please – not a heroic impact narrative

Recently I’ve seen and read a lot of hero/heroine narratives. But no more than is usual in journal articles I’m sent to review and edit. They now seem to be popping up in research impact plans and claims about impact.

You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.

These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.

This is rarely the case. Students in a class, residents of neighbourhoods made poor, and people whose life circumstances have not gone smoothly, are highly unlikely to be completely ignorant or devoid of know-how. Policy is often contradictory and only sometimes utterly toxic. The hero/heroine riding in does not know local circumstances, and does not actually know everything. They certainly don’t have control of all circumstances and the context. Change, if it occurs, is rarely a simple affair and can be as much a matter of stumbling about, at least some of the time, as it is linear progression easily amenable to categorisation into ‘stages’ and ‘steps’. Change might happen straight away, it might happen some time in the future or it might never happen because things just don’t go the way anyone thought.

But when I read some of the stories of impact – particularly the ones directed towards specific ‘disadvantaged’ communities – I am reminded of the ways in which charitable Victorian ladies distributed food and Bibles to struggling families who actually needed decent wages, housing, safer work, education for their children, sanitation and clean drinking water… Well you get the point. The big question here is who gets asked what’s needed and who decides.

At a time when funders and policy makers push researchers to produce plans and cases which show ‘impact’ I wonder if we are not forgetting that impact does not mean redemption. While researchers can work for social justice – and ought to in my view, but this means different things in different discipines – and can help things improve/get better/change, it is rarely the case that we do this by ourselves. Nor is it the case that those we work with are simply a blank canvas on which we work our stuff… the people we intend to ‘help’ are able to make decisions too. Nor is our knowledge and know how all that counts… nor is research ever really a straightforward case of us-doing-it-for-them-without-any-glitches as we set it out in a research plan. Research is highly dependent on other people and their good will, knowledge and skills and their capacity to say yes, maybe or – no, go away.

The production of research impact plans and cases as heroic narratives is tempting, but pretty unrealistic and problematic. Well, that’s my view anyway.

So before putting pen to paper to write about how our research will have or has had an effect in the real world, it seems critical to ask ourselves some hard questions. Perhaps these might be a starter:

• Who decides that the research has had impact and how?
• Who gets to tell the story of events, to whom and with what effects?
• In whose interests is this?
• Where is mess in the impact story?
• Who is the hero/heroine of this plan/case? Does the research impact plan/case HAVE to have one?

Perhaps you can think of additional questions that could be asked of impact plans and cases.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in hero/heroine, impact, redemption narrative and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to please – not a heroic impact narrative

  1. EvaBP says:

    Excellent posting, spot on. Interesting to mull on the conditions of possibility for ‘relevance’, the go-to narratives we have available to us when asked by ourselves and others to account for our legitimacy and worth.


  2. I’ve just read an article by Trostle (1992) that covers something similar, where he discusses this heroism-narrative as scientific colonialism or ‘safari research’. Essentially, researchers visit for a defined project, harvest data, leave and then publish the results in journals or other arenas that are not accessible to those that need it most (the communities studied). Thus the only real impact from the research is on the career trajectory of the researcher. Is it too much to ask researchers “What are your ethical and moral obligations to those that will form the basis of your academic promotions?” .


  3. Chris says:

    Sharon, the parasitical aspect of research culture that you describe turns my stomach. I had an eye-opening experience as a postgraduate student to the effect that “you have your data, you don’t need to go back to the community,” meaning I received absolutely no support to confirm my analyses, accessibly communicate my findings back to the community, and generally give something back to the people who had shared so much of their time and experiences with me. I feel physically ill when I think about this. As I keep finding these days, all things career are measured in terms of academic publications and only academic publications, not obligations to participants. The only ethical and moral exceptions to parasticism I’m aware of involve research with Indigenous persons or groups, where decolonising research means it is absolutely necessary to engage with the communites and participants as partners in the research. Why this isn’t a universal standard is a good question.


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  5. It’s 7am on a doctoral writing morning here in my little office in NZ and I am laughing. Loved this post Pat, it made me feel so much better about my thesis! I was worrying that I did not have a heroine story of sufficient impact to tell!


  6. Jess Mason says:

    I was very interested to read this post, Pat. I wonder if this upsurge in heroic impact narratives is largely a product of the new drive on foregrounding ‘impact’ more generally. I was struck when reading this by the rubric of the ‘Impact’ section of my research council’s doctoral End of Year review:

    ‘A key aspect of this definition of research impact is that impact must be demonstrable. It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference or publishing a report. You must be able to provide evidence of research impact, for example, that it has been taken up and used by policy makers, and practitioners, has led to improvements in services or business.’

    Is it any wonder researchers represent themselves as heroes and heroines when a lack of tangible beneficial outcomes is coming to be viewed as a failed project?! It does make me worry that the result of this approach will be swathes of researchers skewing and misrepresenting their findings to meet the demand for ‘demonstrable’, ‘evidenced’ impact.


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  8. Pingback: Heroic impact narratives create a dangerous divide between the researcher and the local context | Impact of Social Sciences

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