Skip to content Skip to navigation

Chairing a Conference Session

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
345 creative research environments researchers and doctoral students have the object of research in common; the object links them to each other.


The excerpt below looks at the benefits gained by having a department or large research group share a common set of research themes or "shared objects of research" that can be worked on from a variety of perspectives. It is from: THE UNIVERSITY OF LEARNING, by John Bowden and Ference Marton. Published by Kogan Page Limited, 120 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9JN, and, Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166-2012. ? John Bowden and Ference Marton 1998. The right of John Bowden and Ference Marton to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: More on the Teaching-Research Relationship

Tomorrow's Research


-----------------969 words --------------------


Excerpt from Chapter 8, Collective Consciousness and the Ethics of Learning)


A fundamental aspect of pedagogical relationships, of which teaching is by far the most common, is that people are supposed to have a shared object that they are oriented towards. It is this object that connects them in the first place. Pedagogical relationships are object-mediated relationships (note that 'object' is used in a very wide sense, as a synonym to 'topic', 'theme' or even 'capability'). Also the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors are (or should be) object-mediated. The same principle applies to relationships between members of research groups, as is shown in the next section.

The Inner Life of University Departments

Bennich-Bjorkman (in press) has recently presented an interesting study of creative and less creative research environments in the social sciences in Sweden. She found, according to our reading of her results, that in creative research environments researchers and doctoral students have the object of research in common; the object links them to each other. This does not imply, of course, that they all are dealing with the same problem, but that the problems are closely connected such that they can be seen as different perspectives on it, or slightly differing ways of seeing it. If this is the case the members of the research group are dependant on each other; they are drawing on each other's research and therefore everybody keeps supporting everybody else. Such a state of affairs has far-reaching implications for departmental life. In contrast, departments that lack a shared object of research, senior people are not likely to go to seminars, and if they do, they do it to boost spirits. In departments with a shared of research both senior and junior members of staff attend seminars because it is in their own interest to go there and hear what is being said, simply because what is being said is to a certain extent about there own research object. Similarly, when it comes to commenting on each other's manuscripts for instance, if there is a shared object of research, one's colleagues will do it because it is in their own interest. Otherwise, they may do it merely to be kind, friendly or polite. The reading and the comments will in all likelihood be more helpful in the former case, Whether or not a supervisor and PhD student are linked to each other through a shared research object will show in their discussions. If there is a shared object the supervisor will probably have the expertise necessary to support the student's work. Discussions will revolve around the object of research. If the supervisor and the student do not share the object of research the supervisor will probably lack the experience necessary to support the student and the discussions will likely be of more general nature, frequently with a methodological focus and a flavor of moral support.

So members of successful research groups making up creative environments were found to be linked to each other by means of shared objects of research. Another vital aspect of the relatedness of members of research departments is the difference between horizontal and vertical patterns of collaboration. The former refers to co-operation between equals and between members within a generational group that is proceeding towards occupying a dominant position within the organization. The latter refers to co-operation between members of the group separated by their positions, such as in the case of co-operation between supervisor and doctoral student. Such a relationship is likely to change when positions change, its nature becoming more transitional. Due to the positionally superior partner's awareness of its transitional nature, that person may not invest as much emotional capital in the relationship as anyone who is aware of the relationship being a lasting one (which is much more probable with the horizontal pattern). The vertical collaboration pattern is more likely to present traits of a more impersonal kind (Bennich-Bjorkman, in press).

>From the point of view of the likelihood of survival of the research environment, a distinction between open and closed patterns of collaboration is super-ordinate to the distinction between vertical and horizontal partnerships. In the case of open collaboration there are bonds established between many different partners, creating temporary partnerships between many in the organization. In the case of closed co-operation there are only permanent partnerships between few. The research environment is more stable when the pattern of collaboration is open, as it is less vulnerable to partnership breakdowns. These conclusions resemble Granovetter's (1973) discussion of 'the strength of weak ties'.

Bennich-Bjorkman points to Edge and Mulkay's (1976) account of how radio astronomy as a field of study was established in Britain by two research groups: one at Cambridge and one at Jodrell Bank. The former was more successful, having two of its leading figures, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, receiving a Nobel prize in 1973 and could be characterized by an open pattern of collaboration with each other; the leader, Ryle, had co-authored articles with everybody else. At Jodrell Bank the pattern of collaboration was more distinct and more closed, with stronger ties, but fewer of them: 'at Cambridge, stable supervisor/student relations are difficult to see, but at Jodrell Bank the ties are much more obvious' (Edge and Mulkay, 1976).

Shared Objects of Research

Bennich-Bjorkman (in press) suggests the rise of 'The Chicago School of Sociology' as an example of the decisive importance of turning research into a collective enterprise instead of seeing it primarily as an individual activity. Advancing sociology at the University of Chicago to an internationally leading position within just seven or eight years was a highly calculated undertaking. Our own understanding is that a necessary condition for bringing about collaborative working practices is a shared object of research. The Local Community Program seemed to make all the difference. The city of Chicago itself became the shared object of research.