1. Introduction: Setting the scene
  2. Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?
  3. My research approach
  4. Learning from our failures: Lessons from FairCoop
  5. Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)
  6. The Diversity & Decolonising Circle
  7. The Research Team
  8. The DAF Landscape: Cultivating relationality
  9. Considering DAF from a decolonial perspective
  10. Radical collective change

My research approach

(a summary)

As I explain in the first post of this series, the research question I decided to explore was: "How may online networks enable radical collective change through social learning?"

In these summaries, I will attempt to provide an overview of the conclusions I landed on, over the course of this research. But first, I should tell you more about how I went about this exploration. Indeed, in any journey, what matters is less where you go, but more importantly how you go there, and the heart- and mind-set in which you interact with whoever and whatever the journey places into your path.

So let me say a few words about the approach and perspective that I brought with me on this journey.

Where am I speaking from?

I have come to believe that carrying out my research needed to be done with the firm and open acknowledgement of where I am speaking and listening from, as a human being. Indeed, like anyone else, I am caught up in social hierarchies and power relations that shape how I perceive the world, and how I am perceived as I express myself. In particular, it is undeniable that as a PhD student, I am engaging with the world from a privileged position as a representative of a dominant institution, which is bent on reproducing the existing social order: the university. So I cannot expect non-academics to ignore this baggage: for example, what I may say or write - like this blog post - may carry more weight in your mind, as a reader, simply because I have had access to many years of post-graduate education.

Besides holding these credentials, I am also White, male, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, in my 30s, and middle-class; I grew up speaking French and English, and I carry the passports of two powerful Western European states. Not only do these various dimensions of my identity allow me the comfort of never being on the receiving end of ugly things like racism, sexism, homophobia, or forced labour in my everyday life; most importantly, they place me very near the top of the global pyramid of privilege. The 0,001% of people who wield the most power on our planet tend to look a lot like me (maybe they're just a bit older!), and have a broadly similar cultural background to mine. They shape global institutions, public policies and public discourse from this extremely restrained vantage point, as they drink cocktails with their buddies who belong to the same club.

It would be a grave error for me not to remember how my perspective is conditioned by this social position of mine, and how this position affects the way people see and hear me. Moreover, I also consider that it makes it all the more necessary for me to remember why such a position grew to become so dominant in the world, and therefore, to take a hard look at the history of systemic injustice, violence and harm that created this state of things... and to learn to better name and dismantle all forms of oppression and exploitation. I will return to this further in my summary of Chapter 6. For now, suffice to say that I carried out my research with an intention to keep these difficult truths in mind, and to carry out an ongoing critical reflection on my own practice, assumptions and beliefs... especially since my intention is precisely to find ways to transform this deeply unjust and unequal social order!

An activist-scholar in training

I view myself as an aspiring activist-scholar. Although both parts of this identity still feel rather new to me, or like a set of clothes that I am yet to fully grow into, these words probably come closest to presenting a deeply felt intention: to carry out research in a rigorous way, as a way to help bring about generative social and political change.

I embarked on this research project with the intention to help create practical knowledge with regards to radical forms of collective change in the context of online networks and the communities they support. My wish is that the content of this thesis, and the other outcomes of this research, may be of practical use to anyone wishing to address the fundamental issues of our time, and to challenge the current social order.

For this reason, this study can be viewed as an attempt at producing “movement-relevant theory” – or scholarship which prioritises the relevance of research to social movements themselves. As a researcher, I do not pretend to know more than activists deeply involved in their practice and learning from it, nor do I pretend to be better able to generate theory. However, I hope to aid and celebrate the ongoing learning taking place in prefigurative groups and social movements, by contributing my time and access to potentially useful scholarly literature, and helping to produce scholarship that can be of use to those seeking social change. This does not imply an uncritical stance with regards to the assumptions or practice of these groups, however: findings that don't fit their expectations may help them to better serve their cause. I seek to adopt the stance of the “radical intellectual” theorised by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber:

to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities — as gifts.

Messiness and emergence

I also want to acknowledge the non-linear, mycelial nature of this research project.

Considering the immensity of the global predicament, and the complexity of addressing it in meaningful ways, I did not wish to remain wedded to any particular theory, but sought an open-ended, emergent and flexible approach that would allow me to carry out social learning experiments, and to keep reflecting on their outcomes. This led me to use Action Research (see below), and to rely on structuring metaphors (Chapter 5, Chapter 6) to account for my evolving perspective.

