You’ve been framed: Cogenerative dialogues in PAR

Over the last few weeks I have been grappling with some of the tensions associated with PAR – in particular how “outsiders”, such as academic researchers, can engage with “insiders” , local participants, in ways that somehow meet their often diverse needs.  One model that I have found helpful is by Max Elden and Morten Levin* which they outline as “cogenerative learning”.

Elden and Levin propose a model that identifies that insiders and outsiders use different frameworks – ways of understanding, language, or cognitive maps – which need to be combined to develop “local theory” – a new shared framework.  They argue that the

richness and quality of the research depends on the ability of the insiders and outsiders to play their different frameworks and expertise against each other to create a new, third explanatory framework.

Insiders are experts in the specific setting and know from personal experience how things work.  This knowledge is highly individual, non-systemic and tacit and insiders are focused on solving practical problems.  In contrast, outsiders have specialist skills in designing and carring out research and approach participation with a general theory about the problem in hand.   The way these two groups can connect that integrates their different expertise – such as “insiders become more theoretical about their practice and outsiders more practical about their theory” – is through cogenerative dialogue.

Cogenerative Dialogue

Elden and Levin argue that cogenerative dialogue occurs when

insiders and outsiders operate out of their initial frames of reference but communciate at a level where frames can be changed and new frames generated.

Their experience is that participants take some time to learn about their expertise but by the end of the process the insiders take the lead in creating new knowledge.  Elden and Levin recognize the different power and knowledge bases of the participants and that the outside expert may have more powerful and explicit “sense-making models” giving them a possible “model monopoly” that needs to be overcome.  However, they are not advocating that researchers should avoid shaping the content.  They state that “what’s important is that the arena for possible action has been enlarged because ideas from our framework have been seriously considered”.  In fact this tension is at the core of facilitating cogenerative dialogue:

The contradiction between the outsider’s responsibility for introducing new ideas and concepts and planning a learning process and the participants’ control and active influence in framing the new knowledge that is developed must always be resolved based on the participants’ values and interests.

Local Theory & Action

If successful, the insiders and outsiders generate a concise and coherent explanation of why things are the way they are.  They generate a situation specific theory that explains relationships in a given situation that makes sense to those with the most local experience.  Elden and Levin argue that this leads to change as the theory can then be tested and improved in the local situation as well as used to inform more general theories.  They suggest three categories for academics: further development of the PAR process (eg develop a taxonomy of PAR); new knowledge of specific social problems;and research aimed strictly at academic-oriented theory production.

The neatness of this model is that it tries to recognize and navigate the tensions around participants possessing diverse skills and interests as well as trying to find a way for PAR to not only solve practical local problems but also contribute to general social science theory and knowledge.  That said, much rests on the idea of cogenerative dialogue and the participants’ ability to recognize and then utilize existing frames in discussions and then feel able to transform them.  This may be influenced not only by the skills of the participants but also the nature of the frames – how embedded and taken for granted practices have become and the sanctions and rewards that sustain the existing “local theory”.

* Elden, M., & Levin, M. (1991). Cogenerative learning: Bring Participation into Action Research.  In W. F. Whyte (Ed.) Participatory action research. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications.

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