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The embodied researcher

Contributed by
Marta Nieto- Romero & Siri Pisters

Why the methods used to engage with places and participants in sustainability research matter

The embodied researcher is a model of engaging in sustainability research that emerged in the context of our collaboration in the SUSPLACE  network, a program studying sustainable place-shaping practices around Europe. 

The model emerged from our inquiries with 15 researchers that were once part of the SUSPLACE  network and is described in the scientific paper titled “Operationalising transformative sustainability science through place‑based research: the role of researchers'' (available here). The paper builds upon the five roles of researchers of Wittmayer and Schäpke (2014)- reflective researcher, process facilitator, knowledge broker, change agent and self-reflexive scientist- to reflect upon the roles and methods of place-based sustainability researchers. 

Based on our findings we introduce the ‘embodied researcher’ (image above). The model portrays research as a process of place-based inquiry & self-transformation. The embodied researcher integrates different roles during the research process, depending on the relations developed with the place and with communities (feet), theoretical understanding (brain), normative positionality (heart) and capacities and networks (hands). 

  • The feet illustrate the engagement of the researcher as a “human being” (challenging dominant visions of ‘objectivity’ in science). For doing good research, researchers must develop personal connections and ethical response-ability towards the places and communities they research (see also Haraway 2016 & Latour 2004)
  • The heart is the ‘spark’ and the inner compass of the research process, a wish to support change towards sustainability. Visions and commitments change throughout the research process. 
  • The brain relates with the heart. Theories catalyse a process of self-questioning, sense-making and self-transformation affecting the commitments towards sustainability and the methods used. 
  • The hands represent the (ethical) engagement in action.  “How” research is conducted is often more important than the outcome, reflecting a process-based approach. Methods can be ‘performative’ in the sense that they bring alive themes or transformative mindsets such as inclusivity, reciprocity, esthetics, vulnerability or trust. Does this a bell for you? :) 

We conclude that...

The model of embodied researcher acknowledges and legitimates a type of researcher that focuses on the process (the ‘how’) and is a vehicle for experimentation, empowerment and self-transformation.

This type of research might be in conflict with dominant academic practice, so there is a need to develop new metrics of academic social impact grounded on the premises of embodied researchers.

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