principles for researcher-practitioner collaboration

(Brief remarks at an Ash Center/Kennedy School of Government meeting on redistricting reform) I know less than anyone in this room about districting, but I do have experience with several networks of researchers and practitioners who have worked together on aspects of democracy. I’m talking not about specific projects but about partnerships that persist. Reflecting on those experiences, I’d propose three recommendations for any group of researchers and practitioners who come together to work on a problem:

1. Separate the people from their roles

Academics and practitioners of various sorts have official roles that structure their lives. It’s not because of arrogance or naval-gazing that tenure-track academics strive to publish: that’s a requirement. Publication requires originality, generalizability, and advanced methodological proficiency, none of which necessarily matters to practitioners. Meanwhile, practitioners must hit targets negotiated with funders or members, and they cannot spend scarce resources on research unless it advances their goals. Understanding these parameters allows creative solutions to emerge.

To promote a constructive conversation about how to work together, it helps to break down stereotypes about the human beings in these respective roles. In my experience, they tend not to be all that different. Many practitioners are deeply scholarly, in both their attainments and their dispositions and interests. And many scholars are practical people who work for real-world objectives and know how to get things done. Once academics and practitioners learn that they do not have fundamentally different priorities or values, it’s easier for them to focus on the nitty-gritty of incentives and opportunities.

2. Be diplomatic

This should go without saying, but I have seen plenty of cringe-inducing moments. Imagine professors from fancy institutions saying to grassroots organizers who have sacrificed and put their safety on the line for decades, “You don’t know whether your strategy has any impact because you have not done a randomized experiment.” There may actually be some truth to this claim, but it is no way to treat a fellow human being–nor will it encourage a partnership. I have also seen grizzled political organizers dismiss academics, especially young ones, for being politically naive, thereby missing what these scholars can contribute. We can’t work together well unless we treat each other well.

3. Recognize the three dimensions of complex problems

Redistricting is a good example. It is technically complex: massive data and computational power can be used to draw districts that advantage any side. It is normatively contested: good people would prefer districts that are (1) maximally competitive, (2) maximally representative of the partisan divide in a state, (3) maximally representative of the racial demographics of the state, (4) maximally secure for disadvantaged minority representatives, or (5) maximally compact. They prefer processes that are insulated from political pressure or responsive to political organizing. These are decent values but they conflict. Finally, the issue is riven with power: the technical tools and legal authority to redistrict are held by powerful people who use them for their ends.

These three dimensions also arise for most other 21st-century social and political problems. Progress typically demands empirical/methodological sophistication, normative deliberation, and strategic insight.

My claim is that both researchers and practitioners contribute to all three dimensions. Empirical, normative, and strategic sophistication comes from the academy and from practice. It’s a mistake to see academics as the sole custodians of empirical methods or the practitioners (and the public) as the only ones who can think about values or strategies. Questions of ideals and strategies can be investigated with scholarly rigor; practitioners can create and analyze data. We need everyone working on all three tasks.

See also: the Tisch College initiative on gerrymanderingmini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategiespolitical science and the public; and twenty-five years of it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.