Exploring social enterprises’ engagement in transdisciplinary research: a reflective analysis

Kim Graham, Kate Burningham and Anastasia Loukianov

This blog examines challenges and benefits experienced by our social enterprise partners in the transdisciplinary research project on sustainable food systems.

If we want to do transdisciplinary research well, it is essential to grasp the varied experiences and perspectives of different partners, understanding both the challenges they encounter and the value they derive from their involvement. This blog, co-written by academics Kate and Anastasia from the University of Surrey, and Kim, Research Coordinator at social enterprise Shared Assets CIC, contributes to this by reflecting on discussions we had with our social enterprise partners about their experiences on the project ‘Social enterprise as a catalyst for sustainable and healthy local food systems’ (SEFS).

SEFS was designed in collaboration with six social enterprises (SEs) who have a range of ways of engaging with sustainable and healthy food. The SE partners were involved in shaping the bid and received part of the funding. They participate in the project in a range of ways, most notably for this discussion: 

  • working alongside academics as ‘community researchers’ recruiting and helping facilitate local focus groups.
  • academics are working with them to support the development and measurement of their impact on nutrition and sustainability. The nature of this activity varies considerably depending on the priorities and interests of each SE.

At a recent project meeting we asked our SE partners to reflect on what they’ve found challenging, what has gone well, what they hope will come out of the project and what lessons we can learn for future transdisciplinary working and working with social enterprises. 

The challenges of involvement for SEs—‘it’s not our day job’

While the SEFS project aimed to be transdisciplinary, it was an endeavour where much of the power and coordination still lay with the academic partners. As a consequence, the research tasks were designed in a way that was familiar for the academics but not necessarily for those working in the SEs. For most of the SEs this kind of research was not part of their day job. 

This was challenging from the start. While the principles of co-production meant that the academics were keen to involve SEs in shaping the bid, in practice some of the SEs found it hard to find time to participate in early open discussions and would have preferred to be presented with a clearer brief.  

Once the project started each SE was asked to designate a staff member as a ‘community researcher’ working alongside an academic on what we call ‘data collection’. We had chosen this title in recognition of ‘research’ as a shared enterprise requiring diverse skills and knowledge. In practice however, it turned out sometimes to be problematic. Frontline staff (who may not have been involved in early discussions about the project) did not necessarily have the desire to take on this new designation or capacity for additional tasks (even if funded) as their day job remained their priority, and the term ‘researcher’ could be opaque and mystifying.

The value of involvement for SEs 

Despite the challenges, the SEs told us of a range of aspects of involvement which they had enjoyed or thought of as useful for their work.

A sense of both personal and organisational confidence. One participant shared that she had initially lacked belief in herself as a ‘community researcher’ but had grown in confidence through involvement and was now proud of what she had done. She also talked of how involvement in the focus groups had been rewarding as it provided confirmation from service users of the benefit of the work the social enterprise is doing. For some of the SEs their projects in Workstream 3 involved academics collecting or checking data on nutritional or sustainability impacts of their work. One participant said that support had ‘been lovely’ in helping them feel confident in what they had already done, while others appreciated new data collected which they could take forward confidently. 

A space to think. One of the participants noted that involvement in the project provided welcome opportunities for ‘slow thinking’ and talked of how they valued time spent with academics reflecting on big questions like ‘what is good food?’.

Raising awareness and understanding. In one of the SEs data on environmental impact had been collected for the first time during Workstream 3. This was valued not only for its use for future planning but also more broadly for raising staff discussion and awareness of climate and environmental issues. The focus groups were also valued for enabling discussions with service users about healthy and sustainable food—this was seen as valuable both for those involved and for the SEs to learn more about perspectives of the communities they work with.

A catalyst for change. One participant suggested that being involved in an external research project ‘nudges important things into immediate territory.’ Examples of this around the room included both the opportunity to discuss underlying ‘big‘ issues and also to develop underfunded projects or start new lines of enquiry.  Some of the SEs are directly involved in lobbying for food policy changes. One participant saw involvement in the project as part of their overarching ‘mission to fuel the fire of change’.

Key takeaways

There are three broad lessons from our discussion for those keen to develop transdisciplinary projects:

For projects to be truly transdisciplinary the imbalance in resources between academic institutions and social enterprises needs to be addressed by funders. Social enterprises need to have the time and ample funding to work on proposals structured around their needs and those of their users. At present this remains difficult when funding bodies don’t pay for proposal development time and prioritise academic outputs.  

Academics aspiring to work in transdisciplinary ways need to recognise that research as they usually practise it is often not the priority of those they want to work with and ensure that ‘research’ is demystified, supported, and related to activities that SE staff are already carrying out at all levels of the SE.   

Social enterprises value the opportunity to work with academics when that work is tailored to their organisational needs and aims, but flexibility and openness is needed within projects to enable responsiveness to partners.

This blog first appeared on the CUSP website.