The ethics of participatory processes: Dynamic flux, open questions

This essay arose from a workshop on ecological ethics.  It is a thought-piece about possibilities, more than an analysis of a actual practice.  But I have found myself coming back to it for the framing it provides in the combination of “five ideals for a ‘dynamic flux ethics’—engagement, participation, cultivating collaborators, transversality, and fostering curiosity.”

Yesterday, in response to a student’s term paper, I thought that, esoteric language aside, these ideals could inform education from an early age. Today, I am thinking that, despite the pressure to get active now in response to the radical right wing take-over of government power at many levels in the USA, any course of action could be evaluated in terms of whether it met all five ideals, described in brief here.

Cultivating collaborators, revisited

This post assembles a short-list of measures that enhance the building of a trust-full, generative group interested in personal, professional, and institutional change.  It feeds back into face-to-face group meetings items from an earlier post “on integrating face-to-face dynamics into the structure and expectations of online platforms.” Read more of this post

Reflections on necessity

This is a long unfinished blog post from spring 2013, written for other participants in a small, international collaboration that was waiting to hear about funding of an innovative proposal on economic and political mobilization “from below”–how it may be produced, persist and be productive in spite of social-environmental crises and violence. Read more of this post

On methods: The need for dialogue and reflective practice

The conventional status hierarchy for methods of research could (should?) be inverted.

It is conventional for social science and education doctoral programs to include courses on quantitative methods (statistics and perhaps survey and experimental design).  Sometimes such courses are supplemented by qualitative methods.  Action Research may be mentioned, but the value given to the products of Action Research is lower to the extent that there are multiple authors, including non-academics, and distributed in non-academic venues (e.g., reports, meetings).  Moreover, tools and processes for dialogue, collaboration, and reflective practice are rarely if ever included in methods courses.  After all, how are they related to evidence-based practice?  Let us consider where this status hierarchy gets us. Read more of this post

Cultivating Collaborators (Day 19 of Learning road trip)

At Cornell University on October 7, hosted by the Public Service Center, a large group of faculty and staff service learning faculty shared their work in a discussion that bounced off the “Cultivating Collaborators” paper .

Cultivating Collaborators
How do people become skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations (including participatory action research)? How do we lead others to develop their interest and skills in collaboration? Implicit in these questions is the idea that being able to contribute to collaborations is not something that can be taken for granted. Instead, people need to learn, practice, and improve at it. “People” includes each of us. In this spirit, the session will introduce a format that participants may not be familiar with for a discussion around a recent paper that addresses the questions. Participants read the paper in advance of the session. At the session the author provides a brief introduction if there is something not obvious from the paper then stays quiet until everyone else has taken a turn relating how the paper intersects with or stimulates their own thinking. Such a discussion builds a web of connections among participants in place of the typical set of spokes with author in the center.

Some relevant background from the presenter, Peter Taylor, University of Massachusetts Boston: In 1996 I attended several sessions in a Participatory Action Research series at Cornell. One of the presenters-Ken (“Mac”) Brown, a forester from Lakehead University-got the audience involved in participatory activities. I followed up with him and soon followed his footsteps, which involved interactive sessions at the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives ( and facilitation training with the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Toronto ( Since 1998 I have had the opportunity to continue developing participatory approaches in teaching-or in fostering the reflective practice of-the diverse adults who come through the Critical and Creative Thinking Graduate Program at UMass Boston,, which now has a new and Science in a Changing World graduate track, This work gave me sufficient experience and confidence to initiate an ongoing series of innovative, interaction-intensive workshops designed to facilitate discussion, teaching innovation, and longer-term collaboration among faculty and graduate students who teach and write about interactions between scientific developments and social change ( This workshop led me to begin exploring the questions for this session, as evident in the paper to be pre-read for the session. This pathway also intersects with my studies of complexity in ecology and of equivalent ecological-like complexity in the influences that shape scientific research. My 2005 book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement, ends by opening up a related question about collaboration, namely, how to “bring into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and keep them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.” As the session’s participants respond to the paper, perhaps they will keep in mind ways they have used to develop collaborations with diverse parties.

In the brief introduction I referred to this summer’s exploration of the relationship between 4Rs and avid learning, the question of whether facilitators can rely on the structure of their facilitation to get participants to behave well versus spending time to cultivate collaborators, and cultivation or training of collaborators in general or focused around/motivated by a specific issue.

The contributions from participants were diverse, which was valuable in itself for many participants did not know about each other’s work.  In my response, I mentioned: Parker Palmer‘s model of a series of retreats as a way to enhance the uptake of any tools or insights introduced in a participatory session; and Barry Fishman‘s model of “scaling up” by going in deep.

(back to Start of road trip — Day 20 saw us returning home to Boston)

Effective collaborators: Structural conditions vs. personal development

An exchange with a colleague leads me to note a contrasting “structural” approach on the issue of effective collaborators to the one presented in a recent series of posts, where I noted:

An effective collaborator draws on many skills and dispositions [listed in the posts].  We can cultivate these skills and dispositions through participation in suitable activities and through creative habits, such as always taking stock of what we did (and did not do) and planning ways to improve. Participants who cultivate themselves as collaborators can bring their skills and dispositions to any collaboration (or workshop, group process, etc.) they get involved in. To the extent that participants in a collaboration have been cultivating themselves as collaborators, the people organizing or facilitating the collaboration can expect their efforts to be more fruitful.

In contrast, a facilitator could create the conditions (or rules or structure or process) for collaboration, which facilitates participants being more collaborative without asking them to change their behavior—or having to draw explicit attention to the cultivation of collaborators.  There is a “which comes first, chicken or egg?” aspect to this, given that rules or structure or process work better when there are at least some participants who already have developed the skills and dispositions I list.  At the same time, one way to cultivate those skills and dispositions is through well-facilitated demonstration or real-life activities.

Nevertheless, people who write books on group process and facilitation, e.g., Senge et al. 5th Discipline Fieldbook, do not give much emphasis to the cultivation of collaborators.  Most weight is put on creating the conditions for collaboration among whoever signs up for or is roped into the group process a facilitator is leading.  (Readers should point me to works that disturb this assertion of mine.)  If a facilitator has confidence in handling all-comers, then it is simpler to set a small set of guiding themes, such as balance advocacy with inquiry, or start from concrete observables and don’t climb quickly up the ladder of inference.  My longer listing of skills and dispositions of effective collaborators would then seem unnecessarily complicated.  Let me just say, however, that I want some more eggs with my chickens.

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Re-engagement)

Re-engagement— Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ gears are re-engaged (to use a machine metaphor), allowing us to mobilize and sustain quite a high level of energy during the collaboration. But re-engagement goes beyond an individual’s enhanced enthusiasm. It is a collective or emergent result of the activities that bring people who have generative differences into meaningful interactions that can catalyze transformations. In other words, meaningful social engagement and opportunities for personal introspection contribute to participants discovering new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the collaboration.

  • inquire further on the issues that arise in our own projects.
  • select and focus on a subset of the specific plans or knowledge generated during the collaboration in our subsequent work.
  • engage actively with others.
  • inquire further into how we can support the work of others.
  • are reminded of our aspirations to work in supportive communities.
  • make the experiences of the collaboration a basis for subsequent efforts to cultivate collaborators.
  • arrange to assist or apprentice with the facilitator in a future collaboration.

(Of course, what we state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that we will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in our own projects and work relations. A need or desire for periodic re-charging of our ideas and intentions is evident when past participants return to subsequent collaborations.)
[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

%d bloggers like this: