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Transformations for Early Career Researchers: Envisioning shared utopias

Witnessing transformation as an early career researcher is a very interesting prospect. For one, to understand the resistances that people all over the world are part of, what that utopia that we envision for ourselves really is, and how we are able to relate and connect with these struggles.

Being part of a system that embraces market economy while neglecting the needs of the many who are still marginalized and unprivileged makes my critical-thinking researcher-self question what it is that people are resisting. In the wake of the increasingly authoritarian rule in India, with a number of activists, researchers and community leaders being hounded by the state – their liberties violated, their voices silenced – I’ve often wondered what is it about them that the state wants to isolate. At the rate at which the world is changing, as a researcher, it has become a matter of paramount importance to engage with the larger questions. Can we as a species continue to destroy biodiversity under the pretext of fulfilling all our unending wants and needs? Can we ever live peacefully without denigrating mankind? Are the principles of justice, equality and secularism just merely words on paper or is it possible to live them?

These were some of the questions at the top of my mind when I set out for the Living Aulas early-career research summer school in Colombia. As early-career researchers and change-makers involved in the Transformations to Sustainability programme, we had come together to share experiences on what it means to carry out transformative research, and what the futures that we envision might look like.

Utopia is a very fascinating term. When Thomas More first brought it into his work in the early 16th century, he described a perfect place which was just, equitable and humane. It is the existence of shared visions of utopia that drives so many of us towards the path of seeking and living it in the future. In this journey that we undertake, we are part of transformation around and within us and use tools that anchor us to the realities on the ground. One such tool is the Alternative Transformation Framework.

The framework emerged from processes in India called Vikalp Sangam or the Alternative confluences, where organizations and individuals that work on alternative transformations in different spheres of life reflect on what is it that they are doing, as a practical response to the dominant and mainstream capitalist and consumerist system. The framework is meant to be used as a reflective tool to understand the process of transformation in a more holistic manner – and any contradictions that are emerging within these processes – and to engage in a deliberative and dialogue-driven course of action which ensures that the process of transformation does not reinforce the existing status quo and is more comprehensive in nature.

The alternative transformation framework is based on five inter-related spheres which enable the researcher using the tool to understand the transformation in a holistic manner. These are:

These spheres are also based on and influence a number of core values and principles which are part of the framework and encompass one’s ethical stand in the universe. While these values and principles may vary depending on the context of the transformation and the worldviews that the group hold, some of them include dignity of labour, self-governance, respecting all life forms, simplicity/’enough-ness’/minimalistic living, observing non-violence, harmony and peace (these have emerged from the Vikalp Sangams held in India).

One of the research projects being carried out under the Academic-Activist Co-produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice (ACKnowl-EJ) network is using the framework in the region of Kachchh in Western India. The framework is being used by the weaving community called the Vankars, who are reconsidering their practices through all the five spheres. The study is being conducted in collaboration with a local organization, Khamir, along with a few members from within the community. The study is still underway and findings will be shared shortly.

The framework is continuously evolving and is modified on the basis of comments and feedback that are received in the confluences, or from researchers, activists, facilitators and other individuals. The framework itself does not suggest any methods for how to document or reflect on the various spheres of the transformative process, and this is left to the discretion of the researcher. For instance, in February 2017 during a Vikalp Sangam centring around youth held in Bhopal in Central India, several participants who looked at the framework decided to include ‘fun’ as part of the core values – expressing the larger paradigm of what ‘happiness and contentment’ is for an individual, while being part of a larger community.

I introduced the framework as part of the Living Aulas Research School with the early career researchers as part of a dialogue in which participants were asked to situate their research in the context of the various elements within the framework. Later, in groups, they were asked to share what their research aims to do, what the research ignores (out of choice, based on biases or involuntarily) and whether there are processes within the research that aim to address these ‘ignored’ aspects.

Some thought-provoking discussions emerged. Firstly, the researchers questioned the very premise of what constitutes an ‘alternative’. In groups, they then tried to apply at least one sphere which their case studies were part of and sought to understand what other aspects they were not looking at. We also found that a similar methodology had been used with a community in the Caribbean region of Colombia by one of the participants, Margarita Zethelius, to collectively gauge their strength and weaknesses. Margarita moderated the second half of the workshop to demonstrate this process.

Due to the paucity of time most participants were unable to look at all the five spheres at once, but the framework set the tone for researchers to push themselves out of their comfort zones and address questions that were supplemented by the subsequent workshops in the next few days. Some of the participants were also keen on applying the framework with their respective cases and will be sharing the outcomes soon. Their outcomes and feedback will then be used to develop and modify the framework for use by researchers, activists, community members and even institutions globally.


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