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How to be Vulnerable: Arne Carlsen on Relational Reflexivity in Research

When researchers treat their “subjects” as peers, greater insights result. Arne Carlsen describes how to build relationships into research.

Arne Carlsen, professor at BI Norwegian Business School, is committed to co-creating knowledge with practitioners. He has found innovative ways for managers and researchers to learn from each other.

Carlsen emphasizes the ethical aspects of exchange between researchers and practitioners. He urges researchers to treat “the other” — practitioners with whom they interact — as peers. Researchers should be open and vulnerable.

NBS’s Garima Sharma interviewed Carlsen about his work. He explained his approach, which includes concepts such as ethical vulnerability, relational reflexivity, and generous reciprocity. And he critiqued other ways of thinking about work with practitioners, such as traditional reflexivity and a trade-off between rigor and relevance.

Here’s the conversation.

Rigour and Relevance Can Coexist 

Garima: How did you become interested in the rigor-relevance debate?

Arne: I come from an action research background, and as long as I can remember, I’ve been concerned about how to facilitate ways of being co-creative between researchers and practitioners. The Scandinavian setting that I have been part of has been quite articulate about bringing researchers and practitioners such as employers and labour unions together in development projects. There has been this strong and proud tradition of trying to create ways of working together that benefit researchers and practitioners and connect local and theoretical knowledge. That’s where I come from.

I never thought of rigor and relevance as things to balance or trade off. When I first encountered the rigor-relevance debate I felt a bit alienated by it. It presented the world as clearly demarcated camps with strict divisions of labour in research and stereotyped positions.

For me, such demarcation was related to the literature’s emphasis on transferring knowledge from research to practice. This focus implies that practitioners are not theoretically interested or capable, which I don’t recognize from my own experiences. There are so many practitioners who have PhDs or Masters degrees and are well versed in social science, and interested in theory. The rigor-relevance framing could actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we create these differences and then we rally the troops to bridge them afterwards.

Reflexivity Needs to Be Relational

Garima: You have critiqued the notion of reflexivity in research. How do you understand reflexivity as it is explained in the literature, and what is your critique?

Arne: The interpretive tradition of research has been concerned with how researchers position themselves in relation to what, who and how they research. Researchers are asked to acknowledge the political and ideological nature of research, and question the authority of our own knowledge in research. So being reflexive in your research has often been a sign of doing good research. It’s been an expected part of writing up the methods sections of papers.

Traditional approaches to reflexivity try to discover when the other [interviewee] is not saying things genuinely, is doing impression management, or has a political agenda. The researcher gets to decide, with an arsenal of reflexive tools, what is true knowledge. The interviewee doesn’t get to see the models and my interpretation, as researcher, of what s/he said.

In this way, reflexivity can be a way of upholding interpretive monopoly. It can prevent ethical aims of understanding and turning to the other; you subordinate such aims to your own desire for knowledge. I might be reflexive about my own process as a researcher, but I still don’t let the other know what I’m about. I still don’t value him or her as a co-enquirer, as a co-subject in terms of what we are thinking about. Reflexivity is something I do for my own purposes to know better.

This is a way of being as a researcher that I find very uncomfortable. So with my co-author Carl Rhodes, I have been trying to follow what we call as relational reflexivity. Relational reflexivity tries to deal with the ethical responsibilities of researchers and questions the power that researchers have in dealing with others. In our recent paper, we try to understand what remaining open and ethical in our encounters with others actually means in research.

Garima: In that latest paper, you excerpt a methods section from another paper to illustrate how researchers have to defend their objectivity — for example, provide arguments to claim that their data are reliable because the interviewee was not impression managing. You say that objectivity can’t be the goal if we want to co-create knowledge.

Arne: Academia socializes us in the ideals of objectivity and reflexive control in research that affect how we approach people in the field. I see this problem with PhD and Masters students sometimes. I have Masters students who say to me, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t use this organization as the case because I’ve been in an internship there for a few months, so I’m no longer objective.’ To me, that conclusion is incredible. If you’ve been there on internship for three months, maybe you have qualified yourself as a valuable conversation partner; maybe you have some actual knowledge of the organization.

