Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Doing Transformative Research

March 20th, 2012

Case #1: NSF Workshop on Transformative Research

There are four parts to this blogentry:

  • Informed Consent Process (specific to this case)
  • #NSFTR Data
  • Analysis of #NSFTR Data
  • Proposal for Potentially Transformative Social Scientific Action Research

Informed Consent

Background (Idiographic case #1, see Jaan Valsiner)

Those on the list into twitter may be interested in keeping an eye on the hashtag #NSFTR today and early tomorrow.

The tag will mark tweets of ideas (no attribution to speakers, no identifying affiliations) coming from a workshop on the notion of transformative research:

With best wishes,


J. Britt Holbrook
Assistant Director
Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity

University of North Texas
Twitter: @jbrittholbrook

I am a member of the Science of Team Science listserv, “into twitter,” and curious about “ideas . . . on the notion of transformative research.” I immediately searched for the hashtag and discovered Britt’s tweet inviting “contributions from outside the room.”  Follow - contrib from outside the roomLooking at it now, I realize it was directed at very specific individuals; at the time, in conjunction with the email, I interpreted it as an open invitation and jumped into the conversation. My hope was twofold: to contribute directly and to showcase a Twitter tool which (in my active imagination) could be a “radical knowledge thing” that NSF could use in support of transformative research.

To announce my presence (@stephjoke), I tweeted “action today and tomorrow from a Transformative Research Workshop,” including the #NSFTR hashtag and website link. Periodically I tweeted, (in-between regularly scheduled events and other tasks of the day), waiting for my tech guy to get the visualizer (tentatively named Tidepool) up and running. (Last minute requests are always a challenge!) Don Blair came through, and I immediately shared the url and a series of screenshots.

Now, someone astute among readers will realize that a) Britt’s invitation may not have meant to include outsiders outside the room (since he clearly specified already-known insiders, and I do not know if I have previously met anyone who was ‘in the room’); and b) even if the invitation was meant to include strangers, I did not ask permission to run the visualizer, let alone analyzing the Tweet data. Which is why  (during the conference), I Tweeted my affiliation with the proactionary principle, especially in terms of how it “encourages taking risks”  - in contrast with the precautionary principle. My rationale was that Tweets are public data and more people than any of us can imagine are mining them for all kinds of things that we may or may not approve. At least I make what I do public!

social science challenge-danadolanTo be honest, I was not fully cognizant that I was actually already doing potentially transformative research (as described in @danadolan’s Tweet); only that I had an opportunity to demo Tidepool. The potential of analysis – of having enough data to justify engaging this as an actual case – came clearly into mind in the week afterwards, as I began prepping in earnest for an upcoming conference where Informed Consent is being negotiated in advance. Participants need an example in order to comprehend the implications of consent; what better way to provide them this information than to illustrate to what use I will put their Tweets?


Announcing the Tidepool open source visualizer at #NSFTR

Announcing the Tidepool open source visualizer at #NSFTR

2nd #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool

2nd #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool

The first #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool

The first #NSFTR Tweet captured by Tidepool

Here are some of the screen shots I shared with the #NSFTR (click to enlarge), and also posted back to the Science of Team Science listserv where Britt had made his original announcement. You can click through here to see and read Tweets from the #NSFTR workshop (and possibly on-going, as Tweeters continue to use the hashtag).


I am not going to get carried away because no one has given consent for me to venture even tentative interpretations! This entry is long-winded enough, and hopefully the inclusion of Tweet screenshots and commentary gives adequate flavor as to my style. It seems important, however, to be as explicit as I can with the methodology and ethics motivating this as action research. For instance, there are many disclaimers, such as that the majority of Tweets are from @jbrittholbrook and are thus unrepresentative of the whole group of participants (emphasizing why more participation is better), and that the Tweets are only a selection of everything that gets said, and that people outside the room can only make limited sense of the meaningfulness of Tweets read out of context.

Yes. These are some of the obvious conditions of communication involving a Twitter backchannel to a live, face-to-face event. If we are to be purposeful about engaging these conditions (i.e., if we are going to do social science), then we take them into due consideration as relevant factors and explore the dynamics that they bring into view. I am going to select one dynamical instance of data that I recognize as an instance of a transactional (communication) process which brings the social field of interaction into view such that we can assess whether identities or ideas are particularly relevant. The argument is that only by recognizing these interactional moments – specifically, our participation in the social norms and rituals of generating knowledge – can we come to identify the transformational. This identification is prerequisite for research that intends to be transformative.

