From stakeholders to joint knowledge production partners: The participatory development of guiding principles and toolkit to structure the participation of non-academic partners in academic research


Research projects that involve non-academic partners tend to approach the latter, mainly or exclusively, as the beneficiaries of the projects’ actions. For example, development projects often address how the communities involved will benefit from and/or become empowered through the use of communication technologies. This positioning produces the risk that these societal partners become seen as deficient or as weak, and in need of empowerment. Particular approaches, as for instance participatory action research (Fals Borda and Rahman, 1991) and multi-stakeholder partnerships (Brouwer et al., 2015), have developed an awareness for this problematics, even if their actual practice has not always managed to resolve all issues. Moreover, research projects that involve (what is often called) stakeholders, sometimes neglect or downplay the latter’s possession of highly relevant knowledge, skills and experience, and the idea that these can be used in complementary ways.

There is an extensive literature on how to engage in stakeholder participation and stakeholder management (e.g. Huber et al. 2004; Holloway, 2017), which is often grounded in business perspectives, rarely engages with the theoretical debates on participation, and restricts itself to propagating the more minimalist versions of participation, hardly touching on the status-quo at societal or company levels. Even if more balanced work exists, for instance, in development theory and practice, there is still a need to develop these reflections further, in particular when it comes to activating participatory dialogues between different strands of situated knowledge (Haraway, 1988) in order to produce legitimate knowledge (Bourdieu and Bernstein, 1977).

Our paper is concerned with the participatory dynamics of knowledge production, and discusses different theoretical models that structure these dynamics between academic and non-academic partners. This theoretical development is grounded in a critical re-reading of the relevant literature, structured by Carpentier’s (2011) access, interaction and participation model.

In the second part of our paper, we will confront these theoretical models with a case study analysis of the work of a particular research team, which is part of a broader research programme on environmental communication, funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA), and which has the explicit objective to engage in joint knowledge production with a wide range of societal actors (including media and arts related actors and institutions, activists, associations related to farming, forestry, hunting, etc.). Methodologically, the analysis is driven by an (auto-)ethnographic analysis of the process and a discourse analysis of interviews, fieldnotes and the team’s output during the first six months of its operations.

The second part of the paper will not only enrich the theoretical reflections through an iterative logic, but will also allow evaluating the maximalist-participatory objectives of the team. The paper will also reflect on the suitability and efficiency of the developed approach, on its potential limitations, as well as on the challenges and potential tensions encountered in the process of this particular collaboration.