Developing leading edge research

Take a risk says Deakin's much-lauded Professor Sue Kenny.

Professor Sue Kenny, third from left, with Deakin colleagues.
Professor Sue Kenny, third from left, with Deakin colleagues.

By Professor Sue Kenny

I am sometimes asked about what factors I consider to be important for the development of leading edge research. The conventional answer to such a question usually identifies rigour, sound methodology and exemplary scholarship as the key criteria. These, of course, are the starting points for undertaking good research. However research that is leading edge in the sense that it shifts our thinking, provides new insights, makes a difference and captures our imagination, requires more, and indeed, it might even challenge accepted thinking. From my perspective there are several additional factors which are critical for leading edge research. These are curiosity, passion, a research agenda or profile, and risk taking.

The importance of experiencing and understanding the social and cultural richness of our world was first demonstrated to me while on a field placement working in the Sepik river region in New Guinea in the 1960s. I was curious about how the local social system worked and this led me to many questions about how decisions were made, why girls were treated in certain ways the village and how the local economy worked. Such questions led to many more and over the years I have learnt that curiosity engenders the ability to articulate appropriate questions.

In the context of the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, curiosity led me to ask questions about the future of the welfare state. My first collaborative Australian Research Council (ARC) project, with colleagues Bryan Turner and Kevin Brown, revealed how civil society was being called upon to provide new ways of delivering welfare. The findings led to new questions about the meaning and role of active citizenship in social development. This study has been followed by 28 more research grants, including nine ARC grants.

By the mid 1990s I had developed a research program around civil society and active citizenship, and with several teams of collaborating researchers, secured funding for a number of projects studying such topics as philanthropy, volunteerism, community development and comparative studies of third sector organisations in Australia, Russia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. My interest in comparative research found expression in a number of ways. For example, I was interested in how social inclusion is conceptualised and practised in different contexts. I also had continuing questions about capacity-building in different countries.

With the new politics of fear after 2001, understanding how the forces for and against the marginalisation of disadvantaged groups became increasingly important, especially for governments. In 2002 I led a successful competitive tender submission to the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs to provide services, research and evaluation for the national Humanitarian Settlement Strategy. This large five year project involved researching the needs of refugees throughout Australia and providing appropriate integration strategies.

Underpinning much of my research has been a desire to make sense of the ways in which people organise collectively to control their own destinies through collective empowerment. My experiences of working with local people on community development projects, in Australia and internationally, have meant that I have never forgotten the importance of understanding local issues from the point of view of the people affected at the grassroots level.

One aspect of my research in Indonesia, for example, has been concerned with how ordinary people, working in ‘moderate’ Islamic non-government organisations identify their needs and construct their own capacities. Community development has many dimensions and sites, and I have been able to explore many of the sites, including the construction of civil society in post-communist states, such as Russia, Albania and Kyrgyzstan and role of local people in the reconstruction of tsunami ravaged Aceh. Since 2004 my research into disaster reconstruction has revealed the need for much more scholarly investigation of disaster resilience and post disaster reconstruction, including research that can draw on theories of risk society, the public sphere and new forms of communication. I am currently involved in scoping an agenda for this wider research.

All my research has been driven by a questioning of the way our social and political world might appear to be operating and a passion for identifying ways in which the world might be different. My early passion for research gained momentum in the heady days of the 1970s social movements, a time when ‘new Left’ ideas held sway in universities and much of social science was dominated by Marxist theory. The quest for identifying how the world could be changed for the better meant pursuing research that ‘could make a difference’. This has also meant working with activists, government officials and community organisations, as well as academic colleagues.

Through many research projects I have learnt about the importance of starting with a clearly articulated research agenda, as a map that will guide the development of research questions. Of course, a research agenda is not a static construction. It will always be modified over time. New theories will arise, often challenging the very premises of conventional theories. For example, my understanding of Marxist theories of class and change, which informed my early research agendas, was challenged as new configurations of inequality and new civil society drivers of change became evident.

Civil society is now profoundly affected by globalisation. As a result, active citizenship is increasingly framed as a transnational or cosmopolitan endeavour. The study of active citizenship today calls for comparative research into how transnational identities are constructed and played out and the promises of cosmopolitanism in the future development of civil society. This has been the focus of my research over the past twelve months.

Being able to discuss issues with academic colleagues has been one of the joys of working in a university setting. The cut and thrust of academic argument sharpens the questions asked, and can nurture the capacity for self criticism. I have been fortunate indeed to have been able to share and debate my hunches and ideas with so many of my academic colleagues, both in Australia and internationally, including those connected with the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University, third sector researchers in Stockholm, activist academics in Moscow and during my period as a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge.

For an academic researcher, making a difference requires disseminating relevant research findings through research centres, university conferences and public platforms. I have received over 60 Australian and international invitations to present papers as a keynote, plenary or guest speaker, at conferences, seminars, symposia and annual general meetings. Audiences have ranged from scholarly colleagues to community groups and government officials. I have been invited to join a number of consultancy teams and advisory committees in Australia and overseas. These networks have enabled me to participate in a range of challenging forums.

The development of research networks is often a matter of seizing opportunities. My consultancies in Russia eventuated out of community development consultancies there, and this work in turn led to consultancies in Albania and Kyrgyzstan. In Australia, I have served on a number of government and community committees, including the Boards of the Victorian Council for Social Service and the Migrant Resource Centre (North East), and committees in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Department of Human Services and through these I gained insights into the processes of research consultancies.

Central to academic research is the dissemination of research findings through academic publications. I have over 60 publications, including journal articles, book chapters and books. I have published 36 papers and journal articles and 9 books, both sole and jointly authored. Challenging Capacity Building with Matthew Clarke, and Post-Disaster Reconstruction: Lessons from Aceh, with Matthew Clarke and Ismet Fanany were published in 2010. The fourth edition of my text ‘Developing Communities for the Future’, was published in 2011.

The final factor that I want to highlight as a feature of leading edge research is the importance of risk taking. In the context of the increasing demands of reporting and auditing research we often forget how so many new insights and analyses come from offering unconventional ideas and unpopular viewpoints. Rejecting the well established formula, pursuing the unpredictable and seizing new opportunities are not easy paths to take. Developing new understandings requires a lot of hard work, and persistent examination and re-examination of theories and data. But often it is the surprises that come out of persistent re-examination of established interpretations that make research such an exciting and worthwhile endeavour.

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