Jean Bartunek: Maintaining Productive Tensions


NBS regularly explores how researchers can co-create knowledge with practitioners. Help shape our resources.

Here, we draw on an interview by NBS’s Garima Sharma with Jean Bartunek (Boston College), a leader in the field of academic-practitioner collaboration. Watch the video for highlights.

When academics and practitioners work together, tensions arise. “[If] I am collaborating with the practitioner,” says Bartunek, “s/he will be holding a fundamentally different assumption about how the world works than I am.”

That tension sparks analysis. “I think virtually all research questions start with tensions,” says Bartunek. “They all start with something that isn’t quite working. And what the researchers are trying to do is figure out how to resolve this tension.

Why Not to Resolve Tensions

But letting the tension continue — without resolving it — can be valuable. “Most theories actually are set up to resolve tensions,” says Bartunek. She proposes a different approach: “What if people thought about theorizing in a way that wasn’t aimed at resolving tensions, but maintaining them productively? The question [would become]: ‘How do we set [a situation] up so that we maintain the tension that we could work with productively?’ And I think that potentially that some of the tensions between academics and practitioners could be formulated that way.”

Researchers and managers each have valuable knowledge. “What that means in practice is that instead of saying to each other “you, stupid idiot,” we say “this difference is meaningful in itself. Let’s pay attention to the polarities going on here and try to see what we can learn from them.”

Bartunek has proposed innovative research approaches such as relational scholarship of integration and insider-outsider research. Relational scholarship of integration is about researchers and managers entering each other’s worlds with genuine interest in understanding those worlds’ complexity and their counterparts’ ways of knowing. Bartunek suggests advancing such scholarship by inviting managers to flesh out journal articles’ implications for practice and creating researcher-manager dialogue around common interests such as measures of organizational success.

With insider-outsider research, academics and members of the organization under study work as co-researchers.  Collaboration occurs at all stages of the research process—defining the question, designing the study, and collecting and analyzing the data.

Recommendations for Collaborating with Practitioners

Bartunek offers these recommendations  for effectively collaborating with practitioners:

  • Involve practitioners in diverse research stages, in order to take full advantage of their insight. “The practitioner should not just be a research assistant who does a lot of lab work, but doesn’t do anything else.” Engage them in formulating the research question, designing some of the data collection methods, and so forth.
  • Recognize and accept differences in language and meaning, and in time horizon. “If an academic starts to think about something two months after the practitioner has introduced it, to a practitioner, that’s a complete joke.” I mean, those kinds of tensions are always going to be there.
  • Recognize that topics of study are personal for the organization’s members. People participating in the study may feel criticized and vulnerable. In one research project, Bartunek recalls, “we had to… just spend a lot of time being with that emotion, and talking about it, and trying to make sense of it together in a way that ended up not being disrespectful, but ended up with [the organizational member] having a chance to say ‘Yes, this is what happened.’”
  • Collaborative research isn’t always necessary. If the issue isn’t critical to the organization, and the researcher is not studying individuals, more traditional research approaches may be sufficient. “Organizations may not find such deep engagement attractive. Maybe they just do not care about the issue being studied. So, it’s a lot easier for them to say ‘yeah, go collect the data and just keep us out of it,’ which I respect for some things.”

Seethe full interview and video, from the Paradox Blog, for more insights on the notion of academic-practitioner paradox, and how researchers and managers can productively collaborate for generating new knowledge.

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