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Coping with decline: a responsive, participatory approach

In this article, Caroline Näther explains responsive, participatory approaches, linking scientific and societal knowledge production.
In Week 4 we described the co-production of various forms of knowledge using a transdisciplinary research (TDR) design, which links the production of scientific knowledge with the solution of societal problems in a process of knowledge co-production. In this article, the responsive, participatory research approaches used in the study BESTandermatt that transfer the research process into a TDR process are described in more detail.

A crucial role of responsive research is to facilitate a conversation between different relevant groups and stakeholders. On the one hand, responsive research enables access to the implicit knowledge of participating actors. On the other hand, it is important to guarantee various participating groups mutual access to this empirical knowledge that guides their course of action. In this way, responsive research enables those involved to engage actively with the results of the research and to decide in what areas arrangements are necessary to improve a situation. Thus, knowledge about the transition from the initial state to a target state (transformation knowledge) is produced.

The responsive approach was linked with a participatory approach. Both are focusing on solving societal problems and on concrete actions to be taken. This study design differs from other forms of scientific research. ‘Whereas the majority of qualitative academic research is directed towards generating representations of social reality, participatory research lays greater emphasis on action in social reality’ 1.

The joint participatory feedback process (public information events and outcome conferences) enables various interested local actors to gain cognitive distance from familiar routines, forms of interaction, and power relationships. It fosters a critical attitude, motivating actors to reconsider or question established practical strategies and interpretations of a specific situation. For example, requests were formulated to the municipal authorities and, if clarification of questions was needed, an exchange with the local council or representatives of the company of the investor, Andermatt Swiss Alps (ASA) or the investor himself, Samih Sawiris, was organised. In these discussions, mutual perceptions and perspectives are reflected directly and constructive efforts are made to find viable solutions. Thus, the company ASA implemented a new form of dialogue that has been taking place on a regular basis. Also, authorities were enabled to perceive different behaviours of dealing with change in Andermatt more sensitively.

In the study BESTandermatt participatory and responsive research is implemented ‘in the form of several participatory strategies […] as research strategies that constantly promote and require the inclusion of the research partners in the cognitive process from a new perspective’ 2.

Different evaluations can open up new possibilities for action and adaption to the changed situation. It is therefore a question of ‘a change in the social reality on the basis of insights into practical life gained by participatory research ie by collaboration between academics and stakeholders’ 2.

It must be reflected repeatedly to what extent and in what form actors and practitioners can participate in the research process in the role of experts on their social environment. Thus, in transdisciplinary studies the researchers themselves are in the role of scientists, facilitators, and mediators. This requires researchers to be aware of and distinguish these roles and to be able to switch flexibly between them. In one situation, the content of the long-term study has the priority, in another situation, researchers have to meet the expectations of the companion study and the various involved actors. The researchers’ awareness of their intermediary role is a necessity. This corresponds with a socio-cultural approach: ‘Intermediary entities conciliate between the social subsystems, between the more formal and bureaucratic worlds of the political/administrative system, the profit-oriented worlds of the economy and the usually somewhat ‘less sophisticated’ and less easily organised real-life situations’ 3.

Responses of the local advisory group, the results conference, and the public information event point towards negative and positive aspects of the resort and the structure of the study BESTandermatt as well. The durable outcome of the accompanying study is a sensitisation and activation in the community and region. Dialog among various actors is promoted and a mutual understanding of various perspectives is fostered. Thus, results of a study focusing on tourism research have direct impact on the local population, authorities, and the investor of the resort. Read about the potential and boundaries of the responsive, participatory study BESTandermatt in Week 6.

Author: Caroline Näther


1 Unger, H. (2014). Partizipative Forschung. Einführung in die Forschungspraxis. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

2 Bergold, J., Thomas, S. (2012). Partizipative Forschungsmethoden: Ein methodischer Ansatz in Bewegung. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung, 13(1).

3 Hangartner, G. (2010). Ein Handlungsmodell für die Soziokulturelle Animation zur Orientierung für die Arbeit in der Zwischenposition. In B. Wandeler (Ed.), Soziokulturelle Animation. Professionelles Handeln zur Förderung von Zivilgesellschaft, Partizipation und Kohäsion (pp. 265-322). Lucerne: Interact.

Further reading

Durrer Eggerschwiler, B. & Störkle, M. (2019). Socio-cultural effects of a tourist resort on the local population – BESTandermatt long-term and companion study. Open topic. Sociocultural Community Development and Practices, 15, 1–18. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2591250

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Partnering for Change: Link Research to Societal Challenges

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