up in a hierarchical rather than in a level situation. One might simply be because it is difficult to get out of the role that we have taken, and that society ascribes to us because we have studied. It might be difficult to acknowledge that despite all the data, I might be wrong, that despite all the data, for normative reasons, something else should be done, etc. When we talk about the roles that scientists can have in transition research, we have to talk about the roles scientists can have in society.

I was blind to this, but I also thought that scientists transcending their traditional role is something new that was somehow related to the complexity of sustainability problems. Though, recently I got to learn about the sociology of intellectuals and figured that the perception of scientists having a traditional role is wrong. Kurzman and Owens (2002) explain that there are three different classes of intellectuals (which technically are not only scientists); class-less, class-bound, and own class.

The own class means that scientists form their own class and follow their own interests. I think that is relevant when we consider co-creation. Complete openness to learning on the side of the researcher might not be desirable, because the researcher follows the interest of her own class. These interests might be testing one’s own method or getting publishable results. I think it might be difficult to get a project funded that really follows co-creation. What to describe in the project proposal? There might be so many open ends that one purposefully would not want to close down in a project description that the traditional requirements of project proposals might not allow to get funding for such projects. Reporting on scientific results might also become difficult. It is, I would say anyway, hardly the case in social science that the research process follows the straight line that most papers reporting on research processes and results want to convey (even if they indicate some iterative aspects of the process). Co-creation inherently must have room for serendipity, for the researcher to abandon the plan and follow the stakeholders. If not, we push a process on the stakeholders for the sake of reproducible project processes. To go on a tangent here. I have looked a little into agile project management, and that might be more suitable for co-creative projects. But researchers have no training in this, and it is, to my knowledge, hardly applied in science (apart from IT projects, maybe). Anyhow, to close the own-class aspect, researchers might not be able to truly engage in co-creative projects because they have vested interests aligning with the goals of the class of researchers.

Next, we have the class-bound category, which means that scientists act in the interest of some other class. Here falls everything of scientists being accused of supporting some industry or political view. Thus, this is not only about scientists providing data and support for certain industries or companies. It is also about scientists adhering to and supporting the expansion of neoliberalism into academia, for example. When I started studying, the sponsorship of private companies of universities came up. It was hotly debated because, of course, it effects knowledge production. Similar to the own-class category, the scientist does not act independently. The freedom of knowledge production is, in such a case, restricted from the onset. As stated, this is not only about company interest, but out the interests of governments and political parties. If I am close to a conservative party and want them to succeed, I might produce knowledge that supports those views. Just as before, co-creative processes will be influenced by the vested interest of the researcher bound to the interest of some other party.

Finally, there is the class-less category, which is an idealized image of the scientist, which might not exist. It is the scientist who works purely in the pursuit of knowledge. Thus, here the scientists inherently want to learn. That is their only vested interest (does that not sound heavenly?). With the experience I have had within academia, I do not think that conditions are created for such scientists to exist. You are always a mixture of a class-bound and an own-class agent. I think one of many requirements for such a class-less category to exist would be the extension of the division of powers to the educational system and academics. If the scientist approached co-creation from that role, I think she had no interest in changing people’s lives because she only wanted to learn and understand. Then the scientist would feed the information back and allow people to do with it whatever they want.

The categorization of scientists in classes, of course, has a lot to do with hierarchies and power. No wonder that for Gramsci, scientists had a special role in transformative processes. I will not expand further on this… But it should tell us that we should not deal that lightly with just taking on some new role and aiming to change people’s lives.

Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014) state that there are several roles that researchers can take in process-oriented research and that, despite a potential conflict of interest, they encourage scientists to play and experiment with these roles. Opinions change, but as I see it today, I think this is wrong. Scientists can act as change agents in their private lives, they should not change people’s lives on purpose as part of a research process. They do not have the training to do so. Most are not psychologists, mediators, coaches, etc. Researchers can study ongoing processes. But I do not think that researchers should abstain from changing other people's lives when they are in the role of the researcher at the same time.

I am not against transdisciplinary research, I am not against co-creation as long as the co-creation is limited to the stakeholders. I argue that we do have to separate roles clearly and that researchers have to be very careful in their actions.

I understand that the urge to participate in co-creation might be because researchers want to protect society from something. But researchers have no right to intervene. Even if a doctor gets a patient who continuously shows up with seer lung problems, the doctor can still not force the patient to stop smoking. The doctor can only provide information (that would be the role of the knowledge broker). The doctor has to accept that the patient has the right to act in a self-destructive manner.

If researchers have the urge to change the world, then why not be the change that you want to see in this world?


Funtowicz, S. O., & Ravetz, J. R. (1993). The Emergence of Post-Normal Science. In R. Von Schomberg (Ed.), Science, Politics and Morality: Scientific Uncertainty and Decision Making (pp. 85-123). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Kurzman, C., & Owens, L. (2002). The Sociology of Intellectuals. Annual Review of Sociology, 28(1), 63-90. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.140745

Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., . . . Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25-43. doi:10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Wittmayer, J. M., & Schäpke, N. (2014). Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustainability Science, 9(4), 483-496. doi:10.1007/s11625-014-0258-4

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