As a result, my inquiry has led me to investigate a variety of fields of knowledge and methodologies, to go down multiple research tracks, and to bring together conflicting and diverse perspectives. Like a fungus, this participatory project has fed on a variety of more or less nutritive substances, and formed an anarchic whole that may appear rather “messy” and difficult to delineate.

What I have found, like other action researchers before me, is that “messiness” enabled me the freedom to create multiple forms of knowledge, not just the standard academic written knowledge that usually ends up inside a thesis. For example, John Heron and Peter Reason say that everyone may engage with the world and access at least four different kinds of knowledge:

  • experiential - knowing through empathy and attunement with present experience;
  • presentational - a form of knowledge construction expressed in graphic, plastic, moving, musical, and verbal art forms;
  • propositional - knowing expressed in the form of formal language, such as in academic texts; and
  • practical knowledge (the ability to change things through action.

While my thesis foregrounds propositional knowing, I believe it also contains nuggets of each other form of knowledge from this list. My journey was enriched by this wider, messier array of possibilities, which may also have enabled me to travel more deeply into the difficult and confusing realm of social change.

The messiness and emergence that I embraced at the heart of this process has also allowed me to become deeply changed and reconfigured by this investigation - including on how I defined and approached the very notion of radical collective change. For example, I started off looking for ways in which online networks and communities may enable their participants to learn more about important social issues, and to take action to address them. I explored this question using diagnostic processes and social learning evaluation. But eventually, my inquiry led me to pay much closer attention to the ways of knowing and the ways of being that condition how one perceives what issues are in need of being addressed, including one’s implication in them – and to consider the unlearning that should happen for radical forms of change to emerge. This critical process highlighted for me the relevance of a decolonial approach to social change. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of my thesis reflect these three different stages in my journey.

Action Research

In this journey, the "mode of transportation" that I adopted was Action Research (AR). It has been the main vehicle propelling me forward, and like a travelling lab allowing me to carry out various experiments in various places.

Early on in my research, I already wrote a blog post introducing AR, so I will just say a few words about it here.

First, AR is an approach to inquiry based on experimental action: it is about generating knowledge (research), while at the same time supporting positive change (action). It works like a cycle of trial and error, by doing something, then reflecting on what happened, deciding next steps, doing something, reflecting again, etc. This is best done in a holistic way, by considering how the experiment is creating change in relationships and in what I/we perceive and how I/we feel - through all our faculties and senses - instead of only relying on the intellect. This cycle of action and reflection makes AR an emergent process, which is well suited to inquiries that require flexibility and critical reflection, as was my case.

AR, as I view it, also tends to be participatory: it's about considering that all humans and other-than-humans are interconnected, not experiencing the world in isolation - and therefore, that creating knowledge or social change should not be attempted by one researcher on their own. Collaborating with others in this process also brings much richer and more diverse insights, as I discovered in my fruitful collaboration with co-researcher Wendy Freeman in the Deep Adaptation Forum (Chapter 5).

This should happen as democratically as possible, because AR is explicitly about creating emancipatory social change, and disrupting existing power relations. So collaboration and/or co-creation should happen on a foundation of equality. In practice, this is not easy due to people's varying social positions and privileges - and this is particularly the case when a university researcher like me collaborates with people who are not formally part of a research body, due to the power inequalities this creates. But the intention to foster mutually honest, respectful and accountable relationships through this process is key.

Finally, although participation is an important aspect of AR, it is also possible to use it to explore one's own actions, intentions, strategies and behaviours, without necessarily involving someone else. In my case, I did so by holding a research journal, which I used to document my own personal and interpersonal experience of this research. I often went back to it to reflect on how my thinking evolved, how I felt at different points in time, what were my assumptions, or how I made sense of different situations. In particular, this journal was quite important to track how my understanding of the notion of radical collective change evolved over these four years - which I why I quote from it in Chapter 6. I also appreciate how quoting from these notes allows me to make my reasoning a bit more transparent, and give a fuller sense of the "flesh and blood" of the weird human being who decided to go on this journey!

In this post, I introduced the general approach and method I adopted for this research project. In case you're a methodology geek, please see Chapter 3, as well as Annexes 3.2 and 3.3 for a comprehensive account of my research process. I assume these details are a bit too much for most readers, so in this blog post series, I will only bring up points of methodology when it feels important to what I'm sharing here.

Likewise, I won't write a stand-alone post on how my research fits within the existing scientific literature on informal learning, social learning, prefigurative communities, communities of practice, and decolonial studies. To learn more about this, please see Chapter 2 from the thesis.