Simultaneity is the Linchpin

good def of transformative@JChrisPires’ Tweet came a few hours after the email I sent to the Science of Team Science listserv updating them on my activities with #NSFTR. In that email, I had also suggested a facilitative use of Twitter, such as asking everyone to Tweet the one word most characterizes transformative research. When I came upon@JChrisPires’ Tweet at the end of the workshop, I recognized it immediately. We were not asking exactly the same question, and we did not ask at exactly the same time, but the timing is close enough to suggest simultaneity. In physics, simultaneity requires a shared frame of reference, but in terms of social phenomena – such as the generation of new knowledge – simultaneity is a measure that incorporates both shared and different frames of reference simply on the basis of their co-appearance in the dimension of time.

The association may seem far-fetched, however emerging social theories are considering simultaneity in some fascinating ways. For instance, Levitt and Schiller are conceptualizing simultaneity “to rethink the terrain in which social processes take place . . . [and] challenge our understanding of social reproduction” (2004: 1016). This is relevant because unless and until scientists are willing to investigate and interrogate their own social rituals of doing scientific research, little (if any) transformation is possible. Anna Madoeuf (2006) explains how to study mulids (festivals) only a few days long (as you read, please compare with the similarly temporary/transient nature of scientific meetings):

“Festivals only a few days in duration offer the researcher little real time to construct an analysis. The evanescent character of the festival drives a researcher’s quest for fragments. During a festival, everyone seems to live and act in an accelerated way and it is impossible to grasp the simultaneity of situations and scenes. Thus we have experimented with adapting sociogeographic methodologies to the roller-coaster landscape of the mulid, instantaneously capturing data created during aleatory, virtiginous peregrinations. We have chosen to accept the immediacy of the mulid and adapt research tactics — impressionistic, sampling — to its constraints. However, a broader field of more empirical analysis is also open to the researcher, because the festival is also a long-term product of less-ephemeral social, state, and urban organizing patterns, and cultural-political contestations: a mulid is debated, decided upon, struggled over, programmed, permitted, policed, and organized.” (in Cairo Cosmpolitan, p. 475).

Organizational consultant and identity theorist Evangelina Holvino has created a theory and skills of simultaneity necessary for countering what Amartya Sen calls miniaturization (2006). Miniaturization, I suspect (along with other dynamics), is part of what inspired #NSFTR Tweets about Thomas Kuhn (presumedly referring to the operations of normal science, which is what enables progress yet also stifles change). Talk about transformation (indicating a perceived need or desire for paradigm shift) probably offers evidence as to the crisis underlying modern scientific endeavors: crises that involve the social (whether we want it or not). This slideshow by Janet Sternwedel on Kuhn: Paradigms and Normal Science nicely illustrates the resistant problems (i.e. unexplainable) anomalies characterizing scientific crisis.

Proposal for Potentially Transformative Social Scientific Action Research

I would like to invite #NSFTR Tweeters (and anyone – everyone! – else who is interested) to follow the next Tidepool experiment  (idiographic case #2).  You can read the original proposal that was accepted by the conference organizers of a mini-conference on The Promises and Challenges of Dialogic Pedagogy at Reflexivity – upcoming. The conference features experts on language and education. While, at first glance, there may not appear to be any relationship between the #Bakhtin and #NSFTR events, my colleague James Cumming and I have offered a potential frame in which to make sense of “ notable incidents of language use … [further defined as] challenging moments where identities surface as relevant in particular interactions.”

The catch is that “identities” are not usually ends-in-themselves, rather they surface in service of a task or function within a group that is working (more-or-less) “together” on a matter of common (or at least overlapping) interest. In the manner of most academic conferences, however, this group of Bakhtinian practitioners has not defined a collective goal or aim for a definitive conference outcome. (From the #NSFTR workshop Tweets, I gather that there was – likewise – no intentional deliverable. Is this a polarity to be managed or a problem to be solved for the conduct of potentially transformative research?)

We are currently in the process of extending the negotiation of Informed Consent with the conference organizers to include #Bakhtin conference participants. The global task we are proposing for the purpose of the action research project is to explore whether participants can collaborate on the scale of collectively co-constructing an outcome for the group-as-a-whole: i.e., a message of some kind that represents a voice of/from the conference, something considered meaningful enough by all (or at least most participants) to share with others. An example could be coming up with a definition of “transformative,” or perhaps a list of emergent interpersonal/interactional factors that indicate the presence of potentially transformative dynamics, or even a White Paper on communication skills for transformation. These examples are suggested with the hope that they might be taken up as actual proposals! Thus defining parameters for assessing stages of group development and creating a social container within which identities can be foregrounded if/when/as they become relevant. Whether conference participants agree to engage “dialogically” with such an “Other” as #NSFTR scientists is, of course, one of the crucial questions upon which the stakes turn.

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