It’s as though we are afraid to get polluted by the field. The notion of ethical vulnerability says we shouldn’t be afraid of that. Such vulnerability is ethical because it opens up the possibility of being affected by others. It moves beyond delusions of one-sided control, beyond believing that we can or should regulate objectivity in the interaction. Rather than claiming to know someone in categorical and certain terms, we should allow for questioning of our own knowledge and identity as researchers. Only then can we hope for a respectful and responsive form of co-learning.

Garima: Do you get push back in the review process when you adopt such stance?

Arne: Maybe once or twice. Usually, ethical vulnerability is not part of the research write-up. When I have received pushback from reviewers, I have seen it as an opportunity to go back to the field. And, thankfully, journal editorial teams now see revisiting the field as possible and desirable. I go back to the field to talk to more people to get a richer story, or to interview people again, or even to have focus groups interviews on preliminary findings. Also, I think the practice of relational reflexivity is probably being lived in the field by many researchers but is not part of our normal vocabulary for doing research.

For example, there is this wonderful paper by Spencer Harrison and Elizabeth Rouse on coordination in modern dance groups, where they write the methods section in an exemplary way. They explain how they go back to their research participants to conduct focus group interviews, not as mere checking, but to look at empirical material and reflect on emergent theoretical categories together. I think this way of writing about research wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.

Example 1: Relational Reflexivity Transforms an Interview

Garima: Can you share an example of how you have implemented these ideas of ethical vulnerability and relational reflexivity in your own research process?

Arne: First, I’d say that pursuing vulnerability in research is more of a sensibility rather than a rationality. We don’t have a checklist of requirements or foolproof methods; that would be counter to the phenomenon. We think in terms of generous reciprocity: dropping the tools of reflexive control and try to take the other person seriously and be relationally responsive. This stance shapes both research design and conversations.

For both Carl and myself, our best research conversations often happen when we feel we have actually stepped outside of what we are supposed to do as researchers. This could for example be when we do a fairly non-directive interview. The interview is broadly guided by the themes that we want to explore, but we allow the conversations to go in a direction that is seen as valuable to the other party. We could offer invitations, so I could say, “What you said now is interesting. It reminds me of something that someone else said; may I share it?” Or I could say, “That reminds me of something that an anthropologist wrote, would you like to see it?” So I’m trying to make my understanding of what you say available and open to your questioning, to become vulnerable as I would in a conversation with a close friend.

One of the interviews that I hope was mutually fruitful was with a star architect in New York. I had flown to New York to interview him. When I arrived, his secretary said we had only 25 minutes available. It was not a good way to start an interview. And he looked at me sternly and said, “So you want to talk about methods?” I sensed immediately that he thought my road into this interview was incredibly naïve and that my assumptions about his field of work were completely inadequate. So I tried to open the conversation, just talk about what we were going to talk about. It still didn’t fly.

And then at some point, I thought of this wonderful book on perceptionthat I had in my rucksack. So I put it on the table in response to something that he said. It was almost as though the conversation turned on that very gesture, that I had qualified myself as someone who was worthy of having a conversation with him, who was not directing but going with him where he wanted to go. He found that interesting and we discussed themes of that book and then we went back to his practice and to other theoretical sources and other contexts. So I think that my interview with him was dependent upon a kind of reciprocity and a willingness to follow his lead and share things.

John Shotter and his academic colleagues have a particularly rich vocabulary about professional conversations that are relationally responsive. He talks about the importance of not missing arresting moments in conversations, about returning to things that strike you and sharing that reaction, and the importance of not having what he calls conditional questions, where you have set categories for answers. Researchers should assume a position of not-knowing, subordinating themselves to the knowledge of the other in the conversation.

Example 2: Use Artifacts to Bridge the Research-Practice Gap

Garima: You have written about sociomateriality, or use of artifacts in research-practice knowledge co-creation. Could you elaborate for us how do you see artifacts playing a role?

Arne: Design thinking shows that to co-create knowledge, you need to get your thinking into people’s hands. You need to share artifacts, objects, sketches, metaphors, stories — things that allow you to think together without locking down the answers. We can work as co-enquirers in terms of looking at preliminary patterns and data together. The researcher can say, “Here is what we think we see, what do you see in this?”

In the design thinking tradition, you wouldn’t dream of only sharing texts. You would make your ideas visual and concrete and tangible, so you have a rich way of interacting with others. An example that I’ve been fascinated with is in the paper by Lorino and colleagues. They filmed unsafe workplace practices and then they discussed the video with workers, and then they filmed that discussion, and then they subjected that filmed discussion to another discussion by another group of workers and researchers. So there are levels of participation around rich sets of artifacts that they look at systematically together.

Garima: In one of your papers, you talk about a workshop with your research participants where you used A5 (index) cards to develop your interim insights from research. I use that approach everywhere — in my classroom, my research, and my writing for NBS. Could you tell us more about how you came to that design?

Arne: We had been working with a group of oil explorers for several years. The collaboration was going well and interesting findings were emerging, but we felt we were sharing our interpretations only in individual conversations, not more systematically. Our PowerPoint presentations didn’t really lead to good discussions. The worst approach was sharing academic papers, because then the oil explorers had to read a long text in fairly academic and inaccessible English.

So our research team brainstormed about ways of sharing ideas from our research that were closer to the way that these group of oil explorers worked with data. They engaged tactilely with their data, working with sketches, things that were fairly simple, raw materials. So we thought okay, maybe instead of models, we should share very tentative categories without much text. Use a few words of their terminology, contrast that with a theoretical concept, and illustrate with a few quotes. So we made polyphonic cards with an image on one side and very simple text or a tentative category on the next side.

The first time we did this, our research team argued a lot. For example, I thought each card should have a header on the same page as the image, and my colleague Tord Mortensen disagreed. He thought these cards should be much more raw and unfinished, even with spelling errors; they should be really inviting. He won the discussion, luckily.

The first time we used the cards was a remarkable experience. We presented 15 cards in 15 minutes. The presentation didn’t do much; the oil explorers looked at us as though we didn’t make sense at all. Then we gave each of them a deck of 15 cards, which described 15 qualities of doing exploration work at its best as seen by them, illustrated by quotes from interviews with them. Then something happened.

They grabbed the cards and started reading. They said, “We need more time.” We gave them 25 minutes to review the cards and it wasn’t enough. They rated the cards, they started scribbling on them, they combined them their own way, and our interpretation became much less important than their own. They took ownership. They seized the vocabulary and started playing with it.

We got a much richer discussion about what these ideas meant for them, whether they resonated, how they could be developed, and so forth. Now we have done a similar exercise with many other companies.

Garima: Did your approach influence their practice, in addition to your research?

Arne: Yes. The two companies that we write about in that paper appropriated the terms, so their language of practice was infused by these categories. These ideas affected, for example, the way they staged creative workshops and the way they arranged them.

Garima: You’ve used this approach with an audience of researchers as well. You and Jane Dutton wrote a book on research inquiry. I participated in a workshop that Jane conducted and she handed out cards with insights from the book. And I still have the deck with me. Even for us as researchers in that workshop, the cards took us out of our comfort zones — we looked at those cards and played with them.

Arne: That’s really great to hear! We managed to have these wonderful illustrations of each chapter story by an accomplished artist, Carol Anderson. I think it was Jane’s idea. I had shown Jane the cards from the earlier project and we thought we should have some artifacts for the book as well, to stage discussions. Instead of reading 40 chapters, it’s a whole different tactile engagement with the insights. And you get to combine them and place them around.

Relational Reflexivity Draws on Our Human Qualities

Garima: Ideas of generous reciprocity or relational reflexivity seem to be not just about a way of doing research, but also a way of being in the world — treating people with respect. PhD students learn very concrete skills, but I’m not sure they learn ways of being. Would you recommend ways that people can become more this type of person, not just this kind of researcher?

Arne: Let me relate your question to an observation of my own. At my previous organization, SINTEF, we did many projects where we had people interview others. Some interviewers were trained as researchers, some came just out of school as anthropologists; some had worked for 20 years and others were completely fresh.

It was always surprising to see that the quality of engagement with the other [the interviewee] in conversation had little or nothing to do with one’s training as a researcher. Training isn’t futile, but the training one gets as a researcher for these kinds of conversations may actually distort what is natural to people. You get trained to analyze the other, and control the conversation, and you may have preconceived schemas so that you are observing the conversation more than you are participating in it.

I think that the people who do the best in these kinds of conversations are the ones who listen really well, are open to receiving ideas, are genuinely curious and open to wonder. That’s different from most of the training that I had as a researcher before I finished my PhD. I’m not saying that all interview literature is wrong, but forming quality connections may be something that you learn more from life than from training to do interviews.

Garima: Do managers have the same debate that we’re having, where they ask, “How do we work effectively with researchers? How can we share our knowledge with them?” How could we tap into their perspective?

Arne: Oh, that’s a great question! Maybe you [NBS] could gather managers for a seminar with that as the topic. Ask them, “What do you see as beneficial ways of engaging with researchers, and what kind of advice would you give to others? What are the three most important steps for establishing a relationship that seems to be mutually productive?” I’ve never seen a study like that, and I think that would be highly useful for both managers and researchers.

Sometimes one gets glimpses. So I’ve heard managers say things like, “We are engaging with you [researchers] now because you finally understand us well enough to contribute” or, “It took a couple of years, but now you’re into our world so it’s actually possible to have a good conversation with you.” Sometimes they may say things like, “It’s important that you surprise us and come with new things. We’ve all gone to school, we read Harvard Business Review and the like. We need new things that can challenge us and surprise us. We need a new ‘new.’ So please step it up in that direction.”

In my research projects, I hope to encounter a few practitioners in the company who become deeply interested in the research. Maybe practitioners think about researchers in the same way. They think: “If there are two researchers who are really interested in our practice, or in our culture, or our issues and challenges, then we can reveal new insights.” The importance of deeply held mutual interests is often underrated in these kinds of relationships.

Read More

Bjørkeng, K., Carlsen, A., & Rhodes, C. 2014. Between the saying and the said: From self-reflexivity to other-vulnerability in the research process. In F. Cooren, E. Vaara, A. Langley, & H. Tsoukas (eds.). Language and communication at work: Discourse, narrativity, and organizing (Perspectives on process organization studies). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 325-347.

Carlsen, A., & Dutton, J.E. (eds.). 2011. Research alive: Exploringgenerative moments in doing qualitative research. Copenhagen: Liber, Copenhagen Business School Press, and Universitetsforlaget.

Carlsen, A., Rudningen, G.L., & Mortensen, T.F. 2014. Playing the cards: Using collaborative artefacts with thin categories to make research co-generative. Journal of Management Inquiry 23(3), 294-313.

Lorino, P., Tricard, B., & Clot, Y. 2011. Research methods for non-representational approaches to organizational complexity: The dialogical mediated inquiry. Organization Studies, 32(6), 769–801.

Harrison, S., & Rouse, E. 2014. Let’s dance! Elastic coordination in creative group work: A qualitative study of modern dancers, Academy of Management Journal, 57(5), 1256-1283.

Rhodes, C., & Carlsen, A. (2018). The teaching of the other: Ethical vulnerability and generous reciprocity in the research process. Human Relations.

About the Participants

Arne Carlsen is a professor in the department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School. Arne has published prolifically on the methodological assumptions that come in the way of research-practice knowledge co-creation, and other topics such as individual and collective human growth in organizations, hope, wonder, and positive organizational change. His research has been published in several top-tier journals such as Organization Science, Human Relations, Management Learning, and Journal of Management Inquiry. Arne has initiated and managed several large-scale applied research projects and has worked closely with over 50 organizations on the topics of organizational change and innovation.

Garima Sharma is an Assistant Professor in the department of Organizational Studies, Anderson School of Management, University of New Mexico. Garima collaborates with NBS to develop resources that allow academics to effectively co-create knowledge with practitioners. She is also studying and documenting NBS’s co-creation process. Garima’s research interests are in sustainability, paradox, and interdisciplinary collaboration, including that between academics and practitioners. Her research has been published in the Journal of Business Venturing, Organization Studies, Journal of Business Ethics, and Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

NBS’s Co-Creation Initiative 

NBS seeks to help researchers navigate the path of co-creation with practitioners: integrating academic and practitioner knowledge for unique insights. Review our many existing resources and subscribe to our academic newsletter for new co-creation guidance. 

We also hope you’ll contribute your own insights. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma

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  • Garima Sharma

    Garima Sharma is an Assistant Professor at Kogod School of Business, American University. Her research focuses on sustainability, social entrepreneurship and related tensions of purpose and profits. She is also interested in understanding how research impacts practice, and has created many resources on co-creation for NBS, available here: https://nbs.net/cocreation/. Garima has published in many journals and is on the editorial review boards of Academy of Management Journal, and Organization & Environment. Garima received her PhD from Case Western Reserve University, after which she was a postdoctoral fellow at NBS and Ivey Business School, Western University.

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