By Varvara Nikulina, Johan Larson Lindal, Henrikke Baumann, David Simon, and Henrik Ny
How can facilitators take into account diversity stemming from epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture when leading workshops aimed at co-production in transdisciplinary research?
Although facilitators are skilled in mitigating conflicting interests and ideas among participants, they are often poorly prepared for dealing with these other types of diversity.
We have developed a framework that allows diversity in epistemic standpoint, linguistic diversity and culture to be mapped in a workshop setting. This is illustrated in the figure below and each box in the framework is described next.
Epistemic communities or thought collectives are groups with shared and agreed forms of knowledge, thought styles or rationalities, and world views. These often differ from or even conflict with those of other groups. For example, engineers, social scientists, public servants and entrepreneurs are four different epistemic communities.
An epistemic standpoint is characterised in relation to the categories individual, working and group:
- The individual epistemic standpoint is the school of thought to which each individual in the facilitated workshop belongs. The level of diversity is defined by how many different individual epistemic standpoints are present in the workshop – the more individual standpoints, the higher the level of diversity.
- The working epistemic standpoint reflects the occupations or communities that the workshop participants have and the diversity of epistemic standpoints in their daily work situation. Higher diversity is associated with more diverse working standpoints among those in the workshop.
- The epistemic standpoint of the facilitated group as a whole reflects either:
- the potential shared standpoint participants have within the facilitated group; or,
- depending on the design and length of the facilitation process – the shared standpoint they obtain in the process.
- The diversity is rated high when participants come from very distant epistemic communities and there are low chances of building a shared standpoint.
Language acquisition is not merely a matter of teaching and learning, but is affected by ideologies, social identities, power and agency. The framework also differentiates linguistic diversity between individual, working and group:
- The individual linguistic diversity reflects the number of mother tongues spoken by the individual participants at the workshop. The diversity is high when there are many mother tongues present in the workshop.
- If a lingua franca is spoken at the workplaces of the workshop members (ie., everybody shares the same working language), then the linguistic diversity of the working category is low. If several languages are used as working languages, the diversity is high.
- The linguistic diversity of the group relates to the mono- or multilingualism of participants: they might speak several languages to some extent, however, not be proficient enough to use them as working languages. The more such languages that are present in the facilitated group, the higher the linguistic diversity for the group category.
Culture, in terms of working and personal culture, for example traditions, procedures and perspectives, has large implications for the interrelations and interactions between the collective and the individual. An individual’s behaviour is often dramatically affected by the working group and workplace to which they belong (or interact with) due to institutionalized cultural practices associated with that place and group. Individuals are also capable of affecting workplace culture to a certain extent, since they carry with them personal attributes, some of which are, in turn, affected by outside norms and identities such as gender.
The framework also differentiates the individual, working and group categories of culture:
- Individual culture is what each workshop participant brings into the room with them, such as norms, customs, personal identity, etc. There is high diversity when individuals have many different types of backgrounds.
- Working culture can be defined by norms and customs at the workplaces to which the participants belong and bring with them. There is high diversity when a facilitator can identify many such working cultures and subcultures.
- Group culture emerges in the facilitation process and thereby applies to the facilitated group as a whole.
Using the framework
The level of diversity is assessed subjectively by the facilitator, using shading to indicate degree of diversity, with darker shades indicating more diversity. The level of diversity can be categorised as high or low; high, medium or low; or with more gradations. An example of a shaded framework is provided in the figure below.
The framework provides an easy way to see the diversity within the group related to epistemic communities, linguistic diversity and culture. It can be helpful for the facilitator to complete the framework when preparing for the workshop to help decide how it might best be run. For example, they might enlist extra facilitators with additional language skills.
The framework can also be used as an evaluation tool at the end of the transdisciplinary facilitation process to determine whether the group was able to form an epistemic community with a shared group language and culture.
Identifying the levels of diversity in each category of each concept also helps raise the group’s awareness of the complexity of the context in which they are working.
Addressing diversity in epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture in a just way requires:
- Disciplinary integrity, ie., taking into account disciplinary difference in intellectual content, practical problem solving and so on.
- Linguistic equality between participants, especially allowing everyone to speak a language of their choosing, rather than a predetermined lingua franca.
- A working culture of mutual respect.
- Simultaneous mitigation and informed facilitation ie., making facilitators aware of the complexity related to group diversities when preparing for the event, increases the likelihood that they can manage such diversities.
What has your experience been with diversity stemming from epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture in transdisciplinary co-production or other workshops? Have you seen instances where such diversity was handled well – or perhaps badly – by the facilitator and participants, or where the absence of a facilitator created difficulties? Do you have useful lessons or tools to share?
To find out more:
Nikulina, V., Larson Lindal, J., Baumann, H., Simon, D. and Ny, H. (2019). Lost in Translation: A Framework for Analysing Complexity of Co-Production Settings in Relation to Epistemic Communities, Linguistic Diversities and Culture. Futures, 113 (October): 102442. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102442
Varvara Nikulina is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. Her research interests include but are not limited to transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge for planned transitions towards sustainable urban mobility, participatory processes and international comparative studies.
Johan Larson Lindal is a PhD Candidate at Linköping University, in Norrköping, Sweden, in the Department of Culture and Society, ‘Tema Q,’ where he is pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD in Culture & Society. His interests are inclusion, dialogue, and organisation in urban sustainable knowledge co-production in Sweden.
Henrikke Baumann PhD is Professor of Industrial and Domestic Ecologies in the Department of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden. Her research interests include methods and practices of life cycle assessment and life cycle thinking, sociomaterial approaches in environmental systems studies, and interdisciplinarities in research.
David Simon PhD is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, UK. His particular research interests lie in urbanism, climate change and sustainability, the relationships between theory, policy and practice at different scales, and transdisciplinary co-production methods.
Henrik Ny PhD is Associate Professor in Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden. He runs the SustainTrans research team with focus on accelerating the transition to sustainable transport and energy systems. His research interests include societal strategies, stakeholder inclusive system dynamics modelling and ecological economics.