Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…


5 thoughts on “Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

  1. Thanks for posting these reflections Jessica! And wow – i feel like our thought processes are very much in sync as i head back to the field to study processes of change (transformative?) in agricultural landscapes… (using a very similar set of transdisc. methods!)
    This question, what is a transformative method, came up last week here at the SRC when Diego Galafassi defended his Licentiate thesis on Transformational Knowledge Practices. His opponent was David Tabara, who has written about transformative methodologies for sustainability learning for many years.
    In this chapter they write about Transformative science approaches for sustainability. (I haven’t read it). One of the methods Diego and David have been using for high-end climate scenarios is forum theatre.
    Looking forward to hearing about your fieldwork!


  2. Hi Jamila
    Thanks so much for the comment. Glad to hear I am not the only one grappling with this!
    I would love to connect and hear more about your research on change processes in agric landscapes – sounds like we do indeed have common ground!
    So are you saying that you’re planning to use methods similar to the ones I mentioned? Would be good to keep in touch about how that works out for both of us in different contexts…
    I’ll have a look at the chapter by Diego and David, thanks.
    Cheers for now


  3. Hi Jessica – new to the community (YAY! so nice to find SES support/community). I have that book as PDF. Send me an email KES126 at and I’m happy to share!


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