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What does transformations research look like?

What does your approach to research look like? Is there an object that you regularly use in your research?

There are surely thousands of journal articles, monographs and weighty manuscripts that deal with how researchers view their work, but what if you had to capture your answer to those questions in a single object? That’s what we asked members of the Transformations to Sustainability community to do at the start of our annual workshop. Here are some of the objects and stories they shared.


Round mirror with black frame

Research is often about holding up a mirror to others, but reflexive research requires a certain amount of introspection, of looking at who we are as researchers and checking our perceptions of things against people’s lived experiences. Holding a mirror up to the scientific process also means sharing ongoing research – allowing for checking, validation, and opening the door to new ideas.


Mixed selection of seeds on a white background

For thousands of years, the free exchange of seeds helped agriculture to develop and expand, allowing diverse crop varieties to flourish in different surroundings, under varied climatic conditions. Seeds represent the collective labour, knowledge and experience of an inestimable number of people throughout history. This stands in stark contrast to the current trend towards privatisation in seed markets, which is rapidly increasing farmers’ dependence on a small number of seed manufacturers. Limiting the diversity of seeds available may also constrain the possibilities for agriculture to adapt to a changing climate. The story of seeds raises

important questions for transformations to sustainability researchers: how do we treat ancient and fundamental things? And how do we value and nourish different kinds of knowledge and experience to allow new and resilient ideas to germinate?

A ‘surprise’ plant

The owner of this ‘surprise plant’ had sown seeds expecting to grow rocket leaves for salad. But what finally sprouted was something else, illustrating the productive potential of companion and complementary species which can take root and live together. Research that is strongly rooted in one place – or one discipline or system of knowledge – can produce innovative and sometimes unexpected findings when combined with ‘seeds’ from elsewhere.


White lapel badge displaying the Debian logoKeeping with the theme of ‘opening up’ and collaboration, one participant described how discovering the Linux open-source operating system had solved a tricky problem caused by software lock-in. Linux is continually being developed through collaboration and draws on the contributions of many people, much like transformations to sustainability research.


Small statue of an elephantThree of the objects featured elephants, with participants highlighting the importance of ‘bringing out the elephant in the room’ – doing research that tackles subjects that some people don’t want to talk about, or that sheds light on an obvious problem that is going unchallenged. As the ISSC’s 2013 World Social Science Report points out, elephants and humans (including researchers!) share many important traits – both display highly developed sensitivity, and have similar emotional responses. Elephants are strong and powerful, yet also very vulnerable to current threats to nature. One participant brought with him an old bag with an elephant on it, explaining that despite not being very useful for carrying things, the bag symbolized the comfort and safety of the familiar, and that perhaps that sense of safety was needed before embarking on unpredictable and occasionally uncomfortable transformative research processes.


Keeping with the theme of elephants, another member of the group brought a notepad featuring an elephant – and made of elephant poo! The up-cycled notepad was a symbol of re-use and renewal – the paper-pulping process happening naturally in the elephants’ stomachs, a reminder of the ingenious solutions to be found in natural processes. Unsurprisingly, the centrality of reading and writing in the research process kept coming up during the presentations, but one member of the group spoke about the importance of noting down personal reflections as well as recording observations, with these immediate reactions often proving especially useful for writing up later on.

Recording device

Complementary to reading and writing is listening: recording devices help capture the voices of people and communities, and to some extent compensate for the limitations of the human ear and hand. But the participants noted that they had to listen to recordings many times over to really grasp what was being said – and what was being left out.


Seeking social transformations to sustainability means confronting fiercely contested and deeply polarized positions that run the gamut from climate denial to climate evangelism. Along that spectrum can be found all sorts of specific disagreements; whether it’s about meat-eating, flying or using plastic bags, research on social transformation involves dealing with personal values and facing uncomfortable truths. One member of the group described facilitating a ‘tug of war’ exercise in which people with polarized views position themselves at either ends of a rope; after each person makes their point, the others are free to reposition themselves along the length of the rope, depending on whether their views have changed. This exercise helps all participants to see that there is actually a continuum of different opinions on any issue, to empathize with each other, and – most significantly – demonstrates that opinions can and do change through dialogue and self-examination.


This colourful piece of wool represents a microcosm of collaborative research projects. Each delicate fibre has been tightly spun with others, and together they give the wool integrity and resilience, but also flexibility and warmth.


One participant brought biscuits from Syria and another, sweets from Colombia, to highlight the cultural importance of sharing food to build relationships. Food is about so much more than nutrition – eating is deeply intertwined with all our daily activities, and food production is at the frontline of global change impacts and responses. Several members of the group noted that preparing and eating food together during meetings with diverse participants was a pivotal moment for building trust and bringing people closer together around a common agenda. Everyone has to eat, and even those who find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum on a contentious issue can find common ground around a shared appreciation of the same food.


The Colombian Mochila is a hand-woven bag made by certain Indigenous communities in Colombia. The bags are made using a weaving method similar to multi-strand crochet, and the method is passed down from (grand)mother to daughter such that each bag contains the knowledge of multiple generations. They are traditionally woven by women for their husbands, and are sometimes highly patterned, each telling a different story. The mochila resonates for the T-LEARNING network because it can contain diverse elements bound together by social learning, lived experience and storytelling.


Several members of the group use visual methods to record their research and to follow change processes in specific places by comparing photographs over time. But as a researcher in the field, a camera can also turn into a talking point –it’s often most rewarding to give the camera to research participants and see what pictures they take.

What’s not in the picture?

The imagination…

Transforming towards a different, more sustainable and just future requires us to be creative, to hold different images in our minds and to picture alternative paths of development. What does that look like to you?


2 responses to “What does transformations research look like?

  1. Nice exercise! If I could add: gifts. A picture of a family that you met at last time’s field visit, or some food speciality from your area to give to the families you are visiting. In turn, of course one receives the gift of hospitality and warmth from them, and more materially, local food, perhaps some craft object, whatever they feel like giving. The act of gifting, without expecting returns, is a powerful act of transformation.

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