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Overcoming Barriers to Effective Knowledge Sharing in Peace Research and Policy

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Millar, G. (2018). Decentring the intervention experts: Ethnographic peace research and policy engagement. Cooperation and Conflict, online publication, 1-18.

This research examines one of the very concerns the Peace Science Digest was created to address: the difficulty of making academic scholarship accessible and useful to peace practitioners. Despite the expectation that scholars, especially in the field of peacebuilding, outline the practical implications of their research, there are numerous barriers to the successful transfer of knowledge to those who can use it. According to the author, scholars wishing to more effectively engage with the policy/practitioner community must do three things: 1) understand the barriers to such knowledge transfer, especially by engaging more directly with the “knowledge utilization” literature, 2) identify and employ research methodologies that can help overcome some of these barriers, and 3) find productive ways to share research findings with policymakers/practitioners. The present research focuses on the first two tasks by identifying the barriers to knowledge transfer between scholars and practitioners and then by introducing the ethnographic peace research (EPR) approach and demonstrating how it might overcome some of these barriers.

Before diving into these two tasks, the author starts by outlining the so-called “liberal peace,” the dominant peacebuilding intervention model employed by the international community since the end of the Cold War. Characterized by the “three pillars of democracy, free markets, and the rule of law,” the liberal peace has become the blueprint for presumably bringing stability to “post-conflict” countries around the world. A common scholarly critique of the liberal peacebuilding project is that this “cookie cutter” approach to peacebuilding has endowed international “intervention experts,” rather than local actors, with power over “post-conflict” decision-making processes and institutions—yet another form of western control at the expense of local ownership. These scholars have also drawn attention to the “complex social, economic, cultural and political environments” where peacebuilding interventions take place, which make it impossible for “intervention experts” to completely control the outcomes of their interventions, leading to numerous unintended effects. They therefore emphasize the importance of understanding local dynamics and prioritizing local knowledge in peacebuilding practice.

There is a concern, however, that such critical scholarly insights have had trouble finding their way into—and being used appropriately by—practitioner communities. It is here that the author outlines the many barriers to effective knowledge transfer, especially in the field of peacebuilding intervention, ultimately sorting these into five categories: institutional, ideological, cultural, practical, and academic.

Key barriers to knowledge utilization in intervention policy (Millar, 2018)

Institutional

  • Lack of institutions tasked with implementing peace
  • Constant pressure for results among policymakers
  • Unreliable findings can inform policy just as fast as reliable ones

Ideological

  • Manipulation of findings by ideologically biased policymakers
  • Incorporation only of findings that support established positions

Cultural

  • Little understanding of econometric analysis
  • Single case dismissal of generalized findings
  • Bunker mentality promoting use of paid consultants

Practical

  • Failure of communication
  • Lack of useful local cultural insight in completed research
  • Challenge of synthesis and understanding too much research
  • No time for reading among policymakers
  • Need for extensive time for academic research

Academic

  • Focus on international not intra-state conflicts
  • Diversity of incompatible datasets
  • Lack of reliable measures for important conflict and peace dynamics
  • Lack of interdisciplinary research
  • Inconsistencies between key findings on the causes of conflict

 

Beyond these barriers, the author outlines barriers that have emerged in the “knowledge utilization” literature as its understanding of policy implementation has evolved. Previously, policy implementation was understood as a straightforward linear and hierarchical process, with top-level policymakers making decisions then directly carried out by others along the policy implementation chain, resulting in rational and predictable outcomes. More recently, the process has become understood as much more complex and contingent, with actors at various points in the implementation process “muddling through” (to use Lindblom’s term) and where decision-making power is located more with “street-level” implementers than with top-level policymakers. Despite this more recent perspective on policy implementation, many scholars and practitioners alike maintain a desire for predictable, top-down control over policy outcomes, courting the illusion that they can apply universal knowledge to different “post-conflict” contexts with predictable results.

Although the author remains skeptical of scholars’ ability to “influence policy in a predictable manner,” he proposes ethnographic peace research (EPR) as an approach to research that can overcome at least some of the identified barriers to effective knowledge transfer.

Ethnographic Peace Research (EPR):

Any research that “seeks to understand and explain how and why certain phenomena or certain experiences emerge in relation to violence, conflict, transition or peace via ‘thick description’ and an engaged ‘ethnographic imagination’” (Millar, 2018).

More generally, ethnographic research looks to the meanings that people attribute to their activities in particular contexts and examines how they make sense of the world around them.

EPR is characterized by both researcher reflexivity (the researcher’s willingness to consider her/his own position and identity vis-à-vis the research) and the use of such methods as “participant observation, semi-structured interviews and extensive qualitative field-notes.” According to the author, EPR is particularly well suited to overcoming the following barriers to knowledge transfer, among others: lack of contextual and cultural insight, lack of reliable measures, lack of practical recommendations, lack of clear communication to non-academic audiences, lack of personal engagement with policymakers, and the more general complexity of the policy implementation process. EPR can do so due to the following characteristics: its obvious focus on the local context, its capacity to generate locally meaningful indicators and recommendations through consultation with local actors, its highly accessible forms of data presentation (such as life histories and narratives), the ability of EPR researchers to build connections with on-the-ground practitioners during their research (with whom they can then share their findings), and its privileging of local voices and conflict experiences and thereby its “decentring [of] the intervention ‘experts’.” 

Contemporary Relevance:

As noted above, the focus of this research is highly relevant to the work of the Peace Science Digest, particularly its aim to help bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners in the peace studies field. There is a vast amount of interesting and important research that scholars are generating with regards to war/violence prevention and conflict transformation, which often does not reach the broader policy or activist communities that could effectively use it. So, although the Peace Science Digest was founded to address precisely this problem and make this research more accessible, this study can still contribute at least two additional insights for the Peace Science Digest’s work: First, it makes us critically aware of the numerous barriers to effective knowledge transfer between scholars and practitioners—not only the lack of clear and accessible communication—but also the impossibility of strictly linear implementation of this knowledge and control over its use and outcomes. Second, it draws attention to the real value of ethnographic approaches to knowledge generation, particularly when it comes to understanding specific conflict contexts—with an accompanying caution about applying research claims too broadly. As noted by the author, the further generalized the findings, the less useful they are likely to be in a specific conflict context. 

Talking Points:

  • Despite the expectation that peacebuilding scholars outline the practical implications of their research, there are numerous barriers to the successful transfer of this knowledge to those who can use it.
  • Scholars wishing to engage with policy/practitioner communities must do three things: 1) understand the barriers to knowledge transfer; 2) identify and employ methodologies that help overcome these barriers; and 3) find productive ways to share research findings.
  • Policy implementation is not a linear process dictated by top-level policymakers but rather a more contingent process where decision-making power is distributed among “street-level” implementers—making the application of academic knowledge to specific contexts even more complex and challenging.
  • Ethnographic peace research (EPR) represents a promising approach to overcoming some barriers to effective knowledge transfer, in part through its ability to provide nuanced insight on particular cultural/political contexts, locally relevant measures and recommendations, accessible research findings, and an emphasis on local voices and perspectives.

Practical Implications:

Practically speaking, this research is most relevant for scholars as they consider how to make their research more useful to the world. For those scholars concerned with peacebuilding in “post-conflict” contexts, one way to do this is to employ grounded, ethnographic research that seeks to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who have lived through violence or are on the forefront of efforts to bring about reconciliation or justice—or, perhaps even more crucially, those who have felt sidelined by or disgruntled with these processes. This will be the kind of knowledge most useful to those interested in supporting peacebuilding efforts on the ground as effectively as possible—and as mindfully of the complex local conditions as possible. Treating this knowledge—rather than the imported, “cookie-cutter” knowledge of “intervention experts”—as expertise, furthermore, relocates power where it ought to be: in the hands of those who have to live with the consequences of the peacebuilding policies undertaken.

For practitioners in “post-conflict” contexts, the imperative is to pay more attention to such ethnographic analyses of the local contexts where peacebuilding activities are undertaken, rather than relying solely on the more abstract conflict transformation and peacebuilding models that inform the field’s practices. Of course, these are helpful frameworks, but practitioners should be wary about too readily importing and applying their categories and definitions to the local contexts in which they are working. Ethnographic analyses, as well as so-called “elicitive” conflict analysis techniques championed by scholar-practitioner John Paul Lederach and others, provide a far more accurate—and empowering—way of assessing the local political dynamics and needs of diverse community members in “post-conflict” settings. Furthermore, practitioners—like scholars—should be mindful of their limited ability to control the outcomes of peacebuilding interventions